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The English Anarchy of the 12th Century

Updated on June 28, 2010

What Was It?

The civil war in England is sometimes referred to as the Anarchy or the Nineteen Year Winter. It was a period of civil war in England from 1135-1154, caused by conflicting dynastic claims to the throne. When King Henry I died in 1135, he went to the grave believing that he had secured the English crown for his daughter, Matilda. What happened instead was exactly what he had tried to prevent: a bitter civil war that ravaged the country and disillusioned the people.

Henry I


How Did It Happen?

Henry I was no stranger to a disputed succession. Henry had himself seized the throne from his brother Robert upon the death of William Rufus in 1100. He did have to fight with Robert, but he came out the victor. His decision to let Robert's son, William Clito, remain free has been criticized by many and indeed, it seems to have influenced Henry's desperation to name an heir of his own. Despite fathering several bastard children, he only had one legitimate male heir, and his hopes for his son were ruined when he drowned in the White Ship disaster of 1120. Henry quickly took a second wife in the hopes of producing another male heir.

However, he decided that he needed to punish those barons who had fought against him. He disinherited those men by forcing them to forfeit their lands to him. Remember that at this time, a feudal system was in place. The barons possessed their lands and wealth based on their service to the king. This was how the ruler kept the nobles of the country loyal and supportive of him.

Henry I had a policy of promoting "new" men in his government. These men were not necessarily of noble birth, but proved themselves worthy in their service to him. To these men he distributed the lands forfeited by the disinherited, creating a bitter divide between the two groups. Perhaps by creating the success of these newer men, he made sure that they were indebted to him.

After the sinking of the White Ship, Henry became desperate to secure the throne of England with his own successor. His daughter, Matilda had been living in Germany as the wife of the Emperor Henry V. Following her husband’s death, her father called her back to England in 1126. William of Clito still had a legitimate claim to the throne, so in 1127, Henry persuaded his barons to swear that they would support his daughter as their queen when he died. They swore this oath again in 1131, after Matilda was married to Geoffrey of Anjou. William of Clito died in 1128, so Henry no longer had to worry about his claim.

However, he was very wrong about the loyalty of his barons. When he died in 1135, everything he had so carefully constructed promptly fell apart and what he had always feared was exactly what happened.

King Stephen

Disputed Succession

When Henry I died, with him went his plans to keep peace in England. His barons, who had sworn that they would place his daughter on the throne, questioned whether a woman was fit to rule England. The news of her father's death had not yet reached Matilda when her cousin, Stephen of Blois, rode into London and took control of the treasury and crown.

Stephen had the foresight to act while everyone else was still wondering what to do next. He immediately set sail for England from Bolougne when he had news of the king's death. He knew that the English barons were looking for an alternative to his female cousin, and that they never intended to keep their oaths of loyalty to her. Besides the fact that many felt that a man should sit on the throne, they also resented her husband. Henry I had arranged for his daughter to marry Geoffrey of Anjou, a Plantaganet. Many of the king's men were heard to say after her marriage that they only swore loyalty to her as long as she did not marry outside of the realm; thus, they were released from their service to her.

Stephen's most decisive move in securing the crown for himself was his relationship with his brother, Henry Bishop of Winchester. Henry helped Stephen to win the support of several key government officials and had Stephen anointed by the archbishop of Canterbury. However, Henry made sure to exact some promise from his brother regarding the treatment of the Catholic Church in England. He had Stephen promise to respect the rights of the Church and protect its interests. Because Stephen did swear to all of these things, he was crowned as King of England.

He also needed the support of the barons, and he wasted no time in arranging deals with them. It was naturally assumed that those who were first to his side would be heavily rewarded, and in this they were not wrong. The problem, however, is that these rewards often came at the expense of others.

