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 

Mary of Blois, Reluctant Wife

stepan_bloisToday, I am honoured to be a guest writer over at the English Historical Fiction Authors, with an article on medieval heroine, Mary of Blois. Here’s a taster:

Mary was the youngest daughter of Stephen of Blois and his wife, Matilda of Boulogne, herself the granddaughter of St Margaret, queen of Scotland. Mary was born in Blois, France around 1136. She was destined for the cloister from an early age and was placed in a convent at Stratford, Middlesex, with some nuns from St Sulpice in Rennes. So how did this nun become a reluctant wife?

Mary’s father Stephen was the nephew of Henry I, one of his closest male relatives. In the confusion following Henry’s death it was Stephen who acted quickly and decisively….

To read the rest of the article, Mary of Blois, Reluctant Wife, simply click here.

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

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

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Picture of King Stephen courtesy of Wikipedia

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©2017 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Adela of Normandy – Daughter of the Conqueror

Adela
Adela of Normandy, Countess of Blois and Chartres

Adela of Normandy was the daughter of William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy and King of England,  and his wife, Matilda of Flanders.

Although most sources give her date of birth around 1061/2, the Oxford Database of National Biography argues that her birth was after the Norman Conquest, as contemporary poetry suggests she was born the daughter of a king.

Adela was one of 9 or 10 children born to William and Matilda, with at least 4 sisters and 4 brothers. Given her high level of literacy, and her patronage of poets in adulthood, it is likely that Adela was very well-educated as a child; either through tutors or possibly through residence in a convent, as happened with many daughters of the nobility at that time.

As a child, it seems, a marriage was arranged between Adela and Simon Crispin, count of Amiens; however, the groom chose to take monastic vows. As part of an alliance directed against the aggressive counts of Anjou, Adela was then  betrothed to Stephen of Blois, son of Count Theobald III, count of Blois and Champagne. Stephen was about 20 years her senior. The formal betrothal  took place at Bourgueil and was later followed by a lavish wedding ceremony in Chartres Cathedral in about 1081.

StepanBlois_1089
Stephen, Count of Blois and Chartres

Adela and Stephen would have about 11 children in all, with at least 2 sons born before Stephen succeeded his father as Count of Blois and Champagne in 1090.

Of their 5 daughters, Matilda married Richard d’Avranches, 2nd Earl of Chester. The couple drowned in the White Ship disaster which deprived Henry I of his son and heir, William. Another daughter, Eleanor, married Raoul, Count of Vermandois and brother of Isabelle de Vermandois, Countess of Leicester and Surrey.

Adela’s eldest surviving son seems to have been disinherited at an early age. However, while he is described as an ‘idiot’ by some, William   married Agnes, the daughter of Giles, Lord of Sulli, and was given the titles Count of Chartres and Lord of Sulli, but was not allowed to inherit the richer county of Blois; which went to his younger brother, Theobald.

Poetry from the time of her wedding describes Adela as valorous, learned and generous. Indeed, she seems to have been a great asset to her husband, who included her in charitable donations and even in his early judicial rulings. Adela developed a cordial relationship with Bishop Ivo of Chartres, which worked well to maintain the peace between the laity and the clergy in the county.

In 1095 Stephen of Blois joined the First Crusade, leaving Adela as head of the family and regent of his domains.  Letters that the count sent to his wife indicate a great level of affection and trust; Adela was given charge of the family’s finances. However, Stephen’s return from crusade appears of have been less than happy. Adela  believed that he had not fulfilled his crusader’s vow and her criticism may have been a contributing factor in his return to the Holy Land in 1101 – she certainly approved of it.

Theobald
Theobald IV, Count of Blois and Champagne

Stephen was killed in combat in the Holy Land, during the siege of Ramallah in May 1102. He was succeeded as Count of Blois by his 2nd surviving son, Theobald. Theobald was knighted in 1107, by which point his older brother, William, had already been removed from the succession to Blois. William inherited the lesser title of Count of Chartres.

Following Stephen’s death Adela continued to act as regent until Theobald attained his majority. Even after Theobald came of age, mother and son ruled jointly until Adela retired from public life in 1120.

Adela was particularly close to her younger brother, Henry, who would later become King Henry I of England. She even supported him against their oldest brother, Robert, when Henry claimed the English crown.

An able administrator and negotiator, Adela settled many disputes among monasteries, and even between monasteries and laymen, in her own domains and beyond. Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of William II and Henry I, praised her skills as negotiator and peacemaker following her success at achieving a temporary truce between Anselm and her brother in 1105.

HenryBlois
Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester

Anselm described her as an ardent supporter of papal reform, and enjoyed her hospitality during his exile from England. Adela hosted many other church dignitaries, including archbishop Thurstan of York and Pope Paschal II. Her family’s prestige and power was bolstered by her friendships with the leading ecclesiastic figures in both France and England.

An avid  patroness of the arts, Adela corresponded with such dignitaries as Hildebert, bishop of Le Mans and Abbot Baudri of Bourgeuil – later bishop of Dol – who both wrote poems dedicated to the countess. The book Ecclesiastical History Together with the Deeds of the Romans and the Franks, written by Hugh of Fleury, was dedicated to Adela.

One of Adela’s youngest sons, Henry of Winchester, was dedicated to the church at an early age, and was raised at the Priory of Cluny in France. He was nominated as Bishop of Winchester in 1129 and was a great support to his older brother, Stephen, when he claimed the throne of England on his uncle Henry’s death in 1135, at the expense of Henry’s daughter, Matilda

An active ruler Adela regularly toured the family’s domains, both as regent and mother of the reigning count. She also maintained links with the Anglo-Norman and Capetian kings. In 1101 Adela sent knights to help Philip I of France’s son, Louis, battling against rebels north of Paris.

Stepan_Blois
King Stephen

However, by 1107 her son Theobald had joined the revolt and relations with France were to deteriorate further in 1113 when the allied forces of Theobald, Henry I and Adela defeated a Capetian-Angevin army. After further conflict in 1118 Adela used her wealth and diplomatic skills to benefit her family.

In 1120 Adela stopped using the title of countess and retired to the Clunaic Priory of Marcigny;  the same year that her daughter Matilda died in the White Ship disaster off Barfleur in Normandy. She continued to be active in political affairs and lived to see her son, Stephen, claim the throne of England, though not the 20 years of conflict that ensued.

Aged almost 70, and having been a widow for half of her life, this most remarkable woman, Adela of Normandy, former Countess of Blois and Chartres, died in 1137, possibly on 8th March. Although later tradition has her buried with her mother at Holy Trinity in Caen, contemporary sources say she was buried at Marcigny.

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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Sources: England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings  by Robert Bartlett; Heroines of the Medieval World by Sharon Bennett Connolly; Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest by Sharon Bennett Connolly;  Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; oxforddnb.com;  epistolae.ccnmtl.columbia.edu; womenshistory.about.com.

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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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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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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly.