A Contest For A Crown
Terrible was the misery of England. Torn between contending factions,
like a deer between snarling wolves, the people suffered martyrdom,
while thieves and assassins, miscalled soldiers, and brigands, miscalled
nobles, ravaged the land and tortured its inhabitants. Outrage was law,
and death the only refuge from barbarity, and at no time in the history
of England did its people endure such misery as in those years of the
loosening of the reins of justice and mercy which began with 1139
It was the autumn of the year named. At every port of England bands of
soldiers were landing, with arms and baggage; along every road leading
from the coast bands of soldiers were marching; in every town bands of
soldiers were mustering; here joining in friendly union, there coming
into hostile contact, for they represented rival parties, and were
speeding to the gathering points of their respective leaders.
All England was in a ferment, men everywhere arming and marching. All
Normandy was in turmoil, soldiers of fortune crowding to every port,
eager to take part in the harrying of the island realm. The Norman
nobles of England were everywhere fortifying their castles, which had
been sternly prohibited by the recent king. Law and authority were for
the time being abrogated, and every man was preparing to fight for his
own hand and his own land. A single day, almost, had divided the Normans
of England into two factions, not yet come to blows, but facing each
other like wild beasts at bay. And England and the English were the prey
craved by both these herds of human wolves.
There were two claimants to the throne: Matilda,--or Maud, as she is
usually named,--daughter of Henry I., and Stephen of Blois, grandson of
William the Conqueror. Henry had named his daughter as his successor;
Stephen seized the throne; the issue was sharply drawn between them.
Each of them had a legal claim to the throne, Stephen's the better, he
being the nearest male heir. No woman had as yet ruled in England.
Maud's mother had been of ancient English descent, which gave her
popularity among the Saxon inhabitants of the land. Stephen was
personally popular, a good-humored, generous prodigal, his very faults
tending to make him a favorite. Yet he was born to be a swordsman, not a
king, and his only idea of royalty was to let the land rule--or misrule
it if preferred--itself, while he enjoyed the pleasures and declined the
toils of kingship.
A few words will suffice to bring the history of those turbulent times
up to the date of the opening of our story. The death of Henry I. was
followed by anarchy in England. His daughter Maud, wife of Geoffry the
Handsome, Count of Anjou, was absent from the land. Stephen, Count of
Blois, and son of Adela, the Conqueror's daughter, was the first to
reach it. Speeding across the Channel, he hurried through England, then
in the turmoil of lawlessness, no noble joining him, no town opening to
him its gates, until London was reached. There the coldness of his route
was replaced by the utmost warmth of welcome. The city poured from its
gates to meet him, hastened to elect him king, swore to defend him with
blood and treasure, and only demanded in return that the new king should
do his utmost to pacify the realm.
Here Stephen failed. He was utterly unfit to govern. While he thought
only of profligate enjoyment, the barons fortified their castles and
became petty kings in their several domains. The great prelates followed
their example. Then, for the first time, did Stephen awake from his
dream of pleasure and attempt to play the king. He seized Roger, Bishop
of Salisbury, and threw him into prison to force him to surrender his
fortresses. This precipitated the trouble that brooded over England. The
king lost the support of the clergy by his violence to their leader,
alienated many of the nobles by his hasty action, and gave Maud the
opportunity for which she had waited. She lost no time in offering
herself to the English as a claimant to the crown.
Her landing was made on the 22d of September, 1139, on the coast of
Sussex. Here she threw herself into Arundel Castle, and quickly
afterwards made her way to Bristol Castle, then held by her
illegitimate brother, Robert, Earl of Gloucester.
And now the state of affairs we had described began. The nobles of the
north and west of England renounced their allegiance to Stephen and
swore allegiance to Maud. London and the east remained faithful to the
king. A stream of men-at-arms, hired by both factions, poured from the
neighboring coast of Normandy into the disputed realm. Each side had
promised them, for their pay, the lands and wealth of the other. Like
vultures to the feast they came, with little heed to the rights of the
rival claimants and the wrongs of the people, with much heed to their
own private needs and ambitions.
