Posts Tagged ‘Oxford Castle’

Oxford’s Black Assizes – The Curse of Roland Jenks

February 15, 2022

There are many stories surrounding Oxford Castle and Prison which have come down to us over the centuries – some raise uncomfortable issues of prejudice and miscarriages of justice, of censorship and harsh penalties for sinning against those in power and some which have been laced with superstition and paranormal activity.

C16th Bookbinder’s workshop

Roland Jenks was a bookbinder, living in Oxford during the reign of Elizabeth I – he was also a Catholic. Catholics were increasingly looked on with suspicion during Elizabeth’s reign due to the religious tensions unleashed by the Reformation which saw the persecution of both Protestants and Catholics by successive monarchs as political and religious factions gained favour and due to numerous plots to overthrown Elizabeth and replace her with her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. After Elizabeth was excommunicated by the Pope Pius V in 1570 when he issued the papal bull ‘Regnans in Excelsis’, fears of religiously fuelled rebellion against the state and the breakdown of order lead to harsher sentences and penalties for ‘recusants’ – Catholics who refused to comply with religious laws and those who spoke out against the state in any form. In the bull Pius called on English Catholics to repudiate the queen’s authority and disobey her laws:

“We charge and command all and singular the nobles, subjects, peoples and others afore said that they do not dare obey her orders, mandates and laws. Those who shall act to the contrary we include in the like sentence of excommunication.”

The effect of the bull was to increase latent tensions within society between Catholics and Protestants and to spur on disaffected Catholics to rebel against Elizabeth’s rule and assist in plots to overthrow her or even assassinate her. This inevitably lead to a climate of suspicion and fear in the country. Under the ever-watchful eye of Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spy-master, the authorities were under orders to root out papists and bring them to justice in an effort to stamp out dissent. The country was nervous and booksellers were often in the forefront of the debate and in danger of being implicated in the dissemination of dangerous texts and seditious thoughts.

Regnans in Excelsis Papal Bull issued by Pope Pius Vth in 1570

In the years immediately preceding the arrest of Roland Jenks Elizabeth’s government had seen off the threat of the Revolt of the Northern Earls in 1569 when the Catholic Earls of Northumberland and Westmoreland attempted to rescue Mary, Queen of Scots from her imprisonment and put her on the throne in place of Elizabeth. They gathered an army of 6,000 soldiers in their attempt to return England to Catholicism but were quickly beaten by Elizabeth’s forces and 800 rebels were executed. Only a few years later the Ridolfi Plot of 1571 was uncovered. Roberto Ridolfi, an Italian banker, planned to assassinate Elizabeth and make Mary Queen. He had the support of King Philip II of Spain, the Duke of Norfolk, and Mary, Queen of Scots herself. The plot was uncovered by Elizabeth’s advisor, Cecil. Ridolfi and the Spanish ambassador were arrested and expelled from the country and Norfolk was executed as a result.

The English court went into mourning on hearing of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris in 1572 when French Calvanist protestant Huguenots were murdered by a combination of state-orchestrated assassinations and mob violence which also spilled out into the provinces. Many Huguenots fled to England seeking refuge and religious toleration. We can only speculate on what Roland Jenks thought of all of this and whether he was torn in loyalty between his allegiance to the Pope and his duty to his monarch. Many Catholics were genuinely riven with conflicted thoughts and emotions and struggled to navigate a course that would allow them to be both good Catholics and good subjects. News of massacres abroad and the accompanying mis-information and propaganda on both sides of the religious divide fuelled distrust within communities and fear of similar atrocities being played out in towns like Oxford which had a high proportion of literate scholars and academics with access to potentially dangerous material.

Roland was perhaps unfortunate in getting caught speaking against the queen after he’d had a few drinks in the local tavern and found himself under arrest at Oxford Castle where he awaited trial until the next assizes were in session. Gaol fever, plague and diseases like Typhus were common in the unsanitary conditions, especially during the summer months where the overcrowded cells helped provide the perfect breeding ground for disease.

Poor Roland might have been feeling ill himself by the time he was called to trial in July 1577 before the judge and jury. There was little hope of a fair, impartial trial and he was found guilty of being ‘foul-mouthed and saucy’ after two days and sentenced to be pilloried by the ears for 3 days.

