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The period following the death of Henry I in 1135 and the rule of Henry II were somwhat chaoitic inf England, dominated by the struggle between King Stephen and his cousin, the Empress Matilda, who was the daughter of Henry I and the mother of Henry II. Local nobility used the conflict to usurp power in many areas, an especial practice being that of castle building. The period is discussed in the chronicle of Henry, Archdeacon of Huntingdon, (c.1080-1160).

 

At this period England was in a very disturbed state; on the one hand, the king and those who took his part grievously oppressed the people, on the other frequent turmoils were raised by the Earl of Gloucester, and, what with the tyranny of the one, and the turbulence of the other, there was universal turmoil and desolation. Some, for whom their country had lost its charms, chose rather to make their abode in foreign lands; others drew to the churches for protection, and constructing mean hovels in their precincts, passed their days in fear and trouble. Food being scarce, for there was a dreadful famine throughout England, some of the people disgustingly devoured the flesh of dogs and horses; others appeased their insatiable hunger with the garbage of uncooked herbs and roots; many, in all parts, sunk under the severity of the famine and died in heaps; others with their whole families went sorrowfully into voluntary banishment and disappeared. There were seen famous cities deserted and depopulated by the death of the inhabitants of every age and sex, and fields white for the harvest, for it was near the season of autumn, but none to gather it, all having been struck down by the famine. Thus the whole aspect of England presented a scene of calamity and sorrow, misery and oppression. It tended to increase the evil, that a crowd of fierce strangers who had flocked to England in bands to take service in the wars, and who were devoid of all bowels of mercy and feelings of humanity, were scattered among the people thus suffering. In all the castles their sole business was to contrive the most flagitious outrages; and the employment on which all the powers of their malicious minds were bent, was to watch every opportunity of plundering the weak, to foment troubles, and cause bloodshed in every direction. And as the barons who had assembled them from the remotest districts were neither able to discharge their pay out of their own revenues, nor to satisfy their insatiable thirst for plunder, and remunerate them by pillage as they had before done, because there was nothing left anywhere whole and undamaged, they had recourse to the possessions of the monasteries, or the neighbouring municipalities, or any others which they could send forth troops enough to infest. At one time they loaded their victims with false accusations and virulent abuse; at another they ground them down with vexatious claims and extortions; some they stripped of their property, either by open robbery or secret contrivance, and others they reduced to complete subjection in the most shameless manner. If any one of the reverend monks, or of the secular clergy, came to complain of the exactions laid on church property, he was met with abuse, and abruptly silenced with outrageous threats; the servants who attended him on his journey were often severely scourged before his face, and he himself, whatever his rank and order might be, was shamefully stripped of his effects, and even his garments, and driven away, or left helpless, from the severe beating to which he was subjected. These unhappy spectacles, these lamentable tragedies, as they were common throughout England, could not escape the observation of the bishops. But they, bowed down by base fears, like reeds before the wind, their salt having lost its savour, did not rear themselves like a tower of strength for the protection of the House of Israel. They ought, indeed, to have opposed these carnal men with the sword of the Spirit, which destroys the flesh; and to have resolutely set their face like Jeremiah, or like the radiant brow of Moses, against the sons of Belial, who plundered the church, and, tearing in pieces the garment of the Lord, left it rent and torn and scattered everywhere. The bishops are figured by the columns on which the house of God was built, by the lions which supported the laver of Solomon, by the pillars on which stood the table of shew-bread; inasmuch as it is their duty to be not only the support and bulwark, but the strong defence, against all enemies of the church; which is truly the house of God, which is represented in the laver, because there all the guilt of sinners is washed away, and is figured by the table, because on that the bread of eternal life is offered. Far from this, when robbers laid violent hands on the possessions of the church, as I have often related, the bishops, some, yielding to their fears, either acquiesced or pronounced with mildness and hesitation the sentence of excommunication, quickly withdrawn; others, not indeed acting as became bishops, victualled their castles and filled them with men-at-arms and archers, under pretence of restraining the marauders and robbers of churches, while they proved themselves more inhuman, more merciless, than those sons of violence in oppressing their neighbours and pillaging their property. The bishops themselves, shameful to say, not all indeed, but several of them, assumed arms, and, girt with the sword and sheathed in bright armour, rode on mettlesome war-horses beside the ravagers of the country, received their share of the booty, and subjected to imprisonment and torture soldiers who fell into their hands by chance of war, and men of wealth wherever they met with them; and while they were at the bottom of all this flagitious wickedness, they ascribed it not to themselves, but to their soldiers only. To be silent for the present, respecting others, for it would be wrong to accuse all alike, common report stigmatized the Bishops of Winchester, Lincoln, and Chester, as more forward than others in these unchristian doings. . . .

