Post-classical history



The Battle of Lincoln was a key moment in the wars of Stephen’s reign, and in the end, indirectly, decisive. It did not finish Stephen’s career as king, as it might have done, but it effectively undermined his chances of complete success. Similarly, the Rout of Winchester was a key moment. It had not ended Matilda’s hopes of eventual success, but it had dampened them considerably.

As the two sides dressed their wounds and contemplated the future at the end of 1141, they had new objectives. Stephen seems to have emerged from prison harder; more set on final success than before. He fought the war that ensued with great energy. The Angevins, however, seem to have accepted that they could, for the time being, do no better than fight to defend what they already had.

The harmful effects of Lincoln for the royalists had not been entirely removed by the release of Stephen. Not all the barons who deserted when he was in prison returned to the fold immediately; some did not return at all. Not all of the places taken over by the Angevins in 1141 had been given up, and some would not be given up at all. In the long run, the most disastrous thing that was left as a legacy from Lincoln, for the king, was the considerable loss sustained in Normandy. Because he became so embroiled in the war in England over the next years, and because his presence and effort were essential to that war, he was not able to go to Normandy again. The effect of that situation we shall observe in the next chapter.


The next episode in the war was fundamentally a castle war, a war of sieges, of attrition. The king had to be active in several regions, but it was in essence a static or at least slowly moving war, not unlike the trench war of 1914–18 in that respect. The boundaries were marked, moving beyond them was not easy. Both sides were naturally cautious of risking another battle after Lincoln and Winchester. Effort was mainly put into building, defending or attacking castles.

Little is known of the castles of this period. Some experts seem more or less to have decided that no castles at all were built in ‘the Anarchy’, though this is patently nonsense. One problem is that there are no pipe rolls for Stephen’s reign, so the recording of royal expenditure on castles is not known. Reading Castle, which seems only to have stood from 1150 to 1153, was one of the few definite royal castles built in the period. Another problem is that the Latin phrases found in charters can usually be interpreted quite correctly to mean that either a castle was built, or it was rebuilt. By the twelfth century, when many castles had already been built, it is therefore probable that ‘rebuilt’ is often the correct meaning, but not always. The problem though is to distinguish the Stephen castles, since archaeologists have given little effort to define the features to be sought. In most cases, only observation of architectural features or archaeological investigation can show whether we have a castle from Stephen’s reign. This, again, is less easy than it sounds. There are often few twelfth-century features to be observed, and since we have virtually no established Stephen models to go by, observers tend much more often to label unidentified castles as being Henry I or Henry II, than Stephen. And as for archaeology, stripping of castle sites is an extremely expensive and difficult operation, and not often undertaken. The kind of limited excavations which usually occur, often do not give the information which we are looking for at the moment. But that said, a trawl through archaeological reports on castles in local journals reveals literally hundreds of probable sites with evidence of use in this period. And enough can be shown from documentary remains to list castles which either originated or were added to in the period, which when checked archaeologically, will make a foundation for firmer historical work on this topic.

This book is not intended to be a work of research on Stephen’s castles, though such a book could be written. We can, for the present, merely outline what is known on the subject, and make a few conjectures. Firstly, there is no doubt that several hundred castles existed at the time of this civil war. These may be listed from those mentioned in chronicle accounts, and in charters. Most of the castles in this war were already in existence before it began; what we can call old castles. The majority of these, built in the early Norman period, were of the earthwork motte and bailey type which we described in an earlier chapter. In most cases these were improved during the twelfth century, most commonly by having towers and walls rebuilt in stone. Other desirable improvements at the time were to widen the moat and to strengthen the gatehouse.

Because of the difficulty in identifying the castles of the reign, it is impossible to be categorical about the style favoured in the period. However, it is possible to suggest several dozen structures which were almost certainly new, and these provide enough evidence for a preliminary catalogue of their features. The first, as already noted in considering improvements, was the focus on stone fortification. New castles in this period were often built, from the first, in stone, certainly wherever a permanent fortification was intended, and where a wealthy builder such as a king or magnate was concerned. Bishops were also great castle builders, not least Roger of Salisbury and Henry of Blois. Each built impressive new stone castles, for example at Salisbury and Farnham.

But because of the critical situation, when fortification was again often a matter of emergency, some earthwork castles were constructed. Also, some castles which were never intended to be more than temporary, were erected. These were probably normally of a very simple type, though few have been identified or studied.

The work on Bentley in Hampshire is especially interesting, in showing what at least one of this type of temporary castle was like. It was suggested to have been a counter castle used against ‘Lidelea’, the latter identified as being Barley Pound Castle, a considerably larger structure. Bentley was thought to be merely a ringwork, but proved in fact, on archaeological examination, to be a motte and bailey castle of a moderate size, with a low motte inside a roughly circular enclosure.1


Plan of Burwell Castle, based on the plans from the excavation.

Another counter castle, in the previous reign, had been referred to by a chronicler as being nicknamed ‘hare’s form’, from which one envisages a simple flattened enclosure, like a bailey, or what is sometimes called a ringwork, of an irregular shape.2 Among others, counter castles were built during the civil war against Bristol, Dunster, Wallingford and Faringdon. However, at least one temporary castle, at Burwell in Cambridgeshire, was more elaborate. This was a royal castle, built against Geoffrey de Mandeville in 1143, and it was not known for how long it might be required. In the event it was never even finished. It therefore gives us a frozen image of one such castle, since it has been excavated.3

Burwell Castle was built in the shape of an almost regular rectangle, which had not been at all common before this period, and reminds one more of Roman forts than Norman castles. It was to have a very broad moat, 30 feet across and 9 feet deep, dug around this rectangular platform. The moat was never completed and therefore remained only as a great ditch, but the intention was clearly to lead in water from the nearby stream. From the recovered plan, it looks as if the intention was to build an interior tower as a keep. There was also the beginnings of a square-towered gateway. Both the gate and the surrounding curtain wall were begun in stone. So we know what was intended, even if the building was not completed. To our eyes it was quite a revolutionary design, and incorporated several of the features we have mentioned as desirable in new castles at this time.

Unfortunately, little of the castle is left to be seen above ground. Some 8 feet of wall which once stood was damaged when ‘some ingenious person thought of testing the village fire hose against it’, causing it to collapse.4 Just a few stones may be seen now where they have been disturbed by tree roots. But the large grassy mounds still allow some idea of the depth and width of the moat and the height of the ramparts. Some mounds once thought of as siege works, now they have been excavated, have been shown to be spoil mounds made while the castle was still being built, and left in position once Burwell Castle was abandoned a year later.

We know that Stephen built other castles at the same time as Burwell as part of the same campaign. We should expect them to be similar to Burwell, but they have never been satisfactorily identified. The area around the Isle of Ely is absolutely littered with castle remains and other earthworks; there are over 300 moated sites in Cambridgeshire alone. But now that we know the shape of Burwell, we must be cautious about attributing rectangular moated sites invariably to the late Middle Ages. A study of plans of other earthworks, where these are available, suggests a number of apparently similar outlines, for example at Rampton, Caxton, Bassingbourn and Kirtling, but conjecture without excavation can take us no further.5

One feature of several castles built in this period, but not yet perhaps clearly acknowledged as being new and important, was that of ‘buried towers’. The purpose of these is open to debate, but not their existence. This feature has been detected in castles which range from elaborate to relatively simple, from stone to timber keeps. The common design had a tower built on ground level, and a mound raised around the foot of it, so that it looked like a typical motte with a tower on top, but its structure was different. This could have been because by the mid-twelfth century, defenders recognized the usefulness of a motte to protect the foot of the tower, to make scaling, mining and attacking in general more difficult. A mound was desirable and so was a heavily built tower, but the two could not be combined unless there was a natural mound to use. In Norman motte and bailey castles, when the mound was new and artificial, the tower had to be a relatively light timber construction. Old Norman mounds were now settled enough to form the base for improved stone towers, but it was a different matter when it came to building a new castle. One answer was the buried tower, which gave the tower a firm ground foundation, with the ‘motte’ later built around its foot. It was also efficient in terms of space; instead of a useless large mound of earth, in these structures, the base of the tower was within the motte and gave additional space for storage.


