William the Conqueror experienced a problem that was to plague many an English king in the future – a surfeit of sons! The problem with royal families is that sons tend to be impatient for power and view their father, not as a fountain of authority but as a road block to their progress.

    But first let us deal with the minor progeny who hardly make a smudge on the pages of history. Their birth dates are somewhat uncertain so the order in which they entered the world can not be set in stone. William and Matilda had four sons. Robert who was later Duke of Normandy; Richard who was gored to death by a stag in the New Forest in about 1075, William, known as Rufus supposedly because of his florid complexion, who became King of England and Henry, the youngest who eventually copped the lot by becoming both King of England and Duke of Normandy.

    As far as can be told the couple had six daughters. Agatha, who is thought to be the oldest, was in turn betrothed to Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, Alphonse of Leon and, possibly, Herbert, Count of Maine. The poor girl ended up marrying no one and, according to the chroniclers, died a virgin, though how they knew that is not stated! Cecily became abbess of Holy Trinity in Caen which had been founded by her parents. Constance married Alan IV, Count of Brittany in 1086 but died soon after. Neither Adeliza nor Matilda managed to trouble the chroniclers of the time.

    Adela, however, of all the Conqueror’s children was the apple that fell closest to the tree. As with most medieval daughters, she was married off to one of the powerful lords of the time, in her case Stephen, Count of Blois. Stephen inherited Blois, Chartres and Meaux from his father plus over 300 other estates which made him one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in France. Regarding the relationship between Stephen and Adela it was general knowledge that Adela wore the britches in the marriage. When Pope Urban II called for a crusade in 1095 Adela almost pushed him out the door to join the enterprise. He found himself in the company of his brother-in-law, Robert of Normandy, much of French nobility and a large contingent from Norman controlled southern Italy. Stephen returned in 1100 with several cartloads of treasure which he deposited at Chartres. If he thought he had done his bit, he was sadly mistaken. Jerusalem was still in and hands of the Muslims and Adela sent him packing back to the fight. He returned to Antioch in 1101 and was killed in an ill-advised and farcical charge at the battle of Ramla the following year. Adela and Stephen had at least eleven children, one of whom was to have a very large effect on events in English history but that is a story for the future.

    The Conqueror’s eldest son was Robert. He was the most warlike of William’s sons. Once an adult he was constantly in conflict with his father and it was only the intervention of Matilda, his mother, that kept any sort of peace between father and son. When she died in 1083 relations once again deteriorated. Robert left his father’s court and travelled round Europe seeking support for any future conflict with William. While on his deathbed William was intent on disinheriting Robert but was persuaded to divide his kingdom, granting Robert the duchy of Normandy and William Rufus, the throne of England. The brothers made an agreement to be each others heir as neither had a legitimate son. The peace lasted less than a year. Robert teamed up with a group of disaffected barons in England against William. William managed to bribe some of the barons away from the conflict and Robert, who was sailing from Normandy with more troops, was driven back by bad weather. When Robert failed to appear the revolt collapsed. Seeing himself as the gallant Christian knight, when the First Crusade was declared Robert mortgaged all his lands to his brother and set out for the Holy Land where he stayed until 1100.

    William the Conqueror’s second son was his namesake, William. As stated he got England in his fathers’ will. History has painted him as a homosexual probably because he never married or even produce an illegitimate child. There seems to have been no male favourite and no reference in the contemporary chronicles of questions concerning his sexuality. It is only in later centuries that this suggestion has come to light. William’s passion was hunting and it may be he just was not interested in sex, with either gender! Although he is not seen as a great soldier, he was competent enough to get the better of Robert of Normandy on several occasions. When Robert left for the Crusades William took permanent control of Normandy which strengthened he position with France. Domestically, William fell out with the church in the form of Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury. Like so many English kings to come, he felt he could not rule his country without overall control of the Church. Urban II had just become Pope but was in conflict with the Holy Roam Emperor, Henry IV who supported another candidate. William, as one of the most powerful rulers in Europe, backed Urban and in return got carte blanche to do as he wished in England. Anselm went into exile where he remained until William’s death.

    Again, like most English kings, William had problems with Scotland. King Malcolm III fancied a slice of northern England but was heavily defeated in 1091. War broke out again in 1093 and Malcolm came south and ravaged Northumbria. While returning to Scotland, on 13 November, he and his army were ambushed by a Norman army led by Robert de Mowbray at Alnwick. Both Malcolm and his son, Edward, were killed. Scotland descended into a contest between the remaining sons of Malcolm for the throne and ceased to be a problem for William.

    The most intriguing event of the reign of William Rufus was his death. It provides us with the first big detective story in English history. Two near contemporary chroniclers provide us with an account of what happened. Orderic Vitalis, writing his version in St. Evroul in Normandy, recorded the death very soon after the event. William of Malmesbury was only five at the time so his account was written some thirty years later. The bare facts of William’s death are not disputed. He was killed by an arrow through the lung while hunting in the New Forest but the exact circumstances remain unclear. Both chroniclers wrap the event around with portents and bad dreams but both state that the arrow was shot by a man names Walter Tirel.  The king and Tirel were apparently alone in pursuit of a deer while the rest of the party were spread out in the forest. William had wounded the deer and when Tirel attempted to finish it off, he accidentally hit the King. Seeing what he had done Tirel jumped on his horse and fled to France aided by several of the hunting party. Others present left in haste to their own lands as, when a king dies, justice tends to collapse and a prudent man looks to his own. William’s body was taken to Winchester, his remains can be seen in the cathedral scattered among the royal mortuary chests, mostly Saxon, positioned on the presbytery screen near the choir.

    The chroniclers, churchmen all, wept no tears for William. As stated, he had fallen out with the church and was unpopular with the nobles.  William of Malmesbury says he was, “not to be lamented by the people.”

    Among the hunting party that August day in 1100 was the king’s younger brother, Henry. William’s older brother, Robert, was on his way back from the Crusades so was not in a position to react to events. eny H Henry, however, took full advantage of his. He rode immediately to Winchester to secure the country’s treasury and then, his brother’s body hardly cold, to London where he was crowned king on 5 August, a merely three days after William’s death. Henry issued a coronation charter to gain the support of any nobles that might be thinking of backing Robert. This guaranteed “the rights of free English folk” and is regarded as a precursor of Magna Carta. Indeed, it was quoted as a precedent to justify Magna Carta in 1215 under King John.

   And so the first of the Conqueror’s sons is dead, little lamented and poorly mourned. The fate of the other two will be recounted next month.

August 2011




Henry had himself crowned king on 5 August 1100, a mere three days after his elder brother William’s somewhat suspicious death in a hunting accident in the New Forest. His only rival was his big brother Robert, Duke of Normandy. Robert was away on the First Crusade and had financed the trip by mortgaging his lands to William – but now he was on his way back! Henry quickly bought the support of the English barons by making large concessions in a Charter of Liberties and reversing some of William’s abuses.

