The Anarchy: Chaos in Medieval England

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On 25 November 1120, the heir to the English throne drowned off the coast of France. William Adelin, grandson of William the Conqueror, was travelling aboard the White Ship when it struck a submerged rock in the English Channel. With his only legitimate son dead, King Henry I faced the monumental task of securing his family’s inheritance of the land which his father had conquered 50 years ago. But his ultimate failure to do so would lead to one of the most chaotic and destructive periods in English history – The Anarchy.

Just two months after the sinking, Henry married Adeliza of Louvain, with the intention of fathering another son to bring certainty to his kingdom’s succession. But after six years (and several more illegitimate children), King Henry was still without a son from Adeliza. At this point he decided to name his only legitimate daughter heir. Matilda, as she was called, was once the wife of the Holy Roman Emperor, but the aristocracy in both Normandy or England did not support her claim to the English crown. To make matters worse, she soon married the Count of Anjou, Geoffrey V, whose father had been at war with the Normans less than ten years prior. Most significantly, it was not customary for women to inherit land according to Norman traditions of succession.

Because of this, Henry forced his court to swear recognition of Matilda as the next Queen of England no less than three separate times in the years up running up to his death. However, many of those who took the oath were fully prepared to betray their promises, and none more so than the King’s nephew – Stephen of Blois. When Henry I died in 1135, Stephen saw an opportunity to seize the throne.

At the time of the King’s death, Matilda and Geoffrey were in the south of Normandy, fighting on the side of rebels against many of the Norman noblemen whose support Matilda would soon need. Meanwhile, Stephen eagerly set sail across the channel and swiftly began to seize control in Sussex and London, where he was named King. Matilda, realising she was in no position to go to war with Stephen, began to consolidate control of southern Normandy.

Stephen soon found that he had many powerful supporters in England, one of whom was Roger of Salisbury, the Lord Chancellor. Despite having sworn an oath for Matilda, Roger viewed her husband, Geoffrey, as a threat to Normandy and handed over the royal treasure in the first weeks of Stephen’s arrival. Another crucial supporter was his younger brother, Henry of Blois, the bishop of Winchester and the second richest man in England. Henry of Blois’s approval would be instrumental to Stephen’s accession, so when he offered his support in exchange for granting new liberties to the Church, Stephen was eager to accept. None of this changed the fact that Stephen was not the King’s named successor, which Henry of Blois machinated to change.

First of all were the oaths the dead King’s court had sworn; the Archbishop of Canterbury, along with other religious figures, found issue with how the oaths were Christian vows. Henry of Blois claimed that the King had wrongfully forced his court to swear the oath – and given that the vow sought to maintain the stability of the realm, it would not be sinful to support Stephen’s kingship to avoid the country devolving into chaos. Additionally, Henry of Blois found an Earl called Hugh Bigod, who publicly claimed that the former King named Stephen as successor on his deathbed. Despite how unlikely this might sound, in the months leading up to his death Henry I was known to have been in a dispute with Matilda, who wanted to inherit Normandy early.

The final immediate issue of succession for Stephen was his elder brother Theobald, who also vied for the throne. Theobald, however, was unable to find as much support from magnates as Stephen had, and was eventually paid off by his younger brother to stay in Blois.

Thus, Stephen was king of England for three years without any military opposition from Matilda or Geoffrey. This did not mean the first few years of his reign passed without challenge; there were three revolts in the first two years alone. Although he dealt with two of them quickly, he failed to quash a Welsh rebellion against the Marcher Lords (nobles appointed by the King to guard the border between England and Wales). He consequently all but ignored the Welsh usurpers for the rest of his reign.

Additionally, Stephen had to deal with what would soon become an almost habitual occurrence in the coming years: Scottish invasions. As soon as he heard of the King’s death, David I of Scotland saw an opportunity to capture key cities and castles in northern England. Ostensibly, this invasion was about upholding the oath he had sworn to Henry I – but the importance he attached to this promise was soon made apparent when he eagerly accepted a peace treaty rather than face Stephen in battle. The First Treaty of Durham required David to relinquish almost all of the territory he had conquered. King David failed to mention Matilda in the negotiations.

Once winter was over, in the spring of 1137, David decided to make another attempt. The treaty he had agreed upon just months prior had quickly broken down after his son was treated poorly during a visit to Stephen’s court. A Scottish army gathered on Northumberland’s border, but turned around once David heard of an English army massed at Newcastle. Although another truce was agreed upon, David simply waited until January of the next year to invade again. Meanwhile, Geoffrey had been raiding the south of Normandy, which succeeded in little more than destabilising the duchy; Stephen eventually promised to pay him to stay peacefully in Anjou.

It was not until 1138 that Stephen’s realm fell into disarray. Because of Matilda’s inaction in asserting her claim, it would be her illegitimate half-brother, Robert of Gloucester, who took up the fight against Stephen. His revolt was supported in Kent and in most of south-west England, whose earls had become disillusioned with the king’s meagre response to the Welsh rebellion.

