Saturday 16 January 2021

Anarchy in the UK

When I was a lad (many, many years ago) I used to walk home from school past a garage with a neat white wall. Needless to say, the local youth spent some time daubing the pristine surface with assorted graffiti. The one that sticks in my mind at this point was a capital A in a circle, which one of my friends mistook to be the CND logo. Actually, it was the logo of an anarchist organization of rock band (I’m not sure which, or possibly it was both). Anarchy was a ‘thing’ back then, with anarchists trying to organize to take over the world.

One or two of my friends were sort of anarchists and disagreed when I observed that anarchists organizing to take over the world was illogical. If they managed it then they would, by definition, no longer be anarchists. Looking back I fail to see how I managed not to get punched that often in the playground.

Anyway, you will probably be pleased to know that this post does not have anything to do with modern political anarchy (although Robert Nozick’s fine book ‘Anarchy, state and Utopia’ is another work of political philosophy I shall probably never get around to reading) but about the period in English history often called ‘The Anarchy’, as if there was only one.

As you might have surmised, I have been reading again:

Cole, T. (2019). The Anarchy: The Darkest Days of Medieval England. Stroud: Amberley.

This is, of course, in pursuit of my ‘what happened next?’ wonderings. I got as far as Henry I last time, and so now we get to the next bit, the Anarchy.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle goes for pathos and poetry:

I do not know nor can I tell all the enormities nor all the tortures that they did to wretched men in this land. And it lasted 19 years while Stephen was king, and it always grew worse and worse… Wherever men tilled, the earth bore no corn because the land was all done for by such doings; and they said openly that Christ and His saints slept. Such things and more than we know how to tell, we suffered 19 years for our sins.’

(Swanton, M. (Ed.) (2000). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. London: Phoenix p 264-5 – Peterborough Manuscript 1137).

In other words, things were bad because royal authority had collapsed, and royal authority had collapsed because there were tow claimants to the throne, Henry’s daughter Matilda, sometime Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, and her cousin Stephen. Both had powerful backers in England, and there were plenty of foreign powers willing to take a hand in trying to obtain some advantage, either through a friendly occupant of England (and Normandy) or through carving off chunks of Henry’s patrimony.

Needless to say, it all went rather pear-shaped. Neither Stephen or Matilda had enough power to win either diplomatically or militarily. The war consisted of only two real battles, the Standard at Northallerton and Lincoln. The former was decisive, in that a Scottish invasion was defeated, but was a bit of a sideshow to the real action further south. The latter did not, ultimately, achieve anything much.

The warfare was, mostly, about sieges and taking, recapturing, and building castles. Most of the action and aggravation seems to have been along the London to Bristol corridor and the castles along that line. Matilda's forward post was Wallingford which was often besieged but not taken. Malmesbury was held for Stephen and was similarly immune from capture. The defensive capabilities of castles had temporarily exceeded the offensive capability of siege technology.

As you might imagine, with neither side having the resources to finish off the other, and both being able to draw, from time to time, on external resources, the civil war dragged out into an exhausting sequence of sieges, skirmishes, raids and devastation, in both England and Normandy. Cole’s book is a narrative of the activities of both sides, and she does a good job in keeping track of what was going on, and whose side who was on. It is a complex tale, of course, and one from which neither side should draw any comfort. As always in warfare, the ordinary people are the ones who suffer.

Anglo-Norman warfare is, I think, something that often gets overlooked in wargaming terms. This is not to say, by the ay, that I am about to launch into the period, but I do feel it holds potential which is probably unrecognized in broader wargaming. With only two pitched battles, it tends to get overlooked, and with plenty of sieges, most wargamers might well be thinking ‘boring’. Yet there is a lot of interest here.

Firstly, in terms of battles, the knight was not supreme. I have recently read an essay or two which suggest quite strongly that the key to winning battles was not the headlong knightly charge but combined arms. The infantry mattered, and, of course, mattered even more in siege warfare. Secondly, of course, in terms of a campaign, what mattered was who was on whose side and whether they put their men into garrisons or field armies. There are resonances here for me with the English Civil War. I think some sort of narrative or even map-based campaign (if you have the patience) could be very rewarding, and the numbers of toy soldiers needing to be painted would not be huge as the numbers in the field armies were relatively small (because they were expensive, and neither side had much in the way of resources). Probably someone has already done it; after all, all you need is some Normans and a castle.

In the end, no-one really won. Matilda did not become Queen of England; there was too much misogyny around for that. Stephen, on the other hand, did not found a dynasty. Possible, as Bartlett speculates, after the death of his son Eustace and wife Matilda (not the same one as he was fighting, you understand) he lost heart and agreed to Matilda’s (the other one) son becoming his heir. Thus we got Henry II.


  1. Interesting post on an interesting period - also the setting of the popular Cadfael series, wasn't it? There was rather a neat series on Anglo-Norman warfare during The Anarchy in Wargames Illustrated issues 29-31, including a quite innovative and simple set of rules, IIRC.

    1. I think Cadfael was around the same time, although I usually get it confused with the Name of the Rose...
      I think it would be a neat and fairly easy period to wargame, so long as you had a fairly robust set of siege rules.

  2. I'm sorry, but this passage does not work with this wargamer's logic "the numbers of toy soldiers needing to be painted would not be huge as the numbers in the field armies were relatively small." Smaller armies just means I go for a lower figure:soldier ratio. ;-)

    I know what you mean about this period though. Even if you don't want to play full-on sieges, there are all the small actions associated with siege warfare like attacks on foragers, supply trains, raids, seizure of strategic points in the surrounding area.....

    1. Oh ,granted. But some of the armies were very small; I wouldn't want you landing up with 2 figures for one soldier as your ratio...
      The sieges seem to have been fairly desultory affairs, so far as I can tell, so the small actions would have a bigger effect. Quite often one side built a castle next door to one of the enemy's to control it, which must have been a bit interesting.

    2. I’ve been as low as 1:5 for the Battle of Surbiton (only a thousand combined) and that would have been lower if I had a bigger floor space.
      I guess in the time you’re talking about taking a town/castle mostly entailed starvation, subterfuge or treachery.

    3. Not many more for the Anarchy, I suspect. But yes, starvation, disease, treachery, changing sides, negotiation to avoid blood baths and so on. I don't think too many castles were stormed.