The buried keep. The stone-built keep is built on solid ground and a motte constructed around its foot.

One reason for the improvement in castles through stronger structures in stone, was the improvement in siege weapons. Throwing weapons of various kinds were commonly used in sieges, as they had been for centuries. In the twelfth century we begin to hear of them used more experimentally. Geoffrey of Anjou, in his own county if not elsewhere, used throwing engines to hurl Greek fire. The part of the Christian army for the Second Crusade which went to Lisbon is often thought to have used trebuchets in the siege there.6 This remains debatable, but the trebuchet does appear during this century, and the proposition is not impossible. It worked on a different principle from most throwing machines, by using a counterweight, and was able to hurl much greater stones and so do more damage.

The use of the castle in war was manifold: for offence, defence, shelter, control, and authority. It was also a symbol of power. No one could claim to have authority over an area unless they commanded its strongest castles. Lords naturally made their chief castle, their caput, the best built of their various strongholds, and it was therefore the most difficult to capture. In England, where castles had mushroomed during the century since the Conquest, control of an area meant control of its castles. Since they were constructed to be defensible, this control was not easily obtained. It might be gained by agreement, by recognition that although one person resided in the castle, another had superior claims upon it: the king over the castellan of a royal castle, an overlord over a feudal subordinate. But where the situation was one of civil war, usually nothing short of physical control of the castle would do, and this meant attacking it, besieging it, forcing its surrender, so that one could place it in the hands of a loyal garrison and thereafter use it for one’s own purposes. In the areas which bordered the safe territories of Stephen and Matilda, or areas which were in dispute between them for other reasons, or areas where one side was seeking to extend its power, control of castles was usually the key point of the war. Hence the geographically confusing look of the war, with sieges here, there and everywhere. But they were not pointless and haphazard; they were examples of the leaders pursuing one of the major needs of this particular war.

Nor were our commanders simpletons. The theory of war was not unknown in the twelfth century. By this time manuals of the Roman writer Vegetius were available for those who wished to study methods of war. We know that Geoffrey, Count of Anjou held a copy of Vegetius in his hands in the final stages of the siege of Montreuil-Bellay in 1151, and that it gave him the inspiration which led to his success there. Several of our Anglo-Norman nobles we know to have been literate, such as Robert of Gloucester, and it would be unwise to believe they knew nothing of the current theories of war.


Matilda had made Oxford her new base. This was a brave move and suggests that she had not entirely given up hopes of recovering from the disasters at London and Winchester. Oxford was part of the westerly salient in terms of Angevin safe territory, its only close partner being Wallingford. Oxford, therefore, became the first focus of the renewed warfare following the release of the chief protagonists. The Angevins made attempts to shore up their position, and a number of new castles were built, for example, at Woodstock, Radcot, Bampton and Cirencester; this showed the line they were trying to defend at their easterly most forward position near Oxford and Wallingford.


The Castle War in the west, 1141–5.

Stephen made use of a church council at Westminster, called by his brother, to voice a protest about his capture and imprisonment. An earlier letter from the Pope was read out, which rebuked Bishop Henry for not doing more to gain his brother’s release, presumably in order to demonstrate that the papal position was still firmly royalist. Bishop Henry felt the need at this point to justify his actions during his brother’s captivity, and claimed that his agreement with Matilda had only been made ‘of necessity’.7 He also pointed out that she, and not he, had broken the agreement then made, by not giving the promised freedom to the church. He had used the same excuse for deserting first Stephen and then Matilda. He also accused Matilda of plotting against his life. He reaffirmed his brother’s claims as an anointed king recognized by the papacy, and accused Stephen’s enemies of being ‘disturbers of the peace’.8 A representative of the empress at the council reminded Henry that he had promised to give no more than twenty knights to aid his brother, and of his former encouragement of the empress’ cause, including frequent letters to her in Normandy suggesting that she come to England, another interesting sidelight on the bishop’s behaviour at Arundel. He also accused Henry of ‘connivance’ in the defeat and capture of his brother.9

Stephen was ill in the early part of 1142, probably a reaction to his imprisonment. Oddly enough, at about the same time, Matilda was also laid low; a reaction to the Rout of Winchester, she was ‘worn out almost to the point of utter collapse’.10 At Lent a truce was agreed, during which Matilda went to Devizes for a ‘secret conference’ with her supporters. Its conclusion shows that they were becoming anxious about their position, and decided to send to Geoffrey of Anjou for direct aid, ‘it being his duty to maintain the inheritance of his wife and children in England’.11 A delegation was sent off to him, which returned with little news to rejoice the empress. With what sounds like delaying tactics, Geoffrey had said he would only take note if Robert of Gloucester reported to him in person: ‘it was merely a waste of time for anyone else to come and go’.12


Angevin threats: the Castle War, 1141–5.

At first Robert refused to go, saying that it was a hazardous journey through enemy territory in England and Normandy. He also feared to leave Matilda’s cause in other hands. The weakness of the Angevin party at this juncture is made clear by his demands. He insisted on taking with him to Normandy, hostages for lords on the Angevin side, to ensure their continued loyalty. Not much trust was shown in that. Stephen was not the only one with loyalty problems among his followers.

Earl Robert finally agreed to go and petition Geoffrey. He set out for Wareham, which was now held by his eldest son, William of Gloucester. From there he sailed for Normandy, surviving a storm in mid-Channel. Only two ships kept going, including the one carrying Robert. He landed and made for his own town of Caen, from where he sent to Count Geoffrey, who now came to the earl. But again Geoffrey prevaricated, and said he could not think about coming to England straight away, since there were numerous castles which he must first reduce in Normandy. The reluctant earl was dragged along in the company of Count Geoffrey’s army to besiege various Norman strongholds. Altogether ten castles were captured, including Tinchebrai, Vire, Villers-Bocage and Mortain.

At the end of all this, after repeated requests to give his decision about coming to England, Count Geoffrey turned down the idea. Earl Robert must have felt extremely frustrated. Instead, the Count offered that he take back to England with him his son, the young Henry of Anjou, ‘that on seeing him the nobles might be inspired to fight for the cause of the lawful heir’. Of course, the Angevins made the most of the boy’s claims, for propaganda purposes, and with hindsight it looks like an important moment in our history. But at the time it must have been a terrible disappointment to the Angevin party in England. Count Geoffrey had made it only too obvious that his own priority was in Normandy, and he could spare neither his own time nor much of his resources to his wife’s efforts in England.

During Easter, Stephen was at Northampton, and so ill that rumours of his death began to circulate. But after Whitsun, he began to recover, and the period of lull was over. He set about dealing with the new castles which the enemy had built. Cirencester was taken by surprise, with many of the garrison missing. It was fired and its rampart demolished. Bampton was taken by storm, and Radcot soon surrendered.

The king took advantage of Robert’s absence in Normandy, and attacked Wareham. The town, within its roughly rectangular enclosure of walls, stood at a navigable point on the Frome, and still retains something of its old harbourside appearance. The motte and bailey castle was placed within its south-west corner. The castle remains are unfortunately not now open for public access, and the keep has been partially built over, but the motte can be viewed at an angle from the bridge over the river.13 The garrison was inadequate, and the king fired and plundered the town, and captured the castle. This was quite a blow to the Angevins, lacking good south coast ports which linked to their own territories.

Stephen also attacked the empress in Oxford from 29 September 1142, ‘seeking rather her surrender than that of the town’.14 The castle then was thought to be very strong, defended by the deep river, and with ‘a tower of great height’.15 The Angevin garrison thought itself secure, and taunted the royalists from the safety of the walls, shooting arrows at the king’s men over the river. Stephen took his force across the river by a ford, where the water was still deep enough to require swimming. Stephen dashed in and took the lead, himself swimming across. The enemy outside the gate were forced back in a fierce charge.

