The Anarchy

The Anarchy
The Anarchy
Date 1135–1154
Location England
Result Treaty of Wallingford
Arms of William the Conqueror (1066-1087).svg Supporters of Stephen of England Royal Arms of England (1154-1189).svg Supporters of Empress Matilda and Henry Curtmantle
Commanders and leaders
Stephen of England
Matilda of Boulogne
Empress Matilda

The Anarchy or The Nineteen-Year Winter was a period of English history during the reign (1135–1154) of King Stephen, which was characterised by civil war and unsettled government. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes it as a time during which "Christ and his saints slept".

The period was marked by a succession crisis between the supporters of Stephen and those of his cousin, the Empress Matilda. Though Stephen was crowned king, the state of war prevented effective government in England for much of his reign. The issue was resolved only shortly before Stephen's death, when he signed the Treaty of Wallingford, which named Matilda's son Henry Curtmantle as his heir. Henry was crowned king upon Stephen's death in 1154, establishing the Plantagenet dynasty as Kings of England.



Stephen was a favourite nephew of King Henry I of England (reigned 1100–1135), whose only legitimate son William Adelin died in 1120 in the "White Ship" disaster. As there was no legally defined line of succession at the time it was unclear who would now succeed to the throne upon Henry I's death. Henry named his daughter Matilda as heir to his throne and forced his barons, including Stephen, to swear allegiance to her several times.

Matilda however was an unpopular choice among the English ruling class. No woman had ever ruled England in her own right and Matilda had spent almost all of her adult life outside of England. Furthermore Matilda's second husband Geoffrey of Anjou did not enjoy a good reputation in England as he hailed from Anjou, whose rulers were resented by the Normans for their attempts to conquer the duchy of Normandy.

Conflict between Stephen and Matilda

On Henry's death in 1135 Stephen rushed to London. Although the barons seemed to be leaning towards his elder brother, Theobald, Count of Blois, Stephen entered London and was acclaimed king by the townspeople. At Winchester, with the support of his younger brother Henry, who was bishop there, he secured the treasury and the support of both Archbishop William Corbeil and the future Chief Justiciar Roger of Salisbury. The barons ratified the usurpation, with the opposition of Matilda's illegitimate half-brother Robert of Gloucester.

The Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Innocent II sided with Stephen. Matilda was in France at the time of her father's death and thus unable to prevent Stephen’s usurpation. Although she protested Stephen's assumption of the throne, the situation in Anjou and Stephen's overwhelming political support prevented her from mounting an immediate military challenge of her own. Matilda's best hope for striking an immediate blow lay with her uncle King David I of Scotland who invaded Northumberland, nominally on her behalf. Little actual fighting took place, but Thurstan, Archbishop of York, won the Battle of the Standard on Stephen's behalf in August 1138. Thereafter, King David's support for Matilda's cause was lacklustre and he eventually struck a deal with Stephen and kept for himself most of territorial gains he had made during the war.

Within a few years of his coronation, Stephen's lack of political skills caused widespread discord among the nobles. Stephen made a series of poor decisions that caused resentment amongst his former supporters and caused many to consider switching their allegiance to Matilda. His own brother, Henry, Bishop of Winchester, turned against him due to his arrest of prominent bishops, which Henry perceived as an attack on the church itself. Matilda, sensing an opportunity, planned to strike.

Matilda landed in England in 1139. Her arrival was part of a two pronged strategy by her and her husband Geoffrey, who were collectively known as the Angevins, after their power base in the French province of Anjou. The plan called for Geoffrey to attack Stephen's possessions in Normandy from Anjou while Matilda would attempt to overthrow Stephen in England. She received support from her illegitimate half-brother Robert of Gloucester. Matilda was staying as a guest at Arundel Castle when Stephen's army arrived and took possession of the fortress without a fight. Though Matilda was now at Stephen's mercy, astonishingly he granted her safe passage to Bristol where she was reunited with Robert of Gloucester. Another prominent opposing earl, Ranulf of Chester, Robert of Gloucester’s son-in-law, moved on Lincoln and captured the castle. Despite having made peace with Ranulf, Stephen responded to a plea from the citizens of Lincoln to attack the castle.