In England such anarchy ruled as that land of much intestine war has
rarely witnessed. The Norman nobles prepared in haste for the civil war,
and in doing so made the English their prey. To raise the necessary
funds, many of them sold their domains, townships, and villages, with
the inhabitants thereof and all their goods. Others of them made forays
on the lands of those of the opposite faction, and seized cattle,
horses, sheep, and men alike carrying off the English in chains, that
they might force them by torture to yield what wealth they possessed.
Terror ruled supreme. The realm was in a panic of dread. So great was
the alarm, that the inhabitants of city and town alike took to flight if
they saw a distant group of horsemen approaching. Three or four armed
men were enough to empty a town of its inhabitants. It was in Bristol,
where Maud and her foreign troops lay, that the most extreme terror
prevailed. All day long men were being brought into the city bound and
gagged. The citizens had no immunity. Soldiers mingled among them in
disguise, their arms concealed, their talk in the English tongue,
strolling through markets and streets, listening to the popular chat,
and then suddenly seizing any one who seemed to be in easy
circumstances. These they would drag to their head-quarters and hold to
The air was filled with tales of the frightful barbarities practised by
the Norman nobles on the unhappy English captives in the depths of their
gloomy castles. "They carried off," says the Saxon chronicle, "all who
they thought possessed any property, men and women, by day and by night;
and whilst they kept them imprisoned, they inflicted on them tortures,
such as no martyr ever underwent, in order to obtain gold and silver
from them." We must be excused from quoting the details of these
"They killed many thousands of people by hunger," continues the
chronicle. "They imposed tribute after tribute upon the towns and
villages, calling this in their tongue tenserie. When the citizens had
nothing more to give them, they plundered and burnt the town. You might
have travelled a whole day without finding a single soul in the towns,
or a cultivated field. The poor died of hunger, and those who had been
formerly well-off begged their bread from door to door. Whoever had it
in his power to leave England did so. Never was a country delivered up
to so many miseries and misfortunes; even in the invasions of the pagans
it suffered less than now. Neither the cemeteries nor the churches were
spared; they seized all they could, and then set fire to the church. To
till the ground was useless. It was openly reported that Christ and his
saints were sleeping."
One cannot but think that this frightful picture is somewhat overdrawn;
yet nothing could indicate better the condition of a Middle-Age country
under a weak king, and torn by the adherents of rival claimants to the
Let us leave this tale of torture and horror and turn to that of war. In
the conflict between Stephen and Maud the king took the first step. He
led his army against Bristol. It proved too strong for him, and his
soldiers, in revenge, burnt the environs, after robbing them of all they
could yield. Then, leaving Bristol, he turned against the castles on the
Welsh borders, nearly all of whose lords had declared for Maud.
From the laborious task of reducing these castles he was suddenly
recalled by an insurrection in the territory so far faithful to him. The
fens of Ely, in whose recesses Hereward the Wake had defied the
Conqueror, now became the stronghold of a Norman revolt. A baron and a
bishop, Baldwin de Revier and Lenior, Bishop of Ely, built stone
intrenchments on the island, and defied the king from behind the watery
shelter of the fens.
Hither flocked the partisans of Maud; hither came Stephen, filled with
warlike fury. He lacked the qualities that make a king, but he had those
that go to make a soldier. The methods of the Conqueror in attacking
Hereward were followed by Stephen in assailing his foes. Bridges of
boats were built across the fens; over these the king's cavalry made
their way to the firm soil of the island; a fierce conflict ensued,
ending in the rout of the soldiers of Baldwin and Lenior. The bishop
fled to Gloucester, whither Maud had now proceeded.
Thus far the king had kept the field, while his rival lay intrenched in
her strongholds. But her party was earnestly at work. The barons of the
Welsh marches, whose castles had been damaged by the king, repaired
them. Even the towers of the great churches were filled with war-engines
and converted into fortresses, ditches being dug in the church-yards
around, with little regard to the fact that the bones of the dead were
unearthed and scattered over the soil. The Norman bishops, completely
armed, and mounted on war-horses, took part in these operations, and
were no more scrupulous than the barons in torturing the English to
force from them their hoarded gold and silver.
