High Medieval England was a particularly violent and unsettled place, in a violent and unsettled time. The seizure of the English throne by William ‘the Bastard’ of Normandy exported a special brand of chivalric fratricidal warfare from Northern France to the British Isles: William fought English rebellions for almost the rest of his reign, finally quelling them with overwhelming brutality. Yet these victories only made England a valuable prize for his greedy successors. William’s sons fought bitterly for the crown, until his fourth son, Henry Beauclerc, became King Henry I of England in August of 1100 CE.

But the rivalries between the Conqueror’s sons would be as nothing compared to the storm that was about to befall the Norman world. A tragic shipwreck would plunge England back into the turbulence of civil war, leading to a fifteen-year struggle between two titans of their age: the intelligent and fierce Empress Matilda, and the cunning and pious Stephen of Blois. The monumental clash between these grandchildren of the Conqueror would result in the breakdown of law and order across England, and would usher in an age of wolves: the civil war known as the Anarchy.

The conquest of England by Duke William of Normandy would usher in a succession of crises and wars over the spoils of the nation. Depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, late 11th century CE (via English Heritage)

The Seeds of the Anarchy Civil War

The seeds of the Anarchy were sown during the Norman conquest of England. William the Conqueror was embroiled in a decades-long conflict involving the Anglo-Saxon nobility of England, Danes and Norwegian opportunists from Scandinavia, the Kingdom of Scotland, and his own Norman aristocracy, which had only reached a conclusion in the final few years of his reign. Whilst much English-language history is necessarily Anglocentric in outlook, we should remember that England was not the center of the Anglo-Norman world: England was a wealthy kingdom without doubt, but the political heart of the Norman aristocracy lay in the Duchy of Normandy, now part of modern France. This is shown by the partition of his lands which the Conqueror made shortly before his death in 1087 CE: his eldest son Robert Curthose (whose nickname was a mocking epithet given by his father) would receive the Dukedom of Normandy, but the crown of England would only go to his next surviving son, William II Rufus (a reference to his ruddy complexion or his red hair). The Conqueror’s other surviving son, Henry Beauclerc (meaning ‘well-read’, a reference to his relative education), would receive nothing.

Robert Curthose led the northern French contingent of knights in the First Crusade, throughout the campaign until the capture of Jerusalem. It was during his return from the Holy Land that Henry Beauclerc had himself crowned King of England. Depicted in a dramatic but anachronistic 19th century painting by Jean-Joseph Dassy. (via Wikimedia Commons)

This partition of Normandy and England has left historians scratching their heads over why the Conqueror would divide his realm in such a manner, and it apparently left many contemporaries confused too. We can theorize that the Conqueror simply distinguished between the lands that were his by right of birth, and those by right of conquest. Soon, William’s sons came to blows over who would reunite their father’s realm, and the Norman warrior-nobles who the Conqueror had elevated to new heights with lands in the newly conquered English counties now faced a divided loyalty: would they follow the Duke of Normandy, or the King of England? Tensions simmered between the brothers, with Duke Robert and Henry Beauclerc forming an uneasy alliance against King William Rufus. Although virtually landless, Henry had been presented by a very large sum of money by his dying father, and so bankrolled Robert’s plans to seize England, in return for a County in the Cotentin. William Rufus’ reign came to an abrupt and suspicious end when he was struck by an arrow in a hunting accident. Henry was apparently present when William was killed, leading many to theorize his involvement. Regardless, Henry was quick to capitalize: Robert was returning from the Holy Land, having been a leader in the successful First Crusade, and there was an opportunity for Henry to seize the throne in his absence. Riding to Winchester and seizing the royal treasury, Henry was hastily crowned King of England in August 1100.

The unfortunate King William Rufus, depicted impaled by an arrow, a reference to the hunting accident which cut short his reign. From a 14th century source. (via StreetsOfSalem)

The new King Henry I of England had to rapidly secure his position. His own lands in France were small, and many of the Norman nobles, fractious at the best of times, were loyal to the absent Robert. It would take a laborious six years to tame them, invading Normandy from England, and finally trapping Robert at the Battle of Tinchebray, where the youngest son would best the eldest: Robert became a prisoner to Henry in 1106. He would live in Henry’s captivity for almost another thirty years, well into his eighties. Robert’s only son, William Clito, would raise banners in rebellion against Henry with the support of King Louis VI of France. Most of the other Norman nobles would grumble, but after the defeat of Robert, they would grudgingly recognise Henry I as both Duke of Normandy and King of England, beginning a union of the French and English territories that would last for a century. But first, we have a marriage to attend.