     By 1101 Robert was ready to make his bid for power and landed at Portsmouth with the intention of invading England. It was as successful as his last attempt against William. Without support of the barons he was forces to come to a settlement at the Treaty of Alton. Robert relinquished all claims to England in return for a large annuity and some of Henry’s lands in Normandy. Robert may have been a competent soldier but he was an abysmal administrator and ruler. Normandy was soon in chaos and Henry had no alternative but to step in to sort matters out. He invaded Normandy in 1105 and took Bayeux and Caen but was forced to break off the campaign as a result of a conflict with the church. The following year he was back and took Falaise, birthplace of the Conqueror. He laid siege to the town of Tinchebray on the Normandy border with the county of Mortain. Robert attempted to break the siege but was defeated and taken prisoner. Little did Robert know that he was to spend the rest of his life a prisoner of his brother. He was held in Devizes Castle for twenty years before being moved to Cardiff. Robert lived on to his early eighties and the Conqueror’s eldest son eventually died in February 1134. He was lucky in some ways. Later centuries would have seen a blade slipped between the ribs or he would have been quietly starved to death. Robert was buried at St. Peter’s, Gloucester which was to become Gloucester Cathedral, where you will find his effigy and tomb.

    The interruption to Henry’s campaign in Normandy was brought about by the problem that was to dog English monarchs until the 16th century – the church. Henry had recalled Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, who, you will remember, had been sent into exile by William Rufus. The old cleric refused to do homage to Henry for the lands of the church and the whole dispute kicked off again. In Europe other secular rulers were having similar troubles, including the Holy Roman Emperor, with a reinvigorated Church of Rome. Henry wanted to appoint his own men as bishops within his domain. The church controlled education and knowledge and any king needed his clerics to run his country. These had to be trusted men working in the king’s interest.  The Pope saw himself as God’s representative on earth and Anselm thought of himself as God’s PA in England. Pope Paschal II promptly excommunicated the bishops appointed by Henry and threatened the king with the same fate and to place England under interdict. This would mean no church burials, no sacraments and no forgiveness of sins.  e HToday one can imagine the Sun headline, “Pope say Burn you Bu***rs.” It would probably made an inside page in the Times and Telegraph. In medieval Europe hell fire and damnation was a reality. After struggling through the forty-odd years of the average person’s life he didn’t fancy an eternity of the burning agonies of hell. Anselm, in exile again, met Henry at Bec where they cobbled together an agreement. Henry had no alternative but to give way on many of his demands and the whole thing was incorporated in the Concordat of London in 1107. Conflict between Church and State was to linger on through the Middle Ages and was only resolved with the break with Rome by Henry VIII.

    In personal matters Henry was a serial adulterer. He had married Edith, better known as Matilda, daughter of King Malcolm III of Scotland and St. Margaret, the Saxon princess sister of Edgar the Atheling – the same Edgar who the Great Witan had elected  to replace Harold Godwinson (see the Year of Destiny). Matilda, like her mother, was a saintly woman and the match not only secured Henry’s northern borders but proved a popular alliance in the country. This however did not stop the king from casting his eye elsewhere! Henry had enough bastards to populate a small market town. He had twenty-three and those are only the ones we can identify. Some of the girls ended up in the church as did some of the boys. Other daughters were used as marriage pawns. For example a Joan was married to Fergus of Galloway, a Constance to Robert, Viscount of Beaumont-le-Maine, a Eustacia to William Gouet III, Lord of Montmirial and, most important of them all, a Matilda was married to Conan III, Duke of Brittany. She proved to be the ancestor of half the nobility of France, Belgium, Germany and Eastern Europe. One bastard son was to stand out. This was Robert Fitzroy of Caen, Earl of Gloucester. He was to play a very significant role in English history after his father’s death – but that must wait for a later date.

     As can be seen, Henry had no trouble fathering children; his main problem was fathering them in wedlock! By Matilda, his queen, he managed two sons and two daughters. One daughter died young while the other brought about a civil war that was to last almost twenty years. As for the two boys, they were inconsiderate enough to get themselves drowned in 1120.

     In November 1120 Henry and the court were returning to England from Normandy after a successful campaign against Louis VI, King of France. Henry had sailed but William, the newly appointed Duke of Normandy, together with a group of friends and younger members of his extended family decided to cross the Channel in a ship of revolutionary design, the White Ship. This was supposed to be the fastest ship of her time. Confident that they would catch and pass the king’s vessel, they remained in the port of Barfleur for a touch of binge drinking. Unfortunately the drinking progressed to the ship and the ship’s crew. When they eventually left in the early hours of the morning the drunken helmsman rammed the ship into a rock in the bay. The White Ship quickly began to fill with water but the young Prince William managed to get away in a small dinghy. At the last minute William ordered the dinghy to return to the rapidly sinking ship to rescue his illegitimate half-sister, Matilda, the Countess of Perche. It was an act of mercy that was to cost England dear. Desperate to get to safety, the small boat became, according to William of Malmesbury, “overcharged by the multitude that leapt into her, capsized and sank and buried all indiscriminately in the deep.” Henry of Huntingdon (1088 – 1154) wrote in his Historia Anglorum that William, “instead of wearing embroidered robes….floated naked in the waves, and instead of ascending a lofty throne…found his grave at the bottom of the sea.”

     The tragedy of the White Ship destroyed all of Henry’s political plans. For the next fifteen years his main priority was to secure the succession. Queen Matilda had dead in 1118 so he married Adeliza of Louvain in 1121; she was 18 and he was 53 but no issue came from the union. Adeliza, married William d’Aubigny, Earl of Lincoln and Arundel after Henry’s death and they had seven children. Henry’s daughter, Maud, had been married off at the age of twelve to Henry V, the Holy Roman Emperor. He died in 1125 so Maud was brought back to the English court to take her place as the king’s only legitimate heir. In a desperate attempt to secure her succession Henry had his nobles swore fealty to her as the next monarch. In the Middle Ages an oath was a sacred commitment but a woman on the throne would prove to be too great a break with convention. The church regarded women as creatures steeped in sin and no bishop would crown a woman as monarch. To bolster her position the king arranged a marriage for Maud with Geoffrey V, Count of Anjou. Geoffrey was a competent soldier but Maud was the brains of the relationship. For the last fifteen years of Henry’s reign the succession was always the elephant in the room.

     In his final years Henry grew indulgent and corpulent. He spent most of his time travelling from royal castle to royal castle. In late 1135 he was visiting his daughter and his two grandsons, Henry and Geoffrey. His relations with the head strong Maud and her irascible husband were always a little strained and on this occasion he quarrelled with his heavily pregnant daughter. This kept him in Normandy longer that he had intended. As he travelled north on his way back to England he stopped at Saint-Denis-en-Lyons and was presented with his favourite meal, a dish of lampreys. He contracted food poisoning and died on 1st December 1135. His body was sewn into the hide of a bull to preserve it on the journey back to England. Unfortunately there were several delays and the decaying remains are said to have burst out of the restraint much to the discomfort of those in the escort. Henry was buried at Reading Abbey which he had founded fourteen years before. The abbey was destroyed in the reformation by Henry VIII and no trace of his tomb now survives. Its site is probably covered by the present day St. James’ School but there is a plague and large memorial cross near by to mark his passing.

