William of Malmesbury's Historia Novella

William of Malmesbury's Historia Novella concerns the period between the death of Henry I (1135) and 1142, about the time of William's death. He tells us that one of his parents was of Norman descent and the other of Anglo-Saxon descent. He was remarkably well read in both classical literature and the literature of his own time, and apparently well-informed about contemporary events. The following extracts from the Historia Novella concern the events which took place when Geoffrey of Monmouth was working on the History of the Kings of Britain.

Source: William of Malmesbury, Historia Novella, in Contemporary Chronicles of the Middle Ages, trans. Joseph Stephenson (1850, repr. 1988), pp. 11-52.


To his most loving lord, Robert, son of king Henry, and earl of Gloucester, William, the Librarian of Malmesbury, wishes, after completing his victorious course on earth, eternal triumph in heaven. Many of the transactions of your father, of glorious memory, I have not omitted to record, both in the fifth book of my Regal History, and in those three smaller volumes, which I have intituled Chronicles. Your highness is now desirous that those events which, though the miraculous power of God, have taken place in recent times, in England, should be transmitted to posterity; truly, like all advancement of virtue, what more conduces to justice, than to recognise the Divine favour towards good men, and his vengeance upon the wicked? What, too, more grateful, than to commit to the page of history the exploits of brave men, by whose example others may shake off their indolence, and take up arms in defence of their country? As this task is committed to my pen, I think the narrative will proceed with exacter order, if, going back a little, I trace the series of years from the return of the empress into England, after the death of her husband. First, therefore, invoking the help of God, as is fitting, and purposing to write the truth, without listening to enmity, or sacrificing to favour, I shall begin as follows.

In the twenty-sixth year of Henry king of England, which was in the year of our Lord one thousand one hundred and twenty-six, Henry emperor of Germany, to whom Matilda, the aforesaid king's daughter, had been married, died in the very bloom of his life and of his conquests. Our king was, at that time, residing in Normandy, to quell whatever tumults might arise in those parts. As soon as he heard of the death of his son-in-law, he recalled his daughter, by honourable messengers despatched for that purpose. The empress, as they say, returned with reluctance, as she had become habituated to the country which was her dowry, and had large possessions there. It is well known, that several princes of Lorrain and Lombardy came, during succeeding years, repeatedly into England, to ask her in marriage; but they lost the fruit of their labours, the king designing by the marriage of his daughter, to procure peace between himself and the earl of Anjou. He was certainly, in an extraordinary degree, the greatest of all kings in the memory either of ourselves, or of our fathers: and yet, nevertheless, he ever, in some measure, dreaded the power of the earls of Anjou. Hence it arose, that he broke off and annulled the espousals which William, his nephew, afterwards earl of Flanders, was said to be about to contract with the daughter of Fulk, earl of Anjou, who was afterwards king of Jerusalem. Hence, too, it arose, that he united a daughter of the same earl to his son William, while yet a stripling; and hence it was, that he married his daughter (of whom we began to speak), after her imperial match, to a son of the same Fulk, as my ensuing narrative will show.

In the twenty-seventh year of his reign, in the month of September, king Henry came to England, bringing his daughter with him. But, at the ensuing Christmas, convening a great number of clergy and nobility at London, he gave the county of Salop to his wife, the daughter of the earl of Louvain, whom he had married after the death of Matilda. Distressed that this lady had no issue, and fearing lest she should be perpetually childless, with well-founded anxiety, he turned his thoughts to the successor to the kingdom. On which subject, having held much previous and long-continued deliberation, he now at this council compelled all the nobility of England, as well as the bishops and abbots, to make oath, that, if he should die without male issue, they would, without delay or hesitation, accept his daughter Matilda, the late empress, as their sovereign; observing how, prejudicially to the country, fate had snatched away his son William, to whom the kingdom by right had pertained; and that his daughter still survived, to whom alone the legitimate succession belonged, from her grandfather, uncle, and father, who were kings, as well as from her maternal descent for many ages back: inasmuch as from Egbert, king of the West Saxons, who first subdued or expelled the other kings of the island, in the year of the Incarnation eight hundred, through a line of fourteen kings, down to the year one thousand and forty-three, in which king Edward, who lies at Westminster, was elevated to the throne, the line of royal blood did never fail nor falter in the succession. Moreover, Edward, the last, and at the same time the most noble of that stock, had united Margaret, his grand-niece by his brother Edmund Ironside, to Malcolm king of Scotland, whose daughter Matilda, as was well known, was the empress's mother.

