The Reign of Stephen I (1135 - 1154)

THL Eldred Ælfwald

Stephen is one of the little-regarded monarchs of English history. Not a great deal is known about his early life, as he was never expected to gain the throne of England. Even in the early twentieth century, many English schoolchildren were not taught that Stephen was one of their monarchs. To understand the trials and tribulations of his reign it is necessary to take a look at the principals (and principles) involved.



When William the Conqueror died in 1087, his eldest son, Robert Curthose, became Duke of Normandy, and William Rufus (William II) inherited the English throne. William II made several attempts to wrest control of Normandy from Robert, and in 1096, Robert pawned Normandy to William II so he could join the Crusades. In 1106, his younger brother Henry captured him and held him prisoner until Robert's death in 1134.

Henry Beauclerc became King of England (Henry I) and Duke of Normandy upon William II's death in 1100. William II was killed by an arrow while he was hunting. He may have been assassinated by order of his younger brother, but that is a controversy that continues to this day. William II's death may have been somewhat of a blessing. His harsh rule aroused baronial and ecclesiastical opposition, notably from Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury. He had very little time for religion and presided over a liberal court but treated his subjects brutally--this brutality being what he is 'best' remembered for. He was reluctant to fill church vacancies and waited 4 years to appoint Anselm.

Interestingly enough, Henry was hated by both his brothers, and they both vowed to disinherit him. William Rufus' death and Robert's imprisonment effectively prevented those threats. Henry's reign is notable for important legal and administrative reforms, and for the final resolution of the investiture controversy. Abroad, he waged several campaigns in order to consolidate and expand his continental possessions. Henry I proved to be a hard but just ruler. Henry I was also a king who apparently enjoyed his pleasures as evidenced by his many dalliances which resulted in 29 offspring!

Henry's first wife, Matilda (Edith) of Scotland was daughter of Malcolm III, King of Scotland (the very one who slew MacBeth in 1057!), and sister to David I, the Saint, who became King of Scotland in 1124. Henry's eldest (surviving) legitimate son was William of ∆thelthing. In 1120, when the White Ship was wrecked, a boat was launched and William was rowed to safety. The cries of his half-sister the Countess of Perche induced him to return to the wreck where they sank together. This was considered by some to be punishment for Henry's sins of lust in having so many illegitimate offspring. Had William survived the controversy and battle for the throne of England might never have occurred. Following the disaster, Henry I had the dilemma of choosing which of his offspring would be his heir. Matilda, being the eldest legitimate child, and having the greatest political and military alliances, proved to be his choice.

In 1114, Matilda had been wed to Henry V, of Germany, the Holy Roman Emperor. Quite a coup for the house of Normandy to make such an alliance! However, Henry V was a man old enough to be Matilda's father, and the marriage proved to be a relatively short one when Henry died in 1125. In order to make peace with the House of Anjou, Henry betrothed his widowed daughter to Geoffrey IV, the Fair. In 1128, Matilda married Geoffrey Plantagenet, thus creating quite a powerful marriage of houses and countries.

During Christmas of 1127, Henry convened a large number of clergy and nobility at London. During this gathering, he compelled the nobility of England, and its bishops and abbots to take an oath that should he die without legitimate male issue, they would accept Matilda as their sovereign. According to William of Malmesbury, William, archbishop of Canterbury swore fealty first, followed by 'the other bishops, and the abbots in like manner.' [2, p.12] David I, King of Scotland was the first of the laity to swear, followed by Stephen, then Robert, Earl of Gloucester. In an interesting footnote, Stephen and Robert disputed who should take the oath first--one claiming the right of a son, the other 'the dignity of a nephew.' When Henry I died in 1135 by ignoring his physician's advice and eating an excess of lampreys, the trouble soon began...

Who is this Stephen person anyway?

Stephen de Blois was the fourth son of Stephen II Henry de Blois, Count of Blois, and Adela, daughter of William the Conqueror. An unlikely candidate for the throne of England and Duchy of Normandy, though he was Henry I's favorite nephew. His eldest brother, Hubert died very young. His brother, William de Champagne, Count of Chartes was an imbecile and was disinherited in favor of his younger brother, Theobald III, who became Count of Blois in 1125. By the time Henry I died, Stephen was the eldest legitimate male grandchild of William the Conqueror other than Theobald. Robert Curthose's line effectively died out in 1128, all other legitimate male heirs of William the Conqueror's legacy were dead.

