Nipissing University

History 2425 -- Medieval England

The Civil War of Stephen and Matilda

Steve Muhlberger
If Henry I's reign saw the building of bureaucracy and energetic royal control over the kingdom, his power like that of previous kings was a personal one that depended on his own vigor, intelligence, and judgement - - and perhaps most of all, on his ability to inspire fear in those who might cross him. The future of Henry's realm -- a realm thought of as a family possession and not as a community of citizens -- depended on his ability to pass it on to a suitable and undoubted heir.

Henry lost his only legitimate son in 1120.  So as his reign drew to a close, he tried to gain the acknowledgment of his major vassals that his daughter, Matilda, also known as Maud, would succeed to his lands and powers.

Henry was able to obtain oaths of recognition both in England and Normandy, but not honest support for his proposal.  War was a man's game, and the warrior aristocracy that owned almost everything saw no role for women on the battlefield. How then could Matilda be an effective king and duke?

Then there was the matter of her husband -- or rather, her second husband who was Geoffrey, count of Anjou. Anjou was the traditional enemy of Normandy. There was always war between the two countries. It appeared to the Normans that if they acknowledged Matilda as their queen, then they would get Geoffrey as their king. And that was intolerable.

So there was a search for another candidate. It did not take them long to settle on Matilda's cousin Thibaut, or Theobald, count of Blois. He was the son of one of the Conqueror's daughters, a lord of some consequence, well known and well liked by the Norman and English aristocracy. The only problem was that he didn't seem very interested.

In December 1135, King Henry I died when Matilda was in Anjou and not in a position to secure an immediate coronation. So there was a scramble for the throne. But the one who scrambled was not Count Thibaut -- it was his younger brother, Stephen.

Unlike Matilda, he was in England when Henry died. His brother Henry was bishop of Winchester, and thus in a position to help Stephen seize the royal treasury, which was still kept in that city. Bishop Henry also swayed the church in his brother's direction. So at the end of December, Stephen got himself crowned by the archbishop of Canterbury, who by tradition had the right to consecrate English kings. Soon after this, Stephen crossed to Normandy and rounded off his coup d'etat by gaining the support of the Norman aristocracy.

There were those who had reason to support the empress, as Matilda (formerly married to the German emperor Henry V) still called herself, either from principle, family attachment, or self-interest: David, king of Scots; Matilda's illegitimate half-brother Robert, earl of Gloucester, who was highly capable and highly respected; and Matilda's own husband Geoffrey of Anjou, who was well placed to put capture Normandy. Matilda's party, or potential party, was not negligible.

The Angevins (people from Anjou) attacked Normandy and the Scots northern England, but they plundered indiscriminately and undermined Matilda's cause.

Stephen's most dangerous opponent was Robert of Gloucester, a man who might well have been king in another century, who, once he declared for his half sister, served as the center of a powerful alliance in the west of England.

Stephen aggravated his problems by being, most of the time, too nice to control his subordinates.
As the ASC says: "When the traitors saw that Stephen was a good-humored, kindly, and easy-going man who inflicted no punishment, then they committed all manner of horrible crimes."

Actually Stephen could be tough, but his toughness, being ill-timed, subverted his cause. Most notable is the way he turned the church against him in 1138 and 1139. First he alienated his brother Henry, who had been his most important ally. Henry had his eye on Canterbury, and when the old archbishop died in 1138, he thought he was a shoe-in. But Stephen apparently did not trust his brother, and made sure someone else was elected. As a consolation prize, Stephen got Henry the position of papal legate, or permanent representative of the pope in England. This gave Henry a lot of power, but he was still upset.

In 1139, he got his chance to strike back. King Stephen in that year arrested Roger, the bishop of Salisbury and his two nephews, who were also bishops. Roger was the man who had run King Henry's administration, and had been a supporter of Stephen's all along. Perhaps Stephen thought he needed closer control of his administration, but his brutal arrest of the bishops was a mistake.

Henry of Winchester used his powers of legate against his brother, and the whole episcopacy turned against Stephen. The Empress's party grew, and Stephen's became more unreliable.

Stephen was almost finished off in 1141. At the battle of Lincoln, Stephen was captured by the forces of Robert of Gloucester. He was thrown into prison at Bristol, Robert's stronghold.

Preparations for Matilda's coronation at Westminster, near London, were made. But the haughty Empress then made a fatal error.  She decided to discipline the city, and demanded an immediate tax be levied on it. The city was infuriated and the citizens armed themselves and chased her out. It was a damaging blow to her prestige. The coronation had to be called off, and in fact never took place.

