Queens of the Conquest: England’s Medieval Queens by Alison Weir


  “Treacherous Advice”

  The arrival of the Empress placed Adeliza and Albini in a compromising position. Adeliza may have been pregnant at this time, or had the safety of her first baby to consider. Earl Robert and his party turned up at Arundel “as though he were merely to be a guest there, but he was admitted with a strong body of troops.”1

  The Queen Dowager and her husband nevertheless welcomed Maud to the keep, escorting her through its Norman doorway decorated with zigzagged and scrolled moldings. It used to be claimed that she was accommodated in the Gatehouse Tower, where “Queen Matilda’s Room” has only been so named since the eighteenth century,2 but she was almost certainly offered hospitality in the imposing new oval shell keep of Caen stone built by Albini, in which he and Adeliza had their hall and private apartments in wooden penthouses built against the walls. Their windows looked out on the inner courtyard; there was no external views. The royal chambers would have been luxuriously appointed by the standards of their day, but the present fireplaces date only from the fourteenth century.

  On the top floor of the entrance tower was St. Martin’s Chapel, where the family worshipped. Their two chaplains came from the priory of St. Nicholas at Arundel, and Adeliza entrusted to the safekeeping of the Bishop of Chichester lands in Arundel to fund salaries for them. On the ground floor of the castle was a well fed by fresh clean water, and within the open spaces of the bailey were stables, barracks and service buildings, and a garden in which herbs, vegetables and flowers were cultivated.3

  Possibly Adeliza was hoping to exercise her queenly power of intercession and bring about some accord between Maud and Stephen. Albini too may have thought he could negotiate a peace. Probably both were hoping that the grateful parties would reward them with the restoration of Waltham Abbey. No doubt its seizure was discussed, and ways of recovering it.


  When news of the coming of Maud and Earl Robert spread, “England at once was shaken and quivered with intense fear, because all who favoured the Earl were keener than usual to trouble the King.”4 Stephen was besieging Baldwin de Redvers at Corfe Castle when he heard the news. He also received a message from Adeliza. Fearful of losing her queenly rank, she swore she had not invited Maud, and assured the King that “none of his enemies had reached England by her means.”5 William of Malmesbury accuses her of reneging on her pledges “with a woman’s fickleness.”

  She explained that she had admitted Maud not as his enemy, but as her stepdaughter and long-standing friend, who had claimed her hospitality, “which respect for the memory of her late royal lord, King Henry, forbade her to refuse; and these considerations would compel her to protect her Imperial guest while she remained beneath the shelter of her roof. If he came in hostile array against her castle of Arundel, with intent to make Maud his prisoner, she must frankly say she was resolved to defend her to the last extremity, not only because she was the daughter of her late dear lord, King Henry, but as the widow of the Emperor Henry, and her guest.” She begged Stephen, “by all the laws of courtesy and the ties of kindred, not to place her in such a painful strait as to compel her to do anything against her conscience.” She asked only “that Maud might be allowed to leave the castle and retire to her brother.”6

  Abandoning his assault on Corfe, Stephen “made a very bold forced march and appeared unexpectedly” before Arundel Castle, where he learned “from trusty scouts that Earl Robert had stolen away with his men and made for Bristol in the silence of night, and that his sister, with the Angevins she had brought with her, had remained lurking in the castle.” Leaving his men blockading her inside, Stephen raced off in pursuit of Robert, but the Earl could not be found, having traveled “by a hidden byway.” So Stephen turned back and laid siege to Arundel.7 Maud sent a letter out to him, urging him to promise her safe conduct to Bristol,8 which Albini and Adeliza now evidently regarded as the best solution, doubtless feeling that they had no choice but to surrender Arundel to the King, to whom, thereafter, they would remain loyal. But Stephen was reluctant to let Maud go, which shows that Adeliza did not enjoy any special influence or status as queen dowager.

