The Anarchy: how bloody was Stephen and Matilda’s medieval battle for the English crown?

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, or have we been duped by Plantagenet spin?

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)

“Wheresoever men tilled, the earth bare no corn, for the land was all ruined by such deeds; and they said openly that Christ and his saints were asleep. Such and more than we can say we endured 19 winters for our sins.” The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle paints a bleak picture of King Stephen’s reign from 1135–54, during which magnates “oppressed greatly the wretched men of the land with the making of castles; when the castles were made, they filled them with devils and evil men”.

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The anonymous author of the Gesta Stephani (The Deeds of Stephen) offers an equally cataclysmic portrait. “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 terrible events to which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Gesta Stephani refer afflicted England in the middle of the 12th century. Yet, in truth, the seeds of the disorder were sown decades earlier. Henry I, youngest son of William the Conqueror, had snatched the throne of England on the death of his brother William II in 1100, despite the claim of their oldest brother, Robert, Duke of Normandy. William was killed by an arrow while hunting in the New Forest on 2 August. Three days later, Henry was crowned at Westminster Abbey. Robert was captured at the battle of Tinchebray in Normandy on 28 September 1106 and spent his remaining 27 years as his little brother’s prisoner.

Despite fathering a record number of illegitimate children for an English or British monarch – at least 23 – Henry had only two legitimate offspring. Matilda was born in 1102 and William Adelin in 1103. Catastrophe hit in 1120, when William was drowned crossing the Channel in the White Ship disaster. Aside from the personal tragedy, Henry was hit by a political crisis. He remarried, but had no more legitimate children, leaving Matilda as the only heir to his throne. Aware of the perils of trying to impose female rule on a misogynistic nobility, Henry extracted oaths to Matilda, styling her empress by virtue of her marriage to Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor.

In 1125, Henry V died. Three years later, the now 26-year-old widow Matilda was married again. Her new husband was Geoffrey, son of the Count of Anjou, who was just 15 and merely a count’s son, something she resented as beneath her imperial status. Matilda and Geoffrey were soon in open opposition to her father on the borders of Normandy. The rebellion helped to cloud the issue of the succession. Henry, of all men, was aware of the potential dangers. History was about to repeat itself.

The shattering of peace

After occupying the English throne for more than three decades, Henry I died in Normandy on 1 December 1135. However, the coronation that took place on 22 December was not that of his daughter, but of his favourite nephew, Stephen of Blois, Count of Boulogne. Stephen claimed his uncle had appointed him heir on his deathbed – and the shattering of peace in England helped his cause. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle complained that in the aftermath of Henry’s death, there “was treason in these lands; for every man that might robbed another”. There could be no king’s peace without a king, and Stephen offered to fill the void into which violence was already spilling.

With King David I of Scotland leading an army over the border into northern England – capturing Carlisle, Wark, Alnwick, Norham and Newcastle before laying siege to Durham – the people of London were all too happy to welcome Stephen. In doing so, they formed an enduring compact with the new king. According to the Gesta Stephani, “the elders and those most shrewd in counsel summoned an assembly, and taking prudent forethought for the state of the kingdom, on their own initiative, they agreed unanimously to choose a king”. This represented a revival of the Anglo-Saxon principle of election which had been lost at the Conquest.

There could be no king’s peace without a king, and Stephen offered to fill the void into which violence was already spilling

It began well. Stephen forced David to withdraw. His speed and agility would become trademarks of his rule. Empress Matilda, pregnant with her third child, lingered at the Norman border and appeared to have allowed her moment to pass. But if Stephen believed he was secure, the illusion was short-lived. On 30 September 1139, Empress Matilda and her half-brother, Henry I’s illegitimate son Robert, Earl of Gloucester, landed at Arundel Castle. The Gesta Stephani tremulously admitted “England at once was shaken and quivered with intense fear,” as “those who obeyed the king were brought low as though cowering beneath a dreadful thunderclap.”

The empress’s problem was made immediately clear; it was not her arrival that had caused such dread – in the eyes of contemporaries, she was a mere woman – but that of her half-brother. Robert, however, steadfastly refused to supplant his half-sister and darted west to his impregnable fortress at Bristol. When Stephen arrived at Arundel, he found only Matilda, an unreasonable target (due to her sex), so sent her west to her half-brother.

