The Anarchy, or The Nineteen-Year
Winter, refers to a period of the Twelfth Century during the reign (1135–1154)
of King Stephen, which was characterised by civil war between Stephen and his
cousin the Empress Matilda and unsettled and ineffective government. It had its
roots in a tragedy.
On 25 November 1120 the "White Ship", a 12th-century vessel, sank in the English Channel near the Normandy coast off Barfleur. Among those drowned was William Adelin, the only legitimate son of King Henry I of England (c.1069 - 1135), (the youngest son of William the Conqueror).
William of Malmesbury (c. 1080/1095 – c.1143) wrote of the tragedy:
"Here also perished with William, Richard, another of the King's sons, whom a woman without rank had borne him,
before his accession, a brave youth, and dear to his father from his obedience; Richard d'Avranches, second Earl of Chester, and his brother Otheur; Geoffrey
Ridel; Walter of Everci; Geoffrey, archdeacon of Hereford; the Countess
of Chester; the king's niece Lucia-Mahaut of Blois; and many others ... No ship ever brought so much misery to England."
Henry named his daughter Matilda as heir to his throne. Matilda was the wife of Henry V, (1086 –1125), King of
Germany and Holy Roman Emperor. He then forced his barons, including his favourite
nephew, Stephen of Blois (1097-1154), to swear allegiance to her several times.
On Henry's death in 1135 , there was some opposition to Matilda. No woman had ever ruled England in her own right,
it being considered that women were unfit to rule. There was further resentment
among the barons concerning Matilda's second husband, Geoffrey of Anjou whom
she had married in 1128 (Henry having died in 1125). Geoffrey had a poor reputation in England as he hailed from Anjou, whose
rulers were resented by the Normans for their attempts to conquer the duchy of Normandy.
Despite being popularly known as "Empress" from her first marriage, Matilda's right to the title was dubious. She was never crowned Holy Roman Empress by a
legitimate Pope, (which was normally
required to achieve the title; indeed, in later years she encouraged chroniclers to believe she had been crowned by the Pope).
At the time, she was called German Queen by her husband's bishops, while
her formal title was recorded as "Queen of the Romans". However, arguably, "Empress" was an appropriate courtesy title for
the wife of an Emperor who had been crowned by the Pope.
Taking advantage of the situation, Stephen rushed to England and claimed the throne, saying Henry had
changed his mind on his deathbed and named Stephen as his heir. He entered London and was acclaimed king by the townspeople.
At Winchester, he secured the treasury and the support of the church . The barons
ratified the usurpation, however Matilda's illegitimate half-brother Robert of Gloucester opposed it.
The Archbishop of Canterbury and Pope Innocent II sided with Stephen.
Matilda's best hope, her uncle, King David I of Scotland, invaded Northumberland, nominally on her behalf. However, little
actual fighting took place, and Stephen’s won the Battle of Northallerton, or Battle of the Standard, on Stephen's behalf
in August 1138.
Most of the Barons in the West of England, including
Ralph Paganell, 4th Baron of Dudley, (1130’s –1150), supported
Matilda. However, the deteriorating situation spurred the Barons to improve
and reinforce their strongholds. It is possible that Dudley Castle’s conversion to stone was completed at this time.
In early 1138, Stephen laid siege to Dudley Castle but failed to breach its defences, in frustration he laid waste
to the surrounding countryside burning down houses and stealing cattle before attacking Shrewsbury where he captured the Castle which was held by William FitzAlan.
Stephen, meanwhile, made a series of poor decisions that caused resentment amongst his former supporters. Stephen placed
great reliance upon Roger of Salisbury, Bishop of Salisbury and seventh Lord Chancellor and Lord Keeper of England; Roger’s
nephews, the bishops of Ely and Lincoln, and Roger’s son, Roger le Poer,
who was treasurer. Stephen went so far as to declare that if Roger demanded half of the kingdom he should have it.
Roger had built himself a grand castle at Devizes.
