Gateway to the Classics: The World's Story: England by Eva March Tappan
The World's Story: England by  Eva March Tappan

The Escape of Maude from the Castle at Oxford

[About 1140]

[AFTER the loss of his son in the wreck of the White Ship, Henry I induced his chief men to swear that at his death they would make his daughter Matilda or Maude ruler of England. But Matilda married a Frenchman, and the chief men declared that this freed them from their oath. The crown was given to Stephen, a grandson of the Conqueror. He proved to be a weak sovereign, and Matilda made constant efforts to gain the throne. The scene of the following story is laid at her refuge, the castle at Oxford, which the forces of Stephen were besieging.
The Editor. ]

THE castle of Oxford was one of the great strongholds of the Midlands. Its walls and bastions inclosed a large area, whereon stood the Church of St. George. On one side was the Mound, thrown up in far earlier days than those of which we write, by Ethelflwda, sister of Alfred, and near it the huge tower of Robert d'Oyley, which still survives, a stern and silent witness of the unquiet past. In an upper chamber of that tower was the present apartment of the warlike lady, alike the descendant of Alfred and the Conqueror, and the unlike daughter of the sainted Queen Margaret of Scotland. And there she sat, at the time when Osric met Alain at Iffley Church, impatiently awaiting the return of her favorite squire, for such was Alain, whose youthful comeliness and gallant bearing had won her heart.

"He tarries long: he cometh not," she said. "Tell me, my Edith, how long has he been gone?"

"Scarce three hours, madam, and he has many dangers to encounter. Perchance he may never return."

"Now the Saints confound thy boding tongue."


"Why, forsooth should he be unfortunate? so active, so brave, so sharp of wit."

"I only mean that he is mortal."

"So are we all—but dost thou, therefore, expect to die to-day?"

"Father Herluin says we all should live as if we did, madam."

"You will wear my life out. Well, yes, a convent will be the best place for thee."

"Nay, madam."

"Hold thy peace, if thou canst say nought but 'nay,' " said the irascible Domina.

Her temper, her irritability and impatience, had alienated many from her cause. Perchance it would have alienated Alain like the rest, only he was a favorite, and she was seldom sharp with him.

How like her father she was in her bearing! even in her undress, for she wore only a thick woolen robe, stained, by the art of the dyers, in colors as various as those of the robe Jacob made for Joseph. Sometimes it flew open, and displayed an inner vesture of rich texture, bound round with a golden zone or girdle; and around her head, confining her luxuriant hair, was a circlet of like precious metal, which did duty for a diadem.

Little of her sainted mother was there in the empress queen; far more of her stern grandfather, the Conqueror.

The chamber, of irregular dimensions, was lighted by narrow loopholes. There was a hearth and a chimney, and a brazier of wood and charcoal burned brightly. Even then the air was cold, for it was many degrees below the freezing point, not that they as yet knew how to measure the temperature.

She sat and glowered at the grate, as the light departed, and the winter night set in, dark and gloomy. More than once she approached the windows, or loopholes, and looked upon the ruined city in the chill and intermittent moonlight.

It was nearly all  in ruins. Here and there a church tower rose intact; here and there a lordly dwelling; but fire and sword had swept it. Neither party regarded the sufferings of the poor. Sometimes the besiegers made a fire in sport, and warmed themselves by the blaze of a burgher's dwelling, nor recked how far it spread. Sometimes, as we have said, the besieged made a sally, and set fire to the buildings which sheltered their foes. Whichever prevailed, the citizens suffered; but little recked their oppressors.

From her elevated chamber Maude could see the watchfires of the foe in a wide circle around, but she was accustomed to the sight, tired of it, in fact, and her one desire was to escape to Wallingford, a far more commodious and stronger castle.

In Fredeswide, of which she could discern the towers, which as yet had escaped the conflagration, were the headquarters of her rival, who was living there at ease on the fat of the land, such fat as was left, at the expense of the monastic community. And while she gazed, she clenched her dainty fist, and shook it at the unheeding Stephen, while she muttered unwomanly imprecations.

And while she was thus engaged, they brought up her supper. It consisted of a stew of bones, which had already been well stripped of their flesh at "the noon-meat."

"We are reduced to bones, and shall soon be nought but bones ourselves; but our gallant defenders, I fear, fare worse. Here, Edith, Hilda, bring your spoons and take your share."

