The English Civil War occurred in the seventeenth century, and was fought between supporters of the King and those who wanted him punished. However, centuries before this, in the twelfth century, another civil war waged across the country between two competing claimants to the throne. This period, known as The Anarchy, lasted for nearly twenty years and almost destroyed the country.

A while ago I wrote about the tragedy of the White Ship Disaster, where around 300 young members of the European nobility perished in a shipwreck. The White Ship Disaster of 1120 directly impacted on the Anarchy which began 15 years later. One of the victims of the disaster was William Adelin, heir to the throne of England, being Henry I’s only legitimate son. After William’s death, Henry was not successful in fathering another male heir before his death, and as such his only heir was his only legitimate daughter, Matilda.

Matilda was born in 1102, and had been married to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V whilst still a child. This had given her the title of Empress of Germany. Her husband had died in 1125, 5 years after the White Ship Disaster, and Matilda was recalled to Normandy by her father, Henry I. Matilda was swiftly married to the less illustrious, but still important, Geoffrey of Anjou in order for Henry to have support to protect the southern borders of English lands in France. It was around this time that Henry designated Matilda as his heir, as his hopes of fathering a son were increasingly unlikely to be fulfilled. The hope was partially that Matilda and Geoffrey would quickly create a son who could grow up to a reasonable age before Henry’s death, in order to pass the throne to him.


Empress Matilda, from “History of England” by St. Albans monks (15th century); Cotton Nero D. VII, f.7, British Library.

In 1135, Henry I died. Henry had done all he could to ensure the throne would pass to Matilda on his death – whilst her gender was obviously a disadvantage, Henry had made all of his court swear an oath of loyalty to her and her heirs on three separate occasions, and it seemed reasonably likely that Matilda would succeed him. However, this is where the influence of the White Ship again comes into play. Stephen of Blois, Henry I’s nephew, was meant to have been on the fateful ship, but took ill prior to the voyage and didn’t end up embarking. Upon Henry’s death, with Matilda and Geoffrey caught up in fighting in Anjou, Stephen took his chance. He was currently in Boulogne, and when news of Henry’s death arrived he hurried to England along with his military household. Many of Matilda’s supporters were stuck in Normandy, having taken an oath that they would not leave until Henry was properly buried. Matilda and Geoffrey advanced to Normandy, seizing a number of castles, but were prevented from advancing further.

As such, Stephen was the first to reach England. It appears that Stephen may have been denied access to the ports of Dover and Canterbury by Robert of Gloucester, who may have been protecting Matilda’s claims, but nonetheless Stephen managed to make land probably in his own estates by the edge of London. With Matilda still stuck in France, Stephen made his move and began to seize power. The citizens of London proclaimed Stephen king, whilst Stephen’s brother, Henry of Blois, who was Bishop of Winchester, rallied Church support for his claim. There were some issues for Stephen – he had been amongst those who had sworn to uphold Matilda’s claim to the throne upon Henry’s death, and as this was a religious oath, some members of the church were hesitant to support him. Henry of Blois put forwards numerous arguments as to why this should not impede Stephen, and he also persuaded Henry’s royal steward to swear that on Henry I’s deathbed he had changed his mind and nominated Stephen to be his successor. With Matilda still in France, Stephen was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey on 26th December, 1135.

Stephen had immediate problems. The Scottish King David I, who was Matilda’s uncle, invaded the north, taking key strongholds. Stephen had to immediately march north with an army to stop David, and an agreement was made between the two. At Easter 1136, Stephen held his first royal court, where he did everything he could to bring the nobility onto his side. He positioned himself as Henry’s natural successor, promising to uphold all of Henry’s popular policies, and much money was spent on the festivities, with lavish gifts being distrubted, and numerous grants of land and favour being granted. Later that year, Pope Innocent II confirmed Stephen as lawful king.


King Stephen, 13th century, from Matthew Paris’s ‘Epitome Of Chronicles’.