He and his nephews secured a number of castles outside their own dioceses and
the old bishop behaved as if he were an equal of the King. At a council held in June
1139, Stephen demanded a surrender of their castles and on their refusal they were arrested. After a short struggle, all Roger's great castles were sequestrated.
The King was considered to have committed an almost unpardonable crime by threatening violence to members of the church. This resulted
in a quarrel with the church, even his brother, Henry, Bishop of Winchester,
(1101–1171), turned against him .
Then the Empress Matilda and her husband Robert
landed at Arundel Castle in September 1139.
The quarrel with the church and Matilda’s landing
had a serious effect on Stephen's fortunes. The clergy, including his own
brother, Henry, acknowledged Matilda as the legitimate ruler. Civil War had begun.
Stephen allowed her to travel to Bristol to meet up with Robert of Gloucester, in an attempt to contain his enemies
in one area. However, an opposing earl, Ranulf of Chester, captured Lincoiln Castle. Stephen attacked and laid siege to the
The besiegers were attacked by a by a relief force loyal to Matilda commanded
by Robert of Gloucester on February 2nd 1141. The force consisted of the divisions of Robert's men; Ralph Paganell
‘s and the Earl of Chester’s; Welsh troops led by Madog ap Maredudd,
Lord of Powys, and Cadwaladr ap Gruffydd brother of Owain, Prince of Gwynedd, and men who had been disinherited by Stephen.
As soon as the battle was joined, the majority of Stephen’s Earls
deserted him, and despite fighting
courageously through the streets of Lincoln he and his men were swiftly surrounded
and killed or captured
Stephen was taken before Matilda and imprisoned at Bristol, effectively deposed.
Following the battle, Earl Robert sent Ralph to Nottingham as its new Governor, (the former Governor, William Peverall,
having been captured during the Battle). Ralph treated Nottingham as an enemy town, allowing his men to pillage. During the
pillaging his men entered the house of a merchant and demanded he handed
over his valuables. The merchant told them his valuables were hidden in the cellar. As the soldiers searched the cellar, he
locked them in and set fire to the building. However, the fire spread claiming many lives.
Matilda now controlled the country. When she arrived in London, the city
was ready to welcome her and support her coronation. She used the title of Lady
of the English and planned to assume the title of queen upon coronation. However,
she refused the citizens' request to halve their taxes and her perceived arrogance alienated many of her supporters and as a result
the city gates were closed to her on June 24 1141and she was never crowned. The Civil War had been reignited.
Matilda left the capital for Oxford. Then in September 1141 she suffered another setback.
Stephen's brother, Henry, Bishop of Winchester, who had earlier defected to Empress Matilda, changed sides again to support Stephen's queen, Matilda of Boulogne. With a small force Henry
laid siege to the royal castle at Winchester. Empress Matilda sortied
from Oxford in late July with a substantial army commanded by Robert of Gloucester. However, Robert’s army was defeated
at what is now known as the “Rout of Winchester” and he was captured. In
November, she exchanged Stephen for Robert and Stephen returned to the Throne.
Stephen now held most of the country and in 1142 besieged Matilda at Oxford Castle. Just before Christmas she took advantage of the wintry weather and escaped.
Taking with her a small escort of four knights she either escaped down the walls
using a rope or slipped secretly out of a small postern gate, risking capture
by Stephen’s blockading troops. She crossed the frozen Thames wrapped in a white cloak to avoid detection then struggled on foot through the snow and ice for several miles until they reached Abingdon, where, obtaining horses, they rode on to Wallingford Castle, which was held by her
supporter Brien FitzCount.
The Civil War continued. In
1147, Empress Matilda's teenage son, Henry Plantagenet, decided to assist in
the war effort by raising a small army of mercenaries and invading England.
Rumours of his army's size terrified Stephen's retainers, although in fact, the force was very small. Having been defeated
twice in battle, and with no money to pay his mercenaries, young Henry appealed to his uncle, Robert of Gloucester, for aid
but was turned away. In the same year Mailda’s greatest supporter, Robert of Gloucester died.
