Book Corner: 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 favorite 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.

Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy by Matthew Lewis, is a wonderful book looking at the civil war, known as The Anarchy, through the eyes of the two leading protagonists, King Stephen and his cousin, Empress Matilda. A totally absorbing read, this book is enjoyable and informative, analysing the actions of both sides in a critical but sympathetic light.

Matthew Lewis digs deep into the personalities involved in both sides of the war and puts flesh on the bones of these characters. The result is a fair and balanced appraisal of the conflict between these two cousins, both as rival claimants to the throne and as leaders of their disparate supporters. The story is told in alternate chapters from the views of Stephen and Matilda, helping to keep the analysis and narrative balanced and fresh.

Matthew Lewis tries to be fair to both sides. You can tell that he feels for Empress Matilda, faced not only with a challenge to her right to the throne, but with the extra challenges that arose out of her being a woman and unable to lead the military aspects of the war. The author highlights Matilda’s failings, but does temper them with an explanation of how her actions would have been received differently, had she only been a man!

On the other side, King Stephen’s own faults and weaknesses are also singled out, though Matthew Lewis also stresses that where Matilda was hindered by her sex, so was Stephen – by Matilda’s gender, that is. There were limits put on Stephen by the fact he was challenged by a woman; just as Matilda could not lead her troops into battle, neither could Stephen face his challenger in an all-for-nothing trial by combat that could have put an end to the war years later. The result was a long, protracted war during which it was said ‘Christ and his saints slept.’

Before any move was made, there were probably four prime candidates to succeed Henry. His daughter, Empress Matilda, was perhaps the most obvious, but also in many ways the least attractive. Female rule was still something unheard of, at least in England, a nation that would have no queen regnant for another 400 years. The second possibility was Robert, Earl of Gloucester. Robert was an illegitimate son of Henry I, widely considered his favourite. He had extensive lands and power both in Normandy and England and was well respected. He was, however, illegitimate. That was less of a bar to power in Normandy: the Conqueror himself had been called William the Bastard. In England, it was unheard of. Legitimacy was still an absolute, marking the distinction between a duke and a king. Robert had everything required to follow his father except the right mother.

The two other contenders came from the House of Blois. They were Henry’s nephews, the sons of his sister Adela and her husband Stephen, Count of Blois. Theobald, Count of Blois and Champagne was the senior male of the house, though his younger brother Stephen, Count of Mortain, had been in England for years and was close to his uncle. They offered the prospect of legitimate, male successors as grandsons of William the Conqueror, albeit in a female line of descent. None of these solutions appeared perfect, and only one could win the throne. As it turned out, only two displayed an interest, and neither would give up during the nineteen years that followed.

Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy by Matthew Lewis is a thoroughly enjoyable read, offering the perfect balance in a non-fiction book; accessible, interesting and informative. It gives a whole new perspective to the Civil War which divided England for the whole of Stephen’s 19-year reign. The book looks into each aspect of the war. The battles, conferences, truces and stalemates, are all analysed through the disparate eyes of those involved; not only looking into how they effected events, but also how events affected them.

Although it concentrates on the 2 leading protagonists, Stephen and Matilda, the book also gives insight into the lead supporting characters on both sides, giving the reader a comprehensive, panoramic view of the era through the personalities of those involved; from the steadfast and loyal Robert, Earl of Gloucester, to Stephen’s queen, also Matilda and the gruff, fearless John Marshal, father of William Marshal, first Earl of Pembroke and arguable the greatest knight England ever had.

Although more known for his books on the Wars of the Roses, Matthew Lewis has managed to demonstrate the breadth and depth of his historical knowledge with Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy. He had put his usual level of passion and attention to detail into this book and the result is well worth reading. Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy by Matthew Lewis is a thoroughly compelling read.

Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy by Matthew Lewis is available from Amazon.

About the author:

Matthew Lewis trained in law and is now a full time author of historical fiction and non-fiction. He also blogs on his website, Matt’s History Blog, and can be found on Twitter as @mattlewisauthor. His main interest is medieval history and he has a number of books on that topic, including The Survival of the Princes in the Tower and Richard, Duke of York: King by Right.

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My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Pen & SwordAmazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide. It will be released in the US on 2 September and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, Amazon US and Book Depository.

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©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

The Atheling and the Tragedy of the White Ship

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William the Atheling

In the late summer of 1103 England’s queen, Matilda of Scotland, gave birth to a son. Named after his grandfather, William the Conqueror, the young prince would be known to history as William the Ætheling. He is one of those historical figures who resides in the shadows, more famous for his death than his all-too-short life as the heir to England’s throne.

