Letter from England

Inside the Anarchy

Archaeologists explore the landscape of England’s first civil war


July/August 2018

The Anarchy Wallingford Castle

Some 20 miles downriver of Oxford and an arrow shot from the eastern bank of the Thames rise the limestone ruins of Wallingford Castle, a massive fortress built following the Norman invasion of England in 1066. Led by the newly crowned William the Conqueror, the Normans—descended from Norsemen who had settled in northern France in the tenth century—built castles in large numbers throughout England to control lands they had seized from the Anglo-Saxons. Along with Oxford and Windsor Castles, Wallingford was one of the most significant of these early Norman fortresses. And, in less than a century, the castle became the epicenter of one of the most momentous conflicts in English history. When William’s son King Henry I died in 1135, his rightful heir was his daughter, Empress Matilda. But her cousin, Stephen of Blois, also a grandchild of William the Conqueror, snatched the throne from under her nose. Matilda then launched an all-out campaign to win back the crown, plunging the country into a civil war that lasted almost 20 years.


In response to the crisis, nobles built still more castles, and rivals to the king set up their own mints and produced new coinage. Churches were fortified and the peasantry suffered deprivation as armies crisscrossed the country, ravaging estates and burning property. A contemporary chronicle describes King Stephen’s reign as “nineteen long winters” when “Christ and his Saints slept.” Victorian historian William Stubbs described the period as the “Anarchy,” a term that stuck.


But was the Anarchy really as horrific as contemporary histories and later scholars made it out to be? Over the last seven years, University of Exeter archaeologist Oliver Creighton has led a team that has followed in the footsteps of Stephen’s forces across England. They have explored 12 of the war’s most significant locations and used archaeological techniques to assess the upheaval brought about by the Anarchy. “This was a period that experienced major political turbulence and an upsurge in fortification building,” says Creighton. “Most of what we know about the period is through historical documents. We wanted to afford a new perspective by using the full range of archaeological data, from portable artifacts through sites such as castles and settlements, and even the evidence of the landscape itself.”


One avenue of their research relies on the tendency of people to bury coins in times of strife to keep their fortunes safe. Although most such coin hoards are likely to have been successfully retrieved, the forgotten and lost ones that are recovered by archaeologists and metal detectorists centuries later can serve as an indicator of how turbulent times were. “Hoarding provides a barometer of public fear, with fewer hoards deposited during peaceful periods,” says Creighton. The number and distribution of coin hoards he and his colleagues have found show that Stephen’s reign appears to have been a particularly insecure time. They see a huge spike in the number of hoards buried in lands in the rebellious areas of western Britain, going from just a few hoards per decade up to more than 10 per decade during Stephen’s reign. This may indicate that people in the region felt jittery and were more inclined to bury their fortunes, or perhaps it reflects the chaos of the time, with people more likely to be killed or displaced and unable to return. Interestingly, Creighton’s team also discovered that far fewer hoards from this period have been unearthed in the royalist southeast, hinting that a more peaceful atmosphere prevailed in this area and suggesting that only parts of the country were caught in the grip of political instability.