[W]hen the Earl of Hereford, being in much want of money to pay the troops which he had levied against the king, forced the churches in his lordship to submit to new exactions, and required the Bishop of Hereford to pay the tax tyrannically imposed, claiming it as his right, and enforcing it by threats; being thus frequently pressed, the bishop deliberately and positively refused to pay the demand, asserting that ecclesiastical property, assigned to the altar by the pious offerings of devout people, belonged, in perpetual frankalmoin, to the service of God and the church, and that no lay man could interfere with them, any more than he could in the sacred rites; so that by laying hands on them he incurred the guilt of sacrilege, as much as if he had violated the altar itself. Wherefore, he required the earl to withdraw his presumptuous demand, and to restrain his people, or he threatened him and them with immediate excommunication.

This resolution of the bishop inflamed Milo to the highest pitch of rage, and he sent his followers to seize the bishop's goods and lands, and lay them waste wherever they were. Upon which the bishop, assembling his clergy, who willingly attended his summons, pronounced the terrible sentence of excommunication against Milo and his adherents. He further layed an interdict on the whole country which was subject to Milo, by the rigour of which it was prohibited that any of the sacred offices of the church should be performed, and no corpse was to be buried in the earth, or committed to the waters, or consumed by fire, or removed from the place where it expired, until the author of the sacrilege restored all that he had seized, to the last farthing as valued by sworn men, and, doing penance, was reconciled to the church. But as after he had promised to make restitution, the jury had to take an account, so that while satisfaction was made to one church, others were injured by delay, and their ministers were involved in pleadings between themselves and the bishop, he perished miserably within the year, without receiving absolution; having been pierced through the breast with an arrow shot by a soldier at a stag, while the earl was hunting deer on Christmas eve. His death struck the covetous with some alarm, and restrained them from laying hands so freely on church property; and it made the other bishops bolder in afterwards resisting such sacrilegious attempts. Roger, Milo's son, succeeded him in the earldom of Hereford, and, young as he was, displayed great abilities.

There was, at this time, among the king's adherents, one Geoffrey de Mandeville, a man remarkable for his great prudence, his inflexible spirit in adversity, and his military skill. His wealth and his honours raised him above all the nobles of the realm; for he held the Tower of London, and had built castles of great strength round the city, and in every part of the kingdom which submitted to the king; being everywhere the king's representative, so that in public affairs he was more attended to than the king himself, and the royal commands were less obeyed than his own. This occasioned jealousy, particularly among those who were familiarly and intimately connected with the king, as Geoffrey, it appeared, had managed to usurp all the rights of the king: and, moreover, report said that he was inclined to confer the crown on the Countess of Anjou. They, therefore, secretly persuaded the king to arrest Geoffrey on the charge of treason, and to obtain the forfeiture of his castles, for his own security and his kingdom's peace. The king hesitated for some time, being unwilling to involve the royal majesty in the disgrace of false accusations, when a sudden strife arose between Geoffrey and the barons, in which abuse and menaces were exchanged between the parties. The king interfered to settle the dispute, but while he was endeavouring to do so, some persons came forward and accused Geoffrey boldly of a conspiracy against the king and his party. Instead of taking the least pains to dear himself of the charge, he treated it with ridicule, as an infamous falsehood; whereupon the king and the barons present arrested him and his followers. This happened at St. Alban's.

The king brought Geoffrey to London f London, in close custody, and threatened to hang him if he did not give up the Tower of London and the castles he had erected with wonderful skill and labour. By the advice of his friends, to escape an ignominious death, he submitted to the kin g's will, and agreed to the surrender; and being thus set at liberty, he escaped out of the hands of his enemies, to the great injury of the whole kingdom. For, being turbulent and fierce, by the exercise of his power he gave strength to rebellion through all England; as the king's enemies, hearing that he was in arms against the royal cause, and relying on the support of so great an earl began, with new spirit, to raise insurrections in every quarter; and even those who appeared to be the king's supporters, as if they had been struck by a thunderbolt, were more and more humiliated by his secession from the king's party.

