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Anarchy? War and Status in Twelfth-Century Landscapes of Conflict

Professor Oliver Creighton

In England the phrase ‘the civil war’ usually conjures up images of the struggle between the Royalists and Parliamentarians in the mid-1600s. A new Leverhulme-funded research project based in the University of Exeter’s Department of Archaeology will investigate a much earlier but equally bloody and bitter civil conflict — the so-called ‘Anarchy’ of King Stephen’s reign in the mid-1100s. Political rebellion, lawlessness and bitter conflict characterised Stephen’s troubled reign (1135–54), which was marked by a protracted struggle with rival claimant Empress Matilda and her Angevin supporters over ‘nineteen long winters’ when, according to the Peterborough Chronicle, ‘Christ and his Saints slept’. This tumultuous period has been intensively studied by medieval historians, who have analysed charters and chroniclers’ accounts to assess Stephen’s failed leadership. Our understanding of this much-debated period is almost entirely based on documentary sources, however. While Stephen is one of medieval England’s most written about kings, no study to date has considered the archaeological and material evidence for the period — from landscapes of castles, siege-works and battlefields through to artefacts, coins, hoards and weaponry.

An archaeological approach to ‘the Anarchy’ can not only to augment but also challenge historical narratives, potentially shedding new light on the conflict and its consequences for medieval society and landscape. For example, do we see archaeological evidence for the widespread militarisation of the landscape through uncontrolled castle building by cruel lords and robber barons, as the chroniclers suggest? What were the consequences of political chaos for everyday people in towns and villages: was this a conflict that affected the privileged upper echelons of society more than the wider populace? Did the disorder impact upon England as a whole or was the violence more localised? What were its impacts upon the Church: while chroniclers recoiled in horror as monasteries and cathedrals were defiled by armies, the period also saw an upsurge in new religious foundations by pious lords. Were the battles and sieges of the period bloody affairs, or were clashes of arms governed by ritual, with a strong element of display in armed conflict? Addressing these questions and others, this project will carry out new archaeological surveys on a wide range of sites and landscapes as well as collating existing materials from archives and museum collections to shed new light on the Anarchy, its effects and legacy.