Stephen and his troops burst into the city and set fire to it, and then blockaded the castle. Matilda was trapped, and this time there was no offer of an escort to the west country. Stephen now believed ‘he could easily put an end to the strife in the kingdom if he forcibly overcame her through whom it began to be at strife’.16 Guards were posted all around the castle with orders to keep watch night and day, so that the empress and her garrison were pinned down. For three months the blockade continued, until the Angevins in the castle were weak with hunger. Siege engines were brought into play, and the plight of Matilda looked grim.

The Angevins, led by Brian fitz Count, assembled at nearby Wallingford to organize a rescue attempt. But they were not prepared to attack Stephen directly at Oxford, which suggests that they lacked the numbers to do it.17 Robert of Gloucester brought the young Henry of Anjou back with him. They had 300 knights and 52 ships, which implies that Geoffrey had provided some cash for support after all. This time there were no storms, and the ships calmly followed in line across the sea, the waves ‘gliding gently up to play against the shore’.18

Robert toyed with the idea of an attack on Southampton, encouraged by his seafaring supporters from the south, a family known as the Seals. But he chose in the end to return to Wareham, which he set about recovering. He soon occupied the landing stage, went on to recover the town, and then besieged the castle now with a royal garrison. Earl Robert set up throwing engines, and the threat was enough. An agreement was reached, of a type commonly employed in this period, that the garrison would be allowed to appeal to the king to come to their aid, but that if he did not come by a set date, the castle would surrender.

William of Malmesbury says Robert hoped the king would in fact be tempted to come in person, so that Matilda would be given relief in Oxford. But Stephen was not to be diverted this time. The garrison kept its word, and surrendered Wareham into Robert’s hands, and the earl was now free to try and save Matilda. This, at any rate, is how William of Malmesbury presents his plans. But in fact Earl Robert did not make any attempt to go to Oxford immediately. First he took the Isle of Portland, with its castle, and then the castle of Lulworth from William of Glastonbury, a deserter from Matilda to Stephen. He then called an assembly of the Angevin supporters at Cirencester, which decided to make a bid to save Oxford. But on their way, they learned that Matilda had escaped, and being close to Christmas they now abandoned the idea of attacking the king.

Matilda’s escape is a famous incident, and recorded in more than one chronicle. It was just before Christmas of 1142, and the weather was suitably wintry, with deep snow and ice. One account says she escaped down the walls by a rope at night, but the more likely version is that she slipped secretly out of a small postern gate.19 She had decided on a risky venture, to escape with only a small escort of four knights, risking capture by the blockading troops.20 They were not asleep, and as she slipped out, there was the sound of trumpets and men shouting, their voices carrying through the frosty air.

She managed to cross the frozen Thames, wrapped in a white cloak so as to escape notice against the background of snow. The ice was so solid that she did not even get her feet wet crossing the river. Matilda then had to struggle on foot several miles to Abingdon, through ice and snow. There had just been a heavy fall, which probably helped the escape, but made the going difficult.

At Abingdon they obtained horses, and rode on to Wallingford and safety. This is the final incident described in William of Malmesbury’s Historia Novella, so we lose another of our major sources at this point. William was heavily biased in favour of Robert of Gloucester, and sometimes distorted the truth or even invented, but he was a powerful writer, had good information, and could paint his pictures vividly. Though a monk, he was interested in politics and worldly events; he had a good brain and was well read, and could give shrewd and salty comment. We shall miss his assistance in the last part of our tale.

Matilda’s escape is a well-remembered story, but it was hardly a triumph. The garrison left behind at Oxford did not hold out for long. Stephen accepted their surrender. The Angevins had to draw in their horns once more. Stephen was back on the warpath, and the key target of the fighting in 1142, Oxford, had finished up in the king’s hands. The Gesta Stephani says that Stephen now ‘exercised absolute authority over a very wide tract of country in that region’.21 In this dispersed castle war, we must always bear in mind the chief outlines of events and the prime targets at given times, as contemporary chroniclers did.

After Oxford, Stephen made an attempt to recover Wareham, where Earl Robert had been strengthening the castle he had recently recaptured. It may be at this point that Stephen went to Wilton, though the chroniclers disagree over the chronology of the year. Henry of Huntingdon places at the beginning of his account of events in 1142, the episode at Wilton.22 The king had built a castle here, to hinder Robert’s activities. The royalist presence in the west country was feeble. The only lord of any consequence who was active on the king’s behalf was Henry de Tracy. Wilton was to the royalists what Wallingford was to the Angevins, a salient in mainly enemy territory. It also became an assembly point for royal forces, including troops brought there by Henry, Bishop of Winchester.

The Angevins came to besiege Wilton. The pattern is remarkably like events at Lincoln, though in this case we are supplied with far fewer details. This time the king decided to make a sortie and break out, but almost failed to do so. The description in the Gesta Stephani suggests that Wilton was a pitched battle rather than simply a skirmish. Stephen arrayed his force with troops, probably cavalry, on each wing; Earl Robert divided his into three groups. The Angevins made a cavalry charge, and Stephen was forced to draw back. Stephen had to flee in order to escape. He was only saved by the selfless action of the royal steward, William Martel, one of his most loyal men, who sacrificed his own freedom to allow the king to escape. Stephen, at least, was a good lord to his loyal supporters, and agreed to hand over Sherborne Castle in order to obtain William Martel’s release; it was a heavy price, and against Stephen’s normal inclinations, which were to give the possession of castles very high priority. It was his only surrender of this kind, and shows how highly he regarded William Martel.

Wilton had come very close to being a second Lincoln. Stephen’s escape on this occasion suggests how unwise he had been to fight on and be captured in the previous encounter. It also shows that he was outshone as a battle leader by Robert of Gloucester. At Lincoln, Stephen almost certainly had fewer troops, but there is no reason to believe this of Wilton. Wilton itself suffered the consequences of the royal defeat, with burning torches thrown into houses, doors smashed down, and goods plundered. It seems as if the episode at Wilton also persuaded the hitherto loyal Henry de Tracy to make his peace with the Angevins for the time being.23 The events of 1142 did not seem propitious for the king’s future. If less disastrous than Lincoln, the Battle of Wilton was nevertheless a damaging defeat. Stephen had struggled to recover parity with the Angevins, but the situation was about to change.


Again, there was much toing and froing in 1143, and the picture can become complicated and seem muddled, but one episode dominated the year – the rebellion of the Earl of Essex, Geoffrey de Mandeville. He has been the subject of much of the important study of this reign. John Horace Round, one of the most curmudgeonly, yet brilliant, historians ever, collected various pieces of research on the reign in his Geoffrey de Mandeville. In Round’s view, based on the evidence of the charters, Geoffrey was the outstanding example of the worst kind of selfish baron, out to better himself by constantly changing sides to obtain a higher offer, without holding any principles.24

R.H.C. Davis gave much of his life to a study of this reign, and is one of the most distinguished of recent medieval historians. Among other things, he showed that Geoffrey was no cynical turncoat, by redating the charters issued in his favour by the king and the empress. The conclusion of Davis’ study, which has been debated but is accepted here, was to show that Geoffrey had not changed sides several times, each time bettering himself, but had only deserted the king when practically everybody else did, during Stephen’s captivity after Lincoln. This makes Geoffrey no more than an average magnate looking to his own future. Indeed, he was one of the first barons to return to the king’s allegiance once Queen Matilda offered hope of recovery, and had fought on the royal side at the Rout of Winchester.

Another leading modern historian, Professor Warren Hollister, has also given attention to this magnate. His study of the Mandeville family showed that its past history was not as had always been believed. Geoffrey’s predecessor had been punished for allowing Rufus to escape from the Tower, and as a result the family’s fortunes had declined. The revival had only come slowly, beginning under Henry I, but being most marked in the next reign with Stephen showing favour to Geoffrey.

