Anarchy? War and Status in Twelfth-Century Landscapes of Conflict

In England, the phrase ‘the civil war’ usually conjures up images of the struggle between the Royalists and Parliamentarians in the mid-1600s.

This new research project—funded by the Leverhulme Trust and based in the University of Exeter’s Department of Archaeology—will investigate a much earlier but equally bloody and bitter civil conflict, the so-called ‘Anarchy’ of King Stephen’s reign in the mid-1100s.

Political rebellion, lawlessness and bitter conflict characterised Stephen’s troubled reign (1135–54), which was marked by a protracted struggle with rival claimant Empress Matilda and her Angevin supporters over ‘nineteen long winters’ when, according to the Peterborough Chronicle, ‘Christ and his Saints slept’. This tumultuous period has been intensively studied by medieval historians, who have analysed charters and chroniclers’ accounts to assess Stephen’s failed leadership. However, our understanding of this much-debated period is almost entirely based on documentary sources. While Stephen is one of medieval England’s most written about kings, no study to date has considered the archaeological and material evidence for the period, from landscapes of castles, siege-works and battlefields through to artefacts, coins, hoards and weaponry.

Not only can an archaeological approach to the Anarchy augment historical narratives, it can also challenge them, potentially shedding new light on the conflict and its consequences for medieval society and landscape. For example, do we see archaeological evidence for the widespread militarisation of the landscape through uncontrolled castle-building by cruel lords and robber barons, as the chroniclers suggest? What were the consequences of political chaos for everyday people in towns and villages: was this a conflict that affected the privileged upper echelons of society more than the wider populace?  Did the disorder have an impact on England as a whole, or was the violence more localised? What were the impacts on the Church? While chroniclers recoiled in horror as monasteries and cathedrals were defiled by armies, the period also saw an upsurge in new religious foundations by pious lords. Were the battles and sieges of the period bloody affairs, or were clashes of arms governed by ritual, with a strong element of display in armed conflict?

Addressing these questions and others, this project will carry out new archaeological surveys on a wide range of sites and landscapes as well as collating existing materials from archives and museum collections to shed new light on the Anarchy, its effects and legacy.

Dr Oliver Creighton
University of Exeter

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The walls of Wallingford castle: a key Angevin stronghold that endured three separate sieges during the Anarchy

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Archaeological geophysical survey in action.

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Earthworks of a small Anarchy-period castle at Therfield, Hertfordshire.

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A coin of King Stephen.