Posts Tagged ‘The Anarchy’

Geoffrey of Monmouth, Oxford Castle and King Arthur

January 19, 2022

King Arthur at the beginning of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain BnF, Latin 8501A, f. 108v

Geoffrey of Monmouth is thought to have been born between 1090 -1100 in Wales; possibly at Monmouth but no written evidence remains to verify this. Geoffrey also signed himself as Geoffrey Arthur in an earlier phase and some historians have linked these names to the Breton community living in this area of Wales after the Norman Conquest and suggest that he had Breton ancestors who were most probably part of William of Normandy’s Breton forces at Hastings in 1066 and later settled in the Welsh marches.

Geoffrey may have been educated abroad at a monastic centre such as Paris or Bec but there are six surviving charter signatures which place him in the Oxford area from 1129 -1151. The charters were drawn up under the instruction of Robert D’Oylly who’s family had held Oxford Castle since the reign of William the Conqueror and had set up the collegiate foundation of St George which was housed at Oxford Castle. The first Robert D’Oylly had begun new construction work on the pre-existing Saxon defensive site in 1074 under the orders of the Conqueror, to subdue the local area and provide a strong defensive stronghold at a strategically important location.

Oxford Castle and site of St George’s College of priests where Geoffrey was secular canon and teacher

Geoffrey’s signature as Geoffrey Arthur was accompanied by the word ‘magister’ which suggests he was a teacher as well as a secular canon at St George’s College and that he wrote his famous History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniae) whilst at Oxford around 1135-1139. This is further strengthened by Geoffrey’s claim that the book was actually a translation from an ancient British text which was given to him by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, presumably when he was resident at the college.

200 copies of Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain survive which attests to their popularity

There is much debate over whether this is true or a literary invention on his part, perhaps in the hopes of securing patronage from Walter, early in his literary career or to add veracity to his somewhat dubious historical account. Most modern historians reject the idea of a lost British text and suggest that Geoffrey drew on the works of the Venerable Bede (the Ecclesiastical History of the English People or Historia Ecclesiastica written around AD730) and Nennius (British History or Historia Brittenum written around AD 830) adding various lists of ancient kings and a large helping of his own imagination when constructing his History of the Kings of Britain.

Although Oxford had no university when Geoffrey lived there, St George’s College may have encouraged the development of scholastic learning and drawn educated scholars and priests to form a community where learning and writing could thrive during the reign of Henry I.

The C12th Renaissance provided a cultural backdrop to Geoffrey’s writings with a renewed interest in the classical past, it’s institutions, politics and legacy and encouraged interest in the writing of histories and chronicles. This can be seen in the work of contemporary writers like William of Malmesbury who wrote the widely acclaimed Deeds of the English Kings or Gesta Regum Anglorum (a later version of which was also dedicated to Robert, Earl of Gloucester) and the Historia Novella concerning the Anarchy. Henry of Huntingdon wrote The History of the English or Historia Anglorum (dedicated to Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln) among other works and Gerald of Wales wrote A Description of Wales or Descriptio Cambriae which praises the Welsh people in a similar vein to Geoffrey’s own work. There were also heavily-weighted biographies of kings such as the Gesta Stephani which were openly partial to their patron at the expense of his enemies. These historical chronicles shifted the emphasis onto the nature of human achievement and the meanings and patterns within history and were very popular with contemporary audiences.

C12th Renaissance saw many contemporary writers tackling historical chronicles and recording the deeds of kings such as William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon

The importance of patronage for writers, whether secured from a monastic institution or an aristocratic court was vital as the writer needed someone who would feed, clothe and house him but also stand as a protector in case he offended or fell on the wrong side of contemporary political developments and this can be seen in the three dedications that Geoffrey made at the beginning of his work which suggest the tumultuous world in which he lived and the dangers of committing thoughts to the page.

