1141: Stephen v Matilda

Part three in our 20-part series looking at decisive moments of the last 1,000 years in British history explores 1100–1149. Here Edmund King discusses a struggle that brought the political process into disrepute, and made the land's rulers aware of the power of the people

Part three in our 20-part series looking at decisive moments of the last 1,000 years in British history explores 1100–1149

So far in this series we have had two battles which acted as turning points in the history of the 11th century. Assandun in 1016 ushered in the Danish conquest; Hastings in 1066 led no less inexorably to the Norman Conquest of England. Thereafter, the Anglo-Norman lords, monitored by their kings, were a dynamic force. By 1135, they controlled most of the southern half of Wales, projecting their power from castles such as Cardiff, Brecon, Cardigan and Pembroke. The Scottish kings adapted to the same pattern, building castles and boroughs at centres such as Roxburgh, Berwick, Perth, and Edinburgh, and Norman families such as the Bruces and Stewarts accepted their lordship.

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The battle fought at Lincoln on 2 February 1141 seemed likely to prove no less significant than Assundun if not Hastings. Outside the city walls, two substantial armies confronted each other. On the one side were King Stephen (c1092–1154, a grandson of William I, and Henry I’s onetime protégé) with his earls, many created recently as a reward for loyalty, along with the baronage of northern England and troops from Flanders under William of Ypres. Opposing him, in the name of the Empress Matilda (1102–67, widow of Henry V of Germany, only legitimate daughter of Henry I) were her half-brother, Robert, Earl of Gloucester, Ranulf, Earl of Chester – whose ambition to control Lincoln had precipitated the battle – other magnates and “a dreadful and unendurable mass of Welshmen”. It was a serious matter to fight an anointed king, and his side at first thought their opponents would engage in jousting and then retire; they were wrong.

King Stephen was very quickly abandoned by his “false and factious earls”. He himself fought bravely, allegedly wielding a two-sided axe to good effect. But he was eventually captured. A voice rang out in the din of battle: “come here, everybody, come here: I’ve got the king!” This was William de Cahaignes, a vassal of the earl of Gloucester, and so indeed he had. Stephen surrendered to the earl and was taken to Gloucester, where he was “presented” to the empress and then held in Bristol castle.

Power through fear and respect

The empress, though not present at Lincoln, was the main victor. She was her father’s chosen successor; oaths to support her had been sworn to her more than once in his lifetime, by Stephen amongst others; and after she had come to England in September 1139 she had gained control over south west England and the Welsh marches, “partly through fear, partly through respect” (as the chronicler William of Malmesbury put it). Now all was set fair for Matilda to gain the crown that had been promised her and control over the whole of England. No wonder that she was reported to have been “over the moon” when she first had news of King Stephen’s capture.

The victory in battle needed legitimation. This was provided by a council of the English church, which met at Winchester between 7 and 10 April 1141, under the presidency of Henry, bishop of Winchester (King Stephen’s younger brother and the papal legate), and Theobald, archbishop of Canterbury. This body, after secret deliberations, “elected” the empress as ruler, giving her the new title of Lady of England – an unprecedented title which allowed the magnates of England who had sworn allegiance to Stephen now to transfer their loyalty to the Empress. And it allowed her to assume regalian authority. Matilda issued orders to the sheriffs of the counties and the barons of the exchequer; she referred to “the pleas of my crown”; and she issued coins in her own name.

1141 in context

The country was wealthy but was weakened by leadership problems

England was a wealthy country in the first half of the 12th century and its economy grew rapidly. It grew because new lands were taken in from the forest and the fen, and because the scale of the market grew. The east coast ports mushroomed – some of them, such as Grimsby and Boston, had not even been mentioned in Domesday Book. Enterprising landowners, their rent rolls fixed, sought to make a profit from trade. The great fairs of England, such as Winchester, which had grown to 16 days by 1155, were money-spinners for their lords. The upland areas of the British Isles grew more slowly, though there were significant mineral deposits, including the silver mines of Carlisle, the profits of which came to the Scots during Stephen’s reign.

In important respects, the ethos of the ruling class changed from one based on consumption to one based on profit. The professionalisation of royal financial management was exemplified in the exchequer. The sheriffs accounted at Winchester twice a year, their returns collected in the first royal accounts, the “pipe rolls”, one of which survives for the year 1129–30. Another facet of the new professionalism was the growth of the Cistercian order. The monks were given partly-cleared lands by their patrons; and their manors and granges were managed for profit.

After 1106, Henry I, the Conqueror’s youngest and most able son, ruled both England and Normandy. “He always attempted to give peace to his subject peoples”, said Orderic Vitalis, “and strictly punished law-breakers”. He projected his authority beyond his frontiers. In 1114, “the Welsh princes came to him and became his vassals”. In 1119, the French king, Louis VI, was defeated in battle at Brémule. Henry’s brother-in-law, David of Scots (king of Scots, 1124–53), and his nephews, Theobald, count of Blois, and Stephen, count of Mortain (king of England, 1135-54), attended his court.

