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Reign of Stephen

Reign of Stephen continued - Flight of Matilda from London - Release of Stephen - Siege of Oxford - Midnight Flight of Matilda - Death of the Earl of Gloucester - Landing of Prince Henry - Truce between Henry and Stephen - Death of Stephen.
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Matilda was making ready for her coronation in perfect security, when a rising of the people, as sudden as it was unanimous, resulted in driving her from London in the utmost haste, and without even so much as a change of raiment. An alarm sounded from all the steeples of the City, and immediately every street was filled with an excited multitude of the people. From the doors of every house men came forth, armed with such weapons as they could procure. The empress and her Angevins (People of Anjou.) - startled by the suddenness of the attack, and not daring to risk a conflict where the numbers were so greatly against them, and which would nave to be carried on in narrow streets, where every advantage would be on the side of their enemies - made no attempt at resistance, but hastily seized horses, and galloped off at full speed. Matilda had scarcely quitted the town, when the enraged populace forced their way into her apartments, and seized or destroyed whatever they found there.

As the ex-empress sped on her way, the barons and knights who accompanied her one by one detached themselves from the escort, and, consulting only their own safety, fled across the country, or along cross-roads, towards their strongholds. She arrived at Oxford with the Earl of Gloucester and a few followers, whom motives of policy, or a regard for their knightly honour, still held attached to her fortunes. The citizens of London attempted no pursuit of the fugitives. Their revolt appears to have been a sudden outbreak of popular indignation rather than the result of any preconcerted arrangement, and was not followed by any further measures of a similar kind. The Norman adherents of King Stephen soon afterwards re-entered London, and, having obtained the consent of the citizens, by the promise of an alliance with them, garrisoned the city with troops. The only privileges obtained by the citizens in consequence of the insurrection were the permission of enlistment to the number of one thousand men, and of fighting in the cause of the king, wearing a helmet and hauberk. Queen Maud, the wife of Stephen, proceeded to London, and there held court She was a woman of gentle and amiable character; but her lot was cast in evil times, and she displayed the energy and courage of a man in her efforts to obtain her husband's liberation.

The Bishop of Winchester, whom Matilda, in her short day of power, had so grievously offended, no sooner perceived the tide of fortune turning against the empress, than he deserted her cause, and once more declared himself in favour of his brother. He hoisted the banner of Stephen on the walls of Winchester Castle, and on his palace, which bad been fortified with all the engineering skill of the age. Other castles within his diocese, including those of Waltham and Farnham, were strongly garrisoned. An interview took place at Guildford between the bishop and his sister-n-law, Queen Maud, whose entreaties probably removed any hesitation he might feel as to his course of action.

Matilda, having become aware of those transactions, sent the bishop a haughty message to appear immediately in her, presence. The prelate sent back the messenger with the answer that he was "making himself ready for her" - an expression which had a double meaning. Matilda marched with her followers to Winchester; but the bishop, leaving his palace defended by a strong garrison, quitted the town as she entered it, and proceeded to place himself at the head of his vassals, and of the knights who had agreed to fight under his standard. The castle of Winchester was given up to Matilda, and she summoned around her those barons who still adhered to her cause. Among these were Robert of Gloucester, the Earl of Chester, the Earl of Hereford, and David, King of Scotland, uncle to the empress.

The troops under these leaders laid siege to the episcopal palace, which stood in the heart of the city. The bishop's garrison, having set fire to the adjoining houses, which might have served as places of defence to the assailants, retired into their fortress and waited for succour. Meanwhile, the Bishop of Winchester had received an accession of strength from the troops of Queen Maud, among whom were the citizens of London, to the number, as already mentioned, of one thousand. Marching rapidly to Winchester, the bishop surprised the troops of the empress, who were compelled to entrench themselves in the churches, while Matilda herself, with her chief nobles, took refuge in the castle. Thus the besiegers were in turn besieged; the sanctuary was not respected by the warlike Bishop of Winchester, and the churches were burnt down in order to force the occupants from their place of refuge. The unhappy inhabitants suffered extreme misery while this murderous warfare was going on in their streets; they were plundered by both of the opposing factions, their goods seized without redress, and their homes burnt down or ransacked.

