Civil War Begins

On 30 September 1139 Matilda, Robert, Earl of Gloucester, and a handful of supporters landed at Sussex on the English coast. Robert headed directly for Bristol, his only remaining stronghold, while Matilda took refuge under the protection of her stepmother, Adeliza, at Arundel Castle. While some may have expected a more dramatic arrival, it is important to remember that these were early days; Matilda and Robert had neither the supporters nor soldiers to storm London and have Stephen physically removed. Stephen was aware that Matilda had entered his kingdom, having already positioned a guard on the coast to keep watch. The rebellious Baldwin of Redvers had also arrived in England, landing further west along the coast at Wareham, Dorset, before heading to Corfe Castle. Stephen could only be in one place at a time and so, feeling Matilda to be the bigger threat, he moved on Arundel.

Adeliza was in an awkward situation. Widowed after the death of Henry I, she had married William d’Aubigny, Earl of Arundel, one of Stephen’s most loyal supporters, and had also done homage to the new king. When Stephen arrived to lay siege to the castle, Adeliza had little choice but to withdraw her support from Matilda. Arundel was a difficult castle to conquer and, in a strange turn of events, Stephen granted Matilda safe passage to her stepbrother at Bristol. Probably for his own peace of mind, he arranged for his brother, Henry, Bishop of Winchester, and Waleran, Count of Meulan, to personally escort her.

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Matilda leaves Arundel Castle, 1864 engraving

Matilda arrived safely at Bristol and counted two new men among her supporters. The first was Miles, the castellan (castle governor) of Gloucester. According to the Gesta Stephani, Miles was ‘so unquestioning in his loyalty to King Henry’s children as not only to have helped them, but likewise to have received the countess of Anjou [Matilda] herself with her men and always behaved to her like a father in deed and counsel.’ The other supporter was Brian FitzCount, Lord of Wallingford, who had escorted Matilda to Anjou in 1127 for her marriage to Geoffrey.

Stephen could not ignore the growing support for Matilda and decided to tackle the rebellion head on, targeting FitzCount’s castle at Wallingford. Situated in the modern county of Oxfordshire, it was the most easterly of Matilda’s bases. If Stephen could take the castle he could also contain the geographical spread of the rebellion and cut off Matilda’s access to London. But its strong, thick walls and formidable garrison troops ensured that Wallingford was no easy target. Furthermore, its ample supplies meant that Wallingford could not be quickly starved into submission – a favourite tactic of the King. With a long fight ahead, Stephen decided to leave a besieging force at Wallingford while he headed west into enemy territory in pursuit of easier gains.

Miles of Gloucester was the next of Matilda’s supporters to feel the King’s wrath, as Stephen marched on Wiltshire to take the family’s castle at Trowbridge. En route, Stephen had also captured castles at South Cerney and Malmesbury. While Stephen prepared to lay siege to Trowbridge, Miles had launched a successful, surprise attack on the force left behind at Wallingford. Robert of Gloucester also joined the action, fiercely attacking the royal city of Worcester on 7 November 1139. The chronicler, John of Worcester, described the scene:

A vast mob of the enemy, infuriated and unrestrained, poured in and set alight to buildings in different parts of the city … many were taken prisoner in the streets who leashed together like so many dogs were dragged away miserably.

In response, Stephen laid waste to the countryside around Hereford, Bristol, and Dunster – an act that only served to harden civilian attitudes against him in the southwest. Peace talks between the Royalists, those loyal to Stephen, and the Angevins – Matilda’s followers – had come to nothing and there was now little hope of curbing the spread of violence beyond the southwest. This pattern of besieging, pillaging, and raiding established in these early years, would now become the conflict’s defining characteristic.

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