The Unexpected Ally by Sarah Woodbury

Posted by on Jul 25, 2016 in Featured Book, Historical Tidbits, Medieval Great Britain | 2 comments



Stephen de Blois came to London,
and the people received him
and hallowed him to king on midwinter day.
But in this king’s time was all dissension, and evil, and rapine;
for against him rose soon the rich men who were traitors.

Then was England very much divided.
Some held with the king and some with the empress;
for when the king was in prison,
the earls and the rich men supposed that he would never more come out,
and they settled with the empress,
and when the king was out,
he heard of this, and took his force,
and beset her in the tower.

By such things, and more than we can say,
we suffered nineteen winters for our sins.
To till the ground was to plough the sea:
the earth bore no corn,
for the land was all laid waste by such deeds;
they said openly that Christ and his saints slept …
                                                      –The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

The Unexpected Ally is set in the time of what has come to be known as The Anarchy, the period in England’s history where the succession to the throne was in question, fought over by Stephen of Blois, grandson of William the Conqueror, and Maud, daughter of King Henry I of England. As the opening quote relates, civil war reigned for nineteen years.

The dispute over the succession came about after King Henry’s only legitimate son died when ‘the White Ship’ went down in the English Channel in 1120, leaving Maud as his only legitimate heir. Because of the prejudice against crowning a woman, King Henry subsequently arranged for his barons to swear an oath to support Maud’s claim to the throne upon his death, but as the years went by, discontentment with that oath developed and grew. Eventually, Maud and her husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, grew concerned enough about the dissent to urge King Henry to bestow Normandy (a region of France) upon Maud in advance of his death. He refused.

King Henry died on 1 December 1135, allegedly from eating ‘a surfeit of lampreys’—that is, he ate too many fish—while he, Maud, and Stephen were all in France. It is important to remember that the rulers of England at this time, including these three, were Norman French, not ‘English,’ and were as much interested in maintaining their hold on their lands in France as they were in ruling England. Maud had married Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, and was pregnant with her third child. Stephen was visiting his estates in Boulogne, acquired when he married his wife, Matilda. His elder brother, Theobold, technically the next male in line for the English throne, had never set foot in England. He ruled Blois, a region in France.

Stephen had spent many years in King Henry’s court, however, and had developed a following among the Anglo-Norman barons. When he learned of Henry’s death, he high-tailed it across the English Channel and was hailed king by the citizens of London. Stephen was crowned by another of his brothers, Henry, who had become powerful in the English Church as the Bishop of Winchester and was the second richest man in England, after King Henry himself.

Meanwhile, Maud and Geoffrey maintained a hold on Normandy, eventually controlling the entire region. After several years of inciting rebellion against King Stephen and wooing allies in England, Maud crossed the English Channel with an invasion force in 1139, beginning the active phase of the civil war.

By 1147, when The Unexpected Ally takes place, England had experienced eight long years of war. It wasn’t until 1153 that the issue of the succession was finally settled and a treaty signed. Empress Maud renounced her right to the throne in favor of her son, Henry, whom Stephen agreed to name as his heir. Oddly, like King Henry, whom he’d succeeded, King Stephen died unexpectedly of a ‘stomach disorder’ in October of 1154, only a year after the treaty was signed.

The Unexpected Ally is the 8th Gareth & Gwen Medieval Mystery.

Sarah Woodbury, July 25, 2016


  1. I read this piece on the featured book, and now I know two things about it. The setting is 1147 and its the 8th “Gareth & Gwen Medieval Mystery”.

    The rest of the information given is about the history of England during the Anarchy.

    Is it a thriller or murder mystery ? Involving commoners, nobles, clergy or Kings ? Is it from a Welsh perspective ( judging by the names ) ? Do Gwen and Gareth become involved in the invasion of England that year ? Are they trying to unmask a spy ? and for which party ?

    If you are encouraging people to read this book, you need to write about the book, and not the history ( since I assume its a novel not a text book ).

    To interest me in the book it would be useful to know more about the plot and characters, unless they are that dull ? or the article author hasn’t read the book ?

  2. Have you read or heard of “The Fatal Crown” and “Beloved Enemy” by Ellen Jones?

    I was in the writing workshop out of UCLA’s extension program where Ellen wrote the two books about Maud and Stephen. I heard every word she wrote for both novels.