King Stephen would go down in history as a bad and indecisive king, whose only decisive action in usurping the English throne would cause chaos and a long civil war, but who was the man behind the King?
Stephen was born in about 1096, as the fourth son (third surviving son) of Adela of Normandy and Count Stephen of Blois and Chartres. His mother was an English princess, the youngest daughter of William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders, giving him a claim to the English throne. Stephen would have barely known his father, who was a participant in the First Crusade, but returned prematurely, after the Siege of Antioch. Pressured by Adela, Count Stephen then returned to the Holy Land as part of a minor Crusade in 1101, but was killed in 1102. Stephen's older brother, Theobald inherited all of their father's estates.
As a result, Stephen was influenced by his mother, as he unusually grew up in her household, where she steered him on a path as a feudal knight, as he was a landless younger son. However, Stephen's position changed in 1106, when his uncle, King Henry I of England, became Duke of Normandy, and became involved in a series of wars against France. Blois is located directly next to the territory of the French King, but Adela decided to align herself with Henry, and placed Stephen in his household. Henry quickly became a patron of Stephen. In 1112, Stephen was knighted by Henry, and probably accompanied him on campaign. In 1113, Henry gave Stephen the County of Mortain (confiscated from Henry's cousin, William), the Honour of Eye and later, the Honour of Lancaster, taken from Roger the Poitevin. Stephen had been raised from a landless knight by Henry and was now a nobleman, with rich lands and a common member of Henry's court, travelling to England with him in 1113 and 1115.
Stephen grew in power and influence in the following years, ruling his lands, and rising in favour; in 1125, Henry secured Stephen a great marriage to Matilda of Boulogne, the only heir to Count Eustace III of Boulogne. Eustace was also Henry's brother-in-law and Henry's Queen, Edith of Scotland's sister, Mary of Scotland was Eustace's wife). Matilda of Boulogne consequently held the vast holdings of Boulogne, which had lands in North-West and South-East England as well as the important port of Boulogne and surrounding county. It was an advantageous marriage to the Queen's niece, and shows how high Stephen had reached.
Stephen's status changed again in 1120 when the White Ship sank. The White Ship had been carrying William Aetheling, the heir to the throne, (and only legitimate heir) as well as almost three-hundred other passengers, including many senior noblemen, such as the Earl of Chester. Stephen should also have sailed on the White Ship, but changed his mind, and travelled on another vessel, possibly out of concern for over crowding or illness. While Henry quickly took another wife, Adeliza of Louvain, the only heir to the throne on his death was his daughter, Empress Matilda who was married to Count Geoffrey of Anjou. Henry wanted the Empress to be his successor but this was hugely unpopular, because she was a woman. It was feared that she wouldn't be able to rule and that Geoffrey would be a puppeteer, controlling England.
In about 1126, Stephen and Matilda's first child, Baldwin was born, and although he didn't survive childhood, the couple went on to have four more children:
Matilda (born before 1130, died before 1141) married in infancy to Waleran de Beaumont, Count of Meulan
Eustace (born about 1130, died 1153) became Eustace IV, Count of Boulogne between 1146 and 1153
William (born about 1135, died 1159) became Count of Boulogne and Earl of Surrey, married Isabel de Warrene (heiress to the Earldom of Surrey)
Marie (born about 1136, died 1182) who became Abbess of Romsey Abbey, but was abducted and forced to marry Matthew of Alsace in 1160, after becoming Countess of Bolougne. She had two daughters before the marriage was annulled and she returned to religious life.
In 1127, Stephen took an oath to recognise the Empress as Henry's successor, however, on Henry's death in 1135, Stephen was in Boulogne and sailed for England where he was crowned King. It was partly luck that Stephen got the throne; being in Boulogne at the time of Henry's death gave him an advantage over the Empress, who was in Anjou, his elder brother, Theobald was in Blois, and some of the other major nobles had taken an oath to stay in Normandy until King Henry was buried. As shown on the family tree above, the major claimants were the Empress, the children of Adela of Normandy (although William, Count of Sully was never a serious contender, and Henry in the church) and Robert, Earl of Gloucester, the eldest of Henry I's illegitimate offspring. However, by now, Stephen was in England, with the support of the church, through his brother Henry. Stephen advanced to Winchester, where he was given the Royal Treasury, and Henry came up with an agreement that Stephen would give the church excessive liberties in return for their support in his accession.
