The board is set. The pieces are moving. The Anarchy is going to descend upon England. In our first part, we immersed ourselves in the cutthroat politics of the post-Conquest Anglo-Norman world: how William the Conqueror left a divided inheritance that made conflict between his three sons inevitable; how Robert Curthose and William Rufus smashed themselves to pieces whilst Henry Beauclerc took his opportunity to seize the throne; and how Henry’s dynastic ambitions were quite literally shipwrecked with the death of William Adelin in a horrific maritime disaster in the winter of 1120 CE. Now, all bets are off: courtiers are openly discussing the future of the Anglo-Norman Kingdom, and many view Henry’s daughter Empress Matilda as a weak choice for a ruler on the basis of her sex, despite her enormous political talents. The pious and serious Stephen of Blois, second only in wealth and power to the King, is contemplating his next move in quiet prayer. The quiet before the storm.

A rare near-contemporary depiction of Empress Matilda, shown here later in life at the coronation of her granddaughter as Duchess of Saxony. From the Gospels of Henry the Lion, c. 1188 CE (via Wikimedia Commons)

Mourning and New Beginnings

Once King Henry came out of mourning for his son, it seems that his first port of call was to re-secure his succession in the traditional patriarchal manner of the Medieval Normans. Although he was in his early 50s, a considerable age in the era, he remained vigorous and healthy, prosecuting continuous warfare against the Kings of France, the Welsh, and his own rebellious bannermen throughout this period. His wife, Edith of Scotland, had passed away two years before, and so there was every possibility that he could secure his kingdom by producing a new male heir. At this stage, it seems, his daughter Matilda was written off as an unlikely prospect for the throne.

A contemporary depiction of Adeliza of Louvain, shown kneeling at the feet of Christ in the Shaftesbury Psalter, mid-12th century CE. (via British Library)

Henry married the attractive and well-born Adeliza of Louvain in January of 1121, who joined him on his military campaigns to maximize their chance of conceiving. But their decade-long marriage produced no children, setting tongues wagging at court. The birthing of a male heir was seen as both a spiritual and moral judgment from God, a gift of favour in a superstitious time, and the apparent failure of this marriage was a concerning omen for many. In lieu of a new heir, the possibilities of an orderly transition of power were limited: the court would likely refuse to accept Robert of Gloucester, Henry’s eldest surviving son, since he was illegitimate; and Empress Matilda was disqualified by many, since there had never been a female Norman ruler in her own right.

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)

The other possibility was the King’s right-hand man, Stephen of Blois. Stephen was fairly popular at court, although his rapid rise from humble origins seems to have rankled many, and his neighbours chafed constantly. Henry brokered a marriage for Stephen in 1124 CE, seeing him married to Matilda of Boulogne, a woman very much of the same mould as Henry’s daughter: an extremely intelligent and effective political actor, who would rule as Countess of Boulogne in her own right. It is this continued favour that might explain the serious divisions at Henry’s court that would soon erupt into open conflict.

Empress and Heir

By 1126 CE, however, Henry’s mind was made up. The other candidates for the throne were unsuitable, and he could not produce another male heir – and even if he had, he would doubtless leave a child-king under a regency of hostile nobles. His only real option for any kind of stability and continuity was his daughter, Empress Matilda. As we have seen in her time in Germany and Italy, Matilda was clearly an immensely capable ruler, and had also received firsthand battlefield experience alongside Holy Roman Emperor Henry V on campaign. Perhaps the critical factor in King Henry’s change of heart was the Emperor’s death in 1125 CE, meaning the widowed Matilda was now available to marry to one of the King’s allies, securing the English throne. At Christmas 1126 CE, the King arranged for the assembled Anglo-Norman elite to swear featly to Matilda as his successor in perpetuity.

Future Empress Matilda (center-right) depicted at her wedding feast to Holy Roman Emperor Henry V (center-left). 12th century CE. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Women in the Middle Ages were often political actors in their own right, but they were frequently viewed as a form of property by the men around them. As such, Matilda’s widowhood as heir to the crown of England was a valuable tool for Henry to exploit. She was duly engaged to Geoffrey, the future Count of Anjou. Geoffrey was a warrior-prince, recorded by his contemporaries as handsome and red-haired – though we can probably put some of this down to the flattery of his court writers; like most Medieval French aristocrats, he was probably brutal and violent by modern comparisons. His nickname was ‘Plantagenest’ – probably a reference to the yellow broom (genêt in French, or planta genista in Latin) that he habitually wore in his hat. Over time, this would be adopted by his descendants as ‘Plantagenet’, and the house he founded would rule England until the death of King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485.

