Part III

The Middle Ages

In this part . . .

Historians have different ways of defining the Middle Ages, but this book uses the term for the years 1066-1485. This period was a time when monarchs were incredibly powerful - as well as lording it over England, most kings in this period also ruled lands in France. Having such a large kingdom made them rich and strong. But in an era when fast communications usually meant galloping for days on horseback, keeping control of such vast territory was hard, and many rulers of the Middle Ages had to fight for their thrones - and fight on to keep their crowns. So the Middle Ages was a period when kings were occupied with warfare, often for decades at a time.

Chapter 6

Conquering Kings

In This Chapter

● Discovering how the Normans took over England

● Checking out their use of the feudal system to keep the peace and provide help in wartime

● Understanding how they invented ways of raising and accounting for royal revenue

● Revealing dynastic squabbles

In 1066, a new ruling family arrived in England: the Normans. As their name suggests, the Normans came from Normandy, in northern France.

But the Normans were originally Norsemen - their ancestors were Vikings, Scandinavians from northern Europe, who had settled in France in the early tenth century. When they took over England, the Normans kept their long history of links with France, so for hundreds of years, kings of England also ruled territories across the Channel.

The kings of the Norman dynasty ruled from 1066, when William of Normandy conquered England and became William I, for nearly a century until the death of King Stephen in 1154. The 11th and 12th centuries seem remote, but historians can still find their legacy today. Several cathedrals and many castles were built by Norman churchmen and knights who owed their power to England’s rulers from northern France.

Conqueror: William 1

William I was born in 1027 or 1028 in Falaise, northern France, the illegitimate son of Robert, Duke of Normandy, and he had to go through his early life putting up with the nickname William the Bastard. His mother was a woman called Herleva. Not much is known about Herleva, but she came of a lowly family - she was probably the daughter of a tradesman, perhaps a tanner or an undertaker, from Falaise.

In most ducal or royal families, not much more would have been heard of the duke’s illegitimate son born of a woman from the lower classes. But William was lucky. There was no hooray Henry in the ducal castle to kick him out - he was his father’s only son. William was helped by Norman custom, too. The Dukedom did not automatically pass through the legitimate family. Dukes of Normandy usually made a formal announcement naming their chosen heir.

So when in 1035, Duke Robert went off on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, he announced that young William would be the next duke. And then, while on pilgrimage, Robert died, leaving young William as ruler of one of the most powerful dukedoms in northern Europe.

One in the eye: The Battle of Hastings

William grew up tall, strong, and powerful - but also greedy for more power. And from 1051, he had his eye firmly on England. What seems to have happened in 1051 was that the English king, Edward the Confessor, promised that William should take over England when Edward died. But the trouble was that just before Edward’s actual death in January 1066, he named his brother-in-law Harold Godwinson as his heir, putting the kibosh on William’s chances. (See Chapter 5 for the scoop.)

William decided he had reason enough to sail to England and fight for ‘his’ kingdom. But he also knew that Harold had a good claim to be king of England, too. William felt the need of a powerful ally, one who could claim the moral high ground. He sent a mission off to the Pope, asking for the church’s backing for his assault on England. He got God on his side, and the moral ground doesn’t get any higher than that.

Battle royal

In the summer of 1066, William gathered a fleet of ships, an army, and supplies, and on the night of 27 September, they crossed the Channel and landed the following morning at Pevensey. William’s timing was perfect. Harold was up north, at Stamford Bridge, fighting another invader, Harald Hardrada of Norway. The Englishman came out on top in this battle of the Harolds, but his army was exhausted by the time it had marched south to confront William.

The two forces lined up in Sussex near the site of the modern town imaginatively known as Battle and slogged it out for a whole day. By the afternoon, Harold’s troops were looking the worse for wear. He had rushed down from Stamford Bridge with only infantrymen, and William’s Norman archers were proving too much for them. Then one of the Norman bowmen took the biggest prize - he landed an arrow right in Harold’s eye.

