A Contest For A Crown

Terrible was the misery of England. Torn between contending factions,

like a deer between snarling wolves, the people suffered martyrdom,

while thieves and assassins, miscalled soldiers, and brigands, miscalled

nobles, ravaged the land and tortured its inhabitants. Outrage was law,

and death the only refuge from barbarity, and at no time in the history

of England did its people endure such misery as in those years of the

> loosening of the reins of justice and mercy which began with 1139


It was the autumn of the year named. At every port of England bands of

soldiers were landing, with arms and baggage; along every road leading

from the coast bands of soldiers were marching; in every town bands of

soldiers were mustering; here joining in friendly union, there coming

into hostile contact, for they represented rival parties, and were

speeding to the gathering points of their respective leaders.

All England was in a ferment, men everywhere arming and marching. All

Normandy was in turmoil, soldiers of fortune crowding to every port,

eager to take part in the harrying of the island realm. The Norman

nobles of England were everywhere fortifying their castles, which had

been sternly prohibited by the recent king. Law and authority were for

the time being abrogated, and every man was preparing to fight for his

own hand and his own land. A single day, almost, had divided the Normans

of England into two factions, not yet come to blows, but facing each

other like wild beasts at bay. And England and the English were the prey

craved by both these herds of human wolves.

There were two claimants to the throne: Matilda,--or Maud, as she is

usually named,--daughter of Henry I., and Stephen of Blois, grandson of

William the Conqueror. Henry had named his daughter as his successor;

Stephen seized the throne; the issue was sharply drawn between them.

Each of them had a legal claim to the throne, Stephen's the better, he

being the nearest male heir. No woman had as yet ruled in England.

Maud's mother had been of ancient English descent, which gave her

popularity among the Saxon inhabitants of the land. Stephen was

personally popular, a good-humored, generous prodigal, his very faults

tending to make him a favorite. Yet he was born to be a swordsman, not a

king, and his only idea of royalty was to let the land rule--or misrule

it if preferred--itself, while he enjoyed the pleasures and declined the

toils of kingship.

A few words will suffice to bring the history of those turbulent times

up to the date of the opening of our story. The death of Henry I. was

followed by anarchy in England. His daughter Maud, wife of Geoffry the

Handsome, Count of Anjou, was absent from the land. Stephen, Count of

Blois, and son of Adela, the Conqueror's daughter, was the first to

reach it. Speeding across the Channel, he hurried through England, then

in the turmoil of lawlessness, no noble joining him, no town opening to

him its gates, until London was reached. There the coldness of his route

was replaced by the utmost warmth of welcome. The city poured from its

gates to meet him, hastened to elect him king, swore to defend him with

blood and treasure, and only demanded in return that the new king should

do his utmost to pacify the realm.

Here Stephen failed. He was utterly unfit to govern. While he thought

only of profligate enjoyment, the barons fortified their castles and

became petty kings in their several domains. The great prelates followed

their example. Then, for the first time, did Stephen awake from his

dream of pleasure and attempt to play the king. He seized Roger, Bishop

of Salisbury, and threw him into prison to force him to surrender his

fortresses. This precipitated the trouble that brooded over England. The

king lost the support of the clergy by his violence to their leader,

alienated many of the nobles by his hasty action, and gave Maud the

opportunity for which she had waited. She lost no time in offering

herself to the English as a claimant to the crown.

Her landing was made on the 22d of September, 1139, on the coast of

Sussex. Here she threw herself into Arundel Castle, and quickly

afterwards made her way to Bristol Castle, then held by her

illegitimate brother, Robert, Earl of Gloucester.

And now the state of affairs we had described began. The nobles of the

north and west of England renounced their allegiance to Stephen and

swore allegiance to Maud. London and the east remained faithful to the

king. A stream of men-at-arms, hired by both factions, poured from the

neighboring coast of Normandy into the disputed realm. Each side had

promised them, for their pay, the lands and wealth of the other. Like

vultures to the feast they came, with little heed to the rights of the

rival claimants and the wrongs of the people, with much heed to their

own private needs and ambitions.

