The Anarchy in England: Facts & Civil War

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

In its long history, England has fought against itself several times. One of their first civil wars, however, happened during a period of chaos known as the Anarchy. In this lesson, we'll explore this time and see how it impacted English history.

The Anarchy

Medieval English history is full of wars and conquest. They fought so many battles that we sometimes forget: not all these battles were fought against other people. From 1135 to 1154, England went through a period called the Anarchy, which was basically an extended civil war that resulted in a practical breakdown of law and order. England was in absolute chaos, or at least that's what traditional sources tell us. In all likelihood, things probably weren't quite that insane, but they were still pretty bad.


To understand the Anarchy, we need to start in Normandy (today part of France). In 1066, the Norman Duke William the Conqueror swept into England and, well, conquered it. The result was a whole new kingdom, a united England and Normandy under a single ruler. After William died, fighting broke out amongst his children as to how they should divide the kingdom. One son, Henry I, managed to secure all the power and keep the kingdom united. In order to prevent future turmoil, he named his only legitimate son, William Adelin, heir to everything he owned.

Then, something terrible happened. William's boat sank in 1120, and the prince died. Henry's succession plan was in crisis, and he started looking around for a new heir. He decided that the best bet was his only other legitimate child, a daughter named Matilda. Matilda was, at this point, an empress, married to the German Holy Roman Emperor. However, the emperor died in 1125, and Matilda was deemed fit to re-enter English politics. Henry named her as his successor in 1127.

Now came the process of building up English support for Matilda's claim. To quell concerns about a female monarch ruling alone, she was married to a French noble named Geoffrey Plantagenet. However, Geoffrey was from Anjou, a rival of Normandy, and the marriage ended up being unpopular. Henry had the English nobles swear oaths of allegiance to Matilda in 1127, 1128, and 1131. Still, discontent continued to rise, and the English nobility began to see Matilda as haughty and arrogant.

Geoffrey and Matilda

Stephen of Blois

In 1135, Henry I died and despite all of his efforts, England was thrust into a succession crisis. The English nobles distrusted the prince from Anjou and disliked the princess who still called herself empress a decade after her German husband's death. Besides, the pair were in France at the moment. So, Henry's nephew, Stephen of Blois, seized the throne and named himself king.

The coronation of Stephen

Stephen had been amongst the first to pledge loyalty to Matilda, his cousin, but the nobles believed he had a legitimate claim to the throne. They, along with the citizens of London, agreed to recognize him as their king. With that, Stephen and Matilda were at war.

Unfortunately, Stephen turned out to be just as good at alienating people as his cousin. In light of an English succession crisis, the Welsh princes rebelled to reclaim their independence. Stephen then tried to create a stronger relationship with the King of Scotland, who demanded more land in their new relationship and invaded England when negotiations failed. England won this war, but Stephen ended up giving Scotland very favorable conditions in the peace treaty, infuriating and alienating nobles in northern England.

Civil War

Stephen began to quickly lose support. One notable defector was Robert Gloucester, one of Henry's many illegitimate children, and half-brother of Matilda. Robert had reluctantly supported Stephen, but in 1139 decided to help Matilda regain the throne. Together they secured a foothold in western England, built a strong alliance, and in 1141 managed to capture Stephen.

Unfortunately, Matilda was a sore winner. Her arrogant boasting alienated some of her top supporters, who defected back to Stephen's cause. Matilda was expelled from London, Stephen went on ruling, and the war continued.

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