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  • James Houser

December 1, 1135 - Stephen, Matilda & the English Anarchy

Updated: May 21, 2021

December 1, 1135. Henry I, King of England and son of William the Conqueror, is dead. Long live the…King? Queen? No one is sure, and that’s where it gets fun. Both Henry’s daughter Matilda and his nephew Stephen think THEY should be in charge. The period of civil war that follows will devastate England and France and become known as the Anarchy. Who’s ready for a crash course in why monarchy is bad?

So let’s take a jaunt back to the High Middle Ages. At this point, most of Latin Christendom – a term used for Western Europe, since they wouldn’t have called it Western Europe back then – was under the rule of hereditary monarchs. It sounds simple on the surface. King dies, his son becomes king. Instantaneous transmission from father to son, faster than the speed of light. So when Idiot the First kicks it, his son immediately becomes Idiot the Second. This is always so simple in theory.

Well, Medieval Europe had a bad habit of making everything as complicated and intricate as possible – especially hereditary monarchy. First off, say you’re William the Conqueror. You’re King of England, but you’re also Duke of Normandy. Leave everything to one son? Good luck. You have multiple sons, and they all want a piece of what you’ve got. You gotta divide that inheritance up. No matter what you do, though, someone is going to be upset with whatever they get. This is where having too many heirs becomes a major problem: someone is always left out in the cold, and that someone will end up siding with your political enemies if you don’t make some sort of arrangement for them. This is a recipe for sons taking up arms against their fathers, which – get this – happened all the time in this time period. Richard the Lionheart, at the behest of his mother, would infamously go to war with his dad multiple times.

That’s easy, you think. Just don’t have too many kids! Not that people had much control over that, mind you, since all the convenience stores in medieval England were smack out of condoms. But there was another risk when you didn’t have enough kids: what happens if your only son or sons die? Yes, it’s a big tragedy and a crushing blow to your spirit that you’ll never recover from, of course, but what happens to your realm is the question everyone REALLY cares about. Not to be too mean about it, but if you’re King or Duke or whatever you have to have what I call “spare heirs.” But then we run into that first problem, right? Your spare heir isn’t going to be happy with receiving pennies while his brother, who may or may not be smart or strong or good, gets the lion’s share.

If you’re a monarch in the Middle Ages, writing your will could be hazardous to your health, along with the five thousand other things that were hazardous to your health. This includes choking on a fly in your wine (Pope Adrian IV), laughing yourself to death (Martin of Aragon), and no less than two French Kings who hit their head so hard on the door frame that it killed them (Louis III and Charles VIII). If they’d had phones, the funeral home would’ve been on speed dial.

Where was I?

Oh, yes. The third thing that could mess up your neat and tidy inheritance laws is if your heir was *gasp* a WOMAN. To delve too deep into medieval law would be nuts and I’m not gonna do it, but there were two broad legal traditions in Western Europe. The most important was the Salic Law, originally derived from a mish-mash of Frankish tribal traditions and Roman law. Salic Law was a large body of work, but the most important part for our purposes concerned inheritance. Under Salic Law, women could not inherit property whatsoever; it always fell to the closest male relative. Under traditional Germanic laws, including Anglo-Saxon law, though, property fell to the deceased’s descendants with a male PREFERENCE. This meant that if a dead King had no living sons or grandsons, then maybe his titles could fall to his daughter.

Is this unfair? Hell yes, it’s unfair. But all these inheritance laws are pretty garbage: you could be the dumbest person in England and still become King because you were born nine months before your smarter sibling. Here’s the thing, though: in lieu of anything more advanced, like a democracy or a republic or what have you, this was pretty much the best Medieval Europe could do. For real chaos, you might just have no succession laws whatsoever – like, say, the Roman Empire, which was just a conga line of short-lived Emperors murdering each other at certain points. So however terrible a system this was, it was still an upgrade from what had come before.

So of all these problems I’ve just described – too many kids, too few kids, the audacity of women thinking they can rule – we’re going to encounter every single one of them in our description of how Medieval England fell apart and came back together again. So now we can finally begin our story.

William I of England, William the Conqueror, was one of the most powerful monarchs of his day. He had been pretty strong already when he was the Duke of Normandy, one of the most organized and integrated medieval realms out there. The Dukes of Normandy technically paid homage to the Kings of France, but in this period the Kings of France barely controlled anything beyond a few miles around Paris. The extreme weakness of the French King meant that most of his powerful nobles, such as the Counts of Blois or the Counts of Anjou or the Dukes of Aquitaine, were just constantly attacking and beating each other up and all the French King could do was say “Hey guys could we not?”. Not the high point of French power. And William was the biggest and most powerful of these nobles. He turned Normandy into a military and economic powerhouse, then turned his sights north.

