The period between 1135 and 1154 was a time of huge unrest in England, a Civil War which Victorian historians would later name The Anarchy.
On December 1st 1135 King Henry I of England fell ill and died whilst on campaign in Normandy, supposedly after eating vast quantities of Lamprey, although poison has also been suggested as a possible cause. His only legitimate male heir, William Adelin had perished in The White Ship tragedy, 15 years earlier, and despite Henry’s hasty remarriage to Adeliza of Louvain (The King’s first wife Queen Matilda had died in 1118), no more male heirs would follow. This left only a daughter, Matilda, who had been born in 1102, to inherit the throne of England. At the time the law regarding female inheritance was unclear. Matilda had been married in 1114 to Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor, from which she claimed the title of Empress, their marriage produced no children, and he died in 1125. Matilda now had two choices, as a childless widow, she could become a nun or remarry.
Since Matilda was now the sole heir to her father’s throne, the King called all the Anglo-Norman Barons together at Westminster and demanded they all swear allegiance to her and any future legitimate heir she may have. In January 1127 they all took the oath. Henry then began the task of finding a suitable husband for his daughter, a marriage to the house of Anjou would help secure the southern borders of English ruled Normandy, and so Geoffrey of Anjou, the eldest son of Fulk, Count of Anjou was chosen, the groom was significantly younger than his widowed bride, just 13 to Matilda’s 25 years, and it seems Empress Matilda wasn’t over impressed with this proposed union. She relented however and in 1127 travelled to Rouen in the company of her illegitimate half brother Robert of Gloucester, to be formally betrothed to Geoffrey. On June 17th 1128 Matilda and Geoffrey were married in Le Mans. Their marriage was a difficult one, with a period of separation, when Henry I summoned his daughter to England in order to command her to return to her husband. It was at this time the nobles took a second oath to recognise Matilda as Henry’s heir.
In March 1133 Matilda gave birth to a son, who was named Henry. She finally had her male heir. Henry I was delighted and visited his daughter and grandson in Rouen that year. In 1134 a second son, Geoffrey was born, however the birth was difficult, and Matilda was so close to death she made a Will. She eventually recovered and it is possible Henry I insisted on another round of oaths from his nobility in celebration of this second grandson. However, relations between the King and his daughter and son in law had become increasingly strained. Matilda and Geoffrey wanted Henry to hand over the royal castles in Normandy and command the Norman nobility swear allegiance to them, in order for them to have a much stronger position in the event of the King’s death. They feared their claim was not supported in England. Henry refused; concerned that Geoffrey would use this to seize power whilst the King still lived.
The news of the King’s death in 1135 spread quickly, and had reached Stephen of Blois in Boulogne. Stephen had been born in the early 1090’s to Stephen-Henry, Count of Blois, and his wife Adela of Normandy, and was, like Matilda, a grandson of William the Conqueror. He had been amongst the nobles who had taken the oath of allegiance in 1127, however upon hearing of the King’s death he returned to England, and began to seize power with the support of his brother Henry, Bishop of Winchester. Matilda and Geoffrey had been right to suspect the English population’s lack of support for their cause. The crowds in London declared Stephen the rightful King, and the church supported his claim in exchange for extensive freedoms and liberties. Stephen explained away the significance of the oath he’d taken in support of Matilda, by stating that the previous King had only insisted upon it in order to avoid the chaos that may result from an unstable monarchy, so he felt he was justified in ignoring it. Stephen was crowned King at Westminster on December 22nd 1135.
The first years of King Stephen’s reign were taken up with rebellions in Wales, Scotland and Normandy. However it wasn’t until 1138 that Empress Matilda made her first attack to reclaim her lost inheritance. With the support of Robert of Gloucester, her half brother and experienced military leader she planned an invasion of England. In November 1139 Matilda’s forces crossed over from Normandy and arrived at Arundel Castle, in the company of 140 knights. Robert of Gloucester continued north-west to Bristol to raise support. Stephen promptly moved south and besieged the castle of Arundel, trapping Empress Matilda inside. Unpredictably he then agreed a truce, he released Matilda, and reunited her with Gloucester. This may have been an act of chivalry, or simply because Stephen believed Gloucester posed more of a threat and did not want his army concentrated in one place in a siege which could go on for a long time. The south- west of England was mostly under the control of Matilda’s forces, and Stephen travelled west to try to pacify that part of the country. Whilst the King was gone Miles of Gloucester marched East attacking Wallingford, and advancing on London, forcing the King to turn around and return to defend his capital. A series of skirmishes and battles followed, until February 1141 when Stephen was captured in battle in Lincoln. He was taken to Gloucester and presented to Empress Matilda, who had him imprisoned in Bristol Castle.
Matilda began preparations for her own coronation at Westminster; however she needed the agreement of the church. Stephen’s brother Henry, as Papal Legate was in a position to offer the support she needed, so a private deal was made in which Matilda granted Henry control over church business in England. Successful in her attempt to gain the support of the church Matilda advanced to London where she hoped to be crowned. Unfortunately for her, the people of London were not willing to accept her as Queen and a riot broke out, forcing her to flee to Oxford, without a coronation.
During Stephen’s imprisonment, his wife Queen Matilda stepped up to lead his faction, and for a time the civil war became a battle of powerful females. Queen Matilda had gathered the King’s loyal lieutenants around herself and the royal family, and upon hearing the news of the London riot, re-entered the city in the wake of the rejected Empress. It was then that Stephen’s brother Henry turned his coat again, and re-joined the King’s side. Gloucester and the Empress besieged Henry in the city of Winchester in July, but were surrounded by Queen Matilda’s forces and defeated, with Gloucester being taken prisoner. There was only one way for each side to move forward, with the enemy each holding the leader of the opposition, an exchange of prisoners was agreed, Gloucester was returned to the Empress, and King Stephen was released.
The King began to re-establish his authority, the church reaffirmed his legitimacy to rule, and Stephen and Matilda were given a fresh coronation at Christmas 1141.The country was still divided, and with Stephen’s position still under threat he stormed Oxford and trapped Empress Matilda in the castle, another long siege resulted. Matilda managed to escape, crossing the frozen river on foot and fleeing to Wallingford. During 1143-1146 the two factions were at a stalemate. The country, having been ravaged by years of war, and lack of any kind of control, had fallen into utter devastation. By 1147 the war had descended into a succession of small skirmishes, and Robert of Gloucester had died peacefully, Empress Matilda returned to Normandy, which her husband Geoffrey had successfully held for many years. Their son Henry Fitzempress had grown into a man, and led a small and unsuccessful invasion of England in 1149. Returning to Normandy and being declared Duke by his father, he unexpectedly married Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152, making him the future ruler of a huge portion of France.
Henry Fitzempress finally returned to England in 1153 and the fighting continued with neither side taking precedence over the other. By this point Stephen was starting to consider his options for a peaceful end to this conflict, something which was further aided by the untimely death of the King’s son and heir Eustace. Now the King did not need to consider passing over his own son in order to make Henry Fitzempress his heir, and put an end to almost 20 years of war. In November 1154 Stephen announced the Treaty of Winchester, recognising Henry Fitzempress as his adopted son and successor. Stephen’s other son William renounced his claim to the throne in exchange for the security of his lands.
On October 25th 1154 King Stephen died as a result of a stomach disorder. Henry Fitzempress arrived back in England on December 8th, and was crowned King Henry II, alongside his wife Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine at Westminster.