While Stephen had been putting down revolts and fending off the Scottish in England, the Empress Matilda and her husband Geoffrey of Anjou had not been idle. They had been prevented from immediately facing down Stephen by two poorly-timed events, the first of which was a rebellion in Anjou, which tied Geoffrey down dealing with it. Matilda, in the meantime, took control of three castles in Normandy but then found out that she was pregnant with her third child, and was forced to establish a household in Argentan for most of 1136. Geoffrey spent most of that year raiding estates across Normandy after his initial full invasion was repulsed, causing such trouble that in 1137 Stephen was forced to declare his son as Duke of Normandy in his stead and have him swear fealty to the King of France, Louis VI. (Of course King Stephen could not bend the knee to a foreign king, so his son had to take on the title.) Louis’s allegiance proved short-lived however, as did the king himself. Louis “the Fat” died of dysentery the following year, and his son Louis VII took over. (It was around this time that Louis VII married Eleanor of Aquitane, who will feature prominently later in our story.) Stephen then formed an army to face Geoffrey, but his army wound up fighting itself instead, when his Flemish mercenaries fell out with his Norman nobles. Geoffrey wound up with a victory without even lifting a finger.
Things remained stable until the following year in 1138, when Robert of Gloucester raised his banners in rebellion. Prompted by this, Geoffrey invaded Normandy again. Stephen was preoccupied with England, and so by 1139 most of the duchy was under Angevin control. At the same time, an appeal was made to the Pope to renounce his recognition of Stephen, though the Pope declined to do so. (Whether this was due to any respect for Stephen, or simply because Pope Innocent II did not wish to look weak at a time when there was an active rival Anti-Pope and the church was close to schism, it is hard to say.) Stephen, meanwhile, wound up losing most of the goodwill he had built up with the church in England by removing several bishops whose loyalty he had reason to suspect. This breach of the promises he had made to respect the independence of the church was the beginnings of a rift with his brother Henry and with the church in general.
With Normandy largely under their control, the question was not whether Matilda’s forces would land in England, but rather where, and when. Geoffrey mostly bowed out of the war at this point – he appeared to regard Normandy as good enough and did not accompany his wife on the invasion of England. Robert of Gloucester, her half-brother, became one of the major commanders of her forces as did Baldwin de Redvers, the one-time pirate lord. Baldwin led an army in an attack on Wareham in August 1139, trying to seize the port and use it as a base for landing Matilda’s army. Stephen’s forces drove him away from the port, however, and the port fell back into their hands. Matilda got her staging ground, however from a fairly unexpected corner. The Dowager Queen Adeliza, Henry I’s second wife and Stephen’s step-mother, invited Matilda to make a landing in the port of Arundel, which she controlled. This she did, taking with her Robert and 140 knights. Robert led a force to Gloucester to link up with his friend and vassal, Miles, the High Sheriff of Gloucestershire and Constable of England. Miles immediately declared his fealty to Matilda and became one of her most loyal supporters. Matilda stayed in Arundel to secure it, which proved to be a mistake when Stephen immediately moved an army in and besieged her.
Warfare at the time was not quite as spectacular as it is often depicted these days. Open battles between armies were rare events. More common were raids into enemy territory, designed to cripple your opponent economically, and assaults on castles to seize and hold them. (Of course, an alternative was to construct new castles in order to control the surrounding territory – estimates for the number of castles built during the war vary wildly, from less than 130 to over 11,000.) Such assaults were rarely open affairs – at the time, the balance between castles and siege weaponry was firmly on the side of the castle, and so long sieges and undermining walls through tunnelling was how most sieges tended to go.
Arundel was considered one of the most formidable castles of the day, and while Stephen had definitely pinned down Matilda with his siege, he was unlikely to break through quickly. Meanwhile, Robert and Miles were free to roam the countryside. Perhaps this is why Stephen agreed to a truce, proposed and negotiated by his brother Henry, which saw Matilda and her knights granted free passage through his lines. On the other hand, it may have been some measure of chivalry, which Stephen was noted for – the starvation caused by siege warfare was notable brutal, and he may have balked at subjecting her to it. Regardless, this freed him up – just in time to be forced to return to protect London from a threatened approach by Miles. One of the bishops he had removed, Nigel of Ely, also revolted in East Anglia. Stephen quickly put down the rebellion (although Nigel escaped), but this drew him over to the east allowing Matilda’s forces to stabilise their position in the southwest.
With the situation relatively stable, Stephen’s brother Henry proposed peace talks at Bath, arranged through the church. Stephen and Matilda both sent representatives, Stephen sending his wife along with Theobald of Bec, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Matilda was represented by Robert of Gloucester. The conference never even got underway, however, as Stephen insisted on dictating the terms of any peace, a demand unacceptable to both Henry and Matilda. Stephen clearly felt that he still had the upper hand, as the Empress’ forces were penned up in the southwest of the country. He had no idea that he was about to be facing a war on two fronts. Far to the north, Ranulf of Chester was about to decide that he had no use for a king who refused to stand up to the Scottish, and his rebellion would nearly end the entire war for Stephen.