Fulk Nerra, Fulk the Black, is the greatest of the Angevins, the first in whom we can trace that marked type of character which their house was to preserve with a fatal constancy through two hundred years
John Richard Green1
A little knowledge of their ancestors helps us to understand the first Plantagenets. The earliest to make his mark was a Breton outlaw called Tertulle the Forester, half woodman and half bandit, who, in the ninth century, fought Viking invaders from a stronghold in the dense woods overlooking the Loire known as the ‘Blackbird’s Nest’. Although he and his son Ingelger are semi-mythical figures, Ingelger’s son Fulk the Red (c.870–942) certainly existed, acquiring the old Roman hill town of Angers and becoming Count of Anjou.
The savagery of the wife-burner Fulk III (987–1040) shocked contemporaries. In 992 the Black Count defeated the Bretons, killing their duke with his own hands, while in 1025 he reduced Saumur to ashes, massacring its inhabitants after capturing its lord, the Count of Maine, by false promises. These were only the best-known victims during a saga in which he and his son, Geoffrey the Hammer, transformed an obscure county into one of the most powerful feudal lordships in France. Eastward, they conquered Blois and Tours, southward Saumur and Chinon, won by battles or sieges, held down by tiny garrisons in small stone towers – Fulk’s favourite lair in old age was the tower of Durtal near Baugé.2
Geoffrey the Hammer was succeeded by his son-in-law, Geoffrey of Gâtinais, whose heirs inherited Black Fulk’s wolfish qualities. If they paid homage to the French king as overlord, the Counts of Anjou were independent of a monarch whose real authority was restricted to a small area around Paris.
Geoffrey V (called ‘Plantagenet’ from his broom-flower badge) became Count of Anjou in 1129 after his father, Fulk V, left France to become King (by marriage) of Jerusalem. Geoffrey’s barons thought a pleasant-mannered boy of fifteen must be easy game and so they rebelled; but he soon disillusioned them by marrying the widow of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, Matilda, who was also the daughter of Henry I, King of England and Duke of Normandy. Ten years older, a beautiful virago, she made the same mistake as the barons and tried to bully her young husband. As a result she was sent back to England. After much wrangling, her father King Henry made Count Geoffrey take her back – she was now sufficiently tamed to produce children, although after she had done her duty the couple lived apart. Henry hoped the marriage would defuse the quarrel with Anjou over the county of Maine, but when the king died in 1135 Geoffrey was contemplating invasion.
Geoffrey had matured into a tall, yellow-haired, handsome man, a fine soldier, with a taste for books rare in somebody who was not a cleric. His worst fault was self-indulgence where girls or hunting were concerned. There was a streak of the Black Count in him – any magnate who disputed his authority received short shrift – and he was determined to preserve his son’s inheritance in both England and Normandy.
It was generally expected that Matilda would succeed her father Henry I on the English throne and at Rouen. A huge personality who roared out his commands, this last Norman king had made his barons and prelates swear loyalty to Matilda after the drowning of his only legitimate son, William, in the White Ship. Even though they had no say in the matter, his Anglo-Saxon subjects may well have approved the succession. They knew that her mother, another Matilda (originally Edith), had been the daughter of King Malcolm of Scots and his English Queen Margaret – sister of Edgar Atheling and granddaughter of the heroic King Edmund Ironside.
Henry never forgot the example of his father William I, who had claimed to be Edward the Confessor’s heir. Despite replacing the old Anglo-Saxon aristocracy by Normans, the Conqueror declared, ‘It is my will and command that all shall have and hold the law of King Edward in respect of all their lands and all their possessions.’3 Like William, Henry took the old coronation oaths, promising to keep the Confessor’s laws, and ruled through Anglo-Saxon hundred and shire courts. He gave the son who predeceased him the title ‘Atheling’ borne by pre-Conquest heirs to the throne, while his choice of an English wife irked courtiers so much that they nicknamed the royal couple ‘Godwy and Godgifu’. Although the Conqueror had introduced feudalism (which, basically, meant military service in return for land tenure), by preserving pre-Conquest legal tradition, Henry hastened the transformation of Norman settlers into Englishmen.
