Though Stephen had been defeated at Wilton, two events occurred over the next twelve months that demonstrated a steady change in his fortunes. The first of these began in September 1143 when Stephen ordered the arrest of Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex. While there was no obvious reason for the Earl’s arrest, Stephen refused to let him go until he had handed over his extensive castles and lands in the southeast. Geoffrey grudgingly complied with the King’s request and was released soon after. This left Geoffrey determined to exact revenge on Stephen for his territorial losses.
With an army of followers, Geoffrey ‘raged everywhere with fire and sword’, pillaging towns and villages across the southeast. He seized Ramsey Abbey, evicted the monks and turned it into his personal fortress. Cambridgeshire became a particular focal point for Geoffrey’s anger and Stephen acted quickly to quell the Earl’s destruction by building a new royal castle at Burwell. It was only half built when Geoffrey came to destroy it. As he surveyed the castle ahead of the attack, however, he was hit in the eye by a royal archer and died one week later on 26 September 1144.
While the Mandeville rebellion had brought chaos to much of the southeast, it had been a decisive victory for Stephen. He had gained control of several key castles in and around the capital, including the Tower of London, and demonstrated his strength in times of crisis. Though Stephen’s preoccupation with Geoffrey enabled the Angevins to attack Malmesbury and Oxford, the death of Miles of Gloucester during a hunting accident on Christmas Eve 1143 was a great blow. This second event only served to boost Royalist morale.
Buoyed by his recent success, Stephen launched a campaign into Gloucestershire, the heart of Angevin territory. Stephen first targeted Tetbury but was quickly forced to abandon the siege when Robert and his army came to its aid. Stephen fled, unwilling to fight a pitched battle with only a besieging force behind him. His defeat at Lincoln and Wilton had clearly taught him this important lesson. He moved on and successfully captured Winchcomb, before heading east and pillaging the lands of the Angevin supporter, Hugh Bigod.