Rochester Cathedral; Cardiff Castle; King Stephen


Figure 389
Plate 3.—Rochester Castle.—Interior.
Figure 390
390.—Cardiff Castle

In the fine west doorway of Rochester Cathedral is a statue which is held to represent Matilda, queen of Henry I. (Fig. 385). The marriage of the son of the Norman Conqueror with the niece of Edgar Atheling was a politic measure, which revived the old Saxon feeling in the conquered and oppressed, and made them think that days of equality were in store for them, even under the new race. Matilda the Good was worthy to be a descendant of Alfred. She probably would have been more happy in the cloister to which she had fled for safety during the terrors of the Norman licentiousness, than with her ambitious, daring, profligate, but accomplished husband. Her influence over him did something, no doubt, for ameliorating the condition of her native land. She was a civilizer: she built bridges; she cultivated music. But the promise which Henry had made when he seized the crown, that the old Saxon laws should be restored, was wholly broken as soon as he had fairly grasped the sword of authority. The collection entitled ‘The Laws of King Henry I.’ is a “compilation of ancient Saxon laws by some private person, and not a publication by authority of the state.” The writer of this adds, “The general clamour in England for the Saxon laws of the Confessor, under the three Norman kings, makes it probable that this compilation was made by some private person at the time when the restoration of these laws was called for by, and repeatedly promised to, the nation.” (‘Ancient Laws and Institutes of England,’ published by the Record Commission.) These laws of Edward the Confessor were founded upon older laws, that go back through the times of Canute, and Ethelred, and Edgar, and Ethelstan, and Alfred, prescribing many things which are difficult to understand in our present state of society, but upholding a spirit of justice in mercy which later ages have, it is to be feared, not so diligently maintained. The laws of king Ethelred, for example, might furnish a text to be written up in every police court: “And ever, as any one shall be more powerful here in the eyes of the world, or through dignities higher in degree, so shall he the more deeply make ‘bōt’ (amends, compensation) for sins, and pay for every misdeed the more dearly; because the strong and the weak are not alike, and cannot raise a like burthen.” Again, here is a noble motto for a judgment seat: “Let every deed be carefully distinguished, and doom ever be guided justly according to the deed, and be modified according to its degree, before God and before the world; and let mercy be shown for dread of God, and kindness be willingly shown, and those be somewhat protected who need it; because we all need that our Lord oft and frequently grant his mercy to us.” This was the spirit of Christianity filling lawgivers with right principles; although some of the institutions of society, such as slavery, were a violation of those principles. For all free men the old Saxon laws were just in their objects, and impartial in their administration. It is easy to understand how they could not exist in connexion with the capricious despotism of the first Norman kings, and the turbulence of their grasping retainers. Fortunate was it for the country when a prince arose of such decided character as Henry I.; for he crushed the lesser oppressors, whose evil doings were more constant and universal. It mattered little to the welfare of the country that his unhappy brother Robert was shut up for years in Cardiff Castle, if the king visited his own purveyors with terrible punishments when they ground the people by unjust exactions. In Cardiff Castle (Fig. 390) a dark vaulted room beneath the level of the ground is shown as the place where Robert of Normandy was confined by his brother for twenty-six years. The tradition rests upon no historical foundation whatever, nor, indeed, upon any probability. The gallant but heedless prince, according to William of Malmesbury and other chroniclers, was indeed a prisoner in Cardiff Castle, but surrounded with luxury and magnificence, and provided with minstrels and jesters to make his life pass away as a gay dream. Matthew Paris tells a curious story, which appears very characteristic of the proud and trifling mind of him whom Beauclerk had jostled out of a throne. “It happened on a feast day, that king Henry trying on a scarlet robe, the hood of which being too strait, in essaying to put it on he tore one of the stitches, whereupon he desired one of his attendants to carry it to his brother, whose head was smaller; it always having been his custom whenever he had a new robe to send one cut off from the same cloth to his brother with a polite message. This garment being delivered to Robert, in putting it on he felt the fraction where the stitch had been broken, and through the negligence of the tailor not mended. On asking how that place came torn, he was told that it was done by his brother, and the whole story was related to him; whereupon, falling into a violent passion, he thus exclaimed: ‘Alas! alas! I have lived too long! Behold my younger brother, a lazy clerk, who has supplanted me in my kingdom, imprisoned and blinded me! I who have been famous in arms! And now, not content with these injuries, he insults me as if I were a beggar, sending me his cast off clothes as for an alms!’ From that time he refused to take any nourishment, and, miserably weeping and lamenting, starved himself to death. He was buried in Gloucester Cathedral, where his image, as big as the life, carved in Irish oak and painted, is yet shown.” Death levelled these distinctions in the same year. If Robert died of mortification about a cast off robe, Henry perished more ignobly of a full meal of lampreys. Robert’s effigy of heart of oak was carefully repaired by a stranger two centuries ago. The monument of Henry, in Reading Abbey, which he founded, perished long since, and scarcely a stone is now left standing of this princely building, to tell the tale of his pious munificence (Fig. 389).

The successor of Henry Beauclerk was also an usurper. The rival pretensions of Stephen of Blois and the Empress Matilda filled the land with bloodshed and terror for nineteen years. From the north to the south, from the Barbacans of York (Fig. 386) to the Palaces of Winchester (Fig. 400), the country was harried by king and baron, by empress and knight. A single burst of patriotism carried the English to fight with one accord at Northallerton, under the car-borne standard of Stephen (Fig. 403). But during the greater part of this period almost every baron’s castle had to sustain a siege on one side or the other; and, what was worse, the lands around these strongholds were uniformly wasted by the rapacious garrison, or their plundering assailants. Stephen had given to the nobles the fatal power of fortifying their castles; and it is affirmed that towards the latter end of his reign these “nests of devils and dens of thieves,” as Matthew Paris styles them, amounted to the number of eleven hundred and fifteen. A contemporary annalist of the deeds of King Stephen thus describes the miseries of the people during this desolating contest:—“Many abandoned their country; others, forsaking their houses, built wretched huts in churchyards, hoping for protection from the sacredness of the place. Whole families, after sustaining life as long as they could by eating herbs, roots, dogs, and horses, perished at last with hunger; and you might see many pleasant villages without one inhabitant of either sex.” There is scarcely a castle of the period that is not associated with some memory of this war of ambition. The Saxon Chronicler says, “In this king’s time all was dissension, and evil, and rapine. The great men soon rose against him. They had sworn oaths, but maintained no truth. They built castles which they held out against him.” It was thus that Hugh Bigod, who had sworn that Henry had appointed Stephen his successor, was the first to hold out against the king in the Castle of Norwich, which his ancestor had built. Norwich was a regular fortress, with a wall and ditch, an outer, a middle, and an inner court, and a keep. The bridge over one of the ditches and the keep still remain. The keep had long since gone through the customary process of being turned into a jail, and the jail being removed it is now gutted and roofless. This keep is a parallelogram, a hundred and ten feet in length by about ninety-three in breadth. The walls are in some places thirteen feet thick, and the tower is seventy feet in height. It was not sufficient for the people in authority in the last century to tear this fine historical monument to pieces, by their fittings up and their pullings down, but they have stuck on their county gaol at one end—a miserable modern thing called Gothic—paltry in its dimensions, and incongruous in its style (Figs. 398, 399). The same process has been resorted to at Oxford Castle. It was built by Robert de Oilies, a Norman who came over with the Conqueror. Not even the romance connected with its history could save Oxford Castle from desecration. It was a little county prison a century ago, and it is a great county prison in our own day. It is something, indeed, to see the strongholds of lawless oppressors becoming monuments of the power of the Law. We shall speak of more of these presently. But, nevertheless, in a seat of learning, in a place consecrated to ancient recollections, we would gladly have had other associations than chains and gibbets, with the venerable walls from which Matilda escaped through beleaguering hosts in a night of frost, and snow, and, crossing the frozen Thames, wandered in darkness for many a mile, till she reached a place of safety. Holinshed tells the story with the simplicity of the elder chroniclers:—“It was a very hard winter that year; the Thames and other rivers thereabouts were frozen, so that both man and horse might safely pass over upon the ice: the fields were also covered with a thick and deep snow. Hereupon, taking occasion, she clad herself and all her company in white apparel, that afar off they might not be discerned from the snow; and so, by negligence of the watch, that kept ward but slenderly, by reason of the exceeding cold weather, she and her partakers secretly in the night issued out of the town, and, passing over the Thames, came to Wallingford, where she was received into the castle by those that had the same in keeping to her use: of whom Brian, the son to the Earl of Gloucester, was the chief.” The “gaping chinks and aged countenance” of Rougemont Castle at Exeter (Fig. 395) are something more in character with the old times than the feeble patchwork of antiquarianism, the parapets and pepper-boxes of our modern castle prisons, pertly bristling up by the sides of these old donjons.


Figure 395
395.—Rougemont Castle
Figure 398
398.—Norwich Castle
Figure 399
399.—Norwich Castle
Figure 400

The personal history of Henry II., one of the greatest kings that ever sat upon the English throne, belongs more strikingly to the ecclesiastical than to the civil annals of those times. The story of his wonderful contest with Becket may be best referred to in connexion with the scene of Becket’s martyrdom. That story was everywhere made familiar to the people by legend and painting (Fig. 411). The romance of Henry’s personal history, in connexion with Rosamond Clifford, was long associated with the old towers of Woodstock. These are no more; but what they were is shown in Figs. 413, 414.