With their leader gone and their spirits flagging, the English were soon defeated, and William took off on a march around the South East. As he went, most of the local nobles pledged their loyalty. The churchmen, remembering that the Pope was on William’s side, gave their support, too.

Coronation conflagration

On Christmas Day 1066, William was crowned king in Westminster Abbey. William obviously had an eye for a good date. He liked ceremonies and symbols, and a Christmas coronation must have been a symbol of the moral high ground he wanted to occupy.

But everything nearly went pear-shaped. When the people in the abbey began to shout in triumph, the guards outside thought the noisy nobles were trying to start a rebellion. In panic, the guards started setting fire to the houses near the abbey, and when the church started to fill up with smoke, most of the congregation dashed outside to see what was happening. Only a few churchmen stayed inside with William, and they got the crown on the new king’s head as quickly as they could. Riot or no riot, William was crowned.

The feudal system

William controlled his new kingdom by using the feudal system, a method of allocating power through the occupation of land. It worked in a social hierarchy with the king at the top and was really quite simple:

● As king, William owned all the land in England. Some of it he kept for himself, but most he allocated to noblemen (his tenants-in-chief).

The tenants-in-chief held their portion of land in return for providing men to fight for the king in times of war. The tenants-in-chief could in turn allocate some of their land to subtenants.

The subtenants were lesser lords who contributed their share of men to fight for the king. And these lesser lords could parcel out much of their land to peasants.

The peasants farmed the land and gave their lord produce and services as rent.

The feudal system helped William spread his power across the whole country - any trouble, and a tenant could be booted off his land. The system also helped keep the peace, because each lord was supposed to maintain law and order throughout the land he held. Conversely, the system also gave the king access to an army when he needed it. The lords built castles where they could live and where their soldiers could be based. These castles could then become royal bases in times of war or trouble.

It was a clever system, and, as far as the king was concerned, it worked, provided that the nobles did not get too powerful and challenge royal power. William guarded against this fear by giving each noble scattered portions of land in different parts of the country, to stop them from building up big local power bases that could challenge the king.

Jobs for the boys

Not everyone took William’s domination lying down. By turning up with his archers, castles, and feudal rule, William had made enemies, big time, amongst some of the English nobles, especially those in the North and Midlands, away from the conqueror’s heartland around London. Some of these lords staged revolts, and in the first few years of his reign, William was busy putting down rebels.

Two prominent nobles who wanted William removed from the throne were Morcar, Earl of Northumbria, and his brother, Edwin, Earl of Mercia. They staged a revolt, which William ruthlessly put down. After the defeat, William took away the lands belonging to their families and gave them to new Norman tenants who would stay loyal. Soon, most of England was occupied by Norman tenants-in-chief. The English aristocracy was becoming more and more Norman.

Putting your friends in high places was one way of keeping control. William had two other tactics for bolstering his power.

● Power tactic No. 1: Scorch the earth

William kept up the pressure on would-be rebels and their supporters. He had a cruel streak, and putting on pressure came naturally to him. In 1069-70, some people in Northumbria staged a rebellion, so William moved quickly to put it down.

But just defeating the rebels wasn’t enough for this conquering king. William embarked on a ruthless, scorched-earth campaign in northern England. It was enough to make the Northumbrians squirm. He destroyed villages, ransacked farms, killed anyone in his path, and left most of the survivors as refugees. Large parts of the North became waste land, and some estimates put the deaths as high as 100,000. In modern terms, William’s policy of murder and pillaging looks like a serious war crime. But the Normans didn’t see things in modern terms. William was simply showing who was in charge.

William had other military campaigns, too. He put down rebels in the West of England, on the border of Wales, and in East Anglia, where a lord known as Hereward the Wake put up a strong resistance to William but was finally crushed in 1071.

