Empress Matilda v King Stephen: When Christ and His Saints Slept

By , June 29, 2010 8:58 am

Introduction to the “Nineteen Year Winter”

When King Henry I died in 1135AD  without a male heir, all hell broke loose.

The following two decades saw civil war in England, between Henry I’s daughter, the Empress Matilda (also known as Maud) and Henry’s nephew, Stephen of Blois.

As well as the battles between the opposing Claimants to the throne, local barons took the lack of firm control as an opportunity to grab land, build unlicensed castles, settle old scores, and start new feuds.

King Henry I, from one of Matthew Paris' early 13th century works

King Henry I, from one of Matthew Paris' early 13th century works


The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle described the period as the time “When Christ and his Saints Slept”, and it is also known as “The Nineteen Year Winter” and “The Anarchy”.

King Henry I’s Family and Children

Father and Inheritance

Henry was the fourth son of the first Norman King, William the Conqueror.

When William died, he left the Duchy of Normandy to his eldest son, Robert, and the English Crown to his third son, William II, also known as William Rufus. The second son, Richard, died before his father.

As the fourth son, Henry Beauclerc (so called because he was the best-educated of William the Conqueror’s sons, and at one time destined for the Church) inherited only money.

William the Conqueror, father of King Henry I and grandfather of King Stephan and Empress Matilda, shown in the Bayeux Tapestry

William the Conqueror, father of King Henry I and grandfather of King Stephan and Empress Matilda, shown in the Bayeux Tapestry

William Rufus died in a very suspicious hunting accident, killed apparently by a stray arrow, in 1100.

Robert, Duke of Normandy, was on crusade at the time, and Henry took the opportunity, which he may have created or helped to create, to take the throne and become King Henry I. Henry was then about 31 or 32 years old.

Marriages and Children

Henry had no problem siring children. His problem was fathering legitimate offspring, who could inherit the throne.

After he ascended to the throne in August 1100, Henry married Edith, daughter of the King of Scotland, and therefore added the Anglo-Saxon royalty to his children. She changed her name from the very Saxon “Edith” to “Matilda”, which was a much more Norman name.

Henry and Matilda had two children who died as infants, and two who lived past childhood, one son, William, and a daughter, Matilda, Maude or Maud.

William Adelin died in the infamous sinking of the White Ship in November 1120, when he was 17 years old. That left Henry I without a legitimate male heir.

Queen Matilda had died in 1118, and Henry re-married, to Adeliza, a German Duke’s daughter, but had no more children.

Henry I also had between 20 and 30 acknowledged bastard children, including Robert, Earl of Gloucester.

Empress Matilda / Maude / Maud

The Empress Matilda, also known as the Lady of the English

The Empress Matilda, also known as the Lady of the English

Matilda was born in 1102, probably in Winchester. At the age of 7, she was betrothed to Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor, and was sent to live at her future husband’s court the following year.

Henry and Matilda married in 1114, when he was 28 and she was 12 years old. They had no children, and Henry V died in 1125; Matilda returned to England.

The 23 year old Matilda was, after 1120, King Henry’s only surviving legitimate child. Henry  arranged a second marriage for his daughter, in 1128, to the 15 year old Geoffrey, Count of Maine and Count of Anjou.

In status terms, a Duke was a comedown after an Emperor, and Matilda continued to be known as the Empress Matilda, or Lady of the English.

The marriage was marked by frequent arguments, separations and dislike, but the couple nevertheless had three sons, Henry, Geoffrey, and William.

Stephen of Blois was one of ten children. His parents were Adela, daughter of William the Conqueror, and Stephen, Count of Blois.  He held the title of Count of Mortain, and also later Count of Boulogne, by right of his wife, Matilda.

Stephen was brought up at the court of his uncle, King Henry I. He was the first of the barons to swear allegiance to Matilda as the heir of Henry I.

The Succession Crisis

King Stephan of Blois, from Matthew Paris' early 13th century chronicle

King Stephen of Blois, from Matthew Paris' early 13th century chronicle

King Henry I named his daughter, Matilda, as his heir. He demanded that all his barons swore allegiance to Matilda, and that they accepted her as his heir.

Henry died in Normandy in December 1135, from a surfeit of lampreys (a type of eel). Matilda had two sons by then, but they were very young: Henry was 2 years old, and Geoffrey was a baby.

Three people appeared to have a potential claim to the throne, all with certain difficulties. Matilda had the best claim, by blood and by the oaths sworn to her, but she was a woman.

Stephen of Blois was the nephew of King Henry, and grandson of William the Conqueror, but was not a direct heir to Henry, and had an older brother, Theobald Count of Blois (who did not claim the throne).

Robert of Gloucester, an efficient and popular Earl, was the son of King Henry I, but was illegitimate.

When Henry I died, Stephen sprang into action. He rushed from Normandy to England, gathered support from the barons, had himself crowned, and grabbed the treasury. He was given strong support by his younger brother, Henry Bishop of Winchester.

Once King Stephen was crowned, the Pope decided to absolve the English and Norman barons of their oaths to Matilda, and Stephen became the de facto King of England and Duke of Normandy.

Matilda herself was in Anjou, and was overtaken by events. Stephen made his claim to the throne a fait accompli, helped by the fact that the English and Norman barons strongly disliked the idea of a woman on the throne.


