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Accession of Stephen

Accession of Stephen - A new Charter passed - Conspiracy among the Nobles - Battle of the Standard - Landing of Matilda - Imprisonment of Stephen.
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The exertions made by Henry Beauclerc to preserve to his daughter the succession to the throne proved altogether fruitless, and those solemn vows which he had exacted from the barons, and with which he had endeavoured to fence about the cause of Matilda, were of no avail. No sooner did the news of the king's death reach Stephen of Blois, than he instantly took measures for seizing upon the English crown. Allusion has already been made to this ambitious noble, who, on taking the oaths of fealty to Matilda, had caused himself to be recognised as the first prince of the blood.

Stephen, Count of Blois, to whom William the Conqueror gave his daughter Adela in marriage, had several sons. Two of these, Henry and Stephen, had been invited to England by the late king, who had bestowed great favour and preferment upon them. Beauclerc, cruel towards his enemies, was a firm and generous friend to those who happened to obtain his good-will. Young Henry, who had been educated for the Church, was made Abbot of Glastonbury, and subsequently appointed to the see of Winchester. Stephen received the hand of Maud, daughter and heiress of Eustace, the Count of Boulogne. The connection was in the highest degree advantageous to Stephen. Immense estates in England, as well as the earldom of Boulogne, came to him in right of his wife, who, moreover, possessed a hold upon the sympathies of the English in consequence of her Saxon descent. Mary, his wife's mother, was the sister of David, King of Scotland, and of Matilda the Good, first wife of Henry I., and mother of the empress.

At the time of the dispute with Robert of Gloucester on the subject of precedence, Stephen professed that his gratitude to the king impelled him to be the first to offer allegiance to Matilda; but his whole course of action at this period shows that his designs upon the English crown were fully matured. He exerted himself to attain popularity among the people, as well as among the barons. His daring and gallantry secured him the admiration of the Normans, while his affable and familiar manners, joined to a generosity without stint, obtained the affections of the people.

On the death of Henry, Stephen landed in England before the news could reach Matilda; and though the gates of Dover and Canterbury were shut against him, he passed on without hesitation to London, where a majority of the people saluted him king with acclamations. By the assistance of his brother, the Bishop of Winchester, Stephen obtained possession of the royal treasure in that city, amounting to 100,000 in money, besides considerable stores of plate and jewels. The next step was to secure the goodwill and co-operation of the clergy; and in this respect his brother, the bishop, again tendered his aid. Roger, Bishop of Sarum, chief functionary of the kingdom, was secured by bribes and promises, and these two ecclesiastics endeavoured to prevail upon William, Archbishop of Canterbury, to administer the royal unction to the usurper. The primate, who was a conscientious man, refused consent, and a dishonourable expedient was then resorted to, to overcome his opposition. Hugh Bigod, steward of the royal household, presented himself before the archbishop, and swore that King Henry, on his death-bed, had disinherited his daughter Matilda, who had offended him, and that he had appointed his nephew, Stephen, to succeed him as the inheritor of his kingdom.

These oaths, which were common in the Middle Ages, and which were so little real security when opposed to personal interests, were, nevertheless, regarded nominally as of considerable weight; and a pretext was, therefore, necessary for absolving the clergy and the barons from their vows of allegiance to Matilda. This was supplied by Roger of Sarum, who declared that those vows were null and void, because the empress had been married out of the country without the consent of the lords, who had expressly stipulated that their opinion should be consulted in the disposal of the hand of their future queen.

The several obstacles being thus overcome or set aside, the Archbishop of Canterbury crowned Stephen (December 26, a.d. 1135) at Westminster. Very few nobles attended the ceremony, but there was no show of opposition. The first act of the new king was to proceed to Reading to attend the burial of his uncle, and from thence he passed on to Oxford, where he held court, and summoned thither a council of the prelates and clergy of the kingdom, whom he required to swear allegiance to him. He permitted the clergy to annex to their oaths an important condition, to the effect that they swore to support his government only so long as he should maintain the rights and liberties of the Church. The barons also obtained the right of fortifying castles upon their estates.