He quickly discovered that it was easier to make promises than it was to keep them. He angered his brother by breaking his oaths to defend and protect the Church, and he showed in many ways that he was easily swayed by others. He could not keep focus on more than one thing at a time; he would often move on to the next battle or siege before finishing with the first. He clearly did not understand or appreciate the inner workings of a central government, since he arrested and disinherited the very men who were most capable of keeping the country running smoothly. When the barons of England saw what kind of man he was, they soon decided that he was not powerful or determined enough to stop them from doing what they wanted to do. A very famous excerpt from the Peterborough Chronicle describes the situation well:

“When the traitors understood that he was a mild man, and soft, and good, and no justice executed, then did they all wonder. They had done him homage, and sworn oaths, but they no truth maintained. They were all forsworn, and forgetful of their troth; for every rich man built his castles, which they held against him: and they filled the land full of castles. They cruelly oppressed the wretched men of the land with castle-works; and when the castles were made, they filled them with devils and evil men… This lasted the nineteen winters while Stephen was king; and it grew continually worse and worse… and they said openly, that Christ slept, and his saints.”

Stephen would soon find out that broken promises and ineffective ruling would cause some of his barons to look for an alternative to his leadership.

Map of Southern England (Bristol & London)

Matilda's Claim

Matilda was the legal and rightful heir to the English throne.  This was the wish of her father, despite Stephen's claim that he changed his mind before he died.  There is little doubt that her father counseled her on how to rule, since she displayed so many of his qualities.  However, the problem with this is that these traits were less appealing on a woman.  Many have said that Matilda was arrogant, obstinate and vengeful.  Of course, in a man, these same qualities would likely be described as confidence and wisdom, but the truth is that Matilda was living in a man's world and she would not have gone as far as she did had she been shy and demure.

Matilda needed a powerful ally to help her get to England and claim her birthright.  She naturally turned to her brother, Robert of Gloucester, who would have had his own claim to the crown if not for his illegitimate birth.  Robert had initially supported Stephen, but it is the opinion of many that he did so only in order to buy time.  If he declared himself against the king, he would have lost all of his holdings and would have no financial means of supporting his sister.

After accusing King Stephen of plotting against him, Robert recanted his oath to him and threw his support behind his sister.  Her next move was to appeal to the papal court, which she did in 1139.  Matilda disputed Stephen's usurpation at the second Lateran Council in April and claimed the throne for herself on the grounds that her father named her heir.  This method was not successful, for Innocent would not hear further arguments and was satisfied to leave Stephen in place as king.

Matilda, Robert of Gloucester and one hundred forty knights landed in Arundel September 1139.  While Robert went off to secure support of other castles, Matilda remained at Arundel with the dowager queen who had invited her there with safe conduct.  Unfortunately, Stephen soon found out where she was and violently attacked Arundel.  The dowager queen had no choice but to surrender Matilda, but on the condition that she be granted safe conduct to Bristol.  To the shock of many, Stephen agreed.  The idea was to let Matilda and Robert meet up in the same place and then attack them both at the same time. This was a good idea, but Stephen failed to execute it properly. While he was besieging a castle at Trowbridge on his way to Bristol, he heard that his enemies had liberated another castle at Wallingford.  He abandoned his current fight to return to Wallingford, and never made it back to Bristol.

The winds had begun to blow in Matilda's favor.  When her would-be supporters realized that Stephen could not be everywhere at once, they immediately took advantage of the situation.  Those who were too fearful to move against the king used this knowledge to suddenly rebel.  However, while these uprisings were successful in weakening Stephen's position, they did little to strengthen that of Matilda.

In 1140, Henry Bishop of Winchester arranged a meeting between Robert of Gloucester and Queen Matilda, Stephen's wife.  Nothing was resolved at that time, and in September, Henry met with the king of France and several other churchmen.  He brought their list of proposals to Matilda and Stephen, although no one knows what was on that list.  In any case, Matilda agreed to the conditions while Stephen refused.  However, if Stephen had known what was to transpire in the weeks ahead, he would have done well to agree to some of the conditions, whatever they happened to have been.

Lincoln Castle Today

Wolvesey Castle at Winchester

Here is what Henry's castle looks like today.
Here is what Henry's castle looks like today.