It was a nasty sentence and Jenks knew he was in for a very unpleasant and painful experience, designed to humiliate as well as mutilate him for life. Anyone with a grudge against him or the wider Catholic community could take their revenge by hurling all sorts of rotting matter at him during the course of his public punishment and at the end of his three days he would have to cut himself free and leave part of his ears behind in order to end the ordeal. No wonder he decided to rail against his sentence and, according to contemporary accounts he cursed the judge and jury.

Curses were taken seriously in Elizabethan England, especially when delivered by someone who was already judged to be a threat to public order and so when the leading members of the trail began to fall sick and die shortly after the trial it appeared that Jenks had indeed used supernatural forces to be revenged on the court. The two judges, the sheriff, the court clerk and the jury all succumbed to the mysterious disease. Increasing panic spread among the protestant elite of Oxford when the death toll reached 300 people – all male members of the community who had sat in judgement on him. No women or children were taken ill and this was seen as further confirmation that Jenks had cursed those upright citizens who stood against his Catholicism and seditious views.

Very sensibly, as soon as possible Jenks escaped the country after his punishment and became a baker in France, where he lived until old age carrying the scars of his punishment with him for life.

The case of the ‘Black Assizes’ was to re-surface in 2004 when archaeologists discovered a mass burial site in a ditch next to the mound at Oxford Castle dating from the mid-sixteenth to mid-eighteenth centuries which contained the bodies of executed prisoners, some of whom displayed signs of dissection after death and had probably been victims of body snatchers. Analysis of the skeletal remains of some of those Elizabethans buried suggest that an outbreak of Typhus may have lead to their early deaths so perhaps the ‘curse of Roland Jenks’ was his unwitting role as an agent for spreading disease that he contracted whilst awaiting trial and spread through the courtroom rather than any divine intervention.



The Case of Mary Blandy: Guilty or Innocent?

February 9, 2022
Mary Blandy

“Alas! the record of her page will tell
That one thus madden’d, lov’d, and guilty fell.
Who hath not heard of Blandy’s fatal fame,
Deplor’d her fate, and sorrow’d o’er her shame?”
~”Henley,” anonymous 1827 poem

The case of Mary Blandy divides opinion even today. Was she an innocent victim of a confidence trickster who was used and abandoned to a miserable fate or was she complicit in the murder of her father? Was Mary innocent, naïve and manipulated, thrown to the wolves by her own father and set up for a tragic end or cold-hearted, an unnatural daughter and murderess who was rightly executed for a terrible crime?

Our response to a case like this probably says as much about us and our world view as it does about the available evidence left to us from the C18th court case, trial and execution records and contemporary attitudes to female murder suspects. There is a lot to unpack here in terms of gender roles, misogyny, social mores and changing attitudes towards female agency and issues of manipulation and coercion.

Francis Blandy was a wealthy lawyer and town clerk in Henley on Thames. He was a respected member of the local community and lived with his wife and only daughter, Mary, in Hart Street near the White Hart Inn. Mary’s baptism is recorded on 15th July 1720 at Henley Parish Church. Her mother educated Mary at their home and she was raised to be a well-mannered and accomplished young lady in the Anglican faith who should have looked forward to a comfortable, middle-class life of domesticity and respectable marriage.

The first blow to Mary’s hopes was contracting deadly smallpox which often left sufferers scared for life, if they survived the disease itself. In a society where female beauty was prized so highly in terms of making a good marriage, people would have sympathised with Mary but it would also have counted against her and literally marked her out as a negative quality through no fault of her own and severely damaged her marriage prospects.

Color illustration depicting smallpox pustules, shown on the face and hand of a woman, in profile, wearing a scarf, with inset close-ups to illustrate pustule stages, and their presence on the eyelid, from the volume “Contagious and Infectious Disease: measures for their prevention and arrest, small pox (variola), modified small pox (varioloid), chicken pox (varicella), cow pox (variole vaccinae), vaccination, spurious vaccination, ” authored by Joseph Jones, Edward Jenner, George Pearson, and William Woodville, 1884. Courtesy Internet Archive. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

As the years passed there was concern over whether Mary would ever marry despite seasons in fashionable resorts like Bath and visits to London which were used as an opportunity for Mary to meet potential suitors. There was enormous social pressure on young women to marry ‘well’. During the C18th there was very little prospect for genteel young women to earn their own living, tying them to either a husband, marriage and motherhood or to stay in their childhood home and become nurses to ageing parents. Financial considerations were often paramount, with parents arranging marriages to ensure their daughters were cared for and off their hands before they passed away.

