The Anarchy of 12th Century England

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Podcast Transcript

In the mid-12th century, England was in chaos. 

The king of England, Henry I, died without an heir. The country was divided between forces loyal to his daughter, Matilda, and his nephew, Stephen. 

For almost two decades, armed conflicts resulted in a breakdown of law and order and central authority.

Learn more about The Anarchy, how it began, and how it ended on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

One of the biggest problems that hereditary monarchies have had throughout history is the issue of succession. 

As soon as someone takes the throne, the first question is who is next in line. 

This can lead to controversies regarding marriages, legitimacy, preferences of youngest and eldest sons, rival claimants, and of course, war.

This was a problem that England faced in the 12th century. To understand how they got into the problem, you need to go back to the founder of the English royal dynasty, William the Conquerer. 

William was the Duke of Normandy, a Dutchy in northwest France. In 1066 he led an army of Normans, defeated the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Hastings, and became the King of England. 

Every single English monarch since has been a descendent of William the Conquerer….as is 25% of the entire population in England. 

William died in 1087 as the ruler of two lands, Normandy and England.

His eldest son Robert was made Duke of Normandy, and his second eldest surviving son William was made King of England. 

Arguably to the Normans, Normandy was the more prestigious title as that was where they were from, but it did make for an awkward situation where the elder son, a duke, was lower in rank than the younger son, who was a king.

Moreover, Robert thought that as the eldest son, he was the rightful King of England.  This led to a series of conflicts between himself and his brothers that lasted for decades.

William II never married and never had any legitimate children. He died in 1100 in a quote-unquote “hunting accident.” He was shot in the chest with an arrow by one of his own men, Baron Walter Tirel. 

William’s body was just left where he was shot. His younger brother Henry ran to Winchester Castle to secure the royal treasury. There was debate as to who should be the next king as some advocated for his brother Robert, but Robert was off on the crusades. 

Henry, controlling the treasury, hastily ran to London, where he was crowned king in Westminster Abbey, becoming Henry I of England.

Henry was more popular than William had been, so no one seemed to mind that he was now the king. 

When Robert arrived back from the crusade, he asserted his claim to the throne and actually led an invasion of England, which failed spectacularly. 

He kept causing problems for his brother, so Henry went to Normandy and defeated Robert at the Battle of Tinchebray in 1106. Robert was captured he held in captivity for the rest of his life. 

Normandy was now under the direct control of the King of England. 

Henry had a ton of children, but only two of them were legitimate — a daughter, Matilda, and a son, William Adelin. 

Matilda was betrothed to the future Holy Roman Emperor Henry V. She was married and crowned empress at the age of 12. The marriage was designed to solidify the legitimacy of Henry and his royal house, which had only started with his father. 

I mentioned before that the events in this episode all surround the subject of succession. Succession became the central issue on November 25, 1120.

A ship named the White Ship was crossing the English Channel from France to England with 300 people on board, including many members of the nobility.  The ship, which was relatively new and considered one of the best in the realm, hit a submerged rock and sank. 

Everyone onboard drowned, including its most important passenger, the heir apparent to the English Throne, William Adelin. 

This threw everything into chaos. The rules of succession were different in France and England, and in England at the time, they weren’t even clear. 

His first wife having died, Henry remarried and tried to have another son but was unsuccessful. 

While Henry and his wife were trying to conceive, everyone was thinking of what the other options might be. 

The first option would be to look to Henry’s nephews, his closest male relatives. One option was a man named Stephen of Blois. 

Another option was Henry’s illegitimate son Robert Earl of Gloucester.

Something else, however, happened. The husband of his daughter Matilda, the Holy Roman Emperor, died in 1125, leaving her a widow at the age of 23. 

Matilda was recalled back to Normandy, where Henry announced that in the event he should die without a male heir, then his successor would be his daughter. 

Although all the nobles had taken an oath in 1126 to support Matlida, the idea of a woman ruling a kingdom didn’t really sit well with most of the nobility.

Matilda was married to the Count of Anjou in France, again to strengthen an alliance. The couple did not get along, but it did produce several children. The eldest of which was a son named Henry. 

The succession issue came to a head in 1135 when Henry I died. 

Henry’s nephew, Stephen of Blois, had the support of many nobles and seized the throne quickly after Henry’s death. Stephen raced to England to claim the throne while Matilda and her husband put down rebellions in Normandy.

Almost immediately, there was resistance to Stephen’s claim to the throne. Some of the nobles kept their oath to King Henry and supported Matilda. Stephen and his brother, the Bishop of Winchester, concocted a story about how the king changed his mind on his deathbed. Therefore, no one had to worry about the oath they took anymore.

