History explorer: Stephen and Matilda’s fight for the throne

Professor David Crouch and Charlotte Hodgman visit Wallingford Castle in Oxfordshire, which played a key role in a vicious civil war in the 12th century...

This article was first published in the January 2015 issue of BBC History Magazine

With its impressive central mound and tower, high protective walls and deep defensive ditches, Wallingford Castle must have posed a formidable sight to besieging forces in the medieval period, among them those of King Stephen, who sought to take the fortification from his would-be usurper, Empress Matilda, on a number of occasions between 1139 and 1153.

Today little remains of the mighty fortress that overlooked a key crossing point of the river Thames. Small, scattered sections of the castle’s stone walls can be found at various points in the 41-acre site now known as Wallingford Castle Meadows. The most complete section, however, is the ruins of St Nicholas’ Collegiate Church, a building that stood within the castle walls and can now be accessed via a relatively steep set of steps. Standing in the shadow of the huge motte – accessible via a wooden suspension bridge – the limestone ruins remind us of the castle’s long history and its strategic importance in the fight for the English crown following the death of Henry I in 1135.

“Succession was a flashpoint in any medieval nation’s history,” says Professor David Crouch, professor of medieval history at the University of Hull, “but England was notorious for having no succession customs. The person who took the throne was generally he – or she – who made the most of the opportunities available to them.”

Henry made every effort to ensure a straightforward succession, nominating his only surviving legitimate child, Matilda, as his heir before his death. The great barons and nobles of England had sworn to support Matilda’s claim to the throne and she had been married to one of the most powerful men in France: Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. Henry, it seemed, had set his daughter up to move smoothly into the role of England’s first reigning queen.

“Henry’s death couldn’t have come at a worse time,” says Crouch. “He died in the middle of a ferocious row with his son-in-law – a dispute that saw Matilda side with her husband against her father – and it is even said that Henry had released his magnates from their oath of support for Matilda’s succession. Whether this was the case or not, when Henry died after more than 35 years on the throne, the scene was set for a desperate scramble for power.”

Matilda, shown here in a 14th-century illustration, was within two days of becoming England’s first ruling queen. (Bridgeman)

 

Power struggles

Henry, like his father William the Conqueror before him, had ruled both Normandy and England, and after his death the Norman barons decided to ignore Matilda’s claim in favour of Henry’s nephew Theobald, Count of Blois, whom they felt would benefit their interests the most, as well as bring the principalities of Normandy and Blois into alignment.

But as Theobald arrived triumphantly in Rouen, confident of his support, he must surely have been shocked to discover that his younger brother, Stephen, had dashed ahead to London where he had already been crowned.

“London was a huge city in medieval terms, and the opinions of its people carried great weight,” says Crouch. “Stephen’s appeal to Londoners lay partly in his personality – he was by all accounts a very affable man – but also with the fact that his wife was Countess of Boulogne, a town that was a point of access for trade on the continent. Stephen’s coronation, therefore, was seen to be in London’s best interests.”

But what of Matilda, Henry’s nominated heir? Without the support of the Norman barons, Matilda could do little to stake her claim to the throne. Her uncle, David, king of Scotland, had invaded England on her behalf after Henry’s death, but had been unsuccessful and in 1136 he made a peace settlement with Stephen at Durham. All Matilda could do was wait for an opportunity to present itself.

The first years of Stephen’s reign went well, but in 1137 tensions surfaced among certain factions at court as the king began to neglect those key men who had served at the core of Henry’s government, and favour his friends, notably the charismatic Waleran de Beaumont. The king’s failure to put down a rebellion against English occupiers in Wales was the last straw, and in 1138 growing dissatisfaction became open revolt.

A 1253 depiction of King Stephen, whose charisma won over the people of London. (Alamy) 

“England can be seen to have staggered into rebellion in 1138,” says Crouch, “and when civil war did finally break out, it was very territorial. Generally speaking, Matilda’s support could be found in the south-west of England, where Matilda’s half-brother and chief supporter, Robert, Earl of Gloucester, had land. Yorkshire, East Anglia and London were for the king, while the Cotswold area in between became something of a war zone.”

One baron who eventually switched his allegiance from Stephen to Matilda was Brian fitz Count, Lord of Wallingford and Abergavenny. Like many other barons, fitz Count had initially accepted Stephen’s rule, but defended his later defection by citing the oath he had taken under Henry I to support his daughter’s claim. Soon after, Stephen attacked fitz Count’s castle in Wallingford, which had become an important stronghold for Matilda’s faction (Stephen made further attempts to take the castle in 1145/6 and again in 1152, but failed in his endeavours).

Matilda herself arrived in England in 1139, landing in Arundel and staying under the protection of Henry I’s widowed second wife, Adeliza of Louvain, at the town’s castle. Unwilling to risk offending Adeliza by attacking the castle, Stephen instead decided to broker a deal with the empress, and she was granted safe passage to Bristol, where she was reunited with Robert of Gloucester.

 

Becoming queen

Stephen most probably regretted his decision to allow Matilda to return to her faction when, in February 1141, he was captured by the combined forces of Robert of Gloucester and the Earl of Chester after being defeated in battle outside Lincoln’s city walls. At the mercy of his captors, the king was taken to Bristol Castle where he was held, in chains, for some 10 months on Matilda’s orders.