Geoffrey had not recovered the Tower itself until well into Stephen’s reign, not before 1137. Stephen’s famous charter granting the Tower is not merely a confirmation of an earlier grant, but the actual record of restoration. In 1140 Geoffrey was also made Earl of Essex as part of the round of promotions by the king. Stephen had also pardoned his debts and made him sheriff of Essex, Hampshire, London and Middlesex. There could be little complaint against good lordship here.

Both these modern studies make the events of 1143 that much more puzzling. Geoffrey was not a recidivist turncoat, and he owed almost everything to the favour of Stephen. He had to some extent repaid that debt by joining the queen at Winchester after his brief desertion during the imprisonment. The puzzle would seem to be why he turned against Stephen in 1143. The answer is that he did not, at least not openly. It was the king who turned against him, but the reason for that is also puzzling. Historians have been able to do little more than speculate over the motives. Stephen certainly overplayed the move of arresting a potential enemy in order to gain key castles. We have already seen him doing it to obtain the bishops’ castles in 1139, and his action in refusing Baldwin de Redvers’ homage in 1136 and then demanding his castles was not far removed in concept.

In the case of Geoffrey de Mandeville too there is a hint of treason. Henry of Huntingdon says that if the king had not made the arrest, he would have lost his throne. And the Gesta Stephani records a rumour that Geoffrey had decided ‘to bestow the kingdom on the Countess of Anjou’, which other lords reported to the king. They then worked on Stephen to make the arrest, advice which he mulled over for some time before making a decision.25 Stephen may have resented Geoffrey’s actions after Lincoln, but it is difficult to see how he had any cause to resent them more than the actions of 90 per cent of his supporters.

Two possible answers present themselves. The first is that Stephen had an additional cause for resentment against Geoffrey which he had harboured for some time before the arrest. Geoffrey, as castellan of the Tower of London, had been host to Stephen’s daughter-in-law, the French princess, Constance, who had married Eustace, while Stephen was imprisoned during 1141. And there are hints that in some way Geoffrey had insulted Constance, together with Queen Matilda, restraining their movements, perhaps even imprisoning them. He did return them to their freedom, though with reluctance. But this had happened several years previously.26 If it was the main cause of the arrest, then Stephen’s motives were personal and had been harboured rather a long time.

The other possibility is that the king’s special cause for resenting Geoffrey’s acceptance of Matilda, was simply its great significance. In granting him the restoration of his family lands, and then making him Earl of Essex, Stephen had entrusted Geoffrey with an absolutely key defensive position. Knowing that there was loyal resistance to the empress in nearby Kent, it must have been particularly disappointing that London was handed to the Angevins on a plate, particularly as the Londoners themselves showed loyalty to the king. This seems to be the most convincing explanation, and gives the king another motive. If he felt he could no longer fully trust Geoffrey, because he had been simply too willing to yield in 1141, then he needed to remove from Geoffrey’s hands the major castles he held, not least the Tower of London, which was royal. If added to this, there was now the possibility of treason, we have at least an explanation of the king’s action. Indeed, ‘certain persons’ now made an open accusation against the Earl of Essex of participating in ‘a treasonable plot’.27

Even so, to arrest Geoffrey still appears as a rather underhand act. He had been guilty of no immediate crime or offence. There is little doubt that this kind of action by Stephen began to erode magnate trust in him. It was underhand and sly, not the sort of action one expected from a king, particularly one like Stephen, who seemed superficially open and accessible.

The arrest of Geoffrey de Mandeville was made in the royal court when the king was at Saint Alban’s, and just as the bishops had offended by disturbing the peace of that court in 1139, so now Stephen offended perceptions of the protection which ought to be afforded to those who attended that court. Henry of Huntingdon, holding no particular brief for the earl, wrote that it was ‘an act more fitting the earl’s deserts than public right, more expedient than just’. The chronicler at Geoffrey’s own foundation of Walden was more forthright, saying that Geoffrey was ‘accused falsely and in secret of being a traitor to the king and betrayer of his country’. It was a fraudulent move, and ‘unjust treatment’.28

Arresting individuals did at least prove to be an effective means of obtaining their castles. Geoffrey was not released until, under threat of hanging if he refused, he had agreed to hand over his main castles: the Tower of London, Saffron Walden, and Pleshey. As the Gesta Stephani points out, Geoffrey’s castles were particularly important because of their strategic relationship to London: ‘castles of impregnable strength built round the city’.29

Once released, the earl not surprisingly ignored the promises he had given, and set about trying to recover his property. This was the problem for Stephen throughout his reign. Whereas other kings might treat their magnates just as badly, and were perhaps less successful in gaining the castles of such men, in normal times a rebel baron had little hope of victory and nowhere much to hide. But in this time of civil war, there was always a ready-made refuge for any rebel against the king. So whenever Stephen made efforts to discipline his magnates, they were almost bound to join the ranks of his opponents and receive protection from them. It was this more than anything which undermined Stephen’s position. It was not lack of firmness. Stephen has been criticized for releasing the men he arrested, but the furore against him had he not released them, or had he killed them during their captivity, would have been as great as that against John over the death of Arthur of Brittany half a century later. One often feels with this reign that Stephen did as well as was humanly possible in a virtually impossible situation. His only real failing was military; that he could never absolutely crush his enemies.

Yet if we move on from the puzzling question of motivation, the way in which Stephen triumphed over the rebel Geoffrey de Mandeville in his ‘fenland campaign’ was exemplary.30 Geoffrey’s rebellion again opened up a second front in the war, again in East Anglia, and gave renewed hope to the Angevins, depressed by their failure to get much change out of the Count of Anjou.

Geoffrey de Mandeville chose to make a base not in his own territory, but in the geographically difficult lands of the Isle of Ely and its neighbourhood, probably with the connivance of Bishop Nigel. A number of areas of flat land, such as the Isle of Ely itself, stood above surrounding rivers, streams and marshes, and made an excellent refuge. Geoffrey arrived there by boat. The church did not long give him any sort of support, indeed Henry of Huntingdon says he was ‘resolute in his ungodliness’, and was soon roundly condemned on almost every side.

Geoffrey seized Ramsey Abbey and turned it into a castle. It was said that while it was used by him as a fortification, blood ran from its walls like tears, a phenomenon which Henry of Huntingdon claimed to have seen with his own eyes. The monks were unceremoniously turfed out and soldiers installed, ‘turning the house of God into a den of thieves’.31 Geoffrey probably had less compunction over this since the new abbot, Daniel, a favourite of the king, had been moved in to replace Abbot Walter. It was a reward for Daniel’s aid to the king against Bishop Nigel. The violent events of 1143 are difficult to envisage in modern, peaceful Ramsey, where only part of the enormous church and the gatehouse survive from the twelfth-century monastery.

Geoffrey had suffered ‘the deepest bitterness of heart’, and vented his anger on royal supporters in the vicinity, attacking Cambridge with its royal castle. The town was pillaged, with a display of brutality and savagery. According to the Walden chronicler, Geoffrey behaved ‘like a strong and unbridled horse not ceasing to tear in pieces with bites and kicks those whom he met’. Monasteries were attacked, church doors hacked down with axes, various places fired, goods seized. The Earl of Essex also used spies in disguise to make reconnaissance of places he intended to attack.32 But his raids were not random; his main targets were the estates of the king and his supporters. He attacked ‘the castles where the king’s forces were’, ‘the manors, towns and other things pertaining to the king’s property’, and ‘everything belonging to the adherents of the king’s party’.33

Stephen made great efforts to deal with this rebellion, obviously recognizing its significance. He could not bring the earl to battle. The latter retreated into the safety of the fens, and then broke out to attack in another direction. Stephen had experience of the area from his earlier problems with Bishop Nigel.

