Book Review: “Stephen and Matilda: The Civil War 1139-1153” by Jim Bradbury

The story of the Empress Matilda is fascinating on so many levels. While I knew the basic outline of the civil strife in twelfth century England called the “Anarchy”, I didn’t know many details. I happened to find an affordable used copy of this book and it turned out to be worth every penny.

There is no doubt Bradbury knows the history. He quotes many sources in the narrative. The first two chapters are “The Causes of the Civil War” and “The Two Sides”. He gives thorough background on the family of King Henry I, the death of William Adelin and how Henry compelled the nobles, clergy and magnates to swear an oath to support Matilda as his heir. Bradbury believes, based on the chronicles, that Henry may have groomed Matilda to be a Queen Mother rather than a Queen Regnant and changed his mind on his deathbed, supporting his nephew Stephen as his successor. The author explains which nobles in England and Normandy fought for each side, describing a great cast of characters.

Once the lines were drawn in the sand, the nobles chose sides between the anointed King Stephen and his opponent Matilda. Matilda eventually arrived in England to press her case and the war starts. The Angevins, as Matilda’s party were called, managed to take control of some of the country. The height of Matilda’s success was the First Battle of Lincoln in February, 1141 which Bradbury recounts in great detail. After this, Matilda’s behavior and temper caused her to lose support and Stephen was released and ruled again.

Bradbury explains how both parties avoided all-out pitched battles throughout the whole conflict. There really were only two standout battles with noteworthy causalities. The rest of the fighting consisted of sieges and counter-sieges with the building of castles and counter-castles. No one managed to achieve a definitive victory because the nobles were adept at changing sides whenever it was to their advantage. Bradbury calls the era of the fight with the Empress the Matildine war and the era with her son Henry the Henrician war. Eventually, the nobles recognized Henry as Stephen’s heir and peace prevailed. The author also gives some background information on Matilda’s husband Geoffrey, Count of Anjou and his conquest of Normandy. It was interesting to learn how he wrested this duchy from King Stephen.

I especially liked the last chapter where Bradbury gives the historical arguments for whether this conflict should be christened the “Anarchy”. He ends with the effects of the civil war. There is a good bibliography listed. I have to say I now have a thorough understanding of this conflict and more insight into twelfth century England and how the Plantagenets came to power. I highly recommend this book.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: “Stephen and Matilda: The Civil War 1139-1153” by Jim Bradbury

  1. The conflict extended beyond England and Normandy.

    You mentioned Anjou, the big winner in all this.

    Stephen of course was from Blois, another of the northwest Gallic states that contended for power after the fall of the Carolingians.

    Brittany was also heavily involved: Alan, the Earl of Richmond, supported Stephen. His elder brother Count Geoffrey Penteur however fought beside Count Geoffrey of Anjou to conquer Normandy.

    Their cousin Brian of Wallingford, alias Brian fitz Count, son of Alan Fergant, deceased Duke of Brittany, and of his mistress the highborn Lucy of Ballon, was among Matilda’s most passionate allies: Brian and Matilda seem to have had a Platonic Romance going on. I’ve no idea what her husband thought of that, but he was too far away to do anything about it.

    In a civil war it’s hard to say who’s a hero and who a villain, but the turncoat Earl of Chester is a strong candidate for the latter. Stephen’s plight at Lincoln was due to his treachery.

    Chester also betrayed the customs of diplomacy by capturing Earl Alan at a conference, then tortured him until he agreed to relinquish the Earldom of Cornwall.

    It was alleged that Alan had also tortured captives: supposedly their screams could be heard a distance from his castle. But we know civil war histories are biased, and Chester has been found out rewriting history by leaning on Gaimar to excise mention of Earl Alan’s illustrious uncle’s exploits at Hastings.

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