Post-classical history



On 25 November 1120 a group consisting mainly of young nobility set sail from Barfleur for England. These young people were leaving behind a Normandy newly safe in the hands of King Henry I, who the year before, at Brémule, had defeated in battle and humiliated King Louis VI of France. There was a mood of celebration in the air. The master of the White Ship, Thomas fitz Stephen, had come to the king and offered his services. He said that his father had been employed by William the Conqueror for many years, and had actually been the one to take William over the Channel on the Hastings campaign of 1066. His own ship, he claimed, was well fitted out and would serve the present purpose. The king said he already had a good ship for himself, but that the White Shipwould do excellently for his sons, William and Richard, along with their sister Matilda.1

The wind blew helpfully from the south; all seemed set fair for a good time. They brought on board with them a plentiful supply of wine. The leader of this group of some 300 passengers, which included heirs to many of the greatest estates in England and Normandy, was the king’s only legitimate son, generally known as William the Aetheling. His English title reminded everyone that he was the son of Edith-Matilda, descendant of the old line of West Saxon kings of England, as well as of the Conqueror’s son Henry I. William, although only seventeen, was already married to Matilda of Anjou, and on them rested the hopes of the dynasty. Accompanying his half brother were two of Henry I’s numerous illegitimate children: Richard, recently betrothed to the daughter of Ralph de Gael, and Matilda, wife of the Count of Perche. Other passengers included the young Earl of Chester and his wife, who was Stephen of Blois’ sister Matilda, 140 knights, 18 noble women, virtually all the aristocracy of the county of Mortain, as well as a number of leading officials in the king’s household. Henry of Huntingdon says that many in the party were homosexual, by which he seems to imply they deserved what they got.2

The royal sons led the partying on board. It was clear to some of the more level-headed passengers that danger threatened, and two monks, as well as the king’s nephew, Stephen of Blois, William de Roumare, Edward of Salisbury and a few others, decided to get off and travel on another ship. Orderic says that in Stephen’s case he was also ill and suffering from diarrhoea. Before long the crew-members of the White Ship, as well as the passengers, were inebriated. There were fifty rowers on board, but also a number of young naval men who were already too drunk to know what was going on, and were shouting abuse at their social superiors. When a church party turned up to bless the voyage, these drunkards laughed at them, abused them and forced them to leave.

There is some difference in the chronicles about what happened next, not surprising since there were few survivors to pass on the news coherently. The preparations of the young people had delayed the ship’s sailing, and the main fleet was already on its way. Like all such young bloods, they wanted to be in front of everyone else, and ordered the master to overtake the rest of the fleet. The master was by now himself drunk and promised to do as they wished. The ship cast off and raced through the waves, the oarsmen as drunk as the rest; so was the helmsman. According to the monk, Orderic Vitalis, the vessel then struck its port side against a rock with a great blow, cracking the timbers. The White Ship at once capsized and sank with virtually all on board. The master’s head emerged from the water, shouting to find out what had happened to the prince. On being told that he must have drowned, the master despaired and let himself sink under the waves for good. The pathetic cries of those drowning could be heard from the shore, and from other ships in the fleet. A poet wrote: ‘Those for whom dukes weep were devoured by sea monsters… . He whom a king begot became food for the fishes.’3

Orderic says only two people survived: a young noble, Geoffrey fitz Gilbert, who finally succumbed to the cold seas on a frosty night, and a Rouen butcher called Berold, who lived to tell the tragic tale. Fortunately for him he was clothed in warm ram skins rather than the fine but skimpy dress of most of the passengers. Wace says he was following the court to collect money owed to him by these careless young nobles. In the morning he was picked up by a fishing boat and brought to safety. The ship itself was later brought ashore, and the treasure on board rescued. A few bodies were eventually washed up some way along the coast, including that of Richard, Earl of Chester.

At first no one dared to tell Henry I. Finally, on the advice of Theobald, Count of Blois, a young boy cast himself before the king and revealed the dreadful news. The king was overcome and fell to the ground in distress, until he was helped up and taken to a private chamber, where he abandoned himself to grief. It is probably true to say that Henry never recovered from this blow, and that England suffered from it for decades to come. In essence the death of William the Aetheling on the White Ship was the cause of the civil war which was to follow his father’s death, a war which was at bottom a succession dispute over Henry I’s throne.

Henry I had many illegitimate children, perhaps twenty-one altogether, by various mistresses known and unknown. His intercourse with such a large number of ladies was, according to William of Malmesbury, ‘not for the gratification of the flesh, but for the sake of issue’, and he certainly succeeded in that aim.4 Some of his offspring played a notable role in the reign of Stephen, not least his sons who became earls: Robert of Gloucester and Reginald of Cornwall. It is ironic that such a prolific father could only have two legitimate children, and one of those a girl. The girl was Matilda, and in 1114 she was married off impressively to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, thirty years her senior. It was as great a match as any English princess ever made, and not surprisingly she would hold on to her title of empress for life. In 1120, though, she was in Germany and seemed irrelevant to the question of the English and Norman succession.

By this period of the Middle Ages, legitimacy had become more important as a bar to succession, and therefore Henry’s illegitimate sons seem never to have been seriously considered as his successors either by their father, by themselves, or by anyone else, though Robert and Reginald were responsible adults who would build good reputations as military leaders. Henry’s immediate hope of a solution seemed the most sensible one: to marry again. He chose as his second wife the young Adeliza of Louvain. Unfortunately for Henry, and perhaps for England and Normandy, the marriage proved barren. It can at least be said for Henry that he does not seem to have contemplated the possible, if cynical, solution of casting off Adeliza for a new wife. Of course it could be that, despite his many children, Henry himself had become impotent.

At any rate Henry must gradually have come to the view that he would not have another legitimate son. He may have looked at his illegitimate sons and his legitimate nephews and wondered about the future. He was a good father to his illegitimate sons, and both Robert and Reginald owed their initial rise to prominence to his generosity. Did Henry wonder if Robert in particular might not be material for the throne? He never declared so, but by giving him marriage to the heiress to the Gloucester lands he did build him into a possible contender, and helped unwittingly to provide serious problems after his death. Without Robert of Gloucester there would have been no civil war.

