King Stephen / The Empress Matilda

Anarchy in England

Lincoln Castle: the Norman west gateIn August 1139 Stephen appeared to have destroyed the enemies who had challenged his rule since his accession in 1135. In October 1139, however, the Empress Matilda’s supporters landed on the south coast of England near Wareham and Arundel. Matilda herself was able to join her half-brother Robert of Gloucester at Bristol. Civil war ensued. Matilda’s support came largely from the west country and East Anglia.

The battle of Lincoln. Baldwin FitzGilbert makes a speech for the royalists. Stephen, the crowned figure, listens. Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon [British Library]In December 1140 Ranulf, Earl of Chester, angry that he had not been granted Carlisle and land in the north-west after the defeat of the Scots at the Battle of the Standard, seized Lincoln castle. Stephen immediately laid siege to it. The earl raised a an army to attack the king and on February 2nd 1141, in one of the few battles of the civil war, Stephen was defeated and captured.

Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester (1129-71)Matilda was unable to take advantage of her good luck, although Stephen’s brother, Henry of Blois, bishop of Winchester, briefly deserted the King’s cause. Summer 1141 found Matilda in London preparing for her coronation, but she was driven out by the citizens objecting to new taxes. Henry of Blois then changed sides again and defended Winchester against Matilda. A relieving army led by Matilda, Stephen’s queen, and William of Ypres routed the Empress’s supporters and Robert of Gloucester was captured. The treaty that followed led to the release of both Stephen and Robert.

Earthworks of the unlicenced mid 12th century castle at Burwell (Cambridgeshire). [English Heritage]In 1142 Stephen sought to crush his enemies in England, although he had now lost Normandy. In September he surrounded Oxford where Matilda was based, but she escaped. In autumn 1143 Stephen faced a revolt by the Earls of Essex and Chester, and by 1144 anarchy was at its height. Revolts broke out in many places leading to the construction of unlicensed castles. It was only in the summer of 1146 that the situation became calmer after the arrest of the Earl of Chester.

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