These concessions to the Church secured the favour of the Pope, Innocent II., who soon afterwards sent letters to Stephen, confirming his title to the throne. The words of the Pontiff were as follows: - "We have heard that thou hast been chosen by the common voice and will of the people and of the lords, and that thou hast received a blessing from the ministers of the Church. Considering that the choice of so large a number of men must have been directed by Divine grace, and that, moreover, thou art closely related to the deceased king, we are well pleased with the course taken in thy behalf; and we receive thee with paternal affection as a son of the blessed Apostle Peter, and of the holy Roman Church."

Still further to secure his position, Stephen passed a charter closely resembling that issued under similar circumstances by his predecessor. He endeavoured to conciliate all the estates of the realm: to the clergy he promised that vacant benefices should immediately be filled up, and that their revenues should in no case be applied to the purposes of the crown; to the nobility he pledged his word that the royal forests which Henry Beauclerc had appropriated to himself should be restored to their ancient boundaries; and to the people he engaged to remit the tax of Danegelt, and to restore the laws of King Edward. Stephen also made lavish gifts of money and lands to those about him, and during the first year of his reign the land rejoiced once more in plenty and prosperity. "To such means," says Holinshed, "are princes driven that attain to their estates more through favour and support of others than by any rood right or title which they may pretend of themselves. Thus the government of this prince at the beginning was nothing bitter or haughty to his subjects, but full of gentleness, lenity, courtesy, and mildness."

Matilda and her husband Geoffrey experienced no better fortune in Normandy than in England. The Norman nobility were influenced by the same reasons as formerly, in desiring a continuance of their union with the crown of England; while, at the same time, an hereditary animosity existed between them and the people of Anjou. When Geoffrey Plantagenet entered Normandy for the purpose of enforcing the rights of his wife Matilda, the Normans applied for assistance to Theobald of Blois, eldest brother of Stephen (a.d. 1136). As soon as Stephen obtained possession of the English throne, they transferred their allegiance to him, and put him in possession of the government of the duchy. The homage which, as feudal sovereign, was due to Louis VII., King of France, he accepted from Eustace, Stephen's eldest son, instead of from the English king himself; and Louis also betrothed his sister Constantia to the young prince. The Count of Blois consented to resign his claim for a yearly pension of 2,000 marks, and Geoffrey of Anjou was compelled to conclude a truce of two years with Stephen, receiving, also, a pension of 5,000 marks.

Robert of Gloucester, the natural son of Henry, entertained the strongest feelings of hostility to Stephen. He jars, however, to have directed his efforts against the usurper rather in support of the claims of his sister, Matilda, than of any pretensions of his own. On the elevation of Stephen to the throne, Robert found it necessary to take the oath of allegiance, since a refusal to do so would have resulted in the loss of his estates in England, and of that power which he proposed to use in his sister's behalf. He therefore offered to do homage on condition that the king fulfilled all his promises, and never invaded any of the rights of Robert. Thus a pretext was afforded for revolt at any moment, and the Earl of Gloucester, who was a man of considerable abilities and military reputation, occupied himself in promoting a spirit of disaffection among the nobles. The right which the English barons had obtained of erecting fortified castles was exercised to the utmost. Strong fortresses rapidly arose in all parts of the kingdom, and were garrisoned with licentious soldiery, native and foreign.

In proportion as the privileges of the nobles were extended, the condition of the people became once more one of oppression and misery. Petty wars broke out among the rival barons, who made incursions into each others' territories, and practised unbounded rapine upon the towns and villages. Some of the more powerful chiefs declared that the promises made to them by Stephen on his accession had not been fulfilled; and they seized various parts of the royal estates, which they asserted were their due. Among these was Hugh Bigod, whose act of perjury had secured the coronation of Stephen, and who now revolted openly against the king, and took possession of Norwich Castle.

The insurgents had not yet learned to act in concert, and Stephen soon recovered the estates which had been seized. The spirit of sedition, however, was not repressed; new disturbances were continually taking place, and the country remained in a state of anarchy.

In the year 1137, Robert, Earl of Gloucester, having organised an extensive confederacy, quitted his estates, and having crossed the Channel, sent to the king a formal letter of defiance. Other great barons also, on the ground that the promises made to them had not been fulfilled, renounced their homage, and retired to their strongholds. Stephen displayed at this crisis the highest valour and activity, and a desultory warfare took place between the king and his disaffected nobles.

