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

  Maud, who was escorted in safety to Bristol in October by Robert de Beaumont, would not agree to this, but was finally persuaded to sanction a solution to the impasse. In the end, an unconditional exchange was agreed upon, “at the insistence” of the Queen.15 It deprived Maud of any real chance of becoming queen—and indeed, as soon as he was at liberty, Stephen would declare her deposed.

  Matilda and her sons hastened to Bristol, arriving on All Saints Day, 1 November. On that day, after nine months in captivity, Stephen was entirely restored to his liberty, “to great rejoicings.”16 It was a brief reunion. Under the terms of the agreement, he had to leave his wife and boys at Bristol in the charge of “two men of high rank,” as hostages for the liberation of Earl Robert. Stephen sped to Winchester. Apprised of the King’s arrival there, Robert’s jailers freed him, and he left Rochester “with quick dispatch” for Bristol, leaving his heir, William, with Stephen at Winchester as surety for the Queen’s release. As soon as he arrived, on 4 November, he liberated Queen Matilda and the two princes, and on their return to Winchester, William was set at liberty. Earl Robert exchanged brief courtesies with Stephen, telling him that he had opposed him only on a matter of principle,17 then the King was welcomed by a throng of supporters with “cries of rejoicing and exultation that he was restored to them unharmed.”18

  The Empress, who had now “recovered her health,” retreated to Oxford with “a strong body of soldiers,”19 and there she “fixed her residence and held her court.” Robert joined her. “Leaving his property and his castles, he continued unceasingly near her.”20 By entrenching herself at Oxford, where she had once been victorious, Maud was proclaiming to the world that she had not abandoned hopes of a revival of her cause and was determined to fight on.


  In November, Stephen and Matilda entered London in triumph. She had been tireless in his cause, and he had much for which to be thankful to her. Now, he rewarded her by bestowing that which she wanted more than anything. “In the presence of the magnates, he ceremonially girded with the belt of knighthood his son Eustace, a young man of noble nature, and after most bountifully endowing him with lands and possessions, and giving him the special distinction of a most splendid retinue of knights, advanced him in rank to the dignity of count of Boulogne.”21

  Many of the clergy had willingly reverted to their allegiance to the King, although Bishop Henry now had some explaining to do. On 7 December, as Papal legate, he assembled a council at Westminster, which hastily concluded that Stephen was the rightful King after all, and that anyone who had sworn fealty to Maud was not bound by his oath.22

  Maud sent one layman to the council, who openly forbade the Bishop, “by the faith he had pledged to her, to ordain anything in that council repugnant to her honour.” He pointed out that Henry had sworn not to assist her against his brother; that her coming to England had been effected by the Bishop’s frequent letters; and that her taking the King and holding him in captivity had been done “principally by his connivance.” Maud’s advocate stressed this “with great harshness of language, by no means sparing the legate,” but the Bishop “could not be prevailed upon, by any forces of argument, to lay aside his animosity.”23

  Henry protested that he had supported “the Countess of Anjou” against his will. “In truth he had received her, not from inclination, but compulsion, for that she had surrendered Winchester with her party, that she had obstinately persevered in breaking every promise she had made pertaining to the right of the Church, and that he had it from unquestionable authority that she and her partisans not only had designed on his dignity, but even on his life.” Thankfully, “God, in His mercy, had caused matters to fall out contrary to her hopes, so that he might avoid destruction himself and rescue his brother from bondage.”24 He was exaggerating, of course, for he had been in league with Maud before she invaded England, and there is no evidence for a plot on his life. But he had much at stake, and was determined to protect his interests at all costs. Not for nothing did Bernard of Clairvaux, one of the towering religious figures of the twelfth century, call Henry “the man who walks behind Satan, the son of perdition, the man who disrupts all rights and laws.”

