King Stephen ruled England from 1135 until his death in 1154. He had usurped his cousin, Matilda, to the throne. His whole reign was punctuated by violence as a civil war was fought with those loyal to Matilda’s claim. Stephen is credited by chroniclers as being a charming man. However, despite King Stephen being quite affable, he was also very mild mannered and lacked the steel and conviction of his predecessors on the throne. This led to the nobles exploiting his weaknesses. England, through Civil War and Barons taking advantage of the weakness of the crown, went into a period known as The Anarchy.
Stephen of Blois was a grandson of William the Conqueror. Born in 1097, his mother, Adela, was the Conqueror’s daughter. Stephen’s father died whilst on crusade in 1102. At some point in 1107, Stephen was sent to the English Court of Henry I. Here, he was educated and took part in military operations.
Stephen quickly became a favourite in the court of Henry I. He fought alongside him at the Battle of Tinchenbray and was knighted for his service.
In 1120 the heir to the throne perished when the White Ship sank in the English Channel. Stephen had narrowly missed the same fate, having changed his plans to accompany Prince William on the voyage. The death of William gave King Henry I a succession problem. He had other sons, they were however, all illegitimate. As heir he could choose his daughter, Matilda, now Empress of the Holy Roman Empire. Or, he could name one of his nephews as heir.
Henry was faced with a difficult choice. Kingship was precisely that, a King, not a Queen. It was unheard of to have a Queen as the monarch in England. The role was a military and political one. Women had never been trained for such things, nor expected to know much of them. However after consulting with senior royals, including King David of Scotland, he did name Matilda as his heir. The nobles of England were summoned to swear their loyalty to King Henry and to make a vow that they would support Matilda’s claim.
When King Henry I died in 1135, Matilda was Anjou. Stephen, with as strong a claim as any other man, sailed to England and went to London. Here he was popular with the townsfolk and gained the support of leading nobles. After assuring William de Corbeil, the Archbishop of Canterbury, that he would support the church, he was crowned King of England.
Stephen had gained support because of his popularity in the court. He had proven himself on the battlefield. Matilda hadn’t pressed her claim. Unlike Stephen, she had not made her way straight to London to claim the throne.
The matter of inheritance was not settled quite so easily though. Matilda did want her crown and did have support. Upon hearing of Stephen’s coronation, King David of Scotland invaded Northern England. Stephen was forced to withdraw his armies from large tracts of land. A second invasion by the Scots was repelled in 1138 as the English were victorious at the Battle of Standard. The victory over King David’s forces triggered English supporters of Matilda to revolt. Civil War broke out.
In 1141 Stephen was captured by troops fighting for Matilda’s cause at the Battle of Lincoln. Normally, this would spell defeat. However two things enabled Stephen to retain the crown at this time. First, his own troops had captured Robert of Gloucester. Robert of Gloucester was Matilda’s half brother. He was highly valuable. Second, Matilda was arrogant. This led to her being turned away by the people of London, who were sympathetic to Stephen’s claim in any case. As a result, the two sides exchanged prisoners. Stephen remained King, though his position was far from secure.
In 1147, Robert of Gloucester died. Following this, Matilda spent all of her time in Normandy, which had been conquered by her husband, Geoffrey of Anjou. Matilda’s claim was taken up instead by her son, Henry.
Henry Plantagenet landed his forces in 1152. With the power of Normandy and Anjou behind him, he had considerable resources at his disposal. However that did not make victory certain. Events did work in his favour though. Stephen was forced to agree that upon his own death, Henry would be the rightful heir to the English throne. This would disinherit his own sons Eustace and William. While the solution, documented in the Treaty of Wallingford, did not guarantee a long term peace, it did bring an end to hostilities.
Any threat of Stephen’s children fighting for their claim diminished with the unexpected death of Eustace. William was to inherit his fathers Baronial estates, the succession would pass to Henry.
Stephen’s reign to this point had been a long struggle to retain his throne. Now, he lost the right for his children to inherit the crown. The Anarchy had ended though. Stephen was only to live one more year after the conflict ended. He died in October 1154 and is buried at Faversham Abbey.
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Royal Family Official Website – Stephen and Matilda
BBC – brief biography of King Stephen
English Monarchs – Biography and source material