Stephen of England

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: British History 1500 and before (including Roman Britain)

King of the English, Duke of the Normans
Reign 22 December 1135 – 25 October 1154
Coronation 26 December 1135
Born c. 1096
Died 25 October 1154
Buried Faversham Abbey, Faversham, England
Predecessor Henry I ( 1135)
Empress Matilda ( 1141)
Successor Empress Matilda ( 1141)
Henry II ( 1154)
Consort Matilda of Boulogne ( 1105– 1152)
Issue Eustace IV (c. 1130– 1153)
William of Blois (c. 1137– 1159)
Marie of Boulogne (d. 1182)
Royal House Norman
Father Stephen, Count of Blois
(c. 1045- 1102)
Mother Adela of Normandy (c. 1062– 1138)

Stephen (c. 1096 – 25 October 1154), the only King of England from the House of Blois and also Count of Boulogne by marriage, reigned from 1135 to 1154, when he was succeeded by his cousin Henry II, the first of the Angevin or Plantagenet Kings.

Early life

Stephen was born at Blois in France, the son of Stephen, Count of Blois, and Adela (daughter of William the Conqueror). His brothers were Count Theobald II of Champagne and Henry of Blois, bishop of Winchester.

Stephen was sent to be reared at the English court of his uncle, King Henry I, in 1106. He became Count of Mortain in about 1115, and married Matilda, daughter of the Count of Boulogne, in about 1125, who shortly after became Countess of Boulogne. Stephen became joint ruler in 1128. In 1150 he ceased to co-rule, and in 1151, the County was given to his son, Eustace IV. When Eustace died childless, Stephen's next living son, William inherited the territory.

Seizes throne of England

Before the death of King Henry I of England in 1135, the majority of the barons of England swore to support Henry's daughter ( Empress Matilda, granddaughter of William the Conqueror), and her claim to the throne. However, Stephen (also a grandchild of The Conqueror through his mother and who had been raised at Henry's court) laid claim to the throne. He also claimed his uncle, King Henry, had changed his mind on his deathbed, and named Stephen as his heir. Once Stephen was crowned, he gained the support of the majority of the barons as well as Pope Innocent II. The first few years of his reign were peaceful, but by 1139 he was seen as weak and indecisive, setting the country up for a civil war, commonly called The Anarchy.

Stephen had many traits that made him seem superficially fit for kingship: his high birth, his descent from the Conqueror, his handsomeness, his bravery and his good nature. But he possessed none of the ruthlessness necessary for the ruthless times he lived in. An unfavourable thumbnail sketch of him is given by Walter Map (who wrote during the reign of Matilda's son Henry II): "A man of a certain age, remarkably hard-working but otherwise a nonentity [idiota] or perhaps rather inclined to evil."

The reign of Stephen was indeed a turbulent period, to some degree an overflow of struggles for supremacy amongst barons in Normandy. But he retained the support of the majority of English barons throughout his reign and, importantly, the citizens of London. Contemporary records are slight, being mainly in the form of charters which are often difficult to date precisely, and, more significantly, chronicles whose authors were, in most cases, directly or indirectly at the behest of Robert of Gloucester, the principal rebel. It was these who presented Bishop Henry of Winchester as an opponent of his brother Stephen; but since the kingship of Stephen was supported by Innocent II, and Henry was Papal Legate, some scepticism is appropriate. A reassessment of the reign is due but far from easy.

War with Matilda

Stephen faced the forces of Empress Matilda at several locations including the Battle of Lincoln and the Battle of Beverston Castle. Bad omens haunted him before the Battle of Lincoln ( 2 February 1141). Stephen was facing his rebellious barons Robert, 1st Earl of Gloucester (the Empress' illegitimate half-brother) and Ranulph, the Earl of Chester. He fought so bravely in the battle that his battle-axe shattered. He drew a sword and continued fighting until it broke as well, as he was captured by a knight named William de Cahaignes (a relative of Ranulph, ancestor of the Keynes family including John Maynard Keynes, the well known economist). Stephen was defeated and he was brought before his cousin, the Empress Matilda.

English Royalty
House of Normandy
    Eustace IV, Count of Boulogne
    William, Count of Boulogne
    Marie, Countess of Boulogne

Stephen was imprisoned at Bristol, but his wife, the Countess Matilda, kept faith, and the Empress was soon forced out of London. With the capture of her most able lieutenant, the Earl of Gloucester, Matilda was eventually obliged to release Stephen from captivity, and he was restored to the throne in November of the same year. In December 1142, the Empress was besieged at Oxford, but she managed to escape across the snow to Wallingford Castle, held by her supporter Brien FitzCount.

In 1147, Empress Matilda's adolescent son, Henry (the eventual King Henry II), decided to assist in the war effort by raising a small army of mercenaries and invading England. Rumours of this army's size terrified Stephen's retainers, although in truth the force was very small. Having been defeated twice in battle, and with no money to pay his mercenaries, the young Henry appealed to his uncle Robert for aid but was turned away. Desperately, and in secret, the boy then asked Stephen for help. According to the Gesta Stephani, "On receiving the message, the king...hearkened to the young man..." and bestowed upon him money and other support.

Recognises Henry as his heir and dies

Stephen maintained his precarious hold on the throne for the remainder of his lifetime. However, after a military standoff at Wallingford with Henry, and following the death of his son and heir, Eustace, in 1153, he was persuaded to reach a compromise with Empress Matilda (known as the Treaty of Wallingford or Winchester), whereby her son would succeed Stephen on the English throne as King Henry II.

Stephen died in Dover, at Dover Priory, and was buried in Faversham Abbey, which he had founded with Countess Matilda in 1147.

Besides Eustace, Stephen and Matilda had two other sons, Baldwin (d. before 1135), and William of Blois (Count of Mortain and Boulogne, and Earl of Surrey or Warenne). They also had two daughters, Matilda and Marie of Boulogne. In addition to these children, Stephen fathered at least three illegitimate children, one of whom, Gervase, became Abbot of Westminster.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (the Peterborough Chronicle, second continuation) provides a moving and succinct appraisal of Stephen's reign:

"In the days of this King there was nothing but strife, evil, and robbery, for quickly the great men who were traitors rose against him. When the traitors saw that Stephen was a good-humoured, kindly, and easy-going man who inflicted no punishment, then they committed all manner of horrible crimes . . . And so it lasted for nineteen years while Stephen was King, till the land was all undone and darkened with such deeds, and men said openly that Christ and his angels slept".

The monastic author said, of The Anarchy, "this and more we suffered nineteen winters for our sins."

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