He may similarly have looked at his nephews, in particular at Stephen of Blois. Stephen was only the third son of Stephen-Henry, Count of Blois. His mother was Adela, daughter of William the Conqueror and sister of Henry I. The older brothers were less known to Henry. The eldest seems to have had some defect, and was discarded by his own family for the succession to the county of Blois, which went to the second son, Theobald. Theobald was a major figure in northern Europe, and was in 1135 considered by the baronage for the succession to Normandy and perhaps England. But Henry I was more attached to the third son, Stephen. This was because Stephen had been sent to his court as a youth. His mother obviously hoped that he would be favoured by his uncle, and this proved to be the case.

Indeed, the younger fourth son, Henry of Blois, also received favours from Henry I, whose concern for members of his family was one of his few likeable traits. The young Henry of Blois had been destined for the church, though he was as unsaintly and ‘unmeek’ as it might be possible to be. He was tough, aggressive, bullying and blustering; a perfect politician, which in essence is what he became. His career, though, began as a monk in the prestigious abbey at Cluny, and he proceeded, through his uncle’s favour, to become abbot of the ancient house of Glastonbury in 1126, which in opposition to the current views on church reform, he retained when appointed as Bishop of Winchester in 1129.

The older brother, Stephen, was given equally impressive assistance for a worldly career. He received vast estates in England and Normandy, including the honors of Eye and Lancaster in England and the county of Mortain in Normandy, as well as the lands of William Talvas in the south. In addition he was provided with a rich heiress as wife in Matilda of Boulogne whom he married in 1125. She was the daughter of Eustace III of Boulogne, and brought that county into her husband’s collection.

Such favours, as with Robert of Gloucester, and probably just as unwittingly, built another possible contender for the crown. Without these grants in England and Normandy, Stephen would never have been a serious contender for the English throne. Presumably Henry thought his illegitimate sons and legitimate nephews would honour his wishes and support his choice. In practice what he had done was to build up potential rivals for the crown and produce the raw materials for the making of civil war in both England and Normandy.


Henry I himself never seems to have given any encouragement at all to either Robert or Stephen or any nephew or illegitimate son to see themselves as successors to the crown, until perhaps the very last moment, when he may have changed his mind and favoured Stephen. In fact, Henry was now offered what seemed a lifeline of escape, though none could have thought it ideal.

In 1125, unexpectedly, the Emperor Henry V died, leaving Matilda a widow. Since the death of her brother, William the Aetheling in 1120, she was Henry’s only surviving legitimate child. She had no children, but she was still quite young. Henry began to toy with thoughts of a second marriage for his daughter. Like the subtle politician he was, he thought he might tie up several problems in one solution. He had for some time been seeking an alliance with the county of Anjou, which had been threatening the stability of Normandy.

Henry I had himself won the English throne against the odds as a younger son. His oldest brother, Robert Curthose had become Duke of Normandy; the next in age, William Rufus had gained the English throne. When Rufus died, Henry had acted fast and won the crown at the expense of Curthose, just returning from the First Crusade. The relations between the brothers had remained difficult until 1106 when Henry defeated and captured Curthose at the Battle of Tinchebrai.

From that time on Curthose had been kept in prison, where he still languished and would until his death in 1134. But Curthose’s son, William Clito, had evaded Henry’s clutches and become a rival to his uncle in Normandy. That was too good an opportunity for Henry’s enemies abroad to resist, and in particular Louis VI, King of France, had taken up the case of Clito. Henry needed allies against Louis and William, and the powerful county of Anjou was perhaps the most hopeful. Thus he had married his only legitimate son, William the Aetheling, to Matilda of Anjou. The prince’s death had of course brought that match to an end, and the alliance. Now Henry thought about marrying his daughter to Geoffrey, the son and heir of Fulk V, Count of Anjou.5 This would give aid against Clito, a husband to Matilda, and quite soon it was hoped a son to them, a grandson to himself, who would inherit England and Normandy. In fact, this did eventually come about, but not in any way that could possibly have been predicted in 1125.

The marriage plans went ahead. Henry met and approved his intended son-in-law. The young Geoffrey was a bright and precocious youth, who showed his ability as a teenager in intellectual discussion, answering questions put to him by Henry to test his judgment. Henry was ‘affectionately attracted by his wisdom and his responses’. He was also a comely and promising young warrior, his face at the ceremony ‘glowing like the flower of a lily, with rosy flush’.6 He was indeed nicknamed ‘pulcher’, or handsome.7

At Rouen on 10 June 1128 Henry knighted the young man, who thus probably acquired the arms of England as his own.

On the great day, as was required by the custom of making knights, baths were prepared for use… . After having cleansed his body, and come from the purification of bathing, the noble offspring of the Count of Anjou dressed… . He wore a matching hauberk made of double mail, in which no hole had been pierced by spear or dart. He was shod in iron shoes, also made from double mail. To his ankles were fastened golden spurs. A shield hung from his neck, on which were golden images of lioncels. On his head was placed a helmet, reflecting the light of many precious gems, tempered in such a way that no sword could break or pierce it.

Thus clad, he showed his agility and ability by leaping on to the back of his beautiful Spanish horse, without having to use the stirrups. The History of Duke Geoffrey goes on to describe a tournament in which the young Angevin hero participated, joining the weaker side, striking blows with lance and sword, pressing on ‘more fiercely than a lion’, killing the giant Saxon on the other side. It is difficult to believe all the details in this account, but shows that Geoffrey was viewed as an heroic military figure.8

Then at Whitsun, on 17 June, in Le Mans, the marriage ceremony was performed by the bishop of that city, though Geoffrey was still only fifteen. A herald announced the coming ceremony in the streets so that all would attend. John of Marmoutier describes the celebrations, ‘both sexes reclining to eat a varied meal’. He says the rejoicing continued for three weeks, and every knight who had attended went away with a gift from the king.9 There was further celebration when the couple reached Angers: the citizens rushed out to meet them, bells rang, churches were hung with curtains outside, and clerics sang hymns in the streets. They were also welcoming their new count in Geoffrey. The young man’s father went off to marry Melisende the heiress to Baldwin II, King of Jerusalem. In time Fulk succeeded Baldwin on the throne. His son Geoffrey was left in the West to take over as Count of Anjou.