It is impossible to know what Mary’s parents thought about Mary’s situation and whether their actions were motivated by love and concern for her future or by desperation to see her settled as they aged or whether they considered her to be a burden. Some accounts suggest that Francis let it be known that Mary would have an enormous dowry of £10,000 as a means of attracting suitors; others suggest that rumour inflated the sum well beyond anything Francis could actually have bestowed on her and that he cared deeply for his daughter’s happiness.

Was Mary effectively put up for sale with a price tag around her neck by her own father and humiliated by this experience? How would she have felt to be considered so ugly that only a large financial inducement would persuade a man to offer her marriage and respectability? Did she deeply resent her father’s actions or were they both swept along by contemporary obsessions with wealth and status and the rumour-mill?

This is quite crucial in terms of deciding whether Mary’s relationship with her father had deteriorated even before William Cranstoun was introduced to her and might explain why she would have contemplated murdering her father. It also raises the question of whether Francis left Mary exposed to the attentions of a confidence trickster by effectively advertising her wealth and set in motion the events that would lead to her ruin.

Conversely, Mary may have been grateful to her father for offering such a sizeable dowry if she was keen to be married and move on with her life. Did she want children and the possibility of running her own household and was she conscious as the years went on that time was running out? Mary’s mother suffered from ill health and Mary might have worried what would happen when she died. Would she be trapped as her father’s companion and nurse forever?

A number of potential suitors did show interest in Mary but they were all rejected – this perhaps suggests that her parents were concerned to find the right man for their daughter or that Mary had more say in the matter than might have been initially considered. It might also indicate that Francis Blandy was holding out for a better match and wanted to climb the social ladder by arranging a marriage into the nobility which left Mary increasingly frustrated with her father and his ambitions as her youth was spent and her child bearing years ebbed away. Was she equally ambitious or would she have accepted one of these men quite happily if she hadn’t been blocked by her parent’s desire for a better connected son-in-law?

Lord Mark Kerr lived at The Paradise in Henley. He was extremely well connected and uncle of Lady Jane Douglas who was a rich heiress and Mary was invited to dine at his property. It was there that she was introduced to Captain, the Hon William Henry Cranstoun. Cranstoun was described by a contemporary as “remarkably ordinary, his stature is low, his face freckled and pitted with the smallpox, his eyes small and weak, his eyebrows sandy, and his shape no ways genteel; his legs are clumsy, and he has nothing in the least elegant in his manner.”

Perhaps Mary saw a kindred spirit in him; someone who had also been marked out by a cruel disease and unfairly judged for his physical appearance. Perhaps she was also, in part, attracted to his social status as the fifth son of a Scottish peer and his rank as a First Lieutenant of Sir Andrew Agnew’s regiment of marines who had fought at Culloden against the Jacobites.

Francis had turned away other soldiers before but the family seemed to have welcomed Cranstoun despite this and his modest personal wealth. Francis boasted of his noble connections and was perhaps willing to overlook the negatives in order to finally see Mary settled. He seems to have had no concerns over whether Cranstoun was more drawn to the dowry than the daughter.

In 1747, Cranstoun declared his passion for Mary and he was invited into the family home as an honoured guest and potential son-in-law. Cranstoun seemed to charm the family and provide the solution to their problem. When Mary’s mother fell ill she called for Cranstoun especially and he lifted her spirits. She remained under the spell of his charms to the end.

Francis was a businessman and experienced lawyer. He may have been blinded by Cranstoun’s aristocratic manners and his elevated connections in Scotland but it seems odd that he didn’t investigate more thoroughly before welcoming Cranstoun into his home and agreeing to his engagement to Mary.

The bombshell exploded when Francis was informed by Lord Kerr that Cranstoun was already married in Scotland to Anne Murray, a catholic and had fathered a daughter with her. Cranstoun denied this and said that Anne was only his mistress and he intended to appeal to the courts to prove that they had never been legally married. She was only after financial reward and he couldn’t marry her as she was a catholic and he was Presbyterian which was a huge impediment to any union.

