Your guide to the Anarchy, the bloody battle between Stephen and Matilda

What was the Anarchy that tore England apart in the 12th century? What sparked the episode often known as one of the darkest periods in England's history? Emma Slattery Williams explores for BBC History Revealed

Henry I proclaims Matilda as his heir

What was the Anarchy?

The Anarchy was a period of civil war in England between 1135 and 1153, following the death of Henry I. The anonymous 12th-century history Gesta Stephani (The Deeds of Stephen) paints a dismal picture of the state of the country at this time: “England, formerly the seat of justice, the habitation of peace, the height of piety, the mirror of religion, became thereafter a home of perversity, a haunt of strife, a training-ground of disorder, and a teacher of every kind of rebellion.” The Anarchy would be looked back on for centuries to come as one of the darkest periods in England’s history.

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What had led up to the succession crisis?

In 1120, Henry I’s only legitimate son and heir, William Adelin, was killed when his ship sank in the English Channel. Fearing for the succession, Henry married Adeliza of Louvain (a woman 35 years his junior) in 1121 in the hope of fathering another male heir – though he had other sons, none were legitimate. Until this crisis, Henry’s rule had been viewed as strong with a centralised government; the thought of chaos at his death was troubling to England’s nobility.

Though his second marriage remained childless, a new option presented itself in 1125, when Henry’s only other legitimate child Matilda – Empress Matilda that is, as she had married Holy Roman Emperor Henry V – was widowed. She returned to Normandy (an English possession since the Norman Conquest) and, in 1128, was married to Geoffrey of Anjou, heir to the French lands of Anjou, Touraine and Maine, forming an alliance that secured Normandy’s southern borders.

Henry named Matilda his heir and made his court swear an oath to follow her, but his decision was not popular, and agreement was given reluctantly. Matilda had spent little time in England and her husband was not popular with the English nobles – he was technically at war with Henry when the king died. What’s more, England had never had a reigning queen before, and people were suspicious of a woman on the throne.

Henry named Matilda as his heir and made his court swear an oath to follow her; his decision was not popular

During Henry’s final years, relations with his daughter and son-in-law became strained. Matilda had been promised a number of castles in Normandy as part of her dowry, but had not been given any indication of when she could take possession of them. In 1135, Matilda and Geoffrey demanded these castles and insisted that the Norman nobility swear allegiance to the couple. Henry refused, perhaps out of fear that Geoffrey would try and seize power in Normandy for himself. And when a rebellion broke out in Normandy, Matilda and Geoffrey sided with the rebels against Henry.

What happened when Henry I died?

When Henry I died on 1 December 1135, some nobles declared that the king had released them from their oath to Matilda. The Norman barons believed that Theobald of Blois, Henry’s nephew via his sister Adela, would be the ideal choice for England’s king. Theobald’s younger brother Stephen, however, had other ideas. He was a prominent, well-liked member of Henry’s court, and had the support of the Church via their younger brother – another Henry, the Bishop of Winchester. Wasting no time, Stephen crossed the Channel to England from Boulogne, seizing the crown on 22 December.

King Stephen
King Stephen proved to be a rather ineffectual monarch whose reign was overshadowed by the chaos of The Anarchy. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

How did Matilda react?

Matilda refused to renounce the crown. Her claim was upheld by her half-brother Robert of Gloucester (one of Henry I’s illegitimate sons), as well as her uncle King David I of Scotland. Robert’s declaration of support for Matilda caused a rebellion to rise up across the southwest of England as well as Kent, while Geoffrey of Anjou invaded Normandy and David I attacked northern England.

In 1139, Matilda arrived in England to claim her throne. She stayed at Arundel Castle with her stepmother while Robert attempted to rally support for her across the country. Stephen besieged the castle, effectively trapping Matilda inside. As she had not yet declared herself as a threat to him, he allowed her safe passage to meet up with Robert in Bristol. There, she established a base in the southwest. Over the next few years there were minor scuffles and an attempt at peace as Stephen tried to reclaim the region.


Listen: Catherine Hanley tells the story of Empress Matilda, whose battle for the English throne became known as ‘the anarchy’ on this episode of the HistoryExtra podcast:


Why was this conflict called ‘the Anarchy’?

As Stephen’s rule progressed, he began to alienate many nobles who had been key advisors to Henry I by promoting his own friends.

