Gateway to the Classics: Our Island Story by H. E. Marshall
Our Island Story by  H. E. Marshall

The Story of King Stephen

H ENRY I. died in 1135 A.D., and the barons, instead of keeping their promise to him and making his daughter queen, chose his nephew Stephen to be their king. Stephen was the son of Adela, William the Conqueror's daughter.

The barons chose Stephen for several reasons. They were so proud that they hated the thought of being ruled by a woman, and that woman, too, not even a Norman. For you remember Matilda's mother was a great-granddaughter of Edmund Ironside, and as she had been born in England and lived a great part of her life there she was far more English than Norman.

Matilda's husband was Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. He was also called Geoffrey Plantagenet, because when he went into battle he used to wear a sprig of yellow broom in his helmet, so that his friends might know him when his face was covered with his visor. The Latin name for broom is planta genista,  and gradually it came to be pronounced Plantagenet.

Although Geoffrey was French he was not a Norman, and the Normans looked upon him as quite as much a stranger as an Englishman, and they did not wish to be ruled by him, as would happen if his wife Matilda were made queen. Besides this, the barons knew that Stephen was kind and gentle, and they thought he would be a king who would allow them to do just what they liked.

And so he did. Stephen was too gentle to rule the wild barons. Some one stern and harsh was needed to keep them in check, and Stephen was neither. He allowed the barons to build strong castles all over the country. These castles had dark and fearful dungeons, which were used as prisons. There such deeds of cruelty were done by the barons that the people said the castles were filled, not with men, but with evil spirits. "God has forgotten England," they said. "Christ sleeps and His holy ones."

Not even at the time of the conquest had there been such misery in England. Then there had been one stern ruler who had forced every one to bend to his will. Now each baron set himself up as a king and tyrant. His castle was his kingdom, where he tortured and killed according to his own wicked will. Stephen was a courteous knight and gentleman, but during the nineteen years of his reign there was only lawlessness and sorrow in England.

When the barons made Stephen King of England, Matilda and her husband Geoffrey fled to Normandy. But there, too, the barons rebelled against them and chose Stephen for their duke.

Then David, the King of Scotland, gathered an army and came to fight for his niece Matilda.

Ever since the days of the Romans, the Scots and English had been enemies, and the Scots were still almost as wild and fierce as they had been then. They marched through England as far as Yorkshire, doing dreadful deeds of cruelty as they went.

At a place called Northallerton a great battle was fought. It was called the Battle of the Standard because the sacred banners of four saints were hung upon a pole, which was fixed to a cart, and round this the English gathered their forces.

The Scots were fiercely brave, but they wore no armour, and, although they rushed to battle with splendid courage, they could not break through the line of steel-clad Normans, nor stand against the arrows of the English. So they were defeated, and David could not help Matilda as he had meant to do.

Later on Matilda came back from France, and, until the death of Stephen, England was filled with civil war. Civil war means war within a country itself—the people of that country, instead of fighting against a foreign nation, fighting among themselves. This is the most terrible kind of war, for often friends and brothers fight on different sides, killing and wounding each other. In this civil war those who wished Matilda to be queen fought against those who wished Stephen to remain king.

For a time Matilda's army was successful, but she was so proud and haughty that she soon made enemies even of those who had at first fought for her. Then came a time when she was shut up in Oxford, while the army of Stephen lay around. The King's soldiers kept so strict a watch that no food could be taken into the town, and no person could escape from it. This is called a siege. The people in Oxford began to starve, for they had eaten up all the food they had, and Stephen's soldiers took good care that no more was allowed to be taken into the town. It was the middle of winter. The river Thames was frozen over. Snow lay everywhere around. The cold was terrible, and the people had no wood for fires.

At last Matilda could bear it no longer. She made up her mind to run away. One night four figures dressed in white crept silently through the streets of Oxford. They reached the gate. In silence it was opened, for those guarding it knew who the white-clad figures were. One by one the figures passed through. Out into the snow-covered fields they crept, moving softly and swiftly unnoticed by Stephen's soldiers. It was Matilda and three faithful knights. They had dressed themselves in white so that they might pass unseen over the snow. There was no bridge over the river, but the frost was so hard that they crossed upon the ice and so got safely away.

Although Matilda fled, the war still went on until at length her son Henry landed in England, determined to fight for the crown. But Stephen was weary of war, and all the land longed for rest. So listening to the advice of a wise priest, Stephen and Henry made peace.

Their first meeting was on the banks of the Thames where it runs still as a little stream. They stood one on one bank, and one on the other—Stephen a broken, ruined man, worn and aged with wars and troubles, Henry young, handsome, and hopeful. And there they made a treaty called the Peace of Wallingford. By this treaty it was agreed, that Stephen should keep the crown while he lived; that he should acknowledge Henry as his adopted son; that Henry should reign after the death of Stephen; and that the dreadful castles which Stephen had allowed the wicked barons to build and which they used as dark and horrible prisons, should be destroyed.

So the land had rest. Soon afterward Stephen died, and in 1154 A.D. Henry came to the throne amid the great rejoicing of the people.

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