16.05.26, Watkins, Stephen

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Oliver Creighton

The Medieval Review 16.05.26

Watkins, Carl. Stephen: The Reign of Anarchy. Penguin Monarchs. London: Allen Lane/Penguin Books, 2015. pp. 110. ISBN: 978-0-141-97714-0 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Oliver Creighton
University of Exeter

This new volume in the Penguin Monarchs series, on the notorious reign of King Stephen, is written by Cambridge historian Carl Watkins, well known for his work on religious culture, death and the supernatural in medieval Britain. Highly engaging but concise, it is a slim book expertly distilled from a mountain of historiography, much of it written by towering figures of medieval history, and rich primary resources. Failed rulers attract as much, if not more, attention than successful ones, it seems, and Stephen's reign (1135-1154) has been particularly thoroughly researched and remains an enduringly popular topic for Undergraduate history modules. The reign is infamous as a period of governmental collapse and civil war--although the extent to which the epithet "the Anarchy" is appropriate has been vigorously contested among historians. Over nineteen famously long years, Stephen not only battled valiantly against his cousin and arch-nemesis the Empress Matilda and then her son, Henry of Anjou (later Henry II), and struggled in the face of baronial insurrection that despite energetic campaigning he could never quite stamp out, but also faced off invasions by the Scots from the north, dealt with persistent asymmetric warfare on the border with Wales, and coped with the loss of Normandy.

The text is organised into five headline-grabbing chapters. The first, "Waiting for the Bomb," deals with the period leading up to Stephen's lightning coup following the death of his uncle Henry I. The second, "A Front of Iron," takes us from Stephen's coronation in 1135 up to the defeat of the Scots at the Battle of the Standard in 1138 (although the Scots remained in control of great swathes of northern England and came close to fundamentally re-shaping British political geography in the long run). Chapter 3, "Fickle Fortuna," focuses in on the critical period around 1141, when the king was defeated and captured at the Battle of Lincoln but then released in the wake of military disaster for the Angevins at Winchester. In Chapter 4, "The Trackless Maze," dealing with the 1140s, the narrative inevitably becomes fractured as the sources get thinner and the conflict turned into a standoff punctuated by siege, counter-siege and further rebellion. Finally, Chapter 5, "The Shadow of the Future," looks at Henry of Anjou's growing profile in the war, its conclusion in a peace agreement brokered by the bishops in 1153, and his accession following Stephen's sudden death in 1154. Among the weight of discussion on the causes, conduct and conclusion of the conflict it is difficult not to form the impression that many key developments were precipitated by the timing of the deaths of key players--especially of Stephen's son, Eustace, in 1153, which cleared the way of other potential successors to Stephen and for the Peace of Winchester.

The key achievement of this study is to provide a rock solid chronology and a colourful narrative that also take great care to reference all the key areas of debate around Stephen's reign--about the extent of governmental collapse and the character of the troubled king (energetic and chivalrous but, fatally, politically naïve); the causes of the war and the agency of the Church and the aristocracy in fermenting and concluding it; and the wider European context of the events. If there is one particularly distinctive feature about this volume it is that it is especially strong on the dynamic between England, Scotland and Normandy. Watkins avoids the Anglocentric bias that has affected other writers on King Stephen. The overall picture that emerges is that King Stephen's reign was bracketed not just between two super-kings--Henry I before him and Henry II after--but three, including David I of Scots, who contemporary with Stephen's reign, oversaw a revolution as Scotland made enormous strides towards a mainstream European monarchy.

A central colour section features eleven plates, drawn mainly from manuscript illustrations and depicting the key players in the war and scenes of battle. There is a particularly eye-catching plate depicting the Harrowing of Hell on the west front of Lincoln Cathedral (dating to the time of Alexander "the Magnificent," probably the 1140s), although on the whole the material culture of the twelfth-century is sidestepped, as is traditional in studies of "the Anarchy." The exception is the period's unusual coinage--unusual in that it saw the breakdown of the monopoly of royal control over minting and the proliferation of much-discussed rival mints and variant issues. The coinage is dealt with accurately and accessibly, which is quite an achievement given the formidable body of work by numismatists on the period. On the whole, however, the archaeological and other material evidence of the period--not only the sculpture and architecture, but also the seals, excavated sites, arms and armour, and the conflict landscapes--hold enormous potential for future study and scholarship. For a comparatively slim volume (at 109 pages, including the index), there are generous levels of referencing in the notes, plus a helpful list of further reading by topic.

On the whole, this is an impressive little book that wears deep understanding lightly: highly recommended.

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