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

  Over a thousand castles were constructed in this period, many of them unlicensed, but with the King and the Empress effectively engaged in a civil war, it was easier than ever to flout the law. “There were many castles throughout England, each defending its own neighbourhood, or, to be more truthful, plundering it. Some of the castellans wavered in their allegiance, hesitating as to which side to support, and sometimes working entirely for their own profit.”10 Grasping barons imposed crippling taxes, often exacted at swordpoint, and “sorely burdened the unhappy people of the country with forced labour on the castles; and when the castles were made, they filled them with devils and evil men.”11

  A witness in a Norwich court complained that, “because of the stress of the war, justice has fled and laws are silenced, while the liberties of churches had, in many places, perished.”12 There was “a shadow of peace” in the west and east, where Maud and Stephen held sway respectively, but “the north was harried and pillaged by the Scots, the rich corn-lands of the south were spoiled by foreign mercenaries, which both sides employed, and the whole country was given over to rapine, torture and arson.” Local communities were terrorized by the “devils” who commanded the castles, pursued private feuds and acted rapaciously outside the law.

  Trade and commerce went into a decline as these “devils” despoiled and robbed prosperous people and subjected them to wanton cruelties.

  By night and day, they seized those whom they believed to have any wealth, whether they were men or women, and, in order to extort their gold and silver, they put them in prison and tortured them with indescribable tortures. They hung them up by the feet and smoked them with foul smoke. They strung them up by the thumbs, or by the head, and hung coats of mail on their feet. Knotted ropes were put round their heads and twisted till they penetrated to the brains. They put them in prisons where there were adders and snakes and toads, and killed them like that. Some they put in an instrument of torture: a chest which was short and narrow, but not deep, and they put sharp stones in it and pressed the man so that he had all his limbs broken. Many thousands they starved to death. I neither can nor may tell all the wounds or all the tortures which they inflicted on wretched men in this land; and that lasted the nineteen long winters while Stephen was king, and it always grew worse and worse. Never did a country endure greater misery, and never did the heathen act more vilely than they did.13

  “When the wretched people had no more to give,” the robber barons “plundered and burnt all the villages, so that you could easily go a day’s journey without ever finding a village inhabited or a field cultivated. To till the ground was to plough the sea; the earth bare no corn, for the land was all laid waste by such deeds. The corn was dear, and butter and cheese, because there was none in the country. Wretched people died of starvation.” The oppressors “respected neither church nor churchyard, but took all that was inside and burned the church. The bishops were constantly excommunicating them, but they thought nothing of it because they were all utterly accursed. And so it lasted till the land was all undone and darkened with such deeds; and men said openly that Christ and His saints slept.”14 “It was a dreadful thing that England, once the noblest purse of peace, the habitation of tranquillity, had sunk to such wretchedness.”15 Not for nothing would Stephen’s reign come to be known as “the Anarchy.”

  Among the offenders were Hugh Bigod, John the Marshal,16 William de Say and Robert FitzHubert, a Flemish mercenary who captured Devizes Castle in 1140. “He was the cruellest of all men, and a blasphemer against God, for he used to boast gratuitously that he had been present when eighty monks were burnt together with their church, and said he would do the same thing again and again in England. He used to smear prisoners with honey and expose them naked in the open air in the full blaze of the sun, stirring up flies and similar insects to sting them.”17

  In 1140, Maud’s adherent Geoffrey Talbot entered Hereford Cathedral and, “impiously driving out the ministrants at God’s table, recklessly brought in a throng of armed men. The townspeople were disturbed because the graves of the newly dead were dug up to provide earth for ramparts, and catapults were put up on the Tower from which they had heard the sweet and pacific admonition of the bells.”18

  Brian FitzCount also drew bitter criticism for pillaging the land around Wallingford, but, as he excused himself to Bishop Henry, he had lost most of his lands and was “in the greatest distress,” for he was “not harvesting one acre of corn” from the estates granted him by Henry I.19 He told the Bishop: “I am sorry for the poor and their plight, when the Church provides scarcely any refuge for them, for they will die if peace be longer delayed.”20