William’s father, Henry, was a younger son of William the Conqueror. When his father had died in 1087, the patrimony of England and Normandy was divided between Henry’s older brothers;  the eldest, Robert Curthose, inherited Normandy while William II Rufus became King of England. It was intended that Henry would go into the church or maybe inherit their mother’s lands. However, the little brother seems to have set his sights on greater things and, as a result, was distrusted by William, who kept him close to home, so he could not cause any mischief.

On 2nd August, 1100, while out hunting in the New Forest, William was struck by a stray arrow and killed. Some say it was planned, others that it was an accident; I guess we’ll never know for sure…

Henry, however, did not waste the opportunity. With his older brother Robert still on his way back from Crusading in the Holy Land, Henry seized the initiative, the treasury and the kingdom; he was crowned at Westminster Abbey just 3 days after his brother’s death. Within months Henry had found himself a bride with impeccable parentage. Matilda had been born Edith of Scotland and was the daughter of Malcolm III, King of Scots. Through her mother, St Margaret, she was the great-granddaughter of Edmund II Ironside, Saxon king of England. She changed her name on marrying Henry, as Edith was considered ‘too Saxon’ a name for Norman tastes.

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Matilda of Scotland

Henry and Matilda were married in November 1100 and within 3 years were the proud parents of 2 children. Their daughter, Adelaide, was born in 1102; she would adopt the name Matilda on her marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V, and would be known to history as the Empress Matilda (or Maude). Although some historians suggest they were twins, it is most likely that Matilda’s younger brother, William, was born in 1103; a message of congratulations was sent to Henry I by Pope Paschal II on 23rd November of that year.

The soubriquet of Ætheling is attributed to chronicler Oderic Vitalis and harks back to Saxon times as a title given to the king’s designated heir. According to William of Malmesbury, William, with a Saxon mother and Norman father, represented the hope of reconciliation between the conquered and conquerors of England.

Although the king and queen had only 2 children – a 3rd, Richard, is thought to have died young – the king had numerous illegitimate offspring by various women, several of whom were raised alongside his legitimate children. William and a number of his illegitimate brothers, including Robert, Earl of Gloucester,  were tutored by Otuel (or Othuer) Fitzearl, natural son of Hugh, Earl of Chester. Fitzearl had been made castellan of the Tower of London and so it is likely that the prince and his brothers were frequently in residence there, in order ton pursue their education.

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William’s sister, Adelaide; Empress Matilda

According to William of Malmesbury, William was trained for his future role ‘with fond hope and immense care’. In 1108, while their father was away in Normandy, William and his sister were entrusted to the spiritual care of Anselm, the revered Archbishop of Canterbury.

In 1110 William’s sister, Adelaide/Matilda, left for Germany; she was to continue her education at the court of her future husband, but would not be married until January 1114, just before her 12th birthday. William was still only 6 years old when his sister left; Matilda was 8. It’s sad to think the young siblings would never meet again.

Following his sister’s departure, William’s education continued apace. By 1113, aged just 10, William began to attest royal documents. While still only 9, in February of that year, William was betrothed, at Alençon, to Alice (who changed her name to Matilda on her marriage), the daughter of Fulk V, count of Anjou and Maine. The betrothal formed part of his father’s wider diplomacy, which had also included his sister’s marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor.

Henry I spent the early part of his reign fighting against his brother, Robert Curthose, and, later, Robert’s son, William Clito, trying to secure a smooth succession for William. Robert had been decisively defeated at Tinchebrai in 1106 and  spent his remaining years – until his death in 1134 – a prisoner of his brother. Henry subsequently claimed Normandy for the English crown, but William Clito was still a thorn in his side. Clito was supported by the French king, Louis VI; who used him as a counter to Henry’s attempts to conquer Maine.

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Henry I

In 1115, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Henry arranged for the Norman barons to do homage and swear fealty to William, in an attempt to counter the claims of William Clito. A similar ceremony was arranged in England in 1116, for all the great men and barons of England to swear fealty to William as the king’s heir. The Hyde Chronicle referred to William as ‘rex Norman-Angllorum, ut putabatur futurus’ (assumed to be the future king of the Norman-English).

On 1st May 1118 William’s mother, Queen Matilda, died at Westminster and was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. We do not know how the young prince felt at the loss of his mother – he was 15 at the time. However, it is from this point that William took on more responsibility, acting as regent whenever the king was away in Normandy.

In December 1118 Henry’s troops defeated the Angevins, under Fulk of Anjou, at Alençon. To counteract the defeat, William and Matilda were married, with the Count settling Maine on them as their marriage gift, thus deserting the cause of the French king. Inevitably, war with Louis VI followed.

On 20 August 1119, 16-year-old William was with his father at the Battle of Brémule. Henry won the fight against the forces of Louis VI of France and William Clito. During the battle, William had captured the palfrey of his cousin, William Clito, which he chivalrously returned at the end of the battle.

