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The Anarchy (1135-1154)

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The Anarchy

The Anarchy was a war in England and Normandy between 1135 and 1154, characterised by a breakdown in law and order. The conflict originated with a succession crisis towards the end of the reign of Henry I, when the king's only legitimate son, William Adelin, died aboard the White Ship in 1120. Henry's attempts to install his daughter, the Empress Matilda, as his successor were unsuccessful and on Henry's death in 1135, his nephew Stephen of Blois took power as Stephen, King of England with the help of his brother, Henry of Blois, also known as Henry of Winchester. Stephen's early reign was marked by fierce fighting with English barons, rebellious Welsh leaders and Scottish invaders. Following a major rebellion in the south-west of England, Matilda invaded in 1139 with the help of her half-brother, Robert of Gloucester.

Neither side was able to achieve a decisive advantage during the first years of the war; the Empress came to control the south-west of England and much of the Thames Valley, while Stephen remained in control of the south-east. The castles of the period were easily defensible, and much of the fighting was attritional in character, comprising sieges, raiding and skirmishing between armies of knights and foot soldiers, many of them mercenaries. In 1141 Stephen was captured following the battle of Lincoln, causing a collapse in his authority over most of the country. The Empress Matilda was forced to retreat from London by hostile crowds before she could be crowned queen; shortly afterwards, Robert was captured at the rout of Winchester and the two sides agreed to swap their respective captives. Stephen almost seized Matilda in 1142 during the siege of Oxford, but the Empress escaped from Oxford Castle across the frozen River Thames to safety.

The war dragged on for many more years. Matilda's husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, successfully conquered Normandy, but in England neither side could achieve victory. Rebel barons began to acquire ever greater power in northern England and in East Anglia, with widespread devastation in the regions of major fighting. In 1148 the Empress returned to Normandy, leaving the campaigning in England to her young son, Henry FitzEmpress, later to be Henry II of England. Stephen unsuccessfully attempted to have his own son, Eustace, recognized by the Church as the next king of England. By the early 1150s the barons and the Church mostly wanted a long-term peace.

When Henry FitzEmpress re-invaded England in 1153, neither faction's forces were keen to fight. After limited campaigning and the siege of Wallingford, Stephen and Henry agreed a negotiated peace, the Treaty of Winchester, in which Stephen recognized Henry as his heir. King Stephen died the next year and King Henry II then began the long period of reconstruction in England. Chroniclers described the period as one in which "Christ and his saints were asleep" and Victorian historians called the conflict "the Anarchy" because of the chaos, although modern historians have questioned the accuracy of the term and of some contemporary accounts.

Major Battles

Battle of Clitheroe

Battle of the Standard

Battle of Lincoln

Rout of Winchester

Siege of Oxford

Battle of Wilton

Siege of Wallingford