Stephen

Stephen (c. 1096-1154) was king of England from 1135 to 1154. His claim to the throne was contested by his cousin Matilda, and his reign was disturbed by civil war. He eventually accepted Matilda's son Henry as his heir.

Stephen was the third son of Stephen, Count of Blois and Chartres, and Adela, daughter of William I of England. His uncle, King Henry I of England, gave him lands in England and Normandy and in 1125 arranged his marriage to Matilda, heiress of the Count of Boulogne. She brought him not only her rich and strategically important county but also large estates in England; Stephen became one of the most powerful men in England.

In December 1126 King Henry, having no legitimate male heir, made the nobility do homage to his daughter, Matilda, widow of Emperor Henry V, as Lady (Domina) of England and Normandy. Stephen was the first to swear, but on King Henry's death (Dec. 1, 1135) he hurried to England, gained the support of the citizens of London, and at Winchester, where his brother was bishop, won over the heads of the administration, the justiciar and the treasurer. On December 22 Stephen was crowned by the archbishop of Canterbury. Stephen bought, or rewarded, support by issuing a charter of liberties, promising reforms, and confirming to the bishops "justice and power" over the clergy.

At first Stephen appeared secure. His rival, Matilda, seems to have been unpopular, and she was now married to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, a hereditary enemy of the Normans. Stephen marched against Geoffrey in 1137, but his army was demoralized by the defection of the powerful Earl of Gloucester, illegitimate son of King Henry, who soon declared openly for Matilda, his half sister. Stephen left Normandy, and it was conquered piecemeal by Geoffrey.

In 1138 King David I of Scotland, Matilda's uncle, launched an attack on England; though defeated at the Battle of the Standard in August, he remained a rallying point for the opposition. In 1139 Stephen arrested (by trickery) the heads of the royal administration: Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, his son, and his two nephews. The Church was upset by the incident because three of the four were bishops; the nobility, because it made the King seem untrustworthy.

On Sept. 30, 1139, Matilda landed at Arundel, and Stephen quixotically gave her safe conduct to the Earl of Gloucester's castle at Bristol. She had little success until, in February 1141, Stephen was captured by the earl in battle at Lincoln. Matilda was recognized by the Church as Lady of England, but she was driven from Westminster before her intended coronation, and in September the earl was captured. The earl and the King were then exchanged, and from that time a stalemate was established. The southwest was controlled by the earl for Matilda; most of the rest of England was ruled by Stephen. But everywhere new castles were built from which landowners could defend their property and defy authority, and there were pockets of resistance throughout the country which Stephen could not eliminate; Wallingford was held for Matilda during the whole of his reign, and Framlingham from 1141 onward. Though the royal chancery functioned and the Exchequer may have met, orders could not always be enforced or money collected. Traitors could not be punished or violence controlled.

In these circumstances, the decisive factor was the conquest of Normandy by the Count of Anjou, who made over the duchy to his son Henry in 1150. The nobles of England were mostly Normans; they were anxious for a negotiated peace so that they could preserve their Norman properties. At the same time the bishops refused to consecrate Stephen's elder son Eustace as coruler and heir to the throne unless they had permission from the Pope, and the Pope was hostile. After the death of Eustace (Aug. 17, 1153) Stephen met Henry at Winchester and on November 6 recognized his hereditary right to the throne of England, retaining the kingdom for himself for life. He adopted Henry as his "son and heir," thus excluding his younger son from the succession. Stephen died on Oct. 25, 1154, and Henry took peaceful possession of England (as Henry II).

Further Reading on Stephen

R. H. C. Davis, King Stephen, 1135-1154 (1967), is a short and lucid biography. H. A. Cronne, The Reign of Stephen (1970), is more detailed; for the general reader there is a good account by John Tate Appleby, The Troubled Reign of King Stephen (1970). For general historical background see Austin Lane Poole, From Domesday Book to Magna Carta, 1087-1216 (1951; 2d ed. 1955).

Additional Biography Sources

Davis, R. H. C. (Ralph Henry Carless), King Stephen, 1135-1154, London; New York: Longman, 1990.

Stringer, K. J. (Keith John), The reign of Stephen: kingship, warfare, and government in twelfth-century England, London; New York: Routledge, 1993.

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