Saturday, 7 August 2021

Stephen and the Anarchy

For someone who has sworn off buying an Anglo-Norman army, I am reading quite a lot about the period. You might have noticed. I doubt if many people in the general population share my interest, and also that few wargamers do. It is not as if there are too many refights of Clitheroe or Lincoln around (although I seem to recall the Heretical Wargamer did a Standard refight; actually, I think I wrote an article for Miniature Wargames many years ago about the Battle of the Standard).

Anyway, I have just finished another book on the period:

Peers, C. (2018). King Stephen and the Anarchy: Civil War and Military Tactics in Twelfth-Century Britain. Barnsley: Pen and Sword.

This is not a bad book, so I really do not want to criticse, but it is a bit of an odd book, or at least, it has a very strange bit in it.

One of the motive for the book, apparently, was to insert the Welsh and Scots into the narrative of the Anarchy. Most attention is focussed on the South and Midlands, which is understandable because that is where much of the action took place. But the Welsh and Scots were influential as well, as distractions at least and also as parts of armed forces. A work which puts these foreigners into the story, as players and not just hired hands or opportunist raiders is a good thing, in my view.

You can have a bit too much of a good thing, however, and Chater 12 of the book is, as I said, a bit odd, being a diversion into the succession and anarchy in the Orkney Islands. I imagine that it was included for the comparison with England, but it does sit a little uneasily with the rest of the text; I hope that it was not just padding.

The book proceeds in a more or less chronological order. I am not entirely sure as to whether it really is about either ‘civil war’ – there is some dispute, after all, as to whether the Anarchy was one – or military tactics. The obvious point is not made particularly strongly, that being that battles were risky (both Stephen and Robert of Gloucester were captured in action) and that castle defence had the ascendency over the offence in a siege. Thus the war was sporadic and largely changed little.

What did happen, of course, was that the kingdom started to fall apart. Once Stephen had spent Henry I’s treasury the war bogged down. Whether Stephen appointed earls to some of the counties as mere honorific titles to make the major Anglo-Norman families better disposed to him, or whether he saw it as a serious devolution of royal authority is not known (it was probably the former) but the effect was to make some of the earls, such as Ranulf of Chester and William of York semi-autonomous, at least, and beyond the royal watch, especially as the King was usually distracted by the activities of his cousin.

The result was that such earls could, and did, start using their positions to exploit their neighbours, obtain lands for their families and, as I have mentioned before, even form alliances with foreign powers (the Scots and the Welsh, of course). It is entirely unclear whether some of these magnates aimed for some sort of independence or not. Some would have seen their activities as carrying out the king’s wishes, whether stated or unstated; others would have said they acted in the interests of their people, or their families , or themselves.

The impact of the anarchy is unclear. There are various arguments one way or another. Mostly, aside from places in the direct line of the fighting – the Bristol – London belt, for example, little direct destruction is likely. The fact that the chroniclers complain about it might reflect destruction in general, or more local conditions where some landowners clashed and needed the money and supplies to fight back, or even the fact that there was an emerging view among the chroniclers (who were almost all religious, after all) that churches, abbeys and the like ought to be sacrosanct and the fact that they were not was outrageous. At this distance it is hard to tell.

As Peers points out in the Introduction, the Anarchy was not an anarchy in the usual sense. Law and order, in many places, persisted. Barons still issued and abided by terms of charters, albeit they issued them without reference to the king. Law and order did not break down. I suspect the major imapct of the Anarchy was the need to pay soldiers and keep them in supply. I further suspect that this, related to the desparate need for money and an unwillingness to get bogged down in sieges, was the main reason that Stephan, at least, got a reputation for starting something and not finishing it.

The Anarchy is an interesting period. As I noted last week, there are plenty of opportunities for a wargamer with a bit of imagination here. I suppose the down side is that reluctance of the two sides, indeed of armies in the period at all, to come to battle. There were few battles of any size – The Standard and Lincoln are the only ones mentioned – with possibilities of Clitheroe and Winchester (the rout, thereof). But that does not necessarily mean that the protagonists were unwilling to fight, just that they would only do so on their terms.

In the end, it seems, everyone got a bit fed up. When Henry of Anjou finally invaded and Stephen raised an army against him, the nobles on each side of the confrontation refused to fight. They miht have decided that they did not really want either to be the king, but it seems a bit more likely that some sort of stability was being demanded. The death of Stephen’s son Eustace cleared th way to a peace deal whereby Stephan would reign and be succeeded by Henry. The death of Ranulf of Chester also helped smooth the path. While Stephen’s younger son William could have disputed the throne, he chose not to when Stephen died in1154. Peace, of a sort, returned.

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