To what extent was the anarchy of Stephen’s reign the result of a tendency towards social independence in the English Nobility?

stephen of bloisG.W.S. Barrow notes in the introduction to his segment on the reign of Stephen that the “anarchy” of the reign is frequently explained by “a desire on the part of the English baronage to kick over the traces of government and indulge in an orgy of plunder and private war.”[1] While it is undoubtedly the case that the reign of Stephen was characterised by a state of disorder caused by the civil war and an apparent lack of centralised control, many historians are sceptical of the view that this lack of control allowed a naturally aggressive and ambitious noble class to run rampant. This is what is meant by a “tendency towards social independence”, the natural inclination of the baronage to move away from the power of the king and even to go so far as to disconnect themselves from the culture associated with kingship. Some argue that rather than an uncontrolled and uncoordinated expression of anger and desire for individual power, the actions of the barons were a direct response to lack of confidence that they felt in Stephen’s centralised government. Others take the view that the actions of the English nobility were an attempt to preserve the feudal infrastructure rather than destroy it.

It is certainly true that the years before Stephen’s coronation had seen struggles in Europe regarding the relationship between monarchs and their feudal tenants. One clear example of this is the constant campaigning of Louis VI of France against his own barons. These noblemen violently ravaged the area around Paris almost with impunity up until Louis’ ascension in 1108. If the pillaging carried out by noblemen such as Hugh of le Puiset, Hugh of Crécy and William d’Auvergne was ultimately in the interest of preserving feudal order, this is not how it came across to the chroniclers of the time. Thomas of Marle, another nobleman that proved troublesome for Louis is described as “homo perditissimus”[2] by Louis’ biographer the Abbot Suger, who also describes Thomas of Marle as a “furious wolf” devouring the countryside and wantonly killing “clerics and common folk alike”.

The historian H. W. C. Davis argues in his book England under the Normans and Angevins that this sort of behaviour was representative of the true nature of the barons, and that it simply took an incompetent or weak ruler who failed to supress these tendencies in order for the barons to start to indulge in acts of “rapine, cruelty and wanton insolence”[3]. This, Davis argues, was the case during the reign of Louis’ predecessor, Philip I, who was inactive in dealing with the transgressions of the nobility. Davis then draws parallels with the reign of Stephen, stating that English King’s inability to effectively exercise power through governmental infrastructure allowed the Barons the freedom to do effectively as they pleased, without fear of repercussions from the crown, which was otherwise occupied with the civil war against Matilda.

Stephen’s inability to exercise the power of the institutions of government which had been set up by his processor, Henry I, can be seen to suggest that major errors on the part of King Stephen ultimately led to his loss of effective power. One of the most crucial is perhaps Stephen’s over-reliance on the Beaumont Family for power. The Beaumonts eventually convinced Stephen to turn against Roger of Salisbury and arrest and imprison him. This lead to a downfall of English administrative infrastructure, as Stephen had relied upon Roger of Salisbury to effectively handle charters as well as the exchequer, dealing with receipts and the financial matters of the crown. Furthermore, Stephen’s alienation of the church, which came about also as a result of the downfall of Roger, also threw his administrative infrastructure into disorder. The vast majority of literate men who had formed the main body of the writing office had been clerics, educated and brought up in service of the church before being repurposed by the crown. When the church withdrew its support for Stephen, many of the staff of the writing office in kind refused to carry out their duties.

Stephen’s resultant inability to issue writs outside of a sixty mile radius of the city of London made it almost necessary for barons outside of this range to set up their own provisions to fill in the gaps left by the absence of royal agents. These provisions included the law, taxation, administration, coinage and the resolution of disputes over land tenure. Barrow concurs with this view, saying that “in default of strong central government, the great men of the realm were forced to make elaborate agreements among themselves, so that in pursuing their own policies they would not inflict unnecessary injury on one another’s castles, men and resources.”[4] Such agreements are, Barrow argues, indicative not of a tendency towards independent rulership born out of a desire for power but rather an attempt to limit the damage to the lands of the nobility as a result of the civil war. This was precisely the case for a treaty between the earls of Leicester and Chester which is described by Sir Frank Stenton as “an approach towards the restoration of order by the only means effective in a land where the royal power had fallen into temporary abeyance.”[5] In the record of the agreement, the lack of confidence and respect for Stephen as a “king” is evident in that particular word’s omission. Only one reference is made to him in terms of a “liege lord” and Stephen is only mentioned then so that the two earls can agree that they will refuse to act against one another even should the King order them to do so.