Now Stephen built a number of castles against Geoffrey, ‘in suitable places’.34 Apart from Burwell, these castles have never been identified. The most likely candidates do not make a circle around the Isle of Ely, as historians seem to have assumed, but rather a screen between Ely and London, or between Ely and the castles of Geoffrey which the king had seized.35 All Geoffrey’s efforts in this campaign were aimed towards the south-west and his lost castles. Why did he choose particularly to attack Cambridge and Burwell? His former stronghold at Saffron Walden was only a dozen miles away from Cambridge. This was the whole focus of the fenland campaign: the attempted recovery of those confiscated castles by the earl, and the efforts to foil it by the king.

Geoffrey had the support of a number of his relatives, including William de Saye, his sister’s second husband, and his own de Vere in-laws. Geoffrey’s son, Ernulf, was also active on his behalf, and built a new castle at ‘Walton’.36 Geoffrey made an alliance with the most powerful magnate in the region, Hugh Bigod, whose loyalty to the king had always been uncertain. Holding the two island castles of Ely and Aldreth, Geoffrey was in a strong defensive position. Ely Castle motte still stands in the park near the cathedral; Aldreth Castle has never been identified, but may have been at the site called the Borough, where a track peters out at the edge of the island.37

Burwell Castle in Cambridgeshire was one of the new castles which provided additional cover to the existing royal castle at Cambridge. The king ordered part of the village of Burwell to be destroyed to make way for the construction of this emergency castle. The land used was in the possession of Ramsey Abbey.38 A good deal of cash was put into it. A flat rectangular platform was prepared, as we have seen, with a broad moat around it. Work was started on the wall, the gatehouse and the keep.

Geoffrey de Mandeville was concerned about the royal preparations against him, and decided that attack was the best form of defence. He suddenly turned up with a force at Burwell and obviously intended to destroy the half-built castle. He surveyed it without a helmet on, removed because it was uncomfortable in the heat. A low-born crossbowman from the half-built walls sighted the earl, aimed at him, and shot him in the head. Geoffrey acted at first as though the wound was only slight, but in fact it proved fatal. He was taken away to nearby Mildenhall, probably seeking to reach the protection of Hugh Bigod at Thetford. A week later he died, on 26 September 1144, ‘penitent to the bottom of his heart’, according at least to the chronicle of his own foundation.39 For Stephen the campaign had been a great triumph. The Earl of Essex was a powerful opponent. The opening up of an eastern war was a great threat. But before the Angevins could take any real part, the king had blocked off Geoffrey’s activities, and now had brought about his death. He had also gained control of the earl’s chief castles, which had been at the root of the initial conflict but it is difficult to believe that the king had not lost something too. The ploy of arresting magnates and demanding their castles, on what appears to be increasingly flimsy evidence, must have left a legacy of distrust among the nobility who remained loyal to him.

The earl’s body suffered various humiliations. Because he was excommunicated at the time of his death, he could not be buried in consecrated ground. However, he was taken away decently enough by the Templars, whom he had favoured and who covered him with a cloth on which was a red cross. One account says that he was thrown into a pit outside the Old Temple in London in a box; another that the body was wrapped in a lead shell and hanged from a crab-apple tree in the Temple orchard. Later on, his son managed to gain absolution for Geoffrey, so that the body could be given Christian burial, twenty years after the death.40

Geoffrey’s son, Ernulf, retained control of Ramsey Abbey, but he was captured and sent into banishment. Ernulf’s cavalry commander was thrown from his horse and died from the blow to his head. His commander of infantry, one Reiner, who had been employed in attacking churches, was crossing back to the continent with his wife, when the ship grounded. The sailors drew lots, and decided that the unfortunate Reiner was responsible, simply by being there, and so cast him adrift in a boat with his wife. The couple soon perished in the waves and the god of the waters was apparently appeased.41 Militarily the events at Burwell had been a tremendous gain for the royalists. Stephen would now be able to concentrate on the war in the west. He seemed to be closing in again on his prey, just as in the period before Matilda’s arrival. The death of Geoffrey had been a great boost to the morale of the royalists, and a blow to their opponents: ‘a kind of darkness and dread filled all the king’s enemies and those who had thought the king’s efforts greatly weakened by the revolt.’42


During the rebellion of Geoffrey de Mandeville, Stephen had seen the death of another major threat to his security. On Christmas Eve of 1143, Miles, Earl of Hereford, had gone on a hunting expedition. As commonly seemed to happen during these occasions, there was an accident. The earl was hit in the chest by a stray arrow aimed badly at a stag, and died from the wound. He had been recently excommunicated by the Bishop of Hereford for his plundering of the local church, and his death seemed like another divine judgment.

Probably in 1143, there was a new threat to the royal position in Winchester, brought about by a quarrel between Bishop Henry and the treasurer, William de Pont de l’Arche. The latter appealed to the Angevins to take his part, and they were delighted to find a new ally in such a vital place. Therefore, they sent the mercenary captain, Robert fitz Hildebrand, to his assistance. He was one of that ‘crowd of barbarians, who had swarmed to England in a body to serve as mercenaries … affected neither by the bowels of compassion nor by feelings of human pity’. Robert was a man of ‘low birth’, but with much military experience; he was also ‘lustful, drunken and unchaste’.43

William de Pont de l’Arche held Portchester Castle, near Portsmouth, which he had obtained through marriage. Here came Robert fitz Hildebrand, acting with great swagger, coming in and out as he pleased, and seducing the unfortunate treasurer’s wife. The pair decided to chain the husband up in his own castle while they enjoyed its comforts and his wealth. But all this did not avail the Angevins much, since the loose-living captain now decided to make his peace with Stephen and Bishop Henry. Of course, he could not be allowed to escape scot free after such disgraceful behaviour. The ecclesiastical chronicler who tells his story, relished his fate: ‘a worm was born at the time when the traitorous corrupter lay in the unchaste bosom of the adulteress and crept through his vitals, slowly eating away his entrails till it gradually consumed the scoundrel, and at length, in the affliction of many complaints and the torment of many dreadful sufferings, it brought him to his end by a punishment he richly deserved.’44

In 1144 Stephen again besieged Lincoln Castle. Ranulf of Chester had recovered control of the place. Stephen began to make preparations for a prolonged siege. His men were preparing ‘a work’, presumably a siege tower, when it fell down and eighty of them were killed in the trench, suffocated, according to one source.45 After the disaster Stephen abandoned the attempt.

Robert Marmion, who had fortified the church in Coventry, was killed when making a sortie from the place. Though in the middle of his men, and though no one else was killed, Marmion was hit. He fell into his own pit, fractured a thigh, and had his head cut off by a ‘mean minion’. He had been excommunicated for his sins against the church and ‘became subject to death everlasting’.46

The year 1144 seems to have been one of considerable destruction by various individuals, all making their own efforts to harm Stephen, including the sons of Robert of Gloucester in the southern part of England, and John the Marshal, ‘that scion of hell and root of all evil’, seeking revenge for his damaged sight sustained at Wherwell. The chronicler suggests that the Angevin intention was to draw a solid line of strength from the Bristol Channel to the south coast. But although the fighting obviously caused much harm, the Angevins had also established order within their own more carefully defined territory, where they ‘imposed law and ordinances everywhere’, even if in the chronicler’s view this was not a completely legitimate authority.47

Another active Angevin was Stephen de Magneville, a supporter of Baldwin de Redvers, Earl of Devon. He, too, was consolidating the Angevin grip on a part of the west country. To this same end, Robert of Gloucester built three counter castles against the royal castle in Malmesbury. But Stephen made a sudden expedition and succeeded in relieving his garrison there.