● Power tactic No. 2: Work with the church

Ever since he got the Pope’s backing for his English invasion, William had understood the importance and power of the church. So he used his influence to get Norman abbots and bishops appointed to English monasteries and cathedrals.

Hereward the Wake

Hereward (no one knows why he became known as 'the Wake') became an English hero, but he was no saint. A Lincolnshire lord with a hatred of the Normans, he robbed the abbey at Peterborough to pay for a military campaign against William in the low-lying fenlands of eastern England. Many of his friends soon threw in the towel and accepted William's kingship, but Hereward and a few followers refused to give in and holed up amongst the marshes on the Isle of Ely. The Normans surrounded the island, but Hereward would not surrender, even when his food ran out and he had to grub around for roots to eat. Finally, William forced his way on to the island via a secret route shown to him by some local monks, and one more rebellion was defeated.

William’s most powerful friend in the church was not actually a Norman at all, but an Italian with Norman connections. The churchman Lanfranc had been abbot of a monastery that William had founded at Caen in Normandy. He became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1070. At that time, England’s two archbishops - York and Canterbury - were seen as equals, but Lanfranc quickly turned Canterbury into the headquarters of the English church. Lanfranc transformed the church in England:

● He oversaw the appointment of many Normans and Frenchmen as bishops and abbots in England.

● He reorganised the bishoprics, moving some of them to more important towns.

● He presided over a period of frantic church-and cathedral-building.

These changes to the church added up to increased Norman influence and another success in the conquering king’s search for power.

Domesday Book

By the 1080s, William was a success. He had grabbed control of England, and with plenty of Normans in high places, things seemed likely to stay that way. But William wasn’t finished yet. He was in power, but, in the days before fast communications and detailed record-keeping, William didn’t know exactly who held which land - which was a problem when it came to knowing who to tax.

When William’s court met at Gloucester to celebrate Christmas in 1085, William did something no European ruler had done before. He commissioned a thorough survey of the whole country, sending officials to check out every manor in detail. The result was Domesday Book, an extraordinary account of England in 1086.

Domesday Book was not perfect. Some counties weren’t covered, and some were recorded in more detail than others. But it included a huge amount of information, showing:

Who had held each manor before the conquest

Who held it now

How much income it would bring in

How many animals or ploughs were there

Whether it included pasture or woodland

Where the mills and fishponds were

Domesday Book was an awesome tool for government and taxation and shows that William’s rule was not simply ruthless and violent - it was efficient as well.

A sticky end

By 1086, William had a good grip on his kingdom and had cause to be pleased with his achievements. But in the following years, trouble developed in Normandy. French king Philip I had invaded the southern part of the Duchy, and William, by now older and fatter than he had been when he conquered England some 20 years before, dashed across the Channel to defend his lands.

William threw himself into the fighting at a town called Mantes, but was hurled forward on to the pommel of his saddle. Badly wounded, he realised that he might be dying and quickly announced that if he perished, his son Robert should be Duke of Normandy while his second son, William, should take the English throne. It was a wise move, because William I died of his wounds shortly afterward.

William’s funeral was a bizarre affair. The king’s body, now seriously overweight, could hardly be squeezed into the coffin, and by the time of the burial, it had burst open, causing an appalling stench in the church. It was a sad end for such an ambitious ruler.

Ruthless Rufus: William II

William I was survived by three sons. The eldest, Robert Curthose (the medieval equivalent of Robert Short-Arse), inherited the Duchy of Normandy, while the second, William, became king of England. The youngest, Henry, was given a small fortune of £5,000 and told to make his own way, which he did by buying some lands in Normandy from Robert and settling down as his brother’s neighbour and ally.

By dividing his lands between Robert and William in this way, the Conqueror was doing the usual Norman thing. According to Norman custom, you left your first son the main family lands, but if you conquered any extra land, it went to your other male offspring. In 1087, a second William was on the English throne.

