Book Review: “Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy” by Matthew Lewis

47355586Civil wars between cousins have had many names in the past, notably in England, the Wars of the Roses. However, there was a civil war that pre-dates the colorful contest known as The Anarchy. Two cousins fighting against one another from the throne of England, but what makes this contest unique was the main protagonists caught in the middle. One was the only legitimate child of King Henry I, Empress Matilda. The other was Henry I’s favorite nephew, Stephen of Blois. This conflict stretched for decades and has fascinated historians for centuries. It is complex and at times, a bit confusing, but Matthew Lewis has chosen to shed some light on what happened during this period in history in his latest book, “Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy”.

I would like to thank Pen and Sword Books for sending me a copy of this book. I have enjoyed Matthew Lewis’ books in the past and I didn’t know much about The Anarchy, so this book seemed like a good place to start.

The story of The Anarchy started when Henry I’s only legitimate son died tragically in The White Ship disaster. Although Henry I did have numerous illegitimate children, the only legitimate child that he had left was his daughter Matilda. She was married to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, thus she took her illustrious title Empress Matilda. However, when her husband died, she married Geoffrey, Count of Anjou.

When Henry I died in 1135, the throne was supposed to pass down to Empress Matilda, which would have been unprecedented as a woman never ruled England before. However, Empress Matilda’s cousin and Henry I’s nephew, Stephen of Blois got to England first and became King Stephen. To make matters a bit more confusing for those who study this time period, King Stephen married Matilda of Boulogne, who is known in this book as Queen Matilda. Although they shared the same name, these two women acted very differently when it came to how women in power demanded respect from the men around them.

As Lewis explains, The Anarchy which lasted from 1135 until 1154, was not this period of extreme chaos caused by King Stephen’s reign. There are some misconceptions about King Stephen and Empress Matilda that have been passed on through the centuries such as King Stephen was an ineffective leader and Empress Matilda was power-hungry and heavy-handed. Since Lewis decided to keep a very neutral approach, showing both sides of the conflict, which was such a strength in this book, the reader can understand what both Stephen and Matilda were fighting for and how they fought their war. Lewis also showed how the barons, clergy, and other European rulers played into this confusing conflict which led to Empress Matilda’s son Henry II becoming the first Plantagenet King of England.

This was a great introductory book to the conflict known as The Anarchy and the colorful characters of King Stephen and Empress Matilda. Lewis was able to combine well-researched information and an easy to understand writing style to bring this conflict to life. As someone who did not know a whole lot about The Anarchy before I read this book, I found it rather enlightening. The only qualm that I did have with this book was that I was getting confused about the barons and clergy who were helping either side and which side they were on. I do wish that Lewis included a table of names of the people involved to help clear the confusion. Overall, I did enjoy this book. If you want a great book that introduces you to the tumultuous time in English history known as The Anarchy, I recommend you read, “Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy” by Matthew Lewis.