A Contest For A Crown by Charles Morris

Story type: Literature

Terrible was the misery of England. Torn between contending factions, like a deer between snarling wolves, the people suffered martyrdom, while thieves and assassins, miscalled soldiers, and brigands, miscalled nobles, ravaged the land and tortured its inhabitants. Outrage was law, and death the only refuge from barbarity, and at no time in the history of England did its people endure such misery as in those years of the loosening of the reins of justice and mercy which began with 1139 A.D.

It was the autumn of the year named. At every port of England bands of soldiers were landing, with arms and baggage; along every road leading from the coast bands of soldiers were marching; in every town bands of soldiers were mustering; here joining in friendly union, there coming into hostile contact, for they represented rival parties, and were speeding to the gathering points of their respective leaders.

All England was in a ferment, men everywhere arming and marching. All Normandy was in turmoil, soldiers of fortune crowding to every port, eager to take part in the harrying of the island realm. The Norman nobles of England were everywhere fortifying their castles, which had been sternly prohibited by the recent king. Law and authority were for the time being abrogated, and every man was preparing to fight for his own hand and his own land. A single day, almost, had divided the Normans of England into two factions, not yet come to blows, but facing each other like wild beasts at bay. And England and the English were the prey craved by both these herds of human wolves.

There were two claimants to the throne: Matilda,–or Maud, as she is usually named,–daughter of Henry I., and Stephen of Blois, grandson of William the Conqueror. Henry had named his daughter as his successor; Stephen seized the throne; the issue was sharply drawn between them. Each of them had a legal claim to the throne, Stephen’s the better, he being the nearest male heir. No woman had as yet ruled in England. Maud’s mother had been of ancient English descent, which gave her popularity among the Saxon inhabitants of the land. Stephen was personally popular, a good-humored, generous prodigal, his very faults tending to make him a favorite. Yet he was born to be a swordsman, not a king, and his only idea of royalty was to let the land rule–or misrule it if preferred–itself, while he enjoyed the pleasures and declined the toils of kingship.

A few words will suffice to bring the history of those turbulent times up to the date of the opening of our story. The death of Henry I. was followed by anarchy in England. His daughter Maud, wife of Geoffry the Handsome, Count of Anjou, was absent from the land. Stephen, Count of Blois, and son of Adela, the Conqueror’s daughter, was the first to reach it. Speeding across the Channel, he hurried through England, then in the turmoil of lawlessness, no noble joining him, no town opening to him its gates, until London was reached. There the coldness of his route was replaced by the utmost warmth of welcome. The city poured from its gates to meet him, hastened to elect him king, swore to defend him with blood and treasure, and only demanded in return that the new king should do his utmost to pacify the realm.

Here Stephen failed. He was utterly unfit to govern. While he thought only of profligate enjoyment, the barons fortified their castles and became petty kings in their several domains. The great prelates followed their example. Then, for the first time, did Stephen awake from his dream of pleasure and attempt to play the king. He seized Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, and threw him into prison to force him to surrender his fortresses. This precipitated the trouble that brooded over England. The king lost the support of the clergy by his violence to their leader, alienated many of the nobles by his hasty action, and gave Maud the opportunity for which she had waited. She lost no time in offering herself to the English as a claimant to the crown.

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Her landing was made on the 22d of September, 1139, on the coast of Sussex. Here she threw herself into Arundel Castle, and quickly afterwards made her way to Bristol Castle, then held by her illegitimate brother, Robert, Earl of Gloucester.

And now the state of affairs we had described began. The nobles of the north and west of England renounced their allegiance to Stephen and swore allegiance to Maud. London and the east remained faithful to the king. A stream of men-at-arms, hired by both factions, poured from the neighboring coast of Normandy into the disputed realm. Each side had promised them, for their pay, the lands and wealth of the other. Like vultures to the feast they came, with little heed to the rights of the rival claimants and the wrongs of the people, with much heed to their own private needs and ambitions.