And with small wooden spoons they dipped into the royal dish.

A step on the stairs and the chamberlain knocked, and at her bidding entered. "Lady, the gallant page has returned; how he entered I know not."

"He is unharmed?"

"Scatheless, by the favor of God and St. Martin."

"Let him enter at once."

And Alain appeared.

"My gallant squire, how hast thou fared? I feared for thee."

"They keep bad watch. A rope lowered me to the stream: I crossed, and seeking covered ways, gat me to Iffley, and in like fashion returned. I bear good news, lady! Thy gallant brother of Gloucester, and the prince, thy son, have landed in England, and will meet thee at Wallingford."

"Thank God!" said Maude. "My Henry, my royal boy. I shall see thee again. With such hope to cheer a mother's heart, I can dare anything. Well hast thou earned our thanks, my Alain, my gallant squire."

"The Lord of Wallingford will send a troop of horse to scout on the road between Abingdon and Oxford to-morrow night, the Eve of St. Thomas."

"We will meet them if possible—if it be in human power."

"The river is free—all other roads are blocked."

"But hast thou considered the difficulties of descent?"

"They are great, lady: it was easy for me to descend by the rope, but for thee, alas, that my queen should need such expedients!"

"It is better than starvation. We are reduced to bones, as thou seest; but thou art hungry and faint. Let me order a basin of this savory stew for thee; it is all we have to offer."

"What is good enough for my empress and queen is good enough for her faithful servants; but I may not eat in thy presence."

"Nay, scruple not; famine effaces distinctions."

Thus encouraged, Alain did not allow his scruples to interfere further with his appetite, and partook heartily of the stew of bones, in which, forsooth, the water and meal were in undue proportion to the meat.

The meal dispatched, the empress sent Alain to summon the Earl of Oxford, Robert d'Oyley, to her presence. He was informed of the arrival of the,earl and the prince, and the plan of escape was discussed.

All the ordinary avenues of the castle were watched so closely that extraordinary expedients were necessary, and the only feasible mode of escape appeared to be the difficult road which Alain had used successfully, both in leaving and returning to the beleaguered fortress.

A branch of the Isis washed the walls of the tower. It was frozen hard. To descend by ropes upon it in the darkness, and cross to the opposite side of the stream, appeared the only mode of egress.

But for a lady—the Lady of England—was it possible? Was it not utterly unworthy of her dignity? She put this objection aside like a cobweb.

"Canst thou hold out the castle much longer?"

"At the most another week; our provisions are nearly exhausted. This was our last meal of flesh, of which I see the bones before me," replied the Lord of Oxford.

"Then if I remain, thou must still surrender?"

"Surrender is inevitable, lady."

"Then sooner would I infringe my dignity by dangling from a rope, than become the prisoner of the foul usurper Stephen, and the laughing-stock of his traitorous barons."

"Sir Ingelric of Huntercombe and two other knights, besides thy gallant page, volunteer to accompany thee, lady."

"And for thyself?"

"I must remain to the last, and share the fortunes of my vassals. Without me, they would find scant mercy from the usurpers."

"Then to-morrow night, ere the moon rise, the attempt shall be made."

And the conference broke up.

. . . . . . . . . . .

It was a night of wildering snow, dark and gloomy. The soft, dry, powdery material found its way in at each crevice, and the wind made the tapestry, which hung on the walls of the presence chamber of the "Lady Maude," oscillate to and fro with each blast.

Robert d'Oyley was alone in deep consultation with his royal mistress.

"Then if I can escape, thou wilt surrender?"

"Nought else is to be done; we are starving."

"They will burn the castle."

"There is little to burn, and I hardly think they will attempt that: it will be useful to them when in their hands."

"It is near the midnight hour: the attempt must be made. Now summon young Alain and my faithful knights."

They entered at the summons, each clothed in fine mail, with a white tunic above it. The empress bid adieu to her handmaidens, who had clad her in a thick white cloak to match: they wept and wailed, but she gently chid them:—

"We have suffered worse things: the coffin and hearse in which we left Devizes were more ghastly; and God will give an end to these troubles also: fear not, we are prepared to go through with it."

A small door was opened in the thickness of the wall; it led to the roof, over a lower portion of the buildings beneath the shadow of the tower; and the knights, with Alain and their lady, stood on the snow-covered summit.

