The unanimity which appeared to hail the accession of Stephen was soon interrupted.
Continuing Stephen Versus Matilda,
our selection from The Popular History of England by Charles Knight published in 1880. The selection is presented in nine easy 5 minute installments. For works benefiting from the latest research see the “More information” section at the bottom of these pages.
Previously in Stephen Versus Matilda.
Stephen succeeded to a vast amount of treasure. All the rents of Henry I had been paid in money, instead of in necessaries; and he was rigid in enforcing the payment in coin of the best quality. With this possession of means, Stephen surrounded himself with troops from Flanders and Brittany. The objections to his want of hereditary right appear to have been altogether laid aside for a time, in the popularity which he derived from his personal qualities and his command of wealth. Strict hereditary claims to the choice of the nation had been disregarded since the time of the Confessor. The oath to Matilda, it was maintained, had been unwillingly given, and even extorted by force. It is easy to conceive that, both to Saxon and Norman, the notion of a female sovereign would be out of harmony with their ancient traditions and their warlike habits. The king was the great military chief, as well as the supreme dispenser of justice and guardian of property. The time was far distant when the sovereign rule might be held to be most beneficially exercised by a wise choice of administrators, civil and military; and the power of the crown, being coordinate with other powers, strengthening as well as controlling its final authority, might be safely and happily exercised by a discreet, energetic, and just female. King Stephen vindicated the choice of the nation at the very outset of his reign. He went in person against the robbers who were ravaging the country. The daughter of “the Lion of Justice” would probably have done the same. But more than three hundred years had passed since the Lady of Mercia, the sister of Alfred, had asserted the courage of her race. Norman and Saxon wanted a king; for though ladies defended castles, and showed that firmness and bravery were not the exclusive possession of one sex, no thane or baron had yet knelt before a queen, and sworn to be her “liege man of life and limb.”
The unanimity which appeared to hail the accession of Stephen was soon interrupted. David, King of Scotland, had advanced to Carlisle and Newcastle, to assert the claim of Matilda which he had sworn to uphold. But Stephen came against him with a great army, and for a time there was peace. Robert, Earl of Gloucester, the illegitimate son of Henry I, had done homage to Stephen; but his allegiance was very doubtful; and the general belief that he would renounce his fealty engendered secret hostility or open resistance among other powerful barons. Robert of Gloucester very soon defied the King’s power. Within two years of his accession the throne of Stephen was evidently becoming an insecure seat. To counteract the power of the great nobles, he made a lavish distribution of crown lands to a large number of tenants-in-chief. Some of them were called earls; but they had no official charge, as the greater barons had, but were mere titular lords, made by the royal bounty. All those who held direct from the Crown were called barons; and these new barons, who were scattered over the country, had permission from the King to build castles. Such permission was extended to many other lay barons. The accustomed manor-house of the land proprietor, in which he dwelt amid the churls and serfs of his demesne, was now replaced by a stone tower, surrounded by a moat and a wall. The wooden one-storied homestead, with its thatched roof, shaded by the “toft” of ash and elm and maple, was pulled down, and a square fortress with loopholes and battlement stood in solitary nakedness upon some bleak hill, ugly and defiant. There with a band of armed men — sometimes with a wife and children, and not unfrequently with an unhappy victim of his licentiousness — the baron lived in gloom and gluttony, till the love of excitement, the approach of want, or the call to battle drove him forth. His passion for hunting was not always free to be exercised. Venison was not everywhere to be obtained without danger even to the powerful and lawless. But within a ride of a few miles there was generally corn in the barns and herds were in the pastures. The petty baron was almost invariably a robber — sometimes on his own account, often in some combined adventure of plunder. The spirit of rapine, always too prevalent under the strongest government of those times, was now universal when the government was fighting for its own existence. Bands of marauders sallied forth from the great towns, especially from Bristol; and of their proceedings the author of the Gesta Stephani speaks with the precision of an eye-witness. The Bristolians, under the instigation of the Earl of Gloucester, were partisans of the ex-empress Matilda; and wherever the King or his adherents had estates they came to seize their oxen and sheep, and carried men of substance into Bristol as captives, with bandaged eyes and bits in their mouths. From other towns as well as Bristol came forth plunderers, with humble gait and courteous discourse; who, when they met with a lonely man having the appearance of being wealthy, would bear him off to starvation and torture, till they had mulcted him to the last farthing. These and other indications of an unsettled government took place before the landing of Matilda to assert her claims. An invasion of England, by the Scottish King, without regard to the previous pacification, was made in 1138. But this attempt, although grounded upon the oath which David had sworn to Henry, was regarded by the Northumbrians as a national hostility which demanded a national resistance. The course of this invasion has been minutely described by contemporary chroniclers.
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