Anarchy of Stephen’s reign: a Knowledge Guide

The reign of King Stephen is often referred to as the Anarchy. Between 1139 and 1153 there was a bitter struggle for the crown between Stephen of Blois and the Empress Matilda (Maud). This was the result of a succession crisis that arose as a result of Henry I dying without a son. His nominated heir was his daughter Matilda. However with Matilda absent from England, Stephen, his nephew and a grandson of the Conqueror, seized the throne upon Henry’s death in 1135. In 1139, Matilda launched an invasion to claim her throne. It was a Civil War that lasted a further 14 years. Barons became embroiled in the conflict, Scottish raids increased, trouble stirred in Wales. The crown struggled to maintain any kind of control as the fortunes of war swung one way then the other.

The Battle of Lincoln, 1141. Major event during the Anarchy of King Stephen's reign

The Anarchy of Stephen’s reign: The key players

King Stephen.

Son of Adela, a daughter of William the Conqueror. He was supported by his able wife, Matilda of Boulogne and his brother, Henry of Blois who held the important role of Bishop of Winchester. During the Anarchy, Stephen lost the trust of many of the barons as he called several to court, arrested them and forced them to hand over key possessions. The most notable examples of this happening were Geoffrey de Mandeville, who was stripped of several castles including the Tower of London and Ranulf of Chester, who was also stripped of castles.

Empress Matilda.

Not to be confused with Stephen’s wife, Empress Matilda was the daughter of Henry I. She married into another Royal Family her husband becoming Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor. Henry died in 1125, at which point she returned to Normandy. As her brother, William Adelin, had died in 1120 the Dowager Empress was now considered by King Henry I to be the heir to the throne in England. To secure this succession he made the Barons and Bishops swear an oath to that effect. Matilda remarried, her second husband was Geoffrey of Anjou. Matilda was a highly skilled diplomat and undertook military commands during the campaigns. She retired to Normandy during the later stages of the Anarchy as her son, Henry, became more prominent.

Queen Matilda

Stephen’s wife. The Queen was a capable organiser and managed several campaigns during the Anarchy. Her political skills helped Stephen to retain the support of some key players and ensured that he had control over the important port of Dover.


The eldest son of Stephen of Blois. King Stephen wanted his son to be heir and attempted to have him crowed as such during his own lifetime. The church refused to crown and anoint him, such was the uncertainty over the future of the kingdom at the time. Eustace died before his fathers death. The death of Eustace ensured that the succession to the son of Empress Matilda and Geoffrey of Anjou, the future Henry II, was ensured.

Henry FitzEmpress, later King Henry II.

The son of Empress Matilda and Geoffrey of Anjou. He took up the fight against Stephen in the latter stages of the Anarchy. Changing attitudes towards his claim to the throne and military stalemate resulted in a truce, the Treaty of Wallingford, being agreed between the two warring parties. This Treaty and the following Treaty of Winchester allowed Stephen to remain as king but changed the succession to Henry.

William Adelin

William Adelin was the son and heir of Henry I. He died when the White Ship sank off the coast of Normandy in 1120. This led to the succession crisis that ultimately caused the period known as the Anarchy.

Robert of Gloucester

Robert was the half-brother of Empress Matilda. He was a powerful magnate who controlled much land in the south west of England. He was a significant commander of the Angevin cause until his death. He forged relationships with Ranulf of Chester, brokered deals with the Scots and raided Stephen’s lands throughout the period. His men took and held important strategic sites such as Wallingford Castle.

William of Ypres

William was one of Europe’s first full time professional mercenary Captains. King Stephen hired William and made him his Lieutenant. In this role, William of Ypres led many of the crowns campaigns and defences. After the Battle of Lincoln, William refused to switch sides and took command of Stephen’s forces whilst he was in captivity.

Timeline of the Anarchy

1120 – William Adeling dies in the White Ship disaster. This leaves Henry I with no male heir.

The White Ship sinks with the heir to the English throne on board
The White Ship sinks with the heir to the English throne on board

1125 – Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor and husband of Empress Matilda, dies. Matilda returns to Normandy.