It all sounds highly implausible and all too common a case of a man seeking to throw off an inconvenient secret marriage and abandon a woman who he had left raising his child once a better prospect came along. Cranstoun suggested that Lord Kerr was trying to spoil his chances with Mary and ruin his reputation because of a falling out between them. He was the innocent victim of manipulation and character assassination and Francis seems to have believed him at first but he became increasingly disillusioned with his house guest and spent more time at the coffee house than at home before finally commanding Mary to break off all contact with Cranstoun and never see him again.

Mary was devastated. After finally securing the attentions of a suitable potential husband, having him accepted into her family and making plans for her marriage, she was now not only back to square one but her reputation was now compromised by association with a man who might be a liar and fortune hunter. Her heart had been broken and she longed to believe Cranstoun’s version of events.

If Francis had been taken in, why not Mary who had far less experience of the world than her father and was under enormous social pressure to secure a match. After so many long years of waiting, she had found a soul mate and the chance of a new life to see if all being snatched away from her. She must have been desperate and vulnerable at this moment. Was she also angry and resentful of her father’s command to drop her lover or even complicit in Cranstoun’s scheme to marry in secret in order to prevent their separation and rid themselves of her father’s disapproval?

Mary later swore that there had been a clandestine marriage between them which she believed to be legally binding which had taken place in London while she was visiting her uncle with her mother, who had taken ill. Mary had arranged a meeting with Cranstoun at a friend’s lodgings in St James’s Square, as her uncle had forbidden him entry into his house. They had eloped and married in secret.

On March 1, 1748, the Commissary Court decreed that Cranstoun and Anne Murray were legally married and ordered him to pay his wife an annuity of forty pounds, plus ten pounds child support for his abandoned daughter. He was also liable for all the legal expenses involved, which put him several hundreds of pounds out of pocket. Cranstoun appealed the decision, but it was dismissed. His reputation was tarnished, as was Mary’s by association. To pour salt on the wounds, there were other accusations against Cranstoun of mistresses and children he had tried to cover up.

To most of us, the warning bells would be ringing loud and clear by this point. Mary’s mother was terminally ill and clung to her belief in Cranstoun’s innocence to the very end, hoping that her daughter would be joined with the man she loved but Francis had finally seen the light. Mary’s mother died in September 1749. Due to her symptoms, which included intestinal inflammation, some people later thought that Mary had poisoned her too but there seems little motive as she mother was a defender of Cranstoun’s character and encouraged the match to the end. Cranstoun returned to Scotland to try to sort out his affairs with a large helping of Mary’s money to pay off his legal debts.

After her death, when Francis had hardened in his disapproval of Cranstoun and he had lost an advocate, Cranstoun suggested to Mary that he knew a means by which he could win her father round. He had heard of a ‘cunning woman’ in Scotland called Mrs Morgan who made love potions. If Mary could add a special powder to her father’s tea or food he would alter in his feelings towards them and support their union.

Love potions were commonly used in this period and despite much scepticism on the part of the public when the case came to court, it is feasible that Mary believed in the notion of a love potion and fell for Cranstoun’s scheme. Arsenic was used as a tonic and when taken in small doses it could perk up a patient so when her father first ingested the powder she may have observed a positive change in his demeanour and believed it was working.

Arsenic Poisoning symptoms

Cranstoun sent her love letters along with the special powder and certain Scottish pebbles which were fashionable at the time. He passed the powder off as something to clean the stones with but Mary followed his instructions and mixed it into her father’s tea or porridge. As the arsenic residue built up in Francis, he became increasingly unwell. Mary wrote to Cranstoun that the powder wasn’t working. This letter was used as evidence that Mary was impatient at the delay and wanted to run away to Scotland to be with her lover. Cranstoun replied that she needed to use more and that his mother was preparing a home for her in Scotland. This could be interpreted both ways – Mary needed to use more potion to win her father over and then she would be free to travel to Scotland or that she needed to increase the poison to be free of the impediment to their marriage.

Servants who drank from the remaining tea or porridge were violently ill. During the later trial it was noted that Mary sent remedies of white wine, whey and broth which were used against Arsenic poisoning to Ann Emmett, a charwoman who had been almost died after drinking some of Francis’s tea – was Mary aware of the contents of the powder all along or just using popular remedies for stomach pains and purging?

The servants began to be suspicious of Mary after they saw her putting something into her father’s food and they witnessed the violent reactions of anyone who had eaten or drank anything that Francis had ingested and the maid took the gritty residue that she found at the bottom of the cooking pot to a neighbour who called in the local pharmacist.