This second William was very different from his father. He looked different, being short and rather podgy, and had a red face and red hair that turned blond as he got older, plus a fiery temper to go with it. Because of his appearance and temper, a famous 12th-century historian, Orderic Vitalis, gave him the nickname Rufus, which has stuck.

William’s character was as colourful as his complexion. He loved chivalry and was always rushing around recruiting knights. He was addicted to the latest fashions and had a pair of rams-horn shoes that narrowed and curved into such a long point that it was hard to put one foot in front of another. His language was extreme, too. If the royal court had had a swear box, it would always have been full during Rufus’s reign, and the king was continuously shocking visiting churchmen with his foul language and love of blaspheming. Some clerics talked of loose morals at William’s court, too. Rufus never married and may have been gay, although historians have no way of knowing for sure.

Money-making schemes

William’s love of show did not stop with fine clothes. He was also a great builder. Two of his pet projects were Westminster Hall (a vast chamber at the heart of the Palace of Westminster), which was used for royal court sittings and ceremonies. Although much altered, this awesome hall still survives as part of London’s Houses of Parliament. The king’s other architectural achievement was to finish off the White Tower, the big keep in the middle of the Tower of London, a project begun by his father.

All this building cost money, as did the king’s military exploits. William had to put down a rebellion in the South East of England before embarking on a series of campaigns designed to strengthen his borders with Wales and Scotland. It was an expensive business, and William, together with his hated justiciar, Ranulf Flambard, came up with some cunning schemes to swell the royal treasury:

● Money-maker No. 1 - The church: According to Norman law, the crown could take income from vacant church posts, so when Lanfranc, the old Archbishop of Canterbury, died, William used his influence to keep the post unfilled so that he could siphon off church revenue into the royal treasury. William was merciless in milking the church. Some accounts tell of churches that had to give up their precious altar candlesticks and chalices so that they could pay up.

Money-maker No. 2 - The barons: William squeezed the barons, too. Under the feudal system, a kind of inheritance tax was paid on the death of the king’s tenants-in-chief. William the Conqueror had only taken this tax if it was clear that the baron concerned had plenty of cash. But William Rufus and Ranulf Flambard extorted it mercilessly.

Money-maker No. 3 - Royal wards: Children and young people who were left as orphans often became wards of the king. He was meant to look after their interests and manage their estates until they came of age. William saw this responsibility as an opportunity to grab more cash for his coffers. Many was the royal ward who came of age to find his estate gone to rack and ruin, with assets sold off. Young heiresses could have an even worse time, married off to William’s cronies into the bargain. It was a bad time to be young and unprotected.

Money-maker No. 4 - Spongeing: William Rufus had a large court, made up of hundreds of people who travelled around the country with him. When the king travelled, he expected his tenants-in-chief to put up the entire court for the night - another money-making scheme, in a way, because when they were staying with one of the barons, William didn’t have to pay the fat food bill. Needless to say, the barons didn’t like this expectation very much. If the king stayed more than a day or two, he could make a baron bankrupt. William’s unruly court also had a reputation for trashing your house. Stories abound of barons trembling with fear or even going into hiding when William was in their area, in case the king turned up on the doorstep demanding hospitality.

Beastly bishops

By the spring of 1093, William had been milking the revenues of the archbishopric of Canterbury for four years. Although it was William’s right under feudal law to do so, his conscience was far from clear about it. Then, in March 1093, William fell seriously ill. Not wanting to die without this wrong put right, William acted fast and promoted the appointment of the best candidate as archbishop: Anselm, the abbot of Lanfranc’s old abbey at Bec in Normandy.

But there was a problem. Anselm didn’t want the job. Think about it. Anselm was a saintly 60-year-old abbot, who was content to run his abbey in Normandy surrounded by monks who respected and obeyed him. If he came to England, he would have to defend the English church against the notorious money-grabber and blasphemer William. The pair would be fighting every week, and Anselm had no stomach for a fight. As Anselm said, it would be like tethering a tired old sheep to a headstrong young bull.