Another problem that Stephen faced was that of the oath that he had given to King Henry I to protect his Kingdom, when Matilda succeeded him, but his brother Henry (who was also the Bishop of Winchester) persuaded them that Henry I had been wrong in making them take such an oath.
Stephen was crowned on 22 December, at Westminster Abbey.
In early 1136, King David I of Scotland invaded the north of England, sending it into turmoil, by claiming Cumberland and Northumberland. Stephen marched north, and met for negotiations at Durham, where it was agreed the David would return all territory except Carlisle, but David's son Henry would have the Earldom of Huntington. He then travelled south to celebrate Easter with many of his nobles, portraying himself as the natural successor to Henry I in terms of policies and reconfirmed the seven existing Earldoms in England. He soon gained support from the French King, his brother Theobald and eventually, the Pope.
But then the troubles properly started. While Stephen was in the north, South Wales rose up in rebellion, beating Norman forces on January 1st 1136 in the battle of Llwchwr. This rebellion continued and spread in 1137. Baldwin de Redvers and Robert of Bampton led two rebellions in the South of England. De Redvers was captured, but released and travelled to Normandy, where he became an increasingly vocal critic of Stephen. In early 1136, there was also a fourth major issue, concerning the security of Normandy when Geoffrey of Anjou, invaded, raiding and pillaging lands. Stephen's brother, Theobald led campaigns to defend Normandy, but Stephen didn't return to the continent until 1137, when he met with Theobald and Louis VI, the French King, forming an alliance with them, and recognising Stephen's son Eustace as Duke of Normandy. He then led a campaign with Norman Lords and Flemish Mercenaries under William of Ypres to try to retake Argentan, but this failed due to friction between the two parts of his army. Stephen agreed to a truce with Geoffrey, paying him 2,000 marks per year in exchange for peace along the Norman Borders (Empress Matilda would not have been happy with Geoffrey).
Overall, the first few years of Stephen's reign had not been a disaster. He had made peace with Scotland, arranged a truce with Geoffrey, contained rebellions and kept up a good relationship with the church (although he had failed on the Welsh border). This would not last.
1138 started with a large rebellion led by Robert of Gloucester (Empress Matilda's half brother, the eldest of Henry I's illegitimate children), a rebellion that would become a long civil war: The Anarchy. He renounced his homage to Stephen and triggered a major rebellion across Kent and the South-West of England, although he remained in his estates in Normandy initially. Geoffrey took this cue, and invaded Normandy, while King David of Scotland invaded the North again, claiming to be supporting Matilda, his niece.
Stephen undertook some quick military campaigns, trying to control the revolts, and sent his wife and Queen Consort, Matilda of Bolougne to capture Dover Castle, using her Bolougnese ships and resources. Stephen's military campaigns went well, and proved himself an able commander, first striking the Welsh Marches, taking Hereford and Shrewsbury, but was unable to take Bristol. Robert's supporters expected him to also arrive in England, to help with the rebellion that he initiated, but he stayed in Normandy, trying to persuade Empress Matilda to come herself.
The Archbishop of York's forces beat King David's of Scotland at the battle of Standard, and Stephen used this as an opportunity of peace, sending his Queen to negotiate (Dover Castle had fallen earlier in the year). The Treaty of Durham was arranged whereby Northumberland and Cumberland would be given to King David and his son, in return for peace and fealty (although this enraged the powerful Ranulf of Chester, who thought those counties were his right). Now all Stephen had to do was prepare for the immanent Angevin invasion. He handed out a large amount of additional Earldoms, mainly to the Beaumonts (a powerful family who held the Earldom of Leicester).