The castle, which was completely surrounded by the troops of the bishop, sustained a siege of six weeks, by which time the provisions of the garrison were exhausted. A daring expedient was determined upon by the empress as the alternative of an unconditional surrender. The 14th of September (a.d. 1141) was the feast of the Holy Rood or Cross, on which, as on other festivals of the church, it was the custom for antagonists in the field to desist from hostilities. At daybreak on that day, when the besieging troops were asleep or engaged in preparing for their devotions, Matilda stole out from the castle, accompanied by her brother, the Earl of Gloucester, and a small but chosen escort. Mounted on fleet horses they made their way through the troops of the bishop, and fled at full speed along the road to Devizes. A hot pursuit was immediately set on foot, and the fugitives were overtaken in the neighbourhood of Stourbridge. Finding escape impossible, the Earl of Gloucester and the knights who were with him turned upon their pursuers and kept them at bay, while the empress urged on her horse and arrived in safety at Devizes. After a gallant resistance the earl with several of his companions were taken prisoners.

Matilda pursued her way without delay from Devizes to Gloucester. It is related that, exhausted by her rapid flight, or desirous of avoiding danger on the road, she feigned death, and caused herself to be conveyed in a hearse or litter. This story, however, is improbable in itself, and rests on indifferent foundation. The knights who escaped from the engagement at Stourbridge abandoned their arms and horses, and passed through the towns on foot, so that they might not be recognised. The worst enemies they had to fear were not the adherents of Stephen who pursued them, but the Saxon peasantry, whose hatred against the Normans, of whatever faction, had been kept alive by a long series of cruelties and acts of oppression. The fugitives, notwithstanding their disguise, were betrayed by their foreign accent, and they were attacked wherever they went by the English, who bound them with cords and flogged them along the roads with knotted whips. The King of Scotland escaped in safety to his kingdom, and the Earl of Hereford succeeded in reaching Gloucester Castle, where, however, he arrived in miserable plight, without arms, and almost without clothes. The Earl of Gloucester was brought before the queen of Stephen, who ordered him to be confined in Rochester Castle. We are told by the best authorities that Maud did not retaliate upon the earl for the harsh treatment he had inflicted upon her husband, but that she permitted him every indulgence consistent with his safe custody.

About a month after the capture of the Earl of Gloucester, a treaty was concluded between the belligerents, by the terms of which the king was exchanged for the earl, and thus the leaders of both armies regained their liberty. Stephen resumed his title and the exercise of the royal authority over the eastern and midland counties, which were the parts of the country in the possession of his adherents. Normandy no longer acknowledged the rule of the English king. During his imprisonment the duchy had submitted to Geoffrey of Anjou, who soon afterwards resigned it in favour of his eldest son Henry.

The resumption of authority by Stephen rendered it necessary for the clergy to renounce, in form at least, their vows of allegiance to Matilda. Finding themselves in a position of embarrassment and difficulty, an ecclesiastical council was convened at Westminster, for the purpose of debating on the subject. The Bishop of Winchester, as the legate of the Pope, exhibited a letter from Innocent, desiring him to use every means in his power to restore his brother to liberty. The bishop then proceeded to justify the measures he had adopted in support of Matilda. He said that he had espoused her cause, not because he had desired to do so, but because circumstances impelled him to that course of action. Matilda had not fulfilled her promises, but had used him with contumely, and even made attempts against his life. He therefore considered that he was absolved from the oaths he had taken to her, and at liberty to restore his allegiance to the king. Stephen, who was present at the assembly, then spoke to the same effect. He alluded to the disgrace the nobles endured in being governed by a woman, and declared that he had never withheld justice from those of his subjects who asked for it. The majority of the council acknowledged the authority of the Pope's letter, and the legate proceeded to excommunicate all the adherents of that cause to which he had himself so lately been attached. Stephen was thus restored to power; but a lingering illness prevented him for some time from pursuing aggressive measures towards his enemies.