Over the course of Stephen’s reign, many facets of government that had ostensibly been the business of the crown were disseminated into the lands of individual earls, mediated now by the local nobility rather than by the central authority of Stephen. Notably, the “royal monopoly of coinage” is described by David Carpenter as “the greatest achievement of the pre-Conquest kings”[6], yet this disintegrated under Stephen’s neglect. Over time some nobles without an obvious agenda in doing so to the cause of either Stephen or Matilda, set up their own mints and issued coins in their names such as Robert of Leicester and Eustace fitz John. While a continuation of the coinage was, arguably, a necessity, Barons issuing money in their own names was not. It was a purely egotistical enterprise, and one that they saw as a manifestation of their position now lying at the top of the feudal chain.

For many, this theory of barons simply trying to safeguard their lands appears plausible because of the way in which the country reverted to a state of order incredibly swiftly upon the coronation of Henry of Anjou. Indeed the Dialogue of the Exchequer, written by William FitzNigel late in the 12th Century, recalls of Henry that “from the beginning of his rule he gave his whole mind to crushing by all possible means those who rebelled against peace and were ‘froward’”[7]. Though FitzNigel was undoubtedly indebted to Henry II he does not appear to be exaggerating the lengths that Henry went to in order to return England prosperous nation under his centralised control. Henry occupied himself in the early years of his reign with the dismantling of the many “adulterine castles” that now dotted the landscape of England. These castles had been erected by Barons during the anarchy in some cases to extend their control, but often to act as a deterrent or defensive bulwark against the ever-present threat of invasion or private war that the anarchy under Stephen had brought with it. Furthermore, a systematic survey of the noble classes of England took place in 1166 followed by an oath that every enfeoffed man was force to take directly to King Henry himself, de domino solo. It is remarkable just how smoothly this process was carried out. Expensive and often strategically valuable castles were destroyed and many nobles had the land which had been granted to them by Stephen out of the Royal demesne confiscated. All this passed without major incident or revolt, and it is often concluded as a result that by the time Stephen’s reign was over, there was a genuine desire for peace and stability among the nobility.

Many more contemporary historians, however, argue that even this view of the reign is over-dramatic, and that there was in fact much support for feudal infrastructure from the baronage throughout. Though he may have acted to destabilise Stephen’s lands, Robert of Gloucester actively supported the claim of Matilda to the English throne. It is strongly suggested by many that David I of Scotland felt similarly compelled to uphold the oath that he had sworn to assist in her securing of the English throne. The actions of these two noblemen in their military campaigns against Stephen doubtless contributed to the state of disorder. This was done, however, with the sole aim of furthering the would-be queen’s cause and therefore cannot possibly be said to be indicative of a move towards independence from the total control of the monarchy. It is in fact, quite clearly, the very opposite, an attempt to install what would be (in the eyes of her supporters) a more competent and able ruler, better suited to exercising English Royal power. It is even noted by the Gesta Stephani that Robert of Gloucester “endeavoured to govern the west with some show of legality.” A further testament to the extent to which the aims of Gloucester and of David I were, in their view at least, in aid of the feudal infrastructure of the country.

That the central governmental infrastructure was, to some extent at least, kept alive during Stephen’s reign is surely a further testament to a certain level of support for these institutions. While they may have been in abeyance during Stephen’s reign, the governments of Henry I and Henry II are so similar in structure, organisation and function that it is clear Henry II managed to take over Henry I’s existing infrastructure and then simply add on his own reforms. Had there been a complete desire among the baronage during the anarchy for social independence, a big step forward in that struggle would have been the destruction of institutions such as the exchequer, the writing office, the offices of justice and so on. In fact, quite the opposite can be seen to be the case. Nigel, Bishop of Ely, the father of Richard fitz Nigel, was on less than amiable terms with Stephen, having fallen out of favour with the crown at the same time as his uncle, Roger of Salisbury. In an attempt to ensure the obedience of Nigel, Stephen took Richard fitz Nigel as a hostage in 1144. Despite this, Nigel of Ely did not, like some other barons, break into open revolt or even quietly support those opposed to Stephen. Rather, Nigel made sure that his son was educated, particularly in the financial prudence for which the family was known. This shows forethought on the part of Nigel of Ely to a time when the Anarchy would be over, and administrators would once again be needed to ensure the prosperity of the crown.