Not long did they hesitate. The river beneath was frozen hard; it lay silent and still in its ice-bound sepulchre. The darkness was penetrated by the light of the watch-fires in all directions: they surrounded the town on all sides, save the one they had not thought it necessary to guard against. There was a fire and doubtless a watch over the bridge, which stood near the actual site of the present Folly Bridge. There was a watch across Hy-the Bridge; there was another on the ruins of the castle mill, which Earl Algar had held, under the Domesday survey; another at the principal entrance of the castle, which led from the city. But the extreme cold of the night had driven the majority of the besiegers to seek shelter in the half-ruined churches, which, long attuned to the sweet melody of bells and psalmody, had now become the bivouacs of profane soldiers.

The Countess Edith, the wife of Robert d'Oyley, now appeared, shivering in the keen air, and took an affectionate leave of the empress, while her teeth chattered the while. A true woman, she shared her husband's fortunes for weal or woe, and had endured the horrors of the siege. Ropes were brought—Alain glided down one to the ice, and held it firm. Another rope was passed beneath the armpits of the Lady Maude. She grasped another in her gloved hand, to steady her descent.

"Farewell, true and trusty friend," she said to Robert of Oxford; "had all been as faithful as thou, I had never been brought to this pass; if they hurt thy head, they shall pay with a life for every hair it contains."

Then she stepped over the battlements.

For one moment she gave a womanly shudder at the sight of the blackness below; then yielding herself to the care of her trusty knights and shutting her eyes, she was lowered safely to the surface of the frozen stream, while young Alain steadied the rope below. At last her feet touched the ice.

"Am I on the ground?"

"On the ice, Domina."

One after another the three knights followed her, and they descended the stream until it joined the main river at a farm called "The Wick," which formerly belonged to one Ermenold, a citizen of Oxford, immortalized in the abbey records of Abingdon for his munificence to that community.

Now they had crossed the main channel in safety, not far below the present railway bridge, and landing, struck out boldly for the outskirts of Bagley, where the promised escort was to have met them. But in the darkness and the snow, they lost their direction, and came at last over the frozen fields to Kennington, where they indistinctly saw two or three lights through the fast-falling snow, but dared not approach them, fearing foes.

Vainly they strove to recover the track. The country was all alike—all buried beneath one ghastly winding-sheet. The snow still fell; the air was calm and keen; the breath froze on the mufflers of the lady. Onward they trudged, for to hesitate was death; once or twice that ghastly inclination to lie down and sleep was felt.

"If I could only lie down for one half hour!" said Maude.

"You would never wake again, lady," said Bertram of Wallingford; "we must  move on."

"Nay, I must sleep."

"For thy son's sake," whispered Alain; and she persevered.

"Ah! here is the river; take care."

They had nearly fallen into a diversion of the stream at Sandford; but they followed the course of the river, until they reached Radley, and then they heard the distant bell of the famous abbey ringing for matins, which were said in the small hours of the night.

Here they found some kind of track made by the passage of cattle, which had been driven towards the town, and followed it until they saw the lights of the abbey dimly through the gloom.

Spent, exhausted with their toil, they entered the precincts of the monastery, on the bed of the stream which, diverging from the main course a mile above the town, turned the abbey mills and formed one of its boundaries. Thus they avoided detention at the gateway of the town, for they ascended from the stream within the monastery "pleasaunce."

The grand church loomed out of the darkness; its windows were dimly lighted. The Matins of St. Thomas were being sung, and the solemn strains reached the ears of the weary travelers outside. The outer door of the nave was unfastened, for the benefit of the laity, who cared more for devotion than their beds, like the mother of the famous St. Edmund, Archbishop of Canterbury, a century later, who used to attend these matins nightly.

Our present party entered from a different motive. It was a welcome shelter, and they sank upon an oaken bench within the door, while the solemn sound of the Gregorian psalmody rolled on in the choir. Alain meanwhile hastened to the hospitium to seek aid for the royal guest; which he was told he would find in a hostel outside the gates, for although they allowed female attendance at worship, they could not entertain women; it was contrary to their rule—royal although the guest might be.

by A. D. Crake

 Table of Contents  |  Index  |  Home  | Previous: The White Ship  |  Next: The Castle-Builders of the Reign of Stephen
Copyright (c) 2005 - 2023   Yesterday's Classics, LLC. All Rights Reserved.