  “Hunger-Starved Wolves”

  The energetic Queen Matilda proved a formidable political opponent to the Empress. The two women had much in common: both were strong characters, heiresses with royal Saxon blood and nieces of King David of Scots. Both were married to forceful, acquisitive men, and ambitious for their sons.1 Matilda was well placed strategically to help fight her husband’s cause. She was a skilled negotiator, as brave and determined as the Empress, but never as arrogant or dictatorial, despite operating effectively as a female warlord, and thus she avoided alienating those who disapproved of women breaking through the boundaries imposed on them by a male-dominated society.

  From her honor in London and Colchester, thanks to her loyal tenantry, she could control much of Essex, where her lands neighbored those of William de Say’s brother-in-law, Geoffrey de Mandeville, hereditary Constable of the Tower of London and Earl of Essex from 1140. He was the King’s man, “remarkable for the ability of his shrewd mind, and admired for the firmness of his unbending courage in adversity and his excellence in the art of war. In the extent of his wealth and the splendour of his position, he surpassed all the chief men of the kingdom,” and was a valuable ally for the Queen. “He controlled not only the Tower, but also other strongholds around London.”2

  Matilda’s neighbor in Kent was the sympathetic William of Ypres, a cousin of King Stephen3 who held the county of Kent even though he was never created its earl. From 1125, he had claimed to be count of Flanders, and Stephen had backed that claim, but William had been passed over by Louis VI in favor of William Clito and banished. He had come to England in 1133. William of Malmesbury, a supporter of the Empress, called him “an abandoned character,” and Earl Robert said of him, “Words have not been invented which can properly describe the extent and ramification of his treacheries, the filth and horror of his obscenities.”4 Yet these two men were hostile to Stephen’s cause, while William of Ypres proved unfailingly loyal to the King and Queen.

  After spending Christmas of 1139 at Salisbury with her husband, Matilda crossed to France with her eldest son, Eustace. It had been agreed, after the magnates of England and France had been consulted, that Stephen’s son should marry the French king’s sister, Constance.5 Stephen’s aim in urging this alliance was “to strengthen the son who was to succeed him against the count of Anjou and his sons.”6 He was even willing to take the Princess without a dowry. Matilda had been instrumental in arranging the betrothal of her son, another instance of an English queen involving herself in the marriages of her children; and she took with her the large sum of money needed to secure the support of Louis VII.

  Constance was about fifteen, Eustace perhaps five years younger. Their betrothal and marriage took place in February 1140 amid lavish splendor, “in the presence of the Queen of England and of many of the highest nobility of both kingdoms.”7 Matilda persuaded Louis to invest Eustace as duke of Normandy and to give aid to maintain him as nominal ruler of the duchy under her direction. This was in one respect a godsend, for she could now afford to send troops of mercenaries to England to aid Stephen in his troubles, but it also drew bitter criticism, for the English were soon protesting that “these hunger-starved wolves” stole food, adding to their misery, and “completed the destruction of the land’s felicity.”8 After the celebrations, Matild
a brought the young couple to England.

  At Michaelmas 1140, Matilda learned, to her dismay, that Earl Robert’s son-in-law, Ranulf de Gernon, Earl of Chester, was planning to waylay Henry of Scots as the Prince rode north, and hold him hostage until he agreed to return Carlisle Castle. Immediately she prevailed on Stephen to have Henry escorted safely all the way to Scotland.9


  At Lent there was an eclipse of the sun “so remarkable” that it was said by many that the King “would not continue a year in the government.”10