In England such anarchy ruled as that land of much intestine war has rarely witnessed. The Norman nobles prepared in haste for the civil war, and in doing so made the English their prey. To raise the necessary funds, many of them sold their domains, townships, and villages, with the inhabitants thereof and all their goods. Others of them made forays on the lands of those of the opposite faction, and seized cattle, horses, sheep, and men alike carrying off the English in chains, that they might force them by torture to yield what wealth they possessed.

Terror ruled supreme. The realm was in a panic of dread. So great was the alarm, that the inhabitants of city and town alike took to flight if they saw a distant group of horsemen approaching. Three or four armed men were enough to empty a town of its inhabitants. It was in Bristol, where Maud and her foreign troops lay, that the most extreme terror prevailed. All day long men were being brought into the city bound and gagged. The citizens had no immunity. Soldiers mingled among them in disguise, their arms concealed, their talk in the English tongue, strolling through markets and streets, listening to the popular chat, and then suddenly seizing any one who seemed to be in easy circumstances. These they would drag to their head-quarters and hold to ransom.

The air was filled with tales of the frightful barbarities practised by the Norman nobles on the unhappy English captives in the depths of their gloomy castles. “They carried off,” says the Saxon chronicle, “all who they thought possessed any property, men and women, by day and by night; and whilst they kept them imprisoned, they inflicted on them tortures, such as no martyr ever underwent, in order to obtain gold and silver from them.” We must be excused from quoting the details of these tortures.

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“They killed many thousands of people by hunger,” continues the chronicle. “They imposed tribute after tribute upon the towns and villages, calling this in their tongue tenserie. When the citizens had nothing more to give them, they plundered and burnt the town. You might have travelled a whole day without finding a single soul in the towns, or a cultivated field. The poor died of hunger, and those who had been formerly well-off begged their bread from door to door. Whoever had it in his power to leave England did so. Never was a country delivered up to so many miseries and misfortunes; even in the invasions of the pagans it suffered less than now. Neither the cemeteries nor the churches were spared; they seized all they could, and then set fire to the church. To till the ground was useless. It was openly reported that Christ and his saints were sleeping.”

One cannot but think that this frightful picture is somewhat overdrawn; yet nothing could indicate better the condition of a Middle-Age country under a weak king, and torn by the adherents of rival claimants to the throne.

Let us leave this tale of torture and horror and turn to that of war. In the conflict between Stephen and Maud the king took the first step. He led his army against Bristol. It proved too strong for him, and his soldiers, in revenge, burnt the environs, after robbing them of all they could yield. Then, leaving Bristol, he turned against the castles on the Welsh borders, nearly all of whose lords had declared for Maud.

From the laborious task of reducing these castles he was suddenly recalled by an insurrection in the territory so far faithful to him. The fens of Ely, in whose recesses Hereward the Wake had defied the Conqueror, now became the stronghold of a Norman revolt. A baron and a bishop, Baldwin de Revier and Lenior, Bishop of Ely, built stone intrenchments on the island, and defied the king from behind the watery shelter of the fens.

Hither flocked the partisans of Maud; hither came Stephen, filled with warlike fury. He lacked the qualities that make a king, but he had those that go to make a soldier. The methods of the Conqueror in attacking Hereward were followed by Stephen in assailing his foes. Bridges of boats were built across the fens; over these the king’s cavalry made their way to the firm soil of the island; a fierce conflict ensued, ending in the rout of the soldiers of Baldwin and Lenior. The bishop fled to Gloucester, whither Maud had now proceeded.

Thus far the king had kept the field, while his rival lay intrenched in her strongholds. But her party was earnestly at work. The barons of the Welsh marches, whose castles had been damaged by the king, repaired them. Even the towers of the great churches were filled with war-engines and converted into fortresses, ditches being dug in the church-yards around, with little regard to the fact that the bones of the dead were unearthed and scattered over the soil. The Norman bishops, completely armed, and mounted on war-horses, took part in these operations, and were no more scrupulous than the barons in torturing the English to force from them their hoarded gold and silver.

