Seminar CCXLVII: remains of unrestrained lordship

We now come to the other paper from the first quarter of 2017 I said I still wanted to talk about, which was one of the open lectures which the Institute for Medieval Studies at Leeds runs. These can cover quite a range of topics, and in this instance it was high medieval English archaeology. It’s been a while since Leeds had any medieval archaeologists but we like to stay in touch, and accordingly on 7th March Professor Oliver Creighton of the University of Exeter came to talk to us and the willing public with the title, “The Archaeology of Anarchy? Landscapes of War and Status in Twelfth-Century England”.

Marginal illustration of King Stephen directing one of his commanders, drawn c. 1230, British Library, MS Arundel 48, fo. 168v

Marginal illustration of King Stephen directing one of his commanders at the Battle of Lincoln, 1141, drawn c. 1230, British Library, MS Arundel 48, fo. 168v, from the British Library’s website under their normal terms of use but also available through Wikimedia Commons

The ‘Anarchy’ in question is what historians have for a long time tended to call the wider civil situation engendered by the struggle for the English throne between the Empress Matilda, widow of Emperor Henry V of Germany hence her title, by this time husband of Count Geoffrey of Anjou and most relevantly heir designate of King Henry I of England, and King Stephen, who despite having sworn support for Matilda to the dying Henry still swept in and grabbed the English throne for himself in 1135 when Henry died. During the ensuing struggle, says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, “Christ and His saints slept,” and every lord who could got away with whatever injustices and self-aggrandisements he could.1 Taking its rhetoric more or less literally, scholars of the older generation observed that a wash of castles got built without the theoretically-required royal permission, that some lords even started minting their own coin and in general everything went badly until it became possible to arrange terms between Stephen, whose eldest son died at a critical point, and Matilda’s son the future Henry II, so that England could finally concede without enduring a woman on the throne.2 The scholarship has moved on since then, recognising that obviously quite a lot of people were willing to see a woman on the throne rather than Stephen, that for others the problem might have been more with this particular woman than gender as such, given that Stephen’s queen (also Matilda, just to help) gets a much more positive write-up in the same sources, and that the castles and mints were probably in many cases begun with one or other royal permission, because the lords were able to play the contendors off against each other in this situation.3 What hasn’t really been done is to see what this looked like on the ground on any scale, and that is what, with the help of the Leverhulme Trust, Professor Creighton had been doing. He had picked 12 sites in or around the key zones of contention, Wessex and the Thames Valley, and gone over them with resistivity sensors and a fine-toothed field survey, and thus had some sense of what kind of remains the supposed anarchy had left behind, which I didn’t at the time realise had already produced a book whose summary we must have been hearing.4

Pickering Castle depicted with the twelfth-century counter-castle visible, from Wikimedia Commons

Pickering Castle as it still stands, with the Anarchy counter-castle visible as a mound at the top left of the picture; photo by Pauline E, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, Wikimedia Commons

The findings broke down roughly into two headings, I suppose, one of which was definitely war. Several of the castles involved in Professor Creighton’s study area had been built as part of military campaigns (including one incomplete siege castle and the town of Wallingford where the siege castle itself wound up being besieged), and the resistivity surveys had often shown up subsidiary earthworks and fortifications that had probably formed part of trying to reduce or outflank these places.5 Given the work that Henry II later had to do to raze castles of which he didn’t approve and the fact that at least one of these ‘temporary’ fortresses, the Rings at Corfe, was besieged again in the English Civil War (as opposed to the civil war in England that we’re now discussing…), I do wonder if we can always be sure that these extra works were early-twelfth-century in date.6 The other thing that comes up a lot round them is arrowheads, apparently, however, where the dating is a bit more certain, and I certainly have no interest in suggesting there wasn’t fighting at these locations.

The Rings earthwork at Corfe Castle

The Rings at Corfe Castle, supposedly a siege earthwork set up by King Stephen and then used again in 1646, photo from Castles and Fortifications of England and Wales

There was, apparently, a great variety of castles in this era. It wasn’t as simple as every lord flinging up a motte and bailey and daring all comers to challenge his right to exploit the local peasantry. While I expect a lot of that was happening, what is more obvious is bigger ventures like whole fortified villages (Boteler’s Castle), whole towns (Cricklade or Wallingford) or whole fortified islands even, or just very large castles, and even reactivated hillfort settlements whose roots are probably very old indeed. Some churches and monasteries were fortified too, and all of these places tended to reorganise their local landscape in ways that must have outlasted the military purposes they were possibly only meant to fulfil briefly.

Motte of the erstwhile Beaudesert Castle in Henley-in-Arden

Motte of the erstwhile Beaudesert Castle in Henley-in-Arden, on what was probably also an Iron Age fortified site, photo from Castles and Fortifications of England and Wales

The other thread that is visible in the material culture, therefore, is in fact the lordly self-aggrandisement that the old scholarship was so keen on condemning. We already had the coins from which the quasi-independent minting is known, of course, but we also see a sharp increase in the preservation of seal matrices, of heraldic decorations (including harness pendants and strap-ends with devices on), fancy architecture and new Church and monastic foundations, all the works, it seems, of lords whose position now either allowed or required them to make more effort in saying something about themselves and their status, which of course makes one wonder who the audience was for all this material and architectural display.7

Five silver pennies of the Anarchy in England, on display at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow

Five silver pennies of the Anarchy in England, on display at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, image used as masthead for the exhibition’s extremely informative website, linked through

One could choose to see it all as a vulgar display of power meant to cow the local peasantry and gentry into falling into line behind these newly assertive lordships, one could see it as competition between the lords, perhaps for the loyalty of exactly those same gentry and peasantry, one could see it as an attempt to gain sufficient ground by half-forced concessions from more-or-less-royal authority that when things eventually settled down the lords would be established as much grander than circumstances had previously allowed, or one could just see it as defiance of the crown and a genuine attempt at independent lordship, and this just being what that looked like. Obviously, the archaeology does not itself tell us which if any of these things it represents, and Professor Creighton didn’t try, but just like the similar kinds of activities that people studying the south of France and Catalonia a century or so before have spotted, it is tempting for historians to try and make patterns out of it anyway.8

It has to be said that the lecture didn’t do much, or even try, to shake me out of the impression that if you were not in charge of one of these castles, it must have been a bad time to be trying to make a living in England; the scale at which people, settlements and stuff seem to have been being moved around, presumably without much choice in the matter, and the lack of recourse they can have had about it, all helped me understand in more depth where the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle‘s picture was coming from. In that respect, although Professor Creighton had not done what one commentator, local postgraduate Victoria Yuskaitis, wondered about, mapping textual and archaeological data together, he was already making them work together in a new way, yet one that seemed to reinforce the older scholarship as much or more than the newer stuff. That may be something for people in the field to consider…


1. Michael Swanton (transl.), The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (London 1996), s. a. 1137, at the end of a full page-and-a-half complaining of seigneurial abuse, extortion and torture.

2. For an old-fashioned view like that you’d have to go to R. H. C. Davis, King Stephen, 1135-1154, 3rd edn. (London 1990) or the less durable H. A. Cronne, The Reign of Stephen, 1135-1154: Anarchy in England (London 1970), though even then cf. John le Patourel, “What Did Not Happen in Stephen’s Reign” in History Vol. 58 (London 1973), pp. 1-18, on JSTOR here, or Edward J. Kealey, “King Stephen: Government and Anarchy” in Albion Vol. 6 (Boone NC 1974), pp. 201–217, on JSTOR here.

3. Now you could get your updates in any or all of Marjorie Chibnall, The Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother, and Lady of the English (Oxford 1992); Edmund King (ed.), The Anarchy of King Stephen’s Reign (Oxford 1994); Jim Bradbury, Stephen and Matilda: the Civil War of 1139-53 (Stroud 1998); David Crouch, The Reign of King Stephen, 1135-1154 (Harlow 2000); Donald Matthew, King Stephen (London 2002); Edmund King, King Stephen (New Haven CT 2012) or Paul Dalton and Graeme J. White (edd.), King Stephen’s Reign (1135-1154) (Cambridge 2012); it’s not what you’d call an under-researched area. On Matilda and gender-expectations specifically, though, add Jean A. Truax, “Winning over the Londoners: King Stephen, the Empress Matilda and the Politics of Personality” in Haskins Society Journal Vol. 13 (Woodbridge 1996), pp. 42–62; Heather J. Tanner, “Queenship: Office, Custom, or Ad Hoc?: the Case of Queen Matilda III of England (1135-1152)” in Bonnie Wheeler and John Carmi Parsons (edd.), Eleanor of Aquitaine: Lord and Lady (New York City NY 2003), pp. 133–158; and Patricia A. Dark, “‘A woman of Sublety and a Man’s Resolution’: Matilda of Boulogne in the Power Struggles of the Anarchy” in Brenda M. Bolton and Christine E. Meek (edd.), Aspects of Power and Authority in the Middle Ages, International Medieval Research 14 (Turnhout 2007), pp. 147–164.