Geoffrey now assembled all his dependents, who were bound to him by fealty and homage, in one body, and he also levied a formidable host of mercenary soldiers and of freebooters, who flocked to him gladly from all quarters. With this force he devastated the whole country by fire and sword; driving off flocks and herds with insatiable cupidity, sparing neither age nor profession, and, freely slaking his thirst for vengeance, the most exquisite cruelties he could invent were instantly executed on his enemies. The town of Cambridge, belonging to the king, was taken by surprise, when the citizens were off their guard , and, being plundered, and the doors of the churches being forced with axes, they were pillaged of their wealth, and whatever the citizens had deposited in them; and the town was set on fire. With the same ferocity Geoffrey devastated the whole neighbourhood, breaking into all the churches, desolating the lands of the monks, and carrying off their property. The abbey of St. Benedict, at Ramsey, he not only spoiled of the monks' property, and stripped the altars and the . sacred relics, but, mercilessly expelling the monks from the abbey, he placed soldiers in it and made it a garrison.

As soon as the king heard of this bold irruption, and the lawless invasion by Geoffrey of a wide extent of country, he hastened with a powerful array of troops to check the progress of the sudden outbreak. But Geoffrey skillfully avoided an encounter with the king, at one time betaking himself hastily to the marshes, with which that country abounds, where he had before found shelter in his flight; at another, leaving the district where the king was pursuing him, he appeared, at the head of his followers, in another quarter, to stir up fresh disturbances. However, for the purpose of checking his usual inroads into that country, the king caused castles to be built in suitable places, and placing garrisons in them, to overawe the marauders, he went elsewhere to attend to other affairs. As soon as the king was gone, Geoffrey devoted all his energies to reduce the garrisons which the king had left for his annoyance, supported by the king's enemies, who flocked to him from all quarters; and, forming a confederacy with Hugh Bigod, a man of note, who was very powerful in those parts, and had disturbed the peace of the kingdom' and opposed the king's power, as before mentioned, he ravaged the whole country, sparing, in his cruelties, neither sex nor condition. But at length God, the just avenger of all the grievous persecutions, and all the calamities which he had inflicted, brought him to an end worthy of his crimes. For, being too bold, and depending too much on his own address, he often beat up the quarters of the royal gatrisons; but at last was outwitted by them and slain; and as while he lived he had disturbed the church, and troubled the land, so the whole English church was a party to his punishment; for, having been excommunicated, he died unabsolved, and the sacrilegious man was deprived of Christian burial.

Such having been the end of Geoffrey [de Mandeville], the prospects of the king's enemies became-gloomy; for those who trusted that the royal cause would be much weakened by his secession, now thought that by his death the king would be more at liberty, and, as it turned out, better prepared to molest them. But they set no bounds to the malevolence and impiety with which they were imbued, but, their bad spirit actuating them to every sort of wickedness, they devoted themselves to the prosecution of their rebellion, and engaged, with increased eagerness, in every destructive enterprise through all parts of England. All the northern counties were subject to the tyranny of the Earl of Chester, who subjected the king's barons in the neighbourhood to his yoke, surprised their castles by clandestine assaults, and wasted their lands by hostile incursions; and, breathing in his rage nothing but war and devastation, was the terror of all men. John, also, that child of hell, and root of all evil, the lord of Marlborough Castle, was indefatigable in his efforts to create disturbances. He built castles of strong masonry, on spots he thought advantageous; he got into his power the lands and possessions of the monasteries, expelling the monks of every order; and when the sword of ecclesiastical discipline was unsheathed, he was in no wise deterred, but became still more hardened. He even compelled the monks of the highest order to come to his castle in a body, on certain fixed days, when, assuming episcopal power, he issued irreversible decrees for the payment of taxes, or for compulsory labour. The sons of Robert, earl of Gloucester, also, active young men, and well practised in all military exercises, as well as animated by their father's valour and constancy, kept the South of the kingdom in alarm; building castles in advantageous positions, surprising others held by their neighbours, engaging in frequent expeditions against the enemy, slaying, and plundering, and wasting their lands. With activity like their father's they had spread their hostilities over a great breadth of country, extending across from one sea to the other, and, having at length acquired the lordship of an ample domain, they affected peace, and promulgated laws and ordinances; but though their vassals might seem relieved from hostilities and pillage, their lords' avarice subjected them to endless taxation, and involved them in vexatious suits.

