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Anarchy in 12th Century England
Hollywood often paints a romantic picture of England in the Middle Ages - knights in shinning armor following a strict code of chivalry and enjoying sumptuous banquets in pristine castles. The reality is much more sobering.

When King Henry I died in 1135, Stephen - grandson of William the Conqueror - grabbed the throne from Henry's daughter Matilda leading to an extended period of civil war, chaos and anarchy in England. As a consequence of this struggle for power, a period of lawlessness descended upon the countryside, endangering the safety of peasant and noble alike. This lasted almost twenty years ending only with the death of Stephen and the rise of Henry II to the throne.

"They oppressed the wretched people of the country severely..."

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle - a collection of historical annals describing England's history from the Dark Ages to the middle of the 12th century - provides some insight into the life and times of the Middle Ages:

"When King Stephen came to England he held his council at Oxford, and there he took Roger, bishop of Salisbury, and Alexander, bishop of Lincoln, and the chancellor Roger, his nephews, and put them all in prison till they surrendered their castles. When the traitors understood that he was a mild man, and gentle and good, and did not exact the full penalties of the law, they perpetrated every enormity. They had done him homage, and sworn oaths, but they kept no pledge; all of them were perjured and their pledges nullified, for every powerful man built his castles and held them against him and they filled the country full of castles.

They oppressed the wretched people of the country severely with castle-building. When the castles were built, they filled them with devils and wicked men. Then, both by night and day they took those people that they thought had any goods - men and women - and put them in prison and tortured them with indescribable torture to extort gold and silver - for no martyrs were ever so tortured as they were. They were hung by the thumbs or by the head, and corselets were hung on their feet. Knotted ropes were put round their heads and twisted till they penetrated to the brains.

They put them in prisons where there were adders and snakes and toads, and killed them like that. Some they put in a 'torture-chamber' - that is in a chest that was short, narrow and shallow, and they put sharp stones in it and pressed the man in it so that he had all his limbs broken. In many of the castles was a 'noose-and-trap' - consisting of chains of such a kind that two or three men had enough to do to carry one. It was so made that it was fastened to a beam, and they used to put a sharp iron around the man's throat and his neck, so that he could not in any direction either sit or lie or sleep, but had to carry all that iron. Many thousands they killed by starvation.

I have neither the ability nor the power to tell all the horrors nor all the torments they inflicted upon wretched people in this country; and that lasted the nineteen years while Stephen was king, and it was always going from bad to worse. They levied taxes on the villages every so often, and called it' 'protection money'. When the wretched people had no more to give, they robbed and burned the villages, so that you could easily go a whole day's journey and never find anyone occupying a village, nor land tilled. Then corn was dear, and meat and butter and cheese, because there was none in the country. Wretched people died of starvation; some lived by begging for alms, who had once been rich men; some fled the country.

There had never been till then greater misery in the country, nor had heathens ever done worse than they did. For contrary to custom, they respected neither church nor churchyard, but took all the property that was inside, and then burnt the church and everything together. Neither did they respect bishops' land nor abbots' nor priests', but robbed monks and clerics, and everyone robbed somebody else if he had the greater power. If two or three men came riding to a village, all the villagers fled from them; they expected they would be robbers.

The bishops and learned men were always excommunicating them, but they thought nothing of it, because they were all utterly accursed and perjured and doomed to perdition.

Wherever cultivation was done, the ground produced no corn, because the land was all ruined by such doings, and they said openly that Christ and his saints were asleep. Such things too much for us to describe, we suffered nineteen years for our sins."

   This account is taken from Whitelock, Dorothy (translator) The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (1961); Davis H.W.C. (ed.), Medieval England (1928).

How To Cite This Article:
"Anarchy in 12th Century England," EyeWitness to History, (2005).