Matilda, Henry I's sole surviving legitimate child, was married to Holy Roman Emperor Henry V when only 11 years old. After his death in 1125, she returned to her father's court before being married in 1128 to Geoffrey Plantagenet, count of Anjou. It was a loveless marriage, for mutual political gain, and the couple produced three sons, including the future Henry II of England, then went their separate ways.
Matilda alienated all whom she ought to have wooed when she ruled England for a short period in 1141-42. During that brief episode of victory she refused to stand to greet her two chief supporters, her uncle, King David of Scotland, and her half-brother, Earl Robert of Gloucester, and greatly angered them. She also insisted on levying an unreasonably heavy tax from the citizens of London, and turned their loyalty and co-operation into hatred and resistance; she was forced to flee from the city.
Haughty, hard and inflexible, she was criticised by contemporaries for her lack of feminine qualities. But she was handsome and brave, a powerful woman in an age dominated by men, and could inspire great loyalty in others.
The war of succession between Stephen and Matilda began soon after he had seized the crown in 1135, with Matilda's uncle, David, King of Scotland, invading northern England on her behalf in 1138. Conflict deepened when Matilda herself landed at Arundel in 1139.
The war had its near-decisive moments. In 1141 Stephen was captured at the battle of Lincoln, only to be exchanged against Matilda's half-brother, Earl Robert of Gloucester, who was taken at Winchester in 1142. But it was mostly a struggle of attrition characterized by sieges and small military operations, with Matilda and her supporters entrenched in the West Country and Stephen unable to dislodge them. Matilda was normally on the defensive, occasionally desperately so, as when, in the depths of winter in 1142, with Stephen's army besieging her in Oxford Castle, she had to make a dramatic escape by walking in secret through enemy lines at the dead of night. From 1142 there was a stalemate which neither side came near to breaking.
England suffered the devastation typical of this kind of civil war. Contemporary England chroniclers tell a grim story. In the West Country, for example, 'you could see villages with famous names standing solitary and almost empty'. They also tell of the construction of castles and local tyranny.
Such conditions did not prevail everywhere; but the normally peaceful English countryside suffered the consequences of an unremitting struggle in which neither side could fully control its soldiers. Central government disintegrated. with taxes not collected in many regions and coins minted locally by barons. Power was assumed by local lords who were given earldoms by the contenders vying for their support.
Matilda left England early in 1148. Her son Henry of Anjou, later Henry II, to whom she transferred her claim, kept up the fight.
Stephen had quarrelled with Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury, in 1147, and in 1150 the Church refused to confirm his son, Eustace, as his heir. By now, Henry had established his domination throughout the territories of Normandy, Anjou and Acquitaine and, as a result of this, and the steady support he enjoyed in England, allegiances had slowly drifted his way; by 1153, great barons like Earl Robert of Leicester were ostensibly on Stephen's side, but in practice had done secret deals with Henry.
They were increasingly reluctant to fight a decisive battle - whichever side won, a massive confiscation of property would undoubtedly follow. When Stephen and Henry finally faced each other across the Thames at Wallingford in 1153, there was general pressure on Stephen to acknowledge Henry as King of England.
Medieval Monarchs edited by Elizabeth Hallam. Tiger Books
International, 1996 pp 28 & 29
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