1142-49: Discord Lingers On

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.


1141: The Aftermath

• Almost a Queen; Matilda’s Flight from London; The Rout of Winchester

With the King now captive in Bristol, the opportunity for Matilda to secure the throne had come and events moved quickly.

Firstly, Robert and Matilda secured the backing of Henry, Bishop of Winchester and now Papal Legate (Stephen’s brother) and Theobald of Bec, the Archbishop of Canterbury. In addition she also had the support of other notable barons such as Brien (Brian) Fitzcount, the illegitimate son of the Count of Brittany, and Miles of Gloucester. King David of Scotland had also stood by her claim and made an appearance by her side in London.

It was here that it all went wrong. The Londoners were never particularly supportive at any rate, but Matilda apparently angered them with her demands and high handed treatment. When Stephen’s wife, Matilda of Boulogne, rallied the king’s supporters and raised an army with the help of William of Ypres and advanced on London, the Londoners took up arms. They besieged the Empress and she and her supporters were forced to flee to Oxford Castle on 24th June. Matilda, who had styled herself Lady of the English, was never crowned.

Further misjudgements, military routs, and misfortune followed. Henry, who as always seemed adept at reading the winds of change, opportunely switched his allegiance back to Stephen, and with a small force laid siege to Winchester Castle. On 31st July a substantial army commanded by Robert arrived in Winchester. Henry and his men fled to Wolvesey Castle which was in the south east corner of the town, and it was promptly put under siege. On 2nd August the bishop’s men set fire to the city which destroyed a large portion of it.

Meanwhile, Matilda of Boulogne had assembled a well provisioned army which included mercenaries hired by Henry, the mercenary cavalry of William of Ypres, a nearly 1,000 strong London militia, and a levy of the Queen’s feudal tenants from Boulogne. The intention was to blockade Matilda and Robert’s forces in the city and it was a tactic which proved to be very successful. Robert’s forces soon began to suffer from lack of food and, in an attempt to weaken the blockade, Robert attempted to fortify Wherwell Abbey six miles to the north of the city but William of Ypres defeated them with heavy losses.

Now convinced that he must retreat from Winchester Robert planned their withdrawal. Brian Fitzcount and Reginald, Earl of Cornwall led an advance guard which protected Matilda. The main body and the baggage followed, with Robert commanding the rear guard. On 14th September 1141 they left the city and it was while Robert was fighting a rearguard action against the forces of Matilda of Boulogne at the river crossing of Stockbridge that he was captured. Robert’s actions had allowed his half- sister to escape but Robert was imprisoned for two months at Rochester Castle.

Henry and Matilda’s successful defence of Winchester proved to be a crucial turning point in the civil war. With events once again at a stalemate, there was but little choice for both parties to agree to an exchange of prisoners, Stephen for Robert. The exchange took place on 1st November 1141 at Winchester.

Stephen once more took up his duties as King and retained his position until his death. The war continued but it soon become obvious that neither side were in a winning position.

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A Note:  Today, 25th October,  is of course the anniversary of King Stephen’s death in 1154. Who’d have thought that 858 years later someone would be enthusiastically writing about his deeds in a blog on the internet using a computer? Crazy! Vale Stephen of Blois, and although Faversham Abbey is long gone, rest well, wherever your bones may be.

1139: Matilda Comes to Claim her Throne

Matilda and Geoffrey had not been idle in Anjou after the death of Henry I and documentation shows they were active in gathering support for their cause. Once Anjou was secure Geoffrey turned his attention to Normandy in 1138 and fought staunchly there for his wife and son’s inheritance. He finally secured the duchy in 1144, assuming the title Duke of Normandy until he and Matilda ceded it to their son Henry in 1149. Conversely, Stephen only visited Normandy once during his reign, in 1137, and it was at this time that his son Eustace paid homage to the French King Louis for Normandy.

