HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: 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.

cover and text via Pen & Sword

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I must admit that the civil war of the 12th century is definitely not in my time period of expertise, but this book jumped out for two reasons – 1) that a kick-ass woman was trying to be a king, and 2) Matthew Lewis wrote it. I thought there was no way this book could fail.

In 1120, King Henry I lost his only legitimate male heir, William, in the disaster of the White Ship. The sole heir to the throne was being a moron, and drunkenly sank his ship off the coast of Normandy, killing hundreds. While the king had two dozen bastard children (though one bastard son also died aboard the White Ship), all Henry had to inherit his throne was William, and his older sister, Matilda. With the loss of William, Henry I had what all kings fear – the possibility to handing power to a woman.

Matilda was married to the Holy Roman Emperor, only to have him die in 1125, when Matilda was still young. Henry moved his daughter back to Normandy, and set about making her the heir to the English throne. Matilda married Geoffrey Plantagenet of Anjou, and the nobles of England and English-controlled France swore fealty to Matilda and Geoffrey. Matilda didn’t seem to like her husband, but in 1135, when King Henry died in Normandy, she was pregnant with her third child, and ready to march on cities and put down rebellions.

Enter Stephen of Blois, Matilda’s cousin, the Count of Boulogne and new Duke of Normandy. Stephen hastily made his way to England, and claimed the English throne for himself while Matilda battled Anglo-Norman nobles. This problem of multiple claimants to the throne started The Anarchy, which would last for almost 20 years. Both Matilda and Stephen were descendants of William the Conqueror, and Stephen had the backing of the church, developed ways to raise money, and was prepared to fight the Scottish, the Welsh and Geoffrey of Anjou for Normandy. While several years of fighting had moderate success, by 1138, the tide was turning on all fronts, and supporters were withdrawing support for Stephen in favour of Matilda.

Lewis’ book tells the story from both points of view. Stephen seems to have been a well-liked man, with his wife, Queen Matilda, a powerful ally at his side. On the other side, Matilda is also a strong woman, her half-brother Robert a loyal supporter, and her husband Geoffrey a tough man. Matilda landed in England in 1139, but Stephen was hesitant to lay siege on a castle harbouring a female enemy. But he had underestimated his cousin, for Matilda, alongside Robert, was ready to fight for the throne. By 1141, Matilda had captured Stephen.

Matilda was an incredible woman. She lived in a time where men simply couldn’t comprehend a woman in power. She couldn’t be a woman who ruled, she needed to be a king. The fine line Matilda needed to walk was one almost impossible; she was expected to be a woman, but act like a king. She needed to rule and control as a king, but all her nobles and commoners saw was a woman. Empress Matilda, Lady of England and Normandy, set forth to London to be coronated, only to have the population revolt against her just days before she wore the crown as king of England.

Matilda soon had to face another battle, from Stephen’s wife Queen Matilda, who overthrew Matilda and forced her into hiding. Matilda was forced to let Stephen go from prison, in return for her brother Robert, who was caught by Queen Matilda in battle (phew!).

Battles continued for several years with Stephen still the king, and Matilda on her own with husband Geoffrey taking Normandy across the channel. In 1147, Matilda’s brother Robert died, and her son Henry, aged only 14, took up the battle in his mother’s name. But the fresh fighting produced no winners, and young Henry wanted to bail out, but was broke. King Stephen paid for his enemy to leave the fighting, a strange gesture indeed, paying his cousin and enemy to safely leave. This left the people of England to make truces and find some peace at last, but Matilda wasn’t done yet.

By 1153, Henry was at it again, fighting Stephen for the crown. But instead of battles to the death, Stephen and Henry made peace, and decided Henry would be Stephen’s heir, in place of Stephen’s own son who was ruling in France. Stephen died only one year later, and Henry became King Henry II, leaving his mother Matilda to never rule England.

This book goes into fine detail about the battles that raged over this bloody period in English history, which gives The Anarchy context and fleshes out the realities of what happened to the country, and how the people suffered over the period of 1135 – 1154. With the book covering both Stephen and Matilda, it makes it hard to decide who you want to win. Matilda was an extraordinary woman in English history, so to hate Stephen for taking her throne should be an easy task. Instead, Stephen is a liked and capable man  who makes the right decision at crucial moments. Despite the 19 years in which the civil war spanned, there were times of peace in all areas of the country.  Neither Stephen nor Matilda made the battle for the crown personal, neither wished to kill the other, or at least it seemed. When it fell to Henry II to rebuild after the fighting, rebuilding the country and her finances took only around a decade, and went on to rule much of France, Scotland, Wales and Ireland. To suggest England was in anarchy under Stephen isn’t the full picture, which Lewis details meticulously. However, with the coinage debased and law and order a mess, the battle had done much harm to the general population in the south, while northern areas were largely untouched. The fortunes of England raised and fell with every move Matilda and Stephen made.

I expected to read this book, cheering for Matilda’s success, despite knowing the ultimate outcome already, and yet that didn’t happen. Lewis has written the book in a way that the reader can see the battle from both points of view and I liked Stephen more than I wanted to. There is much to cover in The Anarchy, and yet the author fits it all in without wasting any time. While I was already a very big Matthew Lewis fan, this book has left me better for reading it, learning about a period I probably wouldn’t have bothered with if not for him.

 

 

 

 

 

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