  The whole of the year 1140 “was embittered by the horrors of war.”11 The Empress was still insisting that she was the rightful Queen of England and that Stephen was a usurper. Henry of Blois, worried about the escalating lawlessness, went to France to discuss the deadlock with his brother Theobald and Louis VII, and came up with a compromise. In August 1140, he arranged a conference near Bath, “that, if possible, by God’s help, peace might be restored.” The Queen, Henry of Blois as Papal legate, and Archbishop Theobald represented the King, and Robert of Gloucester “and other of her friends” represented the Empress.12 The latter were willing to accept the compromise, which suggests that it may have involved the succession devolving on Maud’s son Henry, overlooking Stephen’s heirs.13 Naturally the Queen was opposed. Earl Robert demanded that the dispute be referred to the judgment of the clergy, and when this was put to her, “the Empress, more inclined to justice, declared that she was not averse to the decision of the Church”; but the Queen and her party “most cautiously avoided this” because “the King put off a decision from day to day,” and therefore “vainly they wasted both words and time to no purpose, and parted without making peace.” Bishop Henry “withdrew within himself, watching, like the others, to see how things would turn out.”14


  In February 1140, Thurstan, Archbishop of York, had died, and Stephen had put forward his kinsman William FitzHerbert as his successor. The Cistercians vigorously opposed his election because they wanted one of their Order appointed to the see; moreover, they suspected FitzHerbert of bribery and simony. Nevertheless, the King brought pressure to bear, and in January 1141, FitzHerbert received the temporalities of York.

  The news prompted an angry Bernard of Clairvaux to write to Queen Matilda, enlisting her help in overthrowing the election. (Of note in his letter is his employment of the style “your Majesty,” which was not in use in England in the twelfth century, but was an accepted form of address in European courts.) He urged her:

  Do everything to prevent that man from occupying the church of York any longer, about whose life and entry into the episcopacy religious men in whom one must trust give such testimony. We commit this, God’s cause, to you—act so that it be brought to worthy conclusion, and protect all those who have worked for this side, that they not suffer offence from the King or any harm on its account. They have done good work. Further, if you get the lord King to renounce this sacrilege of intrusion into the election before his bishops and princes, which he only should have assent to, know that it would bring great honour to God, great safety and security to the King and to what is his, and great utility to the whole kingdom.15

  Bernard’s letter made little difference. More momentous events intervened, and the Queen was unable to prevent FitzHerbert’s consecration in September 1143. Not until 1147 was he deposed in favor of the Cistercian Henry Murdac.16


  “Shaken with Amazement”

  The civil war of the 1140s was essentially a series of sieges, lightning strikes and skirmishes, rather than pitched battles, and a tense, prolonged period of shifting loyalties. But there was one crucial, decisive engagement.

  Furious at the loss of Carlisle Castle, Ranulf de Gernon, Earl of Chester, had declared for the Empress and seized the royal castle at Lincoln. In February 1141, Stephen laid siege to the castle. Ranulf had already departed, leaving his wife behind. On 2 February, Stephen was suddenly confronted by a great army of Normans and Welsh, which had been raised by Ranulf and his father-in-law, Earl Robert, on the Empress’s behalf. Weary of the country being “harassed with rapine and slaughter for the sake of two persons,” Robert wanted to bring the conflict “to an issue at once.”1

  Stephen was urged to escape, but he made the rash decision to fight, and met the earls in battle the next day. In the face of this great host, most of the royalist magnates fled, leaving Stephen and just his personal bodyguard to face the enemy. The King fought bravely until the handle of his battle-ax broke and he was knocked out by a blow to the head.2 He came to his senses to find himself a prisoner in Lincoln Castle. It was a humiliating defeat, but Earl Robert was a chivalrous knight and treated him courteously, commanding that no man harm the King further or insult him.

  When Maud learned of the victory, a week later, she was “ecstatic at this turn of events, having now, as she thought, gained possession of the kingdom that had been promised to her by oath.”3 Stephen was brought to her at Gloucester by Earl Robert.4 Capturing the King would prove to be the pinnacle of her success, but there is no account of this momentous meeting. We know only that, four days later, by agreement between Maud and Robert, Stephen was “put under guard in the tower of Bristol, to be kept there until the last breath of his life.”5 Bishop Henry appears to have been instrumental in advising Maud, for she later revealed “that her taking the King and holding him in captivity had been done principally by his connivance.”6 It is not known what role, if any, Henry played behind the scenes prior to the siege of Lincoln, but he may well have pressed for Stephen to be kept in perpetual imprisonment, doubtless fearing his retribution.