This magnificent enamel effigy of Geoffrey of Anjou adorned his tomb in the Cathedral of Le Mans, now residing in the Le Mans Archaeological & Historical Museum. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Henry had been courting Angevins for a long while, attempting to prize Anjou away from its loyalty to the French crown, in order to incorporate it into the Anglo-Norman world – William Adelin had been married to the daughter of the Count of Anjou. And so the union of Matilda and Geoffrey represented a significant diplomatic coup and the refoundation of that alliance. The marriage was a stormy one: though apparently tempestuously attracted to one another, they would often fight bitterly, their arguments often political in nature (for example, the Normans and Angevins disputed a series of castles along their common border). Despite this, the pair would quickly have three sons together: William FitzEmpress (literally, ‘son of the Empress’), Geoffrey, who would become Count of Nantes, and Henry. The young Henry, born in 1134 CE and blessed by his elderly grandfather King Henry I, would go on to become King of England as Henry II: the first Angevin King of England, and the King who would end the Anarchy.

This artistic recreation of the face of King Henry II, the first Plantagenet King of England, was made by 3D character-artist Curtis Durane from surviving contemporary statues and depictions. (via Curtis Durane)

Stephen Steps Forward

Whilst this rough but productive marriage was clearly great news for Henry, Stephen of Blois saw opportunities for his own ambitions. An important rival from the anti-Henry Norman aristocracy was removed in 1128 CE when William Clito, son of Robert Curthose, was killed in an attempt to seize the County of Flanders. Stephen’s brother Henry of Blois, who had risen to prominence as a reforming Cluniac under King Henry I, was elevated to Bishop of Winchester, and in a highly unusual move he was allowed to retain his status as Abbot of Glastonbury – this gave Stephen a critical ally within the upper echelons of the Church bureaucracy. Stephen’s marriage to Matilda of Boulogne was highly productive, producing four legitimate children before 1135 CE. With a flourishing dynasty as future Counts of Bolougne, and lacking any real rivals, Stephen now became the natural locus of those who were dissatisfied with the English throne passing to a woman. Even though Stephen had also sworn the oath to carry out King Henry’s wishes and support Empress Matilda’s accession to the throne, with the King aging and whispers growing at court, Stephen began to conspire to seize it for himself.

Stephen of Blois (bottom-right) had risen from the third son of a minor aristocratic family to the second-most powerful man in Norman England, with a burgeoning dynasty and solid networks of patronage. Depicted in a contemporary genealogy. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Though Empress Matilda was doubtless at a disadvantage due to the sexism of the Anglo-Norman courtiers, we shouldn’t mistake that her gender was the only obstacle to her accession. Her father had created many enemies during his reign. Fighting near-constant wars against King Louis VI of Franc and the Kings of Wales, intervening in Flanders, and subduing endless rebellions from the Norman nobility, King Henry I had had to tax his lands and those of his vassals heavily, developing new forms of taxation to fund his military projects. At the same time, this expanded scale of administration required both a large expansion of the pre-existing Anglo-Saxon justice system, and a far greater role for literate Church bureaucrats in the everyday affairs of state. As it had in Germany, this led to conflicts over the investiture of key churchmen, resulting in many allies feeling like they had been left out in the cold. So added to Matilda’s gender, there was a ripe constituency of disaffected nobles willing to support Stephen if he made a grab for power.

These silver pennies were struck at the Oxford mint, and bear the name and likeness of King Henry I. His administrative and civil reforms created much of the state machinery of Medieval England – including a strongly centralized crown that was able to gather its own taxes. (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Anarchy Civil War Begins

Stephen’s opportunity came with the death of King Henry I in 1135 CE – the event which marks the formal beginning of the Anarchy civil war. Vigorously campaigning until the last summer of his life, Henry retired for an autumn hunting expedition in rural Normandy, during which he became ill and died, possibly from severe food poisoning. Henry had lived into his late 60s. Both Matilda and Stephen were on the Continent when they heard news of the King’s death: Matilda on campaign with Geoffrey in Anjou, but Stephen at his wife’s lands in Boulogne. Perhaps with the lesson of Henry’s accession after the death of William Rufus in mind – namely that fortune favours those who are present – Stephen set off for England at once. Matilda and Geoffrey, as well as Matilda’s elder half-brother Robert of Gloucester, were tied down in Normandy, as were many Norman nobles who had sworn not to leave the Duchy before they could pay their respects to the deceased King’s body at Rouen. Untroubled by such formalities, Stephen raced from Bolougne to London, arriving a mere eight days after the death of the King, and less than a month after Henry had died, King Stephen had himself coronated at Westminster Abbey.

