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The politics of William le Gros, Earl of Yorkshire

William le Gros's political and military career took place mainly during the reign of King Stephen, the grandson of William the Conqueror. Stephen was born around 1096, the third son of Adela (William the Conqueror's youngest known daughter) and Stephen, Count of Blois and Chartres. Stephen the younger was sent to the court of his uncle Henry I to be educated. In 1125 he married Matilda, who was the heiress of Boulogne county. In 1126, however, Henry I made all of his nobles swear to support the claim of his daughter to the English throne. His daughter was the Empress Matilda, who had been married to Emperor Henry V of Germany. Despite this oath, when Henry I died in 1135 Stephen seized the royal treasury at Winchester, and he persuaded the Archbishop of Canterbury to crown him on December 22nd. (Even Stephen's enemies always referred to him as 'King', while Empress Matilda was also called 'Empress Maud', 'Countess of Anjou' or 'Lady of England' but never 'Queen'.) 1

Photo of the arms of King Stephen

The arms of King Stephen (r. 1135-1154). 2

William le Gros, Lord of Holderness and Count of Aumale or Albemarle, supported King Stephen after 1135. He was a powerful northern baron. William was known for his physical strength and size as well as his military powers. Stephen made him the guardian of all royal lands in Yorkshire.

King David I of Scotland invaded northern England in 1135, ostensibly to support Empress Matilda against King Stephen. William le Gros led the northern English army, out of York, against King David of Scotland. 3 For William's victory over the Scottish forces in the battle of the Standard, near Northallerton, Stephen made him Earl of York. 4 William ruled strongly over the North Riding, building several major castles including Scarborough.

Click here for more information about William le Gros and Scarborough.

During the first part of King Stephen's contentious reign he enjoyed the support of the church, by and large because in 1136 Stephen announced his support of church reform, and he "renounced excessive royal interference" 5 in church and local government. One of Stephen's greatest problems, of course, was that he could not gain a decisive victory over Empress Matilda's forces. Three other events in 1138-39 contributed greatly to the instability of Stephen's reign: in May 1138 the powerful Earl Robert of Gloucester formally went over to Empress Matilda's side; Stephen failed to protect the Norman barons from the Welsh; and Stephen arrested three bishops in 1139, thus putting himself on shaky moral grounds. At this same time Stephen decentralized the power of the crown by installing earls in each shire as sheriffs. The actual civil war on English ground began with the landing of Empress Matilda and the Earl of Gloucester on the coast in 1139. During this same year King David invaded England again. William le Gros continued to support Stephen. 6

In 1141 King Stephen's army was defeated by Empress Matilda's forces and he was captured. Even Stephen's hitherto loyal brother Bishop Henry declared for Empress Matilda. Stephen's wife Matilda, however, freed Stephen and captured the Earl of Gloucester. Empress Matilda could not get any material help from her young husband Geoffrey, because he was concentrating on conquering Normandy (until 1144-45 when he succeeded). 7

Probably the closest King Stephen ever came to winning was when he trapped Empress Matilda in Oxford Castle in December of 1142, forcing her to flee in disguise through the snow. Most of the fighting in England between 1142 and 1147 took place in the Thames Valley. Between 1147 and 1148 King Stephen's cause seemed to be growing: Robert Earl of Gloucester died on October 31st 1147, and the Empress left England for good in early 1148. But unfortunately for Stephen he had steadily lost the support of the church during the 1140's. This culminated in the fact that the church refused to crown Stephen's oldest son Eustace in 1151, effectively ending Stephen's dynasty. 8

After Empress Matilda left England her son Henry took command of her forces. Henry did not have the gender problems of his mother, nor was he as dependent on the non-military help his father did not provide her. Stephen's Queen Matilda had died on May 3rd 1152, followed shortly by their son Eustace on August 17th 1153. In November of 1153 King Stephen and Henry formed the 'Treaty of Winchester', which basically stated that Stephen would remain king for his lifetime, and that Henry would be the heir to the throne of England. King Stephen had displayed an amazing amount of energy fighting Henry, but the war-weariness of the barons on both sides - they refused to fight, thus forcing Stephen and Henry to parley - brought about the peace settlement, finally ending 18 years of bitter civil war. 9

Many modern historians talk of Stephen in terms like: weak kingship, disorder, violence, and little justice. This partially comes from the scholar John Horace Round, who coined the term 'anarchy' in relation to Stephen's reign. More recently historians refer to this time period as a civil war, a much more apt description. Stephen was certainly not the greatest king of England, but he was both courageous and determined. The circumstances he had to deal with did not make him shine. Stephen was an energetic king whose military abilities were praised by his contemporaries (but criticized by modern scholars). Perhaps, ultimately Stephen's true failure as a king was an inability to convince others of his abilities. Stephen died at Dover on October 25th 1154. He was buried next to his wife and son at Faversham Abbey. Henry II, son of Empress Matilda, was crowned King of England on December 19th 1154. 10

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