However, Stephen was not in the clear. Welsh uprisings early in the year had been successful, which encouraged further rebellions across south Wales in 1137. Revolts occurred in south-west England too, with people defecting to Normandy to criticise the king from a safe distance. Matilda and Geoffrey had not been quiet either; in early 1136, shortly after Stephen’s coronation, Geoffrey attacked Normandy, but Stephen had to stay in England to deal with issues there and could do little to prevent him. Stephen tried to retake land on the Normandy-Anjou border in 1137 which had been seized by Geoffrey in 1135, but his army ended up fighting itself and then his Norman forces deserted him.

Whilst Stephen had been reasonably successful in stablising England, much of the north was now at the mercy of the Scottish king, he had effectively abandoned Wales, and Normandy was destablised by fighting. Even within England, barons began to feel that they had not been suitably rewarded by Stephen, and began to grow disgruntled. Moreover, the royal coffers were almost empty from the expense of war and a lavish court.

In 1138, the real fighting that defined the Anarchy began. Robert of Gloucester, who may have denied Stephen entry to the country in 1135, rebelled against Stephen. He was the illegitimate half-brother of Matilda, and one of the most powerful barons in the country. Importantly, he held lands not just in England, but also Normandy. Robert declared his support for the claim of his sister, Empress Matilda, and this triggered a major rebellion across the south-west of England. This encouraged Matilda and Geoffrey to take action – Geoffrey once again invaded Normandy, and David I once again invaded the north of England, announcing his support for his niece’s claim. This was a powerful three-pronged initiative.


Contemporary (c. 1151) depiction of Geoffrey of Anjou on his tomb, formerly at Le Mans Cathedral.

However, Stephen acted swiftly, once again focusing on holding England. He sent his wife, Queen Matilda, to Kent to deal with Robert’s rebels, whilst a small retinue was sent north to deal with the Scots. Stephen headed west to retake several rebelling counties, although he was unable to take Bristol. Stephen managed to once again negotiate peace with David, but this came at the expense of giving land in Carlisle and Cumberland to David, which greatly aggrevated its current owner, the Earl of Chester.

By 1139, Geoffrey and Matilda had conquered a significant proportion of Normandy, and felt secure enough to begin mobilising forces with Robert to cross to England. Stephen sured up his defenses by creating new earldoms and promoting men he considered loyal and militarily capable to help him hold land when Matilda inevitably attacked. Both sides built new castles to protect their territory, with some of Matilda’s supporters in England building castles in the south-west.

Matilda was hindered somewhat by her sex, as she was not allowed, as a woman, to lead an army into battle. As Geoffrey never crossed to England during the war, instead holding Normandy, Matilda’s forays into England had to be led by senior nobles. In this, her half-brother Robert was most important; he was well known for his military experience and leadership ability, and his close relationship to Matilda meant he could be reasonably relied upon to stay loyal.


A silver coin minted in Matilda’s name at Oxford during the Anarchy. WikiCommons.

In August 1139, Matilda’s initial invasion began. Some of her forces crossed the channel to Wareham to try and capture a port for Matilda’s forces to land, but they were repelled by Stephen’s forces and had to retreat to the south-west. However, in September, Matilda was invited by the Dowager Queen Adeliza (who had been the second wife of Matilda’s father, Henry I) to land in her lands at Arundel, West Sussex. At the end of September Matilda and her brother Robert landed with 140 knights. Robert marched north-west to raise support, and to meet up with the dispersed forces from the first landing attempt, whilst Matilda stayed at Arundel Castle.

Stephen ignored the other troops and immediately besieged Arundel, trapping Matilda. Stephen agreed to a truce, and released Matilda from the siege to allow her and her knights to be escorted to the south-west where she was reunited with Robert. The reasons why Stephen allowed this are not quite known, although it could have come from a sense of chivalry, or because Arundel Castle was considered impregnable, or because he worried about keeping his army at Arundel whilst Robert roamed freely. In this, Matilda’s sex may have been to her advantage – it would have been frowned upon to include Matilda in warfare as a woman, and her male half-brother would probably have been viewed as far more of a threat.

