The Anarchy: A Whirlwind of Chaos and Warfare in Medieval England
Anarchy. The word itself is enough to paint a stark picture of lawlessness and disorder, a picture of a world in which no rules exist – for anyone. Such a world is bound to collapse under its own weight, like a building without supports, it caves in on itself. But what happens when anarchy actually happens on a greater scale? For example, when a powerful medieval nation is swept up by widespread lawlessness that cannot be stopped. Today, we revisit one of the more interesting pages of English history, as we go back to the 1130’s AD, to the period known simply as The Anarchy. The Anarchy epoch emerged from a “classic” succession civil war, a conflict that left the nation without a ruler and thus left it to immerse itself in true chaos without law and order. This ain’t no “ Anarchy in the UK” as you might know it, The Anarchy was war, death, and chaos all around.
From Conquest to Chaos: The Beginnings of The Anarchy
William the Bastard is certainly a name that will ever be remembered in the pages of world’s history, especially for the people of England. This legendary descendant of the Viking Rollo became one of the most prominent and powerful Norman dukes in the early 1000’s AD. As the Norman dukes in France vied for power and influence, across the channel, the Anglo-Saxons presented an attractive and rich target, for those who could snatch it. Exploiting a succession crisis after the death of the English King Edward the Confessor, William the Bastard mounted a large invasion with the aim of fully conquering England. In this endeavor he was successful: after a couple crucial and historic battles, William the Bastard earned a different epithet, William the Conqueror. After his successful conquest of England came a new chapter in its history, one where the rulers on its throne were descendants of William.
The Anarchy begins with William the Conqueror. (National Portrait Gallery / Public domain)
The story of The Anarchy is a grim period in English history that began not too long after William and his descendants came to the throne. The origins of this chaotic civil war are connected directly with the fourth son of William the Conqueror: King Henry I. Henry only left one legitimate son as his heir: William Adelin. King Henry I also had a daughter, Matilda, who he attempted to place as his successor, without success. Either way, his son was his successor, and the English throne was secure but then disaster struck.
William Adelin was on his way from France to England in his large ship when it sank. Adelin allowed the crew to drink wine and this was a crucial error. The ship struck a rock during the night and quickly sank. William Adelin, the heir to the English throne, alongside many nobles, drowned in the icy waters of the English Channel. Out of a crew of 300, only a butcher survived. With Adelin’s death, the succession in the English court came into great danger.
Everything pointed to a chaotic succession that had plagued the English throne for generations past. For at least six decades before Adelin’s death there were no clear successions in England, only a series of conflicts and complications. The problem now was the lack of a male heir. Henry’s daughter, Matilda, had no claim to the throne in the eyes of the Norman nobles: the right of male primogeniture was still widespread in the medieval courts of Europe, and female inheritance was basically non-existent.
King Henri I of England (left side) and his spouse and children, with Matilda, center of the beginning of The Anarchy on the right. (Public domain)
The next important aspect of this story lies in the marriages of Matilda. Her first husband was the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V. From this marriage Matilda took the title of Empress. Alas, Emperor Henry V died in 1025, and just three years afterwards, Matilda married once more. Her second marriage was to a powerful count from France, Geoffrey V the Handsome, Count of Anjou, Touraine and Maine, known also as Geoffrey Plantagenet. This marriage from the get-go was unpopular amongst the mostly Norman English throne. Geoffrey V was an Angevin, hailing from Anjou, and therefore the traditional enemy of the Normans.
Geoffrey V the Handsome, Count of Anjou, Touraine and Maine, known also as Geoffrey Plantagenet, was Matilda’s second husband. (Louis Boudan / Public domain)
An Empty Throne Means A Fight for Supremacy And Control
Meanwhile in England, the aging and heirless King Henry I was struggling to gain support for his daughter amongst his own courtiers. Geoffrey and Matilda made a powerful couple. The count obviously wanted Normandy for himself and had high hopes his wife would secure the English throne. The two of them sought greater recognition in England, believing King Henry incapable of this task. Geoffrey and Matilda believed they lacked any genuine support across the channel. This caused strained relations between King Henry, Geoffrey, and Matilda.
