Local and national headlines have highlighted recent battles involving history.
There’s the ongoing dispute over toppling Confederate monuments. Some question the merits and demerits of American Founders. We even see debate about whether 1776 or 1619 marks the true birthdate of the United States of America.
These controversies came to mind as this observer read about another, much older fight over the historical record. Today’s combatants could learn a valuable lesson from a review of events that took place more than 800 years ago across the Atlantic Ocean.
Author Matthew Lewis writes in a recent issue of BBC History magazine about a period of England’s past labeled the “Anarchy.” Critics applied that name to the nearly two-decade-long reign of King Stephen. But facts suggest Stephen’s true story faced a dubious historical rewrite. Revisionists wanted his years on the throne to pale in comparison to those of his predecessor and successor.
I’ll spare you the Game of Thrones-worthy details of the circumstances that placed Stephen on the English throne in 1135. It’s enough to know that his succession involved a significant level of controversy. He faced near-constant challenges to his authority throughout his reign, including a period in 1141 in which he was captured and imprisoned by his foes. By the time Stephen resolved fights over his right to rule in 1153, he had only about another year to live in peace.
Read the historical accounts of Stephen’s reign, and you might believe his subjects had to be thrilled by the end of 19 years of turmoil.
“Wheresoever men tilled, the earth bare no corn, for the land was all ruined by such deeds; and they said openly that Christ and his saints were asleep. Such and more than we can say we endured 19 winters for our sins.” Lewis uses those words from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle to begin his article. The author emphasizes the “bleak picture” painted of Stephen’s time in power. The same chronicle lamented the “devils and evil men” who filled the castles of the day, built by those in power who “oppressed greatly the wretched men of the land.”
Another volume dubbed The Deeds of Stephen “offers an equally cataclysmic portrait,” Lewis writes. An England once known as “the habitation of peace, the height of piety,” became under Stephen “a home of perversity, a haunt of strife, a training ground of disorder, and a teacher of every kind of rebellion.”
Pretty bleak stuff.
Yet the actual record Lewis uncovers tells a different tale. When Stephen celebrated his coronation, three weeks after the death of his uncle, Henry I, “the people of London were all too happy to welcome Stephen,” Lewis recounts. “In doing so, they formed an enduring compact with the new king.”
Unlike other English kings who had ruled over the previous 70 years, Stephen’s reign began with an election. “The elders and those most shrewd in counsel” summoned an assembly and agreed unanimously to support Stephen. This revived an Anglo-Saxon principle that had disappeared with the Norman conquest, Lewis writes.
One might surmise that conditions under Stephen deteriorated after a strong start. That’s not necessarily so.
Instead Stephen has been victimized by historians with clear biases toward powerful, centralizing monarchs, Lewis suggests.
“For centuries, Stephen’s reign has been dubbed the Anarchy,” the modern-day author recounts. “Victorian historians deplored the king’s decentralization of power through the appointment of regional earls responsible for local law and order.”
Stephen’s predecessor had established a centralized system for taxes and revenues. His successor, Henry II, developed the Common Law. “To the imperialist minds of the 19th century, these marked steps on an inexorable march toward the British empire,” Lewis writes. “Stephen was a retrograde blip whose rule was anarchic because it contributed nothing to that grinding progress.”
Other evidence contradicts the conventional wisdom. “Monasticism saw explosive growth in England during Stephen’s reign, which suggests that it was not as dangerous to travel as monks insisted,” Lewis writes. Nor would a “large force of Englishmen” have embarked on a crusade to Portugal in 1147, leaving their homes and families, had they been worried about “rampant lawlessness.”
Even when Stephen engaged in battles for the throne, often involving his cousin Matilda, other powerful figures within his realm sought peace. This includes the great “magnates,” whom historians have described as instigators of the “Anarchy.”
“In reality, they did no such thing,” Lewis responds. “No magnate hoped for lawless chaos on his lands, where profit was made from the order and security that allowed fields to be worked and markets to operate profitably. If royal authority was not felt at times of crisis, magnates immediately filled the void to prevent, not promote, anarchy.”
English earls even signed peace treaties among themselves — dubbed conventios — to “maintain harmony” as Stephen and his royal foes clashed for power. “Stephen and the future Henry II eventually resigned themselves to peace in part because neither could coax their followers into fighting.”
Peace? Decentralized power? A chief executive chosen by election? None of these factors sounds fitting for a “home of perversity” or a “haunt of strife.”
Lewis concludes that Stephen’s reign was neither “glorious” nor anarchic. “Few wholly unsuccessful rulers lasted 19 years and died in their bed still wearing the crown.”
This re-examination of Britain’s so-called “Anarchy” offers today’s American readers a valuable lesson: Beware the biases of those selling their preferred narrative of history. Facts might tell a different story.
Mitch Kokai is senior political analyst for the John Locke Foundation.