    So died the last of the Conqueror’s children. He was a good and effective king who did much for his people. Sadly his passing brought to the fore the very conflict that he spent much of his reign attempting to avoid. England paid dearly for the tragedy of the White Ship and many thousands of lives would be the price.

September 2011


Etienne de Blois


Etienne de Blois, better known to English history as Stephen, must have made careful plans in the event of the death of his uncle, King Henry I. He was born the third surviving son of Stephen de Blois, Count de Blois, and Adela of Normandy, daughter of William the Conqueror. She was the one who pushed her husband out the door, twice, to take part in the First Crusade. Of his two older brothers, Guillaume, Count of Chartres, is described as an idiot by one chronicler and as a good and peaceful man by another. What ever his character, he appears to have been disinherited and his lands given to the next brother, Thibaut IV, who became Count de Blois, de Troyes and de Chartres – one of the richest men in France. As with most younger sons, this left Stephen with the job of making his own way in the world.    

    Stephen is an almost forgotten king of England so let us take a closer look at his character. Chroniclers recorded that, despite his considerable power, he was a modest and easy-going man, a good leader and happy to sit with his men and servants, casually laughing and eating with them. He was a pious man and was generous in his gifts to the church. He seems to have been an all-round good egg, popular with his peers, helpful to his king and a friend to the church.

    Stephen first appears at Henry’s court in around 1111, in his late teens, sent there, no doubt, by his ambitious mother. Henry was dealing with a revolt in Normandy led by Robert de Bellême and Stephen took part in the fighting. The king knighted the young man following the campaign in 1112. The lad must have been high in his uncle’s favour as he made him Count of Mortain in 1112, a title once held by Henry’s elder brother, the imprisoned Robert of Normandy. Stephen was granted the continental lands that went with the title but not those in England. He was also granted land in Alençon in southern Normandy but the local lords rebelled and, with the assistance of Fulk, Count of Anjou, they defeated Stephen and his older brother Thibaut and the estates were never recovered. Anjou was to prove Stephen’s nemesis in the years to come. The king even arranged his marriage in 1125 to Matilda, heiress and daughter of Eustace III, Count de Boulogne, which brought him even more lands.

    In 1120 the English political landscape changed dramatically. The sinking of the White Ship (see Henry Beauclerc, King of England) was to rob Henry of his male heirs and create a massive succession problem. Stephen was due to sail on the ship but pulled out at the last moment either due to a concern that the vessel was overcrowded or, as it has been reported in chronicles, because he was suffering from a case of diarrhoea. If this is so then a stomach bug saved his life! There were three possible candidates; Maud, daughter of the king; William Clito, son of the imprisoned Robert of Normandy; and the children of Henry’s sister which included Stephen. William dropped off the scene when he died of wounds received in the battle of Alost in 1128. Henry would obviously favour his daughter even though their relationship was frequently rocky. In 1127 and again in 1128 and 1131 Henry had his court swear an oath to recognise Maud as his successor. Stephen was among those who took the oath in 1127. Henry did not trust Maud’s husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, and when they tried to persuade him of grant control of all the royal castles in Normandy to Maud, the king was concerned that Geoffrey was intent on grabbing control of the whole of Normandy. The king angrily decline but Geoffrey fermented a rebellion in southern Normandy and it was these events that prompted the disagreement between father and daughter at the time of Henry’s death in 1135.

    By the death of Henry, Stephen was well established in the English court. Through the good will of the king he was the richest layman in the kingdom after the king. He was regarded with favour by the church as he generously supported a new order of monks, the Cistercians, by granting them land from his estates to build their abbeys. Stephen had another important church ally in the form of his younger brother, Henry. Henry of Blois had become a Cluniac monk and had followed Stephen to England. King Henry made him Abbot of Glastonbury, the richest abbey in England. In 1129 he appointed Henry, Bishop of Winchester, one of the richest bishoprics, and allowed him to retain Glastonbury. This made Henry, at the age of 30, even richer than his brother Stephen.

    When King Henry breathed his last on 1st December 1135 it put many of the potential claimants on the wrong foot. Maud was heavily pregnant and Geoffrey was embroiled in the revolt in Southern Normandy. Stephen’s elder brother and outside bet for the job, Thibaut, was south in Blois. Stephen, however, was well placed on his estates in Bolougne. A quick trip across the Channel would bring him to Dover. Both Dover and Canterbury were garrisoned by the late king’s bastard son, Robert, Earl of Gloucester, and there are accounts that they refused Stephen leave to land. What ever the story, Stephen had reached his own lands south of London by 8 December.

    Stephen was popular with the citizens of London and they quickly proclaimed him king believing he would grant the city new rights and privileges in return for their support. Henry de Blois delivered the support of the church. Stephen advanced to Winchester where Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, who was also Lord Chancellor, handed over the royal treasury. On 15 December the two brothers announced an agreement under which Stephen granted new rights and liberties to the church in return for the support of the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Papal Legate for his succession. In the eyes of the church Stephen had one massive advantage – he was male! There was, however, the minor problem of the oath taken by Stephen in 1127 recognising Maud as Henry’s true successor. In the Middle Ages oaths were sacred as can be seen by the churches support for William the Conqueror after Harold Godwinson’s oath. Henry de Blois argued that King Henry had been wrong in forcing the court to take the oath so Stephen would be justified in ignoring it. To put the final gloss on the situation the bishop was able to persuade Hugh Bigod, the old king’s steward, to swear that Henry had changed his mind and named Stephen as his successor!  With all the obstacles clear, Stephen was crowned king of England at Westminster Abbey on 26 December 1135.

    There was one brief hiccup. Many of the Norman barons, on news of Henry’s death, had gathered at Le Nuebourg in support of Thibaut as king. They argued that as he was the eldest of the Conqueror’s grandsons, he should be king. Like Stephen he was male and certainly far preferable to Maud. Thibaut came north and met the barons, who included Robert of Gloucester, at Lisieux on 21st but the negotiations were interrupted by the news that Stephen’s coronation was due to take place on the 26th. The Norman barons held land in both Normandy and England and so Thibaut’s support quickly ebbed away for fear of the loss of the English estates. Stephen did later financially compensate his brother who remained in Blois.

    So, there you have it – a classic coup d’état. Inevitably the Scots grabbed the opportunity to make trouble by invading the north of England. One would have been surprised if they hadn’t! They took Carlisle and Newcastle but Stephen marched north with an army and met King David at Durham. An agreement was made that David returned all the lands he had taken and his son, Henry, by confirmed as Earl of Huntingdon. Stephen returned south to hold his first royal court at Easter 1136. Everything was now set for a peaceful and stable reign by a capable and generally popular monarch.