It seems likely that Geoffrey began his writing towards the end of Henry I’s reign, long after the White Ship disaster of 1120 when the question of the royal succession dominated politics at court. Henry I was left reeling in shock when his son and heir, William the Atheling was drowned, along with several close family members and many high-ranking Anglo-Norman aristocrats. Henry determined to bind his barons to support his daughter Matilda’s claim to succeed but there was much uncertainty over his decision, with many barons uneasy at the prospect of a female ruler, supported by an unpopular husband in the form of Geoffrey, Court of Anjou, and who was the mother of small children. Matilda had left Britain many years previously to be married to Henry Vth, The Roman Emperor and retained the title of Empress from her first marriage. She had only returned to her father’s court after his death and was, therefore, not as well-known as her popular cousin, Stephen of Blois. Stephen seemed like an attractive alternative to many of the Norman aristocracy, being a adult male with proven military experience and son of Henry I’s sister Adela and thus a grandson of the Conqueror. He was charming and affable but lacked the ruthlessness required of a medieval king which prove a weakness in the forthcoming period of civil war.

Stephen of Blois – rival claimant for the throne

There are some indications within the text that Geoffrey supported Matilda’s claim and was perhaps seeking to add weight to it in his writings. The first dedication that Geoffrey wrote was to Matilda’s half-brother, most staunch ally and defender, Robert Earl of Gloucester.

Robert might have been a candidate for the succession himself as he was a powerful Earl with many holdings in the Welsh marches and West Country and was a well-respected member of the court. Despite his illegitimacy, he could have made a play for the throne but decided to support his half-sister’s claim and remain loyal to his father’s wishes. Robert held Monmouth as a fief and therefore, if Geoffrey had been raised in Monmouth, Robert would have been his feudal lord and natural choice to approach for patronage and protection.

Both the other two dedications which were probably appended later to the work name Robert and appeal to him directly for patronage too.

Empress Matilda

In addition, there are four different queens mentioned in the History who provide positive examples of female rule and imply a precedent for female authority within British history – Glendolena, Cordelia, Marcia and Helena. In the case of Helena, she is also the sole heir of her father and parallels have been drawn between her inclusion in the text and the contemporary situation with Henry I and Matilda’s claim to the throne.

Historians have suggested that Geoffrey’s history was written as a propaganda piece in support of the Norman regime, in order to promote the newly-established Norman system of government and that Geoffrey was more interested in gaining patronage from the Norman aristocracy than partial to Matilda’s cause. The second dedication may provide evidence of this as Geoffrey spreads the net wider and includes a co-dedication to Waleran, Count of Meulan, a supporter of Matilda’s cousin and rival claimant for the throne, Count Stephen of Blois.

Geoffrey was certainly heavily influence by his own world-view in his treatment of the five races he describes in the book. His own Breton ancestry and admiration for the Welsh may have led him to present the ancient British race as the noble descendants of the Trojan heroes of classical antiquity though the notion that Brutus founded Britain pre-dated Geoffrey’s account. The Britons were a superior race, according to his History, who fell into arrogance which lead to invasions by Picts and Saxons. They were subsumed into the Roman Empire in name only, having a superior culture and technology to their attackers and were liberated from the barbarian Saxons by their Norman cousins who shared a similar glorious link to a Trojan foundation.

It is clear that Geoffrey sought to vindicate the conquest and subsequent establishment of Norman rule and to suggest that it was a fortunate chapter in British history which would re-establish the glories of her mythical past and expunge the violent, pagan incursions of the Anglo-Saxon migrations after the fall of the her greatest kings.

Geoffrey was also keen to promote the idea of Britain as a unified kingdom, under one monarch and to suggest that it was part of British destiny, as prophesied by Merlin the seer who advises King Arthur, that Britain would once more become a whole nation and thrive as such, regaining the glories of the Arthurian ‘Golden Age’ of conquest beyond her shores too.

Geoffrey projected contemporary chivalric codes on to his account of King Arthur and his court (later medieval manuscript)

This vision also played to the Anglo-Norman ruling class who held lands in Normandy and sought to establish a wider Norman ’empire’ with eyes on expansion into other regions of France. Any such aspirations were dependent on a strong, centralised government with a stable ruler at the helm and whilst Matilda’s gender may have weighed against her, it was Matilda, not Stephen who had occupied the imperial throne and proven herself to be a capable regent for her first husband, ruling over vast domains on the continent. Why couldn’t Britain regain the glories of Geoffrey’s Arthurian past when, according to Geoffrey’s account, he conquered Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Brittany and Gaul? There is almost a glimpse of what we know as the ‘Angevin Empire’ that Matilda’s son, Henry FitzEmpress would briefly establish in Geoffrey’s vision.

