Stephen, count of Blois



On the death of a king, law was lost. When the king died, the peace died with him. Only on the accession of a new sovereign did law return. Knights fled back to their castles in fear of losing them. It was a question of saving what you could at a time when order was suspended. On receiving the news of King Henry’s death his nephew, Stephen, count of Blois, left France and sailed to England quickly. He rode to London with his knightly followers, and the citizens acclaimed him as their king according to ancient custom. Whereupon he rode to Winchester and claimed the treasury.

As the son of Henry’s sister, Stephen had for a long time been associated with the royal court. He was, after all, the grandson of William the Conqueror. Clearly he considered himself to be Henry’s proteégeé and, in the absence of any legitimate royal sons, perhaps his natural heir. He persuaded many of the leaders of the kingdom that this was so. One person needed no persuasion. His brother, Henry, was bishop of Winchester. It may even have been he who prompted Stephen’s decision to claim the throne. He entrusted his brother with the keys of the treasury and, three weeks after the death of the king, on 22 December 1135, Stephen was crowned in Westminster Abbey.

The magnates had sworn fealty to the king’s daughter, Matilda, but in truth many of them had no wish to be governed by a woman. No queen had ever ruled in England, and in any case Matilda was known to be of imperious temperament. It was reported with much relief that, on his deathbed, Henry had disinherited his daughter in favour of his nephew. The report may not have been true, but it was highly convenient.

So Stephen was set for a fair start. He was not treated as a usurper, but as an anointed king. He also had the immense advantage of a well-stocked treasury, amassed through Henry I’s prudence in years of peace. The money allowed him to recruit large numbers of mercenary troops with which to defend his lands in France and the northern frontier with Scotland. The king of Scotland, David, claimed the counties of Northumberland, Cumberland and Westmorland as part of his sovereign territory; he was inclined to demonstrate the fact by marching south. At the battle of the Standard in 1138, named after the fact that the banners of three English saints were carried to the scene of combat, Stephen’s army under the leadership of northern lords defeated the Scots. A chronicler, John of Worcester, rejoiced that ‘we were victorious’; the use of the first person plural here is significant. The English were coming together.

But the money began to run out. Stephen had been too generous for his own good. A poor king is a luckless king. He debased the currency, to pay for his troops, but of course the price of goods rose ever higher as a result. Then, in the autumn of 1139, Matilda arrived to claim her country. In her company was her bastard half-brother, Robert, whom the late king had ennobled as earl of Gloucester. This was a war between cousins that became also a civil war. Matilda was strong in the west, particularly around Gloucester and Bristol, while Stephen was dominant in the south-east. In the midlands and in the north, neither party was pre-eminent. In those regions the local magnates were the natural rulers.

The instinct of the Anglo-Norman lords was for battle; like the salamander, they lived in fire. William I had realized that, and had ruled them like a tyrant. He had said that his lords were ‘eager for rebellion, ready for tumults and for every kind of crime’. They needed to be yoked and held down. Norman kings had to be strong in order to survive. But Stephen was not strong. By all accounts he was affable and amiable, easy to approach and easier to persuade. More damning still, he was lenient towards his enemies. There could be no greater contrast with the kings who had preceded him. He surrendered to the pope the power of appointing abbots and bishops; he also agreed that the bishops should wield power ‘over ecclesiastical persons’. At a stroke the prerogative of kings was diminished. He struck bargains with his great lords that rendered him merely the first among equals.

The barons knew well enough that loyalty and discipline had been undermined by the arrival of Matilda. Here was a welcome opportunity to extend their power. Their castles were further strengthened, and became the centres of marauding soldiers. For the next sixteen years, neither peace nor justice was enjoyed. Private wars were conducted between magnates under the pretence of attachment to Stephen or Matilda. Skirmishes and sieges, raids and ambushes, were perpetrated by the armies of the two rivals. Churches were ransacked, and farms were pillaged. Battles between towns, as well as between barons, took place. The men of Gloucester, supporting Matilda, marched upon Worcester and attempted to put the town to the torch. They also took prisoners, leashing them together like dogs, while most of the people of Worcester took refuge with their belongings in the cathedral.

A brief chronology of warfare can be given. The arrival of Matilda in England had not created any overwhelming enthusiasm for her rule; the barons of the west largely supported her, but her principal ally was still her bastard half-brother. Robert of Gloucester became the leader of her army of mercenaries. Her second husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, was detained by wars of his own.

After her landing at Arundel in 1139 numerous small battles erupted in the western counties, such as Somerset and Cornwall, with castles being taken and recaptured. Sporadic fighting continued in the following year, with incidents occurring in regions as various as Bristol and the Isle of Ely, but without any definite victory or defeat. The great lords of England were confronted with a situation of insidious civil war without precedent in English history; some took advantage of the chaos, while others were no doubt anxious and dispirited. Stephen was widely regarded as the consecrated king, and there seems to have been no great popular support for Matilda’s title; even her supporters were instructed to style her by the essentially feudal name of domina, or ‘lady’, rather than queen. Stephen himself was possessed of remarkable stamina, moving across the country almost continually, but his progress was abruptly curtailed when he was captured at Lincoln in the beginning of February 1141.