1126 (Christmas) – Barons swear oath of loyalty to Empress Matilda, confirming her as Henry I’s heir.

1128 – Empress Matilda is married at Le Mans to Geoffrey of Anjou. It is a political marriage designed to secure the southern borders of Normandy.

1131 – The Great Council of England reaffirm their Oath of Allegiance to recognise Empress Matilda as heir to the throne.

1135 – Henry I dies. At the time Empress Matilda was in Anjou, Stephen of Blois was in Bologne.

1135 – Stephen takes initiative and secures election as King, in breach of the oaths made by himself and other barons. He does this by travelling to London and securing election at London. It was English tradition that the people of London elect the monarch and they chose Stephen as he offered the City the best financial opportunities. This decision overlooked the Oath of Allegiance sworn and reaffirmed by the Barons. It also brushed aside the claim of Stephen’s older brother, Theobold, who was in Blois when Henry died.

1135 – Stephen launches a campaign to oust the Angevin soldiers of Matilda and Geoffrey from Normandy.

1136 – King David I of Scotland, an uncle of Empress Matilda, invades northern England. Scottish forces capture Carlisle and Newcastle.

1136 -Stephen marches north and makes a temporary agreement with the Scots.

1136 – A revolt begins in Southern Wales in 1136.

1137 – Revolt in South Wales continues with several castles being captured.

1137 – for Stephen from the nobility in Normandy wains as a result of the conflict between themselves and Flemish mercenary forces. With his army effectively split in two in the Duchy, he agrees a truce with Geoffrey of Anjou and pays 2000 marks a year to him in return for the Angevin army leaving Normandy.

1138 – Robert of Gloucester, half brother of Empress Matilda, rises in revolt against Stephen.

1138 – The Queen is sent by Stephen to Dover with a force of men entrusted with the task of capturing Dover Castle from men loyal to Robert of Gloucester.

1138 – Geoffrey of Anjou launches an attack into Normandy, taking advantage of Stephen’s problems in England.

1138 – David I of Scotland launches another invasion of Northern England. Stephen’s army defeat the Scots at the Battle of the Standard.

1138 – Stephen launches a campaign that strikes into parts of Wales, Hereford, Gloucestershire and that pillages around the City of Bristol.

1138 – Dover Castle falls to the Queen.

1139 – Empress Matilda appeals to the Pope for support in her claim to the throne of England.

1139 (June) – Senior members of the clergy clash with Stephen at court. Stephen demands that all Castles held by the church are handed to the crown. This leads to a breakdown in relations between the crown and the church, including Stephen’s brother who was Bishop of Winchester.

1139 (August) – Baldwin de Redvers sails from Normandy to the South Coast of England. Stephen successfully forces this force into a retreat.

1139 (30 September) – Matilda’s main force land at Arundel.

1139 (October) – Robert of Gloucester leads a force North West towards Bristol and his own lands.

1139 (October) – Stephen responds by laying siege to Arundel, where Empress Matilda had remained.

1139 – Stephen’s brother, Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester, proposes a truce between the Empress and King Stephen. As a result, the Empress is escorted to Bristol where she established her court. Stephen turned his attention toward Robert of Gloucester.

1140 – The Bishop of Ely became supportive of Matilda’s claim. Stephen launches a swift attack into the fens forcing the Bishop to flee to Gloucester.

1140 – Henry of Blois brings the parties together for negotiations. The attempt to broker a peace fails as Henry insists on proposals being made by the church, something his brother, King Stephen, will not accept.

1141 – Ranulf of Chester quarrels with Stephen who lays siege to him at Lincoln. This results in the Battle of Lincoln. Robert of Gloucester and Ranulf’s men win the day and Stephen is taken prisoner. He is taken to Bristol Castle.

5 Sources on the Battle of Lincoln

1141 – William of Ypres leaves the Battlefield at Lincoln when defeat becomes imminent. Though castigated for this in the Gesta Stephani, it allowed him to organise the remnants of forces remaining loyal to the King. He takes personal command of Stephen’s armies whilst the King in a prisoner.

