The defeat of Stephen was the triumph of the greater ecclesiastics.
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.
After the capture of King Stephen, at this brief but decisive battle, he was kept a close prisoner at Bristol Castle. Then commenced what might be called the reign of Queen Matilda, which lasted about eight months. The defeat of Stephen was the triumph of the greater ecclesiastics. On the third Sunday in Lent, 1141, there was a conference on the plain in the neighborhood of Winchester — a day dark and rainy, which portended disasters. The Bishop of Winchester came forth from his city with all the pomp of the pope’s legate; and there Matilda swore that in all matters of importance, and especially in the bestowal of bishoprics and abbeys, she would submit to the Church; and the Bishop and his supporters pledged their faith to the Empress on these conditions. After Easter, a great council was held at Winchester, which the Bishop called as the Pope’s vicegerent. The unscrupulous churchman boldly came forward, and denounced his brother, inviting the assembly to elect a sovereign; and, with an amount of arrogance totally unprecedented, thus asserted the notorious untruth that the right of electing a king of England principally belonged to the clergy: “The case was yesterday agitated before a part of the higher clergy of England, to whose right it principally pertains to elect the sovereign, and also to crown him. First, then, as is fitting, invoking God’s assistance, we elect the daughter of that peaceful, that glorious, that rich, that good, and in our times incomparable king, as sovereign of England and Normandy, and promise her fidelity and support.” The Bishop then said to the applauding assembly: “We have dispatched messengers for the Londoners, who, from the importance of their city in England, are almost nobles, as it were, to meet us on this business.” The next day the Londoners came. They were sent, they said, by their fraternity to entreat that their lord, the King, might be liberated from captivity. The legate refused them, and repeated his oration against his brother. It was a work of great difficulty to soothe the minds of the Londoners; and St. John’s Day had arrived before they would consent to acknowledge Matilda. Many parts of the kingdom had then submitted to her government, and she entered London with great state. Her nature seems to have been rash and imperious. Her first act was to demand subsidies of the citizens; and when they said that their wealth was greatly diminished by the troubled state of the kingdom, she broke forth into insufferable rage. The vigilant queen of Stephen, who kept possession of Kent, now approached the city with a numerous force, and by her envoys demanded her husband’s freedom. Of course her demand was made in vain. She then put forth a front of battle. Instead of being crowned at Westminster, the daughter of Henry I fled in terror; for “the whole city flew to arms at the ringing of the bells, which was the signal for war, and all with one accord rose upon the Countess [of Anjou] and her adherents, as swarms of wasps issue from their hives.”
William Fitzstephen, the biographer of Thomas à Becket, in his Description of London, supposed to be written about the middle of the reign of Henry II, says of this city, “ennobled by her men, graced by her arms, and peopled by a multitude of inhabitants,” that “in the wars under King Stephen there went out to a muster of armed horsemen, esteemed fit for war, twenty thousand, and of infantry, sixty thousand.” In general, the Description of London appears trustworthy, and in some instances is supported by other authorities. But this vast number of fighting men must, unquestionably, be exaggerated: unless, as Lyttelton conjectures, such a muster included the militia of Middlesex, Kent, and other counties adjacent to London. Peter of Blois, in the reign of Henry II, reckons the inhabitants of the city at forty thousand. That the citizens were trained to warlike exercises, and that their manly sports nurtured them in the hardihood of military habits, we may well conclude from Fitzstephen’s account of this community at a little later period than that of which we are writing. To the north of the city were pasture lands, with streams on whose banks the clack of many mills was pleasing to the ear; and beyond was an immense forest, with densely wooded thickets, where stags, fallow-deer, boars, and wild bulls had their coverts. We have seen that in the charter of Henry I the citizens had liberty to hunt through a very extensive district, and hawking was also among their free recreations. Football was the favorite game; and the boys of the schools, and the various guilds of craftsmen, had each their ball. The elder citizens came on horseback to see these contests of the young men. Every Sunday in Lent a company with lances and shields went out to joust. In the Easter holidays they had river tournaments. During the summer the youths exercised themselves in leaping, archery, wrestling, stone-throwing, slinging javelins, and fighting with bucklers. When the great marsh which washed the walls of the city on the north was frozen over, sliding, sledging, and skating were the sports of crowds. They had sham fights on the ice, and legs and arms were sometimes broken. “But,” says Fitzstephen, “youth is an age eager for glory and desirous of victory, and so young men engage in counterfeit battles, that they may conduct themselves more valiantly in real ones.” That universal love of hardy sports, which is one of the greatest characteristics of England, and from which we derive no little of that spirit which keeps our island safe, is not of modern growth. It was one of the most important portions of the education of the people seven centuries ago.
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