  When Bishop Henry arrived with his forces, he told the King that “the plan was useless, for if he were preparing to besiege the Empress in one part of England, her brother would immediately rise up to disturb the kingdom in another.”9 Arundel was a mighty fortress and well provisioned, so it would be some time before it fell anyway. Henry thought it “wiser for the King himself, and more beneficial to the kingdom, to let her go to her brother unharmed, so that when both their forces had been brought into one place, he might more easily devote himself to shattering their enterprise.”10 It was “treacherous advice,”11 for by capturing the Empress, Stephen could have put an end to the conflict. But the Bishop had his own agenda, and was doubtless anticipating that Maud might soon be his sovereign lady and would be grateful to the man who had saved her from capture.

  Henry now appealed to his brother’s chivalry, whereupon Stephen reluctantly conceded that “it was not the custom of honourable knights to refuse even their bitterest enemy” a noble escort.12 “Either because he trusted treacherous advice, or because he thought the castle impregnable, he agreed to a sworn truce and allowed the Empress to go to Bristol,”13 under safe conduct with the Countess Mabel, escorted by Bishop Henry and Waleran, Count of Meulan. The King also ordered that Maud “be led with honour, since she was his cousin.”14

  Waleran accompanied them as far as Calne, Wiltshire, while Henry rode on with Maud to the agreed meeting point, where her brother was waiting with his troops to receive her “from the very midst of her enemies.”15 She was handed over without acrimony. Indeed, she and Henry may have had much to talk about on their thirty-five-mile journey together.

  Maud saw Adeliza’s actions as a betrayal. She believed her stepmother, “through female inconstancy, had broken the faith she had repeatedly pledged by messengers sent into Normandy.”16 In fact Adeliza delivered Maud into Stephen’s hands only on condition that she be given safe conduct to Earl Robert at Bristol.17 This helped Maud to gain the freedom to fight on, and in so doing, Adeliza had risked offending the King. Nevertheless, it would be some time before Maud had any further dealings with her stepmother.

  In agreeing to free Maud and let her go to Robert in Bristol, instead of responding repressively “after the fashion of his ancestors,” Stephen had again displayed a fateful lack of judgment that one chronicler thought “incredible.” He had been “very foolish” and in so doing bore the responsibility for the violence that followed.18


  “May Your Imperial Dignity Thrive”

  Bristol was then “almost the richest city in the country, receiving merchandise by sailing ships from lands near and far.” It was, “by its very situation, the most strongly fortified of cities.”1 The motte-and-bailey castle, which stood on a narrow strip of land between the Avon and Frome rivers, had stout defenses. Maud herself strengthened them by ordering the building of a great keep that would be acknowledged as the flower of all the keeps in England.2 There were towers at each of its four corners, and the walls were twenty-five feet thick at ground level.3 She would be safe there.

  Once installed in her rival court, Maud and Robert “announced their coming to all the barons of the kingdom, pitifully and tearfully imploring their most zealous aid, promising gifts to some and enlargement of their estates to others; they met the wishes of all with every advantage in their power.” As their letters were received across England, “all their supporters who formerly served the King, but insincerely and with treacherous intent, broke the compact of oath and homage that they had pledged to him, and turned to them; and all together, with one mind and a common purpose to resist the King, assailed him most furiously on every side.”4

  Thanks to Robert’s help, and his loyal following, Maud quickly built a strong power base in the west of the kingdom. She spent “more than two months at Bristol, receiving homa
ge from all men and disposing freely of the royal rights.”5 Earl Robert “advanced her in all things to the utmost of his power, ever busied on her account, and neglecting his own interest to secure hers, while some persons, taking advantage of his actions, plundered his possessions on every side.”6

  All the bishops, apart from Henry of Blois, declared for Maud. The disaffected and dispossessed were ready to offer their allegiance. Gradually her cause gathered momentum. Having lost control of the north of England, Stephen had effectively lost the west too,7 though he was still firmly entrenched in the southeast, thanks to Queen Matilda’s loyal honor of Boulogne.