  We might wonder why Maud did not deal with Stephen as a traitor who had stolen her throne. For such a serious offense the penalty was usually mutilation in the form of castration or blinding, but she probably felt that was a step too far for one who had been crowned and hallowed, and she may have feared the reaction if she put the King to death. She probably followed the precedent set by her father when he kept his brother Robert a prisoner for life. This is corroborated by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: “When the King was in prison, the earls and the powerful men expected that he would never get out.”

  When it became known that Stephen was a captive, “the whole of England was shaken with amazement, and to some it was an occasion of festival and seemed the dawning of a new day, as they hoped that thereby an end might be put to strife and war; to others, it seemed that the wrong they had done their King could not be atoned for without very great prejudice to the kingdom, nor yet could the turbulent strife be so easily ended. But still the greater part of the kingdom at once submitted to the Empress and her adherents, and some of the King’s men were either captured or forcibly expelled from their possessions. Others, very quickly forswearing the faith they owed to the King, were voluntarily surrendering themselves and what was theirs to the Empress.”7 In fact, there was a near stampede of men rushing to demonstrate their loyalty to Maud—“effeminates,” the Gesta Stephani sneeringly called them.

  This hostile chronicler asserted that, in her triumph, Maud “unsexed” herself. “She at once put on an extremely arrogant demeanour, instead of the modest gait and bearing proper to a woman; and she began to walk and speak and do things more stiffly and more haughtily than she had been wont.” There was probably a good reason for the anonymous chronicler’s vitriol, for it has been credibly argued that he was Robert of Lewes, Bishop of Bath,8 who must have endured a traumatic time as the King’s sole supporter in a region controlled by Earl Robert, and who was at one time captured by Maud’s supporters in Bristol and threatened with hanging. Yet criticism of her hauteur came not only from antagonistic sources, but also from those who were pro-Angevin,9 which argues that it was well founded.


  Queen Matilda was in London when she received the dread news of her husband’s capture. Her presence there on 9 February 1141 is attested by a charter, which she granted “for the health of our lord, King Stephen.”10 Determine
d to have him set free, she was quickly to become the focus for resistance to Maud.

  For a short while, security around Stephen seems to have been lax. “At first he was kept with every mark of honour, except the liberty of going at large.” He had no trouble in cajoling or bribing his guards into letting him out of his apartments to wander the castle at night, but “he had been found, more than once, beyond the appointed limits.”11 When Maud heard, “provoked by this into a womanly rage, she ordered the King, the Lord’s Anointed, to be put in irons,”12 and Earl Robert gave the order13 for Stephen to be chained to the wall of his prison. “At this very moment, Stephen, King of England languishes wretchedly in a dungeon,” lamented the dying Orderic. “The princes of the world are overwhelmed by misfortunes and disastrous setbacks.”

  The fettering of the King drew much comment from the chroniclers, and undoubtedly undermined Maud’s cause. It also galvanized the Queen to herculean efforts to free her husband.


  “Dragged by Different Hooks”

  In the King’s absence, Geoffrey de Mandeville made a pragmatic decision and switched sides. Stephen had left Matilda and Constance of France in Mandeville’s safekeeping in the Tower of London. “It chanced that the Queen sought to go elsewhere with this daughter-in-law, but Geoffrey opposed her.” An outrageous struggle ensued when “he seized the daughter-in-law from the hands of her mother-in-law, who resisted as best she could, and detained her, allowing the Queen herself to depart in humiliation. The King later demanded Constance back, hiding for the moment his just anger; and Geoffrey reluctantly surrendered his outstanding prize to the King her father-in-law.”1 The insult to his womenfolk stung; Stephen probably never forgot it.

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