Their judgment was based more upon blind wishing than upon sound reasoning. For it is a habit of mankind to entrust to careless hope what they long for, and to thrust aside what they do not fancy. — Thucydides

Story of the English - Helene Guerber

Matilda's Narrow Escapes

Foremost among the barons who had sworn to uphold Matilda was Stephen, her cousin, a grandson of William the Conqueror. Yet Henry was no sooner dead than Stephen took possession of the throne. He also had himself crowned at Westminster, and was recognized as King of England by the pope.

Stephen's manners were very pleasant, so he soon made many friends. As he knew Matilda would want to wrest the sceptre from him, he tried to gain both rich and poor by making many promises. He told the poor that he would give them a charter, or new set of laws, and he granted the barons more freedom, and permission to build as many castles as they pleased.

As the death of the king had been sudden, Matilda, who was then on the Continent, was not at once able to take any measures to defend her rights. But she soon sent over to claim the throne, and as Stephen would not give it up, she induced her uncle, David, King of Scotland, to invade England.

This monarch marched into England before Stephen could summon an army to oppose him. But a brave priest in the north of England, seeing the danger, collected an army on the spot and sent it to meet David.

As there was no king present to read this army, the priest set up a standard in a chariot, and placed it in the midst of the army, telling the warriors it was their duty to defend their standard as loyally as their king. The battle which ensued has therefore been called the Battle of the Standard. The English were victors, but they bought complete peace from the Scots by giving them a large tract of land in the northern part of England.

Matilda, in the meantime, had been busy collecting an army, which, as she herself could not fight, and as her husband was dead, was commanded by one of her relatives, Robert of Gloucester. When this army appeared in England, many Norman barons joined it, because they were tired of Stephen, who had not kept his promises.

A civil war now broke out between Stephen's and Matilda's parties in England. The castles which were already standing were fortified and garrisoned, and many others were built on all sides. Under pretext of fighting for the king or the queen, as the case might be, the nobles living in these castles attacked one another, and burned and stole so freely that they are known as the robber barons.

Whenever Stephen found fault with these noblemen and tried to punish them, they joined Matilda's party; and soon the whole country was in an uproar. Stephen besieged Matilda in Bristol; but she escaped, collected another army, and met him again near Lincoln. Here Stephen was defeated and made a prisoner.

Matilda next rode in triumph to London, where she was named queen. But as she was haughty and violent-tempered, and kept pressing the people for money, which they were too poor to give her, they soon began to hate her. In their anger they drove her out of the city and forced her to take refuge in Winchester, where Stephen's brother came to besiege her.

Queen Matilda seems to have been fated to have narrow escapes, for she managed to pass out of this castle, and through the enemy's ranks, on the back of a fleet horse. But Robert of Gloucester, less lucky, was captured by Stephen's party, who refused to set him free unless Matilda would give them Stephen himself in exchange.

Stephen and Robert of Gloucester, therefore, changed places, and the war was renewed. Matilda, cornered again, now slipped through the hands of her enemies by pretending to be a corpse, and being carried out in a horse-litter.

Stephen, who had sworn never to give up until she was his prisoner, now besieged her in the Castle of Oxford, where, in spite of scant rations, the garrison held out until midwinter and until snow covered the ground. When Matilda saw that her brave defenders could not hold out much longer, she planned a bold escape. Clad in white from head to foot, so as not to be discovered against a snowy background, she crept out of the castle one dark night with three knights, crossed the river on the ice, and, walking six miles, came to a place of safety.

Here she met Robert of Gloucester, with Prince Henry, her eldest son, and the war went on for some time longer. But Matilda's energy was nearly exhausted, and, disheartened by the death of her chief supporter, Robert of Gloucester, she finally went back to Normandy. Then Prince Henry carried on the war alone; and in the year 1153, after eighteen years of civil war, he agreed, at the treaty of Wallingford, to leave the crown to Stephen as long as the latter lived, provided it should pass on to him at the king's death.


Front Matter

Early Times
The Druids
The Britons
Caesar in Britain
Queen Boadicea
The Great Walls
The Great Irish Saint
The Anglo-Saxons
Brave King Arthur
The Laws of the Saxons
The Story of St Augustine
Three Great Men
The Danish Pirates
King Alfred and the Cakes
Alfred conquers the Danes
A King's Narrow Escape
The King and the Outlaw
The Monasteries
An Unlucky Couple
St Dunstan
King Canute and the Waves
A Saxon Nobleman
Lady Godiva's Ride
The Battle of Hastings
The Conquest
Lords and Vassals
Death of William
The Brothers' Quarrels
Arms and Armour
The "White Ship"
Matilda's Narrow Escapes
Story of Fair Rosamond
Thomas a Becket
Murder of Thomas a Becket
Richard's Adventures
Richard and the Saracens
The Faithful Minstrel
Death of Richard
The Murder of Arthur
The Great Charter
The Rule of Henry III
A Race
Persecution of the Jews
The Conquest of Wales
A Quarrel with France
The Coronation Stone
The Insolent Favourite
Bruce and the Spider
Death of Edward II
The Murderers punished
The Battle of Crecy
The Siege of Calais
The Age of Chivalry
The Battle of Poitiers
The Peasants' Revolt
Richard's Presence of Mind
A Tiny Queen
Henry's Troubles
Madcap Harry
A Glorious Reign
The Maid of Orleans
The War of the Roses
The Queen and the Brigand
The Triumph of the Yorks
The Princes in the Tower
Richard's Punishment
Two Pretenders
A Grasping King
Field of the Cloth of Gold
The New Opinions
Death of Wolsey
Henry's Wives
The King and the Painter
A Boy King
Lady Jane Grey
The Death of Cranmer
A Clever Queen
Elizabeth's Lovers
Mary, Queen of Scots
Captivity of Mary Stuart
Wreck of the Spanish Armada
The Elizabethan Age
Death of Elizabeth
A Scotch King
The Gunpowder Plot
Sir Walter Raleigh
King and Parliament
Cavaliers and Roundheads
The Royal Oak
The Commonwealth
The Restoration
Plague and Fire
The Merry Monarch
James driven out of England
A Terrible Massacre
William's Wars
The Duke of Marlborough
The Taking of Gibraltar
The South Sea Bubble
Bonny Prince Charlie
Black Hole of Calcutta
Loss of the Colonies
The Battle of the Nile
Nelson's Last Signal
The Battle of Waterloo
First Gentleman of Europe
Childhood of Queen Victoria
The Queen's Marriage
Wars in Victoria's Reign
The Jubilee