Stephen’s resumption of his duties as king in no way meant that everything from here on in went smoothly.
In June 1142 Robert crossed from Wareham to Normandy to discuss matters with Geoffrey of Anjou. However, Geoffrey was still committed to the fight in Normandy and declined to supply the troops and resources Robert sorely needed. Surprisingly though, he did allow Robert to return to England in October with young Henry, he and Matilda’s eldest son.
In the meantime, Stephen had taken advantage of Robert’s absence and had, after a rather skillful diversionary tactic, besieged Matilda at Oxford Castle which was held by Robert D’Oyly who was the son of Nigel D’Oyly. He appeared determined not to let her escape this time and pressed the siege relentlessly. However, in a move that has become legendary, Matilda escaped after being lowered by rope from the castle walls at night. With four companions, all of them wrapped in white cloaks to disguise themselves against the snow, she escaped to Wallingford which was held by Brian Fitzcount.
• 1142-44: Dealing with a Rebellious Baron
In amongst all the twists and turns of the skirmishes between the forces of the King and those of Robert of Gloucester, Stephen was also called upon to deal with the rebellious activities of Geoffrey de Mandeville. He was another baron who switched sides at will. Stephen had made him Earl of Essex in late 1139 or during 1140 and then in 1141 appointed him custodian of the White Tower in London. He, like many barons, supported Matilda after Stephen’s defeat at the Battle of Lincoln and she reconfirmed his possessions and granted him the Norman lands of his paternal grandfather, Eudo de Rie (Dapifer), and appointed him sheriff of Essex, Hertfordshire, Middlesex and London. After Stephen’s release he turned his support back to the King but it must have been short-lived because he rebelled and Stephen confiscated his castles in 1143. During 1143 and 1144 Geoffrey set up his headquarters in the fen country of East Anglia and used the Isle of Ely and Ramsey Abbey as a base for his rebel operations. From this position it was difficult for the King to effectively contain Geoffrey’s activities, although he was eventually besieged by Stephen. Geoffrey died in September 1144, the result of an arrow wound he had received in a skirmish while attacking Burwell Castle in August 1144.
Turning his full attention back to the ongoing struggle to hang onto his crown, Stephen slowly to pushed towards Robert’s strongholds in Bristol as Robert continued the fight on behalf of Matilda, The Empress, although the chance of either side gaining overall victory were slim.
Matilda lost one of her supporters when Miles of Gloucester was killed in a hunting accident in 1143. At the end of 1145 Robert suffered a major blow when his son Philip changed his allegiance to Stephen. Philip took with him the strategic castles of Cricklade and Cirencester. Robert realised Gloucester and Bristol were under threat and in 1146 he opened negotiations which, given his unsuccessful attack on Farnham in Surrey in 1147, must have proven fruitless. It was when he returned to Bristol to gather new forces that he became ill and died on 31st October 1147.
At this point Matilda appears to have become disheartened, realising perhaps that without her mainstay and military commander the fight really was now unwinnable. She returned to Anjou and Normandy, leaving the struggle to be taken up by her son Henry. However, unrest would continue throughout the remainder of Stephen’s reign.
In 1149 Henry arrived in England with a small force but lacked the resources to change the situation. Oddly, it seems that Stephen met with Henry and gave him the necessary aid to return to Normandy after he had been refused assistance by his own supporters. It was another gesture on his part which no doubt raised a few eyebrows amongst some of the barons.
The last few years of Stephen’s reign were dominated by his attempts to have his son Eustace crowned in his own lifetime. The clergy, particularly Theobald of Bec, Archbishop of Canterbury, had stubbornly refused. He was prepared to recognise Stephen as king but it would seem he had no desire to prolong the civil war which surely would have continued on had Eustace been crowned. In this decision Theobald had Papal backing so he refused to grant Stephen’s request.