It was the start of almost 20 years of instability and civil war, which became known as The Anarchy. 

In 1139 Matilda launched a military campaign against Stephen that was led by her half-brother Robert of Glouster.

The civil war went well at first for Matilda and Robert, but not well enough. They managed to take much of southeastern England, including London but were unable to defeat Stephen and take the crown decisively. 

Not only was neither side winning, but it proved to be disastrous for England. As the central authority was busy trying to stay in power, the land-owning nobility took more and more power for themselves. In many places, there might not have been any authority at all, which is why the term anarchy is applied to this period.

A breakthrough in the stalemate took place in February 1141 when at the Battle of Lincoln, King Stephen was captured by the forces of Matilda. 

Needless to say, the capture of the king was pretty bad for his fortunes. Negotiations began between Empress Matilda and Stephen’s wife…..also named Matilda, Queen Matilda.  (By the way, although I didn’t mention it, the mother of Empress Matilda, the wife if Henry I was also named Matilda)

During Stephen’s captivity, Robert of Glouster served as regent and ruled England. However, Stephens’s supporters and relatives still had a military force in the field. 

In September of 1141, just 7 months after the capture of King Stephen, the forces of Robert of Glouster were routed at the Battle of Winchester, where Robert was captured. 

The capture of King Stephen could have and really should have ended the war. But with the capture of Robert of Glouster, each side literally had captured the other’s leader. 

Queen Matilda contacted Empress Matilda (I know this is confusing), and offered to straight up swap the Earl of Glouster for the King of England. 

Empress Matilda refused. She would trade 12 earls and some gold for Robert, but she refused to give up the king. After all, having the king in captivity was her best shot at getting the crown for herself.

Unfortunately for Empress Matilda, she didn’t actually control the imprisonment of King Stephen. He was being held by Robert of Glouster’s wife, who, shockingly, was not named Matilda. 

Lady Glouster and Queen Matilda struck a deal and exchanged their husbands, ensuring that the war would keep dragging on for years. 

In addition to fighting Empress Matilda, King Stephen also spent his time shoring up the prospects for his son, Eustace, to succeed him. 

Empress Matilda began to support the right of her son Henry as king when he came of age, taking herself out of the equation and removing any objections nobles might have had for a female ruler. 

The entire war came to a head in 1153 near Wallingford Castle in Oxfordshire. Stephen was attacking castles loyal to Matilda, and Matilda’s son Henry, now old enough to fight, was fighting back. 

William d’Aubigny, 1st Earl of Arundel, echoing the sentiments of most of the nobility at this point who were sick of fighting, stepped in to negotiate a truce. The biggest advocate against the truce was Stephen’s son Eustace. 

However, on August 17, 1153, the unexpected happened. Eustace, the heir to the throne, unexpectedly died. 

Just as the death of an heir started this whole mess, the death of an heir now offered a way out. 

King Stephen signed a treaty with Henry at Winchester Cathedral which effectively ended the war. The treaty stipulated the following:

– Stephen would be recognized as king and would retain all royal powers.

– Stephen would formally adopt Matilda’s son Henry and name him his heir. 

– Stephen’s youngest son, William, would renounce any claims to the throne, recognize Henry as the heir apparent, and in return, Henry would protect his lands and status.

– Foreign mercenaries would be sent home, and royal castles would be held for Henry on his behalf by third parties until he became king.

It was a compromise that worked for everyone and was able to end the war and instability. 

The agreement between Henry and Stephen was only in effect for a little over a year, as King Stephen died in October 1154.

Henry went on to become Henry II, one of the most important kings in English history. 

After the chaos of the Anarchy, he reformed the legal system, established royal courts, and implemented a centralized bureaucracy. He was also famously portrayed twice by Peter O’Toole in two of my favorite films, Beckett and A Lion in Winter.

The Anarchy is a period in English history that is often overlooked because it happened so long ago. Stephen and Matilda aren’t the most popular or well-known figures in English history. I’m guessing there are a fair number of you outside of the UK who may have never heard of them before. 

Nonetheless, the events and chaos of the middle 12th century paved the way for the English crown to consolidate and stabilize and allowed for the rise of England centuries later. 

The Executive Producer of Everything Everywhere Daily is Charles Daniel.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

I do have a small correction to make on yesterday’s episode. I misspoke and said that sunni islam was the predominant form of Islam in Iran today. 

That is obviously not the case, and the context of the point I was trying to make doesn’t make sense.

The predominant form of Islam in Iran is Shia Islam. 

That will be corrected in the audio file for the episode. 

Remember, if you leave a review or send me a boostagram, you too can have it read on the show.