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Charles Dickens > A Child's History of England > Chapter XI

A Child's History of England

Chapter XI


THE King was no sooner dead than all the plans and schemes he had
laboured at so long, and lied so much for, crumbled away like a
hollow heap of sand. STEPHEN, whom he had never mistrusted or
suspected, started up to claim the throne.

Stephen was the son of ADELA, the Conqueror's daughter, married to
the Count of Blois. To Stephen, and to his brother HENRY, the late
King had been liberal; making Henry Bishop of Winchester, and
finding a good marriage for Stephen, and much enriching him. This
did not prevent Stephen from hastily producing a false witness, a
servant of the late King, to swear that the King had named him for
his heir upon his death-bed. On this evidence the Archbishop of
Canterbury crowned him. The new King, so suddenly made, lost not a
moment in seizing the Royal treasure, and hiring foreign soldiers
with some of it to protect his throne.

If the dead King had even done as the false witness said, he would
have had small right to will away the English people, like so many
sheep or oxen, without their consent. But he had, in fact,
bequeathed all his territory to Matilda; who, supported by ROBERT,
Earl of Gloucester, soon began to dispute the crown. Some of the
powerful barons and priests took her side; some took Stephen's; all
fortified their castles; and again the miserable English people
were involved in war, from which they could never derive advantage
whosoever was victorious, and in which all parties plundered,
tortured, starved, and ruined them.

Five years had passed since the death of Henry the First - and
during those five years there had been two terrible invasions by
the people of Scotland under their King, David, who was at last
defeated with all his army - when Matilda, attended by her brother
Robert and a large force, appeared in England to maintain her
claim. A battle was fought between her troops and King Stephen's
at Lincoln; in which the King himself was taken prisoner, after
bravely fighting until his battle-axe and sword were broken, and
was carried into strict confinement at Gloucester. Matilda then
submitted herself to the Priests, and the Priests crowned her Queen
of England.

She did not long enjoy this dignity. The people of London had a
great affection for Stephen; many of the Barons considered it
degrading to be ruled by a woman; and the Queen's temper was so
haughty that she made innumerable enemies. The people of London
revolted; and, in alliance with the troops of Stephen, besieged her
at Winchester, where they took her brother Robert prisoner, whom,
as her best soldier and chief general, she was glad to exchange for
Stephen himself, who thus regained his liberty. Then, the long war
went on afresh. Once, she was pressed so hard in the Castle of
Oxford, in the winter weather when the snow lay thick upon the
ground, that her only chance of escape was to dress herself all in
white, and, accompanied by no more than three faithful Knights,
dressed in like manner that their figures might not be seen from
Stephen's camp as they passed over the snow, to steal away on foot,
cross the frozen Thames, walk a long distance, and at last gallop
away on horseback. All this she did, but to no great purpose then;
for her brother dying while the struggle was yet going on, she at
last withdrew to Normandy.

In two or three years after her withdrawal her cause appeared in
England, afresh, in the person of her son Henry, young Plantagenet,
who, at only eighteen years of age, was very powerful: not only on
account of his mother having resigned all Normandy to him, but also
from his having married ELEANOR, the divorced wife of the French
King, a bad woman, who had great possessions in France. Louis, the
French King, not relishing this arrangement, helped EUSTACE, King
Stephen's son, to invade Normandy: but Henry drove their united
forces out of that country, and then returned here, to assist his
partisans, whom the King was then besieging at Wallingford upon the
Thames. Here, for two days, divided only by the river, the two
armies lay encamped opposite to one another - on the eve, as it
seemed to all men, of another desperate fight, when the EARL OF
ARUNDEL took heart and said 'that it was not reasonable to prolong
the unspeakable miseries of two kingdoms to minister to the
ambition of two princes.'

Many other noblemen repeating and supporting this when it was once
uttered, Stephen and young Plantagenet went down, each to his own
bank of the river, and held a conversation across it, in which they
arranged a truce; very much to the dissatisfaction of Eustace, who
swaggered away with some followers, and laid violent hands on the
Abbey of St. Edmund's-Bury, where he presently died mad. The truce
led to a solemn council at Winchester, in which it was agreed that
Stephen should retain the crown, on condition of his declaring
Henry his successor; that WILLIAM, another son of the King's,
should inherit his father's rightful possessions; and that all the
Crown lands which Stephen had given away should be recalled, and
all the Castles he had permitted to be built demolished. Thus
terminated the bitter war, which had now lasted fifteen years, and
had again laid England waste. In the next year STEPHEN died, after
a troubled reign of nineteen years.

Although King Stephen was, for the time in which he lived, a humane
and moderate man, with many excellent qualities; and although
nothing worse is known of him than his usurpation of the Crown,
which he probably excused to himself by the consideration that King
Henry the First was a usurper too - which was no excuse at all; the
people of England suffered more in these dread nineteen years, than
at any former period even of their suffering history. In the
division of the nobility between the two rival claimants of the
Crown, and in the growth of what is called the Feudal System (which
made the peasants the born vassals and mere slaves of the Barons),
every Noble had his strong Castle, where he reigned the cruel king
of all the neighbouring people. Accordingly, he perpetrated
whatever cruelties he chose. And never were worse cruelties
committed upon earth than in wretched England in those nineteen

The writers who were living then describe them fearfully. They say
that the castles were filled with devils rather than with men; that
the peasants, men and women, were put into dungeons for their gold
and silver, were tortured with fire and smoke, were hung up by the
thumbs, were hung up by the heels with great weights to their
heads, were torn with jagged irons, killed with hunger, broken to
death in narrow chests filled with sharp-pointed stones, murdered
in countless fiendish ways. In England there was no corn, no meat,
no cheese, no butter, there were no tilled lands, no harvests.
Ashes of burnt towns, and dreary wastes, were all that the
traveller, fearful of the robbers who prowled abroad at all hours,
would see in a long day's journey; and from sunrise until night, he
would not come upon a home.

The clergy sometimes suffered, and heavily too, from pillage, but
many of them had castles of their own, and fought in helmet and
armour like the barons, and drew lots with other fighting men for
their share of booty. The Pope (or Bishop of Rome), on King
Stephen's resisting his ambition, laid England under an Interdict
at one period of this reign; which means that he allowed no service
to be performed in the churches, no couples to be married, no bells
to be rung, no dead bodies to be buried. Any man having the power
to refuse these things, no matter whether he were called a Pope or
a Poulterer, would, of course, have the power of afflicting numbers
of innocent people. That nothing might be wanting to the miseries
of King Stephen's time, the Pope threw in this contribution to the
public store - not very like the widow's contribution, as I think,
when Our Saviour sat in Jerusalem over-against the Treasury, 'and
she threw in two mites, which make a farthing.'

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