Henry’s decision was that the succession should pass to his daughter Matilda. Probably his longer-term intention was that the crown should pass to his grandson by Matilda.10 He was less enthusiastic about giving any rights to the new son-in-law. Later, Geoffrey would claim that certain promises had been made to him, not only about gaining a hold on named castles on the southern Norman border, but also about joint rule with his wife in England and Normandy. However, Henry seems carefully to have excluded Geoffrey from any provable claim.

What the king did, was to insist that the leading barons, ecclesiastics and officials in England and Normandy should take an oath to accept Matilda as his heir. There are records of oaths taken in 1127, 1128 and 1131.11 Henry was doing his best to guarantee her right to succeed him. Henry was no fool, and must have realized the difficulties in his choice. There was no tradition of female inheritance of the throne in England or Normandy, and it was later clear that a number of the oath-takers were reluctant. Roger of Salisbury claimed that when he first took the oath to support the widowed empress, the king promised that he would not marry her without their consent and this was a condition of the oath. Roger’s argument was that the marriage to Geoffrey of Anjou had been made without the consent of the barons, prelates and officials, and was therefore invalid. What he is voicing is clearly a view, felt if not expressed at the time, about Henry’s preference for Matilda. Many clearly thought that when she married, her husband would be likely to become the ruler in England and Normandy, and therefore it was important that her husband should be acceptable to the leading men of the land.

When Geoffrey of Anjou was named as the husband there was some hostility to the choice. Anjou may have been less of an enemy to Normandy than had once been the case, but the two provinces had never been great friends or allies, and there was plenty of past antagonism to fuel hostility. Geoffrey’s father, Fulk V, had fought against Henry I at Alençon, and alongside Louis VI against him at Brémule. When Geoffrey later invaded Normandy, the enmity of the local populace soon became clear; the Angevins were taunted as ‘Guiribecs’, which was something akin to the Cornish term of abuse for outsiders as grockles.12 How the chronicler Orderic would rejoice over the fact that they caught dysentery and trailed diarrhoea behind them during their unpleasant retreat.

There was no enthusiasm whatever for England to be ruled by such an outsider, and this probably explains why Geoffrey himself never made any serious attempt to have direct rule over the kingdom. Indeed, Henry I himself seems to have become estranged from his son-in-law. Soon after the marriage, Matilda abandoned the marital bed and returned to her father. The problem was partly political, in that Geoffrey claimed possession of the promised southern Norman castles which Henry retained, and partly personal. Most accounts accept that the married couple did not get on very well, but we have no insight into the marital chamber. When Matilda left her husband, Henry of Huntingdon says that she came to England with her father, and only after a council had spoken in favour of her being ‘restored to her husband, the Count of Anjou, as he demanded’, was she sent back.13

In short, Matilda’s rights to the English crown were pressed by her father, but were never very certain to be enacted. As a female with an unfavoured husband, her chances seemed questionable. Of course the oaths taken to her mattered in the context of twelfth-century beliefs, and would cause problems, since virtually every person who took the oath would later stand accused of perjury. But even Henry’s own hopes must have been unsure, or he would not have needed to have the oath repeated on three occasions.

The most likely explanation of all this, as suggested above, is that what Henry I and most of his barons hoped, was that Matilda would have a son who would be old enough to rule when Henry himself died. The real factor which undermined Henry’s plans was not Matilda’s flaws as a successor, but his own death in 1135. This is also suggested by Matilda’s own apparently surprising lack of action in 1135. She made no attempt to come to England, and made no overt claim to the throne. It does not appear as if she had seen herself as her father’s heir, or had been planning to take over the kingdom and the duchy. As yet her sons were not old enough to rule; Henry had been born in 1133 and Geoffrey in 1134. And although Henry I had to some extent recognized her position, through the oaths, and through a nod to her rights in some of his late charters, he had not given her any definite role in government such as would suggest he expected her to take up the reins of rulership. In 1134 Matilda had been seriously ill, and her survival was probably deemed uncertain. Henry had been training her into a position of queen mother rather than of reigning queen, but with his death those plans had all gone awry.


When Henry made his last crossing to Normandy, there was an eclipse with stars around the sun, and then a terrible earthquake, which the chronicler William of Malmesbury saw as omens of evil to come.14 On 25 November 1135, Henry I rode into his castle at Lyons-la-Forêt, some 20 miles east of Rouen. It was one of the many centres he used for his hunting expeditions. He sent out various of his huntsmen to take up their stations ready for the next day’s sport. Clearly he was well and planning his normal active life. But Henry of Huntingdon says he had ‘partaken of some lampreys [an eel-like fish], of which he was fond, though they always disagreed with him, and though his physician recommended that he abstain, would not submit to his good advice’.15 In the night he was taken ill, and for six days lay on his bed, gradually weakening. He fell into a fever, and it became clear that he was dying. Henry made confession to the Archbishop of Rouen, and gave out his last instructions. He wanted Robert of Gloucester to take money from the treasury at Caen to pay off his soldiers and household servants, and for gifts to the poor, which apparently was not done.

As the night of Sunday 1 December drew on, Henry breathed his last. Hugh, Archbishop of Rouen, and Audoin, Bishop of Évreux, made the lords and officials who were present swear to accompany the body back to the coast for burial in England. On the Monday they set out first for the cathedral at Rouen. That night an embalmer, working in a chamber within a corner of the cathedral, opened up the swollen body, cleaned it out, and filled it with sweet-smelling balsam. It was covered in salt and sewn up in ox hides. The entrails went in an urn to be buried at Notre-Dame du Pré.