  On 7 November, Earl Robert took Gloucester, and soon afterward Maud moved her court to Gloucester Castle. She was received by the sheriff, Miles FitzWalter, a military genius and one of Robert’s landed vassals, who paid homage to her as his liege lady and was entrusted with the safekeeping of her person.8 Gloucester Castle was Miles’s stronghold as hereditary sheriff of Gloucester. It had been built in stone by his father around 1112, a massive keep resembling the Tower of London with walls twelve feet thick, and stood west of Barbican Hill, with commanding views of the River Severn.9

  Miles was “unquestioning in his loyalty to King Henry’s children,”10 and he soon conceived a strong personal loyalty to Maud. In return for his protection, she put him in charge of St. Briavel’s Castle and the royal Forest of Dean,11 where only the King was permitted to hunt. All the chroniclers bear witness to Miles’s vigor as a commander and his devotion to Maud. “He broke the faith he had pledged to the King and rose against him with the utmost determination; receiving all the King’s opponents who flocked around him, he exercised every kind of depredation in the regions around Gloucestershire.” Yet he “always behaved to the Empress like a father in deed and counsel,”12 and later he would reveal to the chronicler John of Worcester that she had lived at his expense throughout her time in England, having “received nothing except by his own munificence and forethought.”13

  “The whole country then, around Gloucester to the extremity of Wales, partly by force and partly by favour, in the course of the remaining months of that year, gradually espoused the party of their sovereign, the Empress.”14 That Maud “received the homage of the citizens and neighbouring lords”15 was largely thanks to the efforts of two men, Earl Robert and Miles of Gloucester. When Stephen, riding west in fruitless pursuit of Maud, besieged Brian FitzCount in Wallingford Castle, it was Miles who came to his relief and seized the fortress for the Empress. Stephen, anticipating that Miles might try to take London for her, marched off to secure it. But Miles galloped off in the opposite direction and captured Waleran of Meulan’s stronghold at Worcester. Soon afterward, long-drawn-out hostilities broke out in the Cotswolds and the upper Thames Valley, with both sides striving for supremacy.


  The monks of Malmesbury Abbey were among those who welcomed Maud’s arrival in the West Country. The history that Matilda of Scotland had asked William of Malmesbury to write had not been finished in her lifetime, but had been completed in 1125 and revised in 1127, the latter version being dedicated to Robert, Earl of Gloucester. Now, around 1139–40, the monks presented a copy to the Empress, with this laudatory letter:

  To the most glorious Empress and their lady, Matilda, the convent of the brothers of Malmesbury, greetings and loyal prayers of those serving God and St Mary and St Aldhelm. The royal piety and holy religion of true piety of your most revered mother, Queen Matilda, gave us cause long after her death to expect no less from your goodness than from hers. And just now that truth satisfied our hope in this, because you are the trunk of all rectitude, the origin of all clemency, the state of all mercy with the King, we thank God with all our prayers. And justly so! For when she was alive, she helped in almost all our affairs. But infamous Fortune, envying the successes of our church, struck us all the more sharply with pain and sorrow at her end, the more that the place had thrived in glory and honour in that government. And the consolation of hope scarcely gave breath to our desolation with your happy arrival in England, most excellent lady, for it is quite fitting that you, Empress, rule where your mother, rightly to be revered, ruled as distinguished queen. Particularly since nothing can be reproached in her life except that she left that church without a rector,16 most justly to be corrected by the wisdom of such a daughter, where the ignorance of the most blessed mother could heretofore be reproached.


