Henry of Anjou finally arrived in England on 6 January 1153 at the head of a medium-sized force of 140 knights and 3,000 infantrymen, many of whom were mercenaries. He headed straight for Malmesbury, collecting supporters as he marched. They attacked the castle but experienced fierce resistance from its royal castellan, Jordan. The citizens of Malmesbury, also loyal to Stephen, defended the town with all their might and even lined up around its walls. Using archers to fire at the citizens and ladders to climb over the walls, Henry’s men took the town by storm and besieged the castle for a second time. The castellan was able to escape and went directly to Stephen for help. With his son beside him, Stephen wasted no time in mobilising his army, setting up camp just outside the town. The day after, the opposing armies met over the River Avon as chronicler, Henry of Huntingdon, wrote:
But God was not with them [the Royalists], in whom only there is entire safety. For the floodgates of heaven were opened, and heavy rain drove in their faces, with violent gusts of wind and severe cold so that God himself appeared to march for the duke.
The weather certainly made combat a near impossible task but there were other reasons why battle was avoided that day. For Henry, it was a simple case of being outnumbered; even with the wind and rain battering his enemy, there was no guarantee that his small, invading force could be victorious. For Stephen, the problem lay with his war-weary barons who were anxious to end the years of civil war. A truce followed and Jordan surrendered Malmesbury castle to Henry, while Stephen and Eustace returned to London.
Despite the attitude of his barons, Stephen stepped up his efforts to drive Henry out of England for good. Wallingford – the Angevin stronghold that he had failed to capture in 1139 – became the focus of his efforts. Stephen had already laid the groundwork for taking Wallingford, having blockaded the castle and built two counter-castles there in 1152. Now, with a tired and starving garrison, he probably hoped for a quick surrender. Unfortunately for Stephen, after triumphantly marching through the Midlands, Henry made straight for Wallingford in a bid to relieve his garrison and repel the royal forces.
Henry first attacked Crowmarsh, one of Stephen’s counter-castles. His men easily broke through the bailey (outer wall) and then proceeded to attack the motte (raised earthwork) directly. During the onslaught they were set upon by a group of royal knights who had hidden in the surrounding area, but the Angevins fought them off and quickly captured the Crowmarsh garrison. Henry then encircled the castle with his men and prepared to lay siege. Expecting that Stephen would try and retake Crowmarsh, he constructed defensive wooden ramparts that would enable a quick escape to Wallingford, should the need arise. As Henry anticipated, Stephen rallied his army and marched on Wallingford.
Like Malmesbury, the opposing armies prepared for battle but no fight ensued. Once again Henry was outnumbered and both parties were dissuaded from action by battle-weary barons. Calls for peace were becoming ever-stronger as Henry of Huntingdon recorded:
Then the traitorous nobles interfered, and proposed among themselves terms of peace. They loved, indeed, nothing better than disunion; but they had no inclination for war.
Private discussions between Henry and Stephen followed but no long-term agreement was reached. This was possibly due to Eustace who, according to the Gesta Stephani, was ‘greatly vexed and angry because the war, in his opinion, had reached no proper conclusion’. No fighting took place that day at Wallingford, but the counter-castle (Crowmarsh) built to aid in the destruction of Wallingford was pulled down. Minor skirmishes continued throughout the next few months as Henry attacked Oxford, Stamford and Nottingham, but Eustace’s sudden death on 17 August distracted Stephen from the war. Stephen and Henry would not meet again until November, this time at Winchester where they agreed a lasting peace that would finally address the contested succession and bring to an end the civil war in England.