Following his capture and release in 1141, King Stephen once again took the offensive in his war with the Empress Matilda for the throne of Scotland. He won back the allegiance of Earl Ranulf of Chester, the noble whose defection had led to his capture, and forced her to flee from Oxford across the frozen river, and it seemed as though he had her on the run. His advance ground to a halt, though, when he was besieged by Robert of Gloucester while assembling his troops at Wilton Castle for another push. He managed to break free from the encirclement thanks to the heroic rearguard action of his steward, William Martel, who was captured. Stephen gave up the castle of Sherbourne as ransom for him – a serious tactical concession, as it meant that Matilda now had a secure hold on the West Country. The war was essentially in a deadlock – neither side could dislodge the other.
Perhaps as a result of the stress of his capture, Stephen’s behaviour became more erratic. He had been a popular and just King, but now he turned to more tyrannical means of enforcing his will – summoning Geoffrey de Mandeville, who had once supported Matilda, to court and then arresting him, forcing him under threat of execution to hand over his castles to the crown. Unsurprisingly Geoffrey revolted once he was free, hiding out on the Isle of Ely in the Fens and becoming a thorn in Stephen’s side until he died in an attack the following year. Stephen pulled the same trick on Ranulf of Chester, and predictably the result was also the same, with Ranulf revolting once again when he was free. Stephen could not dislodge him either, and so the north was lost to him.
Overall, however, the war began to slow down. Robert of Gloucester died of old age, while Empress Matilda returned to Normandy. The Second Crusade was called by Pope Eugene III, and many of the Norman barons who were now loyal to the Angevins answered the call. The only one still actively fighting Stephen was Matilda’s son, Henry FitzEmpress. In 1147, at the age of 14, he hired mercenaries to invade England, but the invasion fell apart when he was unable to pay his men. Ironically, Stephen wound up paying the mercenaries for him. It’s unclear why – perhaps he didn’t want to see Henry (who was, after all, a kinsman) killed by the mercenaries for not paying his debts. Henry tried to invade again two years later, planning to ally with Ranulf and the Scots to invade York, but Stephen manage to get wind of the plan and reinforced the city. Henry returned to Normandy, where his father Geoffrey gave him the Dukedom. Henry gained considerably more power a few years later when he married Eleanor of Aquitane, the recently divorced wife of the King of France. Eleanor was ten years his senior, but she was beautiful, rich, and easily just as dynamic and powerful a personality as he was. The marriage immediately catapulted Henry into being one of the most powerful nobles in Europe.
The final battles of the war began in 1153, when Henry invaded England. He allied with Ranulf and the Earl of Norfolk, Hugh Bigod. Minor skirmishes and battles were disrupted by unseasonally wintry weather, forcing a temporary truce. Another powerful noble, Robert de Beaumont, declared for Henry in exchange for the restoration of his Normandy estates. In the meantime, Stephen laid siege to Wallingford Castle, and Henry marched to relieve it. The stage seemed to be set for a major battle, but William d’Aubigny (husband of the former queen consort Adeliza) managed to convince them that battle would be futile and only result in loss of life to no gain for either. Instead they agreed to a truce. Stephen’s son Eustace, perhaps seeing where this was going, broke with his father and went to Cambridge to raise funds to continue the war on his own. This came to nothing, however, as he became ill and died the next month. Some fighting still occurred between the two sides, but efforts to secure a more permanent peace were now underway. Naturally, Henry of Blois and Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury, the two veteran peacemakers, were at the heart of it. The obvious settlement was to declare Henry as heir, and this was formally done with the Treaty of Winchester. Stephen’s younger son, William, renounced his claim to the throne and inherited his mother’s title as Count of Boulogne. How long this peace would hold, and whether either side were simply buying time, became a moot point the next year when Stephen, at around the age of sixty, died of a stomach disease.
Henry and Eleanor were crowned later that year, and Henry spent much of the early part of his reign undoing the damage that fifteen years of war had done to the kingdom. Temporary castles were destroyed, foreign mercenaries were expelled, and several shows of force were needed to return the borders with Scotland and Wales to their pre-war boundaries. So ended the first major civil war in English history – not with a decisive victory, but with a treaty and an orderly succession. Henry’s own rule would be far from stable – his own son would rebel against him, his wife would turn on him and his other two sons would wind up fighting for the crown – but he founded a dynasty that would rule England for over three hundred years.
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