All, therefore, in this council, who were considered as persons of any note, took the oath: and first of all, William, archbishop of Canterbury; next, the other bishops, and the abbots in like manner. The first of the laity who swore was David, king of Scotland, uncled of the empress; then Stephen, ear of Moriton and Boulogne, nephew of king Henry by his sister Adala; then Robert, the king's son, who was born to him before he came to the throne, and whom he had created earl of Gloucester, bestowing on him in marriage Mabel, a noble and excellent woman; a lady as devoted to her husband as blessed in a numerous and beautiful offspring. There was a singular dispute, as they relate, between Robert and Stephen, contending, with laudable emulation, which of them should take the oath first; one alleging the privilege of a son, the other the dignity of a nephew. Thus all being bound by fealty and oath, they, at that time departed to their homes. But after Pentecost, the king sent his daughter into Normandy, ordering her to be betrothed, by the archbishop of Rouen, to the son of Fulk aforesaid, a youth of high nobility and noted courage; nor did he himself delay setting said for Normandy, for the purpose of uniting them in wedlock. Which being completed, all declared prophetically, as it were, that, after his death, they would break their plighted oath. I have frequently heard Roger bishop of Salisbury say, that he was freed from the oath he had taken to the empress; for that he had sworn conditionally, that the king should not marry his daughter to any one out of the kingdom, without his consent and that of the rest of the nobility: that none of them advised the match, or indeed knew of it, except Robert earl of Gloucester, Brian the earl's son, and the bishop of Lisieux. Nor do I relate this merely because I believe the assertion of a man who knew how to accommodate himself to every change of time and fortune; but, as an historian of veracity, I write the general belief of the people.

The remaining years of the life and reign of Henry I, I must review briefly, in order that posterity may neither be defrauded of a knowledge of these events; nor that I may seem to dwell on topics little relevant to this history. In his twenty-eighth year the king returned from Normandy; in his twenty-ninth a circumstance occurred in England which may seem surprising to our long-haired gallants, who, forgetting what they were born, transform themselves into the fashion of femalesm by the length of their locks. A certain English knight, who prided himself on the luxuriance of his tresses, being stung by conscience on the subject, seemed to feel, in a dream, as though some person strangled him with his ringlets. Awaking in a fright, he immediately cut off all his superfluous hair. The example spread throughout England, and, as recent punishment is apt to affect the mind, almost all military men allowed their hair to be cropped in a proper manner without reluctance. But this decency was not of long continuance, for scarcely had a year expired, ere all who thought themselves courtly, relapsed into their former vice; they vied with women in length of locks, and wherever they were defective, put on false tresses, forgetful, or rather ifnorant, of the saying of the apostle, "If a man nurture his hair, it is a shame to him." [1 Cor. xi. 14] In his thirtieth year [A.D. 1130], king Henry went into Normandy. Pope Honorius dying in this year, the church of Rome was agitated by the great contentions about electing his successor. There were, at that time, in the city, two very celebrated cardinals, Gregory, deacon of St. Angelo, and Peter, cardinal-priest, son of Leo, prince of the Romans, both noted for learning and activity, nor could the people easily discern which of them more justly ought to be elected by the clergy. The party, however, which favoured Gregory took the lead, and ordaining him pope, called him Innocent....But the other party, after Honorius was buried, at the instigation of Peter's brothers, who were the most opulent and powerful of the Romans, having elected and consecrated him, gave him the name of Anaclet....Innocent, however, excluded from Rome, passed the Alps and went into France. Here he was immediately received by all the Cisalpine churches; and moreover, even king Henry, who did not easily change his opinion, willingly acknowledged him at Chartres; and at Rouen condescended to honour him, not only with presents from himself, but also from the nobility, and even the Jews. Yet Innocent, though greatly assisted by the kings of England and France, and the emperor of Germany, could never enjoy peace, because Anaclet occupied the see of Rome. However, Anaclet himself dying in the eighth year if his usurped papacy, as it was called, Innocent enjoys the papal dignity unmolested to the present time.

[A.D. 1131] In the thirty-first year of his reign, king Henry returned to England. The empress, too, in the same year, arrived on her native soil, and a full meeting of the nobility being held at Northampton, the oath of fidelity to her was renewed by such as had already sworn, and also taken by such as hitherto had not. In the same year, Louis, king of France, growing aged and unwieldy through extreme corpulency, commanded his son to be crowned as successor to the kingdom; but being killed soon after by the fall of his horse, Louis caused another of his sons to be consecrated king, by the hands of the Roman pontiff. He, they say, does not degenerate from the ancient valour of the French, and has also acquired Aquitain as the marriage portion of his wife, which, it is well known, the kings of France have never held in their own right, since Louis, son of Charles the Great....

The day before the thirty-second year of his reign was completed [A.D. 1133], Henry, on the nones of August, (the very day on which he had formerly been crowned at Westminster,) set sail for Normandy. This was to be the last, the fatal voyage of his reign....Doubtless, he performed many things worthy of record in Normandy, but it was my design to omit whatever did not come authenticated to my knowledge. Divers expectations of his return to England were all frustrated by some adverse fate, or by the will of God. He reigned, then, thirty-five years, and from the nones of August to the kalends of December, that is, four months wanting four days. Engaged in hunting at Liuns, he was taken suddenly ill. His malady increasing, he summoned to him Hugh, whom, from prior of Lewes, he had made abbot of Reading, and afterwards archbishop of Rouen, who was justly indebted to him and his heirs for such great favours. The report of his sickness quickly gathered the nobility around him. Robert, too, his son, the earl of Gloucester, was present, who, from his unblemished fidelity and matchless virtue, has deserved to be especially signalized throughout all ages. Being interrogated by these persons as to his successor, he awarded all his territories, on either side of the sea, to his daughter, in legitimate and perpetual succession, being somewhat displeased with her husband, as he had irritated him both by threats and certain injuries. Having passed the seventh day of his sickeness, he died about midnight....These circumstances relating to the faith of king Henry when dying, were truly attested by the aforesaid archbishop of Rouen....

In the meantime, Stephen, earl of Mortain and Boulogne, nephew of king Henry (as I have before said) who, after the king of Scotland, was the first layman that had sworn fidelity to the empress, hastened his return into England by way of Whitsand. The empress, from certain causes, as well as her brother, Robert earl of Gloucester, and almost all the nobility, delayed returning to the kingdom. However, some castles in Normandy, the principal of which was Danfront, espoused the party of the heiress. Moreover, it is well known, that on the day on which Stephen disembarked in England, there was, very early in the morning, contrary to the nature of winter in these countries, a terrible peal of thunder, with most dreadful lightning, so that the world seemed well-nigh about to be dissolved. After being acknowledged as king by the people of London and of Winchester, he gained over also Roger bishop of Salisbury, and William de Pont de l'Arche, the keepers of the royal treasures. Yet, not to conceal the truth from posterity, all his attempts would have been in vain, had not his brother, Henry bishop of Winchester, who is now legate of the papar see in England, granted him his entire support; allured, indeed, by the fullest expectation that Stephen would follow the example of his grandfather William in the management of the kingdom, and more especially in the strictness of ecclesiastical discipline. In consequence, when Stephen was bound by the rigorous oath which William archbishop of Canterbury required from him, concerning restoring and preserving the liberty of the church, the bishop of Winchester became his pledge of surety. The written tenor of this oath I shall be careful hereafter to insert in its proper place.

Stephen, therefore, was crowned king of England on Sunday, the eleventh of the kaends of January [Dec. 22], the twenty-second day after the decease of his uncle, in the year of our Lord's incarnation, one thousand one hundred and thirty-five; in the presence of three bishops, that is, the archbishop, and those of Winchester and Salisbury; but there were no abbots and scarcely any of the nobility. He was a man of activity, but imprudent; strenuous in war; of great mind in attempting works of difficulty; mild and compassionate to his enemies, and affable to all; kind as far as promise went, but sure to disappoint in its truth and execution: whence he soon afterwards neglected the advice of his brother, befriended by whose assistance, I have said, he had supplanted his adversaries and obtained the kingdom.