A band of clerks and knights, lesser men, accompanied the remains in a bier to Caen, where it rested in the choir of Saint Stephen’s. They had to wait four long weeks for a suitable wind to convey them to England. Christmas had passed by the time they sailed. Gentle winds carried them across the Channel, and the body was taken on to Reading Abbey, where it found its last resting place.

The chaos which ensued, perhaps the nearest to genuine anarchy which the period produced, demonstrated the need for an urgent decision over the succession, and the need for an effective ruler. There were disturbances and some lords took advantage of the situation to pursue their own interests: ‘every man now seeks to plunder the goods of others… . The Normans abandon themselves to robbery and pillage … greedy brigands rush out, ready for evil’.16 Another writer said: ‘each man, seized by a strange passion for violence, raged cruelly against his neighbour … bringing to naught the enactments of law … they seized the chance of vengeance’.17 Succession by a minor or a woman did not at the time seem the answer to such a situation. Hardly a soul spoke out for Matilda to succeed either in England, or in Normandy.

The Norman view on the question of the oath and the succession was not unlike that in England. The Norman barons ignored the claims of Matilda and Geoffrey, and thought first of the old king’s Blois nephew, Theobald, now himself a count, an established ruler and man of substance. After an assembly at Neubourg which decided in his favour, Theobald was invited to become duke.

However, the man who seized the initiative was Theobald’s younger brother, Stephen, now Count of Mortain and Boulogne. He was in Boulogne when he received the news of Henry’s demise, and decided to sail at once for England. It is clear that Stephen at least had thought about the succession, and was ready to make his move. His motives may have been concerned more with the enduring enmity between Blois and Anjou, than any personal animus against Matilda. If he could gain England and Normandy, then control of those areas would be denied to the Angevin count. We know that Stephen’s mother received a letter from Abbot Peter the Venerable, in response to her own immediate request for news on the death of Henry I. The presence soon after the deaths of both Theobald in Normandy and Stephen in England, show the Blesevins’ high interest in the succession.18 The Gesta Stephani says that some of the leading men in England had bound themselves to the house of Blois while Henry was still alive.19 Stephen’s county of Boulogne gave him an ideal position from which to make the crossing, and he sailed at once from Wissant, despite the promise of bad weather. For speed, he travelled with a very small retinue, not waiting to collect a force. On the morning of his arrival in England there was a storm with thunder and lightning, which William of Malmesbury took to presage evil, but for the time being at least the heavens seemed rather to be smiling on Stephen.

No one knew quite how to act. They had been used to the firm and ruthless hand of Henry I. There were prejudices against Matilda, which held back any great desire to see her or her husband prosper. There was no obvious candidate in England, and here was the king’s favourite nephew taking just the sort of decisive steps which they would wish to see in a ruler. There was, says the Gesta Stephani: ‘no one else at hand who could take the king’s place and put an end to the dangers’.20 One by one the obstacles were removed from his path. At first, though, he was refused entry to Dover and Canterbury, both held in the name of Robert, Earl of Gloucester.

It is interesting, given the modern view of Stephen, that in 1135, the chronicler Henry of Huntingdon could see him as ‘a resolute and audacious man’.21 Another might have been daunted by the unfriendly initial reception, but Stephen knew clearly what a successful claimant needed to do. He must hold London and Winchester, and he needed to be anointed and crowned if possible by the Archbishop of Canterbury. Stephen soon achieved all three.

There can be little doubt that Stephen’s model for his early behaviour as king was that of his admired uncle, Henry I.22 Henry had also gained the throne by prompt action in an uncertain situation. In London Stephen was welcomed; the citizens came out to greet him ‘with acclamation’, as though they had recovered Henry I in him, and that before he had made any agreement.23 But their attitude was also affected by promises of privileges which he alone could grant, as well as promises about London’s status. As Count of Boulogne he had a significant say in allowing privileges for trade through that city, which was also the major route for trade from England to Flanders. Stephen showed wisdom and shrewdness in London. He seems to have been prepared to recognize London as a commune, a status awarded to many cities in this period throughout Europe. The citizens would reward him by consistent loyalty throughout the reign. They took an oath to aid him with their resources and protect him, an oath to which they faithfully adhered. His conduct in 1135 compares very favourably with that of Matilda six years later. London was secured. At any rate, the citizens, probably revelling in their new status as members of a commune, called an assembly at which his birth and character was praised, and elected Stephen as king, the first in the realm to do so.

He moved on to Winchester, still the site of the national treasury though London was overtaking fast as the chief city in the land.24 By this time Stephen was accompanied by a band of supporting knights. It is usually said that Stephen gained Winchester through the offices of his brother Henry. Henry was indeed Bishop of Winchester, and at this stage a supporter of his brother’s claims. The bishop came out to greet Stephen, along with some of the leading citizens. The Gesta Stephani hints that Winchester may also have been granted commune status by the aspiring monarch.25 But chronicle descriptions of Stephen’s arrival in Winchester suggest the major officials there trusted Stephen rather than his brother. It was to him in person that the two major officials, Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, and William Pont de l’Arche, insisted on handing their keys. No doubt they were looking to their own futures, and it may be that Henry had helped to persuade them, but there is no evidence to that effect. The bishop had even attempted to bribe William to hand over the keys to the castle, which contained the treasury, but he had refused to do so except to Stephen.

