Colin Crosby Heritage Tours

Who Are All These Kings?: Stephen

Stephen was King of England during the 12th century.

This affable man was the nephew of Henry I, being one of the younger sons of Adela, the daughter of William I. She had married Stephen, the Count of Blois, and dominated him to such an extent that she sent him off to the Crusades, where he was killed in 1102.

The younger Stephen's elder brother Theobald succeeded as Count of Blois, but Stephen and another brother, Henry, became favourites of Henry I.

In 1125, Stephen married Matilda, the granddaughter of Malcolm III of Scotland and descendant of Edmund Ironside. Stephen had thus married into the old English Royalty. About this time he became Count of Boulogne.

His brother Henry was consecrated Bishop of Winchester in 1129.

When Henry I died in 1135, some of the barons felt that they should keep to their oaths to support the old king's daughter, the Empress Matilda, as Queen. Most, though, were not happy about being ruled by a woman, and Stephen had a lot of support, as did his elder brother Theobald.

Stephen acted swiftly and decisively, and returned to England from Boulogne. Matilda's half-brother Robert of Gloucester denied him entry through Dover, but he managed to make his way to Canterbury, gaining the support of Archbishop William, and on to London, where he gained the support of the city by granting a measure of self rule.

Within a short time, Stephen was crowned at Westminster Abbey. Those barons who had initially supported Theobald transferred their allegiance to him, rather than cause more division.

Stephen's brother Henry gave him access to the Royal treasury at Winchester, so that he had money for judicious bribery. Theobald gave up his claim to the crown, but Matilda protested to Pope Innocent II, who did not uphold this because of alleged evidence that Henry I had named Stephen as his successor on his deathbed.

The new king turned out to be a popular one initially. Easy going and friendly, he was also seen to be firm and just.

But peace did not last long. David I of Scotland invaded Northumbria, officially in Matilda's name. Stephen defeated David in several battles, culminating in the Battle of the Standard, near Northallerton, in 1138.

Robert of Gloucester initially gave support to Stephen, even accompanying him on an expedition against Matilda's husband Geoffrey of Anjou, but in 1138 he switched his allegiance to his sister.

At this point, Stephen's position became less sound, and some of his actions added to the divisions. In 1138, he upset his brother Henry by not supporting his claim to be the new Archbishop of Canterbury. This position went instead to Theobald of Bec.

In 1139, he arrested Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, and his nephews, Bishop Alexander of Lincoln and Bishop Nigel of Ely. They had been fortifying castles in support of Robert and Matilda.

He also gave the castle at Carlisle to the Scots, which enraged Ranulf, Earl of Chester.

Robert and Matilda invaded on the South coast in 1139. Although Stephen had the ports barred, they found refuge at Arundel, and then, with the help of Bishop Henry, Robert moved via little known roads to Bristol.

If Stephen had pursued them properly at this time, he might well have scored a decisive victory that would have ended hostilities for the rest of his reign. But, chivalrously, he agreed to release Matilda from Arundel, and the war went on.

It was this period that has led to the reign of Stephen being remembered as one of the blackest hours in English history, "when Christ and His angels slept". The famous Brother Cadfael novels by Ellis Peters are set at Shrewsbury Abbey in this period, when many unscrupulous barons took advantage of the lawless conditions for their own purposes.

At first, the rebellion was limited to the West Country, but in 1140 support for the imprisoned Nigel of Ely brought trouble for Stephen in East Anglia.

Ranulf and his brother seized Lincoln, whose citizens appealed to Stephen for help. He laid siege to Lincoln, but although personally fighting with conspicuous bravery was overcome by Robert's larger army.

Stephen was imprisoned at Bristol, and Matilda gradually assumed control, as Stephen's support began to waver.

She moved to London and started to call herself Queen, although she more often styled herself "Empress" and someimes "Lady of the English".

But Matilda's haughtiness and general lack of concern for others soon made her very unpopular, and she was driven out of London, having not received the planned coronation, and moved to Oxford.

Shortly afterwards, Robert of Gloucester was captured during an incident at Wherwell, and Matilda was obliged to accept an exchange of prisoners.

In November, Stephen was restored to the throne, and had a second coronation at Canterbury Cathedral.

From this point, Stephen had the upper hand, although hostilities continued. In 1142 Robert travelled to Normandy to seek support from Matilda's husband Geoffrey, but he was too busy with matters of his own.

While Robert was away, Stephen besieged Matilda at Oxford Castle, and she escaped in the snow to Abingdon.

During this period, Geoffrey of Monmouth was living at Oxford. When he completed his famous "History of the Kings of Britain", he dedicated it to Robert of Gloucester.

A reminder that Stephen's position was still not secure came when Matilda's supporters won a battle at Wilton. Geoffrey de Mandeville, Constable of the Tower of London, who had been made Earl of Essex, was one of a number of nobles arrested for treason. While he was in prison his supporters raised a rebellion, but this was swiftly put down.

Stephen's position was improved somewhat when Robert's son Philip went over to the king's side. Then in 1146 he had yet another coronation, this time at Lincoln Cathedral.

Robert died in 1147, and shortly afterwards Matilda left England. Her son Henry of Anjou, later to become Henry II, took up her cause, besieging Stamford among other places, but was not able to raise a strong enough army, and the long and disastrous Civil War petered out in 1149.

In the meantime, a dispute with the Papacy had led England to be placed under an interdict from 1148 to 1151.

Stephen named his son Eustace as his successor in 1152 and wanted to have him crowned, but Archbishop Theodore would not sanction this, and Stephen, saddened by the loss of his wife Matilda at Castle Hedingham, had to accept this as another setback.

Henry of Anjou brought another force to England in 1153. Eustace fought alongside his father, but died suddenly, apparently from a fit, at Bury St. Edmunds. Eustace was only mourned by his father. He was grasping, selfish, greedy and vicious, and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle called him "an evil man".

This was clearly a major final blow for Stephen. He signed the Treaty of Wallingford, naming Henry as his heir and successor,

Stephen died from appendicitis and bleeding piles at Dover Castle in 1154, and was buried alongside his wife and son at Faversham Abbey, which he had founded.

His reign is remembered, if at all, for the hugely damaging Civil War that all but destroyed England. Had it not been for the succession dispute, however, he would probably have been remembered as a decent, intelligent, capable and brave king. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's opinion was mixed - "a soft and good man, who did no justice". But it was also said that he was the handsomest man in England, and both chivalrous and generous to both the mighty and the humble.

Stephen and his wife Matilda had five children. Baldwin was born in 1126 and died in 1135 at the Tower of London. Eustace, born in 1131, was nominated as king but died in 1153. William was born in 1132 and created Earl of Surrey, but was killed in 1159 at the Siege of Toulouse. Matilda, born in 1134, died at the Tower of London in 1141. Mary, born in 1136, became Abbess of Romsey but was abducted and married to Matthew of Flanders.

Stephen's illegitimate children included three by Demeta of Normandy. Gervaise became Abbot of Westminster and had two brothers, Almaric and Ralph. William and Sybilla were his children by unknown mothers.