Those were certainly not the days of merry England. Nor were they days of pious England, when the heads of the church, armed with sword and spear, led armies against their foes. In this they were justified by the misrule of Stephen, who had shown his utter unfitness to rule. In truth, a bishop ended that first phase of the war. The Bishop of Chester rallied the troops which had fled from Ely. These grew by rapid accretions until a new army was in the field. Stephen attacked it, but the enemy held their own, and his troops were routed. They fled on all sides, leaving the king alone in the midst of his foes. He lacked not courage. Single-handed he defended himself against a throng of assailants. But his men were in flight; he stood alone; it was death or surrender; he yielded himself prisoner. He was taken to Gloucester, and thence to Bristol Castle, in whose dungeons he was imprisoned. For the time being the war was at an end. Maud was queen.

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The daughter of Henry might have reigned during the remainder of her life but for pride and folly, two faults fitted to wreck the best-built cause. All was on her side except herself. Her own arrogance drove her from the throne before it had grown warm from her sitting.

For the time, indeed, Stephen’s cause seemed lost. He was in a dungeon strongly guarded by his adversaries. His partisans went over in crowds to the opposite side,–his own brother, Henry, Bishop of Winchester, with them. The English peasants, embittered by oppression, rose against the beaten army, and took partial revenge for their wrongs by plundering and maltreating the defeated and dispersed soldiers in their flight.

Maud made her way to Winchester, her progress being one of royal ostentation. Her entry to the town was like a Roman triumph. She was received with all honor, was voted queen in a great convocation of nobles, prelates, and knights, and seized the royal regalia and the treasures of her vanquished foe. All would have gone well with her had not good fortune turned her brain. Pride and a haughty spirit led to her hasty downfall.

She grew arrogant and disdainful. Those who had made her queen found their requests met with refusal, their advice rejected with scorn. Those of the opposite party who had joined her were harshly treated. Her most devoted friends and adherents soon grew weak in their loyalty, and many withdrew from the court, with the feeling that they had been fools to support this haughty woman against the generous-hearted soldier who lay in Bristol dungeon.

From Winchester Maud proceeded to London, after having done her cause as much harm as she well could in the brief time at her disposal. She was looked for in the capital city with sentiments of hope and pride. Her mother had been English, and the English citizens felt a glow of enthusiasm to feel that one whose blood was even half Saxon was coming to rule over them. Their pride quickly changed into anger and desire for revenge.

Maud signalized her entrance into London by laying on the citizens an enormous poll-tax. Stephen had done his utmost to beggar them; famine threatened them; in extreme distress they prayed the queen to give them time to recover from their present miseries before laying fresh taxes on them.

“The king has left us nothing,” said their deputies, humbly.

“I understand,” answered Maud, with haughty disdain, “that you have given all to my adversary and have conspired with him against me; now you expect me to spare you. You shall pay the tax.”

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“Then,” pleaded the deputies, “give us something in return. Restore to us the good laws of thy great uncle, Edward, in place of those of thy father, King Henry, which are bad and too harsh for us.”

Whom the gods wish to destroy they first make mad. The queen listened to the deputies in a rage, treated them as if they had been guilty of untold insolence in daring to make this request, and with harsh menaces drove them from her presence, bidding them to see that the tax was paid, or London should suffer bitterly for its contumacy.

The deputies withdrew with a show of respect, but with fury in their hearts, and repaired to their council-chamber, whence the news of what had taken place sped rapidly through the city. In her palace Queen Maud waited in proud security, nothing doubting that she had humbled those insolent citizens, and that the deputies would soon return ready to creep on their knees to the foot of her throne and offer a golden recompense for their daring demand for milder laws.

Suddenly the bells of London began to ring. In the streets adjoining the palace loud voices were heard. People seemed gathering rapidly. What did it mean? Were these her humbled citizens of London? Surely there were threats mingled with those harsh cries! Threats against the queen who had just entered London in triumph and been received with such hearty enthusiasm! Were the Londoners mad?