    How wrong can one be!

October 2011




The Great Anarchy (1)

 A Family Affair

All wars are bad. The misery, destruction and death they bring are visited on all sides and it is difficult to find that elusive animal, a justifiable war. In this month of remembrance we think back to our own past. The great uncles and grandfathers who fought in the trenches of France and on the oceans of the world in the First World War; the uncle whose health was permanently impaired by a year in a prisoner of war camp after his ship, HMS Manchester, was sunk in the Mediterranean; the great uncle who died of his wounds in an open boat after his ship, HMS Dunedin, was torpedoed in the South Atlantic; the neighbour who was left to bring up three young daughters when her husband was lost on HMS Royal Oak; the family friend who, at the age of twelve, escaped on the last ship out of Danzig but lost her mother and older sister in Auschwitz, the work colleague whose 19 year-old son died on the SS Uganda from wounds received on Mount Longdon in the Falklands, and the mate of a son who, thank goodness, return back whole from Iraq and Afghanistan. We all have collective family memories of war. The very worst form of war is civil; brother against brother; father against son. There are atrocities committed in all wars but those done by on faction on another of the same entity seem so much worse. This was the dark spectre that was about to stalk the land of England in the reign of King Stephen. The contemporary chroniclers called it The Great Anarchy.

     The protagonists were the newly crowned Stephen, who had grabbed the throne in the confusion after the death of King Henry, and Maud, daughter of the late king. The characters of these two people were so very different. Stephen was a popular, easy going man, a good soldier and he had the support of the church and much of the nobility. Maud had the temper of her grandfather, the Conqueror, was frequently vindictive and had a towering ego. She had been married to the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V, at the age of 12 in 1114 but Henry had died in 1125 and she was returned to her father’s court. She was them married to Geoffrey V, Count of Anjou but she retained the title of Empress. She insisted that she be address as Empress throughout her life and her name frequently appeared before that of her son’s on charters and statutes. Stephen was the sort of guy you would be happy to invite to a dinner party and introduce to your sister; you probably wouldn’t let Maud into the house for fear she would regard it as her own!

    The Easter court held in 1136 was a lavish affair attended by most of the great nobles of the realm. It did, however, prove to be the calm before the gathering clouds of war. The Welsh, like the Scots, were quick to grasp an opportunity to make trouble. As early as New Year’s Day 1136, a Welsh force inflicted a defeat and a loss of 500 men on a Norman army near present day Swansea. This victory, coupled with some bad generalship by Richard Fitz Gilbert de Clare, Stephen’s most powerful marcher lord, brought about a major revolt of the Welsh princes and by the end of 1136, Stephen had virtually written off his control of Wales. The West Country was no better. Robert de Redvers was the only top ranked noble never to accept Stephen as king. He led a revolt from Cornwall and Devon and seized the important port of Exeter. He then established himself at Carisbrooke on the Isles of Wight and conducted a piratical campaign against channel shipping. Stephen eventually drove him out of England only for Robert to turn up in Anjou to join forces with Maud. She created him Earl of Devon in 1141.

     Matters began to go wrong in Normandy almost from the start of the reign. Geoffrey, Count of Anjou was already making trouble in the south of the duchy at the time of old King Henry’s death. With Stephen’s accession he just upped the pace of conflict. Stephen managed to gain the support of the French king, Louis VI, which secured the southern border of Normandy and gained the recognition of his son, Eustace, as Duke. Stephen formed an army to retake the lost parts of Normandy from Geoffrey but the Flemish mercenary forces he had hired, led by William de Ypres, fell out with the local Norman lords resulting in a battle between the two halves of the army. The Norman lords deserted the king which forced Stephen to abandon his campaign. He eventually made a truce with Geoffrey which cost him a pension of 2,000 marks a year.

     In November 1136 the archbishop of Canterbury, William de Corbeil died. By now Stephen was short of money; the ample treasury he had inherited from Henry was virtually empty. The king seized the late archbishop’s personal wealth as his own, an action which upset many of the senior clergy. By 1137 Stephen had managed to stabilised the north from Scots raiding, had a tenuous grip on southern Normandy and also the West Country, had virtually abandoned Wales and had an empty treasury. It had been a difficult first two years of his reign.

     1138 saw Maud acquire her greatest ally. Robert, Earl of Gloucester, was one of Henry I’s many illegitimate children. Born in about 1100, he was one of the few male bastards of Henry’s not to be conveniently pushed into the church. In the latter years of the old King’s rule Robert had become Henry’s right-hand man. He was a good soldier and respected by his fellow nobles, particularly on the Norman side of the channel. He had originally supported Stephen’s brother, Thibaut, for the throne but had eventually, if reluctantly, sworn fealty to Stephen. In 1138 Robert renounced his oath to the king and declared his support for Maud. This action triggered a revolt in Kent and across the south-east even though Robert remained in Normandy. Geoffrey of Anjou took advantage of Stephen preoccupation with matters close to home and re-invaded Normandy. As usual, the Scots under King David, jumped on the band wagon and moved south into Yorkshire in support of the claim of his niece, the Empress Maud, to the throne.

     It was now that Stephen’s skill as a soldier came to the fore. He had a great deal of personal bravery, was an expert in siege warfare and had a remarkable ability for moving forces quickly over considerable distances. Being under attack on several fronts, he rapidly engaged in a number of campaigns. First he sent his wife, Queen Matilda, to Kent with ships and forces from Boulogne to retake the important port and castle of Dover, which was under the control of Gloucester’s men. A small force of his household knights went north to gather support against the Scots. King David was defeated in August in the Battle of the Standards by a force under Thursten, Archbishop of York. Clearly you needed qualities other than clerical to hold the see of York! Stephen headed west into Gloucestershire and the Welsh Marches. He took Hereford and Shrewsbury and then turned south to secure Bath. The town of Bristol proved too strong and the king had to content himself with raiding the surrounding area. Dover surrendered to the Queen later in the year. Bristol was to prove a thorn in his side in future years as it was a loyal stronghold of Robert of Gloucester.

     Overall the various campaigns had been a success from Stephen’s point of view. He sent the very capable Queen Matilda to negotiate a peace with David of Scotland which resulted in the treaty of Durham. Although Bristol was still in enemy hands, most the country was now under control. Robert of Gloucester had remained in Normandy trying to persuade Maud to invade England and, with hindsight, the two of them had missed a great opportunity to take the throne.

     Stephen was now free to concentrate his attention on the expected invasion of England by the continental forces of Maud and Robert.


November 2011



The Great Anarchy (2)

Taking Sides

Stephen had prepared himself well for the inevitable invasion by the Empress Maud and Robert of Gloucester. Just as Robert was Maud’s closest ally so Stephen had the Beaumont twins. Waleran de Beaumont and his brother Robert of Leicester together with a younger brother were granted new earldoms of Worcester, Leicester, Hereford, Warwick and Pembroke. Stephen had a new ally in the form of Prince Henry of Scotland, now Earl of Huntingdon, who held the north from Cumbria across to Northumberland on behalf of the king.