In 1135, Henry I unexpectedly fell ill and died in France, leaving the throne of England ripe for the taking. But by whom? Akin to the finest pages in “A Game of Thrones,” the nation was plunged into a struggle for power and a rabid race for the lucrative English throne. But it was not Matilda who gained that seat. First to the spot was the nephew of the late king, the powerful Count Stephen of Blois. He seized the throne and was proclaimed King of England. He was supported by his brother, Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester, the second richest man in England.
Right from the start, King Stephen was faced with numerous challenges across England, all of which put his new rule to the test. To the north, he faced an invasion. David I, King of Scotland ( Dauíd mac Maíl Choluim), the maternal uncle of Matilda, decided to invade England upon hearing of Henry’s death. He quickly managed to capture several key strongholds across the north of England, including Carlisle in Cumbria, Newcastle, and some others. Before this, the Scots had already laid claim to Cumberland as their historic region. This short-lived invasion was promptly dealt with by Stephen and, surprisingly, without bloodshed. The two leaders came to an agreement, in which the Scots would only keep Carlisle and David’s son would receive holdings in England.
Count Stephen of Blois seizes the throne and is proclaimed King of England. He was supported by his brother, Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester, the second richest man in England. (National Portrait Gallery / Public domain)
Chaos All Around And Rebellion From All Sides
Not long after, the Welsh also rose up in arms. In 1136 AD, they won a battle at Llwchwr, and the flame of rebellion slowly spread from southern Wales to the entire area of Wales. Two prominent Welsh Princes, Owain Gwynedd and Gruffydd ap Rhys, quickly gained considerable territories. Stephen attempted to respond militarily but had no success. In 1137 AD, he gave up trying to quell the Welsh altogether, as his attention was dominated by two separate revolts in the south of England, which he managed to solve.
But across the channel, other troubles soon emerged. Matilda’s husband, the powerful Geoffrey V of Anjou, invaded Normandy and began to plunder and pillage. Stephen only barely managed to contain this incursion, and eventually had to sign a truce with Geoffrey. As part of this truce, Stephen had to pay yearly tribute to Geoffrey in exchange for peace.
All of the above conflicts and problems occurred in the first year of Stephen’s reign, the first year of The Anarchy. Even though he managed to sort of secure his northern border with Scotland, he still lost Wales, and began running out of funds. By 1138 AD, his treasury was in deep trouble. In that same year, The Anarchy began in earnest when England was plunged into full, all-out civil war.
The civil war began when one of the most powerful Anglo-Norman barons, Robert FitzRoy, 1 st Earl of Gloucester, renounced his loyalty to the king in support of Matilda. She was his half-sister, since FitzRoy was an illegitimate son of the late King Henry I. This change in loyalty was viewed as outright rebellion against the throne. Soon after, an armed revolt quickly began spreading through Kent and the south of England. And then very quickly all of Stephen’s enemies invaded from abroad: Geoffrey of Anjou invaded Normandy again, and David of Scotland invaded northern England.
Stephen responded to these renewed threats with much success. He skillfully dictated a decisive military campaign, and managed to retake key strongholds in England, and defeat the Scots. But while the king was focused on regaining control in England, Normandy was largely out of his control, and Geoffrey and Matilda were preparing their forces for the inevitable invasion of England. This invasion finally took place in 1139 AD when the initial forces under the command of Baldwin de Redvers, 1 st Earl of Devon, crossed over the English Channel. Soon after, Matilda arrived as well, with Robert of Gloucester at her side. But a swift course of action from Stephen brought Matilda serious problems. Stephen quickly marched south and besieged Matilda in the castle she was staying at. After a truce was agreed upon, Matilda managed to reunite with Robert in the southwest of England.