Matilda, was disheartened and retired to Normandy in 1148 and never returned
Henry however, was determined that England was his mother's right, and
so his own. He returned to England again between 1149 and 1150. On 22 May 1149
he was knighted by King David I of Scotland, his great uncle, at Carlisle.
Ralph Paganell died sometime during the 1140’s. He appeared to regret
the massacre at Nottingham. In recompense, he requested, on his deathbed that his son Gervase build a religious establishment
in his name. This resulted in the founding of the Priory. Gervase became the 5th Baron of Dudley.
Stephen however, had only a nominal control over most of the kingdom and was unable to enforce the law or mediate between
warring nobles. This was largely a result of Stephen’s treatment of Roger of Salisbury in 1139. Roger had established
an effective administration and by attacking him Stephen had robbed himself of
the very people who understood and exercised his government. Many talented scribes fled the royal chancery following Stephen’s
attack on Roger leading to a sharp decrease in charters and personnel movement.
Other offices also found themselves short staffed. He replaced many local bureaucrats with ones who had very little administrative
experience, thus, his intelligence system broke down resulting in his enemies
being ahead of him. When Stephen was captured at the Battle of Lincoln in 1141, his administration was one-quarter the size
it had been when he began his reign.
Stephen allowed the barons, in their quest for land and castles,
to become tyrants to their subjects and did nothing to stop it. There was no strong central leadership in the land, and landowners took the law into their own hands, exercising arbitrary taxes and penalties.
As can be seen in a letter from Abbot Gilbert Foliot to the bishop of Worcester regarding landowner William de Beauchamp:
“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.”
Stephen maintained his precarious hold on the throne for the remainder of his lifetime. However, after a military standoff
at Wallingford with Henry, and following the death of his son and heir, Eustace, in 1153, he was persuaded to reach a compromise
with Matilda (known as the “Treaty of Wallingford” or “Winchester”), whereby Matilda's son Henry would
It appears that the Paganells were held in high regard by Matilda’s family. In 1153, Henry Plantagenet visited Dudley Castle where he signed
a charter relating to property of the church in Worcester and in 1154, Gervase married Isabel, Countess of Northampton, the
widow of Robert of Gloucester’s son, Earl Simon de Senlis of Northampton.
Stephen died at Dover Priory in 1154 ,and was buried in Faversham Abbey,
which he had founded in 1148. Henry took the throne as King Henry II establishing the Plantagenet dynasty.
Matilda spent the remainder of her life in Normandy, dying at Rouen in September 1167.
And of Stephen’s reign? The Peterborough Chronicle of the “Anglo-Saxon Chronicles” (second continuation) tells us why this period was known as “The Anarchy”:
"In the days of this King there was nothing but strife, evil, and robbery, for quickly the great men who were traitors
rose against him. When the traitors saw that Stephen was a good-humoured, kindly, and easy-going man who inflicted no punishment, then they committed all manner of horrible crimes they had done him homage
and sworn oaths of fealty to him, but not one of their oaths was kept. They were all forsworn and their oaths broken. For
every great man built him castles and held them against the king;
they sorely burdened the unhappy people of the country with forced labour on the castles; and when the castles were built
they filled them with devils and wicked men. By night and by day they seized those they believed to have any wealth, whether
they were men or women; and in order to get their gold or silver, they put them into prison and tortured them with unspeakable tortures, for never were martyrs tortured as they were. They hung them up by the feet
and smoked them with foul smoke. They strung them up by the thumbs, or by the head, and hung coats of mail on their feet.
They tied knotted cords round their heads and twisted it until it entered the brain. They put them in dungeons wherein were
adders and snakes and toads and so destroyed them. Many thousands they starved to death.
“I know not how to nor am I able to tell of all the atrocities nor all the cruelties which they wrought upon
the unhappy people of this country. It lasted throughout the nineteen years that Stephen was king, and always grew worse and
worse. Never did a country endure greater misery, and never did the heathen act more vilely than they did.
“And so it lasted for nineteen years while Stephen was King, till the land was all undone and darkened with
such deeds, and men said openly that Christ and his angels slept …. this and more we suffered nineteen winters for our