1141 – Matilda brokers a deal with Henry of Blois in which he would ensure the support of the church, in his role as Papal Legate, in return for control over the church. At the same time the Treasury is passed into the control of Matilda.

1141 – The Archbishop of Canterbury, Theobald, meets with the imprisoned Stephen. Stephen agrees to release his subjects from the oaths of loyalty to him that they had made upon his being crowned.

1141 – Shortly after Easter, Matilda is granted the title Lady of the English and Normandy. This is essentially a precursor to her being crowned.

1141 – Matilda gains the support of the garrison of the Tower of London.

1141 (24 June) – The city of London rise in revolt against Empress Matilda and the garrison of the Tower, commanded by Geoffrey de Mandeville. Matilda withdraws to Oxford.

1141 – Geoffrey of Anjou invades Normandy once again.

1142 – The pact between Empress Matilda and Henry of Blois breaks down. This results in the bishops Castle being besieged by Robert of Gloucester, Empress Matilda was in close attendance.

1142 – Stephen’s Queen and William of Ypres gather supporters from London and the continent. They encircle the Empresses army at Winchester and achieve a Rout. Empress Matilda makes good her escape from the Rout. Her half-brother, Robert, is captured.

1142 – There was now Anarchy. The military commander of both sides was a prisoner of the other. The Barons were divided over who to support. The Treasury was not functioning effectively and currency was having to be minted by individual Barons around the country.

1143 – Robert of Gloucester lays siege to Stephen at Wilton Castle. Stephen escapes following the Battle of Wilton.

1143 – Stephen orders Geoffrey de Mandeville to hand control of his castles, including the Tower of London, to the crown. He had no choice but to comply: Stephen had him under arrest. Upon his release de Mandeville went to the fens of East Anglia and raised forces for a revolt against the King.

1144 – Ranulf of Chester rises in revolt and splits the Duchy of Lancaster into two parts for Prince Henry (son on Empress Matilda) and himself.

1144 – Robert of Gloucester’s men continue to raid and pillage in the south west and retain control of Wallingford Castle, near London.

1144 – Geoffrey of Anjou completes the Angevin conquest of Normandy and is recognised as Duke of Normandy by the French King, Louis VII.

1146 – Faringdon Castle falls to Stephen’s men.

1146 – A truce is agreed between Stephen and Ranulf of Chester. Ranulf is then summoned to court and ordered to hand over a number of his castles. In actions very similar to those in which de Mandeville had been forced to acquiesce, he agrees, then immediately sets about organising a revolt upon his release from Stephen’s custody.

1147 – Robert of Gloucester dies.

1147 – The Second Crusade is announced. Many nobles answer the call to arms, resulting in a lull in fighting.

1147 – Henry leads a small force from Normandy into England. His raid is unsuccessful. Most of his small army were mercenaries and he had not got the funds to pay them. Their wages were ultimately paid by King Stephen, the motive for which is unclear.

1147 – Stephen’s eldest son, Eustace, is granted the title Count of Bologne.

*During the mid 1140’s Stephen negotiated unsuccessfully with the Church to have Eustace crowned as King of England. The concept of having a Younger King was quite common on the Continent but not in England. Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, refused to do so without the approval of the Pope.

1148 – Empress Matilda leaves England for Normandy.

Henry takes a lead in Angevin activity

1149 – Henry leads another invasion force. It meets with Ranulf of Chester. Ranulf agrees to give up his claim to Carlisle in return for being given the Honour of Lancaster. Ranulf, Henry and the Scots then proceed to attack York.

1149 – Stephen’s army repel the Angevin force from York.

1149 – Henry returns to Normandy where he his declared to be the Duke by his father.

1152 – Henry marries Eleanor of Aquitaine. This marriage unites two of the most powerful families in France and provides a great deal of wealth and power to Henry.

1152 – Stephen insists that the nobility and Bishops swear fealty to his son Eustace. He expects Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, to now crown Eustace as King. Again, Theobald refuses and consequently has to go into exile in France.

