The Escape of Queen Matilda from Oxford Castle, composed by John McLaren Ralston and engraved by E. Dalziel. Wood engraving, 4 ¼ by 5 ½ inches (10.8 cm high by 14 cm wide). — Chapter XI in A Child's History of England, Vol. XVIII of the Household Edition: 33. Date of publication: 1878. [Click on the image to enlarge it.]

Context of the Illustration: Queen Maud escapes her pursuers

Matilda then submitted herself to the Priests, and the Priests crowned her Queen of England.

She did not long enjoy this dignity. The people of London had a great affection for Stephen; many of the Barons considered it degrading to be ruled by a woman; and the Queen’s temper was so haughty that she made innumerable enemies. The people of London revolted; and, in alliance with the troops of Stephen, besieged her at Winchester, where they took her brother Robert prisoner, whom, as her best soldier and chief general, she was glad to exchange for Stephen himself, who thus regained his liberty. Then, the long war went on afresh. Once, she was pressed so hard in the Castle of Oxford, in the winter weather when the snow lay thick upon the ground, that her only chance of escape was to dress herself all in white, and, accompanied by no more than three faithful Knights, dressed in like manner that their figures might not be seen from Stephen’s camp as they passed over the snow, to steal away on foot, cross the frozen Thames, walk a long distance, and at last gallop away on horseback. All this she did, but to no great purpose then; for her brother dying while the struggle was yet going on, she at last withdrew to Normandy. [Chapter XI, — "England under Matilda and Stephen," 33]

Commentary: A Scene from "The Anarchy"

Dickens makes Maud (Latin "Matilda") an object lesson on how not to treat the People. She might have been the successful claimant to the throne had she not treated the burghers of London with contempt. McLaren Ralston, however, has selected for illustration an episode which enlists the reader's sympathy for an Empress, the rightful heir to the throne, forced to flee through enemy lines at night. The whole mess, contends Dickens, was the result of the perfidious Stephen's asserting with the support of a suborned witness that the late King Henry the First had named Stephen as his successor on his death-bed.

Dickens actually lays out the basis for The Anarchy fairly succinctly. The adversaries, Stephen and Maud, were not siblings but cousins. The married daughter of King Henry the First was the legitimate heir by right of primogeniture; however, as she was not a male claimant, the barons elected a male from the line. Their choice was not the son of Henry the First, or of Matilda (Maud), Henry’s only legitimate daughter. But of course everyone had expected Henry's son to inherit the throne. Then in the winter of 1120 the White Ship sank off the coast of Normandy and its royal occupant, Prince William Ætheling, drowned. Henry the First, remarks Sir Winston Churchill in The History of the English-Speaking Peoples, "never smiled again," because his son's untimely death had thrown the succession into turmoil. Since the Salic Law did not apply in England, Maud’s claim was superior to her cousin's. Stephen was the son of the Conquerer’s daughter, Adele, but as the Count of Blois Stephen was a feudal heavyweight, heir to vast lands in England. The crisis came five years later in 1225 when Henry the First died. Henry had had the barons swear to stand by Maud, now married to the Count of Anjou but not present in England. The king’s cousin came up against the king’s illegitimate son, Robert of Gloucester, who, reckoning his claim would not hold, elected to support Maud instead of Stephen. The result was a civil war in which King David of Scotland, Maud’s uncle, invaded Northumbria.

The scene which Ralston has chosen underscores the massive reversal in Maud's fortunes. She had arrived in triumph on English shores, supported by Robert and David, in 1139. Two years later, she had captured Stephen at the Battle of Lincoln, but failed in her attempt to be crowned at Westminster because of bitter opposition from the London crowds. Forced to retreat to Oxford, Matilda lost her staunch ally, Robert, after the Rout of Winchester in 1141, at which point Matilda had to agree to exchange him for Stephen. And now we come to the subject of the illustration: Matilda, who was trapped in Oxford Castle by Stephen's forces that winter, was forced to escape at night across the frozen River Isis to Abingdon, reputedly wearing white as camouflage in the snow. The war dragged on into a stalemate, with Matilda controlling the south-west of England, and Stephen the south-east and the Midlands. The son of Maud, the future Henry the Second, eventually broke the impasse.

Related Material

Scanned image, caption material and commentary by Philip V. Allingham. [You may use this image without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose, as long as you (1) credit the person who scanned the image, and (2) link your document to this URL in a web document or cite the Victorian Web in a print one.]


Avery, Gillian, ed. Charles Dickens: "A Holiday Romance" and Other Writings for Children with All the Original Illustrations. Everyman edition. London: J. M. Dent, 1995.

Churchill, Winston. "Growth and Turmoil." The History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Vol. I, No. 11: Anarchy in England. London: Purnell, 1969.338-346.

Dickens, Charles. A Child's History of England". Illustrated by John McLaren Ralston. Household Edition. London: Chapman & Hal1, 1878. XVIII.

_______. A Child's History of England in Works. Centenary Edition. 36 vols. London: Chapman and Hall; New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1910-12.

Created 7 March 2021