King Henry I was, in many historians’ estimation, an accomplished ruler. He cemented his father, William I’s, conquest of the kingdom of England, successfully fought off a series of rebellions across the Channel in Normandy, and burnished England’s reputation among the kingdoms of Europe.

Advertisement

Yet, for all his undoubted qualities, Henry made a complete mess of the succession to his throne. And so, when the ageing king died in 1135, England was pitched into civil war.

Image of King Stephen, the last Norman King of England who reigned from 1135 to 1154, being taken as prisoner in 1141. (Photo by The Print Collector/Print Collector/Getty Images)

That conflict is now better known as the Anarchy, a word that conjures images of turbulence and chaos. And so it proved, as the two contenders for Henry’s crown – his daughter and nominated heir, Empress Matilda; and Stephen of Blois, a grandson of William the Conqueror – embarked on a bitter battle for power.

The Anarchy's influence on HBO’s House of the Dragon

It might not seem like it, but HBO’s House of the Dragon has its roots this very real civil war in the early medieval period...

In a conflict of seemingly endless twists and turns, it was Stephen who struck first, having himself crowned a matter of weeks after Henry’s death. Yet, by 1141, Matilda had turned the tables on her enemy completely. Having defeated Stephen at the battle of Lincoln and thrown him into prison, she entered London in triumph, seemingly on the brink of securing the throne. Yet Londoners wouldn’t accept her, and after being freed from his incarceration, Stephen was soon back in the ascendant.

Even then the war rumbled on, as Matilda’s supporters – her son Henry to the fore – strained every sinew to unseat Stephen. It was only in 1154, on Stephen’s death and Henry’s long nightmare came to an end.

But what if Matilda hadn’t allowed victory to slip through her grasp in 1141? What if she had placed the crown on her head, sat on the throne – and had herself declared England’s first queen-regnant?

Unchanged succession

Superficially, it wouldn’t have been very different at all. That’s the verdict of Matt Lewis, medieval historian and author of Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War (Pen & Sword, 2019). “The Anarchy ended with Henry II in possession of the English throne – and it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which a victorious Matilda wouldn’t have passed the crown to her son on her death. So in that respect, nothing changed,” he says. “What’s more, as the son of Geoffrey V, Count of Anjou – with all the territories that his inheritance brought – Henry would have presided over a sizeable empire that encompassed England, Maine, Anjou and Normandy, whether Matilda secured a rapid victory in the civil war or not.”

More like this

So far, so similar. Yet scratch beneath the surface, says Lewis, and perhaps Henry’s reign would have been different – and far less successful – had Matilda secured a quick victory. After all, the Henry who became king in 1154 was very much the product of his youth – and that was a youth shaped by crisis and war.

Did you know?

Empress Matilda was not the only woman bearing that name to play a vital role during the Anarchy. King Stephen's wife, Matilda of Boulogne, supported her husband by raising an army and marching on London after his imprisonment in 1141. 

“If there’s one thing you can say about Henry II it’s that he was a superb warrior – whether going on the attack, fighting off rebellions or defending the borders of his empire,” explains Lewis. “It’s hard not to conclude that some of those skills were forged during the Anarchy – a conflict that saw him embroiled in intense fighting in both England and Normandy.”

So much for Henry. But what about the woman who would have passed him the crown had she defeated Stephen? Would Matilda have made an accomplished ruler? “There’s every reason to suspect that the answer to that question is ‘yes’,” says Lewis.

As a young woman, Matilda spent a lot of time in what is now Germany, and was married to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V until his death. Henry saw her very much as someone who would work alongside him – “she wasn’t there to sit in the corner and sew,” says Lewis. She had a gold-plated education, spoke numerous languages and – judging by the efficiency with which she governed Normandy on behalf of her son Henry when he was king of England – was an astute political operator.

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)

Yet, according to Lewis, there’s a rather large elephant in the room when discussing the prospect of Matilda’s reign – and that’s her gender.

“As queen-regnant, Matilda would have faced significant misogyny,” he says. “Her victory in 1141 might have brought an end to the succession crisis, but the fighting may well have rumbled on – much of it driven by the fact that lots of Englishmen hated the prospect of being ruled by a woman.

“Her accession would have thrown up so many questions. How does a queen lead an army on to the battlefield? How does she dispense justice? What do you call her husband, if he’s not a king? These are all questions that would have needed to be answered in a country that had never before experienced female rule – and, to a large extent, didn’t want it.”

An alternate path

And the answers, says Lewis, would have had ramifications stretching far beyond the 12th century. “If Matilda had overcome the doubters and proven that a woman could be a capable ruler, then England’s history may have taken an alternate path. It may even have changed the course of the Wars of the Roses, which were, to a large extent, driven by the nation’s aversion to giving Margaret of Anjou regency powers when her husband, Henry VI, was incapacitated.”

So would another long and bloody civil war three centuries later had been avoided had Matilda’s reign proven a success? We will never know. But it’s an intriguing possibility.


Matt Lewis is an author and historian of the medieval period, with a particular interest in the Wars of the Roses and Richard III. You can read his most recent publication, Rebellion in the Middle Ages: Fight Against the Crown, or visit his Twitter page

Advertisement

This article first appeared in the May 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed

Authors

Spencer MizenProduction Editor, BBC History Magazine

Spencer is production editor of BBC History Magazine

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement