Battle of Lincoln: Rebellious Nobles Defeat, Capture King Stephen During "The Anarchy"

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Battle of Lincoln: Rebellious Nobles Defeat, Capture King Stephen During "The Anarchy"

"[King] Stephen Taken at the Battle of Lincoln, 1141" by Alfred Pearse
Oil on canvas, from "Hutchinson's Story of the British Nation" (1923)
(Image courtesy of
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are from Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: February 2, 1141

I am going back closer to my comfort zone for military history. Today's post involves a period of English history known simply as "The Anarchy," a period of civil war and breakdown of law and order lasting from 1135 until 1153. Less than 80 years after the Norman Conquest, a bitter struggle for the throne of England involving two grandchildren of William the Conqueror engulfed the nation.


After William the Conqueror was crowned King of England, he ruled not only Britain but also the Duchy of Normandy. Anticipating trouble with his three sons when he died, William arranged that his eldest son Robert (aka Curthose or "Short Stockings") would rule Normandy. His second son, William II (aka Rufus) became the English monarch. When William II died in a hunting accident in 1100, his youngest brother, Henry (aka Beauclerc for his scholarly interests) quickly seized the throne.

King Henry I (Beauclerc) of England (reigned 1100-1135); Painting by unknown artist (c. 1620)
King Henry I (Beauclerc) of England (reigned 1100-1135)
Painting by unknown artist (c. 1620)

Henry's reign was a period of peace and prosperity in England and Normandy, and was filled with judicial and financial reforms. He sought to reform the treasury, and used traveling officials to curb the abuses of power at the local and regional level that had characterized the unpopular reign of his brother William Rufus, thereby garnering the praise of chroniclers. The differences between the English and Norman populations began to break down during his reign and he himself married a descendant of the old English royal house. He made peace with the church after the disputes of his brother's reign, but he could not smooth out his succession after the disastrous loss of his eldest son William in the wreck of the White Ship in 1120.

After his son's death, King Henry realized he had no legitimate male heirs (though he had sired at least 20 illegitimate children by several women). In January of 1127, Henry required his court and nobility to swear an oath of allegiance to his eldest child, his daughter known as the Empress Matilda, making her the Heir Presumptive of England.

Empress Matilda (1102-1167), daughter of King Henry I; 15th century illustration by anonymous monks of St. Albans
Empress Matilda (1102-1167), daughter of King Henry I
15th century illustration by anonymous monks of St. Albans

Matilda had been married to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V from 1114 until his death in 1125. Three years later, she married Geoffrey Count of Anjou, who at age 14 was eleven years her junior. Though this second union was rather tempestuous – she felt as a former empress, marrying a mere count was beneath her – Matilda and Geoffrey reconciled. She bore him three sons, one of whom would eventually rule England as the first of the Plantagenet Dynasty.

Henry died on December 1, 1135 while in France attempting to put down a rebellion in Normandy, which saw the rebels supported by Matilda and Geoffrey of Anjou (Anjou borders Normandy). Stephen of Blois – a grandson of William the Conqueror and cousin of Matilda – was in Boulogne, tending to his estates. Upon receiving the news of his uncle's demise, he gathered his personal retinue and crossed the English Channel to claim the English throne for himself. After arriving at his estates near London on December 8, Stephen made use of his brother Henry of Blois, who was concurrently Bishop of Winchester and Abbot of Glastonbury. Bishop Henry used his church connections to help Stephen obtain the throne. Although he had made the oath of allegiance to support his cousin, Stephen's brother argued that the oath was not truly binding, as it was made to protect the stability of the kingdom. Finally on December 26 Stephen of Blois was crowned king.

King Stephen of Blois (reigned 1135-1154); 13th century illustration by Matthew Paris
King Stephen of Blois (reigned 1135-1154)
13th century illustration by Matthew Paris

Stephen's coronation set off a range of events. King David I of Scotland invaded northern England, forcing Stephen to form an army and march north. A treaty was promulgated which defused that situation temporarily. A rebellion in Wales was allowed to fester, and Geoffrey of Anjou invaded Normandy, raiding and burning royal estates but making no attempt to hold on to them. In addition, Stephen's lavish spending at court emptied the royal treasury, causing increased taxation and unrest.