1153 – Henry returns to England with another army. He lay siege to Malmesbury Castle. A temporary truce is called due to poor weather.

1153 – Henry meets with Senior Clergy and reaffirms his commitments not to harm Cathedrals and not to expect Bishops to break their oaths to Stephen.

1153 – Stephen lay siege to Wallingford Castle. Henry advances from the north and encircles Stephen’s army.

1153 – As both parties prepare for a pitched battle, the church intervene and negotiate a truce, The Treaty of Wallingford. The Treaty agreed that Stephen could remain King and agreed that succession would be to Henry.

1153 – Eustace begins raising funds for a new campaign. His inheritance of the throne had been cast aside by the Treaty of Wallingford. He died whilst raising funds, leaving the succession of Henry uncontested upon the death of Stephen the following year.

1153 – Fighting continues between Angevins and Stephen’s men: the Treaty of Wallingford did not end the war, just agreed a temporary truce and overlooked Eustace’s claim.

1153 – Oxford and Stamford fall to Angevin forces.

1153 – Treaty of Winchester. The church leads negotiations to bring the Anarchy to and end once and for all. This Treaty sees Stephen accept Henry as his adopted son and heir. Henry in return pays homage to Stephen. To ensure that there is no counter claim to the throne William, the surviving son of Stephen, renounces his right to inherit the throne.

1154 – Stephen dies. Henry becomes King of England. Norman rule over England is over, the Plantagenet Dynasty has begun.

Nature of Warfare during the Anarchy

Armies of the early to mid 12th century were raised from Feudal Levies, Alliances and the hiring of Mercenaries. As a conflict that spanned the English Channel, the construction, purchase or hire of a significant number of boats was also of importance. The armies were similar to those of the conquest of 1066 in that the knights were more heavily armoured, wearing chainmail and plate. They were often mounted. The bulk of the army would fight on foot.

During the Anarchy much of the fighting took the form of siege warfare. Yet it was rare for any actual frontal assaults on castles to take place. It was much more common for the besieging force to simply surround the castle, use siege weapons and wait for it to be starved into submission. This saw many ‘counter castles’ being constructed at sites close to established Castles around the country. These were typically of the Motte and Bailey design and constructed just beyond the range of a bow: but close enough to use siege equipment such as a Trebuchet from.

For most of the conflict both sides sought to avoid a pitched battle. The Battle of Lincoln (1141) and the Battle of the Standard are the best known examples of a more traditional battle from this period. Most of the ‘fighting’ took the form of raiding. The intention of these raids was to deprive the enemy of supplies and to disrupt their plans.

The Gesta Stephani comments on the nature of siege warfare during the Anarchy. This is explored in this article on De Re Militari, authored by Sarah Speight.

Bibliography and suggested reading on the Anarchy of King Stephen’s reign

One of the best sources of information about the individuals involved in the Anarchy is the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Whilst it is a subscription service, it can usually be accessed via your local authority library service. See this post on Knowledge Rich resources for details of how to access them.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Entries

King Stephen

Queen Matilda (of Bologne)

Eustace of Bologne

William of Bologne

Empress Matilda

Henry II, includes detailed account of his Dukedom and the period of the Anarchy.

Robert of Gloucester

Geoffrey de Mandeville

Ranulf of Chester

Articles on the Anarchy

Catherine Hanley on Empress Matilda. Interview in HistoryExtra. Catherine has published books on Empress Matilda that are good examples of current thinking and research on this period.

Feudal Politics of Yorkshire 1066-1154, P Dalton. (pdf file)

Castle Warfare in the Gesta Stephani. Sarah Speight, De Re Militari.

Lecture: King Stephen’s reign, The Anarchy. By Assistant Professor David Thornton.

Books on the Anarchy

Academic books on the Anarchy can be quite expensive. Reviews of these books in journals often give lots of information about current/contemporary historiography, allowing knowledge to be updated without necessarily having to purchase everything. Many of the more detailed academic texts will be available via your local library service, or through a University Library. Alumni can often get access to their library.


