I see the city of Oxford filled with helmeted men, and the holy men and the holy bishops bound in fetters by the advice of the Council. See also Appendix 11 which relates to the same event.
Roger of Salisbury and Alexander of Lincoln were taken into custody on June 24th 1139 while attending a council of King Stephen at Oxford. Roger of Salisbury, Henry Ist chancellor, had acquired vast land holdings and wealth while tending affairs of state during Henry Ist absence in Normandy. He was said to be worldly rather than pious. He built castles at Sherborne and Devizes and fortified Malmesbury Abbey. He had also taken possession of the Royal Castle at Salisbury.
His nephew Alexander of Lincoln to whom Geoffrey of Monmouth dedicates the prophecies of Merlin in the HRB, had also constructed a castle in Newark as well as having Sleaford Castle. Alexander was known for his ostentatious and luxurious lifestyle also. Roger and Alexander both supplied many knights for the King’s cause just as Henry Blois did from both Winchester and Glastonbury.
In 1138 there were rumours that the Empress and Robert of Gloucester were about to return England and seize the crown. Most of the barons had previously sworn allegiance to Matilda on the instructions of Henry Ist on the understanding that she was to inherit the crown on Henry Ist death. The Beaumont twins, supporters of King Stephen had his ear and were able to manipulate him.
It is made clear in the Gesta Stephani that this situation riled Henry Blois as his relationship with his brother had become frosty on account of the Beaumont twins’ whisperings against him. The Beaumont’s spread rumours to the King regarding Roger of Salisbury, Alexander and bishop Nigel that they might switch fealty en masse to Matilda and this would present serious problems for King Stephen if the power base, which the family relatives held and their castles, sided with Matilda’s and Robert.
According to Henry Blois, (the author of the GS), these rumours appear to have been started by a group of nobles led by twin brothers, Waleran de Beaumont, the Count of Meulan, (to whom Geoffrey of Monmouth supposedly dedicates some variants of the HRB), and Robert de Beaumont, the Earl of Leicester.
William of Malmesbury in HN says that if only Stephen had not lent trusting ears to the whispers of the ill-disposed… counsellors who used to urge upon him that he should never lack money while the monasteries were full of treasure. The bishops, they said, forgetting they were churchmen, were mad with rage for castle building; no one should doubt that all this was being done for the King’s ruin…934 Stephen needed a pretext for demanding a surrender of the three bishop’s castles.
Stephen’s political position would have been more secure had it not been for the speed with which Stephen arrived in England after Henry Ist death and the manipulations of the Bishop of Winchester who convinced William of Corbeil to crown Stephen quickly. All the barons who had sworn fealty to Matilda previously, knew that Hugh Bigod had told a lie to William od Corbeil to get Stephen crowned. Bigod had said that before Henry Ist died, he had released all the barons from the oath they had sworn to the Empress Matilda. This gave rise to a situation where the barons in some cases did not know where their loyalty lay.
Few barons could accept a woman as their Queen anyway; and so, with ‘expedience’ Stephen had been crowned. Certainly, Henry Blois as author of GS wants posterity to understand that expediency rather than manipulation led to Stephen being crowned. The rumours may have been untrue about Roger of Salisbury’s proposed change of affiliation to Matilda, but the Beaumont’s had planted a seed of doubt in Stephen’s mind.
Because of Stephen’s insecurity and the fact that he did not wish to offend the Beaumont’s, he conspired to call a council at which Roger and his nephews the bishops of Ely and Lincoln would attend. Here it was contrived that some accusation would arise and they would be arrested. A preconceived controversy was arranged, and a fight broke out between Bishop Roger’s men and those of Alan, Count of Brittany over billeting quarters at the conflab. The argument was inflamed and swords were pulled and Alan’s nephew was killed as well as one of Bishop Roger’s soldiers. When Alan was called before Stephen, he charged the Bishop with plotting against the King just as the Beaumont’s had arranged. Not given time to give answer the accusation, Roger of Salisbury and Alexander of Lincoln were roughly arrested and tied in the King’s presence.
This all transpired at Oxford as the prescience of Merlin forsees all the way back from the sixth century. I see the city of Oxford filled with helmeted men, and holy men and holy bishops bound on the decision of the Council.
