Back in 1127, it was King David of Scotland who had first sworn fealty to Matilda. We can never be sure if it was a simple case of putting family first (Matilda was David’s niece), or whether he genuinely felt her to be a capable ruler. Either way, he did not take the news of Stephen of Blois’ accession well; he refused to pay him homage and instead gathered his army and invaded the north of England. He captured the most strategically important towns of the border counties, including Carlisle, Alnwick, and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Wherever he went, he took hostages and made men swear to uphold Matilda’s claim to the throne. It was in the New Year that Stephen heard of David’s campaign and by the time he had marched his army north, David was preparing to attack Durham.
King David I of Scotland
Fortunately the two kings began negotiating terms of peace before the attack on Durham got underway. Under the terms of this agreement, known as the First Treaty of Durham, made on 5 February 1136, David retained Cumbria but surrendered Northumbria and Newcastle-upon-Tyne. David’s son, Henry, was granted Doncaster, the lordship of Carlisle and the earldom of Huntingdon in return for paying homage to Stephen. Though David still refused to accept Stephen as king, the treaty marked a swift and successful end to hostilities.
Stephen’s next challenge surfaced much closer to home when Baldwin de Redvers, Earl of Devon, seized the royal castle at Exeter, prompting its citizens to request immediate help of Stephen. During his siege of the castle, in the summer of 1136, Baldwin secretly escaped to Carisbrooke. After three months, the Exeter garrison handed back the castle to Stephen, restoring peace and royal authority to the city. Having run out of water at Carisbrooke, however, Baldwin appealed to the king for mercy but was instead stripped of his lands and exiled. Baldwin fled to Anjou where he would later become one of Matilda’s most active supporters.
While Matilda had made no direct attack on Stephen’s kingship in England, she was now actively asserting her rights in Normandy. Possibly the news of Stephen’s usurpation was enough to motivate such action. She began by occupying the castles of Exemes, Domfront, and Argentan, of which the latter served as a more permanent base and provided the setting for the birth of her third son, William, on 22 July 1136. In October she travelled to Le Sap where her husband, Geoffrey, was busy laying siege to the town’s castle. Though his attack was unsuccessful, he was undeterred and continued his assault on Normandy for the next three years. Back in England, Stephen could hardly ignore the developing chaos in his Duchy and he crossed the Channel in March 1137. He hoped to reoccupy Argentan but instead agreed a truce with Geoffrey: the King would pay him 2,000 marks a year in return for peace along the Normandy–Anjou border. Geoffrey agreed and Stephen returned to England in December.
During Stephen’s absence from England, however, King David had launched a second invasion in a bid to extend his territories. Shortly after Easter in 1137, he marched on Northumberland with his army and began pillaging the area. Fortunately Stephen’s earls and barons were able to repel the Scots and force David to accept a six-month truce. But after six months, the truce had expired and Stephen was forced to return from Normandy to face King David who was once again knocking on England’s door.
Battle of the Standard
[King David] hastened with his whole force to devastate Northumberland. And then that execrable army, more atrocious than the whole race of pagans, neither fearing God nor regarding man, spread desolation over the whole province, and murdered everywhere persons of both sexes, of every age and rank, and devastated towns, churches and houses.
Richard of Hexham
Like his previous campaigns, David’s third invasion of England in 1138 was not just an attempt to extend his sovereignty, it was also an opportunity to promote and assert Matilda’s claim to the throne. However, the brutality of the Scottish army only served to harden attitudes against King David and strengthen the local population’s loyalty to Stephen. David experienced an early success at the Battle of Clitheroe on 10 June 1138 where a section of his army, commanded by William Fitz Duncan, defeated the English in the northern county of Lancashire.
With the Scots now wreaking havoc across the north, the English had no choice but to attack. On 22 August 1138 the two armies met at Cowton Moor, near Northallerton, in Yorkshire. The ensuing conflict is known as the Battle of the Standard, a name that derives from the religious banners carried into battle by the English. In an assault that lasted less than a few hours, the Scots had either fled the battlefield or been destroyed by showers of English arrows and deadly hand-to-hand combat. When he heard news of the great victory, King Stephen was said to be overjoyed.
The battle may have been won but Stephen needed to prevent a repeat performance. In particular, he needed a settlement that would placate David’s territorial ambitions. Under the terms of this peace agreement, known as the Second Treaty of Durham, Henry, David’s son, was granted the earldom of Northumberland. A marriage to Ada, daughter of the Earl of Surrey, was also arranged and the pair wed the following year. While these generous concessions ended one war, there was another one brewing back in England.