The following review appeared in edition 160 of Ripperologist magazine.
KING STEPHEN AND THE ANARCHY: CIVIL WAR AND MILITARY TACTICS IN TWELFTH-CENTURY BRITAIN
Barnsley, South Yorkshire: Pen & Sword Military, 2018 www.pen-and-sword.co.uk hardcover & ebook 183pp; illus; biblio; index ISBN:1473863678 £19.99 hardcover & £11.39 ebook
The Anarchy was a civil war between the heirs of King Henry I, a son of William the Conqueror, that threw England into a state of lawlessness and rent the country apart between 1135 and 1153. In 1120 Henry’s young and foolish son had died, leaving Henry without a legitimate male heir. Henry nominated his daughter Matilda as his successor, forcing the nobility to pledge their support, which many resented and withdrew as soon as Henry was dead. As the right of succession wasn’t as clear cut in Norman England as it later became, there were several other claimants, among them Matilda’s cousin Stephen of Blois, who was in Boulogne, and when Henry I died in 1135, Stephen very quickly crossed the Channel to England and within a matter of weeks was crowned King by the Archbishop of Canterbury.
At first Matilda didn’t make much of an effort to assert her claim to the throne, but in 1138 her supporter and half-brother Robert of Gloucester, one of the most powerful barons in England, rebelled against Stephen. The following year Matilda’s forces invaded England and the civil war began in earnest.
Chris Peers, the author of this book, has written extensively on the history of armies and warfare, including Genghis Khan and the Mongol War Machine (2015), and the book in which I first encountered him, Offa and the Mercian Wars. In King Stephen and the Anarchy, Peers brings a clear eye to reconsidering the civil war, describing each phase, the strategies employed by both sides, and examining the character and claims of the Stephen and Matilda. It’s a specialist book, but fascinating reading about a period of English history about which many people are ignorant.
The struggle between Stephen and Matilda is interesting in itself, but it’s the widespread breakdown of law and order that I find really absorbing, partly because we don’t know too much about it and partly because it possibly provides the milieu for one of the great characters of criminal history and legend.
If you’re not familiar with the Anarchy, it may help to know that it’s the background against which the late Ellis Peters set her novels about the medieval Benedictine monk/detective Cadfael, and this time of lawlessness featured prominently in the Cadfael story The Virgin in the Ice in which an illegitimate son of a noble family, Alain de Gaucher, leads a renegade army terrorising and pillaging the land. This is what actually happened, dispossessed aristocrats and others forming outlaw bands. A chronicler, Matthew Paris, wrote of these people: ‘ashamed to beg, ignorant of how to dig, they and their sons and brothers took refuge in the woods, they robbed and they raided rapaciously but only when they were lacking in game and victuals’. Sound familiar? Well, a good case can be made that Robin Hood lived – if he lived at all – at the time of King Stephen. Chris Peers touches on it briefly and it’s too complicated to go into at length here, but it adds that additional element of interest to the period.
The Anarchy is a period of history rarely described in any detail, or at least as far as I know, so I found this book a very welcome addition to my limited library about the time. Well-written, with every effort made to make clear who all the people are (so many of them had the same name!), right down to including potted biographies in a valuable appendix, ‘Who Was Who in the Anarchy’. This was a thoroughly enjoyable book.
Review by Paul Begg.