Thursday, 17 March 2011
1136 The Siege of Exeter Castle begins
So effective were the walls that they were never taken by force. Only starvation or treachery ever opened the gates of the city. It was perhaps for this reason that William the Conqueror decided to build a castle inside the city walls. When he reached Exeter in 1068 he found the city gates closed against him. The citizens were concerned not only for their own safety, but also that of Gytha, mother of the King Harold who was killed at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and his children who lived in the city. Only after they had got away to Ireland in a fishing boat did the city surrender. William wanted a bastion within the city walls on which he could depend. He therefore tore down several houses on a knoll of red rock in the northern angle of the old Roman walls and built in their place a mighty castle that was named Rougemont, or Red Mount from the knoll on which it stood.
In the decades that followed the original castle was improved and strengthened several times. The gate acquired a barbican, an outwork designed to block any attempt at a surprise attack, while the curtain walls were strengthened and the mighty Athelstan’s Tower added to cover a blind spot where the castle walls met the old Roman city walls. It was by 1136 the epitome of modern military engineering. The importance of the fortress was emphasised by the fact that successive kings of England had kept it in royal ownership, never granting it to a feudal vassal.
It was therefore with some concern that King Stephen received a visit from a dusty and dishevelled burgher of Exeter in the spring of 1136. The man carried an urgent message from the city council complaining of the behaviour of the castle’s commander Sir Baldwin Redvers. This Sir Baldwin was holding the castle on behalf of the king, but unusually for a man holding such a castle was also a wealthy landowner and leading baron in his own right.
The citizens complained that Sir Baldwin was disturbing the king’s peace by commandeering food and supplies in excess of the customary amounts and not making proper payment. To all appearances he was preparing for a war.
King Stephen had good reason to be disturbed. He had not been on the throne for a year and his grip on power was shaky to say the least. The previous king, Henry I, had left the crown to his daughter, Matilda. But she had been in France when Henry died, and Stephen moved quickly. He was the dead king’s nearest male relative, he was tall, handsome and charming and he was a good soldier. First one nobleman then another declared for Stephen, claiming as a pretext for ignoring Matilda an arcane feudal duty that she had overlooked. On 22 December 1135, Stephen was crowned King of England.
Almost at once the trouble began. Henry I had spent years stripping the barons of powers and privileges that made them too powerful. Now they began demanding them back as the price for supporting Stephen. Stephen delayed giving a straight answer. Among those making the most noise was Sir Baldwin Redvers.
So when Stephen received the messenger from Exeter he moved fast. At the time he was in Oxfordshire with a small army dealing with Sir Robert of Bampton, a knight who had raided some land of his neighbours to get money to pay off his debts. Although he was in the midst of a siege, the king detached 200 of his finest soldiers and sent them riding hard for Exeter with orders to dismiss Sir Baldwin from his command of the castle.
The armoured horsemen travelled swiftly, arriving at Exeter before anyone expected them. They rode through the gates, ignoring the challenges of Sir Baldwin’s guards, and headed for the castle. Sir Baldwin was not there, but his wife Adelise was. Seeing armed horsemen galloping through the city streets she immediately guessed who had sent them and on what mission. She ordered the castle gates to be slammed shut.
Lady Adelise then appeared on the parapet of the gatehouse. In reply to the challenge to surrender to the king’s authority, she replied that her husband had charged her to hold the castle until his return and that she would open the gates to nobody else. The royal troops retired to watch the castle and sent a rider off to inform Stephen of events. Perhaps the most interesting feature of this exchange is not simply that a woman could take command of a castle and its military garrison, but that nobody seemed to think this at all unusual or worthy of comment.
As soon as Bampton had been dealt with, Stephen marched to Exeter. He sent a small force off to Sir Baldwin’s castle at Plympton to see if he was there. He wasn’t, so the soldiers took the garrison prisoner and burned the castle to the ground before continuing on to rejoin Stephen at Exeter.
The king, meanwhile, had arrived at Exeter with his army. He personally demanded that Lady Adelise surrender the royal castle to him, but was rebuffed. The siege began in earnest.