Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Anarchy, Interlude

Before we conclude our three-part journey through the 20 years of civil war between Stephen of Blois (a usurper whom history calls king) and the Empress Matilda (an acknowledged heir whom history calls a footnote), I wanted to pause and look at what the country itself thought about the dispute. Clearly, among the nobles, there were those who chose to offer their loyalty to one or the other, based on personal preference or the potential opportunities for advancement gained if their chosen leader won the throne.

In any war, however, the greatest suffering is felt by those who are not in charge, so how did the average citizenry fare? What did contemporary chroniclers think of the events of the 20 years that Stephen and Matilda spent fighting each other? We have an answer in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which records events (and opinions on them) in England from the birth of Christ until the end of the reign of Stephen of Blois. It turns out that Stephen had his detractors.
In the days of this King there was nothing but strife, evil and robbery, for quickly the great men who were traitors rose against him. When the traitors saw that Stephen was a mild good humoured man who inflicted no punishment, then they commited all manner of horrible crimes. they had done him homage and sworn oaths of fealty to him, but not one of their oaths was kept. They were all forsworn and their oaths broken. For every great man built him castles and held them against the king; they sorely burdened the unhappy people of the country with forced labour on the castles; and when the castles were built they filled them with devils and wicked men. By night and by day they seized those they believed to have any wealth, whether they were men or women; and in order to get their gold or silver, they put them into prison and tortured them with unspeakable tortures, for never were martyrs tortured as they were. They hung them up by the feet and smoked them with foul smoke. They strung them up by the thumbs, or by the head, and hung coats of mail on their feet. They tied knotted cords round their heads and twisted it until it entered the brain. they put them in dungeons wherein were adders and snakes and toads and so destroyed them. Many thousands they starved to death.

Matilda escaped blame for the troubles
I know not how to, nor am I able to tell of, all the atrocities nor all the cruelties which they wrought upon the unhappy people of this country. It lasted throughout the nineteen years that Stephen was king, and always grew worse and worse. Never did a country endure greater misery, and never did the heathen act more vilely than they did.
And so it lasted for nineteen long years while Stephen was King, till the land was all undone and darkened with such deeds and men said openly that Christ and his saints slept.
Tomorrow we will conclude the tale of the period in England called "The Anarchy" and see how Matilda's son becomes the next king.

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