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


  Queen Matilda had remained in Boulogne and its environs. It was probably in the autumn of 1142 that she was reunited with Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux at the Cistercian abbey of Clairmarais, near Saint-Omer, which she and Stephen had perhaps co-founded with Thierry of Alsace, Count of Flanders, and his wife, Sybilla of Anjou, after Thierry returned from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1139.11 Matilda had insisted that this abbey was to be as much her foundation as the King’s, and Stephen confirmed that.12

  As soon as Matilda arrived back in England, in the autumn of 1142, she was plunged again into the turmoil of the civil war. Stephen needed reinforcements at Oxford, and it was her task to raise them from her own tenantry. Having risen to the occasion with her usual efficiency, she arrived in Oxford “with all her forces” to assist the King. But blockading the castle was proving no easy enterprise. Maud and her small garrison were holding out. The siege lasted just over two months, from Michaelmas to Advent. By then, since “food and every means of sustaining life were almost exhausted in the castle, and the King was toiling with spirit to reduce it by force and siege engines,” Maud was very hard-pressed and “altogether hopeless that help would come.”13


  Hearing of Maud’s plight, Robert had hastened his return from Normandy, accompanied by Henry FitzEmpress and between three thousand and four thousand men assigned to him by Geoffrey. He had stormed into Wareham and seized it, and on 29 November, at the beginning of Advent, he “summoned the whole of Maud’s partisans to Cirencester, where all resolved to afford their sovereign every possible assistance.” It was decided that they should march on Oxford to “give the King battle, unless he retreated.” But on the way, at the beginning of December, they received “pleasing” news.14

  Maud had escaped, pulling off what Henry of Huntingdon disparagingly described as “a woman’s trick”; but, as William of Malmesbury observed, “necessity discovers means and ministers courage.” “Very hard-pressed as she was, and altogether hopeless that help would come, she left the castle by night,” with only three or four “knights of ripe judgement to accompany her.”15 William of Malmesbury thought her escape “one of God’s manifest miracles.”16 “Deceiving the eyes of the besiegers” by “wearing white garments”17 to camouflage themselves against the blizzard, she and her escort were let down from St. George’s Tower by ropes.18 It was an “evident sign of a miracle”19 that she had managed to “trick the besiegers’ eyes in the dazzle of the snow.”20

  “Unhindered and unharmed,” Maud walked out of the castle through a small postern and “crossed, dry-footed, without wetting her clothes at all, the very waters that had risen above the heads of the King and his men,” which had frozen over. She and her companions got past the King’s pickets,21 who were everywhere, and “breaking the silence of the night with the blaring of trumpeters or the cries of men shouting loudly”;22 “but no one was any the wiser except for one man on the King’s side who knew of her escape and was the only person to betray it.”23 She may have bribed him to keep quiet until she had gotten away, following the course of Castle Mill Stream south to the Thames.

  By the time the alarm was raised, Maud was stealthily proceeding on foot across the “very thick crust of ice” on the River Thames.24 Even the disapproving author of the Gesta Stephani was impressed: “I do not know whether it was to heighten the greatness of her fame in time to come, or by God’s judgment to increase more vehemently the disturbance of the kingdom, but never have I read of another woman so luckily rescued from so many mortal foes and from the threat of dangers so great.”

  Stephen, fortunately, was not a vindictive man. When he learned of Maud’s escape, he let the castle garrison leave unmolested. Oxford was his, and he now “exercised absolute authority over a very wide tract of country in that region.”25

  In the bitter cold, Maud walked the nine miles to Abingdon,26 “by very great exertions on the part of herself and her companions, through the snow and ice, for all the ground was white with an extremely heavy fall of snow.” At Abingdon she acquired horses and rode for Wallingford,27 and “by very great effort reached the town during the night,” unharmed.28 The author of the Gesta Stephani was amazed by Maud’s luck. “She went from the castle of Arundel uninjured through the midst of her enemies, and escaped without scathe from the midst of the Londoners when they were assailing her in mighty wrath, then stole away alone in wondrous fashion from the rout of Winchester, when almost all her men were cut off; and then, when she left besieged Oxford, came away safe and sound.”