Simultaneously, Geoffrey once again invaded Normandy with his Angevin forces, knowing that Stephen would be preoccupied with the rebellion in England – and at the worst possible moment, King David of Scotland resumed his attack, capturing most of the north of England. Realising victory on all three fronts was impossible, Stephen agreed to the Second Treaty of Durham, granting David and his son, Henry, vast swathes of land in the north. This greatly displeased Ranulf de Gernon, the Earl of Chester, whose estate lay claim to much of the land lost.

Whilst Robert of Gloucester’s rebellion was being dismantled by Stephen’s expensive mercenary armies, Geoffery and Matilda had secured much of Normandy and, by 1139, were preparing an invasion of England. Despite encountering initial difficulties in capturing a port to receive Matilda’s army, she soon landed and stayed at Arundel Castle. But as Robert marched his army to Bristol, intending to gather more support, Matilda was left vulnerable, with Stephen marching his army to Arundel and besieging the castle. Realising that he lacked the forces to take the castle, however, Stephen decided to allow Matilda to simply leave the fortress with her knights intact. Stephen likely wanted to avoid a long siege, which would have left Robert free to roam the rest of England, but he would nonetheless go on to regret this decision.

By 1140, Stephen had made some headway into Matilda’s territory, although a succession of new rebellions elsewhere significantly divided his forces. The Bishop of Ely defected to Matilda’s side, but Stephen had predicted this a year prior and swiftly confiscated his castles. Meanwhile, Ranulf of Chester, whose anger was still raw over Stephen’s decision to surrender his territory, plotted to ambush the Scottish Prince Henry on his return from Stephen’s court. However, when he found that Stephen had decided to escort the prince, Ranulf changed his plan and instead decided to seize Lincoln Castle under the pretence of a social gathering.

Stephen signed a pact with Ranulf in which the latter agreed to reduce the size of his garrison at Lincoln, but soon after Stephen decided to attack the castle. Ranulf was able to escape before the siege began and joined Robert of Gloucester’s army. On 2 February 1141, Stephen’s army clashed swords with the larger combined force of Robert and Ranulf at the Battle of Lincoln. Many of Stephen’s earls deserted him at the start of the battle, and the King was eventually surrounded by the Angevin cavalry. Stephen was captured, and his soldiers surrendered or fled.

The captured King was imprisoned in Bristol Castle, leaving Matilda to receive the significantly depleted royal treasure. This was handed over by none other than the Bishop of Winchester, who had agreed to betray his brother in exchange for even more control over the Church. Although Matilda was due to be crowned, much of the country still supported Stephen, particularly in London, forcing her to flee to Oxford.

At that time Stephen’s wife, confusingly also named Matilda, gathered a large force of those still loyal to her husband and defeated the royal forces at Winchester, capturing Robert of Gloucester. In November 1141, Robert was exchanged for Stephen, and both sides were back to where they were a year prior. In another twist, Henry of Winchester and Ranulf of Chester even switched sides back to Stephen.

During Matilda’s brief spell as “Lady of England and Normandy”, her husband Geoffrey had taken almost all of Stephen’s Norman land, yet neither side had a clear advantage. The subsequent decade of civil war has led to this period being known as ‘The Anarchy’: England had two monarchs, both stuck in a military and financial war of attrition, relying on the support of power-hungry, fickle magnates. Most of the fighting ground to a halt as both sides dealt with rebellion (Ranulf of Chester switched sides yet again in 1144), and law and order across the country fell into chaos as neither side was able to establish a legitimate government.

The end of the Anarchy can be attributed to many factors, the greatest one being exhaustion. Barons and Earls, growing weary of both would-be monarchs, began to form bilateral treaties and peace agreements, ignoring the civil war entirely. Some even left Europe, such as the Angevin supporter Waleran of Beaumont, who joined the Second Crusade. Matilda didn’t even hold court in England after 1147, instead sending her young son Henry to lead failed invasions in 1147 and 1149.

For one last time, in 1153, Matilda’s son Henry invaded England with the support of Ranulf of Chester. This time, when Henry’s army met Stephen’s at Wallingford, they agreed on a vague truce. It is possible that, at that time, Stephen was already considering nominating Henry as his heir. When Stephen’s oldest son, Eustace, suddenly died in August 1153, a solution for peace became clear. The final Treaty of Winchester was reached in November, declaring Henry as the heir to the throne after Stephen.

Although this treaty was fragile, with some residual fighting continuing after its signing, it brought a final end to the widespread chaos of the previous 18 years. On 25 October 1154, Stephen died, and the throne was peacefully handed over to King Henry II, the first of the Plantagenets.

One version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles states, “in this King’s (Stephen’s) time was all dissention, and evil, and rapine” and “men said openly that Christ and his saints were asleep”. The Anarchy distinguishes itself as one of the bloodiest and most needlessly protracted wars of the Medieval era. Regional disputes between nobles, suppressed under the reign of the Norman kings, were unleashed behind the facade of supporting one “rightful heir” or another. As a result, everyone – monarchs, nobles and the people – suffered tremendously.

King, E. (1974). King Stephen and the Anglo-Norman aristocracy. History, 59(196), pp.180-194

Giles, J. A. (1914) The Anglo-Saxon chronicle. London: G. Bell and sons, pp. 186-206