From contemporary accounts, Stephen was a genial fellow, and a brave warrior. Unfortunately, he had little sense with regard to politics, and was easily manipulated by his peers and his Peers. Many of his decisions were made in order to get people like him. Forcefulness was a necessary quality for a monarch in 12th century England, and Stephen learned far too late that lands and offices granted generated wealth and independence, not loyalty.

There were several reasons for Stephen seizing the throne of England. Some felt that Stephen would be all that his uncle (Henry I) was--especially as he was Henry's favorite nephew. He also won the backing of nobles who rejected rule by a woman, particularly one married to a hated Angevin. In fact, Roger, bishop of Salisbury claimed that he was freed from his oath saying that he had sworn conditionally. The condition being that the king would not marry his daughter to anyone outside of the kingdom without his consent and that of the rest of the nobility. It has also been noted that Matilda herself was "disagreeable, proud, and much disliked" [1]. Why Theobald did not intervene or step forward is a mystery. It has been noted that Theobald was "irritated" by his brother's quick consolidation of power, but not truly concerned--preferring to rule over his ancestral lands of Blois. In 1135, Stephen hurried to London to have the nobles confirm him and was crowned King of England on Christmas Day 1135 by Archbishop William of Corbeil at Westminster Abbey. At this point, Stephen effectively controlled the English treasury, and the nobility of England seemed to support him.

What about this Matilda the Empress person?

Based on the names provided in the Royal Genealogical Directory [4], one would think that Matilda is the only name women of the Royal Family were given in the 12th century. Every branch of the Royal Family had a Matilda--either by marriage or by descent--until Henry II's reign. Matilda was the eldest legitimate surviving daughter of Henry I, and was recognized by Henry I, his nobles (including Stephen of Blois), and the King of Scotland as his heir to the English throne in 1127. In the absence of a legitimate male descendant, Matilda was the next obvious choice to continue the line. Her marital alliances with the Count of Anjou and the Holy Roman Empire could have served England quite well and expanded Henry I's empire greatly. Why it took Henry I seven years to formally recognize her is not clear, but the issue of legitimacy and politics finally gained the reluctant approval of Henry's barons.

She had been virtually raised in Germany (having been wed to Emperor Henry V at the age of 8 or 9), and had acquired many traits disagreeable to the English nobility of the time--not the least of which was her later marriage to an Angevin (Geoffrey Plantagenet)! Her marriage to Geoffrey was not a happy one. Geoffrey was very much her junior when they were betrothed, and she was "imperious and disagreeable" enough that Geoffrey sent her back to her father on one occasion.

The Reign of Stephen

Many refer to Stephen as being England's worst king (a title that is sometimes used for John, but at least his reign produced the Magna Carta). He was wasteful with his treasury. His nobles plotted against him and usurped his authority in many ways. He made poor political decisions--usually in an attempt to gain friendship instead of wise rule. In an act of what he thought was magnanimity, he repealed all the prohibitions against hunting, and many of Henry's unjust forest laws. Within a year, game within the kingdom had been depleted, forcing Stephen to re-invoke the laws. This 'flip-flop' in policy raised a great deal of enmity against him. Stephen, although a brave and usually successful fighter made poor decisions following his victories. Stephen often allowed his opponent's men and supporters to go free following a victory, and men that should have been hanged for treason were also allowed their freedom. Although laudable by today's standards, these were grave errors in judgement for a monarch in such times. Stephen's leniency was seen as weakness, and was highly exploited by his opponents.

Even as Stephen seized the throne, some nobles who had supported Matilda remained loyal. Among them were her half-brother, Robert, Earl of Gloucester. Robert was in a precarious position as a noble of the realm, and within easy reach of Stephen and his forces, yet clandestinely supporting his sister Matilda. Stephen's usurpation outraged Matilda's uncle, David, King of Scotland. At first, the English barons rallied to Stephen--hoping that he would be as great a King as Henry I.

