When The Anarchy reigned…

Let me tell you a bit about a time they called The Anarchy.

No, it’s not the 1970s Punk rock era. The Anarchy, as it became known, was a 12th-century time of civil war and unrest. It’s more impactful than the 1970s, and certainly more deadly.

When King Henry I of England died on 1st December 1135, he left the nobles of the kingdom in a predicament. Having lost his only legitimate son and heir, William the Ætheling, when the White Ship sank off the coast of Normandy in November 1120, Henry had made his barons swear allegiance to his daughter, Matilda. Yes, a woman.

That’s the moment when her cousin, Stephen of Blois, pounced and took ‘her’ throne. He was crowned King of England on 22nd December 1135. Stephen’s brother, also named Henry, a cleric, spread word that the late king had changed his mind on his deathbed and pronounced his support for Stephen. Whether that was true or not is anyone’s guess. But for the population of south-east England, and the nobles who considered Stephen as a good leader, it did the trick. He swiftly gathered support.

Falaise Castle (c) Cathie Dunn

Matilda, by then 33 years old and pregnant, had been married to the Holy Roman Emperor when she was still a child, and on his death had returned, childless, to her father’s court. Always mindful of his dilemma, Henry married Matilda off to Geoffrey, count of Anjou, 11 years younger than his wife. It wasn’t a love-match, and they lived apart most of the time. But despite their obvious and well-recorded differences, they had three sons.

Tour Marguerite, Argentan, Normandy (c) Cathie Dunn

When Matilda – still in Normandy in December 1135, meeting with her own supporters and considering her position safe – heard of Stephen’s treachery, it was too late. Many English nobles had already sworn their loyalty to her cousin.

The next two to three years were spent building up a following in Anjou and Normandy. Castles were taken, fields scorched, as Geoffrey and Stephen battled for the county. Stephen eventually had to retreat. He also had to focus on rebellions from the Scots, with incursions into northern England, in south Wales and in Cornwall. After a bright start, his luck had begun to turn.

When Matilda’s older half-brother, Robert of Gloucester, rose in support of her claim in 1138, the outcome was clear: civil war. He held Gloucestershire, and many surrounding areas supported him. When he and Matilda arrived in England in 1139, they managed to gain most of their supporters in the West Country. Still, the Pope favoured Stephen, so the Church was equally divided.

But fate favoured neither Matilda nor Stephen. Both won and lost battles. Both gained and lost supporters. The nobles often veered from one to the other, depending on how the wind blew. They became unreliable, their loyalty questionable.

When Stephen was caught during the Battle of Lincoln in 1141, many thought the troubles were over, but they’d only just begun. Stephen’s wife, also called Matilda (or Maud) the rich heiress to the county of Boulogne, rallied his supporters with the help of Flemish mercenaries. The south east was strongly in his favour, and even the Empress Matilda’s attempts to have herself crowned Queen of England failed when Queen Maud’s troops rallied the Londoners, and Matilda was chased out of the city.

When her brother Robert was caught by Queen Maud’s supporters outside Winchester in 1142, he was swapped for the king, and all went back to what it was before. It was a huge blow to Matilda’s cause.

As civil war raged on – both sides attacking castles and strongholds, gaining some and losing others – the population suffered. Crops were burned, towns sacked, and you never knew who was friend or foe. Anarchy reigned supreme.

Robert of Gloucester died in 1147, peacefully, and by 1148, Matilda returned to Normandy, making the county her focus over the coming years. Her eldest son, Henry, however had only just begun to stake his claim in a couple of futile attempts at invading England. When, in 1152, he unexpectedly married Eleanor of Aquitaine, sole heiress of a vast domain that reached south to the Pyrenees (a thorn in the eye of the French king, her divorced husband), many began to take his claims more seriously. His power grew, and his incursions into England grew more and more successful. Eventually, in the Treaty of Winchester in 1153, Stephen agreed to Henry as his successor. However, Stephen would remain king for as long as he lived – which could be years, and even decades – and his surviving son William was rumoured to have Henry assassinated to gain the crown. No one was safe.

Spires of the church of Saint Martin, Argentan, Normandy (c) Cathie Dunn

King Stephen died in October 1154, and the path was finally clear for Henry. He had himself crowned King of England and asserted his rule immediately. Of course, Henry had his fair share of challenges over the decades, but that’s for another time.


It was around twenty years ago, as a member of an online group called Medieval Enthusiasts, when I first heard about The Anarchy. Ever since, I’ve been fascinated by the chain of events Henry I’s death unleashed. My favourite character is Robert of Gloucester. Had he been legitimate, or had he been allowed to inherit the throne despite his illegitimacy, he could have been King of England, and none of the strife and warfare would likely have happened. He held huge amounts of respect. But, alas, it wasn’t to be.

In my novel, Dark Deceit, my (fictional) protagonist, Sir Geoffrey de Mortagne, a knight, is undersheriff of Gloucestershire – and a spy for the Empress. He walks in royal circles, takes part in battles before having to save a young heiress from herself, and a man he’d known when he was young as a friend, but who was by now an implacable enemy. Dark Deceit begins in 1141, after the Battle of Lincoln.

Geoffrey de Mortagne and the Empress Matilda also feature in a short story in our new collection, Doorways to the Past, released on 30th July 2020.

You can find both titles on Amazon:

Dark Deceit:  mybook.to/Dark_Deceit

Doorways to the Past:  mybook.to/DoorwaystoPast

Cathie’s Amazon author page:  author.to/CathieDunn

Cathie’s website: www.cathiedunn.com

Medieval gate (public domain)

2 Replies to “When The Anarchy reigned…”

    1. Thank you very much, Sharon. That’s very kind of you.

      I just love that era. So much happened, and you can get a real sense of the frustration on both sides over the years.

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Liked by 1 person

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