Stephen went on to besiege Tetbury in Gloucestershire, taking the outer bailey and bringing up siege engines. Robert of Gloucester then hastily assembled a force, including Welsh infantry, to come to Tetbury’s relief. Roger, Earl of Hereford, Miles’ son and successor, joined him. There seemed to be the prospect of another pitched battle. But after Lincoln and Wilton, Stephen had learned his lesson. With a smallish force he did not wait for battle, but abandoned the siege and made for Winchcombe, a castle of Roger, Earl of Hereford. Some of the garrison fled on hearing of his approach. Stephen attacked the remaining force with determination, sending in flights of arrows, and ordering men to crawl up the motte to attack the keep. Winchcombe surrendered on terms. Again, the element of surprise had succeeded, where a prolonged siege had failed. There was no battle, but the expedition had given the king minor gains. Royalists built and held a number of additional castles within Gloucestershire, making ‘deep inroads into the county’.48

Shortly afterwards, Stephen again exploited the advantage of surprise. Hugh Bigod had joined his enemies in the east, and thought himself safe with Stephen in the west country. But the king made a rapid cross-country march and struck against Bigod, capturing a number of his knights, wasting his lands, and ordering the construction of three castles in his territory.

Another notable Angevin supporter was William Peverel of Dover. He had been Robert of Gloucester’s castellan at Dover, but had lost his castle to Stephen earlier in the reign. Now he set about establishing himself more safely within the territory under Angevin influence, and built a new castle at Cricklade in Wiltshire, protected by water and marshland. He assembled a force of mercenaries and archers and, using guerilla tactics, raided against the royalists along the Thames, with ambushes and night attacks. In one way or another, the focus of the war was becoming ever more concentrated on the Angevin home base.


Again, in 1145, there was one major event – the taking of Faringdon Castle. Modern historians have been a little surprised at this, but contemporary chroniclers saw it as a major event. With a little thought the reason is clear. It was Robert of Gloucester who built the new castle there at the request of his son, Philip. It was a well-built castle, probably intended to become a permanent stronghold, and to control Malmesbury. It was on a naturally strong site, once a Celtic stronghold, on the mound known variously as Folly Hill, Faringdon Clump or Faringdon Hill, and seems to have had a timber keep, though some stonework is also reported.49 It was a further attempt by the Angevins to revive their forward movement at the spearhead of their territories, close to Wallingford; ‘to advance nearer to Oxford’.50 It also seems that Robert had made great efforts to have the castle constructed, drawing in many of the Angevin supporters to help. The men put within to garrison it were the ‘flower of their whole army’.51

Stephen appealed to his old allies the Londoners. He assembled a force at Oxford, and accompanied by a body of London militia, marched against the new castle. At Faringdon he built a counter castle to protect his own men. Earl Robert was hoping for reinforcements, and held back, waiting for them to arrive. But the royal attack was constant, daily, and effective. Engines were set up around the walls, hurling stones and missiles. A body of archers in formation was used so that a hail of arrows was shot into Faringdon Castle. Men were also sent to scale the rampart, despite its steepness. In the attack many of the besieged were killed. A secret deputation was sent to the king, and surrender terms agreed. Arms and booty in plenty were taken, and much profit resulted from the ransoms.

The chroniclers saw the capture of Faringdon as a turning point in the war, and so should we. The Gesta Stephani saw it as ‘a splendid triumph’, which disheartened his enemies. Another wrote that ‘the king’s fortune now at last began to change for the better and to be in the ascendant’. Many were led to make peace with the king.52 Were the events after 1148 not known to us, it would seem as if the capture of Faringdon, like the death of Geoffrey de Mandeville, were major factors in turning the war the king’s way.53One of the gains which swayed chroniclers’ attitudes to the taking of Faringdon, was its effect upon the younger son of the Earl of Gloucester. Philip of Gloucester is described as a good soldier and, in the past two years, had been very active in the Angevin cause. He it was who had persuaded his father of the strategic gain from building Faringdon. Now he suddenly switched sides and joined the king. Perhaps he felt that his father had not given sufficient aid in defending Faringdon. He made an agreement with Stephen.

A relatively minor incident in 1145 involved the treachery of Turgeis of Avranches. Stephen had entrusted to him the castellanship of Saffron Walden after its seizure from Geoffrey de Mandeville. Turgeis seems to have seen himself as the possessor rather than the castellan, and refused the king entry to the place. It seems that Turgeis feared he was about to be replaced, for what reason we do not know. Stephen was naturally infuriated by the refusal of entry. The right of entrance to castles, or of render, was one of the king’s hardest held policies. One day Turgeis went out hunting with hounds, and while pursuing a quarry, with horns sounding, was suddenly confronted by a party of knights with the king in their midst. Stephen threatened to hang Turgeis in chains at the entrance of the castle unless it was surrendered, and the castellan decided that discretion was the better part of valour. One significant lesson from the episode is the king’s difficulty in finding anyone he could truly trust.

Even now, the war was not one-way traffic. In 1145 the Angevins had a minor victory in the west. Walter de Pinkeney had been made castellan of Malmesbury by Stephen. The castle had become a considerable problem to the Angevins in its forward position, and all their attempts against it had failed. But as at Saffron Walden, so here, troops roamed the surrounding countryside, and it was not safe for any man to travel without adequate protection. Walter de Pinkeney ventured outside the castle, and was caught by the men of William Peverel of Dover. Matilda tried alternately to cajole or threaten him into handing over Malmesbury, but he resisted. In any case Stephen, hearing of the capture, himself came to Malmesbury and reinforced the place, thus encouraging the garrison to resist surrender. The unfortunate Walter was tortured in a filthy dungeon on Matilda’s orders. But in the main lines of the war, the years from 1143 to 1145 had seen a growing dominance by the royal forces.


The events of 1146 less obviously favoured either side immediately. The major happening of the year was the breaking of relations between Stephen and Ranulf, Earl of Chester, who one chronicler reckoned held one third of the kingdom.54 Probably inspired by the increasing success of royal arms, in 1146 Ranulf decided once again to make his peace with the king. His lands were suffering from Welsh raids, and he obviously believed that the king would give him more aid than the Angevins. Ranulf’s Welsh interests were in the north, whereas most Angevin lords had territories further to the south. Ranulf also mentioned that if the name of the king was involved in an expedition against the Welsh, it would have more effect.55 He approached Stephen at Stamford, accompanied only by a small retinue, and there a new pact of agreement was made, and the earl offered his services in the king’s support.56 He promised to contribute a considerable sum towards paying for a Welsh expedition, for troops and expenses. Together they recovered Bedford for the king. When Stephen once more attempted to capture Wallingford, Ranulf was with him again, bringing 300 cavalry, but thereafter relations soured.

Stephen had not fulfilled Ranulf’s chief hope by undertaking a Welsh expedition. Royal counsellors advised against it, both because of the dangers of the Welsh country, and also because it would mean entering Ranulf’s lands, and there were fears of treachery. Given the numerous examples of underhand ambushes and captures in recent times, such fears were quite understandable. They also pleaded that it would be unwise for the king to leave England in the present circumstances. A number of Stephen’s more consistently loyal barons also resented the prominence of the unreliable Ranulf. It seems too as if he had been taking taxes in his own territories and not forwarding them to the royal exchequer, including those from former royal demesne.

Ranulf was obviously annoyed at the lukewarm royal response to his offers and assistance. An agreement had already been made, and he was not prepared to give any more. He therefore refused to give hostages for his conduct, when they were now demanded. ‘Neither the king nor his chief counsellors had any confidence in the man’s loyalty.’57 Those close to Stephen accused the earl of plotting against the king, and suggested a repeat of the tactic used against Geoffrey de Mandeville – to demand the earl’s castles, or else.