  At Wallingford Castle Brian FitzCount readily gave her shelter, and Earl Robert joined her there with her nine-year-old son, Henry FitzEmpress, from whom she had been parted for three years. At the sight of him, “she was so greatly comforted that she could forget all her troubles and mortifications for the joy she had of his presence.”29 But their time together was brief. For Henry’s safety, she felt it necessary to send him to Robert’s city of Bristol, where he would be secure in his uncle’s household and continue his military training and education under Robert’s captains and a new tutor, Master Matthew, who may have been Maud’s chancellor. Under his auspices, and possibly at St. Augustine’s Abbey in the city,30 Henry learned Latin and gained a working knowledge of “all the tongues used from the French sea to the Jordan.”31 The boy also met Adelard of Bath, who dedicated his work On the Astrolabe to him around this time.32 In Henry rested all Maud’s hopes for the future. If she could not win the crown for herself, she would continue her fight to ensure that it passed to him, so that the line of King Henry might be restored.


  “Wretchedness and Oppression”

  Soon afterward, the Empress moved to Devizes Castle, and made it her headquarters.1 Here she established her court, presided over by her chamberlain, Drogo of Polwhele.2 Occasionally, her son Henry visited her there and witnessed her charters, at least one of which was addressed to her faithful subjects,3 showing that she was still aiming for the throne, even though she had her supporters pay homage to Henry as her heir.

  There was some cause for optimism. At this time, many fortresses were still held for her: Chester, Stafford, Tamworth, Dudley, Worcester, Hereford, Abergavenny, Monmouth, Cardiff, Bristol, Gloucester, Cirencester, Marlborough, Trowbridge, Ludgershall, Salisbury, Wallingford, Lincoln, Framlingham, Orford, Bungay, Ramsey and Ely. The castles that were forcibly surrendered to her in 1142–43 were Bath, Wells, Glastonbury, Castle Cary, Taunton, Sherborne, Barnstaple, Dunster, Wilton, Lulworth and Wareham, which provided her with a base for good connections with Normandy and blocked Stephen’s links with the West Country.

  Maud’s power base, therefore, still lay mainly in the west, with a few strongholds elsewhere. With this strength behind her, she saw no reason to give up, and neither did the barons, who had been emboldened and empowered by the civil war, and had a vested interest in prolonging it. The conflict dragged on as a war of attrition, with no end in sight.


  In the next few years, “England began to be troubled in many different ways: on the one hand to be very hard-pressed by the King and his supporters, and on the other to be most violently afflicted by the Earl of Gloucester—but always and everywhere to be in a turmoil and reduced to a desert.” Those that could fled overseas. Others “lived in fear and suffering,” enduring the effects of widespread famine. Villages stood abandoned, harvests went ungathered. Lawless mercenaries whose employers could no longer afford to pay them, and foreign freebooters, committed outrages on the poor, robbing, pillaging and murdering at will. The author of the Gesta Stephani deplored the fact that this “utterly shameful tragedy of woe” was being openly performed all over England. Even the bishops did not dare to “set themselves up as a wall before the House of Israel.” He meant, of course, the chosen of God, or the House of Blois. Many of the predators shut themselves up in their castles with provisions and stocks of arms; others joined the destroyers. “All England was wearing a look of sorrow and mis
fortune, an aspect of wretchedness and oppression.”4

  Queen Matilda’s charters show that, for the five years after her return to England in 1142, she was based chiefly in and around London, keeping a watchful finger on the pulse of affairs, and dealing with state business while Stephen was occupied elsewhere.5 She may even have controlled revenues from the Exchequer,6 which at this time was not yet established at Westminster.

  From 1143, Maud was based mainly at Devizes, Gloucester or Bristol. Her chief mainstay was her brother. Brian FitzCount remained loyal too, and in 1143, in retaliation for Bishop Henry accusing him of looking only to his own interests, he wrote a sharp letter haranguing the Bishop on his own inconsistent loyalties: “Even you yourself, who are a prelate of Holy Church, have ordered me to adhere to the daughter of King Henry, your uncle, and to help her acquire that which is hers by right, but has been taken from her by force, and to retain what she already has,” he reminded him. “Be assured that neither I nor my men have done this for money or fee, but only because of your command and for my honour and that of my men.” Bishop Henry had enjoined him to remember the fate of Lot’s wife and not look back to the oath he had made to Maud, but he retorted, “As for Lot and his wife, I never saw them nor knew them, nor their city, nor were they alive at the same time.”7