Stephen also persuaded the Archbishop of Canterbury, William of Corbeil, to carry out the coronation. William was an experienced prelate, who knew well the wishes and actions of Henry I. He therefore hesitated to overthrow those intentions. On the other hand, the kingdom needed a ruler – no one else seemed to be seeking the position – and everything was pointing towards Stephen as the man for the moment. The support of the Bishop of Winchester helped to make up his mind. Henry of Blois gave his guarantee that Stephen would keep the oath he now made to restore and maintain the freedom of the church, promises which Stephen later incorporated into the Charter of Liberties issued at Oxford.26 Much has been made of these promises, as if they were unique, and that Stephen was particularly wicked in breaking them. The fact is that every king since the Conqueror had made such promises on his accession, and none had kept them fully. Indeed, Rufus, Henry I, and later Henry II broke them in much more obvious and dramatic manner than Stephen.27

The Gesta Stephani says that Stephen’s supporters had to try hard to persuade the archbishop.28 William of Corbeil indicated that he would not act lightly or in haste, and the counsel of all was needed: ‘it is fitting that all should meet together to ratify his accession’. They responded that Henry himself knew they all swore unwillingly, and that they would not keep the oath. They also said that on his deathbed the king had ‘very plainly showed repentance for the forcible imposition of the oath on his barons’. They pointed out the need for ‘a man of resolution and soldierly qualities’ to save the kingdom which was being ‘torn to pieces’. Then Hugh Bigod, an important baron of East Anglia, together with two other unnamed knights, swore on oath that they had heard from the lips of Henry I in Normandy that he had changed his wishes over the succession; that he released those who had taken the oath from their obligation, and no longer wanted Matilda and Geoffrey to succeed, but preferred his nephew Stephen.

Later, when the succession was discussed before the Pope, it was claimed that Bigod’s oath was invalid because he was not present at the death. It is probably true that he was not present at the last, but it does not altogether invalidate his oath, especially given the bias displayed on both sides in the arguments before the papacy. According to John of Salisbury, at the hearing before Innocent II, Arnulf, Archdeacon of Sées and later Bishop of Lisieux, stated that ‘King Henry had changed his mind, and on his death bed had designated his sister’s son Stephen as his heir’.29 This may have simply been based on Bigod’s oath, but it still shows that a respected cleric accepted that oath, as apparently did the Archbishop of Rouen, also present at the death. Bigod had almost certainly been in Normandy, and almost certainly attended upon the king. Not only he, but two other knights, were prepared to swear the oath. What they swore is patently possible given the known situation: that Henry ‘had changed his mind, and … had designated his sister’s son, Stephen as his heir’.30

Geoffrey of Anjou had quarrelled with his father-in-law, ‘had vexed the king by not a few threats and insults’, and Matilda had finally sided with her husband against her father.31 Henry of Huntingdon says there were several disagreements between Geoffrey and Henry, ‘fomented by the arts of his daughter’, angering the king to the point where they contributed to his final illness.32 It is extremely likely that Henry felt angry and hostile to them, and made some such comment about the succession. Since 1128 the political reason for making the marriage in the first place had been neutralized by the death of William Clito at the siege of Alost. Henry may well have been regretting his decision to marry Matilda to Geoffrey.

Bigod gained nothing from his oath; in other words he had not made a deal with Stephen over it, nor was he alone in making it. The supporters of Matilda before the Pope never said that the content of the oath was inaccurate, only that Bigod was not present at the last moment. It seems highly likely that Henry had made some such remark to Hugh. The Archbishop of Canterbury was convinced, and so were two clerics who were at the bedside, the Bishop of Évreux and the Archbishop of Rouen, both of whom supported Stephen as king. The Archbishop of Rouen actually represented Stephen before the Pope in 1139. Of the five earls present, four became supporters of Stephen though the fifth was Robert of Gloucester. The evidence on the whole argues for an acceptance of Bigod’s oath as genuine.33


England and France in the twelfth century.

The archbishop accepted this oath and went ahead to arrange an immediate coronation.34 The ceremony was carried out on Sunday 22 December 1135. Stephen was anointed king, with the implicit support of the church and nation. According to William of Malmesbury there were not many nobles or prelates present, though the Gesta Stephani says he had universal approval.35 When Henry was buried at Reading on 4 January 1136, his crowned successor attended the solemn occasion.

Stephen’s success in England fostered his acceptance in Normandy as well. The very assembly of Norman barons which proposed to his older brother Theobald that he should be duke, was informed that Stephen had gone to England and was already accepted there as king. It was enough to make them reconsider, and they now had to back down and ask Theobald to withdraw his claim to Normandy. They wanted to join the bandwagon for Stephen; they did not want separate rulers for England and Normandy, with all the risks of divided estates and loyalties which that entailed, the effects of which they knew only too well from the squabbles which had attended the period of Robert Curthose’s rule as duke. They were ‘determined to serve under one lord on account of the honors which they held in both provinces’. Orderic says that Theobald was ‘offended’ at being overlooked, since he was the older brother, and stormed back home with a bad grace.36

Stephen’s success had been misleadingly easy. The underlying problems had not all disappeared. It remained for him to prove that he could be an effective king. In that case most opposition would fade away. In the next two years, modelling himself on the early actions of Henry I as king, he did his best to give law and order and crush opposition. He had mixed success, but on the whole succeeded in England. His friendly, engaging personality helped to win men over. Not unlike his eventual successor, Henry II, he had something of the common touch, and ‘by his good nature and the way he jested, sat and ate in the company even of the humblest, earned an affection that can hardly be imagined, and already all the chief men of England had willingly gone over to his side’.37Although some showed reluctance, and some hesitated, the barons of England came round to acceptance of Stephen. His success here is demonstrated by the list of barons who witnessed the acts of his Easter court. When even Robert of Gloucester came to court, his achievement was almost complete.

The Gesta Stephani says that Robert had hesitated, and that in 1135 others had suggested to him he ought to claim the throne. Robert had resisted that temptation, but suggested that his sister Matilda’s son, the child Henry, should have the crown. However, he made no move to that end, and after several summonses from the king by messages and letters, he turned up at court after Easter. It was an important gain for the king, and he showed the earl special favour, so that he ‘obtained all he demanded’ in return for his homage.38 William of Malmesbury, writing as the apologist of Robert, says that he had secretly intended to help Matilda and was biding his time, planning to work for her on the English nobles, ‘pretending to share their breach of faith’.39 He claims that the earl only did homage ‘conditionally, that is to say, for as long as the king maintained his rank unimpaired and kept the agreement’. No doubt this was the earl’s private thinking, but one can hardly imagine it was part of an overt deal with the king. The earl had seen the way things were going, and must have thought it likely that unless he urgently made his peace with Stephen his lands in England and Normandy might well be forfeit. It is significant that he made no open move to aid Matilda and Geoffrey for two years. Like others, he had come to see that at least for the time being, there was no real alternative to accepting Stephen as King of England and Duke of Normandy. Stephen then made a triumphal progress through England, demonstrating the strength of his support, and everywhere he was given an enthusiastic reception.

