The English Anarchy

Geofrey De Mandeville

“The Devil in Human Form”

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 1st’s daughter, the empress Matilda.

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 the main protagonists or not. Stephen, King Henry Gist’s nephew, had opportunistically 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 and 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 women! Many of the barons reneged on their oath to support Matilda and supported Stephen instead. Stephen however made an enemy of 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 who had appointed him as chancellor 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 rebuilt strengthened and garrisoned their own castles. Stephen used a street brawl involving Salisbury’s men as an excuse to seize Salisbury, his son and the bishop of Lincoln chased Nigel of Ely to Devizes. Where after three days seige, he seized the castle.

The King now had all the castles of Salisbury’s family and badly abused the legates in his custody. This action proved 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. Eventually Stephen was brought to battle at Lincoln in February 1141 where he was defeated.

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 justicar, Gervase 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 he had lost after he had mis-handled dealing with Roger of Salisbury.

In November 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. He proceeded to heap rewards and privileges on the treacherous Geoffrey de Mandeville on top of payment already made to him to him by the Queen. De Mandeville became sheriff and justiciar in three separate counties. He was made constable of “The Tower” – a role that effectively put him in charge of London but in which he 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 and 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, of which he was Constable, 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 ransoms 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

Once he had died, his son, another Geoffrey, withdrew his troops from Ramsey Abbey and by way of reparation, in 1163, gave to the monks 100s payable every three years.

Whilst the Abbey was garrisoned, according to Henry of Huntingdon, ‘blood exuded from the walls of the Church and the cloisters adjoining, witnessing to the divine indignation and prognosticating the destruction of the impious

A comment on these years is contained within The Peterborough Chronicle

“Never before had there been greater wretchedness in the country……… And they said openly that Christ and His Saints slept”

(Ref 11)