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


  During their flight, Bishop Henry “spoke with Earl Robert and the Empress, and swore them oaths that never more would he side with the King. He promised that he would deliver up Winchester” to Maud, and invited her and Robert to join him there.3

  But then there arose “a misunderstanding” between Bishop Henry and Maud, one that William of Malmesbury believed could be “justly considered as the melancholy cause of every subsequent evil in England.” Echoing Queen Matilda’s plea, Henry again urged Maud to agree that, for as long as Stephen remained in captivity, the counties of Boulogne and Mortain should be bestowed on Eustace, his heir and the Bishop’s nephew. “This the Empress altogether opposed,” possibly because she had promised these lands to others.4

  This was the end for Henry, who was “offended by the repulse.”5 There was a parting of the ways. He cantered off to Winchester, while Maud and Robert “came at full speed to the city of Oxford.”6

  Already it was being said that Bishop Henry was “privy to” the Londoners’ plot, and was a secret ally of the Queen, and that he had incited and won over “the minds and strength of the citizens” to put an end to Maud’s pretensions.7

  “He kept from the Empress’s court many days and, though repeatedly sent for, persisted in refusing to go thither.” Furious and disillusioned—he may well have been considering his position since St. Albans—he absolved, without consulting any other bishops, all those supporters of Stephen whom he had excommunicated, and ensured that “his complaints against the Empress were disseminated through England: that she wished to seize his person, that she observed nothing which she had sworn to him, that all the barons of England had performed their engagements to her, but that she had violated hers, as she knew not how to use her prosperity with moderation.”8

  In the last week of July, desperately trying to establish an accord with the Londoners, Maud ceded her right to intervene in any matters between them and Geoffrey de Mandeville, and granted him even wider powers and more lands in East Anglia. In return, he demanded that her husband, her son Henry and even the King of France should swear to her maintaining faith in this matter.9 Of course, he knew that was unlikely, and that London was irrevocably lost to her.

  Earl Robert realized that Maud could not afford to alienate the Church as well as the Londoners, and hastened to limit the damage she had caused. He rode to Winchester, but could get nowhere with the Bishop. Returning to Oxford, he warned Maud that Henry “had no friendly dispositions towards her,” whereupon, “with such forces as she could muster,”10 hurriedly raised, she left Oxford on 31 July with Earl Robert and King David, and marched on Winchester “to catch the Bishop if she could.” Arriving “before the citizens knew anything of her coming,”11 she was “immediately admitted into the royal castle.”12

  —

  Alarmed at intelligence that Maud was planning to bestow Mortain and Boulogne on one of her supporters, the Queen had ridden to Guildford for a “friendly conference” with Bishop Henry.13 There she stayed in the round shell keep of Guildford Castle, which she had visited with Stephen in 1136 in happier days. Now she had her son Eustace with her, and he joined in her pleas to Henry to abandon the Empress and help her restore Stephen to the throne. The Queen “humbly besought the Bishop to take pity on his imprisoned brother and exert himself for his freedom, that, uniting all his efforts with hers, he might gain her a husband, the people a king, the kingdom a champion.”14

  She so “wrought upon”15 Henry that, “moved by the woman’s tearful supplications, which she pressed on him with great earnestness, and by the dutiful compassion for his brother” and the concessions she offered, he “turned over in his own mind how he could rescue his brother from the ignominy of bondage and most skilfully restore him to his kingdom.”16 Finally he capitulated, himself weeping, and returned to his allegiance to Stephen, having, he said, been offended by the Empress’s intransigence toward the Queen. He vowed to forsake Maud’s cause and “bend his mind to the liberation of Stephen.”17

  Henry hurried off to Winchester to look to its fortifications, arriving on 31 July to find that Maud had arrived earlier that day and was in residence in the royal castle, “surrounded by a very large retinue,” and that she had with her a large, “highly equipped”18 force commanded by King David, Earl Robert and Reginald de Dunstanville. Maud had “sent out a summons on every side and gathered into a vast army the whole array of those who obeyed her throughout England,”19 much of it probably recruited on the fifty-six-mile journey south from Oxford.

