King Stephen – Decline of a Tyrant

The year is 1135, and King Henry the First lies upon his deathbed, felled by food poisoning from a dodgy eel. The lords of the realm surround him, waiting anxiously to hear his final statement, and witness his last will first hand. He lifts a finger, tentatively, and the lords gather round him and lean closer, so as to hear his feeble voice. Before them he names his daughter, Matilda, heir to the throne and all his estates. Feeling secure of his legacy, he breathes his last. Little did he know that his death rattle would kick off the highest stakes game of hot potato in English history, with the country falling victim to years of tyranny, and the crown being passed around like a king sized naan at a curry. There will be scheming, spies, barbarous invaders from the north. There will be tears, bloodshed, and enough Machiavellian skullduggery to make Shakespeare himself weep with jealousy. So grab a sword and pick a side, because nobody’s coming out of the next few years unscathed.

Of course, Matilda wasn’t named queen. Since Henry’s death, Stephen, her second cousin, had been circling around the throne like a great tyrannous buzzard, waiting for his opportunity to assert his claim. It came when both Matilda and her brother and champion, the earl of Gloucester, were out of the way settling matters abroad. Stephen’s bribery (I mean generosity) knew no bounds as he swooped down and snatched the crown right off Matilda’s head, stirring up the lords, who couldn’t stomach the thought of bowing to a female monarch, in his favour. To loosen Matilda’s grip upon her father’s legacy in Rome, he spread (untrue) rumours of the legitimacy of her parent’s marriage. The Bishop of Sailsbury, blindsided by these allegations, failed to defend her right to the crown. Thus Stephen’s reign began, already heavily indebted to the church, and Matilda fled to Normandy, where she would plot against him for the entire time he was king.

Worcester Cathedral Library

18th century depiction of King Stephen. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

And so Stephen began throwing gold to any and all who supported him. The lords and barons, delighted by his generosity, secured their places under his stream of wealth with their heads tilted back and mouths wide open, ready to sing his praises for as long as the jewels kept flowing. Finding himself in need of an army, Stephen splashed out on hundreds of foreign mercenaries, whose main hobbies included murdering, plundering and pillaging, with instructions to keep the peace and security of the realm. He would need them sooner than he thought, as King David of Scotland, enraged by his thievery of the crown, would begin his first invasion of England, championing Matilda’s cause. However, seeing that she did not have the lord’s support he would pull back and begin a grotesque game of hokey-kokey across the border, dipping his toes in the water but unwilling to take the plunge.

Being an English king, Stephen was always up for a war with the Scots. He charged up north with his bought army to confront David and beat him back out of the country. After a few bloody sieges, David retreated back to Scotland, leaving some troops to lie in wait behind him so as to trap Stephen in an ambush and take him by surprise. Stephen was saved not by his army’s strength, however, but their superstition. Unwilling to take up arms during Lent, his men refused to fight. Stephen was forced to return to England, but did so triumphantly, having ‘defeated’ the Scots. Seeing that there was no support for Matilda in the English court, David drew up a treaty with Stephen and dropped her cause.

However, this would soon change. Matilda’s spies, planted by the earl of Gloucester, began spreading dissent within court, turning those who had originally supported Stephen against him. Stephen’s coffers were fast growing empty, and some lords and barons began to resent the presence of so many foreign troops on English soil. Seeing that the winds were changing, David mustered a colossal force and once again waded over the border, burning villages, killing women, children and elderly. His war crimes knew no limit, even stretching to turning the killing of children into a game, by throwing them into the air and catching them on the point of a lance. Stephen’s forces, much fewer in number but much more skilled and better equipped, met him at Yorkshire.

Matilda Stephen Worcester Cathedral Library

Summary of a charter of King Stephen (second from top) in Worcester Cartulary A.4 of c. 1240. The Queen Matilda referred to on the top line is infact Matilda of Scotland, wife of Henry I of England. Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

It was here that Walter Espec delivered a speech that would determine the outcome of the war.  He inspired his men to fight the barbarous Scots, throwing into stark relief their war crimes, painting them not as men, but as savage beasts. As men of Christ, it was their duty to rid the land of such horrendous evil, and bring order to the land. Believing themselves soldiers in a holy war, his men fought valiantly, repelling wave after wave of the Scottish advances, until one soldier held up a severed head and cried that he had slain King David. The Scots began to retreat after the news of their leader’s death, and David, alive and well behind the lines, had no choice but to follow his men, screaming and cursing at them for cowardice. Over eleven thousand Scots were killed in the battle and retreat, and with them David’s chances at defeating the English.

But Stephen’s troubles were not over. Amidst the chaos Matilda had crossed back into England under the invitation of Adelais, Henry the First’s widow. They were besieged by Stephen at her castle on the coast, caught in a knuckle sandwich between his fearsome army and the broiling sea. With no means of escape, there was nothing to stop him storming the castle and crushing her with his iron fist. However, the Bishop of Winchester, who had been turned to her cause, saved Matilda. He didn’t bend the King’s ear, so much as hung off of it, and in a brazen display of dastardly manipulation convinced the King to allow her to go free, under his own armed guard, and meet with her brother. The logic of this being that he could kill two birds with one stone once they were in the same place. But once free Matilda found herself in charge of much of England, and an army cooked up by the earl of Gloucester and the earl of Chester, who was furious over the King raiding his castle in Lincoln to appropriate funds for his war. At Lincoln Stephen was captured, but the two armies had fought to a standstill, forcing both sides to enter into negotiations. It was agreed that Henry the Second, Matilda’s son, would succeed to the throne after Stephen’s death, as his only son and heir had died in battle. Despite his crimes, Stephen was allowed to rule until his death. After all the years of war and bloodshed, all Matilda achieved was crowning her son in the distant future. Was it really worth it? To a monarch… absolutely.

D. Bateman


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