King Stephen of England – a summary

Grandson of William the Conqueror, Stephen of Bois was King of England as King Stephen from 1135 until his death on 25 October 1154. Born in Blois in central France, Stephen was raised at the English court of his uncle Henry I, soon becoming his favourite. But his right to the throne was disputed by the Empress Matilda, daughter and heir of King Henry I.

Henry I

Henry I had ruled England since his accession to the throne in August 1100, having succeeded his older brother, William II. Henry’s heir was to be his eldest son, William Adelin, but on 25 November 1120, the 17-year-old William drowned with the sinking of the White Ship. In the aftermath of William’s death, Henry’s attention naturally turned to the issue of the succession. Although he had other children, their illegitimacy ruled them out as potential candidates. He had nephews too to consider, one of them being Stephen of Blois. Stephen had been living in his household for several years and had already demonstrated impressive military and political skills on a previous trip to Normandy.

So far unconsidered was Henry’s first-born child, Matilda, pictured, now Empress of the Holy Roman Empire. Although Matilda had the strongest claim among his family, she was, of course, a woman.

Henry took some time to discuss Matilda’s suitability with his leading barons and advisers. In general they were uneasy about Matilda succeeding her father. After all, there was no precedent of female governance in England. In an era where the role of monarch encompassed politician and soldier, the unsuitability of women for such a position was a sentiment echoed by many. King David I of Scotland, the brother of Henry’s late wife, and Robert, Earl of Gloucester, however, both spoke out in favour of Matilda and it was to these men that Henry listened. Thus, in January 1127, Henry named Matilda as his heir and invited the leading clergymen and barons of the realm to swear an oath of fealty to her, supporting her succession to the throne of England and the Duchy of Normandy.

Stephen of Bois also backed Matilda’s accession but his support proved to be fickle.

Stephen the Usurper

Matilda was in Anjou at the time of her father’s death on 1 December 1135. For reasons unknown, Matilda did not act to secure her inheritance when she heard of her Henry I’s passing. Instead, Stephen of Blois (pictured on the right alongside his uncle, Henry I) took the initiative and despite warnings of a severe storm, set sail immediately from Blois to march on London. Popular among the citizens, they welcomed Stephen and he rewarded them with commune status, a privilege granting greater control over the city’s affairs. In return, they swore an oath of fealty and elected him as their chosen king.

With the support of the people secured, Stephen headed to Winchester. Here, and possibly with the help of his brother, Henry, Bishop of Winchester, Stephen gained the support of Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, and William Pont de l’Arche, the royal treasurer. Stephen encountered some difficulty in persuading William Corbeil, Archbishop of Canterbury, to perform the coronation ceremony. Probably mindful of his oath to Matilda, it was only when Stephen made promises to uphold and protect the Church that he was convinced otherwise. After all, the country needed a ruler and Matilda was nowhere to be seen.

On 22 December 1135, Stephen of Blois was crowned as Stephen I in a ceremony at Winchester where he was anointed with holy oil and swore to uphold all the ‘liberties and good laws’ enacted by his predecessors. When news of the coronation reached Normandy, the local barons immediately accepted Stephen as their new duke.

Immediately after the coronation, David I of Scotland invaded England and Stephen was forced to cede much of his northern territory.

The Treaty of Wallingford

A further invasion in 1138 resulted in an English victory at the Battle of Standard, but was followed by the beginnings of civil war in England. Throughout the course of his reign, Stephen was never able to overcome Matilda and was in fact captured by her forces at the Battle of Lincoln in 1141. Matilda’s son, Henry of Anjou, the future Henry II, continued the fight after her departure from England in 1147. Henry’s invasion and the sudden death of Stephen’s son, Eustace, in 1153 paved the way for a peace settlement, the Treaty of Wallingford. The treaty allowed Stephen to retain his kingship for the rest of his life but, on his death, the throne would pass to Matilda’s son, Henry. In the event, Henry did not have long to wait – King Stephen died on 25 October 1154. He is buried with his son at Faversham Abbey and was duly succeeded by Matilda’s son, Henry, ushering in the era of the House Plantagenet.

Kaye Jones

The Medieval Anarchy: History In An Hour, published by Harper Press, is available in various digital formats.

See also articles on the Empress Matilda and the White Ship Disaster.