  The Bishop took refuge in Wolvesey Castle, “which he had built in very elegant style in the middle of the town,”20 but hard on his heels came a message from the Empress “requesting that, as she was upon the spot, he would come to her without delay. Not thinking it safe to go,”21 and correctly suspecting that she was “cunningly anticipating his craft,”22 he sent back the messenger, saying, “I will prepare myself,” and immediately summoned “all as he knew were well-disposed toward the King,” including the Queen, William of Ypres and those lords “who were irritated by the disdainful tyranny of the woman,” begging them to march on Winchester to relieve him.23 “In consequence, almost all the earls of England came, for they were full of youth and levity, and preferred military enterprise to peace. Few, however, attended the Empress.”24

  The Queen, accompanied by Eustace, William of Ypres and Geoffrey de Mandeville, led “all her strength” to Winchester,25 riding at the head of her Kentish troops and “an invincible band” of a thousand angry Londoners, magnificently equipped with “helmets and coats of mail.” She arrived before the city late on 31 July, to find that Bishop Henry had already fled, having “mounted a swift horse and made off to his castles at full speed.”26

  Maud now gave orders “for a most rigorous investment of the Bishop’s castle.” On 2 August, Earl Robert, Brian FitzCount and Miles FitzWalter besieged the garrison in Wolvesey Castle “with concentrated strength,”27 and all Maud’s supporters, “with wonderful concentrations of large forces from every quarter, devoted themselves alike to the siege with one mind and the same unflagging zeal.”28

  It was a rash move on Maud’s part, for the Queen, in turn, blockaded Winchester, “besieging the inner ring of besiegers from outside with the greatest energy and spirit.” In this venture, “she obtained the aid of the legate Henry, and the Londoners, and a great number of the nobles of the kingdom, who assembled from day to day, with whom also was Ranulf, Earl of Chester.”29 Matilda had all roads leading into the city watched, lest supplies be smuggled in to the Empress. Anyone found attempting to do that was killed or maimed.30 London kept the Queen and her army well supplied; the citizens “were making the greatest efforts, and not letting slip a single thing that lay in their power whereby they might distress the Empress.”31 “This was a remarkable siege: nothing like it was ever heard of in our times. The whole of England, together with an extraordinary number of foreigners, was there in arms.”32

  Bishop Henry, having sent “all over England for the barons who had obeyed the King,” and also hired “ordinary knights at very great expense, devoted all his efforts to harassing the Empress’s forces outside the town.” He had received Papal endorsement of his actions, for Pope Innocent II had written urging him to use every means in his power to restore King Stephen.33 Nevertheless, he was castigated by Henry of Huntingdon—and no doubt others—as “a new kind of monster, compounded of purity and corruption.”

  On 2 August, Henry’s besieged garrison “flung out firebrands” from Wolvesey Castle, which started a conflagration “and completely reduced to ashes the greater part of the town.”34 The royal abbeys of Hyde and Nunnaminster, founded by King Alfred and his wife, were destroyed, along with twenty churches, with much loss of life, as was the greater part of the royal castle built by the Conqueror.35 The blaze also seriously depleted food supplies stored in the city. Some accused Bishop Henry of personally starting the fire.36

  The siege lasted for nearly two months. “The people
of Winchester were—though secretly—inclined to the Empress’s side, and rather wished success to her than to the Bishop.”37 Maud sent three hundred knights to take Wherwell Abbey, which lay ten miles from Winchester, hoping to establish a base from which they could overcome the Queen’s forces, but William of Ypres, learning that they were there, burned the church and took the Empress’s men captive.38

  In the end, rampant disease and a scarcity of food and drink settled the deadlock. “The people were suffering very severely from wasting hunger and lack of food.”39 Even Maud “suffered the gravest ills of a long-lasting siege.”40 When she and her courtiers could endure it no longer, Earl Robert “despaired entirely of continuing the siege, and thought of seeking safety in flight as soon as they could. So they assembled their baggage,” and on Sunday 14 September, he “deemed it expedient to yield to necessity” and ordered his forces to leave the beleaguered city.41 By now, Maud was desperate “to change location and rest her troubled mind more comfortably somewhere else.”42 John of Worcester claims that Bishop Henry sent orders that the gates of Winchester be opened to her. Possibly Henry was hoping for an opportunity to capture her and Robert.