Stephen treated Ranulf much as he had treated Geoffrey de Mandeville, and probably for much the same reasons. Perhaps an even closer parallel is with the arrest of the bishops. Suddenly, at Northampton, Stephen arrested Ranulf and demanded major castles from him, including Lincoln, before he would release him. The earl was chained up and imprisoned at Northampton, despite his denial of treachery. Of all Stephen’s arrests, this was the one for which least cause had been given, and which in the end was probably most damaging. It was condemned by chroniclers. He ‘forgot his royal dignity and honour’; it was ‘an infamous deed’.58 The evidence does not suggest that Ranulf had done anything to break his new allegiance. It would hardly have been in his interests to do so. It is difficult to believe that his surrender to Stephen had been anything but genuine. Ranulf had not been a particularly good friend to Stephen over the years, but he had not been an enthusiastic Angevin either. At once his own men in his broad territories began to operate against the king, demanding the earl be set free. The arrests of Geoffrey de Mandeville and Ranulf of Chester seem to have grown out of previous similar arrests, but whereas we have argued that for those earlier events Stephen had reasonably good cause, he had less cause with regard to Geoffrey, and very little indeed in the case of Ranulf.

Once released, Ranulf’s reaction was to join with the Angevin forces. This arrest was a greater error than any of the others. Stephen had always gained key castles from his arrest of magnates, and he did so now. But the Angevin cause had reached its nadir in England, and the switch of allegiance by Ranulf revived it. Stephen had no doubt recognized his enemies’ weakness, and intended by the arrest to show his new power. He meant to crush his opponents, to kick them while they were down. But it misfired. Ranulf acted with ‘the tyranny of a Herod and the savagery of a Nero’, says the author of the Gesta Stephani, capturing a number of royal castles, and building new ones of his own.59

It is true that when Ranulf brought men with him and tried to achieve a rapid recovery of Lincoln, he failed, and many of his men were killed in the attempt. They tried to break in through the north gate of the city, and could not force their way in. Ranulf’s chief lieutenant was slain in the fighting. The Earl of Chester also tried to recover the castle at Coventry, building a counter castle there. Stephen came to relieve his new garrison, and was wounded in fighting outside the town. But the king soon recovered and again attacked the earl, winning a victory against Ranulf, who took to flight.

Once Ranulf had openly rebelled, Stephen had seized as a hostage, Gilbert fitz Richard. Gilbert had been a royalist, made Earl of Hertford by the king in the promotions at the beginning of the reign. But he was also Earl Ranulf’s nephew, and presumably his loyalty was now in question. His castles also were demanded. The ploy of demanding castles under menaces was moving dangerously near to becoming an obsession. The king threatened Gilbert with exile and banishment; his castles were surrendered. The result was that Gilbert immediately joined in his uncle’s rebellion. Stephen then went quickly in pursuit of Earl Gilbert, prepared to fight a pitched battle against him if necessary. But Gilbert disguised himself and escaped. Several of Gilbert’s castles were taken over, but that at Pevensey resisted and Stephen had to be content with leaving a besieging force on the Sussex coast. We do not know the outcome, but probably the castle was taken eventually.

Philip of Gloucester, who had changed sides in the previous year, proved an active campaigner for his new overlord, Stephen. He had been well rewarded by the king, though he had to give hostages, which is a sign that his loyalty was not altogether trusted. But Philip put all his efforts into impressing the king. He fought even against his own father. Among his successes in 1146, was the capture of Robert Musard, a Gloucester baron. Robert was yet another example of someone who ventured outside his castle without taking sufficient precautions, and was made prisoner. Philip of Gloucester ambushed him and put a halter round the man’s neck, threatening to hang him unless his castle was surrendered. The surrender was arranged and effected.60

Even more dramatic was the capture of Reginald, Earl of Cornwall, made by his erstwhile ally, Philip of Gloucester. There appears to have been some trickery involved here, since Reginald was apparently at the time in negotiation with the king over peace terms while the earl was under a safe conduct. As a result, after protests, the earl was released, though the two sides failed to agree any settlement.

Also in Gloucestershire there was an episode involving the brothers Caldret, Henry and Ralph, who were Flemish mercenaries apparently employed by the Angevins. The Gesta Stephani, which covers the event, does not say on which side they fought, and none of our main historians of the period attempts to do so either, but the context of the narrative suggests that it would be more likely they were defending Angevin strongholds. Both had been castellans, and both lost their strongholds; one was hanged before his own castle, and the other, having lost his castle, left England in poverty. Even if the suggestion that they were Angevin is incorrect, we are still left with the knowledge that in 1146 Stephen was carrying the war into the heart of imperial territory.

There was another incident at Berkeley in Gloucester, a major castle. The unfortunate Roger of Berkeley was also captured outside his stronghold by Walter of Hereford, brother of the earl, and with his brother’s approval. So far as we can see this was an incident which did not involve royalists, since we are told Roger had made a compact with the earl, and was related to him. Roger was captured by a trick and then stripped of his clothes and strung up before his own castle in chains to encourage the garrison to surrender. He was not actually killed; it was merely a show to get his men to surrender, though he nearly died, and on the third attempt to hang him, he was allowed to fall unceremoniously to the ground. He was taken off half dead, ‘a faint breath of life fluttering within his tortured frame’, and imprisoned in a dungeon but his castle had not surrendered.

This story shows that all was far from well within pro-Angevin circles, and that sometimes within their territories the normal code of decent conduct was breaking down. It is probable that Roger had changed sides, because we know that his niece married Philip of Gloucester, and we are told that Philip had made himself responsible for Roger’s protection. In which case, again, we see royal inroads into previously firm Angevin territory.61 Philip of Gloucester retaliated by ravaging the lands around but then he was taken ill, and during the illness vowed to go on pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Stephen’s dominance in England from 1145 to 1148 was undoubted. He could still not crush his enemies completely, but he recovered virtually all the territory lost during his captivity and made gain after gain. In 1148 he attacked Worcester, which he took and burned, though he did not manage to capture the castle. In the following year he made another attempt, and built two counter castles against it, leaving a force to blockade the place. However, the Angevins destroyed the counter castles and relieved Worcester. According to Henry of Huntingdon, the castle was held by Waleran of Meulan, given it by Stephen himself, and his brother, Robert of Leicester, aided the destruction of the counter castles. In which case Stephen had lost a major magnate. From other sources we only know that Robert, Earl of Leicester, joined Henry of Anjou at the last gasp in the reign, in 1153, but Henry of Huntingdon’s suggestion of an earlier defection may well be true, and gives the earl some motivation for his move.62

Stephen still held far more of England than his enemies. The deaths of Miles of Gloucester and Geoffrey de Mandeville had greatly strengthened his position. There was a general discontent with continuing war: ‘they wearied of lengthy conflict and their efforts slackened’.63 The arrest of Ranulf had not yet worked to its climax, but by 1147 the fighting seemed to have died down. Ranulf was licking his wounds, but had been unable to recover his main castles lost in 1146. At Christmas 1146 Stephen had emphasized his recovery of Lincoln Castle by a crown-wearing in the city, despite a superstition against kings entering the place.64

The king had advanced the focus of the war into the west country, and the Angevins were on the defensive. In the two following years his dominance seemed only further underlined. In 1147 Robert of Gloucester died. He had been the main warrior of the Angevin opposition. Without him, in 1141, they had been unable to contemplate continuation of the war, even with Stephen in prison. He was still actively planning further efforts when he died suddenly at Bristol on 31 October. His eldest son, William, succeeded but was never to be the force his father had been, being ‘effeminate and a lover of bedchambers more than of war’; the Angevin cause was undoubtedly weakened by Robert’s death.65

There was still sporadic fighting, and a visit of Henry of Anjou to England, but it was such a failure that it could give his party little cause for hope. It is not accurate to claim that the empress stood down in favour of her son, whose hopes in 1148 were close to being forlorn. When in 1148 Matilda retired to Normandy, it has the look of resignation to defeat. She was not to die for nineteen years, but she would never return to England. Her own war for her own succession had come to an end. Her cause in 1148 was at a low point. Her husband still showed no inclination to give any aid, despite his success in Normandy.

Everything pointed towards Stephen’s victory in the Matildine war. During the previous five years, several of Matilda’s strongest or most powerful supporters had died: Miles of Hereford in 1143, Geoffrey de Mandeville in 1144, Robert of Gloucester in 1147. In 1148 she gave up her struggle for the throne. She did not entirely retire from an active life, but she left the struggle in England for others to resolve. She settled in Rouen, and her efforts there to add to the work of rebuilding begun by her husband, resulted in a monument to her name in the Pont Mathilde over the Seine.66 Her political life was not over, but her personal struggle for the English throne was.