In the second quarter of the century what was becoming a family firm suffered a managerial crisis. The underlying cause was the uncertainty about, followed by a dispute over, the succession. Henry’s only legitimate son William, all were agreed, “would have obtained the kingdom as of right”. But he died in 1120 and Henry’s second marriage proved barren. The oaths that were sworn to his daughter, the Empress Matilda, for the first time on 1 January 1127, proved inadequate to secure her succession when Henry died, and served to weaken the new king, Stephen. There followed what the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle described as “19 long winters” during which “Christ and his saints were asleep”.

Stephen made a series of concessions by which the “imperium” of Henry I shrunk to something close to a provincial lordship. In 1136, Stephen ceded Carlisle to David, King of Scots, and subsequently he granted his son, Henry, the earldom of Northumbria. With civil war occupying English interests in the 1140s, the prospect of Scotland holding onto Northumbria was not out of the question, though the early death of King David’s son, Henry, in 1152 weakened Scottish power.

In 1136 also the Welsh gained a number of victories over the Norman settlers, and in 1139 the Empress landed and established control over the west country.

The battle of Lincoln was of short-term significance in England, as the main entry shows, but it led inexorably to the King’s losing control over Normandy. The take-over of the duchy by the Empress’s husband, Geoffrey, count of Anjou, completed in 1144, drew upon the lessons of what had happened in England in 1141, with the securing of a political consensus, and a leading role being taken by the citizens of Rouen, who were growing rich from trade along the Seine.

Yet from then on Matilda suffered a series of reverses. The first came in London. She could not claim a national authority unless she could establish a base in the capital. She was received by the Londoners around the middle of June, “with magnificent processions”; but she knew she was not among friends and her behaviour cost her some of the friends that she had. Stephen and his family had a strong base in London and the home counties, particularly in Kent and Essex. The Queen mustered troops on the south bank of the Thames at Southwark. Her brother-in-law the bishop of Winchester joined her in urging that whilst Stephen was in captivity the lands he had controlled before he became King should be granted to his son, Eustace. “The empress would not hear of it” and her caution is understandable, but her refusal allowed her enemies to claim that other of the magnates would be treated in the same way and were liable to lose their lands. All the news from London brought tales of Matilda’s arrogance and insensitivity. She was losing the propaganda war.

Whilst all this was happening in the corridors and the cloisters of power, in the streets of London there was turmoil. Lincoln had been sacked after the battle, and a reputation for hostility to mercantile ambition went before the Empress into the city. On 24 June, taking advantage of the cover of the midsummer revels, the townspeople swarmed out of the city gates, “like bees from a hive”, and made for Matilda’s lodgings at Westminster. She was “reclining at a well-cooked feast”, so it was reported, when she had news of their approach and was forced to flee in disarray.

Worse was to follow. After a meeting at Oxford in late July, she returned to Winchester. There she hoped to establish what she could claim to be a national base. In the course of five weeks fighting, however, Winchester also would become too hot for her. She was in danger of being entrapped in the castle to the west of the city when she broke cover and escaped. She managed to reach Devizes in Wiltshire, “quite terrified”, strung across her horse, “like a corpse”. Her brother, however, Robert of Gloucester, was captured by Stephen’s forces at Stockbridge ford in Hampshire.

There were then discussions aimed at securing a permanent peace but all that could be agreed was that the King and the earl be exchanged for one another, “no other conditions being involved”, and that “they should return to the earlier position in the civil war”. The exchange took place on 1 November. It remained for a further church council to restore Stephen to the throne and for him then to be recrowned at Canterbury on Christmas Day. This was more than a simple crown-wearing. King Stephen had been sullied by his captivity. The job needed to be done again. When Richard I was released from captivity and re-crowned in 1194 the monks of Canterbury would turn up the same order of service as they had used in 1141.

The Anarchy: was it really that bloody, or have we been duped by Plantagenet spin?

Stephen and Matilda’s battle for the English crown in the mid-12th century has long been cast as one of the most turbulent episodes in British history. But, asks Matthew Lewis, does the ‘Anarchy’ deserve its bloody reputation?

Cousins at war: King Stephen is shown holding a falcon in a miniature from 1253. His battle with his cousin Matilda for the English crown plunged the realm into a long civil war. (Photo by Alamy)

Learning the lessons of 1141

Stephen was king at the end of 1141, just as he had been at the beginning. This hardly seems to indicate a “turning point” in English history. What made it so was not the events of the year but the reaction to them, in particular to the fact that King and Empress resumed their hostility as though nothing had happened. “These indeed were harsh and ill-judged terms and bound to do harm to the entire country”, wrote the London-based author of the Gesta Stephani. William of Malmesbury said that the year was “ill-omened and almost mortal to England”. The political commentators spoke with one voice and they spoke for the nation. The year 1141 had been one that had brought the whole political process into disrepute.