Those were certainly not the days of merry England. Nor were they days
of pious England, when the heads of the church, armed with sword and
spear, led armies against their foes. In this they were justified by
the misrule of Stephen, who had shown his utter unfitness to rule. In
truth, a bishop ended that first phase of the war. The Bishop of Chester
rallied the troops which had fled from Ely. These grew by rapid
accretions until a new army was in the field. Stephen attacked it, but
the enemy held their own, and his troops were routed. They fled on all
sides, leaving the king alone in the midst of his foes. He lacked not
courage. Single-handed he defended himself against a throng of
assailants. But his men were in flight; he stood alone; it was death or
surrender; he yielded himself prisoner. He was taken to Gloucester, and
thence to Bristol Castle, in whose dungeons he was imprisoned. For the
time being the war was at an end. Maud was queen.
The daughter of Henry might have reigned during the remainder of her
life but for pride and folly, two faults fitted to wreck the best-built
cause. All was on her side except herself. Her own arrogance drove her
from the throne before it had grown warm from her sitting.
For the time, indeed, Stephen's cause seemed lost. He was in a dungeon
strongly guarded by his adversaries. His partisans went over in crowds
to the opposite side,--his own brother, Henry, Bishop of Winchester,
with them. The English peasants, embittered by oppression, rose against
the beaten army, and took partial revenge for their wrongs by plundering
and maltreating the defeated and dispersed soldiers in their flight.
Maud made her way to Winchester, her progress being one of royal
ostentation. Her entry to the town was like a Roman triumph. She was
received with all honor, was voted queen in a great convocation of
nobles, prelates, and knights, and seized the royal regalia and the
treasures of her vanquished foe. All would have gone well with her had
not good fortune turned her brain. Pride and a haughty spirit led to her
She grew arrogant and disdainful. Those who had made her queen found
their requests met with refusal, their advice rejected with scorn. Those
of the opposite party who had joined her were harshly treated. Her most
devoted friends and adherents soon grew weak in their loyalty, and many
withdrew from the court, with the feeling that they had been fools to
support this haughty woman against the generous-hearted soldier who lay
in Bristol dungeon.
From Winchester Maud proceeded to London, after having done her cause as
much harm as she well could in the brief time at her disposal. She was
looked for in the capital city with sentiments of hope and pride. Her
mother had been English, and the English citizens felt a glow of
enthusiasm to feel that one whose blood was even half Saxon was coming
to rule over them. Their pride quickly changed into anger and desire for
Maud signalized her entrance into London by laying on the citizens an
enormous poll-tax. Stephen had done his utmost to beggar them; famine
threatened them; in extreme distress they prayed the queen to give them
time to recover from their present miseries before laying fresh taxes on
"The king has left us nothing," said their deputies, humbly.
"I understand," answered Maud, with haughty disdain, "that you have
given all to my adversary and have conspired with him against me; now
you expect me to spare you. You shall pay the tax."
"Then," pleaded the deputies, "give us something in return. Restore to
us the good laws of thy great uncle, Edward, in place of those of thy
father, King Henry, which are bad and too harsh for us."
Whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad. The queen listened to
the deputies in a rage, treated them as if they had been guilty of
untold insolence in daring to make this request, and with harsh menaces
drove them from her presence, bidding them to see that the tax was paid,
or London should suffer bitterly for its contumacy.
The deputies withdrew with a show of respect, but with fury in their
hearts, and repaired to their council-chamber, whence the news of what
had taken place sped rapidly through the city. In her palace Queen Maud
waited in proud security, nothing doubting that she had humbled those
insolent citizens, and that the deputies would soon return ready to
creep on their knees to the foot of her throne and offer a golden
recompense for their daring demand for milder laws.
Suddenly the bells of London began to ring. In the streets adjoining
the palace loud voices were heard. People seemed gathering rapidly. What
did it mean? Were these her humbled citizens of London? Surely there
were threats mingled with those harsh cries! Threats against the queen
who had just entered London in triumph and been received with such
hearty enthusiasm! Were the Londoners mad?
