Stephen and Matilda
Cousins of Anarchy
By Matthew Lewis
The Anarchy was the first civil war in post-Conquest England, enduring throughout the reign of King Stephen between 1135 and 1154. It ultimately brought about the end of the Norman dynasty and the birth of the mighty Plantagenet kings. When Henry I died having lost his only legitimate son in a shipwreck, he had caused all of his barons to swear to recognize his daughter Matilda, widow of the Holy Roman Emperor, as his heir and remarried her to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. When she was slow to move to England on her father's death, Henry's favourite nephew Stephen of Blois rushed to have himself crowned, much as Henry himself had done on the death of his brother William Rufus. Supported by his brother Henry, Bishop of Winchester, Stephen made a promising start, but Matilda would not give up her birthright and tried to hold the English barons to their oaths. The result was more than a decade of civil war that saw England split apart. Empress Matilda is often remembered as aloof and high-handed, Stephen as ineffective and indecisive. By following both sides of the dispute and seeking to understand their actions and motivations, Matthew Lewis aims to reach a more rounded understanding of this crucial period of English history and asks to what extent there really was anarchy.
In August 1139, Empress Matilda had apparently decided on a radical adjustment in her efforts, though her husband seems to have kept at arms’ length from her new and risky activities. Matilda did not lack an adventurous spirit and demonstrated a willingness to take the fight right to the enemy’s door in an act of daring that would almost certainly have been loudly applauded in a man. It was not a distinction or restriction she was ever to fully acknowledge, at least not for many years. Baldwin de Redvers was sent to secure Wareham Castle in Dorset on the south coast to provide a secure landing spot in England for the empress. Baldwin failed and was forced back to Corfe Castle slightly further inland. His connections in the south-west were letting him down.
Changing her focus, on 30 September 1139, Empress Matilda landed at Arundel Castle near Worthing, further east than Wareham. The castle belonged to William d’Aubigny, who had been created Earl of Sussex (though often referred to as Earl of Arundel) in 1138. William had married Queen Adeliza, the young widow of Henry I who was Empress Matilda’s stepmother. Adeliza was a year younger than her stepdaughter, and it is possible the two had a reasonably good relationship, though they are unlikely to have been close. William was a devoted supporter of King Stephen, so his reception of two of Henry’s children seems odd unless it was at his wife’s instigation. She may have believed she was simply receiving a visit from her stepchildren, or have thought her responsibility still lay in finding a reconciliation between the arguing factions that were emerging. That had been her role as a queen, and she might have believed she could help now, with her husband’s closeness to the king and her own relationship with Henry I’s children.
The Gesta Stephani stated that Robert ‘landed at the castle of Arundel, as though he were merely to be a guest there, and was admitted with a strong body of troops.’ William of Malmesbury says Robert brought with him ‘no more than 140 knights’. It seems that Robert’s early reports did not bode well for them. His intelligence suggested that the overwhelming majority were not seeking to abandon their allegiance to Stephen and that only a small handful could be relied on to uphold the oath they had sworn to Empress Matilda. Almost as soon as they had arrived at Arundel Castle and the empress had been safely installed there, Robert left with a dozen knights to ride west towards his power base at Bristol. He was met along the way by Brian Fitz Count, who rode out of his castle at Wallingford to meet the earl. Brian is the man William of Malmesbury believed had been consulted alongside Robert about Matilda’s marriage to Geoffrey, and he may have been a softer target because of that. He could have been reminded that whatever release others believed they had secured from their oaths, Robert and Brian could not claim the same breach and so remained honour-bound to help the empress.
Robert’s departure from Arundel was timely, perhaps deliberately so. Stephen, with his characteristic speed and vigour, arrived outside the walls with an army threatening to lay siege to the fortress. Robert may have expected, and planned for, precisely this. The ease with which the king was able to raise men and travel unhindered through the kingdom was in itself a setback for the empress’s cause that showed a realm united behind their leader rather than one ripe for rebellion. Had Robert been at Arundel, Stephen would have been justified in immediately launching into hostilities. His diffidatio meant that he was not one of Stephen’s subjects and was not entitled to any protection that came with that status. Having been deprived of all of his lands and offices, Robert’s arrival could have been viewed by Stephen as nothing less than a hostile invasion. In hindsight, that was what it undoubtedly was. The Gesta Stephani offers further weight to the notion that it was Robert’s arrival, not Empress Matilda’s, that was causing the greatest consternation. ‘England at once was shaken and quivered with intense fear, affected in different ways, because all who secretly or openly favoured the earl were keener than usual and more eager to trouble the king, while those who obeyed the king were brought low as though cowering beneath a dreadful thunderclap.’ The impression the chronicler gained was that Robert was the man inspiring those who considered opposing Stephen and worried those who would remain loyal to the king. Arriving at Arundel to find Queen Adeliza and Empress Matilda changed the complexion of the
confrontation completely for Stephen.
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Stephen and Matilda
Cousins of Anarchy
Matthew Lewis was born and grew up in the West Midlands. Having obtained a law degree, he currently lives in Shropshire with his wife and children. History and writing have always been a passion of Matthew's, with particular interest in the Wars of the Roses period. His first novel, Loyalty, was born of the joining of those passions.