The Angevin Invasion finally came in 1189, when Baldwin de Redvers returned to England in the hope of capturing a port, so their army could land. This failed when Stephen's forces forced him to retreat to the South West. Then came Adeliza of Louvain's key moment. She was Dowager Queen of England, and married to the Earl of Arundel. She invited the Empress to stay at Arundel Castle. On September 30, Empress Matilda and Robert of Gloucester arrived at Arundel. The Empress stayed at Arundel, while Robert left for the West, hoping to join up with Miles of Gloucester, another who had renounced his homage to Stephen. Stephen took this opportunity to move quickly, and trapped the Empress at Arundel. Stephen let the Empress go. He allowed her and some knights to join up with Robert in the South-West. His reasons are unclear. One theory is that he saw Robert as his main opponent, and was worried about the results of trying to capture a castle like Arundel, while Robert was free to wreak havoc in the West. Another suggestion is that Stephen acted out of chivalry, not believing that a woman should be a target. Whatever his reasons, it can't have been long before he realised that he had made a terrible mistake.
The rebel's strongholds were all in the South West, and that was where Stephen then set about pacifying. He started by attacking Wallingford Castle, held by Brien FitzCount, a childhood friend of the Empress, but Miles of Gloucester marched East, threatening London, so Stephen had to return to protect his capital.
In the start of 1140, the Bishop of Ely joined the revolt from his stronghold in the Fenlands, but Stephen again acted with clarity, taking the castle, and the Bishop only just escaped. Stephen had pacified the East, but in the West, Robert of Gloucester retook land that Stephen had conquered in his 1139 campaign. Henry, Bishop of Winchester tried to form a peace deal (to which Stephen sent his Queen, Matilda), but Stephen found the terms unacceptable so refused. And the war continued. Ranulf of Chester was still upset with Stephen over the Scottish deal, and made a plot to capture Prince Henry of Scotland on his journey north... Stephen heard about it and accompanied the Prince North. Chester had had enough this time, and seized the castle of Lincoln. Stephen made peace whereby Chester would keep the castle, but on his journey south, heard that Chester and his family were at Lincoln with a low guard. Unable to resist the temptation, Stephen abandoned the truce, and tried to capture the castle, from which Chester just escaped, and joined Robert of Gloucester in rebellion.
This was ultimately why Stephen's reign failed: his lack of decision making and going back on his word, causing distrust and frustration with his nobles. It was also this type of abrasive warfare that caused such chaos. It was childlike tit-for-tat. Taking and retaking castles, with different nobles switching sides almost annually depending on who "annoyed" them more - Stephen or Empress Matilda.
However, this all changed on February 2nd, 1141. Stephen was besieging Lincoln castle, as part of his quarrel with Chester, when Robert of Gloucester and Ranulf of Chester quickly advanced on Lincoln, and the First Battle of Lincoln occurred. Stephen had the smaller force but decided not to flee, and prepared for a battle. The battle initially went in his favour, but then turned and Waleran de Beaumont and William of Ypres fled, but he continued to fight, using sword, then axe. King Stephen was captured and taken back to Gloucester where he met Empress Matilda, before being confined at Bristol Castle. This confinement was harsh, although he was initially well treated. Empress Matilda made arrangements for her coronation. Geoffrey invaded Normandy again, with more success but the Empress was forced out of London before she could be crowned, and fled to Oxford. Stephen's Queen kept his cause alive during Stephen's nine month imprisonment, but some of his other allies like Waleran de Beaumont defected.
Stephen's fortunes changed on 14th September, 1141, when his Queen's forces managed to encircle the Angevin army while it was besieging Winchester Castle, hoping to capture the Bishop of Winchester who had gone back to Stephen's side, after allying himself with the Empress following the Battle of Lincoln. The Angevin army was cut off from supplies, so attempted to retreat, resulting in the Rout of Winchester, where Robert, Earl of Gloucester was captured. The two sides agree for an exchange of prisoners, Stephen's freedom, for that of Robert, and Stephen was freed on November 1st. Stephen was crowned again at Christmas, but neither side was any closer to winning the Civil War and the Empress wasn't going to give up.