We shall not examine the events of the first two years in any detail in this chapter, which is concerned with the causes of the war, but one point needs to be made. Stephen did reasonably well in dealing with the early rebellions and invasions in England. He put down the two earliest rebellions with alacrity. An army acting on his behalf defeated the Scots in the Battle of the Standard. His hold on the crown was confirmed by a letter of congratulation from the papacy. The majority of the barons of England accepted his rule, and most were indeed to stay loyal even after the war began. The civil war would not have happened had Stephen not built up a strong party of support ready to back him against Matilda’s challenge.

But there were also ways in which his success was less complete. There were always some dissident barons, and he never crushed them all. The Scottish invasion was dealt with decisively, but the Welsh and Norman borders were not. Matilda’s husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, grasped the castles on the southern Norman border which were claimed as her dower. He supported the rebellion by William Talvas, which increased the pro-Angevin hold on Normandy. He made annual invasions of Normandy. Stephen’s expedition to Normandy in 1137 failed to dislodge him, though a treaty was made between them. On the Welsh border, English baronial forces suffered two setbacks, and Stephen was not able to alter the position much. The point is that where Stephen failed to achieve absolute success, he left a gap in his authority. This left hope for Matilda. She had been slow to act in 1135, and might have lost her chance for good, but Stephen’s incomplete success over the next two years, allowed her to consider her claims again. Thus a war of succession became possible.


There has been a long running attempt to see the civil war of Stephen’s reign as caused by the uncertainty of rights to inherit land. In simple form the argument runs: men could not be sure that their sons would inherit their lands and they wanted to remove this uncertainty. Matilda and her son stood for the direct descent by heredity from Henry I, and the outcome of the war was a victory for hereditary right. S.E. Thorne opened this debate, in 1959, by questioning Maitland’s view that the Norman Conquest had established fees in England as being heritable.40 Thorne believed this did not happen until the twelfth century. He based this on the twelfth-century need for consent from others with an interest in an estate, and argued that the change did not occur until after 1200. R.H.C. Davis presented the view that the crown itself had not been hereditary and that the civil war was an attempt to establish the principle that it should be.41 He argued that the nobility wanted their own estates to become hereditary, and therefore favoured a monarchy which stressed the same point.

The most detailed contribution to this complicated argument, was made in a series of articles by J.C. Holt, beginning in 1972.42 It is impossible to summarize these articles quickly, but to an extent Holt agreed with Thorne that the hereditary claim to property had been established gradually after 1066. He argued that it was the working out of this process which caused the discontent that broke out into civil war. His subtle point was that it was not inheritance which was at issue, but the rules of inheritance, the question of who had the best right. He saw the key period as that of Stephen’s reign.

Meanwhile, in 1974 Edmund King added a new dimension to the debate.43 He suggested that the examples Holt had given were not typical, but all came from cases where inheritance was disputed. His view was that problems over tenure did not cause the anarchy, or prolong it, neither matters of heredity nor rules of inheritance; that the civil war was a political crisis, and not a tenurial one. The debate has continued with several interesting further contributions, but we can end it at this point.44 The general conclusion of historians since that time is that tenurial instability was not a prime cause of the civil war. In general the principle of hereditary succession to estates was established well before 1135. There had been a period of uncertainty in England, but not because of vagueness over rights of heredity so much as over the problems caused by the revolution in land holding that was the Norman Conquest, and the matter of establishing hereditary right over acquired properties.45 It took a generation or two from 1066 to regain a feeling of normality. Of course there would always be disputes to land, and those ‘disinherited’ by Henry I were bound to seek means of recovering their lands, but it was hardly the prime cause of war in England. In any case there is never any question of hereditary right being absolute. Royal decree could always override hereditary right, for example on the grounds of treachery. The civil war was not caused by uncertainty over noble rights to acquire estates by hereditary right, but it was caused by the uncertainty of how the crown should pass from holder to successor. Henry II’s claim, for all his blather about being the legal heir, was a direct blow against the right of a son (William of Blois) to inherit the crown from his properly anointed royal father.


By 1137 there was hope for the Angevin cause in Normandy, but little hope in England. In the kingdom Stephen seemed to have brought law and order: ‘already England was gradually settling into its accustomed peace and its wonted tranquillity’.46 No major English noble had declared openly for Matilda. Geoffrey of Anjou was not prepared to send or pay for any large force to go to England; he wanted to concentrate on exploiting his claims in Normandy. Matilda therefore had neither the resources nor the men for any military campaign in England. She had begun to consider her rights, and was preparing a case to put before the Pope. She may have received some secret promises from England, but realistic chances did not seem great.

One event above all others improved Matilda’s hopes, and therefore made a military attempt to gain the English throne possible. What really caused the civil war of Stephen’s reign was the sudden declaration of Robert, Earl of Gloucester, in 1138. Writing later, offering Robert’s own justification of his actions, William of Malmesbury claimed that Robert had always supported his sister, but other accounts suggest otherwise, and it seems likely that Robert had actually been opposed to her marriage to Geoffrey.47 Robert had come to Stephen’s court; he had accompanied the king to deal with rebellion. He was in Normandy during the 1137 campaign, when his aid would have been crucial to Geoffrey of Anjou, but he made no move to give help. The evidence is that during the first two years of the new reign, Robert was more concerned about his own estates and his own position than that of his half sister.