During this time the country wore an aspect of woe and desolation. All kinds of depredations were committed by the soldiers of Brabant, the Flemings, and other foreigners, with whom the land was overrun; while the Anglo-Norman nobles raised funds for the expenses of the civil war by selling their English estates, together with the miserable inhabitants. So great was the terror excited among the people by this state of things, that we are told that a considerable body of them would take to flight at the sight of three or four horsemen. Stories dark and dread were currently reported of cruelties practised by the Normans upon those who fell into their power. Those prisoners who were suspected to possess property of any kind were subjected to unheard-of tortures to compel them to give up their hoards. Some were suspended by the feet, while fumes of smoke were made to ascend about their heads; others were tied at some distance from the ground by the thumbs, while their feet were scorched by fire; or were thrown into pits filled with reptiles of different kinds; sometimes they suffered the dislocation of their limbs in what was called the chambre a crucir: (Torture-chamber.) this was a chest lined with sharp-pointed stones, in which the victim was fastened up (Chron. Sax.). Many of the castles contained a room or dungeon specially set apart for these purposes, and filled with instruments of torture, and with iron chains so heavy that it required two or three men to lift them. "You might have journeyed," says the authority already quoted, "a whole day without seeing a living person in the towns, or in the country one field in a state of tillage. The poor perished with hunger, and many who once possessed property now begged food from door to door. Every man who had the power quitted England. Never were greater sorrows poured upon this land."

Alarmed at the increasing power of Stephen, Matilda sent the Earl of Gloucester to her husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, entreating him to bring his forces to her aid. The earl replied that his presence was necessary in his own dominions, but expressed his willingness to send his son, Prince Henry, in his stead. Some months' delay ensued, and then Henry, with the earl his uncle, quitted Normandy with an inconsiderable force, and effected a landing in England.

Meanwhile, Stephen, having recovered from his illness, collected an army and laid siege to the city of Oxford, where Matilda had assembled her followers (a.d. 1142). The town fell into his hands almost immediately, and was set on fire by the royal troops. The empress had retreated into the castle, which was a place of great strength; but, as had been the case at Winchester, it proved to be insufficiently victualled. The fortress was completely surrounded and cut off from all supplies from without, and after a siege of three months the empress found herself compelled to make her escape in the same manner as before.

One night in December, when the ground was covered with snow, Matilda quitted the castle at midnight, attended by four knights, who, as well as herself, were clothed in white. More fortunate than on the previous occasion, the party passed through the lines of their enemies entirely unobserved, and crossed the Thames, which was frozen over. The adventurous daughter of Beauclerc then pursued her way, sometimes on foot, sometimes on horseback, to Wallingford, where she joined the army of her son and the Earl of Gloucester.

After having taken Oxford Castle, Stephen encountered the forces of the Earl of Gloucester at Wilton, and was defeated, the king himself having a narrow escape of a second imprisonment. A desultory warfare ensued, which lasted during three years, without any important advantage to either side, Prince Henry remained during this time at Bristol Castle, in the company of his uncle, the Earl of Gloucester, and in 1147 returned to Normandy. Soon after his departure, Robert of Gloucester died of an illness resulting from alternate excesses and privations. Deprived of the aid of her half-brother, who had governed her affairs with undoubted ability, Matilda found her position become every day less secure. One by one her most faithful partisans fell away, stricken down by disease, or weary of the contest; and among those who died was the Earl of Hereford, one of the ablest and most powerful defenders of her cause. At length the ex-empress determined to pass over into Normandy, there to concert with her husband and her son fresh measures for renewing the struggle. Emboldened by her absence, Stephen made vigorous attempts to re-establish his power upon a firm basis; and for this purpose he endeavoured by stratagem, as well as by force, to obtain possession of various strongholds which had been seized and fortified by the barons. The efforts thus made to reduce these haughty chiefs to submission met with little success, and the king's own adherents, were ill-disposed to support a policy which they foresaw might one day be extended to themselves.

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