  The Bishop called on everyone present to swear fealty to Stephen, and warned that Maud and those who had “disturbed the peace” in her favor should be excommunicated, since they were in breach of the Pope’s judgments. Thus Maud, “conceiving that she might now perhaps experience some little respite, became again involved in calamity.”25

  At Christmas, as his subjects “rejoiced on recovering their King,” Stephen, “gratefully coming at the Nativity of the Lord together with the Queen and the chief nobles, was crowned on that same holy solemnity in Christ Church [Canterbury Cathedral] by the venerable Theobald; the Queen herself wore a gold crown on her head with him in that place.”26 This makes it clear that this was not just a crown-wearing, but that Stephen had chosen to reassert and reaffirm his authority and sanctity as king by a second coronation. He had a coin struck to mark his restoration; it depicted full-length figures of the King and Queen, in acknowledgment that he owed his crown to Matilda.


  “The Lawful Heir”

  There followed a long period of stasis, possibly because Stephen’s health had been undermined by his long imprisonment. “The respective parties of the Empress and the King conducted themselves with quiet forbearance from Christmas to Lent, anxious rather to preserve their own than to ravage the possessions of others. Lent gave all a respite from war.”1 At Canterbury, the Queen issued a charter to Geoffrey de Mandeville, granting that he could retain all that the Empress had bestowed on him as long as he remained loyal to Stephen.2 From Oxford, Maud issued a charter to St. Benet’s Abbey at Holme, Norfolk.

  In the new year of 1142, further attempts were made to wean Earl Robert from the Empress’s cause, but he remained loyal to her, affirming “that it was neither reasonable nor natural that he should desert his sister, whose cause he had justly espoused”; moreover, he had been “enjoined by the Pope to respect the oath he had taken to her in the presence of his father.”3

  In the middle of Lent, a truce was agreed, and Maud and her train moved to Devizes Castle. Some of Stephen’s supporters came seeking her there, offering their alleigiance. At Devizes, she lived on the revenues of the lands that were loyal to her, thanks to the assistance of supportive sheriffs, some of whom she appointed within her western power base. She had coins minted at Bristol and Cardiff. She made grants of royal estates. She granted a charter giving the collegiate chapel of St. George in Oxford Castle to Osney Priory, to which she had already made benefactions in a charter of March 1141.4 She also granted five charters to Godstow Abbey, which she took under her protection. King Stephen and Queen Matilda were also among its benefactors.5

  At Devizes, Maud convened a council of war at which “her secret designs were debated.” Soon it was known that “all her partisans had agreed to send for the Count of Anjou, who was most interested in the defence of the inheritance of his wife and children in England.”6

  Up until now, Geoffrey of Anjou had played no part in English politics, having been busy in Normandy taking advantage of Stephen’s captivity, after which many Norman castles had surrendered to him. He had taken all of Normandy south of the Seine, and breached many of its northern defenses in his inexorable march to conquer it. As Stephen had been in no position to fight back, most of the many English barons who held lands in Normandy had felt it expedient to safeguard their estates by offering allegiance to Geoffrey. Among them was Waleran de Beaumont.7 This augured well for Maud’s cause.

  Taking her supporters’ advice, she dispatched “men of respectability” to Anjou to ask Geoffrey to come to her aid.8


  Although the kingdom was unsettled and there were sporadic skirmishes, after Easter the King and Queen departed on a progress to York,9 where Ranulf, Earl of Chester, made a superficial peace with the King. Stephen was making efforts to reest
ablish his regal authority, but during the Easter holidays he was “detained by an acute disease at Northampton.” It was “so severe that he was reported, almost throughout England, as being at the point of death.”10 He had summoned a great army to attend him at York, but lacked the strength or will to deploy it, and it had to be stood down.