The servants finally alerted Francis to the possibility that Mary was poisoning him. Once he learned that Cranstoun was the source of the powder everything fitted into place. He confronted Mary who broke down and admitted to adding the powder and begged his forgiveness. It is very telling that Francis forgave her and called her a ‘love-sick girl’. He clearly thought that Mary was an innocent party in the affair and blamed Cranstoun entirely even as he lay dying in agony from the effects of the Arsenic.

Mary was first held under house arrest in her room while investigations were carried out. All harmful objects were removed, suggesting that some thought she might attempt suicide after her father’s death. It is unclear whether this was due to her mental state, guilt or desire to escape punishment for her crimes.

Mary pleads for forgiveness

Mary found her door unlocked on day and decided to take a walk in Henley but she had become the object of local hatred and was persuaded by an angry mob and had to seek shelter in a friend’s house. Perhaps she had been unaware prior to this incident of how she was viewed by the local population or how she would be perceived and judged more widely in society. Again, this might suggest a naivety on her part or lack of judgement which seems consistent with her blind faith in her lover and his version of events.

The inquest into Francis’s death concluded that he had been poisoned and Mary was conveyed to Oxford Prison to await her trial where she was put in leg irons to prevent an attempted escape although she enjoyed fairly comfortable conditions due to her comparative wealth and was treated well by her gaolers. Cranstoun had already fled to France to escape justice, leaving her utterly alone to face the full penalty of the law. he died penniless there in 1752 and never stood trial for his part in the murder.

Mary appeared at the assizes in Oxford in March 1752, before The Honourable Heneage Legge, Esq., and Sir Sydney Stafford Smythe. The trial was held at the Divinity School in Oxford as the Town Hall was undergoing building work at the time. The trial was note worthy because it was the first time detailed medical evidence had been presented in court on a charge of murder by poisoning and heard testimony by Dr. Anthony Addington who had conducted medical analysis of comparative samples to prove that the powder Mary had put in her father was arsenic.

Mary defended herself with the help of three counsels, with what has been described as “intelligence and zeal” denying any intention to harm her father and that she had believed the powder to be a love potion and administered it only to win her father’s approval for her relationship with Cranstoun.

The combined medical testimony and evidence supplied by her servants condemned her and she was found guilty of the murder. She requested a little time to set her affairs in order and remained composed throughout the six weeks that followed whilst the case became a ’cause celebre’ and was endlessly discussed in the papers and in wider society. Mary took this time to write a great deal in her condemned cell including “Miss Mary Blandy’s Own Account of the Affair between her and Mr. Cranstoun” which was described by Hoarce Bleakley as the “most famous apologia in criminal literature.”  She corresponded with various people and even had ladies to tea while she awaited her final fate, maintaining her innocence of the crime of murder to the end.

Given the evidence and testimony against Mary by the household servants and her initial attempts to destroy the love letters and remaining powder there was little hope for her not being found guilty by the court. Her actions certainly appeared suspicious and motivated by her desire to be with her lover at whatever cost. Her failure to connect the illness of the servants after ingesting the powder laced food and drink and her father’s deteriorating state with the harmful effects of the potion seem too wilful to prove innocence yet she seemed to trust Cranstoun so thoroughly that it is possible that she completely believed his version of events and doggedly pursued his instructions in the hopes of a happy ending.

Time was running out for Mary and she began to think about her final moments and the nature of a public hanging. She was concerned that the gallows would be so elevated that men in the crowd might look up her skirts as she died and famously requested ‘for the sake of decency, gentlemen, don’t hang me high’. On the eve of her execution she wrote the following:

‘I, Mary Blandy, do declare, that I die in a full persuasion of the truth and excellency of the Christian religion, and a sincere, though unworthy, member of the Church of England. I do likewise hope for a pardon and remission of my sins, by the mercy of God, through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, my most blessed Lord and Saviour. I do also further declare, that I did not know or believe that the powder, to which the death of my dear father has been ascribed, had any noxious or poisonous quality lodged in it; and that I had no intention to hurt, and much less to destroy him, by giving him that powder; All this is true, as I hope for eternal salvation, and mercy from Almighty God, in whose most awful and immediate presence I must soon appear. I die in perfect peace and charity with all mankind, and do from the bottom of my soul forgive all my enemies, and particularly those who have in any manner contributed to, or been instrumental in bringing me to the ignominous death I am so soon to suffer. This is my last declaration, as to the points therein contained; and I do most earnestly desire, that it may be published after my decease. Witness my hand, MARY BLANDY.’