  The Empress and her party “were emerging from the gates together, when the King’s army, in numbers beyond expression, surrounded them on every side, charged them heavily and unflinchingly, and scattered them in different directions.”43 Maud escaped unscathed, Robert having placed her “in the vanguard, that she might proceed without interruption. Thus they departed from Winchester,”44 as Robert, commanding the rearguard, kept the royal forces at bay, suffering heavy losses in the process, so that Maud could make good her escape. She, “always superior to feminine softness, with a mind steeled and unbroken in adversity, was the first to fly,” noted the hostile author of the Gesta Stephani.

  Bishop Henry “ordered his men to assemble to arms, rigorously pursue the enemy, seize them and kill them. And so the followers of the Bishop, leaping up, with great force and uproar attacked those departing, killed them, clove them, and bound quite a few captives in chains. Terrified, the Empress flew most swiftly.”45

  “The retreat became a flight, the flight a rout.” Archbishop Theobald, who had joined Maud in Winchester, “could scarcely escape to safe hiding places.”46 In the mêlée, Maud was separated from all her escort apart from Brian FitzCount, but they managed to link up with Reginald de Dunstanville. Together with “servants and many friends,”47 they fled the city, their flight becoming known as “the Rout of Winchester.”48 Even Maud, who was “always breathing a spirit of unbending haughtiness, was greatly shaken.49 She was riding sidesaddle, “as women do,” but it hindered progress, so she was persuaded to ride astride.50

  That night, she sought refuge at John the Marshal’s castle at Ludgershall, twenty-four miles from Winchester. John had enthusiastically supported her since joining her at Reading, and had been partially blinded when the church of Wherwell was burned.51 Maud arrived “very much terrified and troubled,”52 appearing “sorrowful and breathless.”53 She found Ludgershall “no safe resting place because of her fear of the Bishop.”54 “Whereupon, all her friends urging, she was placed upon a horse with manly skill and carried all the way to Devizes.”55

  Just twenty-four miles behind her, the Londoners were sacking Winchester without mercy.56

  20

  “Rejoicing and Exultation”

  Maud’s remaining forces were routed by the Queen’s. King David was captured three times, but managed to bribe his captors and, at length, escaped and fled north. He would have realized that, with London, Winchester and the Church lost to her, Maud’s cause was irretrievably defeated.

  Earl Robert had fought his way northward, making for Gloucester, and tried to mount another diversionary attack at Stockbridge, to give Maud time to get away safely.1 But, while attempting to cross the River Test, he was captured by William de Warenne, 3rd Earl of Surrey, and some Flemish mercenaries,2 and brought to Winchester, where he was presented to the Queen by Bishop Henry.3

  The taking of Robert cost Maud any advantage she had. Without her chief commander and mainstay, she could do nothing.

  “Even at the moment of his capture, no one perceived the Earl either dispirited or humbled. He seemed so far to tower above fortune that he compelled his persecutors to respect him. Wherefore the Queen, though she might have remembered that her husband had been fettered by his command, never suffered any fetters to be put on him, nor presumed on her dignity to treat him dishonourably.” She placed him in the custody of William of Ypres, and herself accompanied them to Rochester Castle, where Robert was to be held. Within its walls, she allowed him to move freely wherever he pleased, to attend “the churches below the castle, and to converse with anyone he chose,” insisting only that she herself was present at any discussions. After her departure, he was held “in free custody” in the keep, and was even allowed to buy horses.4

  There was no question of Robert being executed. He was far too valuable a captive, who could be used as a bargaining counter or ransomed for a fortune. At Rochester, the earls loyal to the Queen tried in vain to win him over to her cause, offering to liberate him in exchange for the King. His wife, the Countess Mabel, “would have embraced those terms the moment she heard them, yet he, in wiser policy, refused.”5

  “Twenty earls would not be of sufficient importance to ransom a king,” he told her. “How then, my lady, can you expect that I should so far forget the interest of the Empress, my sister, as to propose that she should exchange him for only one?” He would consent, he said, only on condition that all who had been taken with him were freed. The barons would not agree to this; “they were anxious for the King’s liberty, but not their own pecuniary loss,” for they intended to ransom their noble captives.