She would have thought so had she been in the streets. From every house issued a man, armed with the first weapon he could find, his face inflamed with anger. They flocked out as tumultuously as bees from a hive, says an old writer. The streets of London, lately quiet, were now filled with a noisy throng, all hastening towards the palace, all uttering threats against this haughty foreign woman, who must have lost every drop of her English blood, they declared.

The palace was filled with alarm. It looked as if the queen’s Norman blood would be lost as well as that from her English sires. She had men-at-arms around her, but not enough to be of avail against the clustering citizens in those narrow and crooked streets. Flight, and that a speedy one, was all that remained. White with terror, the queen took to horse, and, surrounded by her knights and soldiers, fled from London with a haste that illy accorded with the stately and deliberate pride with which she had recently entered that turbulent capital.

She was none too soon. The frightened cortege had not left the palace far behind it before the maddened citizens burst open its doors, searched every nook and cranny of the building for the queen and her body-guard, and, finding they had fled, wreaked their wrath on all that was left, plundering the apartments of all they contained.

Meanwhile, the queen, wild with fright, was galloping at full speed from the hostile beehive she had disturbed. Her barons and knights, in a panic of fear and deeming themselves hotly pursued, dropped off from the party one by one, hoping for safety by leaving the highway for the by-ways, and caring little for the queen so that they saved their frightened selves. The queen rode on in mad terror until Oxford was reached, only her brother, the Earl of Gloucester, and a few others keeping her company to that town.

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They fled from a shadow. The citizens had not pursued them. These turbulent tradesmen were content with ridding London of this power-mad woman, and they went back satisfied to their homes, leaving the city open to occupation by the partisans of Stephen, who entered it under pretense of an alliance with the citizens. The Bishop of Winchester, who seems to have been something of a weathercock in his political faith, turned again to his brothers side, set Stephen’s banner afloat on Windsor Castle and converted his bishop’s residence into a fortress. Robert of Gloucester came with Maud’s troops to besiege it. The garrison set fire to the surrounding houses to annoy the besiegers. While the town was burning, an army from London appeared, fiercely attacked the assailants, and forced them to take refuge in the churches. These were set on fire to drive out the fugitives. The affair ended in Robert of Gloucester being taken prisoner and his followers dispersed.

Then once more the Saxon peasants swarmed from their huts like hornets from their hives and assailed the fugitives as they had before assailed those from Stephen’s army. The proud Normans, whose language betrayed them in spite of their attempts at disguise, were robbed, stripped of their clothing, and driven along the roads by whips in the hands of Saxon serfs, who thus repaid themselves for many an act of wrong. The Bishop of Canterbury and other high prelates and numbers of great lords were thus maltreated, and for once were thoroughly humbled by those despised islanders whom their fathers had enslaved.

Thus ended the second act in this drama of conquest and re-conquest. Maud, deprived of her brother, was helpless. She exchanged him for King Stephen, and the war broke out afresh. Stephen laid siege to Oxford, and pressed it so closely that once more Maud took to flight. It was midwinter. The ground was covered with snow. Dressing herself from head to foot in white, and accompanied by three knights similarly attired, she slipped out of a postern in the hope of being unseen against the whiteness of the snow-clad surface.

Stephen’s camp was asleep, its sentinels alone being astir. The scared fugitives glided on foot through the snow, passing close to the enemy’s posts, the voices of the sentinels sounding in their ears. On foot they crossed the frozen Thames, gained horses on the opposite side, and galloped away in hasty flight.

There is little more to say. Maud’s cause was at an end. Not long afterwards her brother died, and she withdrew to Normandy, glad, doubtless, to be well out of that pestiferous island, but, mayhap, mourning that her arrogant folly had robbed her of a throne.

A few years afterwards her son Henry took up her cause, and landed in England with an army. But the threatened hostilities ended in a truce, which provided that Henry should reign after Stephen’s death. Stephen died a year afterwards, England gained an able monarch, and prosperity returned to the realm after fifteen years of the most frightful misery and misrule.

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