It is the year 1138 CE. The clouds have burst. Open hostilities between Empress Matilda, the daughter of King Henry I and the presumptive first Queen of England, and King Stephen of Blois, the third son of a Count and the most ambitious man in the Kingdom, have begun. In Part 1 of our series on the Anarchy, we saw how the sons of William the Conqueror fought bitterly over their father’s prize of England, and how the end of the infighting was scuppered by a cruel shipwreck. Then, in Part 2, we saw King Henry try to secure the throne for his daughter Matilda, but in vain: his right-hand man, Stephen of Blois, exploited the misogyny of the Norman elite and declared himself King. But King Stephen was quickly beset by enemies on all sides: Matilda and her husband Geoffrey of Anjou were storming Normandy, King David of Scotland had taken the North, and the Kings of Wales were rampant in the valleys. Now, we will see King Stephen swamped by the tides of history – yet despite losing almost everything, King Stephen will summon all of his considerable talents to claw onto the crown of England. The Anarchy civil war will rage for another fifteen years, until two Kings will meet in a field outside of Winchester, and one will bow to the other. In the meantime, the Kingdom of England will be ruled by brigands, robber-barons and death. The Anarchy is here.

A rare 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)

The Bastard’s Defection

The Anarchy entered a new phase in June of 1138 CE, when Robert of Gloucester, King Henry I’s eldest illegitimate son and Matilda’s half-brother, rose in rebellion against King Stephen. This might surprise us a little: the last we saw of Robert, he had not challenged Stephen for the crown; he had permitted Stephen to pass through his garrisoned towns in Normandy, and he had remained publicly neutral in the growing conflict between Stephen and his half-sister. But Robert had never made any secret of his disdain for Stephen – contemporary chroniclers relay how he openly talked of the King’s lack of temperance and disloyalty to the wishes of his deceased father. We can only guess of the personal motivations of Robert, but it is telling that he did not raise the banners in his own cause: he declared his support for Empress Matilda’s claim to the throne.

A contemporary (if idealized) statue of Robert of Gloucester, from St. James’ Priory, Bristol, which he founded in 1129 CE. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Matilda and her husband Geoffrey of Anjou had gained a powerful ally, and the three met in Normandy: together, they began to plan a joint invasion of England, with Robert now becoming their key military commander. When news of this impending invasion reached England, nobles who held Robert in high esteem in the South-East and South-West of England followed suit, declaring their rebellion against King Stephen. The critical port of Dover, still the umbilical cord between the British Isles and the Continent, opened its gates for Robert. The Angevin cause was further buoyed by news from Scotland: King David, Empress Matilda’s maternal grandfather, agreed to renege on his truce with King Stephen, sending an army southward into Northern England in support of his granddaughter’s claim to the throne – and also doubtless to extend his influence at the expense of the wealthy neighbouring Kingdom.

The Squeeze of the Vice

Lesser Kings would have fled the Kingdom and abandoned it to its fate. But King Stephen was an exceptional leader, both politically and militarily. Girding his loins, he assessed the situation. Retaking Normandy was no longer an option; he had to defend the integrity of his English Kingdom at all costs, and he faced two immediate threats: the rebel barons in the South and West who were the gateway for the coming Angevin invasion, and the invading Scots. Though the English treasury was groaning under the strain, he had resources at his disposal: many loyal Norman nobles and knights, and an effective leadership circle including his wife Matilda of Boulogne. Judging the West to be the most pressing, he led an army into South Wales and the West of England to suppress the revolt, sending Matilda of Boulogne at the head of his navy to retake the port of Dover and deny it to the Angevins. At the same time, he sent a force of mercenaries northward to meet up with the local levies of Yorkshire who would meet King David’s invasion.