In 1066, William invaded and conquered the Kingdom of England, going from “powerful” to “scary powerful.” He spent most of the rest of his life putting down rebellions in the northern part of England, as well as fighting his rivals on the continent – including the French King. But William began to run into issues as he grew older, because he had trouble with his kids. By 1077, William had three living sons – Robert, William (let’s call him William Jr.), and Henry. They had already started fighting, of course, since William wasn’t getting any younger and they wanted him to sort out who would get what. After all, William the Conqueror now had two rich and powerful territories: England and Normandy. But he had three sons.

Robert, the eldest son, wanted control of Normandy before his father’s death. He was tired of feeling powerless and being left out of the loop, but William refused. Incensed, Robert went into rebellion in 1077 and began raiding Normandy. Imagine trying to tell your son “No, you can’t have my vacation home,” then you go visit and see him throwing rocks at the windows. The King of France was happy to support Robert as a way of bringing his powerful “vassal” to heel, though William had never really considered himself a vassal in the first place. At one point in 1079, William was even unhorsed by Robert in one of these battles. By 1080, they had patched things up, with William affirming his will for the first time. Robert would receive Normandy, and William Jr. would get England. Henry would get a fat stack of cash. Are we settled? Good.

Turned out Robert wasn’t settled. He went back into rebellion in 1083, wanting ALL the property this time, and this rebellion only ended with William’s death in 1087. While William the Conqueror was buried in the cathedral of Rouen, his realm quickly fell into civil war. The people at his deathbed literally ran off without taking care of the body in order to set themselves up for the struggle to come. Pretty much immediately, Robert and William Jr. were at each other’s throats. They both wanted the WHOLE property, the Conqueror’s will be damned. Inheritance always drives people a little nuts. Who gets grandma’s vase, who gets granddad’s World War II uniform, who gets that chunk of France.

Of all people, it was the youngest brother Henry who came out on top in this nutcase inheritance battle. English nobles rose up against William in support of Robert, but were defeated by William; then William crossed over to Normandy and kicked Robert’s face in. They signed a peace after that, and things seemed to be going okay. William hung out in England, Robert tended Normandy, and it looked like things would turn out peacefully. They would NOT. Robert decided to join the First Crusade, and while he was away – leaving Normandy wide open – William kicked the bucket somehow. In a hunting “””””accident”””” which no historian has ever really accepted was an accident, someone with either a grudge or really poor eyesight put an arrow through William’s lung. Robert and William’s younger brother Henry, the youngest son of William the Conqueror, just *happened* to be there at the time, and who should become King of England but Henry himself?

Thus, Henry I of England came to power. A decent king, he did a lot to consolidate the Norman dynasty in England. More importantly for our story, Robert came back from Crusade, decided for the fortieth time that England should be his, and attacked his youngest brother. After five years of warfare Henry defeated Robert in 1106 at the Battle of Tinchebray. Robert was put in irons and thrown in a tower, and after almost 30 years of father fighting son and brother fighting brother, all of William the Conqueror’s lands were back under the control of one man. So this is NOT a recipe for political stability.

So now we’ve seen what having too many sons can do. What happens if you don’t have enough?

Henry I reigned pretty well and was regarded as harsh but effective. Even though Robert’s sons were still running around out there trying to get Dad’s land back, Henry managed to fight them off and hold on to all the English and Norman territories. Henry I solidified the government, consolidated the systems of rule over both provinces, and built a strong English state administration that was the predecessor of modern England. Most of all, though, he got AROUND. Henry had so many illegitimate children that it beggars belief. All of them gained the surname “Fitzhenry,” that is, son of Henry. Fitz-whatever was the name given to royal bastards who could not inherit their father’s surname. So now you know.

Even with all these adultery kids running around, Henry only had two legitimate children: his heir, William Adelin, and his daughter Matilda. There was one very capable illegitimate son, Robert, who had become the Earl of Gloucester under his father’s rule, but there was no way he could inherit a real throne. (Yeah, I know we’re repeating a lot of names here, but trust me: I’ve left a lot of people out already. 1100s England had a bag of like 20 names max, and used ALL of them all the time. Henry I had two different Roberts, three different Williams, and three different Matildas among his legitimate and illegitimate children. Man got AROUND.)

