Castle Warfare in the Gesta Stephani
By Sarah Speight
Chateau Gaillard XIX: Actes du Colloque International de Graz, 1998 (2000)
Introduction: The reign of the English king Stephen (1135-1154), popularly known as `the Anarchy’, is a fruitful source of study for historians and castellologists, providing evidence for the deployment of `adulterine’ castles and the conduct of siege warfare. It is a reign that has been considered by several recent authors, including most notably Matthew Strickland.
Stephen succeeded his uncle, King Henry I of England, in 1135. This was a controversial succession seeing as Henry had a daughter living, Matilda, to whom his barons had sworn three oaths of allegiance. Matilda, furthermore, had an infant son by the time of her father’s death (the future Henry II) and so it could be argued that she should have inherited the throne if not in her own right then at least as reigning guardian for her child. Initially, the kingship of Stephen was accepted by the majority of lords in England and Normandy. However, as the reign progressed. the concerns over his claim to rule were used as excuses for dissent. By 1138 this dissent was out in the open with the defection of Earl Robert of Gloucester, eldest illegitimate son of Henry I, to the party of his half-sister Matilda, and her hus–band Count Geoffrey of Anjou.
In September 1139 Matilda landed at Arundel on the south coast and the war for the throne of England began. It continued, on and off, until late 1153. By the end, many of the key protagonists were dead and others had refused to fight. The `anarchy’ was over. But, it would be wrong to imagine a country torn in two by bitter factional fighting. First, this was a war of borders; conflict was very much restricted to particular disputed zones and was not endemic. Secondly, this was no free-for-all; there were rules of warfare in place. Whilst it would be ambitious to claim that there were `laws’ of war acknowledged and enforced by both sides, there were certainly customs, acceptable and unacceptable standards of behaviour, and set routines, for instance, in siege situations.
These customs and standards of behaviour litter the pages of the most significant source for the reign: the Gesta Stephani. The Gesta spans the entire reign of Stephen and shows us a war dominated by sieges – even the battles tend to follow on from sieges, as at Lincoln in 1141. A general, although not unchallenged consensus is that it is the work of Robert of Lewes, Bishop of Bath and Wells, who travelled with the king in the 1140s and who wrote up the early years in about 1148 and the concluding section after 1153.
The Gesta and other contemporaneous accounts of 12th century warfare can be used to support the current view within castle studies that the status/symbolism of a castle was more important than its military role. The castle was a deterrent, the medieval Polaris missile, designed to be physically used only as a last resort. To this end, an elaborate ritual of warfare evolved to lessen confrontation.