  Instead, “they anxiously endeavoured to seduce the Earl with magnificent promises.” If he would abandon his sister, and allow Stephen to be reinstated as titular king, he could rule England in his name. He refused. They offered him the office of justiciar if he would work for a peace settlement whereby Stephen would have England and the Empress Normandy.6

  “I am not my own master,” he told them, “but I am in another’s power.” He insisted he could not agree to any proposal without the Empress’s agreement, and said he doubted she would ever sanction such terms. Seeing they could not persuade him by fair means, the earls threatened to send him across the sea to Boulogne and “keep him in perpetual bondage till death.” Still wearing “a serene countenance,” Robert protested that “he feared nothing less,” and warned that, if they carried out their threat, his partisans would send the King to Ireland.7

  Matilda’s attitude hardened. Robert had broken his oath of allegiance to Stephen, she reminded him, and his life was forfeit. Robert countered that his first oath of allegiance had been to Maud; in regard to that which he had sworn to Stephen, he had come to see the error of his ways, even if Stephen had not. For Stephen had also sworn an oath to Maud. It was he who was the oath-breaker.8

  Matilda knew it was the truth. She saw that she would get nowhere with Robert. Throughout his captivity and beyond, “numberless and magnificent promises” were made to entice him to abandon his sister, “yet he always deemed his fraternal affection of greater importance.”9

  —

  By now, Maud’s host had dispersed far and wide, pursued by the royal forces. “Plunder of incalculable value was scattered everywhere for the taking. You could have seen fine chargers straying about after throwing their riders, fainting from weariness and at their last gasp; sometimes shields and coats of mail and arms of every kind lying everywhere strewn on the ground; sometimes tempting cloaks and vessels of precious metal, with other valuables, flung in heaps.”10

  In 1140, Earl Robert had secured Devizes Castle for his sister, hanged the sadistic Robert FitzHubert, and returned the magnificent, impregnable stronghold built by Bishop Roger to the diocese of Salisbury. On 15 September, Maud reached the safety of Devizes, accompanied by Br
ian FitzCount and “a few others.” She was “worn out, almost to the point of utter collapse.”11

  While Maud and her party were recovering from their ordeal, Miles FitzWalter arrived, alone, half naked and dropping with fatigue, his armor and weapons cast away in his flight,12 and informed them that Robert had been taken. It was crushing news, with the gravest implications. They all knew that without Robert, Maud’s cause was lost.

  But she herself had more immediate concerns. She was still suffering from extreme fatigue, and “terrified that she would not be safe” at Devizes. It was decided that they would press on to Gloucester Castle, but she was “now nearly dead” and too exhausted to sit on a horse, so “she was carried on a bier and, like a corpse, tied with ropes to horses bearing her.”13 When they arrived in Gloucester, she was faint from fasting for so long, and still in great fear. Miles FitzWalter urged her to go to Oxford, which was strategically situated and the scene of her former triumph, but she would not—not yet.

  Reduced in circumstances as she was, she proved as obstinate as her brother when it came to negotiating a settlement, and refused to agree to an exchange of the prisoners, King Stephen and Earl Robert. Instead she offered Queen Matilda twelve earls she was holding captive and a substantial sum in gold in return for the release of Robert.

  Matilda had worked ceaselessly for the release of her husband, putting pressure on those who had influence with Maud. In the end, she chose to deal with the Countess Mabel, who was châtelaine of Earl Robert’s castle at Bristol, where Stephen was being held. “The Queen worked hard on the King’s behalf, and the Countess of Gloucester on the Earl’s, many messengers and reliable friends going to and fro.” Matilda warned Mabel that, if her wishes were not speedily heeded, she would send Robert to Boulogne and have him straitly held in one of her castles there. After some tough negotiations, “it was finally agreed on both sides that the King should be restored to the royal dignity, and the Earl should be raised to the government of England under the King, and that both should be just rulers and restorers of peace just as they had been instigators and authors of dissension and upheaval.”14

 
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