  Had Stephen died then, the crown would almost certainly have been Maud’s, and she would have been prepared for it, for she had been “strengthening and encouraging her garrison to resist the King.” Sending “a great many troops of cavalry to plunder in every direction, she earnestly besought, by letter and message, those who were bound to her by faith and homage to lend their best support to her enterprise.” She “fortified castles in various places, wherever she most conveniently could, some to keep the King’s men more effectively in check, some to give her own more careful protection.” Among them were Woodstock, Radcot, Cirencester and Bampton. “A good many others in different parts of England she allowed her adherents to fortify, the result being a most grievous oppression of the people, a general depopulation of the kingdom, and the sprouting everywhere of seeds of war and strife.”11

  But any rejoicing on the part of Maud and her supporters was premature. Stephen was well on the way to recovery by 7 June,12 and on 23 June the Queen felt able to cross the Channel with Eustace and hold court in her town of Lens, where she had perhaps gone to raise a force of mercenaries. “By the concession and command of my lord, King Stephen, for the good of our souls and our relatives,” she granted a charter “to God and the church of Saint-Nicholas of Arrouaise, which is in the hand of Dom Gervase the Abbot, a religious man and our dear friend, for the use of the abbot and canons fighting for God there.”13


  The “men of respectability” duly returned from Anjou and, on 14 June, saw the Empress in council at Oxford,14 whither she had returned. They told her that her husband “in some measure favoured the mission of the nobility, but that, among them all, he was only well acquainted with the Earl of Gloucester.” If Robert would make a voyage to see him, “he would, as far as he were able, accede to his wishes.” It sounded lukewarm, but Geoffrey had his hands full trying to conquer Normandy for Maud.15

  “The hopes of the assembly thus excited, they entreated that the Earl would condescend to undertake this task on account of the inheritance of his sister and nephews. At first he excused himself.” He was worried that Maud would be endangered by his absence, as those who had nearly deserted her during his captivity could not be relied upon to defend her—and maybe he did not hold out much hope of Geoffrey coming to her aid. But at length he yielded, demanding that hostages accompany him to Normandy, and insisting “that all continuing at Oxford should unite in defending the Empress from injury to the utmost while he was absent. His propositions were eagerly approved, and hostages given to him to be conducted into Normandy.”16

  That June, Maud tried to win back Geoffrey de Mandeville to her cause. She saw him in Oxford, where he obtained from her charters in favor of himself and his brother-in-law, Aubrey de Vere. She promised him Stortford Castle if Robert de Sigello, Bishop of London, could be persuaded to exchange it for another castle, while Aubrey was to have Colchester Castle, Maud declared, “as soon as I am able to grab hold of it.”17 These charters proved worthless. The castles of Stortford and Colchester were strategically placed for another descent on London, but Maud’s power did not extend to Essex, where they were situated. It was at this time that she bestowed the earldom of Oxford on Aubrey de Vere. Mandeville was merely keeping his options open, while remaining—outwardly at least—on Stephen’s side.

  Later in June, Earl Robert bade farewell to his sister at Oxford Castle and marched to Wareham, Dorset, whence he sailed for Normandy, arriving on 24 June and making for Caen.18 Stephen immediately raised another army to burn and blockade Wareham to prevent Robert’s return, then, having heard of Maud’s mustering of her supporters and their depredations, “vigorously and boldly he shook himself out of sluggish inaction” and with a large force took back the castles of Cirencester, Bampton and Radcot.19 That accomplished, taking advantage of Robert’s absence, he marched on Oxford.


  At Caen, Robert met up with Count Geoffrey, who came to the meeting “without reluctance, but stated his difficulties, and those not a few,” chiefly that he would be prevented from coming to England “by the rebellion of many castles in Normandy.” This rebellion was to delay Robert’s return longer than he had intended, “for, that he might deprive the Count of Anjou of every excuse, he assisted him in subduing ten castles in Normandy. Yet, even by this activity, he furthered the end of his mission but little.” Geoffrey “stated fresh causes, as the former were done away with,” to excuse his coming into England. However, he did furnish Robert with a company of “knights ready for action” and, “as a very singular favour, he permitted his eldest son by the Empress to accompany his uncle to England, by whose presence the chiefs might be encouraged to defend the cause of the lawful heir.”20 The timely appearance of young Henry FitzEmpress would remind people in England that the right line of Henry I would be continued in Maud’s son.