    Despite the initial support of the church when he originally took power, Stephen suspected certain elements of the clergy were really for Maud. Old king Henry’s government had been headed by Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, supported by Roger’s two nephews, Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln, and Nigel, Bishop of Ely. These three were not only senior churchmen but, through their positions, powerful landowners. In addition, Roger’s son, Roger le Poer, was Lord Chancellor. These churchmen had started to build castles and increase their military forces and Stephen suspected them to be close to defecting to Maud. The fact that Roger and his family were enemies of the de Beaumonts did not help with the stability of the kingdom. Stephen would have to decide who he favoured.

    Matters came to a head in June 1139 as Stephen held his court at Oxford. Alan de Penthievre, husband of Bertha, heiress to the duchy of Brittany, had helped secure the western borders of Normandy and had been created Earl of Cornwall and Richmond by Stephen. A fight broke out between Alan’s men and those of Bishop Roger, probably engineered by Stephen. Stephen demanded that the bishops surrender all their castles in England. Nigel managed to shut himself up in the castle at Devizes but Stephen arrested the others. Nigel surrendered when Stephen threatened to execute Roger le Poer. This action by the King severally damaged his relations with the church and even strained the partnership between himself and his brother, Henry de Blois, Bishop of Winchester. As papal legate (the Pope’s representative in England), Henry de Blois called a council and summoned his brother, the King, to explain his actions. Stephen did not attend in person but sent the very capable Aubrey de Vere to plead his case. Stephen had arrested the bishops not as bishops but in their capacity as barons for fear that they were about to desert to Maud. He was supported by the highly respected Hugh, Bishop of Rouen, who challenged the offending bishops to show anywhere in Canon Law their right to build castles. This incident ended any threat, for the moment, of the church changing sides but it damaged Stephen’s relationship with the senior clergy and even that of his brother Henry.

    The Angevin invasion finally materialised in the late summer of 1139. Baldwin de Redvers had crossed the Channel to Wareham, Dorset, in the August in an attempt to capture the port and prepare for Maud’s invading army. Stephen proved too quick for him and forced Baldwin to retreat to the south-west. However, the following month saw an invitation from Maud’s stepmother, the Dowager Queen Adeliza, to land at Arundel in Sussex. On 30 September Maud and Robert of Gloucester arrived at Arundel with 140 knights plus men at arms. Maud remained at Arundel while Robert headed north-west into the Thames valley to Wallingford and on to his stronghold, Bristol, raising support for the rebellion and linking up with Miles of Gloucester, Earl of Hereford. Miles had used the invasion as an opportunity to renounce his oath of fealty to the King and join up with Maud. Stephen promptly moved south besieging Arundel and trapping Maud in the castle.

    There now took place one of those strange, unexplained events in history that leave the modern reader asking why! A temporary truce was brokered by Henry de Blois the details of which are unknown. The result was that Maud was allowed to leave Arundel with her household knights and join Robert of Gloucester in the west. To modern eyes this would seem a concession verging on the foolhardy. There is a clue in the writings of contemporary chroniclers. It is thought that Stephen regarded Robert of Gloucester as his main enemy above that of Maud. At the time Arundel castle was considered impregnable and easily supplied from the sea. To lay siege would have meant tying up a large proportion of the King’s army for little strategic gain. The other theory is that Stephen released Maud out of chivalry. It may seem ridiculous today but Stephen was known to be personally courteous and generous to women and females were not normally regarded as justifiable targets in Anglo-Norman warfare.

    Maud and Robert were in control of territory stretching from Gloucester, Bristol and Devon and Cornwall in the south-west, the western marches of south Wales and east as far as Oxford and Wallingford, which threatened London. Stephen took the offensive and marched west to attack Wallingford which was held by a childhood friend of Maud’s, Brien FitzCount. The castle proved no easy matter so the King left a besieging force to blockade the castle and led the baulk of his forces west into Wiltshire, taking castles at South Cerney and Malmesbury on the way to attacking Trowbridge. In the meantime Miles of Gloucester marched east and attacked Stephen’s rearguard at Wallingford and, thereby, threatening London. Stephen was forced to abandon his advance on the West Country and hurry east to protect his capital. 1139 had seen much movement but little progress for both sides of the conflict.

    At the beginning of 1140, Nigel, Bishop of Ely, whose castles had been confiscated by the King the previous year, made the jump to supporting Maud. Establishing his centre of operations on the Isle of Ely, and protected by the morass of the fenlands, he intended to hold East Anglia for the Empress.  He underestimated Stephen’s resourcefulness. Some years before, Hereward the Wake had continued a resistance movement against the Conqueror from the fenlands of East Anglia. No doubt Nigel felt safe on his watery isle. Stephen responded quickly by taking an army into the fens and using boats lashed together to create causeways. He instigated a surprise attack on Ely and, although Nigel managed to escape in the confusion, the Bishop’s men and castle were captured. With Stephen engaged in the east, Robert of Gloucester took back the gains Stephen had made in his campaign the previous year.

    Henry de Blois attempted to negotiate a truce and even convened a peace conference at Bath. Stephen did not attend in person but sent his ever capable Queen, Matilda, as his voice. The attempt at peace collapsed over the insistence of Henry and the clergy that they set the terms of any peace deal. Stephen found this unacceptable.

    As with all civil wars, this was an opportunity to settle old scores. Ranulf, Earl of Chester, was miffed at Stephen giving the north of England to Prince Henry of Scotland, Earl of Huntingdon. Ranulf set in motion a plan to ambush Henry as he headed north from Stephen’s court. The King got wind of the plot and escorted Henry north in person. To attack Henry was to attack the King. This proved the final straw for Ranulf. He had always claimed that Lincoln Castle was his and, under the guise of a social visit, he took the castle by surprise. Stephen marched north to Lincoln but agreed a truce with Ranulf, probably in an effort to keep the Earl of Chester on side and out of the Empress Maud’s faction. Having returned to London Stephen received intelligence that Ranulf, his brother and the rest of his family had their feet up, relaxing in Lincoln with only a small garrison. Gathering his army, Stephen raced north – but not quick enough. Ranulf made his escape and declared for Maud and Stephen was forced to put Lincoln under siege.

    So far the various engagements between the two sides were merely testing each others strengths and weaknesses. The nobles are sorting themselves out as to whose side they were on and lines were being drawn regarding spheres of influence. The war would now enter and more serious and bloody phase. At stake was England and Normandy, one of the most powerful kingdoms in Europe. This would be war at its worst.

December 2011


The Great Anarchy (3)

Tit for Tat. 