Geoffrey’s quasi re-invention of King Arthur, from the earliest mentions of him in Nennius’s C9th writings as a ‘dux bellorum’, a post-Roman Christian war lord to a legendary king presiding over a splendid court with a mythical sword (referred to as Caliburn rather than Excalibur at this point) may well have been partly his own invention and partly an exercise in flattery towards Henry I’s own style of kingship. Henry was a cultured king who encouraged poets and writers and was considered to be well-educated by contemporary standards. He may have been destined for the church as a younger son of the Conqueror and thus educated for high office as much as for warfare.

Geoffrey’s writings link Arthur’s court with the developing concept of chivalry and strong, centralised kingship, military success and expansion and Christian piety; all of which might have been held as a mirror to Henry I’s court but Geoffrey also introduces a mystical element to his history of Arthur in the form of the seer Merlin and his prophesies. Here the history takes a detour which Geoffrey asserted was due to the urgings of Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln, who Geoffrey also approached as a potential patron for his work, to include a long stream of Nostradamus style prophesies by Merlin about the future destiny of the British Isles.

Geoffrey would create a separate book, The Prophetie Merlini based on these writings which reinforce the idea of divine destiny and purpose running through the course of British history and may owe something to his Welsh roots and folk legends that he absorbed as a child growing up on the Welsh marshes.

Merlin and Vortigern

Some historians have suggested that Geoffrey never intended his work to be viewed as a serious history but rather a romance and history combined together with folk lore and prophesy. He may not have recognised the distinction between a historical account, based on source evidence, and his work certainly came under criticism from contemporary writers for it’s imaginative liberties.

Gerald of Wales suggested that, whilst the Bible would drive away demons, Geoffrey’s history was likely to draw more devils to it! William of Malmesbury was praised for his insistence on gathering eye witness sources for his writings as the same time as Geoffrey was inventing lost manuscripts and embellishing the legends of Arthur and Geoffrey seems to take a swipe at William and Henry of Huntingdon at the end of his book by warning them both not to attempt to write a similar history of the ancient kings of Britain as they lacked access to his unique source material. How much of that was the natural rivalry between scholastic writers and how much was tongue-in-cheek remains open to interpretation. They were all certainly vying with each other for patronage so there was clearly an element of professional one-upmanship going on too.

Whatever Geoffrey’s writings may lack in historical accuracy or gain from his attempts to weave a safe passage through the turbulent times in which he lived, his history was an instant hit and soon copies were being made across Europe. Henry of Huntingdon was amazed to find a copy at the Monastery of Bec in 1139, only shortly after it was first published and 200 copies of his work have survived to the modern day which is a testament to its popularity.

Geoffrey created a vision of the British Isles which left a lasting impression on readers; suggesting glorious mythical roots and a destiny that would see Britain become one of the most powerful nations in Europe. In a way, his writings predict what would become known as the Angevin Empire that would be established in the next generation and which grew out of the disruption and stalemate of the Anarchy which he lived through. He may have even been present at Oxford Castle during the fateful siege of 1142 and seen the Empress Matilda in the flesh during her time there but he would certainly have lived through the uncertainties and violence of the Anarchy when ‘God and his angels slept’ and no doubt experienced his fair share of fear and deprivation caused by the clash between the rival claimants to the throne.

Geoffrey’s signature is recorded on the Treaty of Westminster in his capacity as Bishop of St Asaph which concluded the terms at the end of the civil war and so he lived just long enough to see Matilda’s son become King of England which, I imagine, he was pleased to see come to fruition as it promised to usher in a period of stable government and peace for his country and the hope of expansion abroad through the marriage of Henry to Eleanor of Aquitaine and her vast holdings in the South of France.

His burial is unrecorded but I like to believe that Geoffrey’s remains may still be somewhere in Oxford, perhaps close to the site where he wrote his history and to all those later scholars who drew inspiration from his colourful writings.

List of useful links:

Did Geoffrey even exist?


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-ForĂȘt 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