  Already it is clear that Geoffrey had come to regard the fight for the English crown as his son’s rather than his wife’s. This, still, was not how Maud saw it. Her cause was effectively lost, but she could not accept it. All her acts hitherto had been those of a queen regnant, while a charter she issued that year to Bordesley Abbey, Worcestershire, was headed: “Maud, Empress, daughter of King Henry and Lady of the English, to the archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, justices, sheriffs and all the faithful of England…”21

  Geoffrey’s inability to come to her aid was another factor that undermined Maud’s cause. Had the barons seen her husband at the head of her forces, a man with whom they could deal on men’s terms, her campaign might have been immeasurably boosted, especially since her opponents regarded and disparaged her followers as effeminate lightweights whose chief aim was “wanton delights rather than resolution of mind.”22 Maud may have alienated many barons because she acted independently of her husband, although she had little choice in the matter. In the eyes of male contemporaries, she had behaved in an imperious, unwomanly fashion, while at the same time manifesting the weaknesses of her sex. Queen Matilda, on the other hand, had shown herself as tough and thrusting as Maud, and men had praised her “manly courage,”23 yet she had retained support because she had acted in Stephen’s name, and won sympathy because she had had to act alone while he was imprisoned.24


  “One of God’s Manifest Miracles”

  The Empress had spent the summer entrenched at Oxford with her diminished court,1 attended by the faithful Brian FitzCount, Miles FitzWalter, John the Marshal and his brother William, who was serving as her chancellor. Oxford was “a city very securely protected, inaccessible because of the very deep water that washes it all around, most carefully encircled by the palisade of an outwork on one side, and on another finely and very strongly fortified by an impregnable castle and a tower of great height.” But on 16 September, “behold, the King approached with a large and well-trained army, and appeared suddenly on the other side of the river [Thames].”2 The shock of seeing him there must have been great.

  Yet Maud had with her “a magnificent body of troops” and “felt excessive confidence in herself and her men because the castle and all the country around were under her authority; and also because of the impregnable fortifications of the place.”3

  Stephen camped before the castle for ten days, “seeking the Empress’s surrender rather than that of the town.”4 Maud’s soldiers jeered at him and the royal army, using “insulting language, and some were doing grievous harm to his men from the other side of the river by vigorous archery.” But on 26 September, being shown a deep ford across Castle Mill Stream, Stephen swam across, “plunging in the foremost” and compelling his men to follow. Dripping wet, he and his forces “charged the enemy.” Pushing t
hem back to the city gates, he attacked, prompting them to flee into Oxford, leaving the gates wide open. The King’s men surged in “without resistance,” threw torches into the houses and fired the town,5 blocking any chance of escape and forcing Maud to shut herself up in the castle “with all her domestic goods” and her household troops.6

  “With determined resolution,”7 Stephen now laid the castle under siege, “thinking he could easily put an end to the strife in the kingdom if he forcibly overcame her through whom it began to be at strife.” He posted vigilant guards in strategic vantage points, to watch the approaches closely “night and day.”8 He made it known that “no hope of advantage or fear of loss should induce him to depart till the castle was delivered up and the Empress surrendered to his power.”9 He would not let her go free as he had at Arundel.

  Meanwhile, Brian FitzCount and all the other nobles of Maud’s party, “ashamed at being absent from their sovereign in violation of their compact” with Earl Robert, “assembled in large bodies at Wallingford with the determination of attacking the King, if he would risk a battle in the open plain; but they had no intention of assailing him within the city, as the Earl of Gloucester had so fortified it with ditches that it appeared impregnable, unless by fire.”10 What they were hoping to do was rescue Maud.

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