Monday, April 20, 2009

And Now for Your Monday Monarch Moment

Stephen (1135-1154)

When Henry I died, he only had (as you may recall) one surviving legitimate child, and she was a she. Henry knew this was going to be a problem, so in 1126 he called his major nobles together and required them to swear a solemn oath of loyalty to his daughter Matilda. But when he died 11 years later, his nephew Stephen of Blois was like, "j/k!" and took the throne, and then Matilda was all, "Oh no he di'nt!"

The Empress Matilda (so titled because her first husband was Holy Roman Emperor) proved very unwilling to relinquish her claim, so what followed was a period of civil war so destructive that Stephen's reign is referred to as "The Anarchy" or, even better, "The Nineteen Year Winter." War raged between the forces of the two claimants; Stephen was captured and overthrown in early 1141, but since his wife (also named Matilda) arrived with reinforcements, he was back in power by Christmas. A compromise solution was eventually reached, less than a year before Stephen's death; after Stephen's son died, and the two sides agreed that Stephen would be succeeded by Matilda's son.

Surprisingly--you know, since he was a usurper and all--Stephen was pretty good-natured. This hurt his authority with his barons, who needed a strong leader to keep them under control. But it also led to the story of Stephen and young William Marshal. When Stephen and his forces were besieging John Marshal's castle in 1152, Stephen offered John a truce to try to negotiate. The king's price for the truce was that John had to hand over one of his sons as a hostage (like when you have to give a bartender your ID so he'll give you a set of pool balls). John chose his youngest son, William, and then promptly used Stephen's peace to get more fortifications to his castle.

Stephen's entourage urged him to hang William at once, but the king was unwilling to execute the child without giving his father a chance to save him by surrendering [the castle]. But John Marshal, having four sons and a fruitful wife, considered the youngest of his sons of far less value than a strong castle. He cheerfully told the king's messenger that he cared little if William were hanged, for he had the anvils and hammers with which to forge still better sons. When he received this brutal reply, Stephen ordered his men to lead William to a convenient tree. Fearing that John planned a rescue, the king himself escorted the executioners with a strong force. William, who was only five or six years old, had no idea what this solemn parade portended. When he saw [the Earl of Arundel] twirling a most enticing javelin, he asked him for the weapon. This reminder of William's youth and innocence was too much for King Stephen's resolution, and taking the boy in his arms, he carried him back to the camp. A little later some of the royalists had the ingenious idea of throwing William over the castle walls from a siege engine, but Stephen vetoed that scheme as well. He had decided to spare his young prisoner.

For some two months William was the guest of King Stephen while the royal army lay before Newbury. One day as the king sat in a tent strewn with varicolored flowers William wandered about picking plantains. When the boy had gathered a fair number he asked the king to play "knights" with him. Each of them would take a "knight" or plantain, and strike it against the one held by the other. The victory would go to the player who with his knight struck off the clump of leaves that represented the head of his opponent's champion. When Stephen readily agreed to play, William gave him a bunch of plantains and asked him to decide who should strike first. The amiable king gave William the first blow with the result that the royal champion lost his head.
S. Painter, William Marshal, 1933, via The Oxford Book of Royal Anecdotes

I mention the year because I don't want you to get all excited--like I did--about some medieval chronicler unironically calling the plan to catapault a kid at the castle "ingenious."

Interestingly, William Marshal grew up to become Regent of England, the protector of Henry III in that king's childhood.

And this has been your Monday Monarch Moment.

Bonus! Monday Matilda Moment:

Matilda's biggest problem--arguably even greater than her being a woman--was her arrogance and haught
iness, which constantly turned possible allies (or at least neutrals) against her. She did not, however, lack determination or courage.

She twice had to escape from her enemies in colorful circumstances. In the first (in 1141), as reported in The Oxford Book of Royal Anecdotes, "she gained her freedom from Devizes disguised as a corpse, dressed in grave clothes and bound to a bier with ropes." More famous is her 1142 escape from Oxford Castle, which she may have begun by climbing down a rope from a window:

For, when food and every means of sustaining life were almost exhausted in the castle and the king was toiling with spirit to reduce it by force and siege-engines, very hard pressed as she was and altogether hopeless that help would come she left the castle by night, with three knights of ripe judgement to accompany her, and went about six miles on foot, by very great exertions on the part of herself and her companions, through the snow and ice (for all the ground was white with an extremely heavy fall of snow and there was a very thick crust of ice on the water). [Other chroniclers add that she wore a white robe to camoflauge her in the snow.] What was the evident sign of a miracle, she crossed dry-footed, without wetting her clothes at all, the very waters that had risen above the heads of the king and his men when they were going over to storm the town, and through the king's pickets . . . without anyone at all knowing except her companions . . . and unharmed, by very great effort reached the town of Wallingford during the night.
Gesta Stephani, via The Oxford Book of Royal Anecdotes

And that has been your Monday Matilda Moment.

(Major props to MacKenzie, who taught me how to do the html for the "read more" feature!)


Craig said...

"He had the anvils and hammers with which to forge still better sons." Is that a sexual metaphor?

Also, at the end of your story, did William destroy Stephen's plantain, or actually cut his head off?

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Hi there,
I'm dropping in because I have my Google alert set to William Marshal and your blog came up. I'm the author of two novels about William Marshal and one about his father.
Can I answer Craig's question and say that yes, the anvils and hammers were a sexual metaphor - but there was more to it than that even. Some of the symbols of the royal marshal were the anvil and the hammer. Farriers in this period were often called Marshals (marescallus) and the job of royal Marshal originally involved being a horse master. So John Marshal's speech was working on several levels.
With the plaintain incident, William did knock off the head of King Stephen's plantain plant and Stepehn promptly gave him another one to have a go at.
'Qu'icil al rei perdi la teste; Willemes fist mult grant feste; Li rein un autre l'en tendi.' - from the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal.

Hater Hater said...

This period was also described as "When Christ and the Saints slept" - and just a note the Empress Matilda's son Henry II and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine are awesome, historically speaking of course.

Rachel said...

Wow, Ms. Chadwick, thanks for dropping by! Your answer was better than mine would have been: "YEAH, it was!" (One of the things you learn when studying history is that people have always liked dirty jokes.)

Hater, as to your remark that Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine were awesome, my answer would be, "YEAH, they were!" They're coming up next Monday.

And finally, I'll go edit the quote to make it clearer about the plantains.