For her execution, she chose “a black crape sack, with her arms and hands ty’d with black paduasoy ribbons.” 

She was hung on 6th April 1752, that being Easter Monday in that year either in the Castle Yard next the old Castle Mound or on a mount at the Westgate of the city, still proclaiming her innocence to the watching crowd and thankfully she lost consciousness quickly and died bravely. Her remains were conveyed to Henley where she was interred at the parish church next to her parents the following day.

Although her contemporaries continued to believe her guilty of the murder, Victorian reassessments were more forgiving and tended to focus on her naivety and the romanticism of the love potion narrative. The fact that her father seemed to forgive her actions and saw her as a victim of Cranstoun’s schemes has been increasingly used to argue that Mary was innocent and the real villain was always her unscrupulous lover who left a trail of heart hearts behind him, abandoned her as he had abandoned his true wife and daughter and tried to flee from the consequences of his actions.

The Empress and the Tower: A Daring Escape from Oxford Castle in 1142

December 29, 2021
Empress Matilda

The Oxford Castle and Prison complex drips with history. Tracing its roots back to Anglo-Saxon England and the world of Viking raids and fortified burghs when towns like Oxford faced waves of violence and destruction; the castle has endured sieges, held political prisoners and undergone numerous adaptations as the technology of warfare and defence evolved over the course of a thousand years. It has provided defence and succour to inhabitants, justice and punishment for transgressors, stood with the crown and against it and was a functioning prison until 1996.

There is one particular incident though that will always capture the imagination of the visitor and which provides a direct connection with an individual and their struggle for power in a time of lawless confusion and deep uncertainty – the story of the Empress Matilda and her escape from Oxford Castle, cloaked in white and hidden in a snowstorm across the frozen mill stream in the dead of winter which changed the course of English history.

St George’s Tower, Oxford Castle

In order to understand the context of what has become almost a legend, we need to unravel the political events of the preceding period and what led to this episode and to delve into the psychology of the main players during the period which we now call ‘The Anarchy’.

Matilda was the eldest legitimate daughter of King Henry I (know as Beauclerc) and his queen Edith Matilda of Scotland. Matilda was raised for greatness and trained in the skills required of a medieval princess in order to make a spectacular marriage, advance her family’s interests, administer huge estates and breed future princes. She carried the blood of her Norman forebears; being a grand-daughter of William the Conqueror but also, through her mother, the bloodline of the ancient Anglo-Saxon kings which was to prove an important factor in her destiny.

Matilda was married at the age of eight to Henry Vth, the Holy Roman Emperor and set out to travel across Europe and learn the finer points of statecraft, religious patronage and how to rule as an imperial consort to one of the most powerful secular rulers in Christendom. She wouldn’t have expected to ever see her homeland again but the fates would create a stony path for Matilda to tread in life.

Henry I was a ruthless and effective medieval king. He had inherited his father’s political acumen and ability to seize control of a situation to his own advantage. He managed to engineer his coronation despite being the youngest son of the conqueror by outmanoeuvring his older brother and incarcerating him for life. There continue to be rumours that Henry may have had a hand in the accidental fatal shooting of William Rufus in the New Forest too though nothing has been proven.

Henry’s weakness lay in the succession. Whilst he had managed to produce numerous illegitimate children with various mistresses who he used to build useful marriage alliances among the Norman lords, he had two legitimate children – Matilda and her younger brother William ‘the Atheling’ (of the royal blood). Henry’s own rise to power proved that being the natural heir alone wasn’t enough to ensure success and the price for failure could be very high when there were other ‘interested’ parties vying for power.

Tragedy struck and changed the course of English history when William the Atheling was drowned in the infamous ‘White Ship’ disaster of 1120 which wrecked his father’s plans, stunned the Anglo-Norman court and sent the country into deep mourning – not only for William but many other victims among the ruling class. Was it a divine judgement on Henry’s rule? Who would the grieving king choose as his successor and was there any possibility of raising another son in time to succeed him or would he look elsewhere to a fit, young adult male of the royal line who could replace his heir?