In the same year William witnessed a charter at Rouen, in which he was described as ‘dei gratia, rex designatus’ (by the grace of God, king designate). And continuing his education in diplomacy, in November 1119, William accompanied his father to a meeting with Pope Calixtus II, (William’s 2nd cousin once removed).

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Louis VI of France

At the turn of the year, it must have seemed to Henry that his dynasty – and the future of England – was secure in the hands of his son; at the age of 16 he was experienced in warfare and diplomacy and married to 12-year-old Matilda, who brought with her the county of Maine as her marriage portion (and the promise of Anjou should her father die whilst on Crusade).

In 1120 peace was finally achieved with France, with William being created Duke of Normandy by his father, and paying homage for the duchy to King Louis; a precedent that would be used  by future English kings, in order to avoid a king paying homage to a fellow king for part of his holdings. William, in turn, then received the homage of the Norman barons. Accompanied by his father, wife and several of his half brothers and sisters, it must have been a time of great rejoicing and festivities.

Indeed, when the large party prepared to cross the Channel, to return to England, it seems several of them were still celebrating. While Henry made the crossing in his own ship, taking with him several nobles and his daughter-in-law, the prince took the offer of a newly built ship, the Blanche Nef – or White Ship – which its owner, Thomas Fitzstephen, claimed would guarantee a swift, safe passage. William the Ætheling was accompanied by many of the young nobles of the great families of England, including his half-sister, Matilda, and half-brother, Richard of Lincoln.

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The Sinking of the White Ship

Most of the passengers and crew were still drunk from celebrating when the ship finally left the harbour of Barfleur, in the dark, on the evening of 25th November, 1120. Oderic Vitalis described the scene:

At length he gave the signal to put to sea. Then the rowers made haste to take up their oars and, in high spirits because they knew nothing of what lay ahead, put the rest of the equipment ready and made the ship lean forward and race through the sea. As the drunken oarsmen were rowing with all their might, and the luckless helmsman paid scant attention to steering the ship though he sea, the port side of the White Ship struck violently against a huge rock, which was uncovered each day as the tide ebbed and covered once more at high tide. Two planks were shattered and, terrible to relate, the ship capsized without warning. Everyone cried out at once in their great peril, but the water pouring into the boat soon drowned their cries and all alike perished.¹

William was ushered into a small boat and was being rowed to safety when he is said to have heard the cries of his half-sister, Matilda. The prince insisted on rowing to her aid, but the little boat was overwhelmed by those trying to make it to safety, and capsized, taking everyone with it.

William the Ætheling was 17-years-old.

With only one survivor, a butcher from Rouen, over 300 souls were lost – drowned – and only a handful of bodies were ever recovered. With the sinking of the White Ship Henry I lost his son, England and Normandy lost their next ruler.

Young Matilda had lost her husband. They had no children. Matilda had made the crossing of the Channel with the King, rather than her husband, and sometime after the disaster she returned to her father’s court. In 1121 Matilda became a nun, eventually becoming abbess of the convent at Fontevrault. She died in 1158.

With the uncertainty that followed, Louis VI renewed his support of William Clito, who continued to be a thorn in Henry I’s side until his death fighting in Flanders in 1128. Henry himself, in the hope of producing another son, married  again in 1121; to Adeliza of Louvain. Unfortunately, the marriage proved childless and Henry spent the final years of his reign trying to secure the throne for his daughter, Matilda. Matilda had returned to Henry’s court following the death of her husband in 1125 and was married again,  in 1128, to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, in the hope that the union would strengthen her claim to the throne.

In the end, however, despite the fact Henry had made the barons of England swear fealty to Matilda as his successor Henry’s nephew, Stephen, claimed the throne on the old king’s death in 1135; thus ushering in 20 years of warfare, an era which became known as The Anarchy.

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Chapter house of Reading Abbey

William’s death was a tragedy, not only on a national scale, but also a personal one, for Henry I. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle the disaster was ‘a double grief: first that they lost their lives so swiftly; second that few of their bodies were found afterwards’. The young prince’s body was never recovered, leaving no monument to his life, save for Reading Abbey, established as a priory – and later an abbey – in 1121 by Henry I ‘for the salvation of my soul and that of king William my father and king William my brother and William my son and queen Matilda my mother and queen Matilda my wife and all of my predecessors and successors.’

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Footnote: ¹Vitalis, Oderic, The Ecclesiastical History of Oderic Vitalis.

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Sources: oxforddnb.com; Oderic Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis; Donald Matthew, King Stephen; Robert Bartlett, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings; David Williamson, Brewer’s British Royalty; the History Today Companion to British History; Dan Jones, the Plantagenets; englishmonarchs.co.uk; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; Mike Ashley, The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens; Alison Weir, Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy; medievalilsts.net; The Plantagenet Chronicles Edited by Elizabeth Hallam.

