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It occurred to me that amongst all the interesting blogs we have, we nothing on an aspect of history specifically. So for my blog I thought I’d look at the road to civil war in England, specifically an abridged history of the story of Stephen and Matilda.
Henry I had intended for the throne to be passed to his only legitimate son, William Adelin. Following his death aboard the ‘white ship’ his daughter, Matilda, became the sole surviving legitimate child. At first the King seemed eager to secure his daughters claim to the throne. His noble court was made to stand in line and swear allegiance, with even Stephen of Blois, the protagonist / antagonist (depending on your point of view) of the story, doing so. It should have been a smooth process. Matilda’s husband, however, was Geoffrey of Anjou and owing to the rivalry between Anjou and Normandy was not popular with the court nobles. Many felt he would try and seize power in Normandy and when Geoffrey suggested to the King that all Royal Castles in the Duchy be handed over to Matilda, Henry reacted with anger.
The King is dead
In middle of this argument (not literally mid-sentence of course, but while it was still on-going) the King died. Foul play you say? Perhaps, though I’ve watched too many drama shows so am easily swayed by conspiracy theories. The reported ‘death by lamprey’ is, though, something I could ‘swallow’. Unlike the King.
Long live the Queen?
In a twist so fiendish it could have come straight from Game of Thrones, the aforementioned Stephen of Blois set sail for England to try and seize power. He was geographically closer (Matilda was down in Anjou) and religious oaths were no obstacle. His younger brother was Henry, the Bishop of Winchester, a very powerful and wealthy man. Henry (Bishop) argued that Henry (King) was wrong to have forced his court to take oath and Stephen was justified in ignoring it for the good of the realm. Stephen also persuaded the royal steward to swear that King Henry had in fact changed his mind and made him his heir in place of Matilda. Whilst I’m fairly confident this wouldn’t stand up in a modern day court of law, at the time it was certainly enough to persuade many of the English barons to support Stephen over Matilda.
This is where events start to get somewhat dicey for Stephen. King David of Scotland (who also happened to be Matilda’s uncle) invaded. Stephen marched forth with his army, meeting David in Durham. They came to an ‘understanding’ and David retreated north, keeping Carlisle in the process. Stephen returned south and immediately began securing his power base. He gave the church more power and as a bit of quid pro quo the Pope, Innocent II, confirmed him as King.
Stephen and the rebels
In 1136 a rebellion started in South Wales. Stephen’s attempts at quelling the trouble were unsuccessful and as a result he decided Wales wasn’t really worth the effort and gave up, turning his attention to other rebellions. This included a quite disastrous episode in France where his army imploded and instead of fighting his enemy (in this case Geoffrey) forcing Stephen to the peace table.
Then, in 1138, the powerful Robert of Gloucester rebelled in the South and King David of Scotland invaded the North. Stephen’s forces acquitted themselves quite well, securing victories around the country and forcing David to the peace table, though the solution of giving them Carlisle and Cumberland would later come back to haunt him.
The inevitable end
By the time 1139 came along the road to war seemed inevitable. Robert of Gloucester and Matilda appeared ready to invade, having already taken sizeable chunks of Normandy. She even appealed to the Pope to reverse his decision of granting legitimacy to Stephen. He refused, but even so it helped create doubt around his rule. So Matilda et al. were busy marshalling forces in northern France and across the channel. Stephen kept himself busy, creating new Earldoms for loyal supporters and removing bishops who threatened his rule, all the while preparing his own forces for war.
Plans were ready and the stage was set. The Anarchy was beginning.
So you there you have a much abbreviated version of the causes of the civil war. Where if ever there was a moral in a story this would possibly be, write a good will (with lots of copies) and avoid overdoing it on lampreys. If you’re interested in finding out more here’s a few links:
The tale of Stephen also makes an appearance in our new GCSE (9-1) History A: Explaining the Modern World specification.
Grant Robertson - Subject Specialist - History and Citizenship
Grant started working at OCR in February 2014 as a subject specialist in history and citizenship. His degree is in History and Politics, with a focus on modern European and African history and 19th century political thought. Previously, Grant was a Head of Politics, Law and Humanities in schools in Kent and Kingston upon Thames. Since working with OCR Grant has developed a growing interest in later medieval history, particularly the Mongols and pre-Tudor England. Outside of work he is an F1 junkie and a passionate Charlton Athletic fan, and a lover of long walks in the Norfolk countryside with his family.