The Anarchy

Sounds dramatic doesn’t it, but what was The Anarchy? 

The Anarchy is a period of English history spanning from 1135-1153. It is defined by revolts and civil war between cousins, started by the sinking of the White Ship- I told you that was an important event! Following the untimely demise of Prince William in the ill-fated White Ship disaster, King Henry was left without a legitimate male heir. His only other legitimate child was a daughter named Matilda. Matilda was a powerful woman in her own right, an empress, married to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V before his death in 1125. She was politically savvy, gaining significant governmental experience as regent of Italy in 1118, strong willed, and determined. The issue; she was a woman *insert eye-roll here.*

Image of Empress Matilda. Taken from Wikipedia.

In an era when women were not regarded as fit for rule, the likelihood of the English nobles accepting Matilda as queen in her own right was very much in doubt. The patriarchy strikes again! Nevertheless, Henry attempted to formalise Matilda as his successor, attempting to garner support in England and Normandy, demanding that his court take oaths in 1127, 1128 and 1131 to this effect. Among those who signed the oath was Stephen of Blois; cousin to Matilda. You may remember him from the White Ship incident as he disembarked before the ship set sail- he has a large role yet to play! 

When Henry died, Matilda did not take the English throne. Based in Anjou, Matilda and her husband were unable to travel to England immediately. But there was someone waiting in the wings who, when hearing of the king’s death, sailed to England. The man in question was- you guessed it- Stephen of Blois. Stephen managed to get to London and seize power for himself, the crowds of London proclaiming him the new king. Any question of his loyalty to Matilda or the late king’s wishes were quashed by Stephen’s brother Henry, Bishop of Winchester, who insisted that the old king had changed his mind on his deathbed, naming Stephen as his successor. Pope Innocent II confirmed Stephens rule as monarch in the year 1136. Stephen was the undisputed king of England.

The early reign of Stephen however was marred by revolts, with David I of Scotland, the maternal uncle of Matilda, invading the north and seizing Carlisle and Newcastle. Further to the Scottish revolt, Wales also rose in revolt, with Owain Gwynedd and Gruddydd ap Rhys capturing territories belonging to the king. Stephen attempted to placate Wales, but was unsuccessful and ended up abandoning the cause. However, these revolts were not the only trouble awaiting Stephen. In 1138, Matilda returned to the foreground with her half-brother Robert of Gloucester. Robert was one of the most powerful barons and his declaration of support for Matilda saw rebellion and dissension spread throughout south-west England. King David of Scotland also announced his support of Matilda, marching his forces into Yorkshire. In 1139 Matilda herself appealed to the Pope, placing her legal claim to the English throne at the feet of Innocent II. On the 30th of September, Robert of Gloucester and the Empress Matilda arrived in England.

The civil war had begun in earnest.

Following Matilda’s arrival in England in 1139, the next couple of years were tumultuous, with neither side able to gain the upper hand. Both sides won small victories and similarly lost others, there were multiple peace conferences broken by rebellions and shifting alliances and trust was scarce. War ravaged the countryside and law and order broke down, hence the name ‘The Anarchy.’ It was pretty chaotic.

Following a period of multiple sieges, skirmishes and battles, by 1141 a decisive battle took place; the Battle of Lincoln. The battle went badly for Stephen, his men fleeing the skirmish and his sword breaking (not good). Eventually he was captured by Robert’s men and held in Bristol Castle. Following this battle, Matilda, dubbed the ‘Lady of England and Normandy’ prepared to be hailed as queen in his stead. Before her coronation however the people of London rose up against her, causing her to flee. In another chaotic turn of events, Stephen’s forces, mobilsed by his wife whilst he was in captivity, defeated Matilda in the Rout of Winchester in 1142. Matilda fled, Robert of Gloucester was captured and with Stephen still imprisoned the war reached a stalemate in 1143. Negotiations ensued and bizarrely, with no peace deal arranged, the two opposing sides merely exchanged hostages with Stephen returning to London and Robert to the Empress in Oxford. The war limped on but either side was in a rut, with both lacking support and the requisite funds. By 1147 following the death of Robert of Gloucester and the return of Matilda to Normandy, the war had diffused significantly and the barons in England began making peace with one another. 

Things were finally starting to get back to normal!

That being said, Matilda’s son Henry FitzEmpress mounted a small invasion in 1147 however he returned to Normandy following its failure. Henry FitzEmpress once again returned to England at the start of 1153, fighting Stephen’s forces at Malmesbury. The fighting in the years 1153-54 was rather half-hearted culminating in the Treaty of Winchester. This treaty saw Stephen of Blois recognise Henry FitzEmpress, son of Matilda, as his adopted son and successor, a beneficial compromise had finally been made. The Anarchy was finally over.

Henry FitzEmpress succeeded Stephen, becoming Henry II of England, the first of the Plantagenet kings and a dynasty I will be discussing. However I won’t be focusing just on the kings, it’s time to give the women some room to shine!


Emilie Amt (1993) ‘The accession of Henry II in England: Royal Government Restored, 1149-1159’ Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press

Frank Barlow (1999) ‘The Feudal Kingdom of Engalnd 1042-1216′ Longman

David Crouch (2002).The Normans: The History of a Dynasty. London: Hambledon Continuum.

Dan Jones (2013) ‘The Plantagenets; The Kings Who Made England’ Harper and Collins

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