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Reign of Stephen page 2


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On the death of Innocent II. (September 24, 1143), the office of Legate of the Holy See was transferred from the Bishop of Winchester to Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury. The archbishop, having proceeded to the Council of Rheims in opposition to the royal command, was banished from the court. This impolitic act of Stephen was attended by consequences which show the extraordinary power possessed by the clergy over the rude and licentious men of that age. Hugh Bigod, the Earl of Norfolk, one of the adherents of Matilda, received the exiled prelate under his protection; and Theobald issued a sentence of excommunication against all the followers of the king, and the whole of the country which acknowledged his rule was declared without the pale of the Church. The order was obeyed by the clergy to the letter: the churches were closed, the services of religion suspended, and men died unhouselled in consequence of the refusal of the priests to perform their functions.

The ruthless Normans, familiar from their childhood with bloodshed, trembled before what they regarded as the wrath of Heaven; and the enslaved English regarded as their worst misery the decree which deprived them of ghostly consolation. While the land was suffering from disorders - which in this history have been briefly glanced at, but which are fully described in the pages of the chroniclers - the stately edifices of religion scattered throughout the country attracted to themselves, as to a centre, not only all the superstition, but the piety, the learning, and the virtue of the age. Built on the bank of some gentle stream, defended from storms by surrounding hills or dense woods, rose the solemn walls of the abbey church, gladdening the eyes of the traveller with the certainty of rest and protection: the one peaceful spot which, amidst the surrounding storm and violence, offered shelter to the weary, and pointed the hope of the sorrowing to heaven.

Those charitable institutions, which in later and happier times had a separate existence, were, in the twelfth century, included within the walls of the religious houses. Each monastery of note contained its hospital; and the study of medicine was cultivated by the monks as well as by the women of that age. When the terrible disease of leprosy was carried into this country from Palestine - an event which appears to date from the time of the First Crusade - various hospitals, which partook of the hallowed character of monastic establishments, were built for the reception of the sufferers. The leper, cut off by law from all intercourse with general society - as is the case still in countries where this scourge prevails - was received into these houses, where, in the company of his brethren in calamity, and subjected to no restraints but those of the conventual rule, he might lead his monotonous life engaged in the services of religion, and in the enjoyment at least of comfort and tranquillity.

The hospitals attached to the monasteries also received within their walls those who were wounded in the frequent battles or forays of that turbulent period; and it would appear that those who needed the surgical assistance of the monks in these and similar cases were tended with a degree of care and kindly feeling in agreeable contrast to the common temper of the age, and with all the skill of which the monks were possessed. These hospitals were frequently of noble, or even of royal foundation, and were often possessed of great wealth. One of the first of these religious lazar-houses of which we have any record, was the hospital of St. Giles, which received during this and the following centuries numerous rich and important endowments. Henry II. granted to it a charter, and gave a sum of 3 yearly to buy its inmates a distinctive habit. It was at the gate of this establishment that, towards the close of the fourteenth century, when the gallows was removed from the Elms to "the north land of the wall belonging to the hospital," the singular custom was observed of presenting to criminals, on their way to execution, a large bowl of ale, called the "St. Giles's bowl."

While it is probable that the interdict of the Archbishop of Canterbury did not interfere materially with the offices of charity and mercy which, in addition, to those of religion, were performed by the monks, it is, nevertheless, easy to understand why such a proclamation might be attended with serious inconvenience even to that part of the laity who cared nothing for the services of religion. The discontent throughout the country became so loud, that Stephen was compelled to make overtures to the archbishop for a reconciliation. After some delay, the primate accepted the terms, and the ban of the church was removed from the royal dominions. The king, who, in the interval, had learnt the expediency of securing the favour and adhesion of the clergy, made large donations to the churches and monasteries, and promised to extend these gifts, and add to them certain important privileges as soon as the kingdom should be placed in a condition of peace and security.

Two years after the reconciliation with the archbishop, Stephen convened at London a general assembly of the higher ecclesiastics, and demanded that his eldest son, Eustace, should, with their authority, be acknowledged as successor to the throne. t The bishops, headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, refused positively to comply with this demand. As the legate of Rome, the archbishop had communicated with the Pope on the subject, and had received for answer that Stephen was a usurper, and had not the right possessed by legitimate sovereigns of transmitting the crown to a successor. Exasperated by a refusal which followed his efforts at conciliation, Stephen ordered the bishops to be placed under arrest, and their benefices to be seized. This, however, was only a temporary outburst of anger, and appears to have been to some extent justified by the open defiance given by the prelates to the sovereign to Whom they had sworn allegiance.

The king soon found himself menaced by further dangers from Normandy. In the year 1149, Prince Henry, the son of Matilda, had landed in Scotland, attended by a retinue of knights and nobles, for the purpose of receiving the order of knighthood from his relative, the King of Scotland. David, at that time, held his court at Carlisle; and Henry, who had just attained his sixteenth year, received his spurs at that place in the presence of a vast assemblage of barons from various parts of England, as well as from Scotland and Normandy. The gallant bearing and character of the young prince is said to have produced the most favourable effect upon those who witnessed the ceremony, and was afterwards contrasted with that of the son of Stephen, to the disadvantage of the latter. Henry, having returned to Normandy in the year 1150, was placed in possession of the government of that duchy, and on the death of his father, Geoffrey Plantagenet, which took place immediately afterwards, the prince received the earldom of Anjou. The latter province was conferred upon him with the stipulation that he should resign it in favour of his younger brother on the day when he should become king. He swore solemnly to this effect over the dead body of his father; but the oath, as was the case with many other kingly oaths of those days, was violated without compunction when the time came for its fulfilment.

