Eldest son of Thibaud II and of Marie of Carinthie, Henri was born at the castle of Vitry in December of 1127. He received a scholar's education as well as that of a man destined to be a military leader. He participated in the Second Crusade (1147-1149) alongside king Louis VII and was dubbed a knight by the Byzantine emperor, Manuel Comnene. The young count distinguished himself at the battle of Méandre where the attack he led with the counts of Flanders and Mâcon permitted the King's army to scatter the Turks and sent them fleeing from their encampment on the south bank of that river. On the 24th of June, 1148 Henri was present at the crusader's court held at Acre by Conrad III.

After his return from the Holy Land, he received from his father an advance of his inheritance in the form of the lordships of Vitry and of Bar-sur-Aube. At the death of his father, Henri became count of Champagne and Brie, while his brother Thibaud inherited Blois. Thanks to his close ties to king Louis VII, Henri married the princess Marie, daughter of Louis and of Eleanor of Aquitaine, around 1159.

During his reign, Henri maintained a balanced political stance, often playing the role of mediator to settle conflicts which opposed his sovereign king Louis VII with the emperor Frédéric Barberousse, or between the king of England, Henri Plantagenêt, and pope Alexander III, as well as during a dispute between the abbot of Vézelay and the count of Nevers (1165-1166). He also intervened in 1181 when king Philippe-Auguste was tempted to go to war with Henri II of England against Frédéric Barberousse. By this activity, Henri fitted perfectly into this time period when institutions such as diplomacy were beginning to make headway in resolving disputes peacefully without the use of military force. However, Henri the Liberal was the vassal of several sovereign rulers: notably the king of France and the Ottonian emperor. He most likely used this position to conserve and consolidate his political autonomy.

Henri the Liberal was instrumental in the economic development of Champagne in the XIIth century. For example, he instituted a set calendar for the six largest trade fairs of the region and assured protection for the merchants traveling to and from the fairs. Thanks to his guidance and interest, Champagne became for a time the undisputed commercial center of Western Europe.

His extreme generosity to the ecclesiastical institutions of Champagne merited him the surname "the Liberal". He richly endowed abbeys and monasteries alike with gifts of land and or economic privileges. Henri the Liberal founded the collegial churches of Saint-Etienne of Troyes (which would become the burial place of his family), Saint-Maclou of Bar-sur-Aube and Saint-Nicolas of Sézanne. While fulfilling his duty as a good christian nobleman, he was also strengthening his political position by this policy of giving magnificent gifts.


Seal of Henri I the Liberal used from 1152 to 1176
Paris, National Archives, coll. of seals, D 566

 

As well as being known for his moderation, his generosity, his political strength and his love of tournaments, Henri the Liberal was also a scholar who knew Latin and read it for his personal pleasure. In his library, there was no indication of curiosity for works written in the vernacular, nor any penchant for the courtly literature of the day. Henri being eighteen years older than his wife Marie de Champagne, he collected history books, Valère Maxime, Quinte-Curce, the moral treaties, bible commentaries, Macrobe, saint Augustine.

In 1179, Henri led an expedition to the Holy Land. The embarkation took place at Marseille and the debarkation at Acre where he was accompanied by the counts Pierre of Courtenay, Henri of Grandpré and bishop Philippe of Beauvais. The king of Jerusalem joined forces with them on their unsuccessful attempt to deliver Tibériade in August of that year. On his return trip, he and his companions fell captive to the Turks in Asia Minor. They were liberated thanks to the intervention of the Byzantine emperor Manuel Comnene. Henri the Liberal returned to France in poor health. He died at Troyes the 16th of March 1181.

He was buried in a sumptuous tomb made of gilt copper, enamel and silver located in the sanctuary of the collegiate church of Saint-Etienne which he had had constructed adjacent to his palace in 1157. From his marriage with Marie, daughter of Louis VII and Eleanor of Aquitaine, he had two sons: Henri II (1181-1197) who was his successor , later to be followed by the future Thibaud III.

Genealogy of the counts of Champagne