King David led several invasions into Northern England in support of his grand-daughter Empress Matilda’s claim to the English throne. Near-contemporary depiction, from a charter under King Malcolm IV. (via Wikimedia Commons)

The initial phases of the war were a reprieve from what seemed like imminent disaster for King Stephen. The Angevins were sluggish to invade England, with Empress Matilda reluctant to invade in person. The 68-year old Archbishop Thurstan of York raised the Yorkshire militias with fiery religious fervor, and along with the few mercenaries sent by Stephen, they met the Scottish army at Northallerton. There, they inflicted a surprise defeat on the larger and better-equipped Scots host, inflicting particularly heavy losses in a chaotic rout, with King David only saved by his personal guard. King Stephen was only too pleased to accept David’s offer of peace. In the West, Stephen reaved a path through the countryside, devastating the lands of those who had rebelled. Though he failed to take Bristol, he successfully cowed many of the rebel nobles. After almost a year of grinding siege, and with no prospect of relief from the Angevins, the port of Dover surrendered to Matilda of Boulogne.

The price of these victories, though, was heavy: King David’s son was granted the Earldom of Northumbria, effectively ceding a vast chunk of Northern England to the Scottish orbit. Earl Ranulf of Chester, whose father had ruled all of Northumbria, is said by chroniclers to have left King Stephen’s court in a blind fury – a decision which Stephen knew would have future consequences, but which he felt he had to make. Another ally who began to become dissatisfied with Stephen was his own brother, Henry of Blois, the Bishop of Winchester. King Henry I had relied heavily on the elite clergy in managing his state, and they had been permitted to build large fortifications in many places – and Stephen were concerned that they could be a nexus of resistance to his rule. He therefore stripped a number of prominent bishops of their lands – and Bishop Henry of Blois began to worry that he could be next. But these problems could be dealt with later: through a truly impressive combination of political maneuverings and military acumen, Stephen had survived the crush of the vice.

The Price of Chivalry

Finally, persuaded by her supporters that Stephen would only become more secure on the throne, Empress Matilda decided to launch her planned invasion. Denied the port of Dover by Matilda of Boulogne’s naval blockade, Matilda, Geoffrey and Robert landed at Arundel, near the Isle of Wight, along with 140 knights and their retainers, in the summer of 1139 CE. The impressive and extremely well-constructed castle at Arundel was held by her stepmother Adeliza of Louvain, her father King Henry’s second wife – Matilda was hosted at the castle in defiance of Adeliza’s new husband, who was an Earl enfeoffed by King Stephen. Although we can only guess at the personal relationship between the two women, we can guess that Adeliza held her in high esteem to risk rebellion. Robert marched inland quickly, and set about gathering forces from as many of the rebellious barons in the South-West as could be mustered. But before a sizeable force could be assembled, King Stephen struck. Hoping to race coastwards and catch the Angevins before they could establish themselves, Stephen’s forces arrived at Arundel within days of their landing, surrounding the castle and placing it under siege. Next, something which still puzzles historians took place. King Stephen allowed Matilda to leave.

Arundel Castle, where King Stephen trapped Empress Matilda – but mysteriously released her. Modern image, showing some of the impressive stone fortifications which were present during the Anarchy. (via Arundel Castle)

Under a truce brokered by his brother Henry, the Bishop of Winchester, Matilda was escorted out of Arundel Castle, and she made her way West to Robert’s makeshift capital at Bristol. Contemporaries paint this episode in several different ways: some say that King Stephen was merely a very chivalrous knight, forgiving her on account of her sex, and releasing her as would befit the treatment of a noblewoman. Others say that Stephen underestimated Matilda, perceiving Robert of Gloucester, still at large in the West, to be the greater threat, and that a siege at Arundel would occupy too many of his military resources. Siege warfare in the Norman period was a costly and slow affair: castle design had rapidly outpaced the capabilities of attackers, and reliable siege machinery was still many decades in the future. Since Arundel was a highly defensible castle that would have been able to hold out for many months, perhaps King Stephen wanted to forgo a prolonged stalemate in favour of a war that he could resolve swiftly on the battlefield.

Regardless, the arrival of the Empress in Gloucester marked the maturation of the Anarchy. Empress Matilda had the loyalty of the barons across Devon, Cornwall, Gloucester and the Welsh Marches. At her territory easternmost extent, the castle at Wallingford on the upper reaches of the River Thames was controlled by Brain FitzCount, a staunch supporter of Matilda, and Stephen would repeatedly fail to take it. For the rest of 1139 CE, Robert of Gloucester led campaigns throughout Matilda’s territory, successfully fending off multiple forays by King Stephen and his allies. The coming of Matilda’s first winter in England as rebel queen saw the King’s enemies still firmly entrenched.