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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My books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

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©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly

The Children of King Stephen

King Stephen of England and his wife, Matilda of Boulogne, had 3 children who survived infancy, and yet – on his death – Stephen left his throne to Henry, Count of Anjou and son of Stephen’s bitter enemy, Empress Matilda.

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King Stephen

The Empress was Henry I’s only surviving legitimate child, and designated heir – but she was a woman  and England’s nobles were reluctant to be ruled by a woman. Stephen was Henry I’s nephew, one of his closest male relatives and in the confusion following Henry’s death it was Stephen who acted quickly and decisively, and took the crown.

What followed was a period known as the Anarchy, almost 20 years of conflict and bloodshed as Stephen and Matilda battled for supremacy. Ultimately, Stephen managed to retain control of England but Matilda’s eldest son, Henry, was eager to win back his birthright.

Following several incursions by Henry – whilst still in his teens – he and Stephen came to an agreement: Stephen would hold the throne until his death, but Henry would succeed him.

So, what happened to Stephen’s children?

Eustace IV, Count of Boulogne, was the eldest son of Stephen and Matilda, to survive into adulthood. Eustace was an unpleasant character, by all accounts. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle called him ‘an evil man’ who ‘robbed the lands and laid heavy taxes upon them’.

Eustace was married in Paris, in 1140, to Constance, the only daughter of Louis VI of France and his 2nd wife, Adelaide of Savoy. Constance ‘was a good woman but enjoyed little happiness with him’; following their marriage, she was kept as a virtual prisoner at Canterbury Castle.

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Matilda of Boulogne

Stephen made attempts to have Eustace crowned, in his own lifetime, as heir-designate, but this was blocked by the Papacy, who backed Henry’s claim to the crown.

Although Eustace had been recognised, as Stephen’s heir, by the secular baronage, I can’t help thinking that it was a real stroke of luck for England when Eustace died of a seizure or ‘in a fit of madness’ in August 1153. Rumours of poisoning are not surprising; Eustace’s death paved the way for an ‘understanding’, over the succession, between Stephen and Henry of Anjou.

Stephen’s youngest son was William, who was born around 1134. In 1149 he was married to Isabel de Warenne, sole heiress to William de Warenne, 3rd Earl of Surrey, in order to bring the vast de Warenne lands within the influence of the crown. William would succeed to the County of Boulogne in 1153, on the death of Eustace.

Shortly after his brother’s death, and with the help of the clergy, William made an agreement with Henry of Anjou, whereby he waived his own rights to the crown in return for assurances explicitly recognising his rights to his lands, as Count of Boulogne and Earl of Surrey. Although, it is not known whether he did this willingly, or was persuaded by others, the agreement was an essential tool for the peaceful accession of Henry.

William was implicated in a plot against Henry in early 1154 – or he at least knew about it – and there may have been a tit-for-tat attempt as William’s leg was broken in an ‘accident’ at about the same time. However, when his father died, he made no attempt to oppose Henry’s accession and even accepted a knighthood from the new king.

William died, without issue, in 1159, during the Siege of Toulouse and was buried in the Hospital of Montmorillon in Poitou, France.

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Arms of the county of Boulogne

He was succeeded in the County of Boulogne by his sister, Mary, the 3rd surviving child of Stephen and Matilda. Mary was born around 1136 and placed in a convent at an early age, first at the Priory of Lillechurch, Kent, and then at Romsey Abbey, where she was elected Abbess sometime before 1155.

Five years later – shortly after William’s death – Mary was abducted by Matthew of Alsace, 2nd son of the Count of Flanders, and forced to marry him. There was outrage among the clergy – the incident was even discussed by the Pope – but the marriage was allowed to stand. Mary and Matthew had 2 children – Ida and Mathilde – and it was after the birth of Mathilde that the couple were divorced, in 1170.

Matthew would continue to rule Boulogne and be succeeded by Ida on his death in 1173. Mary returned to the convent life, becoming a Benedictine nun at St Austrebert, Montreuil. She died there in July 1182, aged about 46.

The abduction and forced marriage of Mary may well have been a political move. Although there does not appear to be any proof that Henry II sanctioned it, he certainly benefited from Mary being safely married to a loyal vassal. She was, after all a great heiress and – through her father – a rival claimant to the throne of England.

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Further reading: Donald Matthew, King Stephen; Robert Bartlett, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings; David Williamson, Brewer’s British Royalty; the History Today Companion to British History; Dan Jones, the Plantagenets; englishmonarchs.co.uk; The Oxford Companion to British History; Mike Ashley, The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens; Alison Weir, Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy.

Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly