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  • The Anarchy: The Darkest Days of Medieval England by Teresa Cole

    One amazing year of Anarchy

    Before he died in December 1135, King Henry I of England had all the nobility of England and Normandy swear to accept his daughter, the Empress Matilda, as his successor. Before he was buried in January 1136, his nephew Stephen of Blois had been crowned as the new king. There followed a struggle for the crown between Stephen and Matilda, that lasted nearly nineteen years and was later known as the Anarchy. The strangest year of all that period, however, was the twelvemonth of 1141, when each side in turn came within touching distance of total victory over the other.

    Four Kings: This fanciful medieval representation of the four Norman kings shows, from left, William the Conqueror, William Rufus, Henry I and Stephen. (The Anarchy, Amberley Publishing)

    This ‘mazy labyrinth of events,’ as the chronicler William of Malmesbury called it, was set in train at the end of the previous year, when Earl Ranulf of Chester and his half-brother William of Roumare, took possession of Lincoln Castle. They claimed, with some justification that one of the two keeps there, known as Lucy’s Tower, was theirs by right of inheritance from their mother, Lucy of Bolingbroke. At first King Stephen seemed to accept this, but in the middle of the Christmas festivities he abruptly changed his mind, marched a relatively small army to Lincoln and put the castle under siege.

    Before the encirclement was complete, Ranulf of Chester had slipped away, and, having remained aloof from the struggle for the crown before this time, he came down firmly on the side of Matilda. His father-in-law was Robert, Earl of Gloucester, Matilda’s half-brother and most substantial backer, and when Robert received an appeal for help from Ranulf, he called up all the forces he could assemble, including a strong contingent of the Welsh, and marched to Lincoln to confront the king.

    Henry I's castle at Caen. This was inherited by his son, Robert of Gloucester, who eventually sided with Matilda and Geoffrey of Anjou against King Stephen. (The Anarchy, Amberley Publishing)

    Stephen was advised to retreat but refused to do so. On Candlemas Day, 2nd February 1141, the battle of Lincoln was fought and the king was soundly defeated and taken prisoner. For most of the rest of the year he would be held, sometimes in chains, in Robert of Gloucester’s strongest castle at Bristol.

    Stephen’s passage to the throne had been greatly helped by his brother Henry, bishop of Winchester, who, among other things, was by now the papal legate – the pope’s representative in England. Negotiations were now opened between Matilda and Henry, and soon the bishop was announcing that Stephen had broken the promises he had made to the church at the time of his coronation, and that therefore he should be deposed and replaced on the throne by the Empress Matilda.

    The church accepted Matilda. Many of the nobility in England and Normandy accepted her. London, however, did not accept her, and nor did Stephen’s queen, also called Matilda. The queen now set about raising an army of opposition, ably assisted by the mercenary leader William of Ypres. Over a period of months, as the empress slowly negotiated her way to an impressive entry into Westminster, Queen Matilda brought up her own army from Kent to threaten London from the other side. Then, on 24th June, just as it seemed that the empress had finally won her crown, the Londoners rose up and drove her away. So sudden was this uprising that she and her supporters had just sat down to eat when they were forced to flee, leaving the food behind them on the table.

    Wolvesey Castle. This was the palace and stronghold of Bishop Henry of Winchester. It was besieged by Matilda and her supporters in 1141. (The Anarchy, Amberley Publishing)

    Matilda and Robert of Gloucester made for Oxford, but Bishop Henry went instead to Winchester, where he decided he had been too hasty in abandoning his brother. Re-opening communications with the queen, he also took steps to strengthen and provision Wolvesey Castle, his fortified palace close to the cathedral. As soon as the empress got wind of this, she gathered her forces, moved to her royal castle at Winchester and put Wolvesey Castle under siege.

    Henry himself had already escaped to summon help from the queen. She now brought up her own forces – including a thousand-strong London militia – to encircle the entire city of Winchester. From being a besieger, the empress now found herself besieged, and in severe danger of falling into the hands of her namesake.

    By September the situation was desperate, and in the middle of that month Empress Matilda and her supporters made a break for freedom. The priority, of course, was to get her safely away, and she and a picked bodyguard set off at a gallop, first for Ludgershall, then Devizes and finally Gloucester. For some of the way, notes the chronicler John of Worcester, she even rode astride, ‘male fashion’, though whether he admired or disapproved is hard to tell.

    Rochester Castle. Rochester was held for King Stephen by William of Ypres. It was here that Robert of Gloucester was kept a prisoner while negotiations proceeded between the Empress Matilda and Stephen's queen, also named Matilda, for an exchange of captives. (The Anarchy, Amberley Publishing)

    Meanwhile, the weight of the queen’s army fell upon the empress’s forces. Many simply fled, leaving weapons, armour and costly possessions abandoned behind them. Robert of Gloucester, though, fought a determined rear-guard action at the Stockbridge crossing of the River Test, thus enabling his sister to escape.

    Eventually he was overcome by simple weight of numbers, taken before the queen, and handed over to William of Ypres to be imprisoned in his mighty keep at Rochester Castle. While he was there, inducements were offered to persuade him to change sides, but he remained loyal to his sister.

    Now, however, each side had a significant prisoner – Stephen at Bristol and Robert at Rochester. Many hoped a permanent peace could be negotiated, but instead all that was arranged was a prisoner swap, ‘an exchange of the king for the earl, one for the other.’ This was carried out early in November with great care, hostages and guarantors being given for each side, including the queen, the archbishop of Canterbury and Robert’s own son William.

    When all was complete, both sides were in exactly the same position as they had been at the start of the year, and all the triumph and tragedy in between had achieved precisely nothing. Another dozen years would pass before the Anarchy finally came to an end, and a little while longer than that before England once more had a single, undisputed king.

    Teresa Cole's new book The Anarchy: The Darkest Days of Medieval England is available for purchase now.

  • Henry VII: The Maligned Tudor King by Terry Breverton

    Henry VII by C. E. Kempe (1909) at the church of St Mary the Virgin, inside the town walls near Pembroke Castle. (Henry VII, Amberley Publishing)

    With the exhumed Richard III being given a cathedral service and burial, he seems to have assumed heroic status in the eyes of many, a modern myth, or should I now say ‘fake news’ for those with a knowledge of history. However, the newly aroused interest in one of our most devious and cruel monarchs threw the spotlight upon the man who usurped his throne. In fact, only three major lords supported Richard at his demise, two of them created by him. Over thirty other great barons, who had always followed Richard’s brother Edward IV into battle, stayed away from Bosworth or supported Henry. Edward IV’s bodyguard and closest allies came to Henry’s assistance, along with Edward IV’s widow as her brother-in-law Richard had killed her sons. The people who disagree with this sentence are members of the Richard III Society or readers of modern historical fiction.

    As for usurpation, a glance through all English kings from Athelstan onwards will show a history or violence, revolt of fathers against sons, and no obvious royal bloodline or rightful kings. After a series of Germanic then French kings marrying Germanic then French wives, Henry Tudor was the first king with any British blood in him, via his grandfather Owen Tudor. Owen was descended in direct line from Ednyfed Fychan (1170-1246), Seneschal to Llywelyn the Great, via the Tudors of Anglesey who initiated the Owain Glyndwr war of 1400-1415. Much of his success in succeeding against seemingly overwhelming odds was owing to his march through Wales to meet Richard. The whole nation rose in support, believing that Henry was the mab darogan – the son of prophecy – who had come to take England back from the German and French invaders. Indeed, there had been almost continuous rebellion by the British (i.e. Welsh) and in particular the Tudor family, against the English from the time of the defeat of Llywelyn II in 1282. The fight ended with the coronation of the first king of England with British blood.

    Terry Breverton's new paperback edition of Henry VII: The Maligned Tudor King is available for purchase now.

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