In England such anarchy ruled as that land of much intestine war has

rarely witnessed. The Norman nobles prepared in haste for the civil war,

and in doing so made the English their prey. To raise the necessary

funds, many of them sold their domains, townships, and villages, with

the inhabitants thereof and all their goods. Others of them made forays

on the lands of those of the opposite faction, and seized cattle,

horses, sheep, and men alike carrying off the English in chains, that

they might force them by torture to yield what wealth they possessed.

Terror ruled supreme. The realm was in a panic of dread. So great was

the alarm, that the inhabitants of city and town alike took to flight if

they saw a distant group of horsemen approaching. Three or four armed

men were enough to empty a town of its inhabitants. It was in Bristol,

where Maud and her foreign troops lay, that the most extreme terror

prevailed. All day long men were being brought into the city bound and

gagged. The citizens had no immunity. Soldiers mingled among them in

disguise, their arms concealed, their talk in the English tongue,

strolling through markets and streets, listening to the popular chat,

and then suddenly seizing any one who seemed to be in easy

circumstances. These they would drag to their head-quarters and hold to


The air was filled with tales of the frightful barbarities practised by

the Norman nobles on the unhappy English captives in the depths of their

gloomy castles. "They carried off," says the Saxon chronicle, "all who

they thought possessed any property, men and women, by day and by night;

and whilst they kept them imprisoned, they inflicted on them tortures,

such as no martyr ever underwent, in order to obtain gold and silver

from them." We must be excused from quoting the details of these


"They killed many thousands of people by hunger," continues the

chronicle. "They imposed tribute after tribute upon the towns and

villages, calling this in their tongue tenserie. When the citizens had

nothing more to give them, they plundered and burnt the town. You might

have travelled a whole day without finding a single soul in the towns,

or a cultivated field. The poor died of hunger, and those who had been

formerly well-off begged their bread from door to door. Whoever had it

in his power to leave England did so. Never was a country delivered up

to so many miseries and misfortunes; even in the invasions of the pagans

it suffered less than now. Neither the cemeteries nor the churches were

spared; they seized all they could, and then set fire to the church. To

till the ground was useless. It was openly reported that Christ and his

saints were sleeping."

One cannot but think that this frightful picture is somewhat overdrawn;

yet nothing could indicate better the condition of a Middle-Age country

under a weak king, and torn by the adherents of rival claimants to the


Let us leave this tale of torture and horror and turn to that of war. In

the conflict between Stephen and Maud the king took the first step. He

led his army against Bristol. It proved too strong for him, and his

soldiers, in revenge, burnt the environs, after robbing them of all they

could yield. Then, leaving Bristol, he turned against the castles on the

Welsh borders, nearly all of whose lords had declared for Maud.

From the laborious task of reducing these castles he was suddenly

recalled by an insurrection in the territory so far faithful to him. The

fens of Ely, in whose recesses Hereward the Wake had defied the

Conqueror, now became the stronghold of a Norman revolt. A baron and a

bishop, Baldwin de Revier and Lenior, Bishop of Ely, built stone

intrenchments on the island, and defied the king from behind the watery

shelter of the fens.

Hither flocked the partisans of Maud; hither came Stephen, filled with

warlike fury. He lacked the qualities that make a king, but he had those

that go to make a soldier. The methods of the Conqueror in attacking

Hereward were followed by Stephen in assailing his foes. Bridges of

boats were built across the fens; over these the king's cavalry made

their way to the firm soil of the island; a fierce conflict ensued,

ending in the rout of the soldiers of Baldwin and Lenior. The bishop

fled to Gloucester, whither Maud had now proceeded.

Thus far the king had kept the field, while his rival lay intrenched in

her strongholds. But her party was earnestly at work. The barons of the

Welsh marches, whose castles had been damaged by the king, repaired

them. Even the towers of the great churches were filled with war-engines

and converted into fortresses, ditches being dug in the church-yards

around, with little regard to the fact that the bones of the dead were

unearthed and scattered over the soil. The Norman bishops, completely

armed, and mounted on war-horses, took part in these operations, and

were no more scrupulous than the barons in torturing the English to

force from them their hoarded gold and silver.

