Post-classical history

Chapter Three

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Anarchy

Between 1120 and 1139, the Count of Anjou becomes king of Jerusalem, the Holy Roman Empress becomes Countess of Anjou, and civil war wrecks England

FOR THE LAST FIVE YEARS of his life, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V was poised to become the most powerful monarch in the world.

Matilda, daughter of Henry I of England, had spent four years betrothed to Henry V. At thirteen she was finally sent to Mainz, where she married the twenty-eight-year-old emperor in a ceremony of “fitting splendour” (Henry of Huntingdon, writing in 1129, remarks that her father was forced to levy a special tax on the English in order to pay for it). Six years later, catastrophe struck at home. Her brother, William, a year her junior and the heir to the English throne, got drunk with friends and ordered a ship put out to sea for all of them. Steering while intoxicated was as dangerous then as it is now; William of Malmesbury says that it was “already night and pitch dark when those young hotheads, drunk as well as foolish, put out from the shore. The ship sped swifter than a feathered arrow, and . . . struck, through the carelessness of her besotted crew, a rock projecting from the surface not far from shore.”1

Late November was not a good time to be wrecked in the English Channel, not even close to shore. All of the young men on the ship but one drowned; most of the bodies were never recovered.

The seventeen-year-old William was Henry’s only legitimate son, Matilda his only daughter. William of Malmesbury says, in admiration, that Henry only indulged “in the embraces of the female sex . . . from love of begetting children and not to gratify his passions, for he thought it beneath his dignity to comply with extraneous gratification, unless the royal seed could fulfill its natural purpose.” This was patriotic nonsense; Henry I still holds a record for siring more bastards than any other English king, but his legal unions were less fruitful. He married again immediately after William’s death, hoping to father another son, but none came along. Matilda, wife of the emperor, became first in line to the throne of England; Henry V was now in line to become king of England as well as king of Germany, king of Italy, and Holy Roman Emperor.2

But in his late thirties he grew suddenly and violently ill, probably with some form of cancer. He died in 1125, just before his fortieth birthday. Matilda had given birth to a stillborn child, sometime before her husband’s death, but she had no living children; and with Henry V, the Salian dynasty of emperors came to an end. The aristocrats of Germany assembled to elect another emperor (eventually they settled on the Duke of Saxony, who became Lothair III), and Matilda went home.

Henry I of England, despairing of a son, set himself to shore up his daughter’s claim to the English crown. Two years after her husband’s death, he arranged a new marriage for her, to the fifteen-year-old Geoffrey the Handsome; Matilda, in a reversal of her earlier fortunes, was twenty-five.

The marriage was politically smart and personally disastrous.

Geoffrey was the son of the Count of Anjou, and Anjou was a keystone in the power structure of Western Francia. Western Francia, like Germany, was a fragment of Charlemagne’s defunct eighth-century empire; unlike Germany, which had begun its journey towards a national identity under the guidance of Henry the Fowler in 919, Western Francia was a patchwork. Only the ring of territories right around Paris was known as France; the rest of Western Francia was governed by local noblemen, held loosely together by personal oaths of loyalty to the Capetian king.*

The Count of Anjou was one of these noblemen: loyal in theory to the French throne, but a king in his own lands in all but name. He had inherited a massive estate that bordered Henry I’s Norman lands on one side, and the king of France’s royal holdings on the other. His power was due largely to the efforts of his great-grandfather Fulk the Black, a psychotically warlike aristocrat who had burned his wife, in her wedding dress, at the stake for adultery; fought a vicious war against his own son and then forced the defeated youth to put on a bridle and saddle and crawl on the ground in humiliation; and pillaged and robbed the surrounding lands at will. Fearing a justly deserved hell, he had in his old age made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where he was rumored to have bitten off a piece of stone from the Holy Sepulchre with his own teeth so that he would have a relic to bring home.3

The current Count of Anjou, Fulk V, was more moderate than his ancestor, but no less ambitious. The marriage of his young son to the future queen of England was good for Matilda, since it brought the resources of France’s most powerful region to her aid. It would also make Fulk’s grandchildren into royalty. And it would give Anjou, in return, the protection of the English king.

