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Gloucestershire and Wiltshire. Malmesbury was one of the first posts seized in her name. Trowbridge Castle the property of Humphrey de Bohun late Steward in the household of King Henry, declared on the same side; [See Canon Jackson's History of Monkton Farley;] Wallingford was held by Brian the Earl of Gloster's son; and when we add to these the castle of Marlborough, it is evident that Devizes stood alone in Stephen's interest.
THE SIEGE OF TROWBRIDGE. The siege of Trowbridge was at this moment engaging his principal attention. Here Humphrey de Bohun, with the assistance of Milo of Gloucester, had put all the engineering skill of the day into requisition to keep out the foe and to preserve his patrimonial estate. No less vigorously on the other side was the blockade maintained, and military machines were made to lend their cumbrous aid. But Stephen's knights soon wearied of the profitless toil. Some shewed signs of treachery: others professed to believe that the Earl of Gloster would soon be upon them and break up the leaguer. It was evidently time for the King to withdraw his forces from so contagious a district and concentrate them in the neighbourhood of London. The siege of Trowbridge was therefore raised; Stephen taking care before leaving the West to station in the castle of Devizes a chosen body of practised menat-arms with orders to infest and harass the garrison of Trowbridge to the utmost of their power. So faithfully did these men execute their trust that by the retaliation they thus provoked, forays, plunderings, and mutual slaughter speedily reduced the entire circumjacent territory to the condition of a miserable solitude.
THE DEATH OF BISHOP ROGER. Stephen mended his fortune at this juncture by the successful surprizal of the castles of Cerne and Malmesbury, capturing in the latter a formidable ruffian named Robert Fitz-Hubert who had recently seized the town and castle in the name of the Empress. He will speedily engage our more particular attention; but before entering on the narrative of his career, we are summoned to the death-bed of the broken hearted Bishop of Salisbury who expired in December 1139, having survived just long enough to see his name degraded, his property spoiled by barbarians and his country in flames. In order to save from the royal rapacity what remained of his moveable treasures, he gave them to his beloved church of Sarum, depositing them within the sanctuary of the high altar. Even these were carried off by Stephen's orders just before the Bishop breathed his latest sigh. Like Cardinal Wolsey he was now “left naked to his enemies;" his ill fortunes, says one of his biographers, seeming to culminate in the fact that though so manifestly wretched, there were few who pitied him, so much envy and hatred had his magnificence engendered, and that too in the breasts of many whom he had undeservedly advanced to honour. Even the author of the Gesta Stephani, himself an ecclesiastic and the energetic denouncer of church-spoliation, though his patron King Stephen were the aggressor, cannot forbear citing the Psalmist's rebuke on him who “heapeth up riches and knoweth not who shall gather them” forgetful of the warning voice to the rich man in the Gospel “This night thy soul shall be required of thee.” Sewell's edition page 62.
Vast indeed must have been the Bishop's wealth when, on the testimony of the same writer, this last deposit comprised an infinite quantity of coin, besides gold and silver vessels in abundance, the ductile fabrics of artistic grace emblazoned by elaborate chasings. It is but fair to add that the Canons favoured the appropriation of the treasure by Stephen, who religiously applied great part of it to the relief of impoverished ecclesiastics and to the restoration of the churches of Amesbury and Malmesbury. But no consenting party to the spoliation of his house was the exasperated Bishop of Ely; who, ejected from Devizes, and now burning anew with revenge, repaired to his Cathedral-island in the Fen country and defied the whole power of Stephen. But Stephen was again more than his match. A faithless monk, who for his services afterwards became Abbot of Romsey, revealed a ford by which the King's forces penetrated into Ely, ravaged the place and drove the Bishop to Gloucester.