In medieval times, communications were poor, and it was hard for kings to keep tabs on the whole country from their base in the south. So kings travelled constantly, calling in on different areas to keep an eye on every corner of the kingdom. They travelled with a big retinue of knights and servants, known as the royal court, together with most of their furniture and belongings.

But something made Anselm give in and come to England. According to one story, the king was so insistent that he should take the job that he picked up the archbishop’s ring of office and forced it on to Anselm’s finger. Whatever really happened, Anselm became head of the church in England, and the arguments began:

● Anselm wanted to hold ecclesiastical councils; William would not give permission.

● Anselm wanted the king to recognise Urban II as Pope; William refused.

● William demanded money from the church for his military campaigns against the Welsh; Anselm refused.

● William’s disrespect and licentiousness continued to offend Anselm.

In the end, Anselm insisted that only the Pope had the authority to settle the arguments between them. William responded by threatening to take Anselm to court, whereupon Anselm fled to Rome. William must have been relieved to get the intrepid Anselm out of his hair. What was more, with the churchman in Rome, he could claim that the post of archbishop was in effect vacant, so he could start tapping the church’s money again. Ker-ching!

Was he murdered?

William Rufus was good at making enemies. Many barons hated him because of his money-grabbing. Churchmen were appalled by his loose lifestyle, much of it paid for by money that rightly belonged to the church. William even had a difficult relationship with his brother Robert Curthose, whose lands in Normandy William envied, although the pair had patched it up. So when in August 1100 William was felled by an arrow in a hunting accident, some people were suspicious that the king had been murdered.

It was an ugly story. The king and his courtiers, including his younger brother Henry, were out in the New Forest hunting. An arrow, as if from nowhere, hit William and brought him down. Then things started to happen very quickly:

● The king was dead within minutes.

● A Norman baron called Walter Tirel, who was suspected of shooting the fateful arrow, rode off immediately and was soon on a ship to Normandy.

● Henry and most of the hunting party immediately rode off to nearby Winchester, where the royal treasury was kept, leaving the king’s body in an undignified heap.

● A local charcoal burner, a man called Purkess, lifted the body on to a cart and pushed it to Winchester himself.

As soon as he arrived in Winchester, Henry hot-footed it to the royal treasury and took control. An old Saxon custom dictated that whoever held the treasury could, with the backing of the nobility, be crowned. So Henry roped in some local nobles, got them to hail him as king, and was crowned three days after William’s death, before Robert Curthose could come from Normandy and stake his claim to the throne.

Henry won the race to be king, and William Rufus was buried under the tower in Winchester Cathedral with the minimum of ceremony. A few months later, the tower collapsed. People took this as a sign that God was angry with the way William had lived and reigned.

And since then, tongues have wagged. Did Henry kill his brother or have him killed by Walter Tirel? The most likely answer is no. The rumours did not start immediately, and the timing wasn’t ideal for Henry, who would probably have preferred to confront Robert Curthose fairly and squarely rather than beat his supporters to the treasury in an unseemly race. Henry was probably taking advantage of a terrible accident and seizing the opportunity as best he could. Henry certainly knew that he could rely on support from the many nobles who had feared and hated his brother William.

Lion of Justice: Henry I

Henry I leapt into the power vacuum left after the sudden death of his brother, William II, in August 1100, when he was 33 years old. Henry was witty, well educated, and good company. He also had a way with the ladies - a serial adulterer, he fathered more than 20 illegitimate children, more than any other English king. He also had four children by his first wife.

Henry found a country in which the monarchy was all powerful, but also, thanks to William I’s cruelty and William II’s ruthlessness, much feared. Henry knew that he could benefit from the immense power in his hands, but also that it would be to his advantage to rule in a fairer way than his brother.