The Chickens Coming Home To Roost

But whilst Matilda initially saw few new defections to her camp, the consequences of Stephen’s actions in dealing with the immediate political crisis of 1138 CE began to come home to roost. Bishop Henry of Winchester was not the only churchman to be alienated by Stephen’s pre-emptive purge of the church bureaucracy. Nigel, Bishop of Ely raised the flag of rebellion in East Anglia in early 1140 CE, and whilst Stephen crushed this rebellion in his rear with brutality, the Angevins were able to reverse many of the King’s military gains. And rumblings in the North would soon become a serious problem for King Stephen. Ranulf of Chester, who had been dispossessed by King Stephen’s grant of the Earldom of Northumbria to the Prince of Scotland, had spent the year plotting revenge. He had intended to ambush the Prince as he was returning northward, but after the King got word of his plans and warned him off, Ranulf and his knights set upon a new tactic: seize his rightful property by force.

An anachronistic stained-glass depiction of Ranulf of Chester, wearing the arms of La Marne. (via FindAGrave)

Sending their wives to feast with the castellan’s wife, Ranulf and his knights arrived in civilian clothing to ‘escort’ their wives home – whereupon they beat up the castle guard, seized the armories and set about garrisoning their new prize. After a year of back-and-forth negotiations with King Stephen, the King felt he could no longer ignore this embarrassing problem, and set out northward to retake the castle. Ranulf and a handful of his closest retainers slipped through the King’s siege lines, and returned to his strongholds in Cheshire and the Welsh Marches. There he declared that he was raising the banner of Matilda in rebellion against King Stephen, raising his loyal knights and travelling down to Gloucester to meet with the Angevins. Ranulf had in fact left his wife in the siege – who happened to be Maud of Gloucester, the daughter of Robert of Gloucester – and there is much speculation that Ranulf did so deliberately in order to make his cause more attractive to Robert. Upon receiving the supplicant Northerners, Matilda, Robert and Geoffrey assessed this as a golden opportunity to catch Stephen in an open battle on their terms. Ranulf was a wealthy magnate who had been joined by many rebellious knights, with strong connections in the North and in Wales. This was the time to stake everything. Robert gathered as many of their forces as they could spare and marched North into Stephen’s territory for the showdown that he hoped would end the Anarchy and place his half-sister upon the throne of England as its first Queen.

Disaster Before the Gates of Lincoln

In the cold February of 1141 CE, King Stephen was dug into the siege of Lincoln. The town had opened its gates to him, probably because of the poor treatment they had suffered at the hands of Ranulf and his knights, but the small garrison left behind the high walls of the citadel were more than capable of holding out for many months. He probably already knew that Ranulf had slipped the net, but Lincoln was a critical royal stronghold in the North, and so he was committed to taking it back. That was when he received news that Ranulf was returning north, with a large Angevin army. King Stephen called a council of war, where his advisors told him he should break the siege and withdraw – but Stephen made the fateful decision to stand and fight.

The Norman castle at Lincoln, showing its commanding position above the town. The castle is a remarkably well-preseved motte-and-bailey. (via Pride Magazines)

When the Angevins arrived at Lincoln, it was clear that they had raised more support than expected. As well as Ranulf’s Cheshire knights, Robert’s forces were joined by a large mass of Welsh infantry under the Lord of Powys and the brother of King Owain of Gwynedd. Though the Welsh had not declared for either side in the Anarchy, and they were wary of a victory for either candidate, they had made temporary common cause with the Angevins against Stephen for this campaign. For Stephen’s part, his army consisted mostly of infantry, being prepared for a long siege rather than a mobile battle on open ground. Meeting on the flat plain between Lincoln and the Fosse Dyke, all of the accounts agree that Stephen’s choice of battle was disastrous. Within minutes of the two armies meeting, the advisors who had argued against battle began to fall back – these were the new Earls whom Stephen had only recently elevated, and they deserted him en masse. The Welsh surged forward to capitalize on the breaches opening up in the royal army. When the King’s loyal troops in the centre met the lightly-armed Welsh, they were badly battered by the armored Normans, retreating in disorder – but their rout could not reverse the overall outcome.

