Robert of Gloucester’s son Philip requested, in 1145, that his father build a new castle at Faringdon. Close to Oxford and Wallingford, it would provide an ideal opportunity to consolidate Angevin gains in the area and, more importantly, to focus on eastward expansion. Robert selected a large mound, known as Folly Hill, on which to site the new castle and gave the go-ahead for a timber and stone construction. Robert then installed a permanent garrison, drawn from the ‘flower of his troops’ to keep watch over it.
In the meantime Stephen appealed to his London allies and marched on Faringdon to take the newly built castle. The chronicler, Henry of Huntingdon, described the scene:
There was no delay in erecting war engines of wonderful powers against the castle, and these with archers skilfully posted round the walls, severely annoyed the troops within. The engines crushed them with stones, or whatever else they projected, falling on their heads; the bowmen showered flights of arrows so thick in their faces as greatly to distress them. The Royalists harassed the besieged by daily attacks of this kind.
Under such intense attack, it took only four days for the garrison commander to contact Stephen and strike a secret deal with him. Under the terms of the deal, Faringdon would peacefully surrender and Stephen would receive a large stash of arms and booty as well as a number of hostages to ransom. This was a decisive victory that not only halted Angevin expansion but also reconciled Stephen with Philip of Gloucester who now abandoned Matilda and defected to the royal side.
Robert faced another family defection in the following year. This time it was his son-in-law, Ranulf of Chester, who had requested his aid at Lincoln back in 1141. Ranulf made his peace with Stephen at Stamford in 1146 and together they recaptured Bedford Castle and laid an unsuccessful siege on Wallingford. Ranulf then appealed for the King’s help in an expedition against the Welsh, but was quickly rebuffed. Stephen’s most loyal barons appear to have warned Stephen of Ranulf’s potential treachery. Ranulf now found himself in a similar situation to Geoffrey de Mandeville; he was arrested and forced to surrender his castles. The most important of these, Lincoln, was now in Stephen’s possession and the dispossessed Earl returned to the Angevin camp.
By 1147 Matilda and her followers were now in a desperate situation and appealed, once again, to Geoffrey for aid. Tied up with affairs in Normandy, Geoffrey could offer little in the way of practical support and instead sent across the Channel his eleven-year-old son, Henry of Anjou. Rumours circulated that Henry commanded an army of thousands but in reality he had only a handful of mercenaries, recruited on the promise of booty in England. On arrival, Henry marched to Wiltshire and attacked Philip of Gloucester at Cricklade but was easily rebuffed. Now penniless, neither his uncle Robert nor his mother provided any financial assistance, forcing Henry to ask Stephen for the money to pay off his mercenaries and to return home to Normandy. Stephen duly obliged and the young soldier left England after a rather disappointing first campaign.
Robert of Gloucester’s effigy
In the same year the Angevin cause was hit by its greatest hardship yet; Earl Robert fell ill with a fever and died at Bristol on 31 October 1147. His death marks a major turning point in the course of the civil war as Matilda had lost her brilliant military commander and Stephen his greatest adversary. Matilda’s loss was intensely personal too; Robert was her brother, protector and confidante, he had stood by her since the first oath in 1127. Combined with the death of Miles of Gloucester in 1143, Matilda’s cause appeared entirely lost, and in March 1148 she left England, never to return.