Those were certainly not the days of merry England. Nor were they days

of pious England, when the heads of the church, armed with sword and

spear, led armies against their foes. In this they were justified by

the misrule of Stephen, who had shown his utter unfitness to rule. In

truth, a bishop ended that first phase of the war. The Bishop of Chester

rallied the troops which had fled from Ely. These grew by rapid

accretions until a new army was in the field. Stephen attacked it, but

the enemy held their own, and his troops were routed. They fled on all

sides, leaving the king alone in the midst of his foes. He lacked not

courage. Single-handed he defended himself against a throng of

assailants. But his men were in flight; he stood alone; it was death or

surrender; he yielded himself prisoner. He was taken to Gloucester, and

thence to Bristol Castle, in whose dungeons he was imprisoned. For the

time being the war was at an end. Maud was queen.

The daughter of Henry might have reigned during the remainder of her

life but for pride and folly, two faults fitted to wreck the best-built

cause. All was on her side except herself. Her own arrogance drove her

from the throne before it had grown warm from her sitting.

For the time, indeed, Stephen's cause seemed lost. He was in a dungeon

strongly guarded by his adversaries. His partisans went over in crowds

to the opposite side,--his own brother, Henry, Bishop of Winchester,

with them. The English peasants, embittered by oppression, rose against

the beaten army, and took partial revenge for their wrongs by plundering

and maltreating the defeated and dispersed soldiers in their flight.

Maud made her way to Winchester, her progress being one of royal

ostentation. Her entry to the town was like a Roman triumph. She was

received with all honor, was voted queen in a great convocation of

nobles, prelates, and knights, and seized the royal regalia and the

treasures of her vanquished foe. All would have gone well with her had

not good fortune turned her brain. Pride and a haughty spirit led to her

hasty downfall.

She grew arrogant and disdainful. Those who had made her queen found

their requests met with refusal, their advice rejected with scorn. Those

of the opposite party who had joined her were harshly treated. Her most

devoted friends and adherents soon grew weak in their loyalty, and many

withdrew from the court, with the feeling that they had been fools to

support this haughty woman against the generous-hearted soldier who lay

in Bristol dungeon.

From Winchester Maud proceeded to London, after having done her cause as

much harm as she well could in the brief time at her disposal. She was

looked for in the capital city with sentiments of hope and pride. Her

mother had been English, and the English citizens felt a glow of

enthusiasm to feel that one whose blood was even half Saxon was coming

to rule over them. Their pride quickly changed into anger and desire for


Maud signalized her entrance into London by laying on the citizens an

enormous poll-tax. Stephen had done his utmost to beggar them; famine

threatened them; in extreme distress they prayed the queen to give them

time to recover from their present miseries before laying fresh taxes on


"The king has left us nothing," said their deputies, humbly.

"I understand," answered Maud, with haughty disdain, "that you have

given all to my adversary and have conspired with him against me; now

you expect me to spare you. You shall pay the tax."

"Then," pleaded the deputies, "give us something in return. Restore to

us the good laws of thy great uncle, Edward, in place of those of thy

father, King Henry, which are bad and too harsh for us."

Whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad. The queen listened to

the deputies in a rage, treated them as if they had been guilty of

untold insolence in daring to make this request, and with harsh menaces

drove them from her presence, bidding them to see that the tax was paid,

or London should suffer bitterly for its contumacy.

The deputies withdrew with a show of respect, but with fury in their

hearts, and repaired to their council-chamber, whence the news of what

had taken place sped rapidly through the city. In her palace Queen Maud

waited in proud security, nothing doubting that she had humbled those

insolent citizens, and that the deputies would soon return ready to

creep on their knees to the foot of her throne and offer a golden

recompense for their daring demand for milder laws.

Suddenly the bells of London began to ring. In the streets adjoining

the palace loud voices were heard. People seemed gathering rapidly. What

did it mean? Were these her humbled citizens of London? Surely there

were threats mingled with those harsh cries! Threats against the queen

who had just entered London in triumph and been received with such

hearty enthusiasm! Were the Londoners mad?