Depiction of the Battle of Lincoln from the Historia Anglorum (turn of the 13th century). It shows King Stephen (center, wearing crown), instructing one of his generals to address the troops. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Already bloodied by their engagement with the Welsh, Angevin heavy cavalry rode at full-tilt into Stephen’s infantry and tore them to pieces. Rather than flee, King Stephen fought like a lion, breaking both his battle-axe and his sword, continuing to fight on with his bare fists, until he was utterly surrounded and finally only stopped when he was ‘seized by the helmet’ [ie. put in a headlock] by an enormous knight named William de Keynes. Perhaps Stephen was expecting – or hoping – for a heroic death on the battlefield, but it was to be denied to him. The remnants of Stephen’s forces fled back to the walls of the city, but after many hours of bloody street-to-street fighting, the last of Stephen’s holdout nobles surrendered. The King was a prisoner. Empress Matilda’s partisans were victorious.

The End of the Anarchy?

And so, here the Anarchy ends, in the winter of 1141 CE, after four years of bloody civil war. Right? Robert escorted King Stephen in custody back down to the Angevin stronghold at Gloucester, where Matilda received him. One can only imagine the image of Matilda, majestic and queenly, seated above Stephen, still bruised and battered from the battlefield. King Stephen was imprisoned comfortably in Bristol Castle, which he himself had until recently used for his high-status prisoners. But Matilda’s obstacles were far from overcome: next was securing a coronation, with the assent of the Church. Key to Matilda’s plans was Stephen’s brother, Bishop Henry of Blois. Alienated by his brother, the Bishop now saw Matilda as his vehicle to continued power. She and Henry made a secret agreement that he would deliver to her the support of the clergy, in return for effective control over the English Church. Reading the writing on the wall, the imprisoned King Stephen agreed to free his subjects from their oaths, clearing the way for Matilda’s coronation. One gets an insight into Stephen’s character in this period: all of the sources agree that he maintained a kingly bearing, behaving with humility in defeat, yet without becoming crushed. Geoffrey of Anjou led another invasion into Normandy, bringing to heel many of Stephen’s allies – and many of his supporters in England laid down their arms and declared their grudging support for Matilda. On 7th April 1141 CE, the clergy met at Westminster and gave formal backing to Matilda, who declared herself ‘Lady of the English’ (Latin: domina Anglorum), likely wary of the way her claim of the official title of Queen would be received. Tellingly, Geoffrey Plantagenet never adopted the male equivalent dominum Anglorum.

A plaque in the British Museum depicting Bishop Henry of Blois prostrate, bearing a relic. Contemporary c. 1150 CE; made in the Anglo-Norman world. (via Wikimedia Commons)

The Rout of Winchester

But, just as everything looked poised to fall Matilda’s way, cracks began to appear in Matilda’s faction. She and Bishop Henry of Blois reached an impasse: reading between the lines, the ambitious churchman may well have asked for too much control over religious affairs. Economic problems can be seen in the minting of coins: whilst Matilda began to mint coins with her own likeness upon them, there was a more general loss of faith in central coinage, with local nobles beginning to mint their own coinage rather than to use those bearing King Stephen or Matilda’s likenesses. There remained a hold-out core of Stephen’s supporters in South-East England, led by Matilda of Boulogne, Stephen’s queen, who was still at liberty. Another fascinating incident which remains poorly understood is that the citizens of London revolted against Lady Matilda before she could be coronated, forcing her withdrawal from the city back to her base in Gloucester. Though she had militarily defeated the King, there was far from peace in the Kingdom: indeed, it looked like the Anarchy was trickling down to the general population.