It may sound crazy to say that Henry I didn’t have enough kids. He had at LEAST 23 bastard children running around. But he had only two LEGITIMATE children, and that was what mattered. He had one son and one daughter who could inherit England and Normandy. The one son thing is good, right? We saw what happened with three brothers all fighting for everything. So having one son means that no one’s going to fight over the inheritance! Even better, Henry had married Matilda to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, securing a major ally. Henry was 33 and Matilda was, um, 12. Ew. Not great for Matilda.

In 1120, though, something terrible happened that would cause a decisive ripple effect down the line. Henry I had been spending some time in Normandy and was preparing to return to England. While he sailed ahead to take care of some business in England, he commissioned a vessel known as the White Ship to take most of his court and family. The White Ship was a sleek, brilliant vessel, and it was believed that the trip would be easy. William Adelin, the King’s son and heir, boarded the White Ship, as did Stephen of Blois, Henry’s nephew. William wanted to have a party, and broke upon a bunch of wine barrels before the ship’s departure. Stephen got so drunk that he had to get off the ship before it sailed. Once again, our ancestors’ love of binge-drinking altered the course of history forever.

The White Ship set off in the dark, but its intoxicated crew quickly smashed into a rock. The White Ship took on water, capsized, and began to sink rapidly. The passengers fled to the lifeboats, William Adelin among them, but as he ran for safety he heard the piteous cries of his bastard half-sister Matilda and rushed back to save her. This delay would cost him his life, and would cost England eighteen years of anarchy – because when the White Ship vanished below the waves, there was only one survivor. Berold, a common butcher, survived by clinging to the rock and told the whole sad story when he was rescued. It was said that after the tragedy, King Henry never smiled again.

The sinking of the White Ship would be a disaster for England. Many of the most distinguished knights, chaplains, and young men of the court perished in the Channel, along with two of Henry’s illegitimate children and several high-ranking nobles. The most immediate impact, though, was the death of William Adelin, Henry’s heir and only son. With William dead, the succession was suddenly thrown into doubt. The grieving father, who laid his son’s empty coffin into the ground, could not mourn for too long. He had to figure out what would happen to his kingdom when he, too, would meet his maker.

So, yep. You gotta have a spare heir. Because NOW we get to find out what happens when you name a woman as your heir.

With no other male children who could inherit, Henry started to make arrangements for his daughter Matilda to inherit the throne of England. Matilda’s husband, Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, had died in 1125. Despite his daughter's dubious distinction of being a childless widow at 17 years old, Henry arranged a new marriage with the powerful French nobleman Count Geoffrey of Anjou. Anjou was the French province directly to the south of Normandy, so he was trying to place Matilda in a good position to take over as soon as he died. But Henry was fighting an uphill battle, because most of England’s and Normandy’s nobles didn’t want to accept Matilda as Queen of England. (There had never been such a thing.) A GIRL? Next thing you know we’ll be letting the peasants vote or giving them food stamps or something.

This wasn’t helped by the fact that there were still male descendants of William the Conqueror running around. Henry had his talented bastard son, Earl Robert of Gloucester, and his now-deceased brothers had some children still lurking in the wings as well. But most eyes fell on Stephen of Blois, the man who had failed to board the White Ship because he was too drunk. Stephen was the son of William the Conqueror’s daughter Adela, so he was a direct descendant of the conqueror just like Matilda was. He had been part of Henry’s court for a long time and shown himself to be a capable and talented warrior. Matilda, bless her heart, hadn’t even been in England for any real length of time since she was 12 years old. She was basically a stranger to the country her father wanted her to rule, and this did not endear her to the nobles that would side with her cousin.

Matilda was no dummy. She realized that she would face her own uphill battle when her dad died, whatever his will said; since when had anyone respected a will in this family? Starting in the 1130s, she and her husband Geoffrey started urging Henry to give them control of the castles in Normandy while he was still alive. If he did this, they could prepare a power base for the inevitable civil war. Henry flatly refused due to his suspicion of Geoffrey. When a rebellion broke out in Normandy, then, Matilda and Geoffrey decided to intervene and support the rebels. Henry, visibly aging, must have gotten flashbacks to his brother Robert’s rebellions against their father William the Conqueror. It was all happening again.