He was taken prisoner and confined to a dungeon in Bristol; a few weeks later, Matilda was hailed as ‘lady of England’. She was never crowned. Nevertheless this was a disturbing moment for those who believed in the sacral role of kingship. No king of England had ever before been imprisoned in his own country. Matilda herself became more vociferous and imperious in her triumph, demanding money and tribute from those whom she believed to be her defeated adversaries. She was admitted into London reluctantly, its citizens having been enthusiastic supporters of Stephen, but she proceeded to alienate the Londoners still further by angrily asking for money. A few days after her arrival in the city, the bells of the churches were rung and a mob descended on a banquet at Westminster where she was about to dine. She took horse and rode precipitately to Oxford. It was one of her many fortunate escapes. On one occasion she retreated from the castle at Devizes in the guise of a corpse; she was wrapped in linen cerecloth, and tied by ropes to a bier. Subsequently she was besieged in the castle at Oxford on a winter’s night; she dressed in white, and was thus camouflaged against the snow as she made her way down the frozen Thames to Wallingford.

Despite Stephen’s capture his army, under the nominal command of his wife, took the field. Matilda retreated further and further west. Many of her supporters fled for their lives. But Robert of Gloucester was captured in the same year as Stephen. He was the unofficial leader of Matilda’s forces, and it seemed only natural that he should be freed in exchange for the king. So Stephen was released and reunited with his kingdom. There resumed the deadly game of chess, with knights and castles being lost or regained. War continued for twelve more years.

Some parts of the country suffered more than others. A monk of Winchester describes the effects of famine, with villagers eating the flesh of dogs and horses. Another monk, from the abbey at Peterborough, reports in some detail the depredations of the lords of the castles; they taxed the villages in their domains to such an extent that the villagers all fled leaving their fields and cottages behind. Yet the actual incidents of violence were local and specific.

This short period has been called ‘the Anarchy’, when Christ and his saints slept, but that is to underestimate or altogether ignore the underlying strength of the country. The administrative order of the nation, built over many hundreds of years, remained broadly intact. The walls of most of the towns were fortified in this period, but urban activity continued as before. It is even more surprising, perhaps, that in the years of Stephen’s rule more abbeys were built and founded than at any other period in English history. The Cistercians continued to flourish. The tower of Tewkesbury Abbey and the choir of Peterborough Cathedral were completed in the years of warfare.

War itself was not incessant. All hostilities were suspended in the penitential seasons of Lent and Advent. While Matilda’s mercenaries and the Anglo-Norman barons fought one another, the English people for the most part went about their business. Of course there were casualties and victims of civil war, adumbrated by the monks of Peterborough and Winchester, but there is no need to draw a picture of universal woe and desolation. It is perhaps worth recording that in the years of ‘the Anarchy’, the umbrella was introduced into England. It has outlived cathedrals and palaces.

One singular change was wrought by the intermittent warfare. The king no longer trusted the centralized bureaucracy established by Henry I, and he arrested its leading members in the persons of the bishops of Salisbury, Ely and Lincoln. He may have believed that they had secretly taken the side of Matilda and Robert of Gloucester. He also captured their castles; in this world bishops owned castles, too. Then in difficult and unusual circumstances, by instinct or design, he reversed the policy of the former king and devolved much of his power. He created earls as leaders for most of the counties; they were charged with political and military administration of their territories, and represented the king in all but name. There is in other words nothing inevitable in the growth of the English state; what can be proposed can also be reversed. That is why, on his accession, Henry II determined that he would return to the principles of his grandfather. He was a strong king, and therefore a centralist.

In 1147, at the age of fourteen, he had come to England as Henry of Anjou. He commanded a small army of mercenaries, ready to fight for Matilda’s claim, but he did not materially benefit his mother. He was defeated at Cricklade, by the Thames, and in a characteristic act of generosity Stephen himself helped him to return to Normandy. In the final years of the conflict it was apparent to everyone that Stephen was the victor, but it was also agreed that Henry of Anjou was his natural and inevitable successor. The magnates of the land were now largely supporting his claims.

So with the aid and entreaty of prominent churchmen, an agreement was drawn up at Winchester in 1153; it was settled that Stephen would reign, but that he would recognize Henry as his heir. Henry gave homage to Stephen, and Stephen swore an oath to maintain Henry as son and successor. The custody of the important castles – Wallingford, Oxford, Windsor, Winchester and the Tower – was secured, and the pact was witnessed by the leading barons on both sides of the dispute. Matilda retired to Rouen, where she devoted her remaining years to charitable works. Sixteen years of largely futile struggle had finally been resolved. The fighting was worse than useless. It had solved nothing. It had proved nothing. In that sense, it is emblematic of most medieval conflict. It is hard to resist the suspicion that kings and princes engaged in warfare for its own sake. That was what they were supposed to do.

Stephen had sworn that he would never be a dethroned king, and indeed that fate was averted. Yet he did not enjoy his unchallenged royalty for very long. He began the process of restoring social order but, less than a year after the signing of the treaty at Winchester, he succumbed to some intestinal infection; he died in the Augustinian priory at Dover on 25 October 1154. It is possible that he was carried off by poison. There would have been many longing for his death and the rule of a young king, including the young king himself. The life and death of monarchs can be stark and dangerous.

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