England was divided into three as Matilda and Robert entrenched themselves in the South West and King David snatched territory in the north that Stephen was too distracted to retake. Explosive action came in 1141. On 2 February, Stephen met Robert at the battle of Lincoln, during which Stephen was captured, despite one chronicler’s description of him fighting “like a lion, grinding his teeth and foaming at the mouth like a boar”.

The empress was elected ‘Lady of the English’, but the deeply ingrained resistance to female rule saw her driven from London on the eve of her coronation as queen, her assailants enjoying the feast she had been forced to abandon. On 14 September, Matilda’s forces were chased from Winchester and her half-brother Robert was captured covering her retreat. Stephen was exchanged for Robert, and the chess board was reset. Stephen, if anything, had his reputation enhanced by emerging from captivity still resiliently wearing the crown.

Only in 1153 did the conflict reach a resolution, when Stephen adopted Empress Matilda’s oldest son and appointed him heir. Stephen died the following year on 25 October 1154, and Henry I’s grandson succeeded him as Henry II, the first Plantagenet.

A retrograde blip

For centuries, Stephen’s reign has been dubbed the Anarchy. Victorian historians deplored the king’s decentralisation of power through the appointment of regional earls responsible for local law and order. Henry I had created the Exchequer and Henry II would develop the Common Law. To the imperialist minds of the 19th century, these marked steps on an inexorable march towards the British empire. Stephen was a retrograde blip whose rule was anarchic because it contributed nothing to that grinding progress. They managed to ignore the fact that he, albeit unwittingly, had demonstrated the unshakeable power of the office of king, which withstood 19 years of opposition and a spell in captivity.

Contemporaries saw much they felt justified the chaotic label, too. Robert Fitz Hubert, a Flemish mercenary in the pay of Robert, Earl of Gloucester, offers a typical example. William of Malmesbury considered him “the cruellest of all men within the recollection of our age, and also a blasphemer against God” who bragged about burning churches and threatened to do the same to William’s Malmesbury Abbey. Fitz Hubert’s favourite form of torture involved stripping a prisoner, tying them to a post in the midday sun, smearing them in honey and stirring up bees, wasps and anything else that would sting or bite to torment them.

In March 1140, Fitz Hubert captured the strategically important castle at Devizes but refused to hand it over to the empress. Instead, he decided to keep it for himself, summoned men from Flanders and set about establishing himself as a local magnate. He set his sights on Marlborough Castle, where the castellan was John Fitz Gilbert, the Marshal, whose son William Marshal would become one of medieval Europe’s most famous knights. John didn’t wait for an attack and captured Fitz Hubert. He was ransomed to Earl Robert, who took him to Devizes and hanged him when his garrison refused to surrender. William of Malmesbury saw “God’s judgment exercised upon a sacrilegious man, in that he earned so shameful an end not from the king, to whom he was an enemy, but from those whom he seemed to favour”. William paints a compelling picture of the loss of central authority in England, but there are problems with the sources. They were written by monks, keen to decry the temporal world. Men like Robert Fitz Hubert became moral tales, warning against indulgence in worldly affairs.

The location of the writers is also problematical. William was at Malmesbury in Wiltshire and the anonymous author of the Gesta Stephani, if not the bishop of Bath, was a member of his household. They sat at the frontier of Stephen and Matilda’s dispute and necessarily saw the worst of it, extrapolating their experiences across the whole country. The version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that has Christ and his saints sleeping was penned at the abbey in Peterborough, where Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk frequently revolted against Stephen for reasons that had little to do with Empress Matilda. Location and world view made the idea of national anarchy seem appealing and reasonable to these writers, but the facts contradict them.

Monasticism saw explosive growth in England during Stephen’s reign, which suggests that it was not as dangerous to travel as monks insisted. The Cistercian order had six houses in England in 1135, and by 1154 had opened 48 more, each stocked with monks who confidently journeyed to fill them. In 1147, a large force of Englishmen embarked, without noble leadership, on a crusade to Portugal. Their ability to organise themselves, and their willingness to leave homes and families, implies there was no fear of rampant lawlessness to prevent their expedition. In 1142, the nine-year-old future Henry II was sent to receive tuition in England, a move that hardly seems rational if there was true anarchy.