4. Oliver H. Creighton and Duncan W. Wright, with Michael Fradley and Stephen Trick, The Anarchy: War and Status in 12th-Century Landscapes of Conflict (Liverpool 2016), to which we can now add Duncan W. Wright and O. H. Creighton (edd.), Castles, siegeworks and settlements: surveying the archaeology of the twelfth century (Oxford 2016), which seems to be the fieldwork reports from this project.

5. On the incomplete siege-work at Burwell, see as well as the coverage in Wright and Creighton, Castles, siegeworks and settlements, Duncan W. Wright, Oliver Creighton, Steven Trick and Michael Fradley, “Power, conflict and ritual on the fen-edge: the Anarchy-period castle at Burwell, Cambridgeshire, and its pre-Conquest landscape” in Landscape History Vol. 37 (Abingdon 2016), pp. 25–50.

6. I had special reservations about the use of beakheads in architecture, such as we have seen here from Iffley Church in Oxford, as hard dating indicators for building in the 1120s-1160s, on the basis that they weren’t used outside that time. That sounds like a self-fulfilling diagnostic to me, and even Iffley threatens to stretch it.

7. The ways seals fit into this also seems to me a possible area of question, mainly because their use was spreading all over Europe at this time, which probably wasn’t a result of the conditions in England; see Brigitte Bedos-Rezak, When Ego was Imago: signs of identity in the Middle Ages, Visualising the Middle Ages 3 (Leiden 2011). On the coins, meanwhile, see M. A. S. Blackburn, “Coinage and Currency” in King, Anarchy, pp. 101–124, updated by Martin Allen, “The York Local Coinage of the Reign of Stephen (1135–54)” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 176 (London 2016), pp. 283–318 and Allen, “Pembroke: a New Mint of the Empress Matilda in the Reign of Stephen?”, ibid. Vol. 179 (London 2019), pp. 295–297.

8. As the previous note suggests, there were ways in which looking outside the British Isles might have added to this study. I’m thinking here straight away of Pierre Bonnassie, “Descriptions of Fortresses in the Book of Miracles of Sainte-Foy of Conques”, transl. Jean Birrell, in Bonnassie, From Slavery to Feudalism in South-Western Europe (Cambridge 1991), pp. 132–148, but as well as Bedos-Rezak, When Ego was Imago, one could suggest Thomas N. Bisson, The Crisis of the Twelfth Century: Power, Lordship, and the Origins of European Government (Princeton NJ 2015) or even Karl Leyser, “The Crisis of Medieval Germany” in Leyser, Communications and Power in Medieval Europe: the Gregorian revolution and beyond, ed. Timothy Reuter (London 1994), pp. 21–49, for a sense that some of these developments were being experienced more widely.

6 responses to “Seminar CCXLVII: remains of unrestrained lordship

  1. One of the English civil wars involved a French Prince taking London, didn’t it? Presumably that was the same civil war in which the Scots cavalry reached Dover?

    Unless that happened somehow during the Wars of the Roses? Shirley Knott.

    No wonder people tried to popularise the title The War of the Three Kingdoms for the 17th century civil war.

    • I don’t know of a French capture of London, but either the latter stage of the Hundred Years War or maybe the Anglo-Dutch War both contained an attempted French invasion under a headstrong young Dauphin who then had to be embarrassingly retrived by diplomacy. Maybe both! We’re out of my compass here…

    • I had somehow managed to miss that one entirely! But the main book I have read about John, it turns out, goes through the episode in a paragraph and only implies, rather than stating, the capture of London, and I read it twelve years ago, so I feel that I may have an excuse. Thankyou for the refresher!

  2. Here’s another English civil war. Does it have a handy name?

    “In 1138, the Empress’s half-brother Robert of Gloucester rebelled against [King] Stephen, threatening civil war. … When the Empress and Robert invaded in 1139, Stephen was unable to crush the revolt rapidly, and it took hold in the south-west of England. … the war dragged on for many years with neither side able to win an advantage.

    … In 1153 the Empress’s son, Henry FitzEmpress, invaded England and built an alliance of powerful regional barons to support his claim for the throne. The two armies met at Wallingford, but neither side’s barons were keen to fight another pitched battle. Stephen began to examine a negotiated peace,…”

    That’s two successful invasions too.

    • This, however, is the very civil war with which we started… And does it count as an invasion if the Crown notionally holds the shore from which you invade? Normandy wasn’t lost to France till 1204.

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