Wolvesey Castle, Winchester, was Bishop Henry of Blois’ episcopal fortified manor. Modern illustration. (via English Heritage)

Frustrated by Bishop Henry’s intransigence in delaying her coronation to bargain for more power, Matilda decided to force the issue. Like many leading churchmen in Henry I’s reign, Bishop Henry of Winchester had built a magnificent castle in the seat of his bishopric, and it was this castle that Matilda and her forces besieged in 1142 CE. Seizing on the vulnerability of Empress Matilda’s position, Matilda of Boulogne gathered her supporters and launched a relief force to trap Matilda’s army. This is possibly the only engagement in English history, and certainly one of the very few in European Medieval history, where both of the opposing armies were led by women. Unfortunately for Matilda, it would become known as the Rout of Winchester: trapped inside the city and unprepared for a siege of their own, the Angevins attempted to retreat. An elite unit of knights successfully broke through the attackers’ lines and delivered Lady Matilda back to Gloucester – but the main body of the Angevin army, led by Robert of Gloucester, could not escape. After fierce fighting, they got as far as the River Test, but pinned against the river and surrounded, Robert surrendered.

Lincoln Reversed

It is a great historic irony that the Rout of Winchester so closely mirrors the Battle of Lincoln: an attacker laying siege to a fortification, who was then attacked and surrounded by a relief force, with the capture of their general. The Rout of Winchester is perhaps somewhat unfairly named, since the Angevins made the best of a very bad situation, partly of their own making. Though they had failed to anticipate a relief force and plan accordingly, they nevertheless executed an orderly fighting retreat that achieved its main objective, that of ensuring Lady Matilda’s escape, albeit at the cost of most of their army and the capture of their most effective military leader. With this bargaining chip, the dispossessed loyalists could now seek to reverse their most grievous loss: the capture of King Stephen at Lincoln. Some chronicles of the period describe Matilda of Bolougne reaching out directly to Robert of Gloucester’s wife at Bristol Castle, with the two conducting a prisoner swap without the permission of Lady Matilda. Or it may be that Matilda judged the loss of Robert to be too much of a blow to the strength of her party, which remained extremely shaky due to the obstinacy of the Church, the hostility of the populace and the misogyny of the nobility. Whatever was the case, King Stephen was exchanged for Robert of Gloucester, with, as far as we can tell, no other terms attached. The King quickly re-established control over the East and North of England, with Matilda digging in to the West. The Anarchy was not over.

A modern illustration of Bristol Castle, as it existed in the late 12th century CE. It was one of the largest royal fortresses in the country, but had fallen out of use by the end of the Medieval era. It was largely demolished in 1655 on the orders of Oliver Cromwell, as is now the site of Castle Park. (via Bristol247)

The Anarchy Drags On

For much of the following decade, England remained a partitioned Kingdom. Matilda and her court held de facto power in much of the West of England and South Wales, and many of her supporters from the East and North instead moved to hold titles in her demesne. In practise, this meant the weakening of legal authority across the divided Kingdom: with many local barons now in a position to play King Stephen and Empress Matilda off against one another, many became petty tyrants, expanding their own arbitrary justice systems and indulging in acquisitive violence against the populace. In settled times, the Crown kept a close control over who was permitted to build fortifications, restraining the ambitions of the independent-minded or of political enemies – but the Anarchy saw the proliferation of ‘adulterine’ or unauthorized castles, possibly as many as several hundred. The chronicles tell of a more general breakdown of order, with opportunistic brigandage becoming common in rural areas. Some regions of the country where the fighting was heaviest and most frequent, such as parts of Wiltshire and Berkshire, had become devastated land devoid of population or agriculture. The contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports baldly that across the land “there was nothing but disturbance and wickedness and robbery”.

A coin bearing the seal of Empress Matilda, minted during the Anarchy. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Both Matilda and King Stephen became cautious of risking open battles, since both had suffered fortune-reversing twists on the field. King Stephen was very nearly captured in a small battle at Wilton Abbey in Wiltshire, when he was subject to a surprise attack at sunset by Robert of Gloucester’s forces, but he managed to escape from the burning abbey under cover of darkness. Matilda gradually ate away at King Stephen, supporting rebellions against Stephen in East Anglia, and a second rebellion by Ranulf of Chester. In Normandy, Geoffrey of Anjou engaged in several years of campaigning, eventually marching into the capital Rouen in 1144 CE, and receiving the title of Duke of Normandy from King Louis VI. King Stephen failed to contest these losses, being tied up with constant attritional warfare with Empress Matilda and Robert.