One of the only contemporary depictions of Henry I, the chronicler John of Worcester recounts how the King was troubled by nightmares on successive nights: first peasants brandishing scythes and tools, and then armed knights, came to haunt him, demanding justice and freedom. After these visitations, Henry swears to uphold the liberties and fair taxation of his citizens. c. 1125-1140 CE. (via Bodleian Library)

A Fatal Marriage

Henry, although in his early thirties, was unmarried, and so had a valuable diplomatic tool in his arsenal. He chose for his bride Edith of Scotland, daughter of King Malcolm III, whom William Rufus had concisely defeated in the 1090s – they were married in November of 1100, three months after Henry’s coronation. Whilst we can never be certain of the intimate personal thoughts of those in the distant past, especially in the context politically expedient marriages, the surviving historical sources do point out that the couple were very much in love.

The official seal of Maud of Scotland, showing her bearing the orb and scepter of royal authority in her own right. Contemporary. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Henry and Edith soon had a son, whom they named William – William is known in the sources as William Adelin, a Normanized translation of the Anglo-Saxon Ætheling, soubriquet of the Anglo-Saxon royal princes. We can already see the genesis of a unique Anglo-Saxon-Norman culture being created by the Norman Kings. Edith of Scotland was a scion of both the Scottish elite and the dispossessed Anglo-Saxon nobility, and she had been destined for a monastic life, so had learned voraciously – but the sources give an impression of someone who would never have been satisfied with a life of quiet contemplation. She was ambitious, bold and educated – qualities she would hand her on to their second child, a daughter, who the royal couple named Matilda.

Matilda, headstrong and ambitious like her mother, was a valuable part of Henry’s dynastic ambitions. As a third son of a conqueror, he had to secure a dynastic future from very little. From her youth, she was planned to marry to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V. Though she was only eight at the time, she was crowned as Queen of the Germans in 1110 CE, and was wedded to the twenty-eight year old Emperor at the age of only 14. Along with Matilda went a huge dowry of 10,000 silver marks, with which her father Henry expected to buy an ally in his war with Louis VI of France. But Matilda was far from a passive pawn in German politics: she was an active participant in her husband’s administration, travelling with him on his campaigns in Italy, sponsoring Imperial legislation, and participating in ceremonial events. In 1117 CE, Matilda was crowned as Holy Roman Empress alongside her husband, and despite the murky legal status of this coronation due to the Byzantine religious politics of the time, she became universally known as Empress Matilda, even after the death of her husband and the official Papal revocation of her title. This is likely due in no small part to the sheer force of will with which she embodied her identity as a ruler.

This 14th century French miniature depicts Empress Matilda in full armor, bearing the crown of England, a very rare depiction of a Medieval woman in armor. (via Armour In Art)

Rhapsody in Blois

As young Matilda flourished, so too did the fortunes of a teenage nobleman named Stephen of Blois. Stephen was the third son of the Count of Blois, and so stood to inherit little. Stephen’s father had accompanied Robert Curthose on the First Crusade, though his actions were viewed as cowardly by his contemporaries. Growing up under this stain on his family’s reputation, the youthful Stephen was pious, serious and cautious. Smartly assessing which way the winds were blowing, he attached himself to the household of Henry Beauclerc (who would shortly crown himself King Henry I of England) – and this decision proved to be enormously beneficial to both parties. Stephen was a grandson of William the Conqueror on his mother’s side, and was thus Henry’s nephew. This meant he was a close enough relative of the King to be considered trustworthy, but also not close enough to directly threaten the King’s children in the line of succession.

Family tree illustrating the key figures of the Anarchy: William the Conqueror, father of Henry I and grandfather to both Stephen of Blois (bottom right) and Empress Matilda (bottom center). (via Family History Center)

Though only in his teens, Stephen led military forces in Henry’s invasion and reconquest of Normandy, and Henry I would knight him on the battlefield for his service. He received lands confiscated from the pro-Robert Norman nobles, and by the late 1110s, he was a prosperous and powerful nobleman, a faithful advisor to the King with a growing portfolio of wealthy lands in Northern France and England. He would marry Matilda, the daughter of the Count of Bolougne – upon the elderly Count’s retirement, she would inherit his lands in her own right, adding them to Stephen’s growing empire. Like the Empress Matilda, Matilda of Bolougne would prove to be exceptionally politically active, becoming a fierce protagonist in the Anarchy on behalf of her husband. Whilst Stephen was pursuing his career as a knight, his younger brother Henry of Blois had entered the Church and risen quickly – the two close brothers would be a formidable pair throughout their lives.