Why did he change his mind? Again, William of Malmesbury, his apologist, and an unreliable witness because of his bias and tendency to distort, tells us of Robert’s long-held intention to desert Stephen, and is the only one to report an incident which he suggests caused Robert to change sides.48 Despite the bias this may well be the case; we have no other explanation. Unfortunately we have no other account to balance the picture, and William does not fully explain why Stephen attempted to have Robert ambushed (assuming that he did). Until that time, Robert had little cause to complain. Despite his tardy acceptance of the new monarch, Stephen had confirmed all his estates and had heeded his advice at the siege of Exeter.49 Nevertheless, he may have been discontented at having to play second fiddle at court to those whom Stephen had better reason to trust, including the Beaumont twins.

According to William of Malmesbury, the king, through his lieutenant, William of Ypres, laid an ambush against Robert which failed, but which persuaded Robert that he could not trust Stephen. Clearly there were developments of which we are not aware. We can only speculate. There is little question that no love was lost between Stephen and Robert. They had quarrelled over their respective status at the time of making the oath to Matilda. No doubt they were jealous of Henry’s favour each for the other. It was probably this hostility to Stephen as a person which had most dictated Robert’s reluctance to accept him as king, rather than any great love for Matilda.

From William of Malmesbury’s attempt to report the earl’s own motives, it would seem that he had never accepted Stephen without serious reservations, and was always ready to desert him. From Stephen’s point of view, he was always distrustful of the earl, who was never likely to enter the circle of advisers closest to the crown. William of Malmesbury, on the ambush incident, puts a telling phrase into the king’s mouth: ‘when they have chosen me king, why do they abandon me?’50 It suggests that his motive against Robert was fear of treachery, not unlikely given his attitude. Davis, probably correctly, believed that Robert’s desertion of Stephen stemmed from the ambush incident, and was also connected to the divisions within Stephen’s army in 1137.51

Why Robert failed to join the Angevins during Geoffrey’s 1137 invasion remains a mystery, but suggests he was still preparing to make the move after Stephen had openly acted against him. We know that Stephen’s 1137 expedition was ruined by arguments between his Norman barons and his Flemish mercenaries. Davis’ suggestion is that it was Robert of Gloucester, the leading Norman baron, who particularly objected to the trust Stephen placed in William of Ypres. William of Malmesbury’s account suggests that William of Ypres was responsible for the attempt to ambush Robert. It is impossible to give a definite account of what happened here, but our suggestion is that Robert of Gloucester was in contact with the Angevins and Stephen had been warned that he might desert. William of Malmesbury says that ‘a rumour was flying over England that Robert, Earl of Gloucester, who was in Normandy, was just on the point of siding with his sister’. There is also evidence, in two chronicles, that Geoffrey of Anjou made some sort of approach to Robert, and according to one that he persuaded him to make the move.52 William of Ypres was instructed to prevent Robert joining the Angevins, and the ambush had this intention. Robert was unhappy over the prominence of William of Ypres, and his reservations were shared by many of the Norman barons who had rallied to Stephen. The ambush failed. Stephen’s expedition was halted because of the differences in the army.

Robert was now ready to change sides. In 1138 he finally issued a diffidatio or defiance, that is he renounced his former allegiance to Stephen. Just after Whitsun:

he sent representatives and abandoned friendship and faith with the king in the traditional way, also renouncing homage, giving as the reason that his action was just, because the king had both unlawfully claimed the throne and disregarded, not to say betrayed, all the faith he had sworn to him.53

William of Malmesbury also claims that Robert produced a bull from the Pope bidding him to obey his oath. It is one of the many occasions when one doubts the veracity of this partisan chronicler. All our evidence is that to this point the papacy fully accepted Stephen as king and would not surely have countenanced any kind of rebellion against properly constituted authority. Innocent II ‘in friendly letters confirmed his occupation of the kingdom of England and the duchy of Normandy’.54 Alberic of Ostia, a papal legate, came to England in 1138 and helped to make the agreement with the Scots of that year, showing nothing but friendliness to the new king.

There must also be some doubt about the legality of the diffidatio, not a process ever recognized in England. But whatever the legal niceties, its impact was clear. It was in effect a declaration of war. The king could now take as forfeit Robert’s lands. The earl’s only practical hope of retaining his lands in both England and Normandy was to throw all his weight behind the efforts of Matilda and Geoffrey, and to open up the war in England. If he acted quickly, he knew he could rely on the men from his own estates to support him. What Robert of Gloucester’s move meant was that Matilda now had a ready-made party and army in England. The earl’s move was equally important in Normandy. Altogether, it was Robert of Gloucester who caused the civil war in England by giving Matilda an army to back her claims. Until then she could not have mounted a military effort to support those claims. Geoffrey of Anjou showed no intention of using his own resources to back a war in England. Matilda had a small force of her own, led by Alexander de Bohun in Normandy, calling himself ‘cohortis comitisse primipilus’ (the chief centurion of the countess’ force), but it was a force in no way adequate to mount a campaign in England.55 It was only when Robert of Gloucester brought his considerable power into her camp in 1138, that Matilda could realistically contemplate a war for her succession in England. The evidence points to Robert of Gloucester rather than Matilda as the person who determined in 1139 that there should be war in England.


  1.  Orderic Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History, ed. and trans. M. Chibnall, 6 vols, Oxford, 1968–80, vi, pp. 295–307, gives a detailed account of the disaster.

  2.  Henry of Huntingdon, Chronicle, ed. and trans. T. Forester, 1853, p. 249; Henry of Huntingdon, Historia Anglorum, ed. T. Arnold, RS no. 74, 1879, p. 242: ‘fere omnes sodomitica labe dicebantur’.

  3.  Orderic, vi, p. 303.

  4.  William of Malmesbury, De Gestis Regum Anglorum, ed. W. Stubbs, 2 vols, RS no. 90, 1887–9, ii, p. 488.

  5.  J. Bradbury, ‘Geoffrey V of Anjou, Count and Knight’, IPMK, iii, 1988, eds. C. Harper-Bill and R. Harvey, pp. 21–38.

  6.  John of Marmoutier, ‘Historia Gaufredi Ducis’ in Chroniques des Comtes d’Anjou et des Seigneurs d’Amboise, eds. L. Halphen and R. Poupardin, Paris, 1913, p. 176, 178–9; Bradbury, ‘Geoffrey V’, p. 37.