Her cause sank lower when Robert of Gloucester was captured by an army sent by Stephen's queen, another Maud. Robert was the heart of the Empress's cause -- he was loved where she was not -- and so Matilda had to exchange Stephen to get her brother back. Matilda never had another good chance to win her father's crown.

But Stephen, even though he won a number of important victories, never was able to win control of his realm. In 1144 he lost Normandy to Geoffrey of Anjou. Robert of Gloucester held on to the west of England until he died in 1147.

But what was worse was that even Stephen's own supporters did not obey him. Anyone who wished to defy Stephen always had the option of declaring for the Empress, who would load the defector with privileges. Anyone who defected back to Stephen would be rewarded by him. In this way great lords played the rival cousins off against each other, to their own benefit.

What this may have meant for the ordinary population of England is told most eloquently in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle under the year 1137, where the writer enumerates the horrible crimes committed by those who did not fear Stephen: they extorted protection money from the villages, forced labor from the villagers to build strongholds for themselves, and tortured anyone who might have money.

The insecurity expressed by the chronicle explains much of the hunger for reliable royal justice evident in the next reign. And it was not just or even mainly the poor who hungered for order.  Those who had something to lose feared lawlessness -- and looked back with nostalgia on the time of Good King Henry.

But of course there were many who made hay while the sun shone. Various members of the aristocracy worked to extend or at least secure their power in the countryside. Positions that had been royal offices or honorary titles under Henry I became hereditary possessions under Stephen and Matilda.

For instance, both Stephen and his rival handed out the title of earl with great abandon. There had been seven earls in 1135. By the time Stephen died there were over twenty. And the title meant more now, too. The earls considered the counties from which they drew their titles to be their own property. The sheriffs of those counties ceased being royal deputies and were subordinates of the titular earls. The rival claimants to the throne perforce went along with this trend and even promoted it.

In 1141, in a bid for support after his capture, Stephen granted the keepership of the Tower of London, and the offices of sheriff and royal justice in London, Middlesex, Essex and Hertfordshire to a particularly ruthless baron named Geoffrey de Mandeville. These districts were the heart of the kingdom of England, or a good part of it. The significance of the grant is increased by the fact that it was meant as a hereditary grant. The Anarchy, as this period is sometimes called, threatened the very structure of the kingdom that had been built up since Edgar's time.

Stephen's great goal in the later part of his life was to pass on his royal title to his son Eustace. Stephen worked very hard to have his son Eustace crowned king of England while he was still alive (as was routinely done in France).  Matilda's party succeeded in getting the pope to forbid the archbishop of Canterbury to perform the ceremony. And without the archbishop's participation, a coronation would be of little use.

Stephen had brought this situation on himself. He had manipulated church appointments to his own advantage often enough to alienate church reformers in Rome and at home. He had thus acquired the reputation being an enemy of reform, and suffered the consequences.

Matilda seems to have lost hope that she would ever be queen of England after her brother Robert died in 1148. But she had something else to fight for: the ultimate succession of her eldest son Henry. From the age of fourteen, he was personally active in the struggle; fourteen was none to young for an ambitious prince trying to make his way in the world.

His father had taken Normandy in 1144, and ruled the duchy in his son's name. David the king of Scots was still inclined in favor of Matilda's party, and in 1149 David knighted Henry and formed an alliance in return for the promise of Cumbria and Northumberland.

Things only got better for Henry as time went on. His father died -- it doesn't seem that they were close -- which gave Henry control of both Anjou and Normandy. Then he lucked into one of the most brilliant royal marriages of the Middle Ages. Louis VII had just divorced his troublesome wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine. This Eleanor was in her own right duchess of Aquitaine, a huge, loose-knit principality in southwestern France. Eleanor and Henry, both ambitious people, saw something in each other that they liked. Eleanor's French divorce was followed almost immediately by her marriage to the promising young claimant to the English throne. (Eleanor was over thirty, Henry was just nineteen).

The result of all these events was to make Henry, by 1152, a very powerful lord even without England. Stephen by this time was an old man. When Eustace died suddenly in August of 1153, Stephen threw in the towel. Before the end of that year, a treaty was signed between Stephen and Henry. Stephen got the crown for his lifetime; Henry was to succeed him. This happened very quickly. Stephen died in 1154, less than a year after making peace.

So the civil war ended with the ultimate triumph of the Empress's party. The remaining question was whether the Anarchy would end, too.

This site has been visited times since September 1, 1998.

Copyright (C) 1998, Steven Muhlberger.