Royal bastard, powerful magnate, capable commander – King Stephen’s man?
By Cathie Dunn
What if…Robert of Gloucester had not supported his half-sister, the Empress Matilda?
Would the mid-12 th century civil war that ravaged much of England, and Normandy by
association, have happened at all?
A Race against Time, my short story in the wonderful anthology, Alternate Endings,
published through the Historical Writers Forum, is set just before the period now widely
known as The Anarchy. It begins on December 1st , 1135, with the death of King Henry I at
his hunting lodge at Lyons-la-Forêt in Normandy.
Henry’s illness appeared quite suddenly, made worse by a meal of lamprey eels, apparently,
that didn’t do his constitution any good, and it didn’t give his administrators enough time to
consider the serious matter of a successor. Henry refused any discussions on the subject.
So the status quo remained that, as designated heiress, Matilda, Countess of Anjou and
former Holy Roman Empress, was considered Henry’s heir as his only surviving legitimate
child. But she was, of course, a woman, and one married to a rather unpopular and ambitious
young noble, Geoffrey of Anjou. It didn’t help matters that Henry had been quarrelling with
the couple before his untimely death. In short, the situation was a mess.
In A Race against Time, Robert of Gloucester, illegitimate eldest son of King Henry I, seeks
to scupper Stephen of Blois’ rushed accession to the English throne (and you’ll have to read
the story to find out what happened!), but what if Robert had stayed on at Stephen’s side, for
After all, with Hugh Bigod claiming that Henry had released the barons from their oath of
fealty to Matilda on his deathbed, he opened the door for an alternative candidate – one more
suited to the responsibilities of kingship than a mere woman. It was a view that was shared
widely amongst the English nobles. Very few were surprised when Stephen – Matilda’s
cousin through his mother’s side – made a dash to Westminster and had himself crowned
with unseemly haste. Very likely, they approved of his ’decisive’ action.
As did Robert of Gloucester at the time, it would appear. Early on, the Empress’ older half-brother, a highly valued commander and astute politician, pledged his allegiance to Stephen. But by 1138, he’d seen enough, and was easily persuaded to pursue his sister’s claim to the
There were rumours of a strong dislike between the two men, and that Robert did not hide his disappointment in the new king. But how could Stephen have kept this man, whose sweeping lands in the west country stretched into south Wales, on his side?
With Robert covering his back, Stephen could have pacified the squabbling nobles. They’d have toed the line rather than challenge him and doing pretty much what they wanted. Perhaps Robert could even have kept Stephen’s brother Henry, Archbishop of Winchester, from scheming. He’d have had a task at hand to convince Matilda’s supporters to give up any hopes of her becoming queen, but they would likely have heeded his guidance.
But how could Stephen have ‘bribed’ this man who did not seek the highest power, who was no backstabbing traitor? Perhaps if Robert had been granted a position of high power, and in particular support against his enemies in the ranks of the barons, he may have stayed. If Stephen had been less dithering, less of a ‘good guy’, but come down harsh on the troublemakers, Robert would have supported him. If Stephen had been a decisive king, hard but fair, a medieval ruler not relying on his popularity amongst the peers, and if he’d not given in to their increasing demands. If…
Without Robert, Matilda’s chances would have been close to nil. She had friends, barons in
the west and south-west of England. But with her husband’s focus on reining in the small
uprisings in Normandy, she wouldn’t have had the influence or the manpower to stage an
attempt at claiming her throne. Without Robert, she’d never have made it to England. Perhaps
as a visitor, but never as a potential queen in her own right.
This would have also meant England and Normandy remaining divided – England firmly in
Stephen’s hand and Normandy in Matilda’s and Geoffrey’s. Normandy was her true home,
but her husband’s campaigns to consolidate his power and defend Normandy against raids
from the French may have counted for nothing without the backing of powerful magnates
such as Robert. A small duchy with a large, greedy kingdom on its doorstep, snapping at its
Matilda may have lost everything.
And Robert? Well, he’d have been in a high position of power, possibly responsible for
defence of the kingdom, or even for the upbringing of Stephen’s son, Eustace. Perhaps the
boy may have turned out a nicer character than he so clearly was. And maybe, then, he’d
have survived his father…
The balance of power would have shifted, had Robert of Gloucester remained at Stephen’s
court and in the king’s favour. The good folk of England wouldn’t have seen nearly two
decades of fighting, particularly across the south and west. There wouldn’t have been all the
burnt crops and destroyed fields and castles. And there wouldn’t have been all that needless
But then, Robert of Gloucester was a man of principle, of loyalty and honour. Any personal
ambition of his never made him aim for top job itself, as he knew it to be wrong. Times had
changed. Also, it would appear, he didn’t suffer fools gladly, in that he preferred to see his
headstrong sister accede to the throne of England, rather than malleable, indecisive Stephen.
He gave the man the benefit of a doubt early on, and then chose his side, never again
wavering in his support for Matilda.
It is, perhaps, for those reasons that Robert, earl of Gloucester, is my favourite historical
character. And I dare say, he’d have made a fine King of England, even if he was born on the
wrong side of the blanket…
A Race Against Time, my short story in Alternate Endings
The King is dead. Long live the…Queen?
A Race against Time begins with the news of the death of Henry I, King of England and
Duke of Normandy. His illegitimate son, Robert, earl of Gloucester, has expected the news.
Like the other lords, he has sworn allegiance to his half-sister, Matilda, Henry I’s only
legitimate heir. But she is a woman!
When word reaches him that their cousin, Stephen of Blois, is on his way to London to seize
the throne, Robert and his fellow lords must decide how to proceed, fast.
Should they put a woman on the throne, after all, in her own right and with an ambitious
husband no one can control? Or is there perhaps another contender?
International buy link for Alternate Endings: https://mybook.to/AltEnd
About Cathie Dunn:
Cathie Dunn writes historical fiction, mystery, and romance. The focus of her current historical fiction projects is on strong women through time.
For many years, Cathie has been intrigued by the period in English history now known as The Anarchy, the mid-12th century civil war that affected England and Normandy. Although her current novel writing projects are set in other eras, she is planning to return to The Anarchy soon again, with a sequel to her romantic murder mystery, Dark Deceit.
In her spare time, Cathie loves to explore castles and ruins, allowing her to get ‘in the zone’ with her historical characters, fictional or real. She currently lives in the south of France with her husband and two rescue pets.
Review Blog: https://ruinsandreading.blogspot.com/
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/author/cathiedunn