Though scepticism over how apt the term “anarchy” is to describe Stephen’s rein and how much of this was really due to a Baronage driving for independence is a more prevalent view among more modern historians, for many years prior, the view of the aims, motives and characters of the English nobility under Stephen was drastically different. A favourite example that such historians commonly cite is that of Geoffrey de Mandeville, Castellan of the Tower of London who notoriously set about exercising “moveable destructive domination… in the Fenlands, pillaging Cambridge, desecrating Churches and turning Ramsey Abbey into ‘a Castle for himself.’”[8] Geoffrey De Mandeville not only enacted cruelty on the people of his land, he actively sought power and titles, frequently switching sides, destroying any idea of chivalric honour, in order to gain them. This is what Thomas N. Bisson refers to as “the zealous expansionist lordship of rebel barons”[9], the attempt by ambitious men to gain power through the use of violence. J. H. Round’s view, however, is incompatible with this idea of the barons as zealous expansionists. Round argues that chroniclers that documented the atrocities of Geoffrey de Mandeville were quick to infer that the same levels of misery that they had experienced or heard of were present throughout the rest of the country. Davis fiercely disagrees with this, stating that such scenes of misery, violence and chaos were not limited to the lands belonging to Geoffrey. Davis cites the example of Robert Fitz Hubert, who he describes as an exact “counterpart” to Geoffrey de Mandeville. William of Malmesbury is the primary source of information on the transgressions of Robert fitz Hubert, though Round questions him as a source, so nearly affected by the actions of fitz Hubert as William of Malmesbury undoubtedly is. Davis counters this by pointing out that the facts are corroborated by the Worcester annalist, geographically situated a significant distance from the area fitz Hubert terrorised and therefore not suffering from the same conflict of interest as William of Malmesbury.

While violence may seem a deplorable means to seek social advancement to us today, the situation was quite different under Stephen. The Chivalric ideal had been largely imported to England from Europe in the events and aftermath of the Norman Conquest of 1066. The chivalric cult venerated above all other things the idea of prowess, shows of piety, skill and courage that elevated a knight above his peers. War was the natural condition in which displays of prowess abounded. Chivalric literature positively endorses states of war. In Lancelot du Lac, when peace is made between Arthur and Galehaut, the story goes “any, who preferred war, were saddened by this’.[10] With this backdrop in mind, the actions of nobles such as Geoffrey de Mandeville and Robert Fitz Hubert start to look less like wanton acts of violence and more like legitimate (in twelfth century chivalric terms!) attempts to gain power and land by force of arms, guile and a show of prowess. Indeed Geoffrey de Mandeville in particular was hugely successful in this, as evidenced by the plethora of titles that he held on his death in 1144 and the extent of the concessions that he had been granted in relation to these titles and lands. For example, he stipulated that “no justices were to enter his sheriffdoms to hold pleas except with his permission”[11]. This is a clear and direct refusal to recognise the right of the king to monitor his enfeoffed barons by the use of sheriffs. He likewise mandated that no royal justices could enter his lands without his consent either. De Mandeville was essentially in the process of setting up his own sub-kingdom, cutting the King out of the picture altogether and “realizing longstanding ambitions incompatible with Henry I style centralized rule.”[12]

De Mandeville achieved this by systematically abusing the patronage of both Stephen and Matilda that was being handed out relatively freely, anxious as both were for the support of as many noblemen as possible. The granting of land often necessarily brought with it the overriding of another’s claim and in many cases military campaigns were necessary to dislodge incumbent tenants, as was the case with Hugh Poer’s attempt to claim the castle of Bedford, gifted to him by Stephen. The campaign to claim Bedford lasted for a whole three months and is recorded to have involved the ravaging of the surrounding lands in an attempt to deprive the opposition forces of supplies during the siege. De Mandeville’s violence and the misery and suffering that he brought upon the people of the lands he had been granted were partly the result of these campaigns, partly a vain show of power and prowess and partly an attempt to attract the possible favour of the other side. If De Mandeville pillaged towns that were nominally in Stephen’s territory then he could expect reward and recognition from Matilda. Likewise if he ravaged the countryside of Matilda’s lands, he might see a return in favours from Stephen.