Whatever the reason, this proved to be a mistake for Stephen. Matilda managed to consolidate her support in the south-west, and controlled territory from Devon and Cornwall, across Gloucester and Bristol, into the Welsh Marches, and even across to Oxford and Wallingford, threatening London. In 1140, Stephen started to feel the effects of some of his neglected and disgruntled nobility. The Bishop of Ely, who had had his castles confiscated in 1139, rebelled in East Anglia – although unsuccessfully – whilst the Earl of Chester siezed Lincoln Castle, which he had previously held claims to, and eventually he defected to Matilda.

The spite of the Earl of Chester proved invaluable to Matilda. In 1141, Stephen and Chester took to battle on 2nd February. Stephen’s centre was encircled by Robert and Chester’s cavalry, and many of Stephen’s supporters fled. Stephen was captured and taken back to Matilda’s base in Gloucester. The two met, and then Stephen was transferred to Bristol castle.


A near contemporary illustration of the Battle of Lincoln where Stephen (pictured fourth from right) was captured by Matilda’s forces.

Matilda swiftly began to take steps to make herself Queen. She managed to get Stephen’s brother, Henry, to declare church support for her, and he handed over control of the royal treasury to her, even going as far as to excommunicate many of Stephen’s supporters who refused to give Matilda their support. Everything seemed set in Matilda’s favour: Stephen even released his subjects from their oath of fealty to him, which had placed many in a dilemma of whether they could morally abandon Stephen for Matilda.

Just after Easter, 1141, the clergy gathered in Winchester and declared Matilda Lady of England and Normandy, prior to her coronation. Matilda then moved to London to begin preparations for her coronation in June. She had the support of the man who controlled the Tower of London, but many were still loyal to Stephen. It was here that Matilda wilted under sexism; whilst in theory, many didn’t have much issue about being ruled by a queen, in practice, her behaviour in London changed many minds. Matilda was very much her father’s daughter, and held a lot of self-importance that was owed to her as previous Empress of Germany, and the soon-to-be Queen Regnant of England and Normandy. However, whilst she didn’t behave in any way that would have been ill-considered of a king, as a woman these characteristics meant that many viewed her as un-womanly and unbecoming, and simply couldn’t abide the realities of being dominated by a woman.

This sexism, combined with the remnants of support for Stephen, meant that just days before Matilda’s planned coronation the City of London rose up against her. She and her followers only just managed to escape. Nonetheless, support for Matilda was still increasing. Many barons held land both in England and Normandy, and with Matilda and Robert seizing land in England, and Geoffrey siezing land in Normandy, many began to defect from Stephen towards Matilda in the interests of keeping their possessions.

736px-Political_map_of_England_1140England and Wales in 1140, with land held by Matilda in blue, Stephen in red, and the Welsh in grey. WikiCommons.

Despite Stephen’s captivity, his wife Queen Matilda had been working hard to maintain support for him. When London rose up against Empress Matilda, Queen Matilda led Stephen’s loyal forces into the city. Queen Matilda later led forces towards the Empress, and Robert was captured. Queen Matilda attempted to use Robert as leverage to secure Stephen’s release, but Robert refused to change sides. Eventually, Robert and Stephen swapped places, with Robert being returned to the Empress, and Stephen returned to the Queen. Stephen’s legitimacy as king was renewed by the church under his brother Henry, and Stephen and Matilda were re-coronated during Christmas 1141.

Robert returned to Normandy to provide assistance to Geoffrey, whilst Matilda retreated to Oxford Castle. Stephen attempted to assail it, but it was too powerful a fortress, and so he settled down for a long winter siege to attempt to starve her and her forces out. However, Matilda managed to sneak out of the castle, crossing the icy river on foot, avoiding the royal army, and reached safety in Wallingford, allowing Oxford Castle to surrender the next day.

For the next few years, there was much of a stalemate. Numerous skirmishes continued, with lands being captured and recaptured. Stephen was almost captured by Robert once more at the Battle of Wilton in 1143, but he narrowly escaped. The same year, the Earl of Essex rebelled against Stephen, and in 1144 the Earl of Chester revolted once again. Robert continued to raid land in the west, and Wallingford Castle – close to London – continued to be held by Matilda’s forces. At the beginning of 1144, King Louis VII of France recognised Geoffrey as Duke of Normandy, crippling Stephen’s authority there.