The beginning of 1141 saw King Stephen laying siege to Lincoln Castle having missed the opportunity of capturing Ranulf, earl of Chester. Ranulf had come off the fence and sided with the Empress Maud. The earl combined his forces with those of Robert, earl of Gloucester, his father-in-law, and, together, they rushed all available men to take Stephen by surprise. The rebel forces numbered considerably more than Stephen’s. The King was advised to retreat but he decided to stand and fight. The two armies met on 2 February. Because of his lack of cavalry Stephen dismounted his knights to form a solid block of infantry. The King commanded the centre while Alan, duke of Brittany led the right flank and William of Aumale the left. The royalist were initially successful in that William destroyed Gloucester’s Welsh infantry allies but their lack of cavalry reduced their mobility and Robert and Ranulf’s cavalry quickly encircled Stephen’s centre. The King found himself surrounded by his enemies. Many of Stephen’s supporters, including Waleron de Beaumont and William of Ypres, who commanded the Flemish mercenaries, fled, leaving the King to fight on. Stephen’s personal bravery was never in question. He defended himself first with his sword and, when that broke, he took up an abandoned battle axe. He was finally overwhelmed and taken prisoner.

    Stephen was first taken to Gloucester and then to Bristol, Robert of Gloucester’s stronghold. To begin with the deposed King was kept in reasonable conditions but security was soon tightened and he was kept in chains. Adversity brings out the true character of people. Stephen’s brother, Robert de Blois, Bishop of Winchester and papal legate, summoned a council at Winchester. He made a private deal with Maud to deliver the support of the church provided he was given control of the church in England. He then proceeded to excommunicate any of Stephen’s supporters who did not fall into line. So much for brotherly love! The Bishop, however, did not have it all his own way. Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury was unwilling to crown Maud queen out of hand due to the oaths the nobles had taken at the King’s coronation. He travelled to Bristol to see Stephen who generously agreed to release his subjects from their oath of fealty. The clergy once again gathered at Winchester soon after Easter and declared the Empress Maud “Lady of England and Normandy” in preparation for her coronation as Queen. There was, however, another queen, Queen Matilda, who was not yet under the rebels’ control. She sent a chaplain to the council at Winchester demanding the release of her husband and the honouring of the oaths of fealty. This was not mere bravado. Matilda, in her own right, was countess of the very rich county of Boulogne. She also held Essex and Kent. William of Ypres populated Kent with Flemish soldiers of fortune and his control of the southern ports meant he could bring in as many mercenaries as Matilda could pay for.

    Maud needed to take London. Without the city and a coronation at Westminster, she could not and would not be regarded as Queen. The true character of Maud now began to immerge. Ever since the Winchester declaration her behaviour had become headstrong, overbearing and unbelievably tactless. Chroniclers noted that she was arrogant even with her kinsmen Earl Robert of Gloucester and King David of Scotland. Henry de Blois was soon regretting his efforts to have her accepted as queen-designate. She rebuffed all his requests and broke her undertaking to follow his advice on church affairs.

    There now took place an act of unmitigated folly. Londoners have throughout history tended to support the underdog. All monarchs have respected the rights and privileges of the city. Maud entered the capital demanding an exorbitant sum of money probably because the good burgesses had not actively supported her cause. This was the last straw. The citizens made a pact with Queen Matilda to restore Stephen as king and set on Maud as she sat down to a banquet at Westminster on 24 June. Still uncrowned, she fled the city to the greater safety of Oxford. In one stupid act of arrogance Maud had thrown away the chance of victory.

    Henry de Blois, smarting from the treatment he had received, reversed the excommunications on Stephen’s supporters. The empress moved on Winchester against Henry who appealed to his sister-in-law, the Queen for help. Her commander, William of Ypres, moved his forces down from the Home Counties so swiftly and deployed them with such skill that the empress’s forces were taken completely by surprise and very nearly encircled. Earl Robert fought a desperate rearguard action to enable his half-sister to escape. With a tiny escort she managed to reach the safety of Gloucester but at the expense of the capture of Earl Robert. Without her half-brother, the only man who could give any semblance of respectability to her cause, Maud was helpless.

    Henry de Blois returned to his brother’s side and made peace with Queen Matilda at Guildford. With Stephen and Earl Robert in the hands of their enemies negotiations on a general peace began. Maud had met her match in Matilda. The Queen refused any form of compromise with the Empress. She even attempted to win over Earl Robert to the King’s camp. The talks broke down and the two sides simply exchanged Robert for Stephen. Henry de Blois called yet another council to reaffirm Stephen’s legitimacy to rule and a fresh coronation of Stephen and Matilda took place at Christmas 1141.

    Maud’s plight was serious. She had gone from the edge of victory to disaster and defeat. Many of her supporters had been captured at Winchester and the fair weather friends who had declared for her after the king’s capture at Lincoln just drifted away. She had little alternative but to call for assistance from her husband Geoffrey of Anjou. While all the great events had been taking place in England, Geoffrey had been working his own agenda. When Maud had taken Stephen prisoner Geoffrey invaded Normandy and had quickly secured most of the south of the duchy. When the call for his assistance arrived Geoffrey prevaricated demanding that Earl Robert come to him to negotiate. He had no intention of being distracted from his objectives and weakening his position by sending forces to England. Earl Robert stifled his impatience with Geoffrey’s excuses for delay for more than two months and even helped him take several castle. News then reached Normandy that Stephen had surrounded Maud at Oxford and had her besieged in the castle. Earl Robert returned at once with a force of more than three hundred knights, plus men at arms, without any help from Geoffrey who refused to abandon his affairs in Normandy. With him came his nephew, Maud’s eldest son, Henry. At the age of nine, at the end of November 1142, Henry of Anjou first set foot in England. It was a perilous arrival as the Earl had to force a landing at Wareham. The situation had to be desperate to justify risking the heir to the House of Anjou to a winter crossing of the Channel and the hazards of war in England. Robert realised that he needed a new figurehead to replace the discredited Maud. This was Henry’s baptism of fire and it would be he who from now on would carry the standard against Stephen.

January 2012


The Great Anarchy (4)

A New Star Rises


After Robert of Gloucester landed at Wareham with his nine year old nephew, Henry of Anjou, the lad was despatched under escort probably to Bristol and Robert hurried north to Oxford to rescue his half-sister, the Empress Maud, from capture by King Stephen. Maud may have had a towering ego but she was resourceful. She escaped from the beleaguered castle by daringly walking through Stephen’s lines in the dead of a snowy night, making her way on foot to Abingdon and taking horse to Wallingford. Together with Robert and with the fresh troops he had brought from Normandy, they were able to take control of the major castles in Somerset and Dorset and secure their lines of access to the Channel ports in the south-west.

    “This lordship of his (Gloucester’s),” writes the anonymous author of the Gesta Stephani, “the earl very greatly adorned by restoring peace and quietness everywhere, except that in building his castles he extracted forced labour from all and, whenever he had to fight the enemy, demanding everyone’s help either by sending knights or paying money in lieu.” Forced labour and military service, however, could not man and equip all these castles. Earl Robert found that his revenues were stained and that it was necessary to husband his resources. He did not, after 1143, mount any major new offensives, restricting himself to helping any of his supporters who might be threatened. His policy seems to have been to hold tight to what he had until young Henry was old enough to take over the leadership. After Maud’s conduct over London, it was futile to place her on the throne. In the meantime Henry was returned to the safety of his father’s lands in Normandy. All this time Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, was consolidating his control over the duchy of Normandy.