A Brutal Escalation of Medieval Warfare
During the initial stages of the war, neither side had much success. The method of warfare at the time were evolving, as the Norman conquest a few decades before had introduced new war technologies and strategies. Thus, the conflict was mostly centered on attrition warfare consisting of long sieges, skirmishes, and the pillage and plunder of surrounding landscapes. The Normans introduced castles to England and soon the usual wood motte and bailey strongholds were converted into stone fortified manor houses, towers, and proper castles. As a result, there were less battles but when there was a fight it was fiercer and more decisive. One battle in particular, the Battle of Lincoln, had an enormous influence on the civil war.
The Battle of Lincoln: On the left: Baldwin FitzGilbert; in the center, King Stephen wearing his crown and directing Baldwin to address the army on his behalf. (British Library / Public domain)
In 1141 AD, while he was besieging Lincoln Castle, King Stephen was surprised by an attack from Robert of Gloucester, and his ally, the rebel baron Ranulf of Chester. Stephen attempted to break the siege and flee, but instead the conflict escalated into a major battle, and Stephen was captured and taken into custody. As a result of this single battle, the tables were quickly turned. Matilda was now one step away from the crown, and Stephen immediately lost control of England.
Due to events that turned out to be almost larger-than-life, Stephen had a rather major stroke of luck. Robert of Gloucester was also captured, after being routed by Winchester, and thus the two sides lost their leaders. In the end, it was agreed that prisoners be exchanged, and both Robert and Stephen once again gained their freedom.
A Plantagenet Comes to the Throne
After the Battle of Lincoln, civil war continued with more attrition warfare. Neither side had decisive advantages, and England slowly descended into anarchy. Rebel barons did as they wished, gaining greater power by the day, especially in the north of England, while the whole of the country was ablaze with devastating plunder that left the land scarred. It was true anarchy in every sense of the word, and by 1150 AD all parties involved sought a solution to end the conflict as soon as possible. This wouldn’t be achieved until 1153, when England was once more invaded, this time by the son of Empress Matilda, Henry FitzEmpress, also known as Henry Curtmantle, and Henry Plantagenet.
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When Henry Plantagenet invaded England he undertook a number of brief military campaigns, but he soon agreed to a negotiated peace with King Stephen. And based on the terms of this peace settlement, known as the Treaty of Wallingford, Henry FitzEmpress was recognized as the heir of Stephen. The effect of this peace did not end the civil war or result in a wider peace across the land. Henry’s position was in no way secure as Stephen could have lived for many more years. It was at best a precarious peace. But in the very next year, 1154 AD, Stephen died after falling ill with stomach disease. Thereafter, Henry Plantagenet ascended to the throne as Henry II, and became the first Angevin King of England, and the first Plantagenet king, as his father was Geoffrey V, Count of Anjou. Henry, as king, began a long process of restoration in which he managed to regain lost territories and expand his borders. His ascension brought an end to that difficult period in England’s history known to many as The Anarchy.
Illustration of the Plantagenet coat of arms, three gold lions on a red background. (See page for author / CC BY-SA 4.0)
When Many Compete To Be King, Anarchy is Assured
A lot is risked when the throne of a large kingdom is contested. The lucrative position of the king can bring out the very worst in any man and woman after the throne. Scheming and treachery quickly float to the surface and many human lives are put in danger or lost. Under feuding lords, rebel barons, plunder and peasant rebellions, a kingdom can quickly succumb to all-out warfare. And in such chaos, during such wanton anarchy, one proverb truly defines who will rule next: Homo Homini Lupus Est or “A Man is Wolf to Another Man.”
Top image: Portrait of Empress Mathilda, from "History of England" by St. Albans monks (15th century); the beginning of The Anarchy – with an overlay of the modern Anarchy sign in the easel Source: Public Domain (Overlay; Public domain)
Cole, T. 2019. The Anarchy: The Darkest Days of Medieval England. Amberley Publishing.
Creigthon, O. and Wright, D. The Anarchy: War and Status in 12th-century Landscapes of Conflict. Oxford University Press.
Peers, C. 2018. King Stephen and the Anarchy: Civil War and Military Tactics in Twelfth-Century Britain. Pen & Sword Books Limited