In 1137, Stephen went to Normandy to claim the duchy there. Unfortunately, he was unable to capture Normandy, and began losing support. In 1139 he arrested Bishop Robert of Salisbury and his nephews, Bishop Alex of Lordon, and Chancellor Roger, and seized their wealth. These men had been accused of plotting against Stephen, and he imprisoned them on questionable evidence. Naturally, the Church was outraged. About this same time, Matilda and her husband Geoffrey arrived in England to press Matilda's claim to the throne. This is the beginning of what is known as the Anarchy.

Matilda joined her brother Robert in Gloucester, while Stephen's forces gathered in and around Oxford. Barons claimed to fight for one claimant or another, but in actuality, they were protecting and increasing their own wealth and property. Barons changed sides many times--usually based on lavish gifts presented by one side or the other. Most military actions were raids for plunder. Great atrocities and seizures of property were done, each side blaming the other.

Things finally came to a head in April 1141 when Stephen was captured during a battle near Lincoln. Shortly after Stephen's capture, a clerical council proclaimed Matilda 'Lady of the English'. This ecclesiastic council was an extraordinary event--at no other time had a council of bishops gathered to repudiate a king (whom the Church had anointed) merely because he had fallen into the hands of his enemy. Matilda began consolidating her power, and styling herself Queen of England. She overturned almost everything Stephen had granted conferred, or had set his seal to. Her arbitrary allocation of lands and honors soon sowed confusion as to who actually held them. This exercise of power apparently went to her head for 'she at once put on an extremely arrogant demeanour, instead of the modest gait and bearing proper to a gentlewoman, began to walk and speak and do all things more stiffly and haughtily than she had been wont.' [5, p.106]

Eventually Matilda entered London to be crowned. She levied such punishing taxes and cash demands that the Londoners were provoked into expelling her before her coronation. However, by November, Stephen was restored to the throne in an exchange for Robert of Gloucester (who had been captured by Stephen's forces). Stephen began regaining the support he had lost and made peace with the Church. Matilda remained in England, continuing the fight until Robert's death in 1147. Shortly after Stephen's restoration, Matilda attempted to bring her husband into the conflict in England. Geoffrey lacked enthusiasm for the enterprise, especially since he was engaged in taking over Normandy. Geoffrey 'considered his wife's ambitions and schemes little better than hare-brained, although he must have rejoiced that they were sufficiently attractive to that imperious and disagreeable woman to keep her occupied across the Channel.'[5, p.124]

Following Stephen's restoration and subsequent inability to punish Robert and Matilda, individual barons began rebelling. These rebellions were not aimed at making Matilda queen, but to defy and shake off Stephen's authority. The revolts by these barons were just as dangerous to Stephen's kingship, and equally as destructive as the actual war between Stephen and Matilda. Horrible tortures and famines as described in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles were prevalent in the eastern part of England, but the worst disorders were local. Neighboring barons fought one another or raided nearby towns. Barons issued their own currency (normally a privilege reserved for the King). With all the civil disorder and breakdown of society in general, it is no wonder Stephen's reign is referred to as 'The Anarchy.' Essentially the administration of the English government collapsed, leaving local barons and lords with a free hand to exploit their subjects and lands as they saw fit.

In 1148, Matilda returned to Normandy, now held by her husband Geoffrey (since 1144). With the death of his son Eustace, and his defeat at the hands of Henry Curtmantle FitzEmpress (Henry II) for control of Normandy, Stephen acquiesced to acknowledging Henry as heir to the English throne in 1153. When Stephen died in 1154, Henry II was crowned King of England, thus beginning the Plantagenet line of England.

A Few Words on Henry II

Henry II is one of the most famous (or infamous) monarchs of English history. His reign lasted from 1154 until his death in 1189. He ruled an empire that stretched from the Tweed to the Pyrenees. In spite of frequent hostilities with the French King, his own family, and rebellious Barons (culminating in the great revolt of 1173-74) and his ill-fated quarrel with Thomas Becket, Henry maintained control over his possessions until shortly before his death. His judicial and administrative reforms, which increased Royal control and influence at the expense of the Barons, were of great constitutional importance. One of Henry's great reforms was the Introduction of trial by Jury.

Timeline of Stephen's Reign


© February 28, 1999, J. T. Thorpe