CHAPTER XI. THE LAST STAGE OF THE CIVIL WAR
As it drew near to Christmas provisions became low in the castle, and the necessity of surrender unpleasantly clear. Finally Matilda determined to attempt a bold escape. It was a severe winter and the ground was entirely covered with snow. With only a few attendants - three and five are both mentioned - she was let down with ropes from a tower, and, clad all in white, stole through the lines of the besiegers, detected only by a sentry, who raised no alarm. With determined spirit and endurance she fled on foot through the winter night and over difficult ways to Abingdon, six miles away. There she obtained horses and rode on to Wallingford, where she was safe. The castle of Oxford immediately surrendered to Stephen, but the great advantage for which he had striven had escaped him when almost in his hands. Robert of Gloucester, who was preparing to attempt the raising of the siege, at once joined his sister at Wallingford, and brought with him her son, the future Henry II, sent over in place of his father, on his first visit to England. Henry was now in his tenth year, and for four years and more he remained in England in the inaccessible stronghold of Bristol, studying with a tutor under the guardianship of his uncle. Robert's mission of the previous summer, to get help for Matilda in England, proved more useful to Geoffrey than to his wife. During a rapid campaign the conquest of the duchy had at last been really begun, and in the two following years it was carried to a successful conclusion. On January 20,1144, the city of Rouen surrendered to the Count of Anjou, though the castle held out for some time longer. Even Waleran of Meulan recognized the new situation of affairs, and gave his aid to the cause of Anjou, and before the close of the year Louis VII formally invested Geoffrey with the duchy. This much of the plan of Henry I was now realized; Stephen never recovered possession of Normandy. But without England, it was realized in a way which destroyed the plan itself, and England was still far from any union with the Angevin dominions.
By the time the conquest of Normandy was completed, events of equal interest had taken place in England, involving the fall of the powerful and shifty Earl of Essex, Geoffrey de Mandeville. Soon after Easter, 1142, he had found an opportunity for another prudent and profitable change of sides. The king had fallen ill on his return from the north, and, once more, as at the beginning of his reign, the report of his death was spread abroad. Geoffrey seems to have hurried at once to the Empress, as a probable source of future favours, and to have carried with him a small crowd of his friends and relatives, including the equally unscrupulous Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk. Matilda, who was then at Oxford, and had no prospect of any immediate advance, was again ready to give him all he asked. Her fortunes were at too low an ebb to warrant her counting the cost, and in any case what she was buying was of great value if she could make sure that the sellers would keep faith. Geoffrey, with his friends, and Nigel, Bishop of Ely, who was already on her side, controlling Essex, Hertford, Norfolk, Suffolk, and Cambridge, could give her possession of as large a territory on the east of England as she now held on the west, and this would very likely carry with it the occupation of London once more, and would threaten to cut the kingdom of Stephen into two detached fragments. Geoffrey was in a position to drive a good bargain, and he did so. New lands and revenues, new rights and privileges, were added to those he had already extorted from both sides; the Empress promised to make no peace without his consent with his "mortal enemies," the burghers of London, towards whom she probably had herself just then no great love. Geoffrey's friends were admitted to share with him in the results of his careful study of the conditions of the market, especially his brother-in-law, Aubrey de Vere, who was made Earl by his own choice of Cambridge, but in the end of Oxford, probably because Matilda's cousin, Henry of Scotland, considered that Cambridge was included in his earldom of Huntingdon. What price was offered to Hugh Bigod, or to Gilbert Clare, Earl of Pembroke, who seems to have been of the number, we do not know.