    The worst part of civil war is the breakdown of central government. This is a time of settling old scores. One lord would whack another lord over a disputed manor, fish pond or salt pan and the other lord would retaliate. This would bring about the burning of a few villages, the destruction of crops and the slaughter of cattle. The result, come winter, was the starvation of some several hundred or a thousand people. This was happening all over England. The more powerful landowners saw that this was ruining the country and, most of all, themselves. Some of then came to mutual agreements to restrict operations against each other. Robert de Beaumont, Earl of Leicester, not only came to an arrangement with Simon de Senlis, Earl of Northampton, on his own side but also made pacts with Roger, Earl of Hereford, and Ranulf, Earl of Chester, on the other side. With Ranulf he agreed that if they were obliged to follow their respective liege-lords against each other, they would do so with no more than twenty knights, and that any chattels captured should subsequently be restored. They also agreed to limit castle building in areas where their estates bordered, and undertook to restrain their allies and vassals from injuries to the other. This agreement was sworn before the Bishop of Lincoln and no reference was made to the King or to the Empress Maud.

    With Earl Robert concentrating on defence, the war was moving into a stalemate. The lull gave Stephen the opportunity to consolidate his kingship. The two earls whose self-interest had caused him most trouble, Geoffrey de Mandeville and Ranulf of Chester, were humbled and forced to surrender strategic castles. In 1146 Stephen held a triumphant Christmas court at Lincoln, to efface the shame of his defeat and capture in 1141. Earl Robert had built a castle at Faringdon and this was taken by Stephen in 1146. Its fall was followed by the defection of Earl Robert’s own son Philip who, “seeing that at this time the king had the upper hand, entered into a pact of peace and concord with him, and after being lavishly endowed with castles and lands, he gave hostages and paid him homage (Geste Stephani).” Philip eventually went off to the Second Crusade.

    31 October 1147 saw a massive blow to the Anjou party course. Earl Robert of Gloucester died at Bristol. Without her pillar of strength, early in 1148, Maud retired to Normandy. It appeared that the Angevin party was at the point of disintegration. And so it may have been had not Stephen over played his hand. While Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex, and Ranulf, Earl of Chester attended Stephen’s court and were under his protection, he had these troublesome barons clapped in irons until they consented to give up their lands. Having gained their release they both went over fully to the Anguvin side. With Robert’s death, Henry of Anjou took on the mantel of war leader. To encourage support he visited England in 1149. His purpose was to seek knighthood from his kinsman, King David of Scotland. The ceremony took place at Carlisle on Whit Sunday 1149. The festivities served as a rallying call for Henry’s supporters. Ranulf, who had had a long running dispute with King David over Carlisle, made peace with the Scottish king and they both planned an attempt to take the city of York. The excuse for the operation was Henry Murdac. Henry Murdac had the approval of the Pope as Archbishop of York but he lacked Stephen’s sanction. David already controlled Northumberland and Cumberland and they had the support of the Bishop of Durham. Ranulf regained Chester and Lancashire and much of north Staffordshire. The forces gathered at Lancaster; the intension was to strike east across the Pennines but Stephen got word to the attack from loyal supporter in York and hurried north with a strong force. The enterprise was abandoned.

    Stephen’s principal objective then became the elimination of Henry. Search parties of knights were sent out to find him as he retreated from Lancaster. Stephen’s son, Eustace, was alerted in the south in an effort to take him should he come that way. But Henry managed to elude them all, slipping through the net at night and travelling by devious routes until he reached the safety of Bristol. Stephen brought his forces down from the north to join up with Eustace in a concentrated effort to smash his enemies and to corner Henry. “They took and plundered everything they came upon,” says the Gesta Stephani, “set fire to houses and churches, and, what was more cruel and inhuman to behold, fired crops which had been reaped and stooked all over the fields, and consumed or destroyed everything edible they found.” Stephen was trying to force the inexperienced Henry into a decisive major battle. The situation was relieved by diversionary attacks. Earl Ranulf launched a major attack across country to Lincolnshire which forced Stephen to hurry to the defence of Lincoln. Payn de Beauchamp created a diversion at Bedford and Hugh Bigod, who for years had maintained a neutrality in Norfolk, created a diversion in East Anglia, which forced Eustace to abandon for a time the devastation of Wiltshire. Henry moved against the King’s supporter in Devon and Dorset and consolidated his control over the south-west. Eustace attempted an attack on Devizes but was badly beaten back. Henry was advised to return to Normandy to build reinforcements while his supporters held the fort in England, ready for the final push for power.

  Henry might have been disappointed with his lack of major success in 1149 but he had established himself as the Anguvin leader and, despite his tender age of sixteen, had gain a reputation as a soldier in the field. The boy’s emergence as a man of destiny was appreciated in Normandy, where the Gesta Stephani says he was, “magnificently welcomed by all who flocked together from every quarter on hearing of his arrival.” His father, Geoffrey, Count of Anjou and, by now, Duke of Normandy, chose this moment to make over to him the duchy and invest him with the ducal title.

    Time was on Henry’s side. By 1150 King Stephen could no longer exercise much influence on the course of English affairs. Even the barons who respected their allegiance to him were disinclined to wage war. The writing was on the wall. A new star was born, and its name was Henry Plantagenet.

February 2012


The Great Anarchy (5)

The End Game


By the early 1150s the war had petered out to stalemate, neither side able to summon the resources to defeat the other. The occasional castle and town changed hands and the occasional unfortunate village got burned. There was, however, a solution beginning to emerge. As mentioned before, many nobles held lands in both England and Normandy. Depending on what side the individual had chosen to support, at least part of his domain would be difficult to visit and exploit. The solution favoured by the majority of those that mattered was that King Stephen remained on the throne for his lifetime but be succeeded by young Henry Plantagenet. Stephen’s eldest son and heir, Eustace, was a nonentity compared to Henry and had little support. He would succeed his mother as Count of Boulogne.

    Henry’s father, Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, had invested the lad as Duke of Normandy. There was, however, a major fly in the ointment. At the end of 1149 Louis VII, King of France, returned after two years fighting Islam on the Second Crusade. He was met with the worrying prospect of finding a reunion of  the duchy of Normandy and the kingdom of England in one pair of hands. This had seemed only a remote possibility when he had left for the Holy Land in June 1147. France had a different governance to England. Louis only directly ruled less than a third of the country. The rest was under the control of powerful, autonomous nobles who exercised their own courts, made their own laws and conducted their own foreign policies. They frequently fought amongst themselves all without reference to the king. Their only obligation was to support the king should France face a threat from outside. One of Louis’ first acts on his return was to refuse to recognise Henry as Duke of Normandy. With Stephen’s son, Eustace, accompanying his army, Louis threatened the borders of Normandy. Henry advanced troops to defend his lands. Through the good offices of St. Bernard and the advice of Geoffrey, Henry surrendered the small province of the Vexin (he would later take it back), and peace was made in Paris at the end of August 1151. Henry did homage to King Louis and was formally invested as Duke.

