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The Council, Siege and Rout of Winchester

The Civil War of King Stephen's Reign was a time of oscillating loyalties especially amongst the rich and powerful. Even the King's own brother, the Bishop of Winchester, Henry of Blois, Bishop of WinchesterHenry of Blois, was not beyond changing sides. His support tended to tip the balance of power between Stephen and his rival to the throne, the Empress Matilda. Although this brought great prestige to his hometown, it also brought great dangers.


Having captured King Stephen at the Battle of Lincoln in February 1141, the Empress Matilda spent most of the year trying to consolidate her de facto position as Queen of England. The powerful Henry of Blois was not among the immediate rush of English nobles clammering to submit to the Empress, but the Bishop's differences with his brother, the King, eventually persuaded him to give way to pressure from Matilda and Earl Robert of Gloucester. On 2nd March, Bishop Henry agreed to meet with the Empress and most of the English Nobility outside the gates of Winchester. The day was grey and overcast and rain began to pelt down on the two parties as the Empress promised "that all matters of chief account in England, especially gifts of bishoprics and abbacies, should be subject to his control if he received her in Holy Church as lady, and kept his faith to her unbroken". Bishop Henry agreed to recognise the Empress as Queen so long as she kept her side of this bargain.

The following day, Matilda was publicly welcomed into Winchester. She took up residence in the Castle and Bishop Henry handed over to her the keys to the Treasury and the Royal Crown. He then arranged a large meeting of the citizens of Winchester in the Market Place so they could salute her as "their Lady and their Queen". From here, the party entered the cathedral with great pomp. Matilda led the procession with Henry of Blois to her right and the Bishop of St. Davids to her left. Relatives of the Bishops of Salisbury, Ely and Lincoln were also present and Henry sent for Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury who arrived a few days later.

Theobald and other bishops were reluctant to abandon King Stephen. So, while the Empress moved north to Oxford in triumph, a Church Council was called at Winchester. The monkish writer, William of Malmesbury, was amongst the attendants, so there are detailed accounts in existence. Henry of Blois explained his change of stance as being due to King Stephen having broken his promises to the church. He was keen to remind those present of the arrest of three bishops two years previously and pompously declared that though "I should love my mortal brother, I should esteem far more highly the cause of my immortal Father". The church did not want a country without a ruler and secret meetings with Henry soon brought them round to his way of thinking.

However, during the Spring and early Summer, things did not run so smoothly for the Empress elsewhere. She needed the support of the City of London in order to take her place solidly on the throne and secure her coronation; but she treated the citizens with contempt and demanded taxation. When Stephen's Queen raised an army and marched south, she was soon joined by the Londoners and the Empress was forced to flee the City. It was not long before the Queen had persuaded Bishop Henry to join his brother's camp once more.

Wolvesey Palace in the Early 12th Century (after Ball)

Bishop Henry returned to Winchester determined to turn the city back to the Royalist cause and immediately set about besieging the Empress' forces in the Castle. Matilda responded quickly and arrived with her own besieging army on 31st July. The Bishop of Winchester's men were forced to retreat behind the walls of Wolvesey Palace, his residence in the city which had been fortified ready for any attack. The Bishop himself managed to escape and rode east for reinforcements from the Queen. A double siege ensued: the Royalists and London militia blockading the whole city, while, within, the Imperialists besieged the Bishop's men.

Three days later, Winchester was set on fire, probably by the Imperialists at Wolvesey. St. Mary's Nunnaminster, Hyde Abbey and the Royal Palace were all burnt to the ground. Matilda all but lost her remaining provisions and the siege lasted only a month before she was forced to make a break for it. A diversionary attack under Robert of Gloucester was arranged for 14th September, possibly helped by events at nearby Wherwell. During the fighting, Matilda managed to flee the city to Ludgershall, Devizes and then Gloucester. The story that she was smuggled out in a lead coffin is almost certainly apocryphal. Earl Robert was not as lucky as his half-sister. He followed the Empress, but held back with his forces to protect her escape. He was captured at the Battle of Stockbridge.

The citizens of Winchester saw no thanks for their part in helping the Royalist cause. The London militia sacked the city. Houses, shops and churches were all wrecked and many captives dragged away for torture and execution.


Martin Biddle & Beatrice Clayre (1983) Winchester Castle and the Great Hall
Jim Bradbury (1996) Stephen and Matilda: The Civil War of 1139-53
Tom Beaumont James (1997) Winchester
Elizabeth Lewis (1978) A Prospect of Winchester
Barry Shurlock (1986) The Winchester Story
Barbara Carpenter Turner (1980) Winchester

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