King Stephen, bearing a model of Faversham Abbey, which he would found in 1141 CE. The portrait is a generic one, taken from Matthew Paris’s Chronica Majora, and was made by the chronicler in the late 12th or early 13th century CE. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Predictably, the sources are confused and equivocal about the precise nature of these events. Contemporary writers are divided as to whether Henry gave his blessing to Stephen: some say that the King gave a deathbed apology to Stephen, releasing him from his oaths in support Matilda, and blessing his accession. Others state baldly that Stephen lied about the King’s wishes, getting his influential supporters to bear false witness about King Henry’s last words, and using his contacts such as the Bishop of Winchester (his brother Henry of Blois) to swing the machinery of state in his direction. Some accounts even state that Robert of Gloucester initially refused to let Stephen cross the Channel, suspecting that he was on his way to usurp the throne.

A Crumbling Kingdom

News of Stephen’s rapid coronation struck the rest of Normandy like a thunderbolt. The Norman nobles detained on the Continent by their oaths had been meeting to deliberate their next steps, and were even mulling supporting Stephen’s older brother for the throne – but news of Stephen’s coronation interrupted the meeting, and they broke up without resolution. Matilda and Geoffrey resolved to stay in the South, keeping their powder dry and building an alternative power-base from which to launch raids into Stephen’s holdings and exploit political opportunities. Though Stephen had seized power, his regime was far from unanimously supported, with many Anglo-Norman nobles abstaining from the King’s early courts until their grievances had been resolved. A boon came for Stephen in the form of support from King Louis VI of France – doubtless Louis relished the prospect of a weak and divided Anglo-Norman kingdom, especially one which would occupy the attentions of the Angevins in his back yard.

King Owain the Great of Gywnedd led the Great Revolt of 1136, when both he and King Gruffydd ap Rhys of Deheubarth both took advantage of the Anarchy civil war to roll back Norman occupation of Wales. Portrait by Hugh Williams, 1909. (via Wikimedia Commons)

But dark tidings for Stephen flooded in from every corner of his kingdom: the Scottish King David had taken vast swathes of the North of England, exploiting the chaos south of the border. Riding north, Stephen managed to temporarily mollify the Scots without a major confrontation by ceding territory and titles – but no sooner as he had secured the North, than Wales rose in rebellion. This was a conflict that Stephen faced little hope of containing: the kings of Gwynedd (North Wales) and Deheubarth (South Wales) knocked over Norman garrisons and effectively evicted the Normans from most of Wales within a few months. Gritting his teeth and sacrificing his holds in Wales for now, Stephen turned to face the rebels elsewhere in his Kingdom: in the West of England, and in the South of Normandy.

Angevin Revenge

Geoffrey of Anjou and Empress Matilda had not been idle. Realizing that Stephen would never be weaker than at the very start of his reign, the pair set about systematically destabilizing his hold on Normandy. Somehow, in amongst co-leading a military campaign, managing logistics and knightly households, and lobbying the Pope against Stephen’s claims, Matilda managed to find time to give birth to her third son, William – returning to her duties within days. The Angevin position received a blow when Pope Callixtus II gave his blessing to Stephen’s coronation. But Geoffrey wasted no time ruing the political situation: he launched a concerted campaign into Normandy in early 1136 CE, undertaking a chevauchée: a slash-and-burn raid rather than patient attrition, aiming to hurt Stephen’s pocket and create political chaos instead of besieging fortresses and taking territory. Forced to abandon other concerns to address this existential threat, King Stephen crossed the Channel to meet it, even forming an alliance with the King of France against the Angevins – but Stephen was forced to buy a humiliating an expensive truce with Geoffrey after the Flemings and Normans under his command fell to infighting, with his Norman barons resigning from the campaign in protest. It appeared that the Angevin tactics were working.

The chevauchee was a military slash-and-burn tactic designed to weaken an enemy’s hold on a territory, to deny them resources, and to draw them out into open battle. It reached its epitome during the Hundred Years War, depicted here in a modern illustration by Peter Dennis. (via Wargames Annual)

So by the beginning of 1138 CE, Stephen’s situation was shaky. Whilst he had successfully addressed some of the problems in his kingdom, for example achieving a peace with France and receiving the official blessing of the Pope, elsewhere his administration was on weak footing: he had ceded much English territory to the Scots, the Kings of Wales were unchecked, and the south of Normandy was in flames after the Angevins’ reaving. Grumbles were beginning around his court that perhaps they’d backed the wrong horse. In the concluding part of our series on the Anarchy civil war, the chickens will come home to roost for Stephen: his own courtiers will rise in rebellion against him. The Empress Matilda will cross the Channel, and will land in England to contend for the throne of England. They will clash in the fields of Lincoln, where a King will fall. Anarchy civil war is here.


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.