Very few contemporary images of Stephen of Blois have survived into the modern era. This early 14th century illumination depicts him seated with a hunting bird, a symbol of nobility. (via Historic UK)

A new age looked to be dawning: with the help of Stephen of Blois, Henry had largely reined in the fractious Norman nobility and extended his network of support deep into the King of France’s backyard. His dynasty was secure, and the future of a unified Normandy and England looked likely. But a disaster at sea would bring Henry’s plans crashing down, and would plunge the Norman world into darkness.

The Wreck of the White Ship

In November of 1120 CE, Henry was making a trip from Normandy back to England. This was a well-trodden route, with ships criss-crossing the English Channel, which had become a critical sea-route at the heart of the Anglo-Norman world. Henry departed in a ship from Barfleur, the same port where his father had set out on his conquest of England fifty-four years earlier. Most of his retinue had to travel in a second ship, named the Blanche-Nef in Norman French, known to history as the White Ship. The ship had just been refitted, and was probably the fastest, most well-equipped ship in the Anglo-Norman fleet, crewed by veteran sailors. The King’s son William Adelin, Stephen of Blois, at least two of the King’s many illegitimate children, and as many as 300 other courtiers crowded onto the boat. Whilst they waited for departure they asked William for wine, which flowed in abundance, kicking off a riotous floating party. By the time it was time to leave, night had fallen but the revelry was still in full swing. Shortly before cast-off, Stephen of Blois decided to return to shore – accounts differ whether he had overindulged in the wine, or whether he was taken ill – but nevertheless, the White Ship set off into the murky darkness without him.

William Adelin gives the fatal order for the skiff to return to the sinking White Ship. Modern depiction. (via Mail Online)

Fate had saved him at the last moment from what was to come. The partying passengers ordered the crew to overtake the King’s ship, which had departed ahead of them. The White Ship was likely more than capable of the feat, but in the rush to catch up, corners were cut. A lookout lost focus, a navigator cut too close to the shore. A mile outside of Barfleur’s port, the ship struck a submerged rock, invisible in the gloom. In moments, ice-cold water began to flood the decks, spreading panic like wildfire amongst the drunken host. A handful of passengers managed to float a skiff, dragging William Adelin aboard. But as they rowed away, Adelin roared at them to return him to the ship: his half-sister was still aboard. As they got close to the foundering vessel, dozens of panicked people swarmed onto the skiff, dragging it down into the water, overwhelming it, and pitching them all back into the freezing cold November tide.

The wreck of the White Ship, which sank off Barfleur in 1120 CE, depicted beneath a pious and grief-stricken Henry I, 1st quarter of the 14th-century. (via Wikimedia Commons)

The body of William Adelin, crown-prince of England and Henry I’s only legitimate son, would never be recovered. Along with almost three-hundred of the nobility of the Anglo-Norman world, he rests in a watery grave in the harbour of Barfleur. The sole survivor of the disaster was the King’s butcher. The sinking of the White Ship would remain the worst peacetime maritime disaster in England’s history for more than five centuries. After King Henry heard of William’s death, it was said that he never once smiled again in his life. Wracked with personal grief, Henry also bore the larger grief: that for his Kingdom. The crown of England had been seized by his father by force, and his brothers had fought bitterly to secure it; even his title as Duke of Normandy had only been enforced by strength of arms. What chance now did his only daughter, disadvantaged by the sexism of the day, have to rule in her own right? And if not her, then who? The disaster of the White Ship made the Anarchy civil war all but inevitable.


About Charles J Lockett

Ever since Charles was a lad, he’s been a history obsessive – summer holidays were always spent dragging his family around Welsh castles! He pursued that passion through University, studying Early-Modern Europe and the French Revolutions, receiving his MA in Politics from the University of Sheffield. Nowadays, he is a writer specialising in history and politics, based in Yorkshire, UK. In his spare time, he is a Dungeon Master, aspiring fantasy novelist and cat dad.