Anarchy is a state of lawlessness or political disorder due to the absence of governmental authority. Today, anarchists push for the replacement of the government with voluntary institutions that are free of associations.
These institutions are modeled on nature and may represent things such as community, individualism, independence, and economic self-reliance, creating a utopia of equality. Anarchy is a political idea, not something that has or may even entirely occur.
However, in 1138 AD, a long, drawn-out battle over the throne of England resulted in mass political disorder. While England was not an anarchist state, the conflict became known as the Anarchy.
The Anarchy was a period of time in 12th century England where following the death of King Henry I led to a long and bitter war of succession and attrition. King Henry I had two children with his first wife, a son named William and a daughter named Matilda.
William was heir to the throne, but he never ascended the throne. He, along with 300 other passengers, set sail aboard the nightmarish booze cruise known as the White Ship. The drunken nobility proceeded to share their alcohol and got the ship’s crew drunk, and the ship was sent crashing into a rock and sunk.
William and 298 other nobles drowned in the crash. The sole survivor was a peasant, and England lacked a male heir.
With William’s death, Henry remarried, but a new male heir was never produced. Realizing that his daughter Matilda was next in line for the throne, Henry ordered this daughter, styled Empress Matilda after her first marriage, to be the one to succeed him.
Henry made his court swear allegiance to Matilda and her new role as the heir several times. Matilda, who was once married to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, remarried Geoffrey V of Anjou after the Emperor died.
Geoffrey was not a popular man in England. He was seen as “the traditional enemy of the Normans”, the new French nobility who had arrived to overthrow the Saxons with William the Conqueror a century before. Geoffrey and Matilda were in Anjou when King Henry I died in December 1135.
While Henry’s court knew his wishes for his daughter to become Queen, Henry’s nephew Stephen of Blois seized the throne. Stephen was a member of his uncle’s court and was knighted by the King for his role in the Battle of Tinchebray, which had given Henry control of Normandy.
Stephen and Henry had a good relationship; Stephen even swore his allegiance to his cousin but broke his promise as soon as the King died. Geoffrey and Matilda were unable to leave Anjou until after Henry I was buried, which meant Stephen was able to swoop into England and take the throne.
So, the situation was fraught. On the one hand, the legitimate heir was a woman. On the other hand, the big strong man with the balls to lead the country had an extremely tenuous claim to that right.
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Henry I’s court abandoned their promises of loyalty because Matilda was a woman, her husband was disliked, and when Stephen came to take the throne, the court fully supported this change of plans. The Church favored Stephen becoming the King, which led to Stephen being crowned on December 26th, 1135, less than a month after Henry I died.
Almost immediately following the coronation of Stephen, King David I of Scotland (Matilda’s uncle) invaded Northern England and captured several critical strongholds in England. This was the start of what was known as The Anarchy.
Stephen and David were able to come to an agreement, and that invasion was ended. However, there were more invasions in the next decade. For a start in 1136, a year after Stephen became King, Matilda and Geoffrey attacked Normandy and took control.
That same year a Welsh uprising was successful and encouraged further rebellion across Southern Wales by 1137. People who lived in South West England revolted, and many defected to Normandy. In 1137 Stephen tried to reclaim the land along the border of Normandy and Anjou, but this attempt was a total failure, and the Norman forces abandoned Stephen.
In 1138 Robert of Gloucester was next to rebel against King Stephen. Robert was the illegitimate son of King Henry I and the half-brother of Matilda. Along with being her half-brother, Robert was one of England’s most powerful and wealthiest barons and had lands in England and Normandy.
Robert’s declaration of support for Matilda’s claim to the throne caused rebellions to break out all over South Western England. With the support from her wealthy half-brother, who had the funds to support salaries for soldiers, Matilda and Geoffrey once again invaded Normandy.
At the same time, King David I of Scotland again invaded Northern England and announced his support for his niece, thus establishing a three-sided attack on King Stephen. Things looked bad.
Stephen responded to these attacks and declarations of loyalty to Matilda by sending his wife, also named Matilda, to Kent to deal with Robert. A small group of Stephen’s men went north to deal with David, and Stephen himself went west to retake some of the rebelling counties in the area.