In 1142, Stephen fell very ill, and rumours that he had died spread throughout the country, but he survived and instead went north where he persuaded Ranulf of Chester to switch sides again. He spent the summer attacking Angevin castles in the South West before spotting an opportunity to capture the Empress herself at Oxford. He led a sudden attack across the river, giving her no time to escape and prepared for a long siege for Oxford was a well equipped fortress. However, in December, in the mist of a snowstorm, the Empress escaped to Wallingford in the snow, walking straight pass Stephen's army, and crossing the frozen Thames. The garrison surrendered soon after.
This stalemate ended abruptly in 1143, when Stephen's position became vulnerable after the Battle of Wilton, when Robert of Gloucester tried to trap him in Wilton Castle. Stephen only just escaped the battlefield after Robert's cavalry charge. Geoffrey of Anjou continued to make progress in Normandy, and in late 1143, Geoffrey de Mandeville, the Earl of Essex revolted. Stephen had called de Mandeville to court to arrest him, and demanded that he handed over a number of castles - which he did before returning to the Fens to rebel. Another Earl in rebellion was the Earl of Norfolk, and Stephen didn't have the resources to track down de Manderville, so instead built a stream of castles (as you do).
In 1144, Ranulf of Chester rebelled again, and split the Honour of Lancaster (the one that caused the original disagreement) with Prince Henry of Scotland. On the continent, Geoffrey was recognised as Duke of Normandy by King Louis VII of France, while Robert of Gloucester's raids continued to get closer to London.
Then things started to improve. Miles of Gloucester died while hunting, depriving the Angevin's of one of their best commanders and Geoffrey de Mandeville died in September 1144, after being wounded in a siege. Stephen made ground in the west and came to an agreement with Ranulf of Chester, before making one of his biggest mistakes. In 1146, he invited Chester to Court before repeating his actions used with de Mandeville. He imprisoned Chester and demanded that he handed over several castles. This was the last straw for Chester who joined the Empress again and rebelled.
The Civil War started to flicker out from 1147, when Robert of Gloucester died. He was in his late fifties, but with him went any chance of the throne for Empress Matilda. But there wasn't peace. For now the Angevin's had a new figurehead, a new leader who they wanted on the throne. The Empress' son, Henry FitzEmpress. He arrived in England as a fourteen year old in 1147, with a small band of mercenaries, tried to besiege some castles, and then ran out of money to pay them. Here, Stephen's action is bewildering, as he paid Henry's men, despite being the one that Henry was trying to attack.
Henry returned in 1149, and formed an alliance with Ranulf of Chester. The allies tried to besiege York, but Stephen marched north, and Henry returned to Normandy where he was made Duke by his father. There was a relative peace in the following years. In 1152, Stephen's wife Matilda died, leaving him bereft; she was been a true Queen Consort. The next year, Henry invaded again, with a small force. He was now Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou and married to Alienor of Aquitaine, a rising power who was known for his energy and skills as a commander, having beaten Louis VII the year before. Henry met up with Chester, and the Earl of Norfolk, and soon Henry controlled parts of the North, Midlands and the South West. Stephen started to besiege Wallingford Castle, and Henry marched south before it could fall. The armies prepared for battle on the banks of the Thames, but the Church arranged a truce before the battle.
While neither side was happy with the outcome of Wallingford, someone who was very unhappy was Eustace, Stephen's son, who quickly left, moving to Cambridge where he attempted to collect funds for a new campaign. He died there a month later, aged twenty-three. With Eustace dead, the only other competitor to the throne was William, Stephen's younger son, although by this point the fighting was half-hearted. The Archbishop of Canterbury forged another truce between the sides, who came to terms at Winchester, in November. Henry was acknowledged as Stephen's adopted son and successor in return for Henry's homage. William renounced his claim to the throne, with the promise that his vast lands would have security.
In early 1154, Stephen began to reassert royal authority, after decades of unrest and lawlessness, travelling extensively and issuing charters across the country. In the summer, he travelled to Dover, where he met the Count of Flanders, and set his affairs in order, possible because he knew he was ill. On October 25, King Stephen died, and was buried at Faversham with his Queen Consort, Matilda and son, Eustace. Henry FitzEmpress succeeded him, and would rule for the next thirty-years.
Likeable but an awful king, Stephen would be remembered for his only decisive action, usurping the throne of England, and the chaos it ensued despite his ability as a battle commander and initial popularity.