Henry II – the Conqueror

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The Devil’s Crown

The Devil’s Crown is a thirteen-part drama series.  Produced by the BBC, Radiotelevisione Italiana, TF1, Time-Life Television Productions, Télécip and Télévision Suisse-Romande, it was first broadcast on Sundays, from 30 April to 23 July 1978 (BBC2, various times).

Malmesbury, in Wiltshire, was a wretched little town, as sorely treated as any in England during the agonies of the Shipwreck. On a freezing January day in 1153, Henry Plantagenet stood outside it in belligerent mood. He had been blown ashore after a rough and dangerous winter crossing of the Channel within the octave of Epiphany: the eight-day festival in which Christians celebrate the visitation of the kings to adore the infant Jesus. But Henry came not to adore, with bended knee and precious gifts. He arrived with an invading force of 140 knights and 3,000 infantry, armed to the teeth.

Malmesbury was in a piteous state. Its walls and motte castle had been besieged at least three times during the civil war, and its people brutalized and plundered for many years. Now Henry was at the walls, preparing to destroy what little was left of the town. The author of the Gesta Stephani described the scene:

When a crowd of common people flew to the wall surrounding the town as though to defend it, [Henry] ordered the infantry, men of the greatest cruelty, whom he had brought with him, some to assail the defenders with arrows and missiles, others to devote all their efforts to demolishing the wall.

The din would have been tremendous: the whizz of crossbow bolts, screams of the fleeing townsfolk, and the crash of great rocks pitched up at the castle walls by the siege machines. Torrential rain and winds lashed besiegers and defenders alike; soaking mud clung to them all. Ladders were placed against the wall, and Henry’s fierce mercenaries scaled them with ease. The townsfolk ran in terror to the church, seeking sanctuary with the resident community of monks. The mercenaries, having vaulted the walls, pursued them. If the chronicler is to be believed, the church was then plundered, the monks and priests butchered and the altar desecrated.

King Stephen had been expecting the duke’s invasion, but he had not foreseen an attack on Malmesbury. His royal forces had been besieging the rebel town of Wallingford, and he had expected Henry to make the march to join him there in battle. Henry refused to be drawn. Stephen was obliged to go to meet the invader, and within days he had a force marching west. ‘It was a huge army with many barons, their banners glittering with gold, beautiful and terrible indeed,’ wrote Henry of Huntingdon. ‘But God, in whom alone is safety, was not with them.’ The weather was foul and the men who marched with Stephen had little faith in their leader. ‘The floodgates of heaven opened and such bitter cold gusts of wind and pouring rain were driven into their faces that God himself seemed to be fighting for the duke. The king’s army could barely hold their weapons or their dripping wet lances.’

Drenched and demoralized, Stephen’s army refused to fight. The civil war had dragged on long enough, and the conditions in which they were now expected to relieve a siege were nothing short of treacherous. There was little promise of reward or advance in the battle, and Stephen now had a mutiny on his hands. ‘The king … retreated without effecting his purpose,’ wrote William of Newburgh. The first victory of the invasion had been won.

Writing in retrospect, William of Newburgh noted that after Malmesbury ‘the nobles of [England] … gradually revolted to [Henry]; insomuch as that, by the augmentation of his power and the brilliancy of his successes, the fame of the duke … obscured the kingly title of his opponent’. But it was not quite that simple. As he took stock of his position in England, Henry discovered a realm in a state of total war-weariness. It was his response to these conditions, as much as his military successes, that enabled him to make advances beyond those achieved in his mother’s day.

One of the first things Henry realized was that the mercenaries he had brought with him inspired fear rather than trust. England already teemed with hired foreign soldiers, and they were deeply resented among the ordinary people. ‘Being unable to endure their bestial and brutal presumption any longer, [the barons] suggested to the duke that he should allow [his mercenaries] to go home, lest on account of their shameful forwardness some calamity should befall him or his men by the vengeance of God,’ recorded the Gesta Stephani.

Showing a flexibility of mind that would serve him well in the future, Henry listened. He sent 500 of his mercenaries back across the Channel to Normandy. And the wrath of God was indeed visited. As the mercenaries sailed, a mighty storm blew up and drowned them all.

Instead of inflicting more war on an exhausted kingdom, Henry now made peaceful overtures towards the English magnates, barons and bishops alike. Channels of negotiation with Stephen were opened, under the guidance of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury and Bishop Henry of Winchester. And slowly the magnates came over to the young duke.