The Tides Turn, in Both Directions

Matilda was fortunate enough to benefit from yet another quarrel between Stephen and Earl Ranulf of Chester. The earl was engaged in a dispute with the king over his birthright, Carlisle. When Raulf revolted against Stephen in 1140, he narrowly escaped capture and fled to Matilda's side. Stephen was still at Lincoln, and this new ally prompted Robert of Gloucester to immediately march in that direction, collecting Ranulf's forces in Cheshire. For his part, Stephen was unaware of their impending arrival until just before the battle.

Stephen soon found out what kind of men served a weak and ineffective king. As soon as the battle began, those men on horses turned and fled the battlefield, leaving the king with his lesser men on foot to defend him. He was defeated and captured alive by Robert's vassal. He was taken to the empress in Gloucester and held as prisoner thereafter in Bristol.

Despite this victory, Matilda then faced the most difficult of tasks: securing the crown for herself. In order to do so, she had to keep the support of those who were only on her side to serve themselves. Remember that the idea of a female ruler was still a hard one to swallow for many of the barons, and they would not waste much time in finding another to support.

Just as Stephen had done, so too did Matilda set about securing the support of the papal legate, Henry. The two met at Wherwell in March, where she swore to defer to him all matters concerning church appointments. For his part, Henry received her in his cathedral as his Lady. Note that the term used was Lady, and not Queen. Henry then convinced the clergy of England to also support Matilda as Lady of England.

Unfortunately for Matilda, while the clergy was open to the idea of her rule, the people of London were not so easily convinced.  They had eagerly supported Stephen and were not keen on accepting his enemy in his place.  Even though the council agreed to accept her as Lady of England and Normandy, and gave her the treasury and crown, the citizens of London delayed receiving her for two months more.  Despite securing the support of a key baron, Geoffrey de Mandeville, her decisions in the following weeks ultimately decided her fate.

Her first mistakes occurred during her church appointments.  She put forth men who had no business in church affairs, which angered and probably insulted Henry.  But her biggest mishap was in grievously offending the people of London.  When the approached her to request relief from their taxes, she surprised and outraged them by demanding even more money.  She told them that they had to pay dearly for supporting her enemy while keeping her weak.

Angered by this rebuke, the people of London once more declared themselves for Stephen, and picked up their arms against Matilda.  This forced her and her supporters to flee to Oxford.  Matilda would have done well to remember that she was not yet anointed as queen, and she should have been a little more diplomatic with the people.

Matilda's fortunes continued to go downhill.  Henry of Blois, angered by her broken promises and haughty attitude, reconciled with Stephen's wife and rejoined his cause.  When Matilda meant to question Henry, he fled Winchester and Robert of Gloucester besieged his castle.  While the empress was able to get away safely, her brother Robert was taken captive at the ford of Stockbridge.

The earl's capture was the perfect counterpart to the battle of Lincoln.  Virtually everything that Matilda had gained was lost at Winchester.  The next move in the civil war was to exchange the prisoners.  On November 1, Stephen left Bristol and returned to Winchester.  When he arrived there November 3, the earl was also released. 


The conflict between Matilda and Stephen was far from over.  Despite years of civil war, neither side seemed to have gained much ground.  Matilda had been close enough to the crown to taste it, yet her lack of political judgment and tact had lost her that chance.  Her influence in England was so weak that only a week after Stephen was released from captivity, Henry held a council to justify his own actions and released the rest of the clergy from the oaths they had taken to uphold her.  It seems as though she only had a chance when Stephen was truly powerless, and as soon as he was free, that chance disappeared.

Oxford Castle

Where Matilda made her escape
Where Matilda made her escape

A Dramatic Escape

One of the more dramatic scenes from the civil war occurred at Oxford.  Robert left Matilda there in June so that he could meet up with her husband Geoffrey of Anjou.  Stephen had been seriously ill since Easter, so the threat of an attack seemed unlikely at that time.  However, this assumption was false and Stephen quickly moved against Oxford, burning much of it and trapping Matilda in the castle, where escape seemed highly unlikely.