Meanwhile, although Robert of Gloucester had attended Stephen’s Easter Court in 1136 he eventually grew disappointed and withdrew. Perhaps he was alarmed at the favour being bestowed on the Flemish mercenary, William of Ypres, and at the rising power of the ‘Beaumont’ brothers, Waleran, 1st Earl of Worcester, and Robert, 2nd Earl of Leicester. No doubt he had also witnessed some of the leniency Stephen had shown to his unruly barons. In 1138 Robert raised the flag of rebellion against Stephen and declared for his half-sister Matilda. Brian Fitzcount, who was a staunch supporter of her claim, promptly followed suit in 1139 as did Miles of Gloucester who, as Sheriff, put Gloucester at her disposal. Reginald of Cornwall, another illegitimate son of Henry I, could have possibly declared for her as well at this time.

The year 1139 would prove to be disastrous for Stephen. He raised the enmity and resentment of his brother Henry when Theobald of Bec was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry suspected the influence of Waleran was at work in this decision because Waleran was a lay patron of Bec. In an attempt to pacify Henry he was appointed Papal Legate. Furthermore, Stephen, who had grown irritated by the overwhelming influence of Roger of Salisbury and his nephews, the Bishops of Ely and Lincoln, found a pretext for demanding the surrender of their castles. When they refused to surrender them Stephen had them arrested and after a short struggle all Roger’s wealth and possessions were seized. Stephen’s attack on Roger incensed the clergy, including his brother Henry, the Bishop of Winchester, who perceived it as an attack on the church itself. When Stephen was summoned to a church council to answer for the seizure of the castles held by Roger it was Aubrey de Vere who represented the King. The appalling treatment of Roger proved to be a poor decision that would come to cost Stephen dearly.

Having created an immense amount of ill feeling and resentment among his clergy and barons, Stephen now faced the arrival of Matilda who landed in England in September 1139 and sought refuge with Adelica, the former queen of her father Henry I, at Arundel Castle. (Her second husband William d’Aubigny, 1st Earl of Arundel, although a supporter of Stephen, would, in time, became instrumental in arguing for a peace settlement between Stephen and Henry of Anjou). Amazingly, Stephen allowed Matilda to go free and travel on to Bristol under escort and join forces with her brother, Robert of Gloucester. His inexplicable decision to do so is hard to fathom. Perhaps such chivalrous gestures were important to Stephen or maybe it was another example of his poor judgement skills due to his reportedly easygoing nature? Whatever his reasoning, the upshot of this decision meant that there were now two rival courts in England – Stephen primarily in the south east and Robert/Matilda in the south west.

Robert of Gloucester promptly commenced a campaign to dispossess landholders within his area who were loyal to Stephen. He also commanded raids against possessions of the ‘Beaumont’ brothers including Wareham in Dorset and Worcester, taking Robert of Leicester’s lands in Dorset for himself. Although this made Robert secure in his heartlands he did not find it an easy task to recruit wider support and Stephen succeeded in containing him in the West Country and Severn valley. It was a stalemate of sorts and in August 1140 both sides sent representatives to an unsuccessful peace conference held at Bath.

Robert’s next opportunity came late in the year 1140 when Ranulf, Earl of Chester seized Lincoln castle in a scene reminiscent of Baldwin de Redvers several years before. Ranulf allied himself with Robert, his father in law, and pledged fealty to Matilda in exchange for Robert’s agreement to provide a force to help defeat Stephen’s army which had laid siege to Lincoln. They united their forces, which included a host of Welsh mercenaries allied to Robert, at Donington castle in January 1141. On 2nd February 1141 the Earl’s army met King Stephen’s at the Battle of Lincoln.

• From the chronicle of Orderic Vitalis: Countess Matilda and Robert, Earl of Gloucester, land at Arundel

“In the autumn, Matilda, countess of Anjou, crossed the sea to England, with her brother Robert of Caen, Guy de Sable, and several others; and being well received at Arundel, she obtained leave from the king to pass without interruption to the castles which belonged to her partisans. It may be remarked that this permission given by the king was a sign of great simplicity or carelessness, and prudent men regret that he was regardless of his own welfare and the kingdom’s security. It was in his power at this time to have easily stifled a flame which threatened great mischief, if, with a policy becoming the wise, he had at once driven away the wolf from the entrance of the fold, and, for the safety of the flock, nipped the growth of malignancy in the bud, and, like his fathers, crushed the deadly efforts of those whose enterprise threatened the country with pillage, slaughter, and depopulation, by smiting them with the sword of justice.”