By the late 1140s, King Stephen and Lady Matilda had reached a stalemate. King Stephen could not crack the ring of fortresses occupied by Matilda’s supporters in the West Country, and neither could Matilda project her power effectively beyond them. Matilda’s real enemy was the hand of time: in 1147, the aging Robert of Gloucester, in his late 50s, died of natural causes at Bristol Castle, where almost a decade before he had been King Stephen’s captor. He was buried in the grounds of St. James’ Priory in Bristol, which he had founded. Brian FitzCount, the ironclad defender of Wallingford Castle, laid down his sword around this time, likely joining a monastery. Matilda herself was only in her mid-40s and in good health, but her decade of war for the throne had exhausted her. For all intents and purposes, the ‘hot’ civil war was over, with only sporadic fighting from now on. Thus, now reaching his majority, the man who would end the Anarchy stepped into the limelight.

Henry Comes of Age

Matilda had given birth to a boy in 1133 CE, shortly before the death of her father King Henry I. She had named him Henry, probably after her father. The boy had been raised in Normandy with his mother, and later in Anjou by his father. He spent time in England as well, being taught by the canons at St. Augustine’s Abbey in Bristol (now Bristol Cathedral). He played alongside Robert of Gloucester’s children, and grew up to be a well-educated, energetic and scruffy young man, with red hair and freckles. He became known as ‘Henry FitzEmpress’ (literally, ‘Henry, son of the Empress’), or sometimes by his soubriquet ‘Henry Curtmantle’, after the fashionably short cloak he wore. At the age of 14, he did something rather rash. Taking a company of mercenaries, he returned to England, and invaded King Stephen’s territory. However, after a few initial skirmishes with local forces, his miniature invasion foundered when he could not pay his mercenaries. Neither his mother Matilda nor his father Geoffrey would pay the bill, and this has been taken to mean that Henry had undertaken this invasion on his own initiative. In a gesture of surprising magnanimity, the chronicles record that King Stephen paid the mercenaries off, and returned Henry to his family. It was a noble gesture which King Stephen would live to regret.

A contemporary depiction of King Henry II in his later life. From a 1186 CE atlas of Ireland, dedicated to the King. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Increasingly, Matilda’s efforts began to focus on securing the succession of the English throne for Henry. She moved back to Normandy in the late 1140s CE, and focused on building an administration there which would be capable of launching an invasion of England when the time was right – exactly as she had done a decade earlier in the lead-up to the Anarchy. She began to lobby the Holy See in Rome for their support of Henry, and found a much more favourable atmosphere than she had a decade ago. King Stephen, already in his late-50s, was embroiled in a nasty dispute with the Church. Archbishop Thurstan of York, the unlikely war hero who was defeated King David of Scotland at Northallerton, had died in 1140 CE, and the King and his brother Henry of Winchester had conspired to appoint a member of the Blois family over the objections of the powerful Church reformers. Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury refused to countenance blessing King Stephen’s son Eustace as his successor, and so the succession looked again to be on shaky ground. Mindful to prepare their own dynasty, Matilda and Geoffrey jointly ceded the Duchy of Normandy to the young Henry FitzEmpress, and after a brief military conflict with the King of France over this move, Henry was confirmed as Duke of Normandy in his own right. Upon his father’s death, he would also inherit the Counties of Anjou and Maine, also the Duchy of Acquitaine with his marriage to Eleanor of Acquitaine in 1152 CE.

Geoffrey Plantagenet of Anjou would die suddenly in 1151 CE, and he would be entombed at the Cathedral in Le Mans, beneath a spectacular funerary coffin which bears a stunning contemporary depiction of his likeness. Whilst it would be unfair to say that he had made no contribution, it is nevertheless unjust that later Medieval misogynists and their Victorian counterparts would claim him as the founder of the Plantagenet dynasty before Matilda. Another of our cast of players would soon join him in the cold earth: Matilda of Bolougne, the steadfast Queen of England, tireless advocate for her King Stephen’s cause, and able military strategist, died in 1152 CE. She would be interred at Faversham Abbey, which her husband had founded.