  The monks told Maud that they seized on her rule

  as much as we can in our spirits and with this book, which we had written at the command of our lady about the deeds of the kings of the English, we submit ourselves and our possessions to your royal intercession. This kind of book used to be written in antiquity for kings and queens to instruct them in life by example, to follow the triumphs of some and avoid the misfortunes of others, to imitate the wisdom of some and scorn the folly of others. Which was not unknown to your mother when she, that most holy spirit, commissioned the writings. But we had scarcely begun when Fortune, envying the success of England, suddenly dedicated her, as we hope, to the seats of immortality. Distressed by sorrow, we decided to abjure the zeal of the pen, when we saw that the exhorter of our studies had left us. Then both the request of friends to break the silence of the earlier time, and the usefulness of the thing made it seem, as it was, unworthy that the memory of such men be buried, that their deeds die away.

  Now this book can be sent to no mortal more justly than to you, since it is all about your ancestors and how powerfully the Imperial Artificer brought your race up to you. In it you will be able to discern that none of those memorialised in this book, not king or queen, awaited more royally or splendidly than you the rights of the hereditary kingdom of the English.

  Let your Imperial mercy, therefore, receive this little gift and with our gift, dominion over us. We also charge you, through the bearer of the book, that you imperially hear and take pains to show your mercy to us, for the soul of your mother and all your ancestors. May your Imperial dignity thrive.17


  “Christ and His Saints Slept”

  Maud was lucky that her arrival in England coincided with an upsurge of baronial and clerical discontent with Stephen’s ineffectual rule, which drew supporters to her cause. Stephen had much with which to contend, for Maud had strong allies in Normandy, Anjou and Scotland, and he was virtually surrounded, with his chief enemy now in his own kingdom. But he had not capitalized on his advantage, the best opportunity he would ever have to capture his rival. Had he kept custody of Maud at Arundel, or taken the offensive and attacked her in Gloucester and Wales, he might have won the conflict before it escalated, but he lacked the decisiveness, sound judgment and ruthlessness that had characterized his predecessors, and what it took to inspire loyalty. He was “a man of less judgment than energy, an active soldier, of remarkable spirit in different undertakings, lenient to his enemies and easily placated, courteous to all. Though you admired his kindness in making promises, you doubted the truth of his words and the reliability of what he promised.”1 He had “such a kindly disposition that he commonly forgot a king’s exalted rank.”2 One chronicler gave a damning judgment: “It was the King’s custom to start many endeavours with vigour, but to bring few to a praiseworthy end.”3

  Notwithstanding, Maud was still in a precarious position. Even though Stephen’s authority as king had been undermined, she did not have sufficient power to overthrow him. The realm was divided and fatally weakened, and it was this that led to anarchy in the kingdom, as feudal lords exploited the situation and looked to their own interests and protection. Neither side had the decisiveness or the ability to strike a telling blow. Stephen was no Henry I, who had ruled by brute force, and Maud was no politician or diplomat. In the absence of a strong ruler and effective central government, chaos began to reign.


  “In the days of this king there was nothing but strife, evil and robbery.”4 Modern received wisdom is th
at the horrors of the civil war have been much exaggerated, but every chronicler gives such detailed, anguished and corroborative descriptions of them—too many to quote from here—that it is clear that they were all too real, and that there was little redress or relief. Because of Stephen’s “undue softness, public discipline had no force,”5 for he “did no justice.”6

  By Christmas 1139, “the ceremonies of the court and the custom of royal crown-wearings had completely died out. The huge store of treasure had by now disappeared. There was no peace in the realm, but through murder, burning and pillage, everything was being destroyed. Everywhere, the sound of war, with lamentation and terror.”7 “It was distressing to see England, once the cherisher of peace and home of tranquillity, reduced to such a pitch of misery.”8

  Law and order broke down, to be replaced with the arbitrary rule of unscrupulous, opportunist barons, who were quick to take advantage of the fact that the King was “a mild man and soft and good, and did no justice.” Lacking the authority of his ruthless forebears, he inflicted few punishments “and did not exact the full penalties of the law” for wrongdoing. With impunity, these miscreant lords “committed all manner of horrible crimes” and “perpetrated every enormity. They had done the King homage and sworn oaths of fealty, but not one of their oaths was kept. For every great man built his castles and held them against the King; and they filled the whole land with these castles.”9

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