  Stephen was now doing his best to regain control of Wiltshire and Dorset, but on 1 July 1143, he and Bishop Henry were routed by Earl Robert’s forces near Wilton, which fell to the Empress, leaving the King vulnerable. Yet while Robert still controlled the territory west of Winchester, Maud lacked the power to make decisive inroads on the King’s supremacy in the east of the kingdom, where he ruled effectively; her support base was too widely scattered, and she had too few men at her command. It was a bitter blow when Miles FitzWalter was killed in a hunting accident on 24 December 1143. Her cause was irrevocably lost, but still she would not give up.

  Her lack of resources became evident when a quarrel erupted between Bishop Henry and William de Pont de l’Arche, who had held Winchester Castle and the royal treasury for the King, but deserted to Maud in 1141. William appealed to Maud for aid, but she could send only a small troop led by a mercenary, Robert FitzHildebrand, who took the castle, put William in chains and seduced his wife, then promptly went over to Bishop Henry and the King.


  By 1143, Geoffrey de Mandeville’s power had become insupportable, and a threat to the King. He had those regions that were loyal to Stephen so firmly under his control “that everywhere in the kingdom he took the King’s place, and was listened to more eagerly than the King, and received more obedience when he gave orders.” Many resented this, complaining that Mandeville “had cunningly appropriated all the royal prerogatives,” and it was “commonly reported that he had determined to bestow the kingdom” on the Empress. His detractors urged the King to proceed against him as a traitor. Their persuasions took root, for Stephen had come to fear Mandeville, and how his ambition threatened the Queen’s honor of Boulogne, and he had probably not forgotten the unlawful imprisonment of his daughter-in-law Constance in 1141. Yet it was some time before he was stirred to action.8 Finally, at Michaelmas 1143, he had Mandeville arrested.

  Charged with treason, Mandeville was forced to surrender the Tower and his other castles to the Crown in exchange for being spared the noose and set at liberty. He stalked out of the court “like a vicious and riderless horse, kicking and biting.” Then, “savage and turbulent as he was, he set the whole kingdom more at variance,” and took up arms against the King. With his followers, he resorted to terrorizing and plundering Cambridge and the fenland around Ely, “raging everywhere with fire and sword,” seizing Ramsey Abbey and ejecting the monks, so that he could fortify it and use it as his headquarters. Despite modern attempts to overturn his sinister reputation, the chronicle evidence is clear. He spared no one. “Fevered with a thirst for brutality that could not be slaked,” he committed everywhere acts of “refined cruelty.”9 Soon tales of his atrocities spread. They may have been the basis of the descriptions of the tortures inflicted during the Anarchy written by the Anglo-Saxon chronicler at Peterborough, who was well placed to testify to the Earl’s reign of terror.

  The King declared Mandeville an outlaw and laid siege to Ramsey, but to little effect. Mandeville’s depredations were only halted when he received a fatal arrow wound while besieging Burwell, Cambridgeshire. He died excommunicate on 16 September 1144, and was initially refused Christian burial. It was not until twenty years later that the Knights Templar permitted the interment of his remains in their round church in London, where his effigy, clad in a forbidding helm and chain mail and placed there by his son, still survives today. That son, also Geoffrey, remained faithful to Maud, who recognized him as earl of Essex after his father’s death.


  “A New Light Had Dawned”

  Rouen fell to Geoffrey in January 1144. He had now conquered the duchy in its entirety, and from 19 January he was styled duke of Normandy in right of his wife. Louis VII recognized his title, and on 23 April, Geoffrey was invested as duke in Rouen Cathedral. He was suddenly “popular with all for accomplishing the acquisition of Normandy,”1 but he was to rule it chiefly as a caretaker for his son, to whom Normandy would descend when the Empress died. In March, young Henry returned to his father’s household at Angers, where he would complete his education under the French humanist scholar William of Conches, who praised Geoffrey for encouraging his sons, from their infancy, in the study of letters rather than dice, and for instilling in Henry an enduring love of learning.2 It was Geoffrey’s intention that Henry would “succeed me in the governance of my land of Normandy,”3 and to that end he began to involve his son in the practical administration of the duchy.4