  1.  P.A. Stamper, Excavations of a mid-twelfth century siege castle at Bentley, Hampshire, 1979.

  2.  Orderic, vi, pp. 186–7: ‘Trulla Leporis’.

  3.  T.C. Lethbridge, ‘Excavations at Burwell Castle’, Cambridge Antiquarian Society Proceedings, xxxvi, 1934–5, pp. 121–33; Opera, RS, ed. Stubbs, i, p. 128: ‘Burwelle quod rex construxerat’.

  4.  Lethbridge, ‘Burwell Castle’, p. 121.

  5.  RHMC, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire.

  6.  Bradbury, Medieval Siege, p. 260.

  7.  William of Malmesbury, pp. 62–3.

  8.  Ibid., p. 63.

  9.  Ibid., pp. 63–4.

10.  Gesta Stephani, pp. 138–9.

11.  William of Malmesbury, p. 71.

12.  Ibid.

13.  D.F. Renn, ‘The keep of Wareham Castle’, Medieval Archaeology, iv, 1960, pp. 56–68.

14.  John of Hexham, in Stevenson, iv, pt. I, 1856, p. 23; Surtees Society, xliv, The Priory of Hexham, i, Durham, 1864, p. 148.

15.  Gesta Stephani, pp. 140–1.

16.  Ibid., pp. 142–3.

17.  William of Malmesbury, p. 74.

18.  Ibid.

19.  Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, p. 202; William of Malmesbury, p. 77. William’s is the more prosaic account, but also likely to be the best informed. The chronology of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for these years is faulty, and one is more inclined to believe William.

20.  Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Forester, p. 281; Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, p. 276; Gesta Stephani, pp. 142–3, makes it three knights, though Davis, Stephen, p. 69, has four.

21.  Gesta Stephani, pp. 144–5.

22.  Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Forester, p. 281; Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, p. 276; but the Gesta Stephani places Wilton later in the year, after Oxford. However, this latter chronology has a further difficulty, since it places the Wareham incident after Oxford, though William of Malmesbury, well placed to have the facts correct, reports that Robert hoped to draw Stephen from Oxford to Wareham. The positioning chosen here is therefore debatable, but fits better with the general itinerary of the king, while in the west country.

23.  Gesta Stephani, pp. 150–1.

24.  On Geoffrey de Mandeville, see: Round, Geoffrey de Mandeville; R.H.C. Davis, ‘Geoffrey de Mandeville reconsidered’, EHR, lxxix, 1964, pp. 299–307; and in Davis, Stephen, appendix VI, pp. 157–60, which includes discussion of J.O. Prestwich, EHR, ciii, 1988, pp. 288–312, 960–67; J.O. Prestwich and R.H.C. Davis, ‘Last words on Geoffrey de Mandeville’, EHR, cv, 1990; here Davis’ argument is preferred. See also C.W. Hollister, ‘The Misfortunes of the Mandevilles’, History, lviii, 1973, pp. 18–28.

25.  Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Forester, p. 282; Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, p. 276; Gesta Stephani, pp. 162–3.

26.  William of Newburgh, in Howlett, i, pp. 44–5.

27.  Gesta Stephani, pp. 162–3.

28.  Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Forester, p. 282; Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, p. 276: ‘magis ex necessitate quam ex honestate’; ‘Book of Walden’ in W. Dugdale, Monasticon Anglicanum, ed. J. Caley and others, 6 vols in 8 parts, 1817–30, iv. H. Collar, ‘The Book of the Foundation of Walden Abbey’, trans. C.H. Emson, Essex Review, xlv, 1936, pp. 73–85, p. 80.

29.  Gesta Stephani, pp. 160–1.

30.  Round, Geoffrey de Mandeville, p. 209.

31.  Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Forester, pp. 282–3; Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, pp. 276–7.

32.  Gesta Stephani, pp. 164–5; Book of Walden, p. 80.

33.  Gesta Stephani, pp. 162–4; Monasticon, iv, p. 142; Round, Geoffrey de Mandeville, p. 213.

34.  Gesta Stephani, pp. 164–5.

35.  Most have interpreted Round’s idea, in Geoffrey de Mandeville, p. 213, of castles to ‘hem’ the king in to mean this; Davis, Stephen, p. 84, uses exactly the same phrase; J. Beeler, pp. 138–9, saw it as a policy of containment.

36.  This has not been certainly identified. Wood Walton near Ramsey has been suggested, but this was a castle of the abbot with charter evidence for its existence in 1133–5. It may be that he took over rather than built the castle.

37.  Another possible site is Belsar’s Camp, near Willingham, but a site at Aldreth itself seems preferable.

38.  W. O’Farrell Hughes, ‘Burwell, its castle’, Transactions of the Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire Archaeological Society, iii, 1914, pp. 291–3.

39.  Book of Walden, p. 82; Gervase of Canterbury, Chronicle, i, p. 128.

40.  Chronicon Abbatiae Rameseiensis, ed. W. D. Macray, RS no. 83, 1886, pp. 329–33; Monasticon, p. 142; Book of Walden, p. 82.

41.  Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Forester, p. 283; Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, p. 278: ‘in aeternum absorpta est’; Robert of Torigny, in Stevenson, p. 57; Torigny, in Howlett, iv, p. 147; William of Newburgh, in Howlett, i, p. 45.

42.  Gesta Stephani, pp. 166–7.

43.  Ibid., pp. 150–1; the writer thought these qualities sullied the good name of a soldier, something they have tended to do down the ages; pp. 154–5 on mercenaries.

44.  Ibid., pp. 152–3.

45.  Robert of Torigny, in Stevenson, p. 57; Torigny, in Howlett, p. 146.

46.  Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Forester, p. 283: Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, p. 277; William of Newburgh, The History of English Affairs, eds. and trans. P.G. Walsh and M.J. Kennedy, i, Warminster, 1988, p. 73.

47.  Gesta Stephani, pp. 168–9; the chronicler speaks of efforts from sea to sea: ‘a mari ex transuerso usque ad mare’; and order: ‘leges et plebiscita ubique iniungebant’.

48.  Ibid., pp. 174–5.

49.  Renn, Norman Castles, p. 189; I am also grateful to Dr Steve Church for information on this site. A counter castle was built by the king, and there is room for further investigation on the site.

50.  Gesta Stephani, pp. 180–1.

51.  Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Forester, p. 283; Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, p. 278; Gesta Stephani, pp. 180–1.

52.  Gesta Stephani, pp. 182–3; Robert of Torigny, in Stevenson, p. 59; Torigny, in Howlett, p. 150.

53.  Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Forester, p. 284; Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, p. 278: ‘Tunc demum regi fortuna in melius coepit permutari’.

54.  Gesta Stephani, pp. 184–5.

55.  Ibid., pp. 194–5.

56.  R.H.C. Davis, ‘King Stephen and the Earl of Chester revised’, EHR, lxxv, 1960, pp. 654–60, argued for this event occuring in 1146 rather than 1142, an argument which is here accepted.

57.  Gesta Stephani, pp. 184–5.

58.  William of Newburgh, eds. Walsh and Kennedy, p. 74.

59.  Gesta Stephani, pp. 198–9.

60.  Ibid., pp. 186–7; n. 2 suggests that the castle may have been Miserden in Gloucester.

61.  Gesta Stephani, pp. 190–1.

62.  Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Forester, p. 288; Henry of Huntingdon, ed. Arnold, p. 283.

63.  William of Newburgh, eds. Walsh and Kennedy, p. 99.

64.  Robert of Torigny, in Stevenson, p. 61; Torigny, in Howlett, p. 153.

65.  Gesta Stephani, pp. 210–11.

66.  Chibnall, Matilda, p. 152 and n. 52.

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