Nigel of Ely was supposed to be arrested also, but he was quartered outside Oxford and was not present at the fracas and managed to avoid the trap set by King Stephen. On hearing the news, Nigel of Ely fled to Roger of Salisbury’s Castle at Devizes where he refused to come out. Probably, Nigel fleeing to Devises gave the appearance of guilt; and for Stephen, substantiated Alan’s accusation in the first place.
As we have already elucidated in appendix 11, Stephen dragged Bishop Roger down to Devizes with him, to lay siege to his own Castle to evict Nigel of Ely and were housed in a cowshed. William of Ypres, a knight of Stephen’s, threatened Nigel (who was within the castle), that should he not give himself up, Bishop Roger would be starved until he opened up and gave possession of the castle to the King. Nigel not caring for his uncle’s importunity said he would not submit.
934Historia Novella, William of Malmesbury.
Meanwhile, Bishop Roger, as we have covered already, was housed in a cowshed in the most awful conditions and separated from Bishop Alexander who was also housed in appalling conditions. Bishop Roger, half starving to death (Malmesbury said it was a voluntary fast), begged the King that he could plead with his nephew at the castle gates to open up.
Roger was brought in front of the Castle and asked why Nigel had fled to Roger’s Castle rather than his own. Nigel did not come out, so Stephen dragged Nigel’s nephew, Roger the pauper in front of the Castle with a noose placed around his neck and threatened to hang him. Roger le Poer, who was in fact Stephen’s chancellor was Roger of Salisbury’s son. However, Roger the pauper’s mother was actually in charge of defending her husband’s Castle and so quickly surrendered Nigel to Stephen. Stephen claimed all their castles and their treasures. The three bishops were then eventually allowed to return to their bishoprics, penniless and powerless.
This whole episode affected Henry Blois greatly. As the present legate to the Pope, he decided to do something about it. Henry Blois said that if the bishops had in anything stepped aside from the path of justice, then it was not for the King to judge them, but for cannon law.935
Stephen had not only previously affronted Henry Blois in the election of Theobald of Bec as Archbishop (a position he had assumed would be his after overseeing the see for two years); but it was the affront to the church which went against Henry’s Gregorian values, that motivated him to bring his brother into line before abuse against the church went any further. He therefore held an ecclesiastical council at Winchester to which Stephen was summoned to attend and in which Henry’s speech is recorded in appendix 11.
Henry’s personal ire is evident in the GS account, but even William of Malmesbury relates about Henry Blois that: ‘neither fraternal affection nor fear of danger could turn him aside from the path of truth. He spent all his efforts in saying these things both in private and openly in the King’s presence, appealing to him to free and restore bishops, but on no subject would the King listen to him, wherefore, thinking he would try what force lay in the canon law he made his brother promptly to attend the council which he was to hold at Winchester on August 29.936
While the Legate thus expressed himself deliberately and at length, the King, who did not lack confidence in his own case, sent earls to the council to enquire why he had been summoned. The legate answered in brief that one who remembered his own obedience to the faith of Christ should not complain if he had been summoned by Christ’s ministers to give satisfaction, when he knew himself guilty of an offence such as our times had nowhere seen; for it belonged to pagan times to imprison bishops and deprive them of their property.
Let them therefore tell his brother that if he thought it fit to acquiesce calmly in his advice he would by God’s will give him advice to which neither the Church of Rome nor the court of the King of France, nor even Count Theobald the brother of them both, certainly a wise and religious man, could reasonably object, but which they ought to accept with favour. In the present juncture the King would act prudently if he either gave an account of what he had done or submit to judgement according to the canon law. It was also his bounden duty to favour the church, whose welcoming arms, not the prowess of his knights had raised him to the throne.
The earls went out with what he had said and returned not long afterwards with an answer. They were accompanied by Aubrey De Vere, a man practised in many kinds of cases. He gave the King’s answer and did all harm he could to Bishop Roger’s case (for Bishop Alexander, whom Roger supported was not there); yet he did it with restraint and without abusive language, though some of the earls standing by his side, often interrupted his speech by hurling insults at the Bishop.937
The main contention was that even if Bishop Roger were guilty of a crime, it was the church’s job to judge them and not for the King to deprive them of their possessions; the same argument was to ensue between Thomas a Becket and Henry II, which Henry Blois also had a secretive hand in, but we will cover this later.
935Historia Novella, William of Malmesbury.
937HN. p 31