  Geoffrey’s conquest of Normandy was beneficial to Maud and gave a boost to her cause, for the many English barons who held lands in Normandy were now bound to her as their feudal overlord. If they abandoned her, they risked losing their fiefs. But in 1145, Fortune’s wheel turned again, when Stephen scored a victory over the Empress at the Battle of Faringdon, Gloucestershire, which enabled him to cut off communications between her at Wallingford and Earl Robert at Gloucester. Yet still the land remained irrevocably divided, with neither side having the strength to overcome the other. And thus, it seemed, the civil war and all its attendant miseries would go on and on until one of the protagonists died.

  By now

  there was universal turmoil and desolation. Some, for whom their country had lost its charms, chose rather to make their abode in foreign lands. Others drew to the churches for protection and, constructing mean hovels in their precincts, passed their days in fear and trouble. Food being scarce, there was a dreadful famine throughout England. Some of the people disgustingly devoured the flesh of dogs and horses; others appeased their insatiable hunger with the garbage of uncooked herbs and roots.

  There were seen famous cities deserted and depopulated by the death of the inhabitants of every age and sex, and fields ripe for the harvest, but none to gather it, all having been struck down by the famine. Thus the whole aspect of England presented a scene of calamity and sorrow, misery and oppression. These unhappy spectacles, these lamentable tragedies, were common throughout England. The kingdom, which was once the abode of joy, tranquillity and peace, was everywhere changed into a seat of war and slaughter, devastation and woe.5

  Maud seemed impervious to the havoc that civil war had wrought. She was resolved to fight to the bitter end. That year, hostilities were largely confined to the west, as she made increasingly desperate attempts to retake Malmesbury with forces commanded by William Peverell of Dover and Earl Robert’s fourth son, Philip. William Peverell was a follower of Earl Robert and “a man crafty and bold in warfare.” In subduing the lands of the Thames Valley, and at Malmesbury, he and his mercenaries had “committed the cruellest excesses on the King’s adherents.”

  It was William Peverell who, during a skirmish, captured Walter de P
inkney, the royalist constable of Malmesbury, and delivered him up to the Empress. Apparently a war of attrition had been waged between Maud and Walter, for Maud, “having got possession of the man whom she hated more unrelentingly than any of her opponents, sometimes cajoled him, mingling endearments with her words, and sometimes uttered threats of torture and death if he did not deliver up to her the castle of Malmesbury; but he, most resolutely resisting all she said, could neither be weakened in any degree by the woman’s coaxing allurements, nor induced to hand over the castle, though repeatedly assailed with threats. Indeed, he could not have handed it over because his comrades in the King’s service, who had withdrawn into the castle when he was taken, would certainly not have agreed, and the King arrived at once, on hearing of Walter’s capture, put in reinforcements and a large supply of food, then went away to other tasks.”

  Thwarted, Maud “burnt with one emotion” toward Walter, “that of cruelty, and after fettering him very tightly, delivered him to torment in a filthy dungeon.”6 She could not execute him, for he was a friend of Miles FitzWalter’s son Roger FitzMiles, who had succeeded him as earl of Hereford; so she contented herself with imprisoning him for a year. In December 1145, overcome with remorse for his part in Walter’s fate, William Peverell answered the Pope’s call for a second crusade, to expiate his sin.7 He died in the Holy Land in 1147–48, just one of a number of Maud’s supporters who abandoned her to go on crusade.

  Before he left, William Peverell had taken Cricklade Castle, and Maud installed Philip of Gloucester there with a strong body of troops. Philip, unlike his father, was “a man of strife, supreme in savagery, daring in what should not be dared, in fact a perfect master of every kind of wickedness.” He “raged most furiously” against the King’s men in the region, fought battles, pillaged and burned, and plundered Church property. This “burdensome and unendurable” man frequently had the advantage, for he got aid from his father and Maud’s supporters. But, seeing that the King had the upper hand in the war, Philip went over to Stephen, and was rewarded with lands and castles.8 His desertion was a crushing blow to Maud and his father, as was the defection of Ranulf de Gernon, Earl of Chester, through the possible mediation of Philip, in 1145–46.

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