The Final Showdown

Stung by his experiences launching an invasion at half-cock in his youth, the growing Henry FitzEmpress carefully laid the groundwork for his invasion of England. Stephen’s government remained shaky, with old enemies like Ranulf of Chester still holding power in the Kingdom, and many Matilda’s strongholds in the West still untaken. Whilst Henry was occupied with affairs in Normandy, Stephen moved decisively to end the Anarchy in early 1153 CE: he besieged Wallingford Castle, the keystone of Matilda’s fortresses, hoping to topple the dominoes and finally evict the Angevins from England for good. Although the timing was not of his choosing, Henry had laid the groundwork for his invasion well. Racing across the Channel with another hastily assembled mercenary force, he quickly met up with local rebels and set about relieving Wallingford. Wary of attacking Stephen’s forces head on, he besieged one of Stephen’s own fortresses to draw his armies out, and in a cunning maneuver slipped past them in the wintry weather. Heading northward he linked up with the perennial rebel Ranulf of Chester, as well as the newly-turned rebel the Earl of Leicester. Now controlling a sizeable slice of the North and West of England, Henry had sufficient resources to meet Stephen in open battle. After the spring thaw, Henry marched south for the final confrontation. This time, the Anarchy would end, one way or another.

Wallingford Castle was a prodigious fortification, held by Brian FitzCount in the name of Empress Matilda throughout the Anarchy. It never fell to King Stephen, and was the site of the treaty negotiations which ended the Anarchy. Modern model depicting the castle c. 1330 CE. (via Wallingford Museum)

In Henry’s absence, Stephen had returned to Wallingford, finding a citadel freshly supplied due to Henry’s clever distraction. And so Henry knew exactly where to find him. The two large armies faced each other across the Thames near Wallingford, but neither commander made the first move. As it transpired, each was having the same conversation with their respective nobility: this war has been dragging on for years, and much blood has been spilled – could there be no peaceful resolution? Both leaders remained obstinate, determined to set their claims to the contest of the sword. But, to their great annoyance, delegations of Churchmen from each army had met, and brokered a truce before God. Grudgingly accepting the judgment of the Almighty, the two armies made camp, and they made plans to negotiate.

Father and Son

If King Stephen and Henry FitzEmpress had met in the aftermath of Henry’s foolish invasion of England in 1147 CE, the knight who now faced him was altogether different. The twenty-year old Henry was neither as charming as his father, nor as stately as his mother, but his charisma was undeniable. He was already a veteran of the seemingly endless bloody civil strife in Normandy, but he was marked out by his contemporaries for his sharp intellect and memory. This was no mere butcher, and King Stephen knew he had to be careful. Perhaps as a recognition of this intelligence, King Stephen did not mention the succession of his son Eustace in negotiations – or perhaps he was already considering passing him over in favour of someone more favourable to the obstinate Churchmen. Regardless, Eustace is said to have left Wallingford in fury, vowing to raise more troops to fight Henry. Within a month, he would fall ill and die, being interred beside his mother at Faversham Abbey. This left King Stephen griefstricken, but it removed an important sticking point from negotiations. Stephen’s other son William apparently had little interest in pursuing a dynastic claim, and he was never mooted as a candidate.

King Stephen (center) receives Henry FitzEmpress at Wallingford. 19th century illustration. (via Science Source Images)

Henry and Stephen both withdrew from Wallingford without having fought a battle, and having some degree of a mutual understanding: a common desire to end the conflict, and that their desires were not entirely irreconcilable. Whilst the two leaders continued their campaign and fought some minor skirmishes to improve their bargaining position, the skeleton of an agreement was sketched out: that King Stephen would in effect adopt Henry FitzEmpress as his son and heir, in return for Henry’s homage during his lifetime. Henry would be included in his close circle of advisors, and King Stephen’s heirs would retain their titles and lands. The crown, upon Stephen’s death, would pass to Henry and his heirs in future. Bishop Henry of Blois and Archbishop Theobald unexpectedly found themselves working together towards the common goal of ending the civil conflict. In November, the two rivals met at Winchester, and in Winchester Cathedral, under the auspices of his brother Bishop Henry, King Stephen announced the agreement to the assembled nobility. It was sealed by the kiss of peace between the two men.