Having grabbed hold of the royal treasury and got himself crowned in record time, Henry looked for ways to make sure that he kept the power he had seized. Several actions sent signals that were very different from the actions of ruthless Rufus:

● He published a Coronation Charter, promising to rule in a more moderate way than Rufus had done.

● He imprisoned William Il’s hated money-grabbing justiciar, Ranulf Flambard.

He recalled Archbishop Anselm from exile in Rome, signalling a more conciliatory standpoint toward the church.

He married Edith, who was daughter of Scottish king Malcolm III and sister of Edgar the Aetheling, of the line of Saxon royals (see Chapter 5), indicating a desire to unify Norman, Scottish, and Saxon interests.

It looked as if Henry would be a more thoughtful and diplomatic ruler than William, and England must have breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Curthose curtailed

In 1101, Henry faced the first big challenge to his rule - the arrival from the Holy Land of his brother, Robert Curthose, with an army behind him. For a moment, it must have looked as if things were about to go back to the unsettled days of William Rufus. But Henry preferred diplomacy to war, and Robert, still sore from his efforts in the Holy Land, probably didn’t feel like fighting either. So the pair came to an agreement under which Robert recognised Henry as king of England.

During the next few years, wily Henry turned the tables on Robert by nibbling away at Curthose’s power base in Normandy. He could do so because some of Robert’s most powerful barons also held lands in England. Henry kicked these barons off their English lands, making them poorer and less able to throw their weight around in Normandy. Henry then needed one decisive battle against Robert, at Tinchebrai, southwestern Normandy, in 1106, to defeat his brother, who was bundled off to Cardiff Castle to spend the last 28 years of his life a prisoner.

Henry could claim to be effective ruler of Normandy, even though his rule was frequently interrupted by attacks from his neighbours, such as the king of France and the Count of Anjou. Land-grabbing and scheming were not so straightforward as Henry had hoped, and one chronicler said that each of his victories only made Henry more nervous that he would lose what he had gained.

Well advised?

Education, education, education. Rulers didn’t go in for it much in the Middle Ages. It was more important to be able to fight for your rights than to be able to write. Henry had a reputation for being quite well educated and even had a nickname, Beauclerc, which means ‘good writer’. But this ability didn’t mean a lot in medieval times. You could get a reputation as a ‘clerk’ by being able to write your own name, and that was probably as much writing as Henry did.

Where Henry scored, though, was that he was able to find intelligent men to help him govern. One of the most important was Bishop Roger of Salisbury. Henry liked Roger because he could get through mass faster than any other priest. But the king also liked Roger’s managerial skills and appointed him to run, and probably revamp, the administrative side of the government.

When Roger arrived in government service, he found that no one had much idea about where all the money was going. Counting and calculating were really difficult - western Europeans hadn’t even worked out that they needed the number zero. So Roger came up with a couple of bright ideas to keep track of the royal finances.

Bright idea No. 1 - The Exchequer: The Exchequer was a large cloth divided into squares like a chequer board (hence the name), and it worked rather like an abacus, with counters that were moved from one square to another to represent money being added or subtracted. It was Roger’s cleverest innovation and still gives its name to the financial department of the British government.

● Bright idea No. 2 - The pipe roll: The transactions were written down on long strips of parchment, which may have been another innovation of Roger, though no one is really sure. When they were rolled up for storage, these parchments looked like pipes, so they’re now known as pipe rolls. From them, historians know the wages - paid in a combination of cash and food - of many of the court officials. Roger himself got five shillings a day, a fixed allowance of flour to make bread, cake, and wine, plus a generous supply of candles. Whether or not he actually invented this form of record-keeping, Roger was certainly methodical and was a good adviser to Henry, making his government more efficient.

