Saturday, November 10, 2012

The Anarchy, Part 2 (of 3)

In 1135, upon the death of Henry I of England, his nephew Stephen of Blois (c.1192-1154) assumed the throne. All well and good, except that Stephen (and the top men of the country) had sworn an oath years earlier to uphold Henry's choice of his daughter Matilda as heir. Stephen's argument was that his oaths were not as important as a quick and successful transition. His opportunity came because Matilda was across the Channel and Stephen was able to travel faster than she—also, he was supported by many of the barons and Stephen's powerful younger brother, Bishop of Winchester Henry of Blois.

Stephen was crowned on 26 December. Shortly after, he had to go north to deal with Scotland. David I of Scotland (1084-1153) was laying claim to lands in the north of England, and Stephen dealt with this quickly and decisively. His court at Easter was lavish and well attended by the nobles of England. Stephen's position had been confirmed by Pope Innocent II. Later conflicts with Wales turned to victories for Stephen. All looked well.

Meanwhile, on the continent, Matilda and her husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, were taking control of the lands that had been joined to England since William the Conqueror—the mutual grandfather to many of the players in this drama. By 1144, Geoffrey and Matilda were styling themselves Duke and Duchess of Normandy. By 1139, she had gathered sufficient armed forces in France to be able to cross the English Channel and begin the conquest of southwest England. In February 1141, Stephen's forces besieged Matilda in Lincoln Castle; unfortunately, Matilda's illegitimate half-brother, Robert, 1st Earl of Gloucester, brought up his forces behind the king. Robert was aided by the Stephen-hating Welsh. Many of Stephen's forces deserted him, and the king was captured and imprisoned in Bristol, a city currently in the hands of Matilda's forces.

Matilda escaping Oxford
Matilda made a procession to London, sending word ahead that the "Lady of the English" (so she was calling herself) was coming to be made Queen, as was her right. Once she took up residence, emissaries from the city suggested what was probably her surest way to gain their hearts: cut their taxes in half. When she refused to do so, the citizens waited until she had left the city, and then shut the gates of London against her.

Meanwhile, the imprisoned Stephen's wife, also named Matilda, succeeded in capturing Robert of Gloucester, and used him to arrange an exchange of prisoners. With the release of both Stephen of Blois and Robert, hostilities resumed. The following winter, Queen Matilda was almost captured at Oxford, but she fled across the frozen Thames, camouflaged against the snow in a white cloak. The future of England's throne was looking more uncertain than ever.

[to be continued]

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