Source material on the Anarchy

Primary Source

Gesta Stephani. The best known contemporary account of Stephen’s reign. Available for download via Open Library.

Primary Sources

5 Contemporary Accounts of the Battle of Lincoln

Primary Sources

Geoffrey de Mandeville’s rebellion of 1143-44

Secondary Source: 

In 1140, Baker in his Chronicle (fn. 8) says, that “the King gave license to the city of Norwich to have coroners and bailiffs, before which time, they had only a serjeant for the King, to keep courts.” But I know no authority for it, for the tenour of every thing that I have seen is against it; not so much as finding mention of any such office as a serjeant, but that the provosts always from their first establishment had the sole management of the affairs of the city; but they enjoyed their liberties a very little while, for Hugh Bigot, this very year, being much displeased with the loss of the castle, and not thinking his being made an earl was a sufficient recompense, declared for Maud the Empress; (fn. 9)and upon his being summoned by the King to yield up his castle at Bungay, which he then kept in favour of her, and absolutely refusing, the King came with his army and took it: (fn. 10) and upon this revolt the liberties of Norwich were seized again; but it is plain they were accorded soon after the taking of this castle, for Hugh Bigod, in 1141, was in the battle on the King’s side, against the Empress(fn. 11) in which the King was taken; and after that it seems he was one of those that deserted him; however, we find in 1145, he was reconciled again, being then witness to the King’s laws, (fn. 12) and continued some time in favour, for in the 17th year of King Stephen, 1152, by his interest with the King, the citizens were restored to all their liberties, and had a new charter granted them, but I imagine had no enlargement of privileges, for they were now governed by a Provost as heretofore: and now the city flourished again so much, that Cambden says (fol. 387,) that Norwich was built anew, was a populous “town, and made a corporation.” And in the following year, Hugh was so strenuous for Stephen, that he held the castle of Ipswich for him, (fn. 13)against Henry Duke of Normandy, son to Maud the Empress, and afterwards King of England; but Stephen not sending him relief in time, he was forced to yield it up, and then he became one of Henry’s party; but yet I do not find the city was affected by it, but that their provost paying the yearly fee-farm to the King, they peaceably enjoyed all their liberties to his death.
Francis Blomefield, ‘The city of Norwich, chapter 8: Of the city in the time of King Stephen’, in An Essay Towards A Topographical History of the County of Norfolk: Volume 3, the History of the City and County of Norwich, Part I (London, 1806), pp. 24-29. British History Online [accessed 6 May 2019].

Primary Source

105. Writ of King Stephen, informing the bps., sheriffs, and officers in whose shires the almoner of Westminster holds lands, or tithes, that he has quitclaimed the lands and tithes of the abbey from pleas, and certain other actions and specified financial obligations, in the land of Paddington (Mddx.), Fanton (Essex) and Claygate (Surr.), and whatever the almoner held TRE in the wood of Ditton (Surr.), namely the third oak and common pasture, as he held it in the time of King Henry, and as King Edward’s charter testifies, lest the archdeacon, sheriff or other officer should intrude on the monk-custodian. The grant is made for the souls of himself, his wife and their children; for the repose and redemption of his father; for the wellbeing of his mother, and for the soul of his uncle, King Henry. London [Dec. 1135 × 1137]

WAM XXXIX; WAD, f. 458r–v.

Pd: Regesta III, no. 936; SR, plate VII(a), facsimile.

Cal: SR, no. 531: scribe vii.

Date: The king’s mother d. in 1137 (D. C. Douglas, William the Conqueror (1964), 395).

‘Calendar of royal documents: Stephen (nos. 105-21)’, in Westminster Abbey Charters, 1066 – c.1214, ed. Emma Mason (London, 1988), pp. 62-68. British History Online [accessed 6 May 2019].

British HIstory Online provides a list of writs issued in the reign of King Stephen. They are accompanied by expert commentary. These writs offer a valuable insight into the workings of Stephen’s government.

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