Henry was also keen on the law. He had a reputation as a fair and just man, and was nicknamed Lion of Justice. The king was famous for sending royal justices around the country to hear cases. Some important books of law were also written in his reign. These books were actually compilations of laws that had existed since the Saxon period and suggest that many of Henry’s laws had been in force since before the Norman conquest. Henry was a Norman through and through, but he still wanted people to realise that he was upholding the same justice as his Saxon forebears.

Shipwrecked succession

Over a long reign, Henry won a reputation as a good and fair king. His kingdom was at peace, and his court was well run and less unruly than William Rufus’s rambunctious rabble. Everything looked set for a long, peaceful future in England. But in 1120, disaster struck the royal family.

Roger of Salisbury

Roger was a priest from Caen in Normandy who rose through the ranks of the church to become bishop of Salisbury, where he remodelled the cathedral (although the cathedral that stands in Salisbury today is a more recent building, dating from around 150 years later). In the Middle Ages, when few people outside the church could read or write, talented priests like Roger often combined their 'day job' in the church with work in the royal service. Roger was outstanding at his second career, starting as royal steward before becoming Henry's chancellor or senior minister.

The royal court was always on the move around Henry’s domains, and these moves included regular trips across the Channel between England and Henry’s territory in Normandy. In November 1120, most of the court was crossing the sea back to England after a long stay in Normandy when their vessel, known simply as the White Ship, ran into trouble. The drunken pilot who was supposed to be guiding the ship led it on to the rocks, and the vessel went down, taking with it Henry’s two sons, William, the heir to the throne, and Richard.

Henry was distraught. Onlookers reported that when he heard the news, he let out a great cry and fell to the floor. Some said the king never smiled again. But the loss was more than a personal tragedy - England was left without a male heir to the throne, and Henry’s wife, Matilda, had died two years previously. Henry took a second wife, a young woman who was the daughter of the Count of Louvain and who was variously known as Adeliza, Adela, or Adelaide. The king obviously hoped for another son and heir, but the couple did not have any children.

By 1126, Henry was resigned to the fact that he would not have another legitimate son. So he named his daughter Matilda as his heir, and Henry’s barons duly swore allegiance to her. Matilda had married the emperor Henry V of Germany and was by now a widow. She kept the title of empress and was obviously well connected. But England’s alpha-male barons were not used to the idea of being ruled by a woman. Many hoped that a male relative of Henry’s would emerge and seize the crown. It looked as if trouble was brewing for the succession.

In 1135, Henry died. The cause of death was said to be that he ate a supersize meal of lampreys, a rich and indigestible kind of fish to which he was partial. The Norman love of fine and fattening foods had finally done in Henry. With a big question mark over the succession, things looked grim for England.

Scramble for the Crown: Stephen

When Henry I died in 1135, the heiress he had named, the empress Matilda, was at home in Anjou. When Matilda heard the news that the king was dead, she prepared to set off for England to be crowned. But in Normandy, another of the dead king’s relatives had also been told what had happened. It was Stephen, son of Henry I’s sister Adela and thus the old king’s nephew. As a close male relative, Stephen felt he had a good claim to the English throne and, like his uncle before him, he acted quickly.

Luckily for Stephen, he was in Boulogne when he learned of Henry’s death, so he crossed the Channel at top speed and, like his uncle before him, made straight for Winchester to get hold of the royal treasury. He was soon arguing that the oath of allegiance he had sworn to the empress Matilda had been forced out of him under duress and that Henry had changed his mind about the succession on his deathbed.

Stephen took a gamble. He thought that the English barons would object to two things about Matilda - they wouldn’t want to be ruled by a woman, and they wouldn’t much like being governed by someone from Anjou, an old enemy of Normandy. Stephen was right. As soon as he turned up in London, he got backing from:

Most of the barons.

Many of the merchants.

Roger of Salisbury, Henry I’s right-hand man, who brought most of the administrative service with him.

Stephen’s brother, Henry, Bishop of Winchester, who brought the backing of the church.

The Archibishop of Canterbury crowned Stephen in December 1135.