The White Ship disaster of 1120

Many eyes slid sideways to Stephen of Blois, the son of Henry’s sister Adela and her husband, Stephen Count of Blois. Stephen had miraculously avoided the White Ship disaster by a last minute decision to disembark due to stomach pains and had witnessed the unfolding disaster that would claim the life of his cousin. Some might question this lucky turn of events yet Stephen was held in high regard by many at court and Henry I seemed to turn to him as a trusted member of his extended family. Stephen would build a reputation for mercy and charming benevolence which perhaps suggests that he was an innocent bystander to events beyond anyone’s control yet it does seem convenient that he was saved at that particular flashpoint which would alter so many other destinies. Henry re-married, the young and beautiful Adeliza of Louvain and tried desperately to produce another son but the royal couple remained childless and Henry was aging.

Stephen of Blois

Meanwhile, Matilda’s destiny was about to be altered too. Having been a successful and respected co-ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, acting as regent for her husband in Italy and establishing herself as a competent ruler, Matilda found herself cast adrift when the emperor died in 1125. As Matilda had not had children and the new Holy Roman Emperor was a former enemy of her husband, she faced the choices of a nunnery or re-marriage to a lesser German prince or return to Normandy and her father’s court. Matilda choose this option and left the glory of her imperial past behind to put her future into her father’s hands.

Henry I expected unquestioning obedience from his now adult and experienced daughter and decided to re-marry her to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou for strategic reasons concerning his lands in Normandy but Matilda was less than delighted at this demotion in status and marriage to a much younger man with a reputation for rashness and even diabolical associations due to the legend of his family’s connections to Melusine, a shape-shifting sorceress! Geoffrey would prove to be a thorn in her side in more ways than one but she had little choice but to submit to the marriage, whatever her personal reservations were.

Geoffrey, Count of Anjou

Despite the marital difficulties and brief separation of Matilda and Geoffrey, she gave birth to a son called Henry after his royal grandfather and King Henry decided to finally concede defeat in the quest for a male heir. In a desperate attempt to secure the succession he compelled his Anglo-Norman barons to swear an oath to uphold Matilda’s claim to be his heir. Medieval oaths were serious and binding, especially when sworn by a feudal vassal to their overlord and Henry hoped that this would be sufficient to ensure that Matilda and her heirs would rule after him but again fate would intervene, for when Henry suddenly took ill and died a few days later at Lyons-la-Forêt in 1135, it was Stephen of Blois who was placed to sail immediately for England and seize the treasury while Matilda was heavily pregnant and unable to make a dash for the coast.

Possession being nine tenth of the law in this case, Stephen managed to pressure or persuade the Archbishop of Canterbury to crown him at lightening speed and garnered sufficient support amongst the barons to take the throne; no doubt arguing that as an adult male of the royal house he was the much better choice over a woman who was about to face the dangers of childbirth and was far enough away to be considered ‘out of the running’. Moreover, Geoffrey’s reputation was enough to caste doubt over his suitability to act as co-regent and many feared he would become the dominant partner, as a wife owed obedience to her husband in all things. Matilda was bound and gagged by the mores of her age, the implied ‘weakness of her sex’ and by the need for a warrior king who could lead his forces into battle despite her many skills, experience and attributes, her doubly royal blood and her strength of character.

Some of the barons who had sworn the oath to uphold Matilda’s claim also suggested that they had been compelled against their will by King Henry or that her marriage to Geoffrey had invalidated their oaths as they had never agreed to accepting him as part of the deal.

It is a testament to Matilda that she fought back, after a very difficult and dangerous birth and Stephen’s seizure of the throne. Matilda may have been at a disadvantage but she still retained the loyalty and support of several key figures including her uncle, King David I of Scotland, her half-brother, Robert of Gloucester and Henry’s widow, Adeliza who offered her a safe landing place on English soil at Arundel in 1139. Matilda was determined to re-claim the throne and secure her position and prepared to risk her own personal safety to achieve it but it was a struggle that would also claim many innocent lives, de-stabilise the country and unleash a culture of violent lawlessness and breakdown in the law which enabled many unscrupulous barons to settle personal grudges, take what they could by force and ride roughshod over the people in the process.