Stephen had also made an enemy of the clergy when he arrested Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, and his position as king became unstable. Members of the clergy saw this as an attack on the church itself and many now threw their support behind Matilda’s claim. Many barons and clergy became a law unto themselves. Authority broke down, Stephen’s government lost control – hence the term ‘anarchy’ – and unlicensed castles began to appear. A number of nobles wanted to regain what they saw as hereditary rights to lands that had changed hands during Henry I’s reign, and some changed sides frequently to gain advantage.

Did Matilda come close to claiming the crown?

In 1141, Stephen besieged Lincoln Castle, where he was set upon by forces led by Robert of Gloucester and Ranulf of Chester. Defeated in the ensuing battle, Stephen was taken to Bristol and held prisoner for nearly nine months. Even though he was the anointed king, his legs were chained, and his poor treatment served to lessen Matilda’s popularity.

With Stephen behind bars, Matilda took her chance and made it as far as Westminster, with preparations underway for her coronation. However, she quickly lost support from the people of London for another reason. In the lead up to a coronation, the soon-to-be monarch would traditionally listen to petitions about tax concessions and requests for favours, but Matilda granted no favours and banished all petitioners from her presence. The people now saw that Matilda as queen was no better a solution for the country and they rang the bells of the city. Matilda was forced to flee to Oxford when an angry mob and the London militia advanced on Westminster.

A 19th-century illustration shows Matilda being permitted to leave Arundel Castle
A 19th-century illustration shows Matilda being permitted to leave Arundel Castle. (Photo by © Historical Picture Archive/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)”

What happened to Stephen?

In September 1141, Robert was captured at Winchester by Stephen’s queen, also called Matilda, who led loyal nobles and Flemish mercenaries in Stephen’s name. Robert was exchanged for Stephen, weakening the former empress further. Stephen then proceeded to attack Oxford and besieged its castle, where Matilda was based, forcing her to flee to Abingdon Abbey and then Wallingford Castle.

The war carried on with skirmishes and victories on both sides, but neither Stephen nor Matilda’s forces were able to deliver a decisive blow. In 1147, Robert of Gloucester died, and with him the main thrust of Matilda’s military campaign. She left for Normandy the following year and passed her claim to the throne to her son, Henry Plantagenet.

How did the civil war end?

Henry enjoyed military success in Normandy and set his sights on England – in 1153, he undertook an effective campaign, managing to take control of much of the country with little fighting.

The first vestiges of a resolution appeared at Wallingford in July 1153: Stephen and Henry’s forces camped on either side of the Thames, but the barons on both sides refused to fight. Many had already made peace amongst themselves and forced Henry and Stephen to do the same – though there were skirmishes while the peace was ironed out.

Stephen’s son Eustace was less than happy with the idea of a truce, but his sudden death in August simplified matters as far as claimants to the throne were concerned, leading to a more formal agreement – the Treaty of Winchester, in which Stephen would continue to rule, with Henry as his successor. When Stephen died in 1154, Henry Plantagenet became Henry II – the first of the dynasty that ruled England until 1485.

What part did Scotland play?

King David of Scotland invaded England on Stephen’s ascension to the throne as he recognised his niece, Matilda, as the rightful monarch. The only way Stephen could diffuse the situation was to cede Carlisle and give David’s son, Henry, the title and lands of the Earldom of Huntingdon.

David would invade northern England numerous times over the next few years to help Matilda’s efforts and to increase his own territories. The 1138 Battle of the Standard was an English victory, but David received much of the territorial concessions he had wanted including the Earldom of Northumberland as well as keeping hold of Carlisle and Cumberland. David remained loyal to Matilda throughout Stephen’s reign but did not take his army south in support.

What were the lasting effects on England?

Though the economy was in tatters due to long periods of fighting, Henry II united a kingdom that had been torn apart, dismissing the Scottish and Welsh invaders who had taken advantage of the chaos. He also listened to the advice of his barons, which Stephen had often neglected to do.

As royal authority had weakened during Stephen’s reign, the clergy had made a move to extend the Church’s jurisdiction. Henry II attempted to reverse this with the Constitution of Clarendon – 16 articles which would reduce ecclesiastical privilege and lessen the power of the church courts. Quarrels about this would eventually lead to the infamous falling-out between Henry II and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket, and the latter’s murder.

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This article was first published in the October 2020 edition of History Revealed