Late in 1135, Henry came to Normandy at the head of a Royal Army to campaign against his daughter and heir. After the campaign season was over, he decided to retire to his castles in Normandy for the winter. One night he got a craving, and had his cooks – for some godawful reason – cook him a whole mess of lampreys, a small eel-like aquatic creature. For whatever reason (?!?!?) Henry just ate a surfeit (read: shitton) of lampreys, so many that it made him mortally ill. On December 1, 1135, Henry I died.

So add “ate too many weird slimy eel-fish” to the list of ways to die in Medieval Europe.

Of course, everything immediately went to hell. Henry died at a moment when his daughter and heir was in open rebellion against the Kingdom, and the royal army in Normandy consisted of many of Matilda’s supporters oddly enough. Robert of Gloucester, Henry’s talented bastard son and Matilda’s half-brother, openly disavowed any claim to the throne and promised to support his sister. (Awww.) Stephen of Blois, on the other hand, took a ship to England as soon as he learned about his uncle’s death. There, he rallied the support of the English nobility and especially the Church, and on December 22 was crowned King of England. Between Salic Law and English law, the nobles had decided to go with the one that suited them at the time.

So here we sit. Once again, a King’s untimely death has left everything in the shitter. What else is new? THIS, this right here, is why we don’t do monarchies anymore. Along with a few other reasons. But seriously! Salic Law versus other forms of European law would be a major issue well into, oh, the 19th freaking Century when it came to succession crises. Monarchy is just garbage, people. You have three sons, and they’re beating each other’s brains in for thirty years trying to get it all. You have a half-decent son, and then he dies in a drunken shipwreck. You try to make your daughter a ruler, but Handmaid’s Tale is a utopia instead of a dystopia for these people and your nephew steals her crown. It makes smartphones look like a GOOD option for raising your kids.

The war between Stephen and Matilda would become known as the Anarchy. It would last from 1139, when Matilda crossed over to England with an army to throw out Stephen, until 1153. All sorts of crazy stuff happened. This is HIGH drama. Let’s hit the high notes. Robert of Gloucester led Matilda’s armies while her husband tried to conquer Normandy. Robert defeated and captured Stephen at the Battle of Lincoln in 1141. Matilda tried to enter London to be crowned as Queen, but the London mob rallied to Stephen’s defense and threw her out. Robert of Gloucester was surprised and defeated by Stephen’s wife Matilda (again, they only used like twenty names, this is a DIFFERENT Matilda) at the Battle of Winchester, and ROBERT was captured. Matilda and Matilda swapped Robert for Stephen, so they got their brother and husband back respectively.

*deep breath*

Matilda was besieged in Oxford in 1141, and had to escape across a frozen river wearing a white cloak so her cousin couldn’t catch her. From this point on, the conflict became a stalemated civil war, with both Matilda and Stephen occupying large chunks of England. As the two sides warred on, local barons became paramount, gangs of bandits roamed England, and the economic disruption spread misery all around. The Anarchy was a disaster for England, ruining much of the economic work Henry I had done as he peacefully built up his realm.

Finally, after years of exhaustion, Stephen and Matilda agreed a truce in 1153. After fourteen years of war, they were ready to bury the hatchet. Stephen had been trying to get the English nobles to accept his son Eustace as his heir, but the English nobles hated Eustace. On the other hand, they liked Matilda’s son Henry, a dashing young man and excellent general who had basically been leading the war for the last several years. In a negotiation brokered by the Church, Stephen and Matilda hashed out their differences. Stephen would remain King of England, while Matilda retained Normandy for the time being; when Stephen died, Matilda’s son Henry would inherit the whole realm. This was just in time, because Stephen died in 1154. Henry II was now King of England and Duke of Normandy.

Henry II’s ascension marked the end of this crazy round of neverending bullshit that was the dynasty of William the Conqueror. Though Henry was a great-grandson of the Conqueror through his mother, he wasn’t a descendant along the MALE line. That line had died out with William Adelin on the White Ship. Instead, Henry II took the last name of his father Geoffrey of Anjou, beginning a new dynasty – the Plantagenets. This dynasty of kings would rule England until the rise of the Tudors, after it went down in its own great civil war called the Wars of the Roses.

Don’t feel like everything’s good and calm, though. Henry would have his own problems with his kids – especially his willful son Richard, later known as the Lionheart, and his weird and calculating younger son John. The wheel of drama never stops in medieval Europe.

And this is why we don’t do monarchy anymore.

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