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    Ch. 11 - Matilda and Stephen

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    Chapter 11
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    THE King was no sooner dead than all the plans and schemes he had
    laboured at so long, and lied so much for, crumbled away like a
    hollow heap of sand. STEPHEN, whom he had never mistrusted or
    suspected, started up to claim the throne.

    Stephen was the son of ADELA, the Conqueror's daughter, married to
    the Count of Blois. To Stephen, and to his brother HENRY, the late
    King had been liberal; making Henry Bishop of Winchester, and
    finding a good marriage for Stephen, and much enriching him. This
    did not prevent Stephen from hastily producing a false witness, a
    servant of the late King, to swear that the King had named him for
    his heir upon his death-bed. On this evidence the Archbishop of
    Canterbury crowned him. The new King, so suddenly made, lost not a
    moment in seizing the Royal treasure, and hiring foreign soldiers
    with some of it to protect his throne.

    If the dead King had even done as the false witness said, he would
    have had small right to will away the English people, like so many
    sheep or oxen, without their consent. But he had, in fact,
    bequeathed all his territory to Matilda; who, supported by ROBERT,
    Earl of Gloucester, soon began to dispute the crown. Some of the
    powerful barons and priests took her side; some took Stephen's; all
    fortified their castles; and again the miserable English people
    were involved in war, from which they could never derive advantage
    whosoever was victorious, and in which all parties plundered,
    tortured, starved, and ruined them.

    Five years had passed since the death of Henry the First - and
    during those five years there had been two terrible invasions by
    the people of Scotland under their King, David, who was at last
    defeated with all his army - when Matilda, attended by her brother
    Robert and a large force, appeared in England to maintain her
    claim. A battle was fought between her troops and King Stephen's
    at Lincoln; in which the King himself was taken prisoner, after
    bravely fighting until his battle-axe and sword were broken, and
    was carried into strict confinement at Gloucester. Matilda then
    submitted herself to the Priests, and the Priests crowned her Queen
    of England.

    She did not long enjoy this dignity. The people of London had a
    great affection for Stephen; many of the Barons considered it
    degrading to be ruled by a woman; and the Queen's temper was so
    haughty that she made innumerable enemies. The people of London
    revolted; and, in alliance with the troops of Stephen, besieged her
    at Winchester, where they took her brother Robert prisoner, whom,
    as her best soldier and chief general, she was glad to exchange for
    Stephen himself, who thus regained his liberty. Then, the long war
    went on afresh. Once, she was pressed so hard in the Castle of
    Oxford, in the winter weather when the snow lay thick upon the
    ground, that her only chance of escape was to dress herself all in
    white, and, accompanied by no more than three faithful Knights,
    dressed in like manner that their figures might not be seen from
    Stephen's camp as they passed over the snow, to steal away on foot,
    cross the frozen Thames, walk a long distance, and at last gallop
    away on horseback. All this she did, but to no great purpose then;
    for her brother dying while the struggle was yet going on, she at
    last withdrew to Normandy.

    In two or three years after her withdrawal her cause appeared in
    England, afresh, in the person of her son Henry, young Plantagenet,
    who, at only eighteen years of age, was very powerful: not only on
    account of his mother having resigned all Normandy to him, but also
    from his having married ELEANOR, the divorced wife of the French
    King, a bad woman, who had great possessions in France. Louis, the
    French King, not relishing this arrangement, helped EUSTACE, King
    Stephen's son, to invade Normandy: but Henry drove their united
    forces out of that country, and then returned here, to assist his
    partisans, whom the King was then besieging at Wallingford upon the
    Thames. Here, for two days, divided only by the river, the two
    armies lay encamped opposite to one another - on the eve, as it
    seemed to all men, of another desperate fight, when the EARL OF
    ARUNDEL took heart and said 'that it was not reasonable to prolong
    the unspeakable miseries of two kingdoms to minister to the
    ambition of two princes.'

    Many other noblemen repeating and supporting this when it was once
    uttered, Stephen and young Plantagenet went down, each to his own
    bank of the river, and held a conversation across it, in which they
    arranged a truce; very much to the dissatisfaction of Eustace, who
    swaggered away with some followers, and laid violent hands on the
    Abbey of St. Edmund's-Bury, where he presently died mad. The truce
    led to a solemn council at Winchester, in which it was agreed that
    Stephen should retain the crown, on condition of his declaring
    Henry his successor; that WILLIAM, another son of the King's,
    should inherit his father's rightful possessions; and that all the
    Crown lands which Stephen had given away should be recalled, and
    all the Castles he had permitted to be built demolished. Thus
    terminated the bitter war, which had now lasted fifteen years, and
    had again laid England waste. In the next year STEPHEN died, after
    a troubled reign of nineteen years.

    Although King Stephen was, for the time in which he lived, a humane
    and moderate man, with many excellent qualities; and although
    nothing worse is known of him than his usurpation of the Crown,
    which he probably excused to himself by the consideration that King
    Henry the First was a usurper too - which was no excuse at all; the
    people of England suffered more in these dread nineteen years, than
    at any former period even of their suffering history. In the
    division of the nobility between the two rival claimants of the
    Crown, and in the growth of what is called the Feudal System (which
    made the peasants the born vassals and mere slaves of the Barons),
    every Noble had his strong Castle, where he reigned the cruel king
    of all the neighbouring people. Accordingly, he perpetrated
    whatever cruelties he chose. And never were worse cruelties
    committed upon earth than in wretched England in those nineteen
    years.

    The writers who were living then describe them fearfully. They say
    that the castles were filled with devils rather than with men; that
    the peasants, men and women, were put into dungeons for their gold
    and silver, were tortured with fire and smoke, were hung up by the
    thumbs, were hung up by the heels with great weights to their
    heads, were torn with jagged irons, killed with hunger, broken to
    death in narrow chests filled with sharp-pointed stones, murdered
    in countless fiendish ways. In England there was no corn, no meat,
    no cheese, no butter, there were no tilled lands, no harvests.
    Ashes of burnt towns, and dreary wastes, were all that the
    traveller, fearful of the robbers who prowled abroad at all hours,
    would see in a long day's journey; and from sunrise until night, he
    would not come upon a home.

    The clergy sometimes suffered, and heavily too, from pillage, but
    many of them had castles of their own, and fought in helmet and
    armour like the barons, and drew lots with other fighting men for
    their share of booty. The Pope (or Bishop of Rome), on King
    Stephen's resisting his ambition, laid England under an Interdict
    at one period of this reign; which means that he allowed no service
    to be performed in the churches, no couples to be married, no bells
    to be rung, no dead bodies to be buried. Any man having the power
    to refuse these things, no matter whether he were called a Pope or
    a Poulterer, would, of course, have the power of afflicting numbers
    of innocent people. That nothing might be wanting to the miseries
    of King Stephen's time, the Pope threw in this contribution to the
    public store - not very like the widow's contribution, as I think,
    when Our Saviour sat in Jerusalem over-against the Treasury, 'and
    she threw in two mites, which make a farthing.'
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