However, Matilda was not one to fret over her situation; recent events had taught her that action always produced better results.  The Gesta Stephani, a book literally written about the deeds of Stephen, described such action:

“…she left the castle by night, with three knights of ripe judgment to accompany her, and went about six miles on foot, by very great exertions on the part of herself and her companions, through the snow and ice.  What was the evident sign of a miracle, she crossed dry-footed, without wetting her clothes at all, the very waters that had risen above the heads of the king and his men when they were going over to storm the town…without anyone at all knowing except her companions and just one on the king’s side who revealed her departure, went away from the castle unhindered, as has been said, and unharmed, and by very great effort reached the town of Wallingford.  I do not know whether it was to heighten the greatness of her fame in time to come, or by God’s judgment to increase more vehemently the disturbance of the kingdom, but never have I read of another woman so luckily rescued from so many mortal foes and from the threat of dangers so great;”

What is remarkable about this excerpt is that not only was she able to escape and outwit her cousin, but also the fact that the author of the quote was one of her harshest critics.  Even the anonymous author could not refute the fact that Matilda was unlike any other woman of her time.

She then made Wallingford her home and operations headquarters, and she would remain there until she finally departed England for good in 1148.  She continued to receive men and grant charters to her supporters, although several of them continued to switch allegiance whenever it best suited them.

Henry II

An End in Sight

For his part, Stephen continued to make mistakes and break promises.  He struggled with two of his most powerful barons, Geoffrey de Mandeville and Earl Ranulf of Chester.  These conflicts ravished the countryside and shamed the people.

There was an attempt at reconciliation between Stephen and Matilda in 1146.  Her supporters clung to the belief that her claim was legitimate, since she had been named heir by Henry I, while Stephen claimed that his rule was legal. When both sides refused to compromise, negotiations broke down and nothing was accomplished.

Matilda's first son from her marriage with Geoffrey was Henry Fitzempress.  Many people in England, including Robert of Gloucester, had always preferred that he succeed to the throne in place of his mother.  In 1147, at the age of fourteen, Henry set sail for England with a small contingent of mercenaries, in retaliation for the recent arrest of Earl Ranulf.  Despite his failure and disapproval of both his mother and uncle, through this action he showed many that he was willing and able to take up the fight on his mother's behalf.

Upon the death of Robert in October 1147, Matilda all but gave up her hopes of ever wearing the crown herself.  She had lost her most trusted supporter and was lost without him.  Equipped with the knowledge that her son would pick up where she had left off, Matilda sailed for Normandy early in 1148, never to return to England.  Although this may have seemed like victory for Stephen, he still had to deal with the fact that hardly anyone in England trusted his word anymore.

It had become abundantly clear to the barons of England that total victory over Matilda's supporters would never be realized.  This point was driven further when, upon the death of Geoffrey of Anjou, Henry inherited the duchies of Normandy, Maine and Anjou.  Then Henry married Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152, taking another large holding in France.  Stephen had hopes of naming his own son, Eustace, as his heir, but this hope was dashed when Eustace died in 1153.

The barons pressured Stephen to put an end to this civil war and start rebuilding the country.  In 1153, Stephen and Henry signed the Treaty of Westminster.  The agreement was that Stephen remained in place as monarch until his death, whereupon Henry would inherit the throne.  This is exactly what happened when Stephen died the next year.

The civil war unofficially ended with the Treaty of Westminster and officially ceased when Henry II ascended to the throne.  He did much to repair England and also to make sure that the barons under his control did not conduct themselves as they had done under Stephen. 


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    • profile image


      8 years ago

      You have to change the pictures. They show french kings from a much later period!

    • profile image


      9 years ago

      im doing an assignment on a woman in the medieval period that made a significant difference in medieval society and so far haven't found anything to help me.

    • mrsmillich profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from New York

      Thanks, Christopher. This was actually a condensed version of a paper that I wrote about Stephen and Matilda. Glad you liked it!

    • christopheranton profile image

      Christopher Antony Meade 

      9 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

      Thank you for a very well written account of one of the lesser known dark periods in English history. Many people write about the Wars of the Roses, and the civil war of the seventeenth century, but few ever bother about that earlier, and equally devastating conflict, and not many have brought the period, and the protagonists, to life as well as you.


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