Civil War

King Henry II, son of Empress Matilda and Geoffrey of Anjou

King Henry II, son of Empress Matilda and Geoffrey of Anjou

Matilda’s cause was championed by her illegitimate half-brother, Robert Earl of Gloucester.  King David of Scotland, Matilda’s uncle, also invaded from the north in her support, but was beaten back.

By 1139, King Stephen had alienated many barons and bishops, and did not focus on the administrative detail of actual running the government.

Matilda and her husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, invaded Normandy and managed to take much the Duchy between 1135 and 1138. Fighting continued thereafter, but in 1144 Geoffrey captured Rouen, and Geoffrey and Matilda were proclaimed as the Duke and Duchess of Normandy.

Matilda arrived in England in 1139, and took Arundel Castle, and later joined Robert of Gloucester at his main castle in Bristol. Fighting continued across the country, and in 1141, Matilda’s cause took a significant step forward when her armies captured Lincoln Castle. Trying to reclaim it, King Stephen was captured and imprisoned.

Matilda travelled to London, taking the title “Lady of the English” and ruled for some months. She was not particularly popular, however, and the struggle continued, directed by Queen Matilda (another one!), wife of King Stephen.

When Robert of Gloucester was captured in September 1141, an exchange was arranged, and both Robert and Stephen were released.

In December 1142, Matilda was trapped in Oxford Castle, and besieged. She made a daring and renowned escape across ice and snow at night, and evaded Stephen’s army. A year later, she also had to escape from Devizes Castle, this time disguised as a body being taken for burial.

Oxford Castle, from where Empress Matilda made a daring night-time escape

Oxford Castle, from where Empress Matilda made a daring night-time escape

Unrest and battles continued, until Robert of Gloucester died in 1147, and Matilda left England and returned to Normandy in 1148. Geoffrey of Anjou then returned to Anjou and Maine, leaving their eldest son, Henry, as acting Duke of Normandy.

Henry invaded England several times, in 1147, 1149 and 1150. He was precocious and ruthless, a great military commander, as can be seen by his leading invasions from the age of 14.

Matilda’s superior claim to the throne came to be embodied in her son Henry, who was not only gifted, intelligent and successful, but was (crucially) male.

In 1153, King Stephen agreed a treaty with Matilda and Henry, agreeing that after his death, the throne would pass not to his own children, but to Henry. Stephen died the following year, in 1154, and Henry became King Henry II, at the age of 21.

The Country during the Anarchy

King Stephen was often said to be a good man, and a bad King. He was derided as being soft and too forgiving, and he certainly appears to have paid insufficient attention to running the country.

The Anglo-Saxon chronicle says of his taking the throne:

Meanwhile was his nephew come to England, Stephen de Blois. He came to London, and the people of London received him, and sent after the Archbishop William Curboil, and hallowed him to king on midwinter day. In this king’s time was all dissention, and evil, and rapine

Among King Stephen’s failings as a King were his inability to execute child hostages, such as William, son of John the Marshall, and his forgiveness, often more than once, of those who rebelled against him.

When the young Henry first invaded, at the age of 14, and then ran out of money, King Stephen paid for him to return to Normandy.

The First Page of the Peterborough version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The First Page of the Peterborough version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The Chronicle says:

When the traitors understood that he was a mild man, and soft, and good, and no justice executed, then did they all wonder.

All the armies and groups of armed men wandering the country from 1135 to 1153 did no good at all, plundering, looting after winning battles, taking what they wanted.

But the problems were greater than this. The barons became over-mighty subjects, building castles without permission, taking land from other barons, smaller landholders, and the church, and there was a lack of law and order that was universal.

When in control of an area, King Stephen was not able to impose the rule of law, one of the reasons subjects rebelled against his rule.

The Chronicle paints a grim picture of King Stephen’s reign:

Never yet was there more wretchedness in the land; nor ever did heathen men worse than they did: for, after a time, they spared neither church nor churchyard, but took all the goods that were therein, and then burned the church and all together. Neither did they spare a bishop’s land, or an abbot’s, or a priest’s, but plundered both monks and clerks; and every man robbed another who could.

To till the ground was to plough the sea: the earth bare no corn, for the land was all laid waste by such deeds; and they said openly, that Christ slept, and his saints. Such things, and more than we can say, suffered we nineteen winters for our sins.

6 Responses to “Empress Matilda v King Stephen: When Christ and His Saints Slept”

  1. Lauren says:

    Looks like Matilda ultimately won in the end, what with Stephen’s weakness as a king. It does seem that the kings that were lighthearted never made strong intelligent rulers.

  2. [...] When King Henry I died in 1135AD without a male heir, all hell broke lose. The following two decades saw civil war in England, between Henry I2019s daughter, Matilda and nephew, Stephen. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle described the period as the time 201cWhen Christ and his Saints Slept201d, and it is also known as 201cThe Nineteen Year Winter201d and 201cThe Anarchy201d. Read ahead [...]

  3. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Chris A Stonecipher, jo oliver. jo oliver said: Empress Matilda v King Stephen: When Christ and His Saints Slept http://bit.ly/bs8gcd via @AddToAny [...]

  4. Doug Price says:

    This history is traced in a series of novels by Ellis Peters, The Cafael Chronicles. Having read the entire series, I was familiar with the timeframe and the struggles between Maud and Stephen. Your blog emphasizes the weakness of King Stephen, something of which I was unaware. Thank you for this article and may I recommend the Cadfael Chronicles to anyone who is interested in this period of English history.

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