Over the next decade the lessons of 1141 would be learned. The churchmen had not listened to the lay magnates and had given the Matilda the crown without insisting on a peace settlement. Henry of Winchester had been peremptory when caution was called for. Matilda had been imperious when conciliation was called for. She wished to rule in her own right but this was not acceptable to the English in 1141 any more than it had been in 1135.

The focus would now be on her son, “Henry, the son of the daughter of king Henry, the rightful heir of England and Normandy” (the title that he gives himself in a charter of 1141). In 1153, with the clergy and the magnates acting together and mandating a peace process, this claim was accepted and in 1154, on Stephen’s death, he became Henry II, King of England. It would be a victory for statesmanship, a quality that had been lacking in 1141. Henry was carefully presented to the English not as an “Angevin” ruler but as a king in the line of the English succession, which stretched back before the conquest of 1066. John of Salisbury, in his Polycraticus, would insist that the new king “principally relied on fellow countrymen”; it was Stephen who was now represented as a “foreigner”.

The final lesson of 1141 was that the crown of England was not a commodity but a trust, and that all of the nation were trustees. It is that realisation that makes the year a turning point in English, and later British, history.

History facts: 1100–1149

3.25 million: population of the British Isles in the mid-12th century

20: number of illegitimate children fathered by Henry I

Key years: other important events in the first half of the 12th century

1100 – Marriage of Henry I. When William Rufus was killed hunting in the New Forest on 2 August, his younger brother, Henry, moved swiftly, being crowned at Westminster just three days later. He married Matilda (Maud, also known as Edith), daughter of Malcolm Canmore, King of Scots, and Margaret, daughter of Edward the Ætheling, later in the year. Their children would thus claim descent both from the Norman and the Anglo-Saxon kings of England.

1110 – Betrothal of Henry’s daughter. Matilda’s marriage to the German emperor, Henry V, was secured at the cost of a huge dowry of 10,000 marks, raised by a special geld taken at three shillings on the hide. The couple were married in 1114, when Matilda was not quite 12, but
she was widowed in 1125. There were no children of this marriage.

1120 – Wreck of the White Ship. The court returned from Barfleur to England on 25 November. One of the boats, the White Ship, ran aground on rocks close to the shore. Henry’s only legitimate son, William Ætheling (aged 17), was lost, with two other of the king’s children and many of the nobility. The king’s plans for a peaceful succession went down with the ship.

1124 – Accession of King David I of Scotland. The Scottish king succeeded Alexander I to the throne. He is credited with moving Scottish society more towards the Anglo-Norman model and extending the reach of royal authority. A strong and capable king, he took advantage of the turmoil in England to expand his realm into Northumbria.

1132 – Foundation of Rievaulx Abbey. The spread of the Cistercian order, the “white monks”, was a particular feature of the first half of the 12th century. Rievaulx in North Yorkshire would become the largest of these monasteries, growing under its superior, St Ailred (abbot 1147–67), to a community of 140 choir monks and 500 lay brothers.

1135 – Death of Henry I of England. The king died during the night of 1 December at the hunting-lodge of Lyons-la-Forêt, near Rouen, having, according to Henry of Huntingdon, disobeyed his doctors and eaten a dish of lampreys, a fish delicacy. He was buried at Reading Abbey, which he had founded, on 5 January 1136, in the presence of his successor, Stephen, an outcome which would have disappointed but not surprised him.

1138 – Battle of the Standard. A Scottish army, invading in support of the empress, was stopped and defeated soon after it crossed the river Tees (the point at which a raid became an invasion in English eyes). The northern baronage and local militias, mustered by Thurstan, archbishop of York, fought under the banners of their saints: these were stacked up to form a “standard”, which gave the battle its name.

1147 – The Second Crusade. The English played a significant though a supportive role in the crusade – preached by St Bernard – whose armies set out in the spring of 1147. British forces shared in the capture of Lisbon but shared also in failure in the Holy Land, and the wealthy William, third earl of Surrey (Earl de Warenne) was killed in the defiles of Laodicea.

1149 – Knighting of Henry FitzEmpress. Henry (1133–89), the eldest of Empress Matilda’s sons, was knighted at the age of 16
on Whit Sunday at Carlisle by his uncle, David, King of Scots. This marked the beginning of the future Henry II’s adult career. When he returned to Normandy, his father, Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou (who Matilda had married in 1128 – he was 11 years her junior), invested him with the duchy, as being his by right of inheritance.

More turning points in British history

Read next: 1171: The English invasion of Ireland

Go back: 1066: The year of the four kings

Part four in our 20-part series looking at decisive moments of the last 1,000 years in British history explores 1150–1199

Edmund King is research professor of medieval history at the University of Sheffield. He is editor of The Anarchy of King Stephen’s Reign (Oxford, 1994) and author of Medieval England, from Hastings to Bosworth (Tempus, 2005)

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This article was first published in the June 2006 issue of BBC History Magazine