THE ADVENTURES OF ROBERT Fitz-HUBERT. This robber chieftain, born in Flanders, engaged as a stipendiary in the service of the Earl of Gloucester, found on his arrival in England the state of the country exactly suited to his marauding tastes. His first act was to possess himself of the castle and town of Malmesbury, where his presence was regarded by the monks with great consternation. From this post of vantage he was, as already related, speedily driven out again by King Stephen in the autumn of 1139, and in the ensuing spring he laid his plans for the capture of the far more important citadel of Devizes. His intentions were carefully concealed from his superior in command; and before setting forth on the perilous adventure which was to make him master as he boasted of Wilts and Hants, he made a league with the desperate men who acknowledged his leadership, that if success should crown their enterprise, neither he on the one hand nor they on the other should ever surrender the place, though hanging should be the penalty of their rebellion.
During the Passion week, on the 7th before the Kalends of April 1140, Fitz-Hubert and his dark bands stood beneath the outer walls in the dead of night. These exterior defences they soon surmounted by means of scaling ladders made with thongs of leather, and then with a loud shout of victory established their footing in the outworks [the “exteriora castella"] suprising in their sleep a principal part of the unsuspecting garrison, and compelling the few who had time to escape to betake themselves to the keep. The possession of even the subordinate parts of the fortress established the success of the undertaking; and the ruthless captain, though he ceased not to assail the central tower, forthwith commenced the more congenial occupation of pillaging the neighbourhood; "night and day, in the pride of his heart,” says the historian, “devastating all around him” [“singulis diebus et noctibus in extollentiâ cordis ubiubi omnia devastat”). For four days did the inmates of the donjon keep the place against him, till the failure of their provisions and the utter hopelessness of receiving succour from the King compelled their surrender.
But no long time elapsed before a numerous military array were seen to enter by the north-west avenue of the distracted Borough and to draw up before the castle gates. This was a detachment from the Earl of Gloster's forces, headed by his son Brian who in the name of his mistress the Empress Matilda was come to claim the fortress for his father. As disguise on the part of Fitz-Hubert was by this time at an end the new Governor of Devizes made answer to the Embassy, that having won the castle himself, for himself he designed to keep it: and having with many such like derisive threats dismissed the young man irritated and outraged back to his father's camp, he felt that time was come when he must invite to his aid a body of his compatriots. Such at least was his expressed intention. Among his troop of banditti were two of his own nephews.
The character and acts of Robert Fitz-Hubert, as delineated by William of Malmesbury and other writers are scandalous even for that scandalous age; cruelty, blasphemy, and treachery being all laid to his charge. It was a favourite boast with him that he had on one occasion on the Continent witnessed the burning of a church in which twenty-four monks were confined. It was his full intention, he would then add, to do the like in England; the monks of Malmesbury in particular should not escape his vengeance, in consequence, as he chose to suspect, of their confederacy with the royal forces when he was surprised in their town. He had also his vulture-eye upon Wilton which then contained a dozen churches, and which from its proximity to his new position seemed likely to fall an easy prey. Very seldom was he known to liberate his captives without torture; one of the forms of suffering to which his savage caprice often subjected them being, naked exposure to the burning heat of the sun, their bodies being rubbed with honey in order to stimulate the attacks of stinging insects. And now was England sacrificed anew to the violence of brigandage. The garrisons swept from off the fields both sheep and cattle, regardless of the sanctuary even of ecclesiastic enclosures. Such of the vavassours (or yeomen) as were reputed to be possessed of money were cast into castledungeons, where they lingered till they revealed their treasures, or directing their final appeal to Heaven calmly expired in the midst of torments. Urged by the Earl of Gloster, the Legate repeatedly excommunicated the violators of churches and church yards; but so completely was the crosier subjugated to the sword at this turbulent crisis, that neither Bishops nor Monks could pass with safety from one town to another.
An eclipse of the Sun too, attended in this part of the kingdom with an unusual amount of obscuration, had contributed to enhance the fears of the ignorant. Malmesbury dates it “in Lent on the 13th before the Kalends of April, at the ninth hour of the fourth day of the week.” He and his brother monks were sitting at table when the darkness came on; they ran out and perceived that the stars were shining around the Sun. To the Brethren, the phenomenon was not so inexplicable as to some others, of whom the historian relates that they thought Chaos was come again, though he disdains not to record a prediction based thereon, that the King would lose his crown within a year, which duly came to pass.
Fitz-Hubert on establishing himself at Devizes was not