King Stephen Bristol’s Most Famous Prisoner.


In 1120 a tragedy occurred. A vessel known as The White Ship sank off the coast of France. Everyone on board drowned including the heir to the English throne, William, the only son of Henry I. All the crew and passengers had been drunk and had engaged in revels and debauchery. As a result of this Henry I decided:

  1. To chastise himself for allowing his son and heir to go on a Club 18-30 holiday.
  2. To chastise himself for making his son heir to the throne of England but then not providing him with enough heir to adequately fill his lifebelt.
  3. To employ a dominatrix to chastise him instead as he considered it far more fun.

However, in the long run, the tragedy had far deeper ramifications for the stability of England. This was because Henry’s only surviving legitimate offspring was his daughter, Matilda. England had never previously been ruled by a monarch who liked crochet, cookery, wearing make-up and dresses, well not in public anyway. (One King did have a penchant for wearing dresses in private for which he earned the name ‘Edward The Crossdresser’.)

Henry was astute enough to realise that his daughter was in a perilous position and therefore got his barons to swear an oath that upon his death they would install Matilda as Queen. He then got them to swear an oath that they would install Sky Sports as soon as it became available, as there were some mouth-watering jousts lined up for 1127.

Henry I died in Rouen in 1135. How his finances got into such a perilous state is unknown. But what did become apparent soon after was that England was in the soup. For the barons immediately gathered and swore an oath to disregard all previous oaths they’d sworn, and furthermore, not to swear at any oaths in the future. This proved particularly difficult for the Duke of Norfolk who had an idiot of a handyman on his estate that he found it impossible not to cast profanities towards. As a result of swearing these oaths, Henry’s nephew Stephen took his chance and declared himself King of England.

Matilda didn’t take it lying down (as King Henry had discovered, she favoured being placed in perilous positions). With her ally the Duke of Gloucester at her side she landed in England and made her way to his stronghold, the West Country, and declared herself the true monarch. England was effectively divided, with Matilda holding the west with her capital in Bristol and Stephen holding the rest of the country with his capital in the Britannia Building Society – he wasn’t going to let his finances go to Rouen like Henry had.

Plenty of battles ensued and in 1141 King Stephen was captured at the Battle of Lincoln and imprisoned in Bristol Castle. But having the King as an inmate in one of his own prisons provided numerous difficulties such as:

  1. A special prison uniform had to be made for Stephen with the arrows pointing downwards as he expected everyone to kneel in his presence.
  2. Counterfeit coins made in 1141 in Bristol Gaol were more accurate than those produced by the Royal Mint.
  3. At Xmas 1141 King Stephen, aided by his supporters, ran a protection racket in the prison called ‘The Fist of Stephen’.
  4. It was far easier for prisoners to obtain a royal pardon. They simply needed to pass wind in his vicinity.
  5. Fellow prisoners didn’t involve Stephen in any of their escape plans, because whenever a tunnel was dug he expected to be invited to open it accompanied by a fanfare.
  6. On Xmas Day King Stephen was presented with various fruits in his cell as a present. However he hated the peaches and angrily tossed them through the bars of his cell window at a guard in the forecourt below. It whistled past the guard’s ear and therefore he became the first person in history to hear the King’s Peach on Xmas Day.

King Stephen actually fleeced his fellow convicts of much of their coinage by saying it belonged to him because his picture was on it. This actually endeared him to the other prisoners for although he was considered aloof, they could see he also had the conman touch. He also helped in the process of drawing a map of the castle grounds and near vicinity by sticking his orb out through the bars and capturing the image reflected upon its shiny surface. This was the first ever map made by orbanance survey.

King Stephen was eventually released and did a deal with Matilda. He was allowed to continue as King until his death, but had to recognise Matilda’s son, Henry, as heir to the throne. Henry would thus become Henry the Second the second Stephen died, which he did in 1154.

The problems prison warders encountered keeping a King imprisoned explains why not many monarchs have suffered this indignity since. Here is a list of kings since 1154 who have been kept prisoner:

  1. Richard I (banged up abroad).
  2. Richard II (became the most notable victim of Henry IV’s policy of cutting prison costs by not feeding them when he starved to death at Pontefract).
  3. Henry VI (the first monarch to lose his head while it was still firmly connected to his shoulders).
  4. Edward V (imprisoned in the Tower of London aged 12 in 1483 with his younger brother by their uncle, who became Richard III, and they were subsequently murdered there. It has to be remembered that this was in the days before Esther Rantzen started Childline).
  5. Charles I (imprisoned and then beheaded in 1649 for ignoring Parliament….I’d better start watching Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesdays I reckon).

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