Stephen de Mandeville, likewise, a man of note, and a persevering soldier, who greatly exalted the earldom of Devon, actively fomented the civil war in those parts. He repaired the old castles, which the necessities of a former age had planted on the summits of precipitous rocks, subjected wide districts to his tyrannical rule, and was a most troublesome neighbour to the king's adherents wherever he established himself. All these, and others whom I omit, not to be tedious, were busily employed in undermining the king's power; and when he was anxiously engaged in allaying these disturbances, sometimes in one quarter, sometimes in an other, they would suddenly unite in a body, and vigilantly defeat his designs. In like manner, the royalists, in the several counties of England, attacked the castles whenever a fit opportunity offered, at one time by open hostilities, at another by surprise; so that, by these mutual depredations and alternate excursions and encounters, the kingdom, which was once the abode of joy, tranquillity, and peace, was everywhere changed into a seat of war and slaughter, and devastation and woe.

At that time William de Dover, a skilful soldier and an active partisan of the Earl of Gloucester, with his support, took possession of Cricklade, a village delightfully situated in a rich and fertile neighbourhood. He built a castle for himself there with great diligence on a spot which, being surrounded on all sides by waters and marshes, was very inaccessible, and having a strong body of mercenary troops, including some archers, he extended his ravages far and wide, and, reducing to submission a great extent of country on both banks of the river Thames, he inflicted great cruelties on the royal party. At one time fiercely sweeping round their castles in a bold excursion, at another, lurking by night in some concealed ambush, his restless activity never ceased to harass them, and no place could be considered free from danger. Ceaseless as were his efforts to annoy the royalists, the citizens of Oxford and the principal burgesses of the town of Malmesbury, suffered most frequently from his predatory expeditions; because his neighbours in their encounters frequently defeated him. The Earl of Gloucester, also, hastily running up three forts close to Malmesbury, while the kin 9 was detained by hostile movements in another direction, was not only able to restrain their usual inroads through the country, but reduced them to famine by his close blockade.

But when the king received exact information of the desperate state of affairs in that quarter, he instantly mustered a large body of troops, and, coming unexpectedly to Malmesbury, threw into it provisions enough to last for a considerable time, and having wasted and pillaged the country round the earl's forts, he encamped near Tetbury, a castle distant three miles from Malmesbury, which he used his utmost endeavours to take. Having stormed the outer defences of the castle, some of the garrison being slain had taken prisoners, and the rest being driven by degrees into a narrow space within the inner court, with many of them wounded, he lost no time in bringing up his war engines with the intention of inclosing and besieging them there. Meanwhile, the Earl of Gloucester, on the first intelligence of the king's coming, gathered an overwhelming force from his numerous castles in the neighbourhood, some his own people, others true to the fealty they owed him. Having increased his army by levying large bodies of foot soldiers, fierce and undisciplined hands of Welshmen, and of recruits drawn from Bristol and other towns in the neighbourhood, he marched to offer the king battle. Roger, earl of Hereford, also, and other powerful barons, with one consent, collected their forces, and speedily joined him, and, advancing within two miles of the royal camp, they lay waiting until other troops who were preparing to join them reinforced the army.

The barons in the king's camp learning that such hordes of the enemy had flocked together to offer them battle, and dreading the headlong rush of the fierce Welsh, and the disorderly crush of the Bristol mob assembled by the earl in such vast numbers to overwhelm the royal troops, they wisely advised the king to raise the siege, and, for a while, draw off his army, on some other enterprise. They represented that it was rash and dangerous to expose his small band of men-at-arms among such a crowd of butchers, fighting on foot; more especially, as the king's troops were at a great distance from their resources, and were worn by a long march, while, on the contrary, the enemy, assembled from the neighbouring towns and castles, came to the battle in full vigour, fresh from their homes, and with their strength undiminished by sufferings on the road. They, therefore, said that it would be prudent to abandon the siege at present, lest they should suffer a reverse in engaging with the fierce multitudes who now threatened to surround them. The king assented to this judicious ad vice, and, withdrawing in great haste from that neighbourhood, marched to Winchcombe, arriving unexpectedly before the castle which Roger, the new earl of Hereford, had built there to overawe the royal party.

From The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon, trans. Thomas Forester (London: Henry G. Bohn, 1853; George B ell and Sons, 1876), pp. 400-409, reprinted in Archibald R. Lewis, ed., The High Middle Ages, 814-1300, (Englewood Cliffs; NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1970)

 


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(c)Paul Halsall Jan 1996
halsall@murray.fordham.edu