Negotiations occurred again with David, resulting in King Stephen giving David land in Carlisle and Cumberland. This then angered the Earl of Chester, who was one who owned the lands that King Stephen gave away without his approval or knowledge.
Meanwhile things were brewing on the continent. By 1139, Geoffery and Matilda had control over a significant portion of Normandy and decided to mobilize forces to join Robert to cross into England for an invasion.
In response to the impending attack, King Stephen created a bunch of new earldoms, thus prolonging The Anarchy. He promoted people who were considered “militarily capable” and loyal to the King with the goal of using these extra Earls to hold onto land when Matilda attacked.
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The Earls and those on Matilda’s side began to build random castles that were technically illegal because Stephen didn’t approve of them. In creating these new earldoms, Stephen had started to lose control of his nobility.
In August 1139, Matilda invaded England. Unfortunately, she was unable to capture a port for her forces to land, and she was kept back thanks to the efforts of Stephen.
A month after trying to land her troops in England, Matilda was invited to land her lands in the port of Arundel in Western Sussex by the Dowager Queen Adeliza (Henry I’s second wife). Once Robert and Matilda could land their ship, Robert and his 140 knights went to the North West to gain support for Matilda while she stayed behind at Arundel Castle. As a woman, Matilda was not allowed to lead any troops into battle, and she couldn’t do much alone.
By 1140, Stephen began to feel the wrath of his “neglected and disgruntled nobility” who turned against him during the years of The Anarchy. The Bishop of Ely was one of the first to lead an unsuccessful rebellion against Stephen.
The Earl of Chester, still mad about King Stephen giving away his land, took over Lincoln Castle before defecting to Matilda. The Earl of Chester’s defection was not appreciated by King Stephen, and in 1141 the two men went to battle against each other.
Capture and Release
The Earl of Chester and Matilda’s forces captured King Stephen and held him prisoner in Bristol. With Stephen in prison, it meant that he was deposed as King because he was a prisoner, and the throne was once again empty.
Seeing her chance to take the throne finally, Matilda tried to be named Queen. The issue was the people of London didn’t like Matilda, her husband, and the fact that she was a woman and made sure that Matilda was never crowned as Queen. Instead, she received the title “Lady of the English.”
Robert was captured by Stephen’s troops and taken prisoner. This led to a twist of fate and a demonstration in political relations; it was agreed that in exchange for Robert and his freedom. Once back on the throne as King, the fighting between Stephen, Robert, Matilda, David, and people across England continued.
King Stephen banished Matilda from her original post in Westminster, and she left and set up shop in Oxford. In 1142, Stephen launched a surprise attack on Matilda and launched a siege on Oxford. Due to the surprise attack, many of the men in Matilda’s small army were forced to retreat into the castle.
King Stephen continued to attack the castle in Oxford for another three months to force Matilda out. King Stephen was able to achieve this, but not how he wanted. In the middle of the night in 1142, Matilda snuck out of the castle dressed all in white in an effort to blend into the surrounding snow.
She was able to flee across the frozen River Thames and into safety. The castle in Oxford was surrendered swiftly the next day. The fighting and rebellions continued, and by 1148, Matilda returned to Normandy.
Back in Normandy, Matilda called upon her son Henry Plantagenet, also known as Henry Fitz Empress, to go to England and continue to fight for his mother’s right to the English throne. Stephen refused to give up his role as the King of England, and proclaimed his son Eustace IV, Count of Boulogne, was the heir to the throne.
In 1153, Eustace died suddenly in August, and it is said that Eustace was struck down by the wrath of God whilst plundering church lands near Bury St. Edmonds. When Eustace died, Matilda’s son Henry and King Stephen were able to negotiate peace, officially recognizing Henry as his successor upon death. When King Stephen died from disease, Henry Plantagenet was named Henry II, The King of England, in October 1154, thus ending The Anarchy.
Top Image: The Anarchy in 12th century England saw the country completely destabilized by two competing claims to the throne. Source: Gorodenkoff / Adobe Stock.