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Stephen and Matilda's Civil War

Matthew Lewis
In Print
Pen & Sword History (2019)

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This entry created 25 September 2020. Last revised on 19 November 2021.

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©1994-2024 Bill Armintrout
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Stephen and Matilda's Civil War

Cousins of Anarchy

260 pages. 16 pages of black-and-white photos. Introduction, footnotes, bibliography and index.

Henry I, king of England, son of William the Conqueror, died unexpectedly without leaving it clear who his successor should be. His only legitimate living offspring was Empress Matilda, to whom the nobles had sworn allegiance during Henry's lifetime – but it was unclear exactly what that pledge meant, there was no precedent for a queen ruling in her own name, and Henry and Matilda were at odds when Henry died. When Matilda delayed journeying to England, someone else came forward and was crowned king: Stephen of Blois, Henry's favorite nephew.

This led to a period of civil war known as the Anarchy (1135-1154), as King Stephen and Empress Matilda warred for mastery of England, with Matilda's son Henry II eventually becoming king when Stephen died. Stephen has often been viewed by historians as a weak and indecisive king who achieved little; Matilda is remembered as slow to act and dictatorial. This book seeks to present the evidence and adjust those conclusions.

The majority of the book is presented in alternating chapters – King Stephen, Empress Matilda, King Stephen, etc… – as the author alternates the focus.

This is a solid, well-written history. The author explains how the factions were related, often by close family ties, and tries to keep the personalities from being confusing (there were three major characters named Matilda!).

The author's contention is that King Stephen was misjudged by imperialist 19th Century historians who disapproved of his policy of decentralization of power to regional leaders. He points out that Stephen was quick to confront rebels, and shows that the concept of all England being 'in anarchy' during his reign is false (and partially due to who wrote the chronicles and where they lived!).

Empress Matilda, despite the author's best efforts, remains a mystery. Why did she pause at critical moments, and to what degree was her younger, second husband cooperating or doing his own thing in conquering Normandy? Was she as domineering and self-handicapping as history claims, or was this bias against her unconventional role as a woman? The author makes clear that when Henry I had the lords swear to support Empress Matilda, he failed to convey what was meant by this: did he intend her to rule in her own name? did he intend her to rule with her husband? did he intend for her to be a guardian until her son was of age? and had the conditions of the promise been broken when she was remarried to a traditional English enemy? Thus the oath was viewed differently by the many parties.

Also discussed is the evolving idea of how succession worked, with the Normans believing in direct descent (or military intervention!), the English having a tradition of electing their leaders, and the Catholic Church contending for the authority to determine who would rule. In the case of King Stephen, his rule was recognized by the Pope (but Rome refused to recognize his son Eustace as heir) and by the City of London (a form of election by the people).

Unfortunately for wargamers, the author tells us that open battle was avoided in 12th Century England, as it was dangerous for the ruling class and incredibly subject to luck. Therefore, most of the warring during the Anarchy involved building of strategic castles and sieges against them, and raids and pillaging. One major exception is the Battle of Lincoln, which King Stephen apparently felt he had to fight to overcome his father's reputation for cowardice – and Stephen suffered a rout and ended up a prisoner because of it.

Note that the author assumes you know the geography or have access to a suitable period map.

One curious thing: The book apparently had a last-minute title change. The book's title pages say Stephen and Matilda: Cousins of Anarchy, but the book's spine, slipcover and catalog have the longer title, Stephen and Matilda's Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy.

Well-done history. Recommended.

Reviewed by Personal logo Editor in Chief Bill The Editor of TMP Fezian.