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English Anarchy & Geoffrey de Mandeville - Scourge of the Fens


Geoffrey de Mandeville was the Earl of Essex in the time of King Stephen (1135-1154). He is famous for his treachery and violence around the time of the civil war waged between Stephen and Henry Ist's daughter, the empress Matilda. As we shall see, his ability to wreak havoc and suffering was to be felt heavily by the people of Cambridgeshire.

The civil war of 1139-1153 is characterised by the greed and ruthlessness of many knights and gentry who declared themselves to be allied to either Stephen or Matilda but proceeded to wage war on whoever they could gain most from whether it helped either of the main protagonists or not. Stephen, King Henry Ist's nephew, had opportunisticly seized the throne immediately after Henry died with the help of his brother, the powerful bishop of Winchester. Henry had persuaded his barons to swear an oath in support of Matilda, his only surviving legitimate heir. However, Matilda had spent most of her life in far away Germany, she was a poor diplomat, was married to an Angevin (an unpopular alliance as far as both the English and the Normans were concerned) and she was a woman. It wasn't a hard decision for many of the barons to renege on their oath in support of Matilda and support Stephen instead. Stephen might have avoided much bloodshed during his reign had he not made a big mistake in the way he dealt with Roger, bishop of Salisbury whom he suspected, perhaps not unreasonably, of being in league with the empress. Roger had experienced a meteoric rise in fortune during the reign of Henry. Henry, if one historian is to be believed, had discovered Roger in France where he had been impressed at the speed at which the clergyman could read a mass. Henry appointed him as chancellor and as bishop of Salisbury and quickly elevated him to justiciar - making him the second most powerful man in England after himself. During Stephen's reign, Roger had established a powerful dynasty with his son as chancellor, his nephew Nigel as bishop of Ely and another nephew as bishop of Lincoln, all of whom were building or strengthening and garrisoning their own castles and ostentatiously taking large retinues of armed men about with them wherever they went. Stephen used a street brawl involving Salisbury's men as an excuse to seize Salisbury, his son and the bishop of Lincoln and chase Nigel of Ely to Devizes. After three days seige, Nigel was betrayed by Salisbury's mistress who feared for the safety of her husband and son. The king now had all the castles of Salisbury's family and had badly abused the legates in his custody. This action proved to be disastrous for Stephen. The church was appalled at the way in which Stephen had treated the clergymen. The king found many of his supporters switching to Matilda's side, including his own brother, the bishop of Winchester.

Stephen was a fearsome soldier. His chivalry and misplaced generosity, however, could be said to have been excessive and detrimental to his cause. His downfall at the battle of Lincoln in 1141 can be attributed to behaviour which was typical of him. Towards the end of 1140 one of Matilda's supporters, Rannulf, the earl of Chester seized the castle of Lincoln. Instead of attempting to punish Rannulf, Stephen gave him the castle plus the city of Lincoln, plus a number of other castles. It was complaints of harsh treatment by the citizens of Lincoln which caused Stephen to rush to the city to sort Rannulf out. However Rannulf had slipped away to get reinforcements among the desperate knights who had lost everything they possessed fighting for the Empress.

The battle of Lincoln took place on the 2nd of February 1141. The kings forces easily defeated scouts sent by the earl to impede his progress and gained a good tactical position. Obeying his fatally chivalrous nature, Stephen took his men from easily defendable high ground to a marshy plane by the city of Lincoln to meet the earl's rabble for a fair fight. His cavalry failed to ward off frenzied attacks of the disinherited knights who had nothing to lose and everything to fight for. Stephen fought fiercely until both his sword and axe were broken and eventually was forced to surrender to Robert of Gloucester when he was knocked down by a flying stone.

Stephen's cause was now left in the hands of his shrewd queen, also called Matilda. She stood her own Cambridgeshire estates as collateral for a loan from the London justiciar, Gervase of Cornhill. She repurchased the support of Geoffrey de Mandeville who had transferred his allegiance to the empress when things started to go wrong for Stephen. She also won back the support of Stephen's brother, the bishop of Winchester whose support Stephen had lost after he mis-handled dealing with Roger of Salisbury.

In November of 1141 Stephen was released in exchange for Robert of Gloucester, an important ally of the empress who had been captured by royalist forces whilst fleeing a defeat at Winchester. Unchastened by his experience with the earl of Chester, he heaped rewards and privileges on the treacherous Geoffrey de Mandeville on top of the payment already made to him by the queen. De Mandeville became sheriff and justiciar in three separate counties. He was made constable of 'The Tower' - a role which effectively put him in charge of London but in which he evidently earned the loathing of the people of that city. The proof of the Londoners' hatred of de Mandeville exists in a document which points to his ultimate treason (that is, before he turned into a sadistic monster of the fens). He changed his allegiance back to the empress, drawing up a charter in which he dictates that she should make no peace with the burgesses of London without his consent 'because they are his mortal foes'. He continued to attend court and feign friendship with the king even though it was generally known that he was in league with the Stephen's enemies. Eventually his arrogance was too much for the royalists and he was arrested suddenly in St. Albans in 1143. As punishment for treason he was given the choice of execution or giving up the Tower and his castles in Essex. He chose life and vengeance - on the people of Cambridgeshire!

De Mandeville fled to the marshy swamps of the fens with an army of mercenaries and ruffians. He seized and occupied Ely, using it as a fortress and drove the monks out of Ramsey Abbey and used it as a headquarters for his mob. From here he plundered, ransacked, and burnt property. He employed every type of torture conceivable to extract crippling ransom from anyone unfortunate enough to fall into his hands. Cambridge itself was ransacked and burnt. No one, regardless of age, sex or profession was safe. Over a stretch of twenty or thirty miles of countryside there was not an ox or plough to be seen. A serious famine resulted to add to the already enormous death toll. Stephen was unable to get an army through the impenetrable fens to rid the area of the evil earl leaving de Mandeville free to carry on at will. Fortunately, however, de Mandeville was hit by an arrow whilst attacking Burwell Castle in August 1144 and died soon afterwards.

The earl of Chester was arrested for treason two years later and on his release after surrendering his castles, plunged into an similar orgy of ferocious brutality. Scores of lesser barons and free lances around the country waged horror upon anyone they felt they could extract plunder from.

The anarchy slowly abated over several painful years. Two factors helped bring back order. Firstly, the Angevin cause was fading. Stephen cut Matilda off from her Gloucestershire strongholds with a success at Faringdon in 1145 and effectively ended the Angevin threat for the rest of his reign. Secondly, the fall of Edessa in 1144 eventually led to the second crusade which gained momentum in 1146 when Louis VII of France and emperor Conrad III took the cross. Many lawless Anglo-Norman noblemen took leave from their bloody work in England to slaughter and get slaughtered in the Holy Land.

Factual information in this article was obtained from 'Domesday Book to Magna Carta' by A.L. Poole, published by Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-285287-6.

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