The chief actors in this extraordinary drama present a curious study of human character.
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.
It was this community, then, so brave, so energetic, so enriched by commerce above all the other cities of England, that resolutely abided by the fortunes of King Stephen. They had little to dread from any hostile assaults of the rival faction; for the city was strongly fortified on all sides except to the river; but on that side it was secure, after the Tower was built. The palace of Westminster had also a breastwork and bastions. After Matilda had taken her hasty departure, the indignant Londoners marched out, and they sustained a principal part in what has been called “the rout of Winchester,” in which Robert, Earl of Gloucester, was taken prisoner. The ex-Empress escaped to Devizes. The capture of the Earl of Gloucester led to important results. A convention was agreed to between the adherents of each party that the King should be exchanged for the Earl. Stephen was once more “every inch a king.” But still there was no peace in the land.
The Bishop of Winchester had again changed his side. In the hour of success the empress Matilda had refused the reasonable request that Prince Eustace, the son of Stephen, should be put in possession of his father’s earldom of Boulogne. Malmesbury says, “A misunderstanding arose between the legate and the Empress which may be justly considered as the melancholy cause of every subsequent evil in England.” The chief actors in this extraordinary drama present a curious study of human character. Matilda, resting her claim to the throne upon her legitimate descent from Henry I, who had himself usurped the throne — possessing her father’s courage and daring, with some of his cruelty — haughty, vindictive — furnishes one of the most striking portraits of the proud lady of the feudal period, who shrank from no danger by reason of her sex, but made the homage of chivalry to woman a powerful instrument for enforcing her absolute will. The Earl of Gloucester, the illegitimate brother of Matilda, brave, steadfast, of a free and generous nature, a sagacious counsellor, a lover of literature, appears to have had few of the vices of that age, and most of its elevating qualities. Of Stephen it has been said, “He deserves no other reproach than that of having embraced the occupation of a captain of banditti.” This appears rather a harsh judgment from a philosophical writer. Bearing in mind that the principle of election prevailed in the choice of a king, whatever was the hereditary claim, and seeing how welcome was the advent of Stephen when he came, in 1135, to avert the dangers of the kingdom, he merits the title of “a captain of banditti” no more than Harold or William the Conqueror. After the contests of six years — the victories, the defeats, the hostility of the Church, his capture and imprisonment — the attachment of the people of the great towns to his person and government appears to have been unshaken. When he was defeated at Lincoln, and led captive through the city, “the surrounding multitude were moved with pity, shedding tears and uttering cries of grief.” Ordericus says: “The King’s disaster filled with grief the clergy and monks and the common people; because he was condescending and courteous to those who were good and quiet, and if his treacherous nobles had allowed it, he would have put an end to their rapacious enterprises, and been a generous protector and benevolent friend of the country.” The fourth and not least remarkable personage of this history is Henry, the Bishop of Winchester, and the Pope’s legate. At that period, when the functions of churchman and statesman were united, we find this man the chief instrument for securing the crown for his brother. He subsequently becomes the vicegerent of the papal see. Stephen, with more justice than discretion, is of opinion that bishops are not doing their duty when they build castles, ride about in armor, with crowds of retainers, and are not at all scrupulous in appropriating some of the booty of a lawless time. From the day when he exhibited his hostility to fighting bishops, the Pope’s legate was his brother’s deadly enemy. But he found that the rival whom he had set up was by no means a pliant tool in his hands, and he then turned against Matilda. When Stephen had shaken off the chains with which he was loaded in Bristol Castle, the Bishop summoned a council at Westminster, on his legatine authority; and there “by great powers of eloquence, endeavored to extenuate the odium of his own conduct”; affirming that he had supported the Empress, “not from inclination, but necessity.” He then “commanded on the part of God and of the Pope, that they should strenuously assist the King, appointed by the will of the people, and by the approbation of the Holy See.” Malmesbury, who records these doings, adds that a layman sent from the Empress affirmed that “her coming to England had been effected by the legate’s frequent letters”; and that “her taking the King, and holding him in captivity, had been done principally by his connivance.” The reign of Stephen is not only “the most perfect condensation of all the ills of feudality,” but affords a striking picture of the ills which befall a people when an ambitious hierarchy, swayed to and fro at the will of a foreign power, regards the supremacy of the Church as the one great object to be attained, at whatever expense of treachery and falsehood, of national degradation and general suffering.
We want to take this site to the next level but we need money to do that. Please contribute directly by signing up at https://www.patreon.com/history