Initial success at the battle of Lincoln in 1141 saw Stephen fall into Matilda’s hands and her victory looked secure but Stephen’s queen, Matilda of Boulogne, was a powerful opponent and roused a force of Londoners to block Matilda, forcing her to flee the capital on the eve of her coronation; throwing the situation into a desperate race for cover once more. Following the ignominious Rout of Winchester in the same year when Matilda’s brother Robert was captured, she had no choice but to exchange him for Stephen and then in a further reversal of fortune she found herself encircled and under siege at Oxford in the winter of 1142.

After so many tragedies and triumphs, so many broken oaths and fractured relationships, what must Matilda have felt at this crucial moment in her life? She was the daughter of kings and conquerors, the widow of an emperor who had taken on the mantle of queenship and governed from her early years. Her father had been a forceful, astute, utterly focused monarch who had bent his subjects to his will and her mother had been a saintly figure, revered for her grace and piety. Matilda was an unhappy wife, far from any aid that her husband might offer her and separated from her young sons, who’s future depended on her success. She had almost achieved everything that she had longed for to see it snatched away within months and now she was encircled by her enemies in a war-torn country with only a few loyal knights to defend her against what looked like almost certain capture and capitulation. Stephen may not have been the ruthless ruler that her father had been and perhaps she didn’t fear for her actual life yet her mental state must have been desperately low at this moment. The castle couldn’t withstand a siege forever; supplies were running low and in the bitter cold of mid-winter and a ravaged landscape, how could Matilda alter the odds to fight on when she was cut off from relief by Stephen’s forces?

She made a daring plan to escape, making use of the recent snowfall and the castle’s location next to a mill stream which had frozen over. The traditional account and the most dramatic claims that Matilda was lowered down the side of St George’s Tower on knotted bed sheets and cloaked in white where she crossed the frozen stream on ice skates made from animal bones and accompanied by only a couple of her most trusted knights, slipped between the watch fires of Stephen’s forces while they drank the night away. Alternative versions suggest that she may have slipped through a postern gate at the rear of the castle but however she managed to evade capture, she fled to Abingdon and then Wallingford and broke Stephen’s hold once more.

Even hostile chroniclers like the Gesta Stephani praised her audacity and pluck at this pivotal moment which enabled her to fight on against Stephen’s kingship and ultimately changed the course of English history.

Later artist’s impression of Matilda’s escape over the snow in the winter of 1142

Some historians claim that this final effort against all the odds cost Matilda dear and her spirit was broken. There was certainly a stalemate between the two opposing sides that seemed impossible to break. Matilda’s forces were strong in the South-West, Stephen held the South-East and midlands. Neither figurehead could gain control over enough of the barons to secure a decisive victory and both figures had drawbacks attached to their claim. Stephen was considered to be weak and vacillating whereas contemporary chroniclers stressed Matilda’s imperious character and failure to show a proper ‘womanly’ submissiveness to her male advisors thought these were hardly qualities that would have fitted her for queenship but therein lay the problem – could a woman rule in her own right in C12th England?

Either way, Matilda returned to Normandy and concentrated on establishing her son’s claim and, working in conjunction with Geoffrey, to strengthen their holdings in Anjou and build a power base for the future. After all the struggles and bloodshed, economic impact and societal calamities of the Anarchy, when ‘God and his saints slept’, the country wanted a lasting peace settlement and so finally, after the death of Stephen’s son Eustace, Stephen agreed that Matilda’s son, Henry FitzEmpress would succeed him and thus end the cousin’s feud.

Had it not been for Matilda’s spirit and courage, her son would never have ushered in the Angevin Empire and English history would have followed a very different course. Henry FitzEmpress would do much to establish the English legal system as we know it. His spectacular marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine extended the gains made by his great-grandfather from the borders of Scotland to the Pyrenees and his sons would carve out their own niches in history, for good or ill and change the relationship between the barons and the king forever.

So Matilda was, in some respects, the ‘might-have-been’ queen that England never knew. She never became more than ‘Lady of the English’ but she acted as a bridge to a new era and through her tortuous pursuit of her birthright, the country was set on a new course.

If the stones of Oxford Castle could speak to us they would tell a complex and dramatic tale of human history. There has been great suffering within those walls, moments of crisis and conflict, fear and uncertainty and many lives lived on the brink but none more dramatic in the telling than that of Matilda.

Oxford Castle today – St George’s Tower overlooking the prison block