She would have thought so had she been in the streets. From every house

issued a man, armed with the first weapon he could find, his face

inflamed with anger. They flocked out as tumultuously as bees from a

hive, says an old writer. The streets of London, lately quiet, were now

filled with a noisy throng, all hastening towards the palace, all

uttering threats against this haughty foreign woman, who must have lost

every drop of her English blood, they declared.

The palace was filled with alarm. It looked as if the queen's Norman

blood would be lost as well as that from her English sires. She had

men-at-arms around her, but not enough to be of avail against the

clustering citizens in those narrow and crooked streets. Flight, and

that a speedy one, was all that remained. White with terror, the queen

took to horse, and, surrounded by her knights and soldiers, fled from

London with a haste that illy accorded with the stately and deliberate

pride with which she had recently entered that turbulent capital.

She was none too soon. The frightened cortege had not left the palace

far behind it before the maddened citizens burst open its doors,

searched every nook and cranny of the building for the queen and her

body-guard, and, finding they had fled, wreaked their wrath on all that

was left, plundering the apartments of all they contained.

Meanwhile, the queen, wild with fright, was galloping at full speed from

the hostile beehive she had disturbed. Her barons and knights, in a

panic of fear and deeming themselves hotly pursued, dropped off from the

party one by one, hoping for safety by leaving the highway for the

by-ways, and caring little for the queen so that they saved their

frightened selves. The queen rode on in mad terror until Oxford was

reached, only her brother, the Earl of Gloucester, and a few others

keeping her company to that town.

They fled from a shadow. The citizens had not pursued them. These

turbulent tradesmen were content with ridding London of this power-mad

woman, and they went back satisfied to their homes, leaving the city

open to occupation by the partisans of Stephen, who entered it under

pretense of an alliance with the citizens. The Bishop of Winchester, who

seems to have been something of a weathercock in his political faith,

turned again to his brothers side, set Stephen's banner afloat on

Windsor Castle and converted his bishop's residence into a fortress.

Robert of Gloucester came with Maud's troops to besiege it. The garrison

set fire to the surrounding houses to annoy the besiegers. While the

town was burning, an army from London appeared, fiercely attacked the

assailants, and forced them to take refuge in the churches. These were

set on fire to drive out the fugitives. The affair ended in Robert of

Gloucester being taken prisoner and his followers dispersed.

Then once more the Saxon peasants swarmed from their huts like hornets

from their hives and assailed the fugitives as they had before assailed

those from Stephen's army. The proud Normans, whose language betrayed

them in spite of their attempts at disguise, were robbed, stripped of

their clothing, and driven along the roads by whips in the hands of

Saxon serfs, who thus repaid themselves for many an act of wrong. The

Bishop of Canterbury and other high prelates and numbers of great lords

were thus maltreated, and for once were thoroughly humbled by those

despised islanders whom their fathers had enslaved.

Thus ended the second act in this drama of conquest and re-conquest.

Maud, deprived of her brother, was helpless. She exchanged him for King

Stephen, and the war broke out afresh. Stephen laid siege to Oxford, and

pressed it so closely that once more Maud took to flight. It was

midwinter. The ground was covered with snow. Dressing herself from head

to foot in white, and accompanied by three knights similarly attired,

she slipped out of a postern in the hope of being unseen against the

whiteness of the snow-clad surface.

Stephen's camp was asleep, its sentinels alone being astir. The scared

fugitives glided on foot through the snow, passing close to the enemy's

posts, the voices of the sentinels sounding in their ears. On foot they

crossed the frozen Thames, gained horses on the opposite side, and

galloped away in hasty flight.

There is little more to say. Maud's cause was at an end. Not long

afterwards her brother died, and she withdrew to Normandy, glad,

doubtless, to be well out of that pestiferous island, but, mayhap,

mourning that her arrogant folly had robbed her of a throne.

A few years afterwards her son Henry took up her cause, and landed in

England with an army. But the threatened hostilities ended in a truce,

which provided that Henry should reign after Stephen's death. Stephen

died a year afterwards, England gained an able monarch, and prosperity

returned to the realm after fifteen years of the most frightful misery

and misrule.