Fulk V was in need of this protection for his son, because he was already planning to leave his home for another throne. In a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1120, he had befriended the king of Jerusalem, Baldwin II. Baldwin II had four daughters but no sons; he wanted to assure the succession of his oldest daughter, Melisande, to the throne of Jerusalem, and Fulk was a widower. As soon as he had arranged for the marriage of Geoffrey and Matilda, Fulk relinquished the title of Count of Anjou to his son and departed for Jerusalem. “Within a few days after his arrival in the kingdom,” writes William of Tyre, who knew Fulk, “the king gave him his oldest daughter to wife.” When Baldwin II died, in 1131, Fulk and Melisande were crowned king and queen of Jerusalem.4

Meanwhile, his son and new daughter-in-law had quarreled and separated.

Geoffrey had risen in the world, becoming count at a ridiculously young age; Matilda had sunk from empress to countess. Matilda, once married to the most powerful man in the west, had ruled Italy in her husband’s absence; now she was tied to a teenager who had been knighted a bare week before the wedding. After a single year, she walked out on her child-groom and went home.

The cause of the quarrel is unknown (Simeon of Durham says that Geoffrey “repudiated” Matilda “without respect”), but eventually Matilda’s father talked her into returning. The two must have worked out some way of coexisting; Matilda bore her young husband a son in 1133, when she was thirty-one and he was twenty, and then gave him two more in the next three years.5

In 1135, Henry I of England was in Normandy, his own land, visiting his daughter just across the border in Anjou. He had “delayed” his return to England, writes the English chronicler Henry of Huntingdon, “by reason of his great delight in his grandchildren.” One day he returned from hunting and indulged himself in a dinner of lamprey eels: “of which he was fond,” Huntingdon remarks, “though they always disagreed with him. . . . This repast bringing on ill humours, and violently exciting similar symptoms, caused a sudden and extreme disturbance, under which his aged frame sunk into a deathly torpor.” He died on the first day of December, aged sixty-eight.6

Before Matilda could cross the Channel and claim her crown, the noblemen of England—resistant both to the notion of a queen and to the French influence that would undoubtedly accompany her—banded together and proclaimed Matilda’s cousin Stephen, grandson of William the Conqueror, as king of England.

For a time, Stephen ruled unopposed. But over the first four years of his reign, he grew slowly more unpopular. He lost land to the Welsh; descendants of Romans and Irish and native Britons, the Welsh had formed a distinct kingdom in the ninth century, had paid tribute to the English kings in the tenth, and had resisted the Norman influx in the eleventh. He struggled against the Scots, the Celts of the far north; the Scottish High King David I had sworn reluctant loyalty to Henry I but now repealed his alliance and marched into the north of England. Stephen drove back the Scottish invasion with startling ferocity (eleven thousand dead, says Henry of Huntingdon), arrested two powerful English bishops and confiscated their lands, and then fell out with the Archbishop of Canterbury. His reign disintegrated into calamity.7

In 1139, four years after Stephen’s election, Matilda invaded England with troops from Anjou and Normandy. The armies of Matilda and Stephen laid the fields waste; neither king nor queen controlled the country, and the barons of England seized the opportunity to enrich themselves. “Every powerful man made his castles and held them,” says the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Then both by night and day they seized those men whom they imagined had any wealth, common men and women, and put them in prison to get their gold and silver, and tortured them. . . . Wretched men starved with hunger; some who were once powerful men went on alms; some fled out of the land. . . . [T]he earth bore no corn because the land was all done for by such doings.8

This was the beginning of the Anarchy, a fifteen-year civil war that destroyed villages, killed thousands, wrecked the English countryside, and brought its people to despair: “And it was said openly,” concludes the Chronicle, “that Christ and His saints slept.”

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3.1 England and France during the Anarchy

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*The Capetian dynasty ruled in Paris 987–1328; it was founded by Hugh Capet, grandson of Henry the Fowler. The Capetian king at the time of Matilda was Louis VI, nicknamed Louis the Fat (1108–1137).

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