  7.  J. Chartrou, L’Anjou de 1109 à 1151, Paris, 1928, pp. 83–5; J. Bradbury, ‘Fulk le Réchin and the Origin of the Plantagenets’, RAB, pp. 27–41.

  8.  John of Marmoutier, pp. 179, 181–3. A translation appears in Bradbury, ‘Geoffrey V’, pp. 32–3.

  9.  John of Marmoutier, pp. 180–1.

10.  C.W. Hollister and T.K. Keefe, ‘The Making of the Angevin Empire’, Journal of British Studies, xii, 1973, pp. 1–25.

11.  John of Worcester, Chronicle, ed. J.R. Weaver, Anecdota Oxoniensia, Oxford, 1908, pp. 22–3, 26–7; William of Malmesbury, pp. 3–5; Roger of Howden, Chronica, ed. W. Stubbs, 4 vols, RS no. 51, 1868–71, i, pp. 186–7.

12.  Orderic, vi, pp. 466, 468, 472: ‘guiribecci’ and ‘hilibecci’.

13.  M. Chibnall, The Empress Matilda, Oxford, 1991, p. 57, thinks Geoffrey at least as much to blame for the split as Matilda; others have considered the age difference and Matilda’s personality to be at fault.

14.  William of Malmesbury, Historia Novella, ed. K.R. Potter, Edinburgh, 1955, p. 12.

15.  Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Forester, p. 259; Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, p. 254: ‘comedit carnes murenarum quae semper ei nocebant’.

16.  Orderic, vi, p. 453.

17.  Gesta Stephani, ed. and trans. K.R. Potter, notes by R.H.C. Davis, Oxford, 1976, p. 5.

18.  R.H.C. Davis, King Stephen, 3rd edn, Harlow, 1990, pp. 12–14.

19.  Gesta Stephani, pp. 8–9.

20.  Ibid., pp. 6–7.

21.  Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Forester, p. 262; Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, p. 256: ‘vir magnae strenuitatis et audaciae’.

22.  J. Bradbury, ‘The early years of the Reign of Stephen, 1135–39’, in England in the Twelfth Century, Harlaxton Proceedings 1988, ed. D. Williams, Woodbridge, 1990, pp. 17–30.

23.  Gesta Stephani, p. 7.

24.  Ibid., pp. 4–5, calls London queen of the whole kingdom, ‘ipsam totius regionis reginam metropolim’; it also, pp. 8–9, refers to Winchester as ‘the second place in the kingdom’.

25.  Ibid., p. 8–9: ‘in communi breui colloquio’, a phrase similar to that used for London.

26.  William of Malmesbury, p. 15.

27.  Bradbury, ‘Early Years’, p. 22.

28.  Gesta Stephani, pp. 10–11.

29.  John of Salisbury, Historia Pontificalis, ed. and trans M. Chibnall, Edinburgh, 1956, p. 84.

30.  Ibid.

31.  William of Malmesbury, p. 13.

32.  Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Forester, p. 259; Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, p. 254: ‘artibus scilicet filiae suae’.

33.  Bradbury, ‘Early Years’, p. 20.

34.  Gervase of Canterbury, Opera, ed. W. Stubbs, 2 vols, RS no. 73, London, 1879–80, i, p. 94.

35.  Gesta Stephani, pp. 6–7.

36.  Orderic, vi, pp. 454–5.

37.  William of Malmesbury, p. 18.

38.  Gesta Stephani, pp. 14–15.

39.   William of Malmesbury, p. 18.

40.  S.E. Thorne, ‘English feudalism and estates in land’, Cambridge Law Journal, 1959, pp. 193–209.

41.  R.H.C. Davis, ‘What happened in Stephen’s reign’, History, xlix, 1964, pp. 1–12.

42.  J.C. Holt, ‘Politics and property in early medieval England’, PP, lvii, 1972, pp. 3–52; followed by a series of articles on ‘Feudal society and the family’ in three parts in TRHS, xxxii, 1982; xxxiii, 1983, xxxiv, 1984.

43.  E. King, ‘The tenurial crisis in the early twelfth century’, PP, lxv, 1974.

44.  The Holt articles in n. 42; S.D. White, ‘Succession to fiefs in early medieval England’, PP, lxv, 1974; J.C. Holt, ‘Politics and property in early medieval England: a rejoinder’, PP, lxv, 1974.

45.  Davis, Stephen, appendix 4, pp. 150–3. Davis here abandons his point over the date, but still sees it as a cause of conflict, though few agree.

46.  Gesta Stephani, pp. 22–3, in 1136.

47.  D. Crouch, ‘Robert Earl of Gloucester and the daughter of Zelophehad’, JMH, xi, 1985, p. 233.

48.  On the attitude of William of Malmesbury, see Bradbury, ‘Early Years’, p. 17; R.B. Patterson, ‘William of Malmesbury’s Robert of Gloucester: a re-evaluation of the Historia Novella’, American Historical Review, lxx, 1964–5, pp. 983–97; J.W. Leedom, ‘William of Malmesbury and Robert of Gloucester reconsidered’, Albion, vi, 1974, pp. 251–62; William of Malmesbury, pp. 18–24.

49.  Crouch, ‘Zelophehad’ disagrees with this view, but his grounds are not strong; Gesta Stephani, pp. 14–15.

50.  William of Malmesbury, p. 22.

51.  Davis, Stephen, p. 35.

52.  Robert of Torigny, in Howlett, iv, p. 136, says that an agreement had been made the previous Easter: ‘qui circa praeteritum Pascha concordia cum eo fecerat’; Robert of Torigny, ‘The Chronicles of Robert de Monte’, in Stevenson, p. 50; Orderic, vi, pp. 514–15 says that Geoffrey brought him over by ‘pleas and promises’; William of Malmesbury, p. 23.

53.  William of Malmesbury, p. 23.

54.  John of Salisbury, p. 85.

55.  Chibnall, Matilda, p. 71.

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