Too good by half: The chivalrous king

The English found themselves with an energetic, chivalrous king, a man who really wanted to succeed. Stephen was also brave in battle, a figure who had all the knightly virtues loved by William Rufus but without the posturing or cruelty. He seemed to embody the manly virtues that the barons found so attractive. He would soon need all his soldierly skills.

On 30 September 1139, the trouble started. The empress Matilda, together with her half-brother and supporter Earl Robert of Gloucester, landed at Arundel in Sussex to make her claim for the English throne. This move meant war.

Stephen was too chivalrous to attack a lady as soon as she landed on his soil. He graciously gave Matilda and her men permission to march across the country to Bristol. Big mistake. Bristol became a key stronghold of the empress.

Stephen had probably hoped to confine Matilda’s supporters in the South West and pick them off when he was ready, but the king was too generous to his barons in hoping that they would all fight for him. One of the most powerful, Earl Ranulph of Chester, decided to go over to the empress’s side in revenge against Stephen, who had taken away some of his lands in northern England. Ranulph immediately grabbed himself a major stronghold in the East by taking over Lincoln Castle. Stephen galloped off to Lincoln to sort out rebellious Ranulph.

The earl put up a tough fight, and everyone said that Stephen fought him with great bravery and persistence. But it wasn’t enough. The brave king was captured and carted off to Bristol. The king was in prison and the country was in chaos.

So did Matilda then depose Stephen or have him killed? Curiously enough, no. Stephen was a king who had gone through the religious ritual of the coronation. He had been anointed with holy oils. In some sense, even though Matilda felt that he was not the rightful ruler, he had God on his side. To depose Stephen would have been sinful in the extreme. As a result, Stephen was held in Bristol, in a kind of royal limbo.

Warring Matildas: Queen versus empress

Eventually, Stephen was saved by his wife, who was called, of all things, Matilda. In September 1141, a showdown occurred between the Matildas, queen and empress. The empress, with all her support in the South West, was trying to extend her power in the South East. But in London, she got everyone’s back up. She started by doling out gifts to win loyalty, but the next moment, she was slagging everyone off and refusing to cut taxes. Eventually, the people of the capital had enough of her, started a riot, and threw her out of the city in the middle of dinner.

The empress rode off in a huff and attacked Winchester, the city where Stephen’s brother was bishop. At this point, the battle of the Matildas took place. The queen turned up with an army and began to attack the empress and her troops. In the melee, the queen’s forces captured Earl Robert of Gloucester, a big enough fish to swap with the imprisoned Stephen, and soon the king was free again.

Political ping-pong

By this time, many of the barons who had declared their loyalty to Stephen had gone over to the empress’s side. Their political ping-pong had everything to do with self-interest. Most had extensive lands on both sides of the Channel and wanted to hold on to them. Increasingly, they looked to support the side that was most likely to win.

Revolts broke out continuously, and England had to put up with a state of civil war for nearly 15 years. Stephen continued to fight bravely, but could not make enough gains to impose his will on the whole country. In addition, his generous nature meant that he was usually lenient with rebels, which meant that his enemies were all too often allowed to fight another day. Stephen came closest to sending Matilda packing deep in the winter of 1142. She was holed up in the castle at Oxford, and Stephen’s forces surrounded her. But Matilda made a daring escape across the snow.

By the late 1140s, hostilities started to die down. Earl Robert of Gloucester died in 1147, and the following year, Matilda left for Normandy. She did not come back, although she sent her son Henry to fight Stephen, and the tensions between king and empress smouldered on.

On the last two occasions when Henry and Stephen confronted each other on the battlefield, something extraordinary happened. The armies simply refused to fight. They had had enough of civil war, and the two leaders were forced to sit down and work out some kind of peace agreement. In 1153, they reached an agreement that Stephen could remain as king for his lifetime but that Henry should become king after his death (see Chapter 7). Stephen had just under a year to live.

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