Chivalric culture was, throughout all of this, a set of ideas with which the English crown in particular wanted very little contact. Chivalry and all that went with it was the occupation of noblemen, knights and warriors, and while some later kings were indeed immersed in chivalric Romance and the excitement of the tournament. Under Henry II the chivalric cult was seen as a dangerous thing, something to be suppressed. This view had come about as a direct result of Stephen’s reign. Henry II successfully legislated to ban tournaments and contests of the like from being held in England, as he saw the tournament as promoting an ideal that was a threat to the public order of the realm. Richard Kaeuper argues that despite the level of involvement that the English nobility had within the offices of central government, “Lords and knights turned to formally illegal acts of violence, on any scale they could manage, when the law did not serve”[13]. In other words, knights and barons were willing to completely bypass the legal system and wage war if the ruling of law fell against them. This was the constant tension between the crown and the nobility, one preferring to settle disputes in a courtroom, and the other preferring prowess and violence. The life of William Marshall, later a close advisor to Henry II, though possessed of “quicksilver loyalties”[14] during Stephen’s reign, laments that the world “being spoiled by the decay of chivalry”[15] referring to the continued legalisation process that slowly stripped the nobility of the power to express social independence. Prowess and violence were the tools with which Knights expressed their distance from the crown, with which they lauded a culture wholly alien to the ordered desires of the early post-conquest Kings. Thus the expression of violence and prowess on a large scale, as clearly seen in during the reign of Stephen, could be argued to be analogous to a desire among the English nobility for a new social independence, separate from the constraints on their power and chivalric culture imposed on them by the English crown.

Ultimately this Nietzschean view of the English nobility as having a consistent will to greater power does have weight; more, perhaps, than many modern historians, in attempting to deny that there was in fact an anarchy at all, are willing to admit. The actions of barons such as Geoffrey de Mandeville and Robert fitz Hubert are clearly intended for no other purpose than to weaken the influence of the crown in their baronial lands. The way that they went about achieving this, through violence and prowess, is equally indicative of a will to independence and a genuine state of anarchy in large parts of Stephen’s England. That said, it is possible to overstate how far-reaching the desire for social independence was. To say that the anarchy was due to a tendency towards social independence applies only very specific cases of disorder throughout the Kingdom that qualify, as both Geoffrey’s and Robert’s do, as genuine anarchy. Other areas, such as those controlled by Matilda’s main supporter, Robert of Gloucester, could hardly be said to be anarchic, and are therefore not indicative of a desire on the part of their ruler to any sort of independence from a central authority. The state of anarchy, and the drive towards social independence were inextricably interlinked. That this drive can only be seen in examples of true anarchy, not in simple attempts to save the infrastructure of power on a local scale, ultimately proves a useful discriminator that allows us to distinguish between areas of true anarchy and simple disorder under Stephen’s rule.







[1] G. W. S. Barrow, Feudal Britain (Edward Arnold Ltd. 1958 Reprint), p. 114.

[2] Abbot Suger, The Deeds of Louis the Fat (quoted in Richard W. Kaeuper, Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe, (Oxford 1999) pg. 17)

[3] H. W. C. Davis, England under the Normans and Angevins (London, 1905), p. 167

[4] G. W. S. Barrow, Feudal Britain (Edward Arnold Ltd. 1958 Reprint), p. 120

[5] Sir Frank Stenton, the First Century of English Feudalism (1932), p. 254

[6] David Carpenter, The Struggle for Mastery (Penguin 2004), pg. 175

[7] Richard W. Kaeuper, Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe, (Oxford 1999) pg. 108

[8] Thomas N. Bisson, The Crisis of the Twelfth Century, (Princeton University Press 2009) pg. 275

[9] Thomas N. Bisson, The Crisis of the Twelfth Century, (Princeton University Press 2009) pg. 275

[10] Lancelot do lac (Oxford 1980), Elspeth Kennedy Translation, pg. 328

[11] David Carpenter, The Struggle for Mastery (Penguin 2004), pg. 175

[12] David Carpenter, The Struggle for Mastery (Penguin 2004), pg. 175

[13] Richard W. Kaeuper, Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe, (Oxford 1999) pg. 110

[14] Richard W. Kaeuper, Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe, (Oxford 1999) pg. 281

[15] Richard W. Kaeuper, Chivalry and Violence in Medieval Europe, (Oxford 1999) pg. 120

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