10. Stephen, A.D. 1135—1154
Neither English nor Normans had ever been ruled by a woman, and the Empress Maude, as she still called herself, was a proud, disagreeable, ill-tempered woman, whom nobody liked. So her cousin, Stephen de Blois—whose mother, Adela, had been daughter of William the Conqueror —thought to obtain the crown of England by promising to give everyone what they wished. It was very wrong of him; for he, like all the other barons, had sworn that Maude should reign. But the people knew he was a kindly, gracious sort of person, and greatly preferred him to her. So he was crowned; and at once all the Norman barons, whom King Henry had kept down, began to think they could have their own way. They built strong castles, and hired men, with whom they made war upon each other, robbed one another's tenants, and, when they saw a peaceable traveler on his way, they would dash down upon him, drag him into the castle, take away all the jewels or money he had about him, or, if he had none, they would shut him up and torment him till he could get his friends to pay them a sum to let him loose.
Stephen, who was a kind-hearted man himself, tried to stop these cruelties; but then the barons turned round on him, told him he was not their proper king, and invited Maude to come and be crowned in his stead. She came very willingly; and her uncle, King David of Scotland, set out with an army to fight for her; but all the English in the north came out to drive him back; and they beat him and his Scots at what they call the Battle of the Standard, because the English had a holy standard, which was kept in Durham Cathedral. Soon after, Stephen was taken prisoner at a battle at Lincoln, and there was nothing to prevent Maude from being queen but her own bad temper. She went to Winchester, and was there proclaimed; but she would not speak kindly or gently to the people; and when her friends entreated her to reply more kindly, she flew into a passion, and it is even said that she gave a box on the ear to her uncle—the good King of Scotland, who had come to help her—for reproving her for her harsh answers. When Stephen's wife came to beg her to set him free, promising that he should go away beyond the seas, and never interfere with her again, she would not listen, and drove her away. But she soon found how foolish she had been. Stephen's friends would have been willing that he should give up trying to be king, but they could not leave him in prison for life; and so they went on fighting for him, while more and more of the English joined them, as they felt how bad and unkind a queen they had in the Empress. Indeed, she was so proud and violent, that her husband would not come over to England to help her, but staid to govern Normandy. She was soon in great distress, and had to flee from Winchester, riding through the midst of the enemy, and losing almost all her friends by the way as they were slain or made prisoners. Her best helper of all—Earl Robert of Gloucester—was taken while guarding her; and she could only get to his town of Gloucester by lying down in a coffin, with holes for air, and being thus carried through all the country, where she had made everyone hate her.
Stephen's wife offered to set the Earl free, if the other side would release her husband; and this exchange was brought about. Robert then went to Normandy, to fetch Maude's little son Henry, who was ten years old, leaving her, as he thought, safe in Oxford Castle; but no sooner was he gone than Stephen brought his army, and besieged the Castle— that is, he brought his men round it, tried to climb up the walls, or beat them down with heavy beams, and hindered any food from being brought in. Everything in the castle that could be eaten was gone; but Maude was determined not to fall into her enemy's hands. It was the depth of winter; the river below the walls was frozen over, and snow was on the ground. One night, Maude dressed herself and three of her knights all in white, and they were, one by one, let down by ropes from the walls. No one saw them in the snow. They crossed the river on the ice, walked a great part of the night, and at last came to Abingdon, where horses were waiting for them, and thence they rode to Wallingford, where Maude met her little son.
There was not much more fighting after this. Stephen kept all the eastern part of the kingdom, and Henry was brought up at Gloucester till his father sent for him, to take leave of him before going on a crusade. Geoffrey died during this crusade. He was fond of hunting, and was generally seen with a spray of broom blossom in his cap. The French name for this plant is genet; and thus his nickname was "Plantagenet;" and this became a kind of surname to the kings of England.
Henry, called Fitz-empress—or "the Empress's son"—came to England again as soon as he was grown up; but instead of going to war, he made an agreement with Stephen. Henry would not attack Stephen any more, but leave him to reign all the days of his life, provided Stephen engaged that Henry should reign instead of his own son after his death. This made Stephen's son, Eustace, very angry, and he went away in a rage to raise troops to maintain his cause; but he died suddenly in the midst of his wild doings, and the king, his father, did not live long after him, but died in 1154.
Maude had learnt wisdom by her misfortunes. She had no further desire to be queen, but lived a retired life in a convent, and was much more respected there than as queen.