The Death of a King; The Death of an Empress

Whilst the Treaty of Wallingford, so named for Matilda’s stronghold and the site of the two Kings’ meeting, was sealed, it was not written in stone. It was by no means certain that King Stephen would not live another decade or more, that either party might renege on their promises, or that King Stephen’s heirs might one day challenge for the throne. The King appeared revitalized by the Treaty, as if the settlement of the war had restored to him some of his sapped energies. He embarked on a fresh tour of his Kingdom, issuing proclamations particularly in the South-West, which was now peacefully reincorporated into his Kingdom. But the King’s energy would be short lived. By the end of the summer, it was clear that Stephen was ailing from a severe stomach disease, and he travelled to the South Coast to be near the resting-place of his wife and son at Faversham Abbey. He died on 25th October 1154 CE, after having ruled England for nineteen years – but less than one of which was at peace. His death marks the end of the Anarchy, and the accession of the Angevins to the throne of England.

King Stephen was buried next to his wife Matilda of Bolougne and his son Eustace at Faversham Abbey, which he had founded. His bones are today lost, having been scattered during the demolition of the Abbey in 1538 during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under King Henry VIII. Depiction shows the ruins of Faversham Abbey as they stood in 1722. (via Wikimedia Commons)

As it sought to reconstruct a unified Norman world after two decades of war, King Henry II’s government would characterize King Stephen as a usurper; a ruthlessly ambitious ruler, whose actions were directly responsible for the breakdown of order across the nation. Henry depicted himself as the successor to his grandfather Henry I – and the intervening years had been an aberration. Having teased apart the historical narrative in more depth, we can see that the reality is more complex. King Stephen remains a fascinating figure in English history: whilst highly personally ambitious, he is acclaimed by contemporaries as a deeply moral figure, choosing correct action over the quick and dirty route in many trying circumstances. As well, Henry’s ideological image would also seek to distance itself from the leadership style of his mother, Empress Matilda. She was renowned by contemporaries for her wilfulness and refusal to listen to council – although one wonders how far these same qualities would be presented as ‘strength’ or ‘leadership’ in a man. She would survive her cousin King Stephen for many years, playing a significant role in the administration of her son’s cross-channel Angevin Empire, spanning England, Normandy, Anjou and Maine. Matilda would finally pass away on 10th September 1167 CE, and she would be buried at Rouen Cathedral. Her original tomb, sadly now lost after the destruction of Rouen Cathedral by the English in 1421, was engraved in part with the words: “Great by birth, greater by marriage, greatest in her offspring: here lies Matilda, the daughter, wife, and mother of Henry”. Whilst this probably captures the traditional attitudes towards women and the ‘official’ narrative of her life, we have seen here that Matilda was so much more. She was an effective civil administrator and logistician, governing both her English territory in wartime and her Norman possessions in her own right. She was an able military commander, masterminding two decades of warfare. She was a tireless diplomat, juggling the competing interests of Church, state and external powers. And she was also daughter of King Henry I, wife to Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, and mother to King Henry II.

Who Won The Anarchy?

So – can we say that Matilda won the Anarchy? Did King Stephen truly fall? After all, he held the crown from his accession in 1135 CE, until his death. But he did not secure himself a dynasty – Lady Matilda managed to position her heirs to inherit the cross-Channel Angevin Empire, against the steep odds of being a woman in the Middle Ages. But – on the other hand – was dynastic rule Stephen’s goal, by the end? It seems that his willingness to negotiate and to bring the Anarchy to an end belied a deeper change in King Stephen, perhaps an inner peace and acceptance of his mortality. Does that constitute the greater victory? There can be little doubt that the Anarchy accelerated tendencies within the English state that were already beginning to crystallize in the time of Henry I, and which were at the core of Henry II’s reconstruction: a bureaucratized and literate state, a sense of an England that was independent from its Norman roots, a centralized and powerful Crown. These tendencies would set it on a collision course with its nearest neighbour, leading to a century of Capetian-Plantagenet conflicts sometimes grouped together as the ‘First Hundred Years War’. But these were historical trends greater than the power of any individual within our story. For now, the Anarchy is over.


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.