In the year of our Lord one thousand one hundred and thirty-six, the wind being now favourable, the body of king Henry was, immediately after Christmas, put on ship-board, and brought to England; and, in the presence of his successor in the kingdom was buried at the monastery of Reading, which he had liberally endowed, and filled with an order of monks of singular piety. Shortly afterwards, a little before Lent, king Stephen went into Northumberland, that he might have a conference with David, king of Scotland, who was said to entertain hostile sentiments towards him. From David he readily obtained what he wished, because, being softened by the natural gentleness of his manners, or by the approach of old age, he willingly embraced the tranquility of peace, real or pretended.

In the same year, after Easter, Robert earl of Gloucester, of whose prudence Stephen chiefly stood in awe, came to England. While he was yet resident in Normandy, he had most earnestly considered what line of conduct he should determine upon in the present state of affairs. If he became subject to Stephen, it seemed contrary to the oath he had sworn to his sister; if he opposed him, he saw that such conduce could nothing benefit her or his nephews, but would certainly most grievously injure himself. For the king, as I said before, had immense treasure, which his uncle had been accumulating for many years. His coin, and that of the best quality, was estimated at an hundred thousand pounds; besides which there were vessels of gold and silver, of great weight and inestimable value, collected by the magnificence of the preceding kings, and chiefly by Henry. A man possessed of such boundless treasures could not want supporters, more especially as he was profuse, and, what by no means becomes a prince, even prodigal. Soldiers of all kinds, and light-armed troops, were flocking to him, chiefly from Flanders and Brittany. These were a most rapacious and violent race of men; who made no scruple to violate churchyards or rob a church: moreover, not only would they drag men of religious order from their horses, but also make them captive; and this was not merely done by foreigners, but even by the native soldiers, who had abhorred the tranquility of king Henry's time, because it subjected them to a life of poverty. All these most readily resorted to the prince whom they could easily incline to their purposes, pushing their fortune at the expense of the people. Stephen, indeed, before he came to the throne, from his complacency of manners, and readiness to joke, and sit, and regale, even with low people, had gained so much on their affections as is hardly to be conceived; and already had all the nobility of England willingly acknowledged him. This most prudent earl, therefore, was extremely desirous to convince them of their misconduct, and recal them to wiser sentiments by his presence; for, to oppose Stephen's power, he was unable, from the causes aforesaid: indeed, he had not the liberty of coming to England, unless, appearing as a partaker of their revolt, he dissembled for a time his secret intentions. He did homage to the king, therefore, under a certain condition; namely, so long as he should preserve his rank entire, and maintain his engagements to him; for having long since scrutinized Stephen's disposition, he foresaw the instability of his faith.

In the same year, soon after the earl's arrival, the bishops swore fidelity to the king, so long as he should maintain the liberty of the church and the vigour of its discipline. He himself also swore according to the tenor of the following instrument:

"I, Stephen, by the grace of God, elected king of England by the consent of the clergy and the people, and consecrated by the lord William, archbishop of Canterbury and legate of the holy roman church, and afterwards confirmed by Innocent, pope of the holy Roman see, through respect and love towards God, do grant the holy church to be free, and confirm to it all due reverence. I promise that I will neither do anything simoniacally, nor permit it to be done, in the church or in matters ecclesiastical...."

The names of the witnesses, who were numerous, I disdain to particularise, because he as basely perverted almost everything, as if he had sworn only that he might manifest himself a violator of his oath to the whole kingdom. This easy man must pardon me for speaking the truth; who, had he entered on the sovereignty lawfully, and not given a ready ear to the insinuations of the malevolent in the administration of it, would have wanted little in any princely quality. Under him, therefore, the treasures of several churches were pillaged, and their landed possessions given to laymen; the churches of the clergy were sold to foreigners; the bishops made captive, or forced to alienate their property; the abbeys given to improper persons, either through the influence of friendship or for the discharge of debts. Still I think such transactions are not so much to be ascribed to him as to his advisers, who persuaded him that he ought never to want money solong as the monasteries were stored with treasure.

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Last Updated on 13 February 2000.