Finally on September 30, 1139 the Empress Matilda launched an invasion of England, landing in the port of Arundel in the south of England. Her landing encouraged a number of influential Anglo-Norman barons who had turned against King Stephen. One of the most well known was Robert Earl of Gloucester, an illegitimate son of Henry I who controlled lands in Normandy as well as the Earldom of Gloucester. He was also half-brother to the Empress Matilda, and proved to be her most adept military commanders. Another of her allies was Ranulf Earl of Chester. Some of his lands in northern England had been given by treaty to Scotland. Ranulf revolted against Stephen to reclaim the lands he regarded as his own. [Ranulf was also son-in-law to Robert of Gloucester.]

During the course of the year 1140, the two sides fought a series of small battles and castle sieges. Some more nobles declared for Matilda, while the Empress made an appeal to Pope Innocent III. She sought to have Stephen dethroned for failing to honor his oath of allegiance. The Pope, however, made no reply to her request.

Prelude to the Battle

Late in 1140, King Stephen advanced on the city of Lincoln, located in the eastern portion of England 123 miles north of London. The city was founded by the Romans, and boasted a magnificent cathedral and a strong castle enclosed by the city walls. Stephen had learned that Ranulf of Chester and some of his men were in Lincoln Castle, guarded by only a few men. Hoping to catch Ranulf unawares, the king led a strike force to capture one of the Empress Matilda's primary military commanders. However, Ranulf got wind of the king's gambit and fled before his arrival. Robbed of the chance of capturing one of his cousin's military commanders, King Stephen's forces took the city of Lincoln and besieged Lincoln Castle.

Over the course of the month of January 1141, King Stephen gathered more forces to continue the siege. The siege apparently resembled more of a blockade as the castle was considered unassailable without siege engines. By the end of the month, King Stephen had about 1000 knights, men-at-arms, crossbowmen, and foot soldiers, most of them feudal levies. Also among Stephen's army were several contingents of Flemish and Breton mercenaries. [Evidently, Stephen found some source of funds to pay for the sell-swords…]

Battle of Lincoln, 1141, Matilda's forces in blue, King Stephen's in red
Battle of Lincoln, 1141, Matilda's forces in blue, King Stephen's in red
A – Welsh Forces [but see below]; B – Ranulf of Chester; C – Various loyal nobles;
D – King Stephen; E – William of Ypres and Alan of Brittany; F – Fosdyke [a canal];
G – Lincoln Castle; H – Lincoln Cathedral; I – City of Lincoln; J – River Witham

On February 1, reports came to Stephen that an Angevin force loyal to the Empress Matilda was converging on Lincoln, intent upon breaking the siege. This army was under the joint command of Ranulf of Chester – seeking to re-establish himself in "his" castle" – and Robert of Gloucester. This force slightly outnumbered King Stephen's army. Robert and Ranulf had gathered about 1250 men, mostly foot soldiers and knights. There was also a large number (perhaps one-third of the rebel force) consisting of Welsh footmen, recruited from an area of northern Wales that was in revolt.

After taking counsel with his nobles – and ignoring their good advice – King Stephen prepared his forces for battle the next day – Sunday, February 2, the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary. Stephen's men lined up about a quarter mile west of the city on a ridge that sloped down to a plain. The king commanded the center, with most of his feudal levies and some of his knights. Receiving reports that the enemy center was mainly dismounted knights and men-at-arms, Stephen commanded all the soldiers of his center to dismount, including himself. [Some historians believe this was a result of Stephen's notions of chivalry, to meet his enemy on an equal footing.]

On his right flank he placed most of his major nobles, most of his mounted knights included. Stephen's left flank was composed of two contingents of mercenaries: Breton horsemen under Alan of Brittany, recently made Earl of Richmond; and Flemish spearmen commanded by William of Ypres, also known as the Earl of Albemarle. A small contingent of Lincoln citizens came out of the city to support King Stephen, but they were kept in the rear of the main battle line.