Stephen's sojourn at Lincoln proved disastrous. While Stephen was besieging the castle, Robert of Gloucester arrived to lift the siege putting Stephen's army to flight. On 2 February 1141 Stephen was captured after suffering a head wound and sent to Bristol as a prisoner. With Stephen now effectively deposed, Matilda marched on London and quickly gained control of the city. After receiving the backing of the church she prepared for her coronation. The citizens of London rose up against her however and she was obliged to flee the capital for Oxford. In September of 1141, Robert of Gloucester fell into the hands of Stephen's wife, Matilda of Boulogne, and the captain of her Flemish mercenaries, William of Ypres, Earl of Kent following the rout of Winchester. Matilda decided to get Robert back via a prisoner exchange for Stephen, who returned to the throne. Stephen now held the advantage and besieged Matilda at Oxford Castle. Facing total defeat, she made a daring escape. Her night time flight over the frozen Thames to Wallingford has become legendary.

Matilda kept up the fight and was joined by her young son Henry Curtmantle but by this time the war was going badly for her. Matilda's army had suffered heavy losses in the Rout of Winchester and it was only by the personal bravery of Robert of Gloucester that a complete annihilation was averted. Since that defeat Matilda had been reduced to fighting a defensive war. Stephen held control over the south-east of England while Matilda's forces dominated the south-west. Neither side was strong enough to strike a decisive blow and the conflict lapsed into a slow and grinding war of attrition which devastated the country. Matilda's husband Geoffrey was occupied with the conquest and pacification of Normandy and was unable to offer her assistance. Robert of Gloucester was clearly Matilda's most valuable asset in the struggle and his death in 1147 was a disaster for the Angevin cause. Following Robert's death, Matilda's forces quickly fell apart and she was forced to flee England in 1148.

Stephen as a ruler

King Stephen was uninterested in the administrative side of kingship. In 1139, when he attacked Roger of Salisbury “and his great administrative dynasty, Stephen actually robbed himself of the very corps of technicians who understood and exercised his government.”[1] Many talented scribes fled the royal chancery following Stephen’s attack on Roger. This led to a sharp decrease in charters and personnel movement. Other bureaus also found themselves short staffed. He replaced many local bureaucrats with ones who had very little administrative experience, so that his intelligence system broke down and kept him one step behind his enemies (Kealey, 201–217). After King Stephen was captured by Robert of Gloucester at the Battle of Lincoln in 1141, his administration was one-quarter the size it had been when he began his reign (Kealey, 216).

Although there were originally six stewards, all save one had died or departed by 1141. The king never did choose a second viceroy or chief justiciar. His brother was the master butler, but he is not found after 1139. The constable, Robert de Vere, was another faithful adherent, but the marshal rebelled in 1139 and does not seem to have been replaced. Nor was a successor apparently nominated as treasurer after Athelelm’s capture. The master chamberlain died in a London riot in 1140 and his son and heir surprisingly joined the empress a year later.
—Kealey, 215

Stephen allowed the barons, in their quest for land and castles, to become tyrants to their subjects. There was no strong central leadership in the land, and landowners took the law into their own hands, exercising arbitrary taxes and penalties. The reign of King Stephen became “nineteen long winters, when Christ and his saints slept.” (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Peterborough Chronicle)

In many ways the key center of authority was the Hundred. ‘Holders of large manors with extensive assets of grazing, woodland, moorland, and best of all, jurisdiction of a hundred attached, successfully exploited numerous possibilities of exacting a large number of rents and dues from a large number of people.’[2]

The landowners sought to exact rent, taxes, and labour and they did so using tyrannical methods. In a letter from Abbot Gilbert Foliot’s to the Bishop of Worcester regarding landowner William de Beauchamp, the abbot complains:

44 measures of threshed corn, which were being carried to meet the needs of our brothers, were seized by him, and our hopes for their recovery have been put off. Besides this we have for a long time been forced to give 3s each month for the needs of his servants, and at each season of the year we have been compelled to plough, sow, and then reap 60 acres of his land. And on top of this, our men have been burdened with daily services and innumerable works, and he has not ceased to pursue and afflict them to the depths of misery.
—King, 136

King Stephen either did nothing to control his tyrannical barons or he did not have the strength of presence to enforce good behaviour. The Peterborough Chronicle offers an eye-witness account of the civil war and its suffering. According to its author, Stephen was a 'softe and gode' man who 'no justice did', followed by the comments that 'Crist and alle his sayntes slept' and 'mare thanne we cunnen sæin, we tholeden xix wintre for ure sinnes' ("more than we can say, we suffered 19 winters for our sins"). There was no strong central leadership in the land. There were pockets of order and control but it was not a united kingdom. It is because of the lack of rule, the lack of security, and the lack of safety that the era is referred to as 'the Anarchy'.