But when Henry died in 1135, it was not a direct heir that took up claim to the throne but Stephen of Blois, Count of Boulogne, whose mother had been a daughter of William the Conqueror, hurried over to London and persuaded the council to let him take the throne. The great Anglo-Norman lords, the tenants-in-chief, rejected Matilda, partly because they did not care to be ruled by a woman and partly because they had suffered from her husband’s raids on Normandy. Stephen was even accepted as king by Matilda’s bastard half-brother Robert, Earl of Gloucester, the richest magnate in England.
At first, the new king ingratiated himself by his friendliness, sitting down to eat with all comers, regardless of rank.4 Yet he turned out to be a disaster – ‘a mild, good humoured, easygoing man, who never punished anybody’, says The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle,5and let his Flemish, Breton and Basque mercenaries plunder to their hearts’ content. Squandering the treasure left by the Norman kings (including gold vases filled with rubies, emeralds and sapphires), he ran out of money and debased the coinage. The Archdeacon of Huntingdon writes, ‘there was no peace in the realm [of England] but all was destroyed by murder, burning and rapine, with the sounds of war, wailing and terror everywhere’.6 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells the same story: ‘In the days of this king there was nothing but strife, evil and robbery.’7 He confiscated castles from barons he disliked and upset bishops by questioning their privileges.
Then Stephen made the mistake of quarrelling with Robert of Gloucester, who invited Matilda to take the king’s place; her supporters, meanwhile, were rebelling all over England. The ‘Lady of the English’ (an old Anglo-Saxon title) as she styled herself, landed at Arundel in 1139. Two years later, the king was defeated and captured at Lincoln, and imprisoned at Bristol while Matilda occupied London. Walter Map says she was partly good, but mostly evil. Her haughtiness upset the Londoners and, instead of granting their petition for lower taxes, she ordered them to pay more. Just as the Lady of the English was sitting down to dinner at Westminster soon after her arrival, an armed mob marched on the palace and chased her out of London.
Behind King Stephen stood another fearsome virago, his queen (also called Matilda), who was determined he should keep the crown and hand it on to their son Eustace – who had recently married Louis VII’s sister. After Stephen was taken prisoner at Lincoln, angered by the Lady’s refusal to let Eustace inherit even his father’s original patrimony on the other side of the Channel, the queen gathered a new royal army to fight for the king’s restoration.
The Lady of the English had re-established her court at Winchester, the old royal capital, but, in the wake of these events, was driven out in September 1141, riding astride like a man. Terrified, she continued her flight in a litter hung between two horses, looking like a corpse – some said she hid inside a coffin. Robert of Gloucester was captured and exchanged for King Stephen, who returned to his capital. But Matilda regained her nerve. In December 1142, while besieged at Oxford, she muffled herself in white during a blizzard and was let down by ropes at night on to the frozen moat. With three white-clad knights as escort, she slipped through the enemy lines, walking through the snow to Abingdon, where they found horses and made good their escape.
Stalemate ensued. A time-server with ‘the mouth of a lion and the heart of a rabbit’ (in King Stephen’s view),8 Robert stayed on the defensive in his city of Bristol, while the Lady sulked in her castle at Devizes which, although Henry of Huntingdon thought it the most splendid in Europe,9 was scarcely a capital. The king kept only the south-east and some isolated outposts. His opponents ruled the West, the Welsh border and East Anglia, while the Scots occupied Northumberland, Cumbria and northern Lancashire.
Central government had collapsed, replaced by warlords whose mercenaries operated from ‘castles’ – stockades with wooden watchtowers on top of mounds or Iron Age hill forts. The chronicles are full of atrocities committed by ‘castle-men’, who left people eating dogs and horses. ‘Never did a country endure more misery,’ wrote a Peterborough monk in the final pages of The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. ‘If the ground was tilled the earth bore no corn, for the land was ruined by such doings; and men said openly that Christ and his saints slept.’10