DKW: Stephen and feudal Anarchy in the UK
Stephen ruled England from 1135 to his death in 1154, almost exactly 851 years ago. I say 'ruled' - but infact his claim to the throne was disputed, and most of his reign was characterised by civil war and chaos known as the Anarchy, as barons fought among themselves for either Stephen or the daughter of Henry I, Matilda. AL Morton says of this period the following:
'Twenty years of war followed, neither side being able to win a complete victory. It was a time that left a lasting impression on the minds of the people. All the worst tendencies of feudalism, which had been suppressed under the Norman kings, now had free play. Private wars and private castles sprang up everywhere. Hundreds of local tyrants massacred, tortured and plundered the unfortunate peasantry and chaos reigned everywhere.'
Ellis Peter's Brother Cadfael novels were set in this period - though it is debatable if they 'left a lasting impression on the minds of the people', despite the fact they spawned a TV series starring Sir Derek Jacobi. The Peterborough Chronicle, an Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, leaves a description of what happened as barons opposing Stephen were captured but let free (to take up arms again) if they just swore an oath of allegiance:
"Ða ðe suikes undergæton that he milde man was, and softe and god, and no iustice ne dide, ða diden hi alle wunder"
("When these men understood that he (Stephen) was a gentle man, and soft and good, and did not execute justice, then they all wondered (at him).")
"ævric rice man his castles maked and agenes him heolden; and fylden the land ful of castles. Hi suencten suythe the uurecce men of the land mid castelweorces; tha the castles uuaren maked, tha fylden hi mid deovles and yvele men. Tha namen hi tha men the hi wendan that any god hefden, bathe be nihtes and be dæies, carlmen and wimmen, and diden heom in prison and pined heom efter gold and sylver untellendlice pining; for ne uuaerern naevre mas martyrs swa pined alse hi waeron."
("Every chieftain made castles and held them against the king; and they filled the land full of castles. They viciously oppressed the poor men of the land with castle-building work; when the castles were made, then they filled the land with devils and evil men. Then they seized those who had any goods, both by night and day, working men and women, and threw them into prison and tortured them for gold and silver with uncountable tortures, for never was there a martyr so tortured as these men were.")
"Me henged up bi the fet and smoked heom mid full smoke. Me henged bi the þumbes other bi the hefed and hengen bryniges on her fet. Me dide cnotted strenges abuton here hæued and wrythen it ðat it gæde to þe haernes.... I ne can nelne mai tellen alle ðe wunder ne all ðe pines that he diden wrecce men on ðis land."
("One they hung by his feet and filled his lungs with smoke. One was hung up by the thumbs and another by the head and had coats of mail hung on his feet. One they put a knotted cord about his head and twisted it so that it went into the brains.... I neither can nor may recount all the atrocities nor all the tortures that they did on the wretched men of this land.")
'Yet', Morton notes, 'what is significant about the events of Stephen's reign is not its misery but its uniqueness, the fact that such conditions, normal in many parts of Europe, only arose in England under the special circumstances of a disputed succession and a crown to weak to enforce order. This taste of the evils of unrestrained feudal anarchy was sharp enough to make the masses welcome a renewed attempt of the Crown to diminish the power of the nobles but not long enough for disorder to win a permanent hold. In 1153 the two parties met at Wallingford and a compromise was reached. Stephen was to reign during his life and Matilda's son, Henry of Anjou, was to succeed him. In the next year Stephen died. Henry, adding England and Normandy to his own large domains, became unquestionably the most powerful monarch in Western Europe.'
Labels: Dead King