BBC History Magazine


“Wheresoever men tilled, the earth bare no corn, for the land was all ruined by such deeds; and they said openly that Christ and his saints were asleep. Such and more than we can say we endured 19 winters for our sins.” The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle paints a bleak picture of King Stephen’s reign from 1135–54, during which magnates “oppressed greatly the wretched men of the land with the making of castles; when the castles were made, they filled them with devils and evil men”.

The anonymous author of the Gesta Stephani (The Deeds of Stephen) offers an equally cataclysmic portrait. “England, formerly the seat of justice, the habitation of peace, the height of piety, the mirror of religion, became thereafter a home of perversity, a haunt of strife, a training-ground of disorder, and a teacher of every kind of rebellion.”

The terrible events to which the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and refer afflicted England in the middle of the 12th century. Yet, in truth, the seeds of the disorder were sown decades earlier. Henry I, youngest son of William the Conqueror, had snatched the throne of England on the death of his brother William II in 1100, despite the claim of their oldest brother, Robert, Duke of Normandy. William was killed by an arrow while hunting in the New Forest on 2 August. Three days later, Henry was crowned at Westminster Abbey. Robert was captured at the battle of Tinchebray in Normandy on 28 September 1106 and spent his remaining 27 years as

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