In March, a.d. 1138, David, King of Scotland, crossed the Tweed at the head of an army which he had collected, from every part of his kingdom, to defend the title of his niece, Matilda. The chroniclers describe the Scotch army as a wild and barbarous multitude, many of whom, gathered from the recesses of the highlands, were men fierce and untutored, half clad, and with only the rudest weapons of war. This undisciplined host passed through Northumberland into Yorkshire, devastating the country, and committed unheard-of barbarities upon the miserable inhabitants. It is related of them that they behaved after the manner of wild beasts, slaying all who came in their way, sparing neither old age in its helplessness, nor beauty in its spring, nor the infant in the womb.

The fury of these massacres exasperated the northern nobility, who might otherwise have been disposed to join the King of Scotland. Thurstan, Archbishop of York, an aged man, seemed to derive new youth from the crisis which demanded the exertion of his energies. He shook off the weight of years, and, organising an army, he earnestly exhorted the barons and the soldiers to defend their countrymen from the ravages of the invaders. William, Earl of Albemarle, Roger Mowbray, Robert de Ferrers, William Piercy, Walter L'Espec, and others of their compeers assembled their troops, and encamped at Elfer-tun, now called Northallerton, about half-way between York and Durham, and there awaited the arrival of the enemy. The advance of the Scots had been so rapid that Stephen, who was occupied with repressing the rebellion in the south, had no time to reach the scene of action.

The Scottish army, the first division of which was led by Prince Henry, son of David, crossed the Tees in several divisions, bearing as a standard a lance, to which was fixed a bunch of the "blooming heather." They did not form, as was the case with more disciplined armies, distinct bodies of horse and foot, but each man brought to the field of battle such arms as he could obtain. With the exception of the French or Norman knights whom the King of Scotland brought with him, and who were armed cap-a-pie, with complete suits of mail, the great mass of his soldiers displayed a disorderly equipment. The men of Galloway and other parts of the west wore no defensive armour, and bore long and sharp pikes or javelins as their only weapon. The inhabitants of the lowlands, who formed the chief part of the infantry, were armed with spears and breastplates; while the highlanders, who wore a bonnet adorned with plumes, and a plaid cloak fastened at the waist by a leathern belt, appeared in the fight with a small wooden shield on the left arm, while in the right hand they bore the claymore or broad sword. The chiefs wore the same armour as their soldiers, from whom they were only distinguished by the length of their plumes.

The Anglo-Norman barons, anxious to invoke on their behalf the ancient superstitions of the English, caused the banners of St. Cuthbert of Durham, St. John of Beverley, and St. Wilfrid of Ripon, to be brought from the churches in which they had remained since the time of the Conqueror, and erected them in the midst of the camp. The mast of a ship was set up in a car with four wheels; at the top of the mast was fixed a crucifix, attached to which was a silver box, containing the sacramental wafer, or eucharist, and round it were hung the banners of the three English saints.

This standard, from which the battle has taken its name, was erected in the centre of the position. The knights of the English army were ranged beside it, having first sworn to remain united, and to defend the sacred symbol to the death. The Archbishop of York, who was prevented by illness from appearing in the field, sent a representative in the person of Ranulph, Bishop of Durham, who, as the Scots were heard approaching, placed himself at the foot of the standard and read the prayer of absolution, the whole army kneeling before him. The attack was made by the men of Galloway, who rushed impetuously on the English infantry, and broke their ranks; the cavalry, however, remained firm round their standard, and repulsed the charges of the Scots with great slaughter. Meanwhile the bowmen of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire rallied from their confusion, and poured in flights of arrows upon the enemy, while the Norman knights, protected by their heavy armour, were receiving the attacks of the brave but undisciplined natives of the north. The Scots maintained the contest for two hours, but at length they were thrown into confusion by a charge of the Norman cavalry, and were compelled to retreat as far as the Tyne. At the battle of Northallerton, which was fought on the 22nd August, a.d. 1138, the loss of the Scots is stated to have been 12,000 men.

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