'King Stephen [4th from right] before the battle of Lincoln, 1141'; Engraving by G.H. Bohn, 1853 (Image courtesy of
"King Stephen [4th from right] before the battle of Lincoln, 1141"
Engraving by G.H. Bohn, 1853
(Image courtesy of

Prior to the battle, King Stephen's nobles asked him to address his troops. The king demurred, claimed a weak voice. However, one of Stephen's lieutenants, Baldwin fitz Gilbert, gave a stirring oration. Even as he continued to speak, the Angevin army was advancing.

The Angevin force approached Stephen's army in three divisions. According to the chroniclers Orderic Vitalis, Ranulf of Chester was in command of the center with dismounted knights, sergeants, and infantry. The rebel right was composed entirely of Welsh footmen. [Stephen had specifically assigned his mercenary troops to oppose the "wild" Welshmen.] Finally, the left flank of the rebel force was formed from troops and knights whose lands were taken from them by King Stephen. These nobles and their retinues called themselves "The Disinherited." The left flank contained the largest number of mounted men in the rebel army. The Disinherited were commanded by Robert of Gloucester.

Battle of Lincoln

The battle opened when Robert of Gloucester and the Disinherited charged Stephen's right. In answer, Stephen's nobles on the right countercharged though their cavalry were badly outnumbered. [This charge by Stephen's few mounted knights and sergeants is sometimes referred to as the "Joust of Lincoln."] Concurrently, Stephen's Breton and Flemish mercenaries had charged the Welsh. The continental sell-swords fought toe-to-toe with the Welsh after their initial charge. However, many of the Welsh tribesmen fought with a berserk fury, and slowly pushed the Bretons and Flemings back. After no more than a half hour of hard fighting, the Disinherited routed Stephen's right. At about the same time Stephen's right flank broke, the mercenaries – wishing to see another payday – turned and ran, seeking to cross the rain-swollen Fosdyke, with the Welsh in hot pursuit.

With both his right and left flanks broken and in retreat, Stephen and his center tried to hold the line. However, they were now being surrounded by the Angevin forces. Stephen fought hard, causing many casualties on his own. At one point, his sword broke and a loyal retainer handed him a Danish war-axe, which he used with equal skill. Finally, at one point, someone on the Angevin side threw a stone which struck the king and knocked him down. Almost immediately, Angevin soldiers swarmed over King Stephen, who was borne to the ground and captured. The battle likely lasted no more than hour or perhaps an hour-and-a-half.

The royal forces routed into the city streets of Lincoln, with the victorious Angevins pursuing them. Heavy fighting took place throughout the balance of the day. The city was thoroughly sacked and many citizens of the city were slaughtered for their support of Stephen. Other townsfolk, seeking to escape by boat, overloaded their boats and drowned.


No reliable casualty figures are given for this fight. Stephen's army was thoroughly routed, so we can speculate at least 25 percent killed, probably 25 percent or more wounded, and the rest routed or captured. Orderic Vitalis claims the Angevin forces suffered no more than 100 casualties; this figure is obviously a bit low.

Footnote #1: After his capture, King Stephen was imprisoned for a time in Bristol Castle. In September of 1141, Robert of Gloucester was captured by royal forces under the command of Stephen wife Queen Matilda (not to be confused with the Empress Matilda). Soon afterwards, Robert was released in exchange for Stephen's freedom. This act essentially weakened the Empress Matilda's position, as Stephen resumed the throne in December.

Footnote #2: The Empress eventually returned to the Continent. Before her death, she saw her son Henry succeed Stephen as English king in 1154 as Henry II.

Footnote #3: On the night before the battle, Orderic Vitalis reported that "a great storm of hail and rain fell … in France and Britain, and terrible claps of thunder were heard, accompanied by vivid flashes of lightning." The next day, as King Stephen was celebrating a mass in Lincoln Cathedral for his victory in the coming battle, the consecrated wax candle he was holding broke in pieces and fell to the floor; this was taken by those present as a very bad omen.

Footnote #4: A description of this battle is included in the Ken Follett historical novel, "The Pillars of the Earth." The battle is also presented in the TV mini-series of the same name.

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Thank you, nicely written and of personal interest as the Empress is (according to my current research) my 25th great grandmother by way of her grandson John Lackland.

take care - Steven P

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