9 facts about 'the Anarchy': England's dark period of lawlessness and war

The Anarchy is the medieval civil war you've probably never heard of
Drawing of the Battle of Lincoln from Henry of Huntingdon's Historia Anglorum | Wikipedia | Public Domain

Fact 1: It was the White Ship that did it

Despite the best efforts of King Henry I (1068-1135) to line up his legitimate daughter Matilda (1102-1167) for the royal hot seat in the event of his death, Henry’s upstart nephew Stephen of Blois (1092/1096-1154) grabbed the English throne for himself, welching on an earlier promise. Matilda then, slowly but surely, went to war with King Stephen – this was the Anarchy.

The root of all this succession-based squabbling was the fateful booze-cruise of the White Ship, which sank in November 1120 and sowed the seeds of civil war by depriving King Harry I of his only legitimate male heir, William. Wills was one of hundreds of other drunk young nobles and crew on the bedevilled boat, which sank after hitting a rock.

Fact 2: King Stephen had a very sore stomach

Though formidable in a ruck, King Stephen suffered from stomach problems for many years and was even said to have bailed from the White Ship’s final voyage because of dodgy guts. His death was down to either a gastrointestinal disease or a burst appendix.

Stephen's ancestors were equally blighted in the belly department. His uncle, Henry I, famously died from an overdose of laxatives given as a treatment for having gorged himself on lampreys. The king’s grandfather William I (1028-1087) was also quite a viscerally-unlucky bloke. William the Conqueror met his maker by crashing his horse, his saddle ramming him in the breadbasket so hard that it led to his agonising death five weeks later.

Fact 3: The war featured just one battle

As bizarre as it sounds, there was only one pitched battle in the entire war, the Battle of Lincoln in 1141. In the Middle Ages, open-ground dustups were very rare and were considered high risk. As historian Jim Bradbury put it in Stephen and Matilda: The civil war of 1139-53, ‘Most good commanders avoided battle so far as possible.’ Siege and attrition were the norms of 12th-century warfare.

Part of the reason for this fact is down to dates, admittedly. For many, the flare-ups which commenced upon Stephen’s accession to the throne pretty much make the civil war simultaneous with his reign, beginning in 1135, while for others the civil war proper did not begin until 1139, when Empress Matilda arrived in England. This puts the only other set-piece engagements, the Battle of the Standard and the Battle of Clitheroe, both 1138, before the war.

The other major tussles such as Winchester, Oxford, Wilton, and Wallingford, were either siege skirmishes, fighting withdrawals, or raids.

There is even disagreement about when the war ended, with some marking the Treaty of Wallingford of 1153 as the conclusion of the conflict, while for many it was only Stephen’s death the following year that really ended the Anarchy.

Fact 4: It was a very violent time

War, violent? Quelle surprise. Many revisionist historians of recent decades have tried to argue, though, that far from being ‘anarchy’ Stephen’s reign was typical in terms of medieval mayhem, or at least a gore-fest comparable to other rocky periods in the Anglo-Norman years.

As historian Hugh M. Thomas has shown in 'Violent Disorder in King Stephen's England' though, the period of 1135-1154 was assuredly very violent, and Stephen’s reign may even have been more violent than the chronicles tell us. A dark time of lawlessness, torture, massacres of civilians, famine and depopulation, the violence and disorder affected practically every part of England.

The ravages of war were widespread, with contemporary source the Gesta Stephani (no, not Gwen) describing how King Stephen pursued a tactic of ‘wasting’, akin to a ‘scorched earth’ policy, on his warpath.

Geoffrey de Mandeville (died 1144) was a rum lad, too, leading a guerrilla war out of the Fens region of England, darting out and attacking the lands and property of the king and the king’s supporters before disappearing back into his peaty strongholds. Acquiring an almost Robin Hood-like reputation as an outlaw, he also used his own disguised agents to seek out targets for raids and kidnappings.

Fact 5: The king was captured and then released in a prisoner exchange

The Empress’s half-brother and crucial ally Robert, Earl of Gloucester, was the subject of a prisoner exchange with Stephen in November 1141. The king had been snared at the Battle of Lincoln in February of that year and had suffered being chained at the ankles in his cell at Bristol Castle, this outrageous treatment of the sovereign serving to increase anti-Matilda sentiment in the land. Earl Rob, who had been nabbed in Hampshire in September of ’41, died in 1147 at Bristol Castle.

Fact 6: Empress Matilda escaped a siege by crossing the frozen river Thames

When Matilda had held Stephen captive, she rocked up to London and prepared to be crowned. However, rowdy Londoners soon saw her off, forcing her to flee the capital. After Stephen's release, he eventually cornered Matilda at Oxford Castle.

Stephen took the surrounding city of Oxford and then blockaded the castle for three months, determined to capture Matilda and so perhaps end the war right there.

Just before Christmas 1142, the Empress’s legendary night-time getaway occurred. In a dramatic exit, which Jim Bradbury thinks was mostly likely through a sneaky side gate, Matilda and four knights fled the castle and trudged through six miles of snow and ice, crossing the frozen River Thames. She was said by chroniclers to have covered herself with a white shawl to camouflage herself against the thick blanket of snow, ‘dazzling’ her watchful enemies and creeping undetected through enemy encampments.

Fact 7: Siege defenders would go ‘fishing’ for attackers

Large siege machines that resembled fishing rods, called ‘crows’, were used by castle defenders to snatch attacking knights and reel them into the keep. At the siege of Ludlow in 1139, Prince Henry of Scotland was lifted from his horse by such an ‘iron hook’ and dramatically saved by King Stephen.

Other siege tactics employed at this time included the use of wheeled wooden siege towers, the undermining of castle defences, and hot oil for pouring on to the heads of attackers. The ballista and mangonel were in action a lot during this conflict, too. The war also saw the British Isles debut of Greek fire in a siege, and the premiere of the dreaded counterweight style of trebuchet.

Fact 8: Matilda's son Henry did his work experience in the war

Matilda’s son, Henry of Anjou (1133-1189), conducted a mini-campaign at the age of fourteen in 1147, leading a small army from Normandy to fight alongside his mother’s forces in Wiltshire. Returning home after his regal work experience, the spotty youth then had the nerve to pester his uncle Stephen (the king) for pocket money to pay off his soldiers. He would play a key role in the latter part of the war and on Stephen’s death in 1154, he became Henry II of England, ensuring with the parking of his backside on the throne a vicarious victory for his mum.

Fact 9: The war featured ‘pop-up’ castles

One chronicler says that over a thousand castles were built during the war, though this number is doubtful. Many of these fortresses were constructed quickly and lacked royal planning permission – so-called ‘adulterine’ castles.

Certainly, many castles were built during the Anarchy, such as King Stephen's ring of castles around Cambridge, and Empress Matilda's Cotswolds hangout. Today the exact numbers cannot be determined, but archaeologist Oliver Creighton estimates that more than half of the Anarchy-built strongholds have vanished without trace.

Contemporary sources record that Reading Castle, for example, was built in the grounds of its famous abbey (once ranked as the third richest in England) during the war and was apparently destroyed in 1153. A lack of corroborative archaeological evidence makes this an enduring mystery, though.

Written by:

James Brigden