After Matilda's escape

Unrest continued throughout Stephen's reign, even after Matilda returned to Anjou following Robert of Gloucester's death in 1147. Stephen himself was ageing and in poor health by this time. Stephen had wanted his eldest surviving son Eustace to be crowned co-regent during his own lifetime in order to strengthen his claim to the succession. The Pope however refused to allow this and even put England under an interdict for a time during the squabble.

Matilda and her husband Geoffrey continued the fight against Stephen in his territories on the French mainland. They had effectively wrested control of Normandy from Stephen's followers by 1144 and Geoffrey was formally recognised as Duke of Normandy by the French king. However a series of rebellions in their newly conquered territories forced them to consolidate power and prevented them from an immediate return to England following Matilda's expulsion in 1148.

Matilda and Geoffrey's son Henry Curtmantle, by this time a skilled military tactician and determined opponent, arrived in England early in January 1153. Henry crossed the English Channel with an invasion fleet of 36 ships transporting a force of 3,000 footmen and 140 horses. Faced with wavering barons led by William d'Aubigny, 1st Earl of Arundel, Stephen arranged a temporary truce. Stephen's son and heir Eustace continued to oppose a settlement with Henry. However, Eustace died suddenly in August 1153, effectively putting an end to organised resistance to Henry's claim to the throne. Stephen's only surviving legitimate son William of Blois did not actively oppose Henry's claim. He would later be named Earl of Surrey after Henry became king.

Stephen and Henry signed the Treaty of Wallingford (also known as the Treaty of Winchester), in November 1153. In it Stephen would be allowed to remain king in exchange for formal recognition of Henry as his legitimate heir to the throne. Although Matilda was still alive she passed her succession rights to Henry in order to secure her dynasty. Since Henry's army controlled the country, Stephen was essentially a figurehead for the remainder of his reign. When Stephen died in 1154, Henry and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine were crowned King and Queen of England at Westminster Abbey effectively putting an end to The Anarchy. Henry and Eleanor's ascension to the throne of England was the cornerstone of their new Angevin Empire which controlled a vast expanse of territory in the British Isles and continental Europe stretching from the Scottish border to the Pyrenees mountains.

Battles of The Anarchy

The Anarchy in fiction

Although not traditionally a popular period with historical novelists, the Anarchy has furnished the background of some major fictional portrayals.

  • George Shipway's novel Knight in Anarchy (1969) centres on a knight sworn to Geoffrey de Mandeville as he tries to gain power in the Anarchy.
  • Cecelia Holland's The Earl, also published as Hammer for Princes (1971), gives a vivid description of the last year of the struggle, Prince Henry's invasion of England and his eventual recognition as King Stephen's heir.
  • Graham Shelby's 1972 novel The Oath and the Sword (aka The Villains of the Piece), focuses on Empress Matilda's faithful supporter Brien FitzCount, Lord of Wallingford, through the years of the Anarchy.
  • Jean Plaidy's Passionate Enemies (c. 1976) from her multi-volume treatment of the British monarchy, captures the mood of the period and the personalities of Matilda and Stephen.
  • Ellis Peters set her series of Brother Cadfael books (published 1977 – 1994) against the background of the Anarchy.
  • Diana Norman's novel Morning Gift (published in 1985) follows the trials of a Norman noblewoman as she struggles to keep safe her lands, her young son, and her people during the period of the Anarchy.
  • Ken Follett's novel The Pillars of the Earth (published in 1989) is set during this time, and was adapted to an eight part TV miniseries debuting in the U.S. on Starz and Canada on The Movie Network/Movie Central on July 23, 2010. It premiered in the UK on Channel 4, October 16, 2010, and on CBC Television January 8, 2011.
  • Sharon Kay Penman's 750-page novel When Christ and His Saints Slept (published in 1995) gives a comprehensive and informative view of the entire power struggle.
  • Elizabeth Chadwick's A Place Beyond Courage (published 2008, Sphere) is set during the Anarchy, focusing on the life of John FitzGilbert the Marshal. Her most recent novel The Lady of the English focuses on Matilda and on Henry's young wife Adeliza.


  1. ^ Kealey, Edward J. "King Stephen: Government and Anarchy". Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, Vol. 6, No. 3 (1974): pp. 201–217
  2. ^ King, Edmund. "The Anarchy of King Stephen's Reign". Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fifth Series, Vol. 34 (1984): pp.133–153


  • Bradbury, Jim (1996). Stephen and Matilda – The Civil War of 1139–53. Alan Sutton Publishing. ISBN 075090612X. 

Further reading

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