Archaeology and The Anarchy

The long-awaited paperback edition of The Anarchy is now available! We caught up with authors Oliver H. Creighton and Duncan W. Wright to discuss what archaeology can tell us about this turbulent time in Britain’s history.

Could you explain a bit about the history behind the ‘Anarchy’ and King Stephen’s reign?

The dramatic epithet ‘The Anarchy’ has been applied to the rule of Stephen, King of England, since the nineteenth century. This was one of the most turbulent reigns in English medieval history. Stephen of Blois, grandson of William the Conqueror, was crowned at Westminster in 1135 following a coup after the death of his uncle Henry I. The period until Stephen’s death in 1154 is notorious for the English crown being contested between the king and his cousin Matilda, while rebellious barons and Scottish invasions fermented the chaos. According to chroniclers the English landscape bristled with new castles while robber barons desecrated and fortified churches and ravaged the landscape, although our book tries hard to look beyond the image of the period painted by contemporary writers.

 ‘The Anarchy’ is the first ever archaeologically based study of the ‘Anarchy’ of King Stephen’s reign. Why do you think this is the case?

There is a vast body of work on Stephen’s reign written by some towering figures of English medieval history. In contrast, precious little had been written of the period’s archaeology, although we could glean enough from excavations of sites such as siegeworks (mini-castles, built to besiege other fortresses) to see that this approach had great potential. Our project was driven by deepening curiosity about what archaeology could (and could not) tell us about this bleak but fascinating period and its ‘real’ impact on society and landscape. We were keen to marshal and interrogate the full range of available archaeological evidence, from individual artefacts such as weapons and coins through to entire landscapes, and conduct fresh fieldwork to explore on a range of sites — especially castles, siege castles and settlements.

What were you able to learn about this particularly turbulent period by taking an archaeological approach?

In terms of the big question for historians — whether we genuinely see ‘anarchy’ in mid-12th-century England, or whether revisionist views that downplay the levels of chaos and violence are vindicated — what did our work show? Anarchy in the UK or business as usual? Is it playing safe to say that the material evidence of archaeology shows a bit of both? On the one hand, everyday material culture, such as pottery for example, shows precious little evidence for any Anarchy-period ‘event horizon’ in the archaeological record, and there are signs that in certain spheres, such as sculpture for instance, this was a period of experimentation and investment in the arts. On the other hand, our mapping of conflict events and portable material culture, such as coin hoards, (which can be argued to provide an index of insecurity) show that in those areas of the country where it was focused, the conflict hit the landscape hard. The fortification of churches and even cathedrals (Hereford’s had catapults positioned on its tower!) was just one indication of how the rules of war were being stretched. The focus of conflict in the Thames Valley and Wessex also shows that this was not a struggle over peripheral or separatist regions, but for the very heartland of English kingship. But the area of life brought into the sharpest focus by the archaeology is the rise to prominence of local lords and the seigneurial image —not just through castle-building, but through investment in sculpture within parish churches and through an unprecedented boom in monastic foundation. As local lords made their mark on local landscapes, this was unmistakably a period of image-making as well as war-mongering.

 How do you think this book paves the way for further research into this period of history?

We hope that our project and book can help inform and even inspire the study of other conflicts in Britain and Europe. While battlefield archaeology is a booming area of research, this project has highlighted that archaeology can help reconstruct and understand other modes and methods of conflict, especially siege warfare. Whatever form future archaeological studies of the Anarchy take, it is hoped that our work provides a useful springboard either for further investigation of other castles, siege-works and settlements or, indeed for research in other, as yet unexplored areas.

Duncan W. Wright is Senior Lecturer in Archaeology and Heritage at Bishop Grosseteste University.
Oliver H. Creighton is Professor of Archaeology at the University of Exeter.


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