Stephen and Matilda

The church did not want the country to be without a ruler and, following more meetings with Henry, were persuaded to support Matilda, who, in the meantime, was having troubles of her own.

Having arrived in London she lost no time in establishing her authority, but her arrogance and high handedness, plus harsh tax demands quickly alienated her from the very people whose support she needed. Her procession through the city turned to a riot when the people rose against her and she was driven from London.

Learning nothing from these experiences and listening to no advice, Matilda very soon lost the support of Bishop Henry, who, turning his coat again returned to Stephen’s cause. Henry with a strong force besieged Winchester castle determined to restore the city to the royalist cause. Matilda responded on the 31st of July by arriving with a besieging force of her own and the bishop’s men were forced to retreat to the fortified Wolvesly palace, Henry’s official residence while Henry escaped to gather reinforcements. A double siege ensued with Matilda’s forces besieging the bishop’s men in Wolvesly and the royalists besieging the city. Three days later the city was set on fire.

It is not known if this was Matilda or Henry’s doing, but the fire cost Matilda most of her provisions and she was forced to make a break for it. The royalists and the Londoners then proceeded to sack the town, burning and looting, dragging many away for torture and execution, Stephen’s supporters were starting to waver and his Normandy possessions were being overrun by Count Geoffrey. Matilda’s fortunes were in no better state however, although she and her supporters had managed to escape from Winchester, her half brother Robert was captured at Stockbridge about 10 miles from the town. This capture enabled Stephen’s supporters to negotiate the King’s release in exchange for Robert and Stephen thus regained his crown and title on 1st November 1141 after being held captive since 2nd February.

The war dragged on and in October of the following year, Stephen laid siege to Matilda in Oxford castle. The siege lasted 3 months and the situation became desperate enough for Matilda to seek a means of escape and it said that she climbed down a rope from St George’s tower and escaped across the frozen river wearing white as a camouflage, finally reaching the safety of Wallingford castle, showing that for all her lack of tact or charm she had some of the Conqueror’s spirit in her. She remained the focal point of resistance to Stephen, but her moment had passed. She made a new base of resistance in Devizes being joined by her eldest son Henry in 1142, but was unable to extend her area of influence. Her requests for help from her husband were ignored, he was far more interested in the domination of Normandy which he completed in 1144.

The wars were finally ended when agreement was reached, following the death of Stephen’s only son Eustace, that Stephen would reign for his lifetime and that Matilda’s son would inherit thereafter. Things might have been very different for Stephen had Eustace lived and if Stephen had forced the church to accept the accession of his son. With the death of her half brother Robert in 1147, Matilda gave up, leaving further resistance to her son and returned to Normandy.

The rest of her life was spent furthering the interests of her son and dabbling in the politics of Normandy and its relations with Germany and France. Although unpopular and never achieving the throne, she was the mother of the Plantagenets who would reign for the next 350 years. Matilda lived to see the first 13 years of her son’s reign and is buried in Fontrevault Abbey. It is said that the name Plantagenet derives from the habit of Geoffrey’s family, being avid hunters, of planting sprigs of the plant we know as Broom to provide ground cover for game animals. The Latin name of this plant being Genista, therefore, Planta Genista.

We should also remember the role in Stephen’s life played by another Matilda (sometimes known as Maude), his wife and tireless supporter in these parlous times. She was the daughter of the Count of Bouloigne, granddaughter of Malcolm of Scotland and a direct descendant of both Ethelred the Unready and Charlemagne She was made of sterner stuff than Stephen. In 1138 Maude supervised the capture of Dover castle, from Matilda’s supporters; in 1139 she negotiated a treaty with her uncle David, King of Scotland.

She rallied support for Stephen after his capture at Lincoln and was instrumental in persuading Stephen’s brother Henry of Winchester to return to Stephen’s cause. She also played a large part in manipulating the favours of the Londoners against the Empress Matilda. She is described in the Gesta Stephani as “a woman of subtlety and a man’s resolution”, who “bore herself with valour like a man”, thus showing that it was possible to be both hard and resolute without alienating her supporters through arrogance.

Stephen however, was still to know no peace. The enmities and rivalries of the civil war continued with much death and destruction during a time when, as the chroniclers recorded “the saints slept”.

Stephen held only a modest court and little is known of his death. Richard Baker’s chronicles state that “he was suddenly seized with the iliac passion and with an old disease of the emroids”. Any pain in the Illiac region could be the result of appendicitis which can lead to an abscess, causing peritonitis and death; it seems that he also had a recurrent attack of haemorrhoids at this time.

Stephen was buried beside his wife Maud and son Eustace at the monastery he had founded at Faversham in Kent in October 1151.

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 *