    Henry immediately began to make preparations for an expedition to England, but they were overtaken by the sudden death of his father, at the age of thirty-nine, on 7 September. Henry had to go to Anjou to secure his inheritance and make sure of the fidelity of his vassals. His supporters in England were becoming impatient and in March 1152 they sent Earl Reginald of Cornwall to implore him to delay no longer. England would have to wait as Henry had other, more important and secret matters on his mind.

    King Louis was married to Eleanor, the only child of William X, Duke of Aquitaine. Aquitaine was the cultural centre of Western Europe; it was to Aquitaine that the poets, writers, philosophers and troubadours flocked. It was here that the rules of Chivalry were formulated and the ancient legend of King Arthur revived to include Camelot and the Holy Grail. Louis was a deeply religious and austere man while Eleanor had been brought up in an atmosphere of free thinkers and new ideas. They could not have been more opposite. Louis had a problem – he had no son. Eleanor had provided him with two daughters who secured Aquitaine to the direct control of the king but he needed a son. The old excuse of consanguinity was raise as reason to engineer an annulment which was quickly approved by the French clergy and the Pope. Louis’ mistake was not the parting with Eleanor but his failure to control the events that followed. Most ex-queens saw out the rest of their lives in some comfortable religious institution. As soon as the conclave of French prelates at Beaugency, on the Tuesday before Palm Sunday, declared the marriage to be within the prohibited degrees of kinship, she hastened away from the French court, eluded an attempt by the Count of Blois to intercept her and reached the safety of Poitou. Eight weeks after the annulment Eleanor was standing at the alter, next to a young man, some nine years her junior, becoming Duchess of Normandy. If Eleanor provided Henry with a son, which she did in just over a year, Louis could kiss goodbye to Aquitaine.

    A month later Henry was at Barfluer, on the Normandy coast, completing his preparations for an invasion of England. Once again he was forced to postpone as Louis, furious at being outwitted over Eleanor, refused to accept Henry as Duke of Aquitaine. This was more serious than their split over Normandy. This time the king had powerful allies. Henry, Count of Champagne saw Henry as a growing threat; Eustace, son of King Stephen, who held part of the county of Boulogne and wanted the county of Mortain, saw this as an opportunity to defeat his rival for the English throne. The third ally, and the most troublesome, was Henry’s younger brother, Geoffrey. He had been disappointed with his inheritance from his father and had wanted Eleanor and Aquitaine for himself. Make no mistake, this was a formidable coalition. Henry took the initiative by rapidly moving his army from Barfluer and ravaged the Vexin. He then distracted Louis by attacking one of his allies, the Count of Dreux. Henry then turned his attention to the supporters of his brother, took the castles of Chinon, Loudun and Mirebeau and forced Geoffrey’s submission. King Louis conveniently fell sick with a fever and sought a truce.

    Encouraged by Henry’s problems on the continent, Stephen took advantage of his enemy’s distractions. The centre of his attack was a siege of Wallingford, the strategic castle that guarded a vital crossing of the Thames. Although well supplied the defenders had little hope of relief as Henry was engaged in his power play with Louis. Nevertheless the defenders continued to hang on. A fortnight after Christmas Henry landed in England, despite a severe winter gale, with a force composing almost entirely of mercenaries hired probably on borrowed money. Although the force was only about 140 knights and 3,000 foot soldiers, these were professionals and enough to worry Stephen. To relieve Wallingford Henry would have to march his men from his strongholds of Devizes and Bristol through an already ravaged countryside along rain-sodden winter roads. Henry had other ideas. Instead of rushing to Wallingford he attacked Malmesbury, Stephen’s equivalent. The King had no alternative but to seek its relief thus taking the pressure off Wallingford. By the time the King arrived the town had fallen and the castle was under siege. The two armies faced each other across the river Avon, swollen with flood water. The nobles with Stephen began to question their wisdom in backing their opposition to Henry. Robert, Earl of Leicester openly changed sides and Henry accepted his homage. A truce was agreed that saw Stephen’s defenders of Malmesbury castle released while Wallingford was to have a respite of six months. With the turning of the Earl of Leicester, Henry gained some thirty castles. He moved his growing army up through Worcestershire, Warwickshire, Northamptonshire and Bedfordshire; Warwick castle was taken and Bedford besiege and captured. By the beginning of August Henry was ready to relieve Wallingford. In the meantime Stephen had put together a powerful force in an attempt to take Wallingford. His intention was to force a pitched battle where winner took all. But according to the author of the Gesta Stephani , “The leading men on both sides and those of deeper judgement shrank from a conflict which was not merely between fellow countrymen, but meant the desolation of the whole kingdom.”

    It was now that the planned solution that had been in the minds of many now came to the fore. The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Winchester worked as mediators but with little initial success. Both Stephen and Henry were intent on strengthening their positions. Henry captured Stamford and sacked Nottingham, while Stephen took Ipswich. The impetuous Eustace ravaged Cambridgeshire “spreading wanton destruction.” The tables turn with the sudden death of Eustace on 17 August, struck down, some said, by divine vengeance for the damage he had done to the property of St. Edmund’s Abbey. You can’t beat a good piece of divine retribution to dampen the spirit. Although Stephen had a younger son, William, the death of Eustace seems to have robbed him of his resolution.

    At last the churchmen made headway. The King and the Duke meet on 6 November at Winchester for a reconciliation. The agreement was that Stephen would have the kingdom for his lifetime and Henry was recognised by all as his heir.

    Stephen was by now a broken man. He had lost his son and heir and his wife, Queen Matilda, within a year. The beginning of 1154 saw a sudden burst of energy from the King. It was as if he was making a final effort to restore order to his kingdom now the war was over. He issued royal writs and travelled around his lands, holding a major court at York. As the summer of 1154 came to an end he went to Dover to meet the Count of Flanders. It was here that he fell ill with a stomach disorder and died on 25 October at the local priory.

    History has not been kind to Stephen. He is treated almost as a footnote to his greater predecessors and successors. He was a good man who perhaps lacked the ruthlessness vital in a medieval monarch. In another time he could well have been regarded as a success. One wonders if he would have made that dash for power in 1135 if he had known is was to be followed by almost twenty years of civil war. He could have been a rich, respected and powerful nobleman in France.

    Stephen’s body was buried at Feversham Abbey beside that of his wife and son. The abbey was dissolved by Henry VIII but the church survived where Stephen’s tomb may be seen to this day. No doubt as Stephen was laid to rest, a messenger was heading for Normandy to inform Henry that he was King of England. The twenty-one year old was busy besieging a troublesome vassal in the castle of Torigny. He would finish his business first. England could wait six weeks for its new King.

March 2012