Matilda’s Great Seal, used for governance. WikiCommons.

By the late 1140s, however, most of the fighting was over. In 1147, Robert died, and Matilda’s son Henry led a small, failed, mercenary invasion of England. Stephen allowed Henry to return home safely, perhaps as a way to build a relationship with him, and as an attempt to move towards peace in a dying war. Nobles began to make deals amongst themselves to maintain peace and secure land which again increased peace and reduced fighting.

Matilda switched her focus to the more secure Normandy, stablising it, and moving her focus to promoting the rights of her son Henry’s claim to the English throne. Henry once again returned to England in 1149, making an alliance with the Earl of Chester that made both Chester and the Scottish King happy, and plans were drawn up to attack the northern city of York. This quickly fell apart when Stephen rapidly marched north. Henry returned to Normandy where Geoffrey proclaimed him Duke of the duchy.

Enjoying this blog post? Buy me a hot chocolate!

Consider donating the cost of a hot chocolate to me, so I can continue to write and run Just History Posts.


Henry began to gain a reputation as a capable leader, and in 1152 he unexpectedly married Eleanor of Aquitaine, an attractive woman who was recently divorced from the French King. This boosted his reputation, and the lands that Eleanor brought with her increased his influence and power. In 1153, Henry again led forces to England, and was again supported in the north by the Earl of Chester, and in the east by remnant loyal lands. Stephen agreed to a temporary truce and returned to London, but Henry now controlled much of the north, the midlands, and the south-west. By the summer, Stephen was slowly losing land to Henry.


Matilda’s son, the future Henry II, with his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, from a 14th century manuscript. Royal 16 G VI f. 343v.

Finally, in November 1153, Stephen agreed to the Treaty of Winchester where he recognised Matilda’s son Henry as his adopted son and successor, as long as Henry gave homage to him. Stephen’s son William would in turn pay homage to Henry and renounce his claims to the throne in return for security of his lands. This peace was precarious, though, and if Stephen lived for many years longer it would have been no guarantee for peace as either Henry or William may have made bids for power. However, on October 25th 1154 Stephen died. Henry was crowned Henry II in December 1154. The period of Anarchy was finally over.

The Anarchy had certainly been just that. For nearly 20 years much of the country was in turmoil. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle claimed that “there was nothing but disturbance and wickedness and robbery” and in many places, particularly in the south, there had certainly been periods of lawlessness. The centralised royal coinage system had been destroyed, with Stephen, Empress Matilda, and local lords all producing their own coins. Forest law had collapsed, and royal income severely damaged. Whilst Matilda was never successful in claiming her rightful title as Queen, she was comforted by the fact that her son was now King, and she continued to wield reasonable influence at court. Henry began a programme of reconciliation and rebuilding, and many were relieved that there was peace at last. Whilst Stephen was in many ways a successful king, and had managed to hold onto power until his death, his failure at securing succession for his own children, and subsequent criticism and propaganda of him has meant that there has never been another English king that bore his name.

Previous Blog Post: Ancient Wonders: Stonehenge

Previous in Important Events: What happened after 1066? The Harrying of the North

List of Blog Posts: here                                Blog Homepage: here

Buy my books via the pictures below! Or why not check out our shop?

In the fifteenth century, lines between science and magic were blurred. Read the real stories of four women in the English Royal Family who were accused of practising witchcraft in order to influence or kill the king.
Behind every great man is a woman, and King Edward III had two great women: his wife, Queen Philippa, and his scheming mistress, Alice Perrers. Learn how these two women navigated gender and power in a world run by men.
In our shop you can find 10 fabulous bookmarks of historical figures as well as beautiful mugs and signed copies of my books.

Follow us:



Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

10 thoughts on “The Anarchy: England’s Medieval Civil War

    1. Yes very much so! Especially when they were just as bloody and tore the country apart just as much! I find particularly with the Anarchy that it isn’t generally known outside historian circles – at least the Wars of the Roses has been widely popularised.


    1. Ahh yes another good one! And another important one that could have completely changed our history had it gone a different way. Very intriguing that we assign title of “the” civil war to the 17th century one alone.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s