The most important baron to join Henry’s cause was Robert earl of Leicester. He and his twin Waleran were among the elite of the Anglo-Norman nobility, who had been loyal to Stephen for many years. Leicester was a powerful landowner in the Midlands, which gave Henry vital territorial advantage in the heart of England. But the earl also brought important personal qualities and experience to Henry’s following and would prove to be one of Henry’s most trusted and reliable servants for the remainder of his life. He was in fact an excellent archetype for the type of noble that Henry both attracted and needed: Leicester was in his late forties, literate and well schooled. He had been brought up with William the Aetheling, and as children he and Waleran had been the young darlings of the European courts, debating for show with cardinals while they were still precocious youngsters. The twins had been loyalists under Henry I and Stephen, but Stephen’s inability to guarantee their lands in Normandy had inevitably chipped away at their support and political will.

By leaving Stephen, Leicester embodied the complex position of any number of the Anglo-Norman magnates: torn between their Norman estates guaranteed by the Plantagenet duke of Normandy, and the English lands theoretically protected by Stephen. The task for Henry was to prove to more men like Leicester that he could protect their property in England as well as in Normandy, rather than subjecting it to further ruin and war. That, after all, was the underlying purpose and promise of kingship.

Thus, Henry spent the spring of 1153 on a vigorous publicity drive. After visiting Bristol and Gloucester – his mother’s heartlands – he made his way through the violent, turbulent Midlands. Here an uneasy peace was kept by a patchwork of individual treaties between magnates. This land was the ultimate emblem of the failures of Stephen’s reign. Public authority was non-existent.

At the heart of Henry’s new pitch to the political community was good lordship, not good generalship. Instead of ravaging lands, he held court around the country and invited the great men to come to him in peace. Rather than burning crops, he issued charters guaranteeing the land and legal rights of the magnates – not only in England, but in Normandy too. He indicated his commitment to judicial process by asserting that his grants of English lands were subject to legal ratification. Moving around England in a circuit that came more and more to look like a tour of triumph, he presented himself at every turn as a credible alternative as king, with rapidly broadening support from the political community.

Yet battle could not entirely be avoided. In July 1153, Henry met Stephen at Wallingford, a town nestled inside a long bend in the Thames, south-east of Oxford and dangerously close to Westminster and London. Stephen had the castle – loyal to Henry – under siege, and the area was sown with a series of smaller royal castles and ditch-works, built in a semi-permanent ring of defence. Henry approached with an army to relieve the siege, but also with a sense that an end to the war was near.

King Stephen had been waiting. In early August he marched a splendid army out to meet the duke. Once again, as at Malmesbury, there was a general refusal to fight. In the words of the Gesta Stephani: ‘the leading men on both sides … shrank from a conflict which was not merely between fellow countrymen, but meant the desolation of the whole kingdom.’ Men were not tired of Stephen’s rule per se. They were tired of civil war. ‘The barons, those betrayers of England … were unwilling to fight a battle, as they did not want either side to win,’ wrote Henry of Huntingdon. But these ‘betrayers of England’ were men who had suffered nearly two decades of civil war, and who realized that victory for either side in battle was likely to result in mass land confiscations and continued bitter divisions in the realm. The time for a ceasefire had arrived. Henry and Stephen agreed to talk. ‘The king and the duke had a conference alone together, across a small stream, about making a lasting peace,’ wrote Huntingdon. ‘The peace treaty was begun here, but not completed until another occasion.’ The terms of peace were growing obvious to both sides: Stephen would have to recognize Henry Plantagenet as his legal heir to the Crown and begin a process by which the deep wounds of their families’ war could be healed. Only one major obstacle remained.

Forschungsmitarbeiter Mitch Williamson is a technical writer with an interest in military and naval affairs. He has published articles in Cross & Cockade International and Wartime magazines. He was research associate for the Bio-history Cross in the Sky, a book about Charles ‘Moth’ Eaton’s career, in collaboration with the flier’s son, Dr Charles S. Eaton. He also assisted in picture research for John Burton’s Fortnight of Infamy. Mitch is now publishing on the WWW various specialist websites combined with custom website design work. He enjoys working and supporting his local C3 Church. “Curate and Compile“
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