“Stephen’s treatment in Bristol reveals much about Matilda’s character,” says Crouch. “He was placed in leg irons, despite being an anointed king; this seemingly vindictive act shocked his subjects and did little to increase the empress’s popularity.

“Matilda’s lack of discretion and sensitivity in the way she treated her magnates at court is well documented by medieval chroniclers. After Stephen’s capture, her route to the throne looked clearer than it had ever been, yet she is described in contemporary sources as alienating members of her court with her uncontrollable and spiteful behaviour.”

Wallingford's castle ruins. (Alamy)

With Stephen imprisoned and unable to marshal his support, Matilda seized the initiative and made it as far as Westminster in her bid for the crown. There, she was accepted by the population of London – as Stephen had been some six years earlier – and preparations began to take place for her coronation.

“By 1141, victory looked to be well within Matilda’s reach,” says Crouch. “Her rival to the throne was in prison and the inhabitants of the most important city in England had accepted her as their reigning queen. But the tables turned dramatically when, just two days before her coronation, she alienated both new and old sources of support.

“As tradition dictated, Matilda was petitioned by Londoners for tax concessions  and other favours in the run-up to her coronation. But, instead of wooing her new subjects with generosity and magnanimity,  Matilda, as was her way, granted no favours, shrieked at her petitioners and banished them from her presence. In one fell swoop she had lost the city and its support.”

Realising they would gain nothing from Matilda’s reign, the rejected Londoners returned to the city where they proceeded to ring the bells. Men of London’s militia poured into the streets and an angry mob advanced on Westminster, forcing Matilda to flee to Oxford for her own safety.

Matilda’s bad luck continued when, in September 1141, Robert of Gloucester was captured at Winchester by Stephen’s queen –  also Matilda – who had led an army of Flemish mercenaries and loyal barons there to fight Stephen’s cause.

The medieval road bridge across the Thames connects Wallingford and Crowmarsh Gifford. The original bridge played a key role in Stephen’s sieges of the town. (Alamy)

A prisoner exchange took place soon after, and Stephen was free to resume his place on the throne and pursue his would-be usurper to Oxford, where Matilda had based her campaign. As Stephen attacked the city, laying siege to Oxford Castle where the empress was residing, Matilda managed to escape. She fled first to the abbey at Abingdon before moving on to Wallingford Castle.

The war dragged on with neither side able to deliver the crucial final blow, but, with Robert of Gloucester’s death in 1147, the military heart went out of Matilda’s campaign and she finally left England for Normandy, resigning her rights to the English throne to her son, Henry (later Henry II), who made several expeditions to England to try where his mother had failed.

“The final showdown took place in 1153, at Wallingford,” says Crouch, “but it was far from the decisive battle Stephen had waited for. The two armies set up camp either side of the Thames, near Wallingford Castle, but in a dramatic twist, barons in both armies – many of whom had already made private peace treaties among themselves – refused to fight, forcing Henry and Stephen to iron out a peace settlement.”

The agreement – which became known widely as the Treaty of Wallingford – was sealed in Westminster in December 1153, and saw Stephen formally acknowledge Henry as his adopted son and successor.

Henry II granted Wallingford a royal charter in 1155 to recognise its loyalty to his mother. It allowed the town to host the markets still held today. (Alamy)

“The treaty was a remarkable event in British history,” concludes Crouch, “and laid the groundwork for Magna Carta in 1215. Ultimately, the war was ended, not by the anointed king, but by a group of barons who decided to stand up to their king in order to ensure the peace of the realm.”

 

Stephen and Matilda: five more places to explore

1) Oxford Castle

Where Matilda made a daring escape

Matilda based herself at Oxford Castle in 1141 but quickly found herself under siege from Stephen’s forces. Surrounded, the empress was forced to escape under the cover of darkness, allegedly lowered down the walls and dressed in white as camouflage against the snow. You can visit the castle’s medieval motte, crypt and tower.

2) Wareham Castle

Where allegiances changed constantly

Built in the 12th century, Wareham Castle was often employed as a transit point for armies just arrived in England from western Normandy. The castle was seized on a number of occasions, allegedly changing hands five times between Stephen and Matilda. Today, only the motte and ditches of the castle remain.

3) Leicester Castle

Where an earl promoted peace

The conflict was effectively ended by barons who made private peace treaties with each other to limit the effects of war. One of these was Robert de Beaumont, twin brother of royal favourite Waleran, who held Leicester Castle. A supporter of the king, Robert was one of those who led the movement for peace among England’s greater earls. The great hall is among the medieval remains that are accessible.

4) Winchester Cathedral

Where a peace treaty was announced

Stephen’s brother, Henry de Blois, bishop of Winchester, was one of the most powerful men in England, but transferred his support to Matilda after Stephen’s capture in 1141. He later rejoined his brother, defending the city from Matilda. The treaty that ended the war was announced in the city’s cathedral in November 1153.

5) Northallerton, Yorkshire

Where Matilda’s claim was defended

In 1138, David I of Scotland invaded England for a second time to defend his niece’s claim to the throne. At the ensuing battle just outside Northallerton, David was defeated and forced to return north.

Words by Charlotte Hodgman. The historical advisor was David Crouch, professor of medieval history at the University of Hull.

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