Strong ties of loyalty

England became a divided kingdom, but nowhere was royal authority lacking, even if it wore different faces. Stephen retained tight control and strong ties of loyalty in the South East and could stretch his authority as far north as York. In the west, Empress Matilda minted coins and issued writs. Perhaps most successful of all was King David of Scotland, who held much of northern England at this time, keeping it peaceful and well-governed so that the people made no effort to extricate themselves from his authority.

If the monastic chroniclers are to be believed, magnates didn’t just cause the Anarchy, they exacerbated and revelled in it. In reality, they did no such thing. No magnate hoped for lawless chaos on his lands, where profit was made from the order and security that allowed fields to be worked and markets to operate profitably. If royal authority was not felt at times of crisis, magnates immediately filled the void to prevent, not promote, anarchy. William of Newburg noted that “like a king, each had the power to lay down the law for his subjects”, rejecting the vacuum of authority implied by others.

Indeed, magnates tired of the succession crisis far sooner than the protagonists did. In the late 1140s and early 1150s, earls began making peace treaties among themselves called conventios. Ranulf, Earl of Chester and Robert, Earl of Leicester sealed a document finalis pax et Concordia – of final peace and settlement. They acknowledged that their respective liege lords were at war but stated they had no desire for conflict between themselves. If forced to take the field against each other, they swore to take no more than 20 knights to restrict any fighting and to prevent their masters from launching assaults from their lands. Any men or goods captured during a battle were to be returned without ransom afterwards.

The conventios were not seriously tested, but the magnates’ desire to maintain harmony was genuine. Stephen and the future Henry II eventually resigned themselves to peace in part because neither could coax their followers into fighting. Henry of Huntingdon’s insistence that barons “loved, indeed, nothing better than disunion” is at odds with their actions, which defy the monkish belief in the savagery of anyone outside holy orders. Rather than revel in anarchy, many nobles left for the Second Crusade.

The speed with which Henry II restored peace is evidence that royal authority had never really failed

The speed with which Henry II restored peace and rebuilt royal finances and authority became a Plantagenet foundation myth, testifying to his unique abilities. In fact, it was evidence that royal authority and the machinery of government had never really failed. Only one year’s Exchequer records survive from Henry I’s reign – the rest are lost as those of Stephen’s reign probably were. Yet the Exchequer is unlikely to have ceased operation; instead it probably contracted to match Stephen’s shrunken authority. Meanwhile, Henry II was able to take back the north quickly when he became king because King David left a minor on the throne who could not resist when Henry demanded its return.

Swamped by rivals

If King Stephen would have recognised anarchy, it was only in the sense of so many diverse threats emerging at once: Empress Matilda in England, her husband Geoffrey conquering Normandy, King David in the north and rebel barons. Disciplining nobles becomes impossible when there is a rival claimant to whom they can offer allegiance in a fit of pique. Stephen’s capability was swamped by the multitude of competing demands on his resources and attention.

The Anarchy fits the moralising instincts of the monks recording events in the 12th century. It would come to sit nicely within Plantagenet mythology, making Henry II’s swift ordering of England seem a miraculous feat of salvation. It is true that royal authority became fragmented, but that is not the same as absence and, however inadvertently, chroniclers credit the magnates with filling in the gaps when and where they occurred.

Anarchy was used by imperialist minds in the 19th century to explain the lack of contribution towards the foundation of empire they saw in Stephen’s reign, but anarchy never prevailed. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’s assertion that Christ and his saints slept for 19 years does not bear examination. Stephen’s reign was not glorious, but that does not make it anarchic. Few wholly unsuccessful rulers lasted 19 years and died in their bed still wearing the crown. The Anarchy is a name to conjure with, but it is time to let go of the idea of chaos throughout King Stephen’s reign.

Matthew Lewis is a historian and author. His latest book is Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy (Pen & Sword History, 2019)

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This article was first published in the May 2020 edition of BBC History Magazine