She would have thought so had she been in the streets. From every house
issued a man, armed with the first weapon he could find, his face
inflamed with anger. They flocked out as tumultuously as bees from a
hive, says an old writer. The streets of London, lately quiet, were now
filled with a noisy throng, all hastening towards the palace, all
uttering threats against this haughty foreign woman, who must have lost
every drop of her English blood, they declared.
The palace was filled with alarm. It looked as if the queen's Norman
blood would be lost as well as that from her English sires. She had
men-at-arms around her, but not enough to be of avail against the
clustering citizens in those narrow and crooked streets. Flight, and
that a speedy one, was all that remained. White with terror, the queen
took to horse, and, surrounded by her knights and soldiers, fled from
London with a haste that illy accorded with the stately and deliberate
pride with which she had recently entered that turbulent capital.
She was none too soon. The frightened cortege had not left the palace
far behind it before the maddened citizens burst open its doors,
searched every nook and cranny of the building for the queen and her
body-guard, and, finding they had fled, wreaked their wrath on all that
was left, plundering the apartments of all they contained.
Meanwhile, the queen, wild with fright, was galloping at full speed from
the hostile beehive she had disturbed. Her barons and knights, in a
panic of fear and deeming themselves hotly pursued, dropped off from the
party one by one, hoping for safety by leaving the highway for the
by-ways, and caring little for the queen so that they saved their
frightened selves. The queen rode on in mad terror until Oxford was
reached, only her brother, the Earl of Gloucester, and a few others
keeping her company to that town.
They fled from a shadow. The citizens had not pursued them. These
turbulent tradesmen were content with ridding London of this power-mad
woman, and they went back satisfied to their homes, leaving the city
open to occupation by the partisans of Stephen, who entered it under
pretense of an alliance with the citizens. The Bishop of Winchester, who
seems to have been something of a weathercock in his political faith,
turned again to his brothers side, set Stephen's banner afloat on
Windsor Castle and converted his bishop's residence into a fortress.
Robert of Gloucester came with Maud's troops to besiege it. The garrison
set fire to the surrounding houses to annoy the besiegers. While the
town was burning, an army from London appeared, fiercely attacked the
assailants, and forced them to take refuge in the churches. These were
set on fire to drive out the fugitives. The affair ended in Robert of
Gloucester being taken prisoner and his followers dispersed.
Then once more the Saxon peasants swarmed from their huts like hornets
from their hives and assailed the fugitives as they had before assailed
those from Stephen's army. The proud Normans, whose language betrayed
them in spite of their attempts at disguise, were robbed, stripped of
their clothing, and driven along the roads by whips in the hands of
Saxon serfs, who thus repaid themselves for many an act of wrong. The
Bishop of Canterbury and other high prelates and numbers of great lords
were thus maltreated, and for once were thoroughly humbled by those
despised islanders whom their fathers had enslaved.
Thus ended the second act in this drama of conquest and re-conquest.
Maud, deprived of her brother, was helpless. She exchanged him for King
Stephen, and the war broke out afresh. Stephen laid siege to Oxford, and
pressed it so closely that once more Maud took to flight. It was
midwinter. The ground was covered with snow. Dressing herself from head
to foot in white, and accompanied by three knights similarly attired,
she slipped out of a postern in the hope of being unseen against the
whiteness of the snow-clad surface.
Stephen's camp was asleep, its sentinels alone being astir. The scared
fugitives glided on foot through the snow, passing close to the enemy's
posts, the voices of the sentinels sounding in their ears. On foot they
crossed the frozen Thames, gained horses on the opposite side, and
galloped away in hasty flight.
There is little more to say. Maud's cause was at an end. Not long
afterwards her brother died, and she withdrew to Normandy, glad,
doubtless, to be well out of that pestiferous island, but, mayhap,
mourning that her arrogant folly had robbed her of a throne.
A few years afterwards her son Henry took up her cause, and landed in
England with an army. But the threatened hostilities ended in a truce,
which provided that Henry should reign after Stephen's death. Stephen
died a year afterwards, England gained an able monarch, and prosperity
returned to the realm after fifteen years of the most frightful misery