The power vacuum left after the deaths of King Henry I and his only legitimate son, William, resulted in a power struggle between Henry’s nephew, Stephen of Blois, and Henry’s daughter, Matilda. Before Henry’s death, the barons had agreed to support Matilda as the next ruler of England, but instead backed Stephen when the time came. Many of the Norman barons in England did not approve of Maltida’s marriage to the count of Anjou, a traditional enemy of Normandy, and Stephen took advantage of this and of his status as one of the most wealthy barons in England, and upon Henry’s death rushed across the English Channel from Normandy and seized the throne before Matilda could act.
According to the chronicles of William of Newburgh:
When, therefore, as already said, king Henry died, Stephen, violating the oath, which he had sworn to king Henry’s daughter, of preserving his fidelity, seized upon the kingdom; and in this he was aided by the prelates and nobles who were bound by the same oath: William, archbishop of Canterbury, who had sworn first, then consecrated him king, with the help and assistance of Roger, bishop of Salisbury, who was the second who had sworn, and had, moreover, administered the oath to every other individual … Stephen, therefore, in order that he might be elevated to the throne equally against right both human and divine — transgressing the one by not being the legitimate heir, and the other by his perfidy — promised everything which the prelates and nobles demanded.
Stephen’s reign began in 1135 but was marked by constant civil war between him and Matilda. With the backing of Angevin military strength, Matilda landed on English soil in 1139, and by 1141 had captured Stephen at Lincoln, though he was only held captive for eight months.
William of Newburgh recounts the events of Stephen’s capture:
In the sixth year of his reign, king Stephen laid siege to the castle of Lincoln, which Ranulph, earl of Chester, had entered by stratagem, and still possessed; and the siege was protracted from Christmas to the Presentation of our Lord. To raise the siege, the earl brought with him the earl of Gloucester (natural son of king Henry), his father-in-law, and some other very intrepid nobles, with considerable forces, and announced to the king, that unless he should desist, they would attack him. The king, however, being aware of their arrival, had collected troops on all sides; and, disposing them without the city to receive their opponents, he prepared for the battle with perfect confidence; for he was himself a most courageous warrior, and was supported by superior numbers. In addition to this, the opposing army, wearied with a long winter’s march, seemed more in need of rest to recruit its vigor, than calculated to encounter the perils of war. Still, however, though inferior in numbers and equipment, yet excelling in courage alone, and aware that, such a distance from home, there could be no place of refuge in a hostile country, they rushed undauntedly to the conflict. Having dismounted, the king himself, with his company, ranged his cavalry in the vanguard, to give or to receive the first assault; but it being vanquished and put to flight by the first charge of the enemy’s horse, the whole brunt of the battle fell upon the division in which was the king. Here the conflict raged most desperately, the king himself fighting very courageously amid the foremost; at length being captured, and his company dispersed, the victorious army triumphantly entered the city to plunder, while the royal captive was sent to the empress, and committed to custody at Bristol.
Due to this lasting civil war, the power of the royal government effectively collapsed, and the kingdom became fragmented like contemporary France, only to be restored by Henry II, Maltida’s son, when he assumed power in the year 1154. During this time of decentralization, barons printed their own coins and constructed castles without royal license.
The end to the conflict came about with the Treaty of Winchester when Stephen appointed Henry II as his heir and successor. There are two interpretations as to what brought about this resolution: one being that the barons had grown tired of fighting and splitting their loyalties, and the second was that with Stephen’s appointment of Henry as his successor, the barons also secured hereditary tenure of their estates.
Whatever the true reason, Henry II became the first Plantagenet king to rule England.
Saul, Nigel. The Oxford Illustrated History of Medieval England. Oxford University Press, 1997.