In the year 1152, Henry married Eleanor, Alienor, or Aanor, the divorced wife of Louis VII. of France, and daughter of William, Earl of Poitou and Duke of Aquitaine. According to the laws of those provinces, Eleanor succeeded her father in the exercise of sovereignty, and her husband, though a foreigner, shared the same rights. Eleanor was married, in 1137, to Louis, King of France, who exercised control over her domains so long as he remained united to her, and he garrisoned the towns of Aquitaine with soldiers and officers of his own. The queen had given birth to two daughters, and the union had lasted several years without interruption, when Louis determined to make a pilgrimage to Palestine, and his wife, whose uncle Raymond was Duke of Antioch, accompanied him on the journey. In the account already given of the First Crusade, allusion has been made to the low state of morality which prevailed in the camps, and it would appear that even the Queen of France was not exempt from the evil influences by which she was surrounded. Eleanor, who was possessed of remarkable beauty, displayed great freedom of manners, and she was accused, whether justly or otherwise, of an improper connection with a young Saracen knight named Saladin. On the return of the court from the Holy Land, in the year 1152, Louis called a council of the clergy at Baugency-sur-Loire, and demanded a divorce from his wife. The cause of the king was pleaded by the Bishop of Langres, who offered evidence of the offences committed by the queen. The Archbishop of Bordeaux, however, while assenting to the king's request, proposed that the separation should take place in a manner less fatal to the reputation of Eleanor - namely, on the ground of consanguinity between the parties. It was discovered by the prelates - rather late - that the queen was the cousin of her husband within the prohibited degrees. This, however, was the only ground on which the laws of the Church permitted a divorce, which, under any circumstances, was only granted to princes.

Eleanor, who regarded her husband as "more a monk than a king," assented readily to a separation; and on the marriage being annulled, she set out for her own domains, and remained for a while in the town of Blois. The repudiated wife seems to have had no want of suitors, and rather found a difficulty in protecting herself from their importunities. Theobald, Earl of Blois, the brother of King Stephen, offered her his hand, and having met with a refusal, he detained the duchess a prisoner in his castle, with the determination of marrying her by force. Suspecting his design, Eleanor escaped from the castle by night, and descended the Loire in a boat, reached the city of Tours, which at that time belonged to the duchy of Anjou.

Geoffrey of Anjou, the second son of Matilda, hearing of the arrival of the duchess, and tempted, probably, by her vast possessions, determined also to make her his wife, and placed himself in ambush at the Port de Piles, on the Loire, to intercept her as she passed, and carry her off. Eleanor, however, "warned by her good angel," turned aside and took the road to Poictiers. Here Henry, with more courtesy than his brother or the Earl of Blois, presented himself to her, and the offer of his hand being accepted, married her within a few weeks after her divorce (May 18). The conduct of the young prince in this transaction does not appeal' in a very delicate or chivalrous light; and it is evident that motives of policy alone could have induced him to marry a woman who, however beautiful, was considerably older than himself, and whose reputation was certainly not without stain. By this alliance Henry received the titles of Duke of Aquitaine and Earl of Poiton, in addition to those which he had previously possessed. His domains now considerably exceeded in extent those of the French king; and Louis, alarmed at the increase of the Norman power, forbade Henry - who, as Duke of Normandy, was his vassal - to contract the marriage with Eleanor, Henry, however, paid no regard to the prohibition, and the French king was compelled to accept the new vows of homage which the prince now offered him for the territories of Aquitaine and Poitou. These oaths - which were, in fact, little else than matters of form - had been for many years the only bond which remained between the ancient Frankish kings and the lords of those provinces which extended between the Loire and! the two seas. The country, called Gaul by the Romans,! had, in the seventh century, already become known among; neighbouring nations under the general name of France; but in the country itself this appellation was not yet recognised.

The great and rapid increase of power thus attained by Henry Plantagenet, necessarily excited the hopes of his mother, and of her adherents in England, who were gratified by the prospect of renewing the contest with Stephen in favour of a young prince whose gallantry and abilities offered the best prospect of success. The English king foresaw the approaching danger, and had no difficulty in perceiving that Henry would command many more supporters in England than would have ranged themselves under the standard of the haughty Matilda. Stephen, therefore, concluded an alliance with Louis of France, as well as with the Earl of Blois, and with Geoffrey of Anjou, Henry's younger brother. The two latter willingly took up arms against one who occupied to both of them the position of a successful rival, and they joined the army which the French king marched into Normandy. Henry, however, made a vigorous defence, and having repulsed the attacks of the French with success, he obtained a truce. Meanwhile the Earl of Chester had arrived in the duchy from England, bearing with him a message from a number of chiefs of the Plantagenet party, who invited Henry to take possession of the throne in his own right. The earl declared this to be the unanimous will of the people; and the prince responded to the call, and, without waiting to organise a large force, he immediately set sail for England. The army with which he landed numbered about 140 knights, and 3,000 infantry; it was composed, however, of picked men, and was well disciplined. Many of the barons of the kingdom immediately joined his standard, bringing with them considerable reinforcements; and Henry marched his forces to Wallingford for the purpose of giving battle to the king. Meanwhile, Stephen had made great exertions to oppose his adversary, and endeavoured, by bribes and other means, to detach the barons from his cause. Some of the latter, who had declared for Henry, no sooner heard with what a small force he had ventured into England, than they returned to the side of the king. The war between the opposing factions was carried on in the same manner as before - castles were besieged and taken, and towns carried by assault, plundered, and burnt. The English, driven from their homes, or flying from them in terror, built huts under the walls of the churches, in the hope that the sacredness of the place would protect them. No such considerations, however, restrained the belligerents, who expelled the people from their sanctuary, and turned the churches into fortresses. On the steeples, whence the sweet sounds of bells were wont to give the call to prayer, were now placed the frowning engines of war (Gesta Steph.).

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