The Anarchy is famous as the longest periods of civil war in English medieval history, a time in which evil men roamed the lands and law and order collapsed. The conflict was a result of the accidental death of Henry I’s son and heir William, who was lost at sea in 1120. This left England without a direct male heir. Henry appears to have attempted to get his barons to acknowledge his daughter Matilda as his heir, but when Henry died she was in Anjou and was pregnant and was unable to move quickly. In contrast Henry’s cousin Stephen of Blois (the son of his sister Adela) moved more quickly and was acknowledged as King of England.
Anyone familiar with the Wars of the Roses will find this civil war rather tame by comparison. All of the major players die of natural causes – there are no massacres of captured opponents or mysterious disappearances of inconvenient heirs. King Stephen survives his time as a prisoner of the Empress Matilda, Matilda’s son Henry (the future Henry II) even gets his debts cleared by Stephen at the end of a failed invasion! The war even ended rather peacefully, with Stephen acknowledging Henry as his heir, although how long this deal might have lasted if Stephen’s oldest son Eustace hadn’t died just before and his second surviving son William had apparently willingly renounced his claim to the throne can never be known. There are relatively few major battles. Sieges were more common, but many were interrupted by truces. One distinctive feature of the war was the construction of temporary castles to try and blockade existing ones, which sometimes saw a third castle built to block the blockade! The active phase of the war was also not all that long – Matilda returned to Normandy after eight years, and although her supporters held on to their heartlands in the south-west the next few years were rather more peaceful. The Anglo-Saxon chronicle famously described the wars as nineteen years of suffering, but that refers to the full length of Stephen’s reign, rather than the fifteen years between the outbreak of civil war between Matilda and Stephen and the eventual peace treaty.
One key question that Lewis attempts to answer is just how bad the situation actually was in England during this period. There is no doubt that central Royal authority disappeared for most of the Anarchy, and the country was split between several competing powers. However the author argues that within each of those areas the situation wasn’t as bad as our sources suggest. King Stephen was still able to impose his authority over large parts of the country for much of his reign, while most of the south-west seems to have been quite stable under Matilda and her supporters and the north under David I of Scotland. However our best sources were written in areas on or close to the borders between these blocks, so inevitably saw the worst of the conflict, perhaps giving us a biased view of the period. A second key question is why was Stephen unable to regain control of the south-west? He appears to have been an active and capable ruler, with a tendency to respond quickly and decisively to most threats. When revolts broke out elsewhere he seems to been able to defeat them (admittedly having probably provoked most of them first!). One suggestion here is that he was unwilling to push too hard against Matilda because of a residual guilt that he had broken his oath to Henry I to support her as heir, another is that his disasterous defeat at the battle of Lincoln left him unwilling to gamble of the outcome of battle.
I like the structure of this book, alternating between chapters focusing on Stephen and chapters focusing on Matilda. This helps give some balance to the story (although Stephen tends to emerge as a more sympathic character than Matilda), and means that Matilda’s side gets more coverage than is normally the case in straightforward narratives – during the long periods of stalemate in the main conflict Stephen is normally the more active of the two and thus tends to dominate. The result is a compelling account of this prolonged period of civil war.
1 – The Death of Henry I
Even Numbers 2 to 24: Empress Matilda
Odd Numbers 3 to 25: King Stephen
Author: Matthew Lewis
Publisher: Pen & Sword History