Stephen and Matilda

As an added inducement, Thurstan provided the banners of four Yorkshire saints which were mounted on poles affixed to a four wheeled wagon. Atop the poles was a silver casket containing the Host, all this was designed to give heart and resolve to his forces as well as providing, in the words of a contempory “a sure and conspicuous rallying point by which they might rejoin their comrades in the event of being cut off”. Thurstan’s methods were successful and a large force consisting of English, Anglo Norman and Welsh moved against the Scottish King.

The two armies met at Northallerton in Yorkshire on 22nd August 1138.  Thurstan’s forces were drawn up on a slight rise and arrayed in a single division rather than the more usual three. All the knights were on foot having sent the horses to the rear as a sign of their refusal to retreat. In this rank of soldiers were deployed blocks of archers interspersed with the armoured men-at-arms, an arrangement that would figure prominently in many future battles fought by the English both at home and abroad.

The Scots halted six hundred yards away on another small rise, but fell to arguing among themselves as to who should lead the attack, the men from Galloway insisting that it was their traditional right to be first in the Scottish ranks. King David ordered his trumpeters to sound the advance and the men of Galloway “gave vent to a yell of a horrible sound” and charged the English line beating their swords on their shields. The English archers sheltering behind the front rank took terrible toll of the Galwegians. A contempory writer recorded that “the Scots, bristling all around with arrows and in blind madness rushing forward to smite the foe, but lashing the air with furious strokes”.

King David’s son Henry, seeing this carnage, led a cavalry charge from the right, screaming his battle cry “Albany! Albany!”, and scattered the defenders of the English left. Had Henry been supported by infantry, he might well have won the day, but in this confusion an English knight held up a severed head, shouting that King David was slain. On hearing this, the Scottish morale was shattered and the Galwegians, unable to endure any more of the arrow storm or the fierceness of the armoured knights, fled the field. Some of David’s supporters however, seeing the King’s Dragon banner still aloft realized that the David was still alive and rallied to his standard allowing the King to make a fighting withdrawal.

In January 1141, Stephen moved with his forces to attack the pro Matilda Earl of Chester in his castle at Lincoln. On learning of this, the Earl left the castle in the care of his brother William Roumare, while he himself escaped to join Earl Robert in the Welsh Marches. Robert had been busy building up his forces in Wales with the aid of his allies, the two Welsh princes Mariadeth and Kaladrius, sons of the powerful Madog who had made common cause with Robert against Stephen and Miles, the hereditary sheriff of Gloucestershire and castellan of Gloucester.

Miles had initially supported Stephen, but had turned to Matilda after her landing in England. It is likely that, given the adherence to Matilda of Miles’s more powerful neighbour Robert of Gloucester, his change of allegiance may have been more prompted by self preservation. The Welsh had little love for Stephen whose cavalier distribution of the lands of the Marches to his friends, particularly the Mortimers, had driven them into alliance with Robert, a third of whose army were Welsh.

On the 2nd February, Robert’s forces crossed the swollen Fossdyke and marched for Lincoln. On hearing of their coming, Stephen called a meeting of his nobles. The older, wiser heads counseled that he should retreat to London to raise a more powerful army, but the hotheads argued for an immediate attack on Earl Robert. The hotheads won the day and Stephen’s forces gave up the advantage of the high ground around the besieged castle and descended to meet the enemy.

Stephen’s forces were led by no less than 6 Earls: Richmond, Norfolk, Southampton who would command the right wing and Surrey, Worcester and York. The latter would command the left wing and the others in the centre with the King. As was usual during the period, speeches were made to the troops before the battle to stiffen resolve and mock the enemy. Earl Ranulf made a short speech and then Robert of Gloucester.

Robert called the Duke of Richmond “an infamous man polluted by crime”, Worcester was “slothful in deed, last to attack, first to run, tardy in battle and swift in flight” he claimed that Surrey had stolen York’s wife and that he was “weaking with wine and unacquainted with warfare”, he dismissed Southampton as “a man whose deeds consist of words alone”. Stephen, claiming that “he had not an agreeable voice” instructed Baldwin of Clare to address the army. Baldwin accuses Robert of “having the mouth of a lion but the heart of a hare, whatever he begins like a man he ends like a woman”. He dismissed the lightly armed Welsh contingent as “objects for our contempt, devoid of skill in the art of war like cattle running upon the hunting spears”.

York opened the battle by tearing into the lightly armed Welshmen creating much slaughter, but the better disciplined followers of the pro Matilda Earl of Chester, who it is recorded “stood out in his bright armour”, moved in on York’s men and routed them. For all his faults, lack of courage was not one of them and there is a contempory account of Stephen’s capture which does much to give the flavour of barbarity and bloodshed of medieval warfare.

“No rest, no breathing time was granted them except in the quarter where stood the most valiant King as the foe dreaded the incomparable force of his blows. The Earl of Chester, on perceiving this and envying the King his glory, rushed upon him with the weight of his armed men.

Then was seen the might of the King, equal to a thunderbolt, slaying some with his immense battleaxe and striking others down. Then arose the shouts afresh, all rushing against him and him against all. At length through the number of the blows, the King’s battleaxe was broken asunder. Instantly, with his right hand drawing his sword well worthy of a King, he marvelously waged combat until the sword as well was broken asunder”.

On seeing this, William Kahammes, a powerful knight rushed upon the King seizing him by the helmet, crying with a loud voice, “Hither!, Hither! I have the King!”. All flew to the spot and the King was taken. Pulling off the King’s helmet, Stephen, foaming at the mouth in his rage finally recognized the inevitable and surrendered to Robert of Gloucester.”

Stephen was put in chains and taken first to Gloucester where Matilda could see him in his defeat and then to the dungeons of Bristol castle. Upon his imprisonment, Stephen absolved his vassals of their allegiance, an act which made easier Henry, Bishop of Winchester’s defection to Matilda.

Matilda now needed to grasp the reins of power and needed prominent nobles to join her cause. On 2nd March 1141 she arranged a meeting with Henry, Bishop of Winchester and brother to Stephen. If she could persuade him to join her it would add much weight to her cause. The meeting took place outside the gates of Winchester on a cold and wet March day. The rain poured down on the two parties as the Empress promised “that all matters of chief account in England, especially gifts of bishoprics and abbacies should be subject to his control if he received her in Holy Church as Lady and kept his faith to her unbroken”. Bishop Henry agreed to accept her as Queen so long as she too kept her promises.

On 3rd she was formally welcomed in Winchester and took up residence in the castle, Henry handed her the keys to the royal treasury and the royal crown. She was acclaimed in Winchester market place as “Our Lady And our Queen”, although it is interesting to note that throughout this period she was never openly referred to as Queen, the title ‘Dominus’ or Lady of the English’ being more commonly used. Henry sent for Archbishop Theobald and he duly arrived three days later but was clearly reluctant to abandon Stephen the anointed King.

While Matilda travelled in triumph to Oxford, a church council meeting was convened, William of Malmesbury was present at the meeting and recorded that Henry explained his change of loyalty due to Stephen’s failure to keep his promises to the church and the arrest of Bishop Roger of Salisbury. He pompously declared that “though he loved his brother, he loved his Heavenly Father more”.

Jim Keys
Latest posts by Jim Keys (see all)

Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *