In December 1141 a church council confirmed Stephen as the king of England and excommunicated all those in support of Matilda. Stephen now set about clawing back support and generating some much-needed cash to resume the war of succession. After all, there had been no peace treaty after the Rout of Winchester and Matilda’s continued presence remained a significant threat to the kingdom’s security, especially in the southwest.
The Angevins reached out for military support, appealing directly to Geoffrey of Anjou in June 1142. But Geoffrey refused to send help and instead demanded to see Robert in person. The Angevins had little choice but to comply with his request and send Robert to Normandy – a move that left Matilda and her party vulnerable to attack.
In September, Stephen launched a major offensive against the Angevins. He headed deep into enemy territory and moved first on Wareham, a Dorset port used by Matilda to communicate with her allies in Normandy. Stephen plundered and set fire to the town before capturing the castle, held by Robert’s son, William. Stephen and his army marched next on Oxford. It was defended by a deep river, intended to deter intruders, but the water was no match for the determined King who dived into the water and led the swim across.
Siege of Oxford
On 29 September 1142 the Royalists tore through Oxford and blockaded the castle. Stephen’s aim was to starve out and capture Matilda, thereby bringing the civil war to an end. His men guarded the castle day and night to prevent the entry of much-needed supplies and, more importantly, to ensure that Matilda could not get away. Any hopes of a rescue attempt were slim; Robert had returned from Normandy, along with Matilda’s eldest son, Henry of Anjou, and an army of 300 men, but he concentrated his efforts on recovering the castle at Wareham. From his base at Wallingford, Brian FitzCount set about organising a mission to Oxford but lacked the manpower to repel Stephen’s army. Thus, as winter set in and supplies ran dangerously low, Matilda’s situation appeared ever bleaker.
Matilda escapes from Oxford, 1868 engraving
In early December, Matilda and a small escort made a daring escape. Dressed in white to act as camouflage in the snow, they sneaked past Stephen’s guards and exited the castle through the postern gate. They then crossed the frozen River Thames on foot, making first for Abingdon and then, on horseback, to Wallingford. Now under the protection of Brian FitzCount, Matilda travelled to the safety of Devizes, an impressive stone fortress that would remain her home for the next six years. Back in Oxford, the garrison soon surrendered and the castle returned to royal control. It was not the outcome that Stephen had anticipated, but it was a victory nonetheless.
Battle of Wilton
From Oxford, Stephen and his army marched on Wareham where Robert and Henry had recaptured and fortified the castle. Stephen laid siege but was unsuccessful and instead headed to Wiltshire, determined to make headway in Angevin territory. Stationed at Wilton Abbey, Stephen awaited reinforcements while he prepared to take the nearby city of Salisbury. Before he could launch the attack, however, the Angevins made a surprise appearance and laid siege to the abbey.
We have few details of the ensuing battle at Wilton on 1 July 1143 but we know that the Angevin cavalry charged forward, forcing the Royalists to pull back. In a scene reminiscent of the Battle of Lincoln, Stephen was routed and narrowly escaped capture. The Angevins instead took his steward, William Martel, who had used a diversionary tactic to enable Stephen’s escape. After the battle, Stephen was forced to relinquish control of Sherborne Castle to secure Martel’s release.