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King Stephen

Arundel Castle

Since the late nineteenth century the civil wars of Stephen's reign (1135 - 1154) have been known as "the Anarchy". An idea of complete social breakdown during Stephen's reign was introduced by William Stubbs of Oxford University in the 1860s. Stubbs himself decided that Stephen's reign was anarchic. Stubbs was a priest, and for him history was "the place in which God's plan was acted out" (The Reign of King Stephen by David Crouch P3). He saw history as leading ultimately to a good outcome, though events might unfortunately be derailed from time to time by unstable forces. He saw Stephen's reign as an example of the process upset, a weak king unable to check the disruptive influence of a powerful and selfish aristocracy. Ungodly civil war was the result. But terrible as it is, war rarely represents generalised anarchy. As Stephen's biographer David Crouch points out, in times of war there is often a need for greater order than in easy going times of peace. Large scale organisation of men with a clear goal is required. Although the idea of Stephen's anarchy remains influential, reproduced on many web sites for example, most modern historians reject the idea. Society simply did not break down. This was an image portrayed by a nineteenth century historian who found such a version of Stephen's reign fitted his own view of history as an expression of God's design.


Stephen of Blois was born sometime around the year 1096. His father Count Stephen was ruler of Blois-Chartres in northern France, and had confirmed his power by marrying Adela, daughter of William the Conqueror. Stephen was only about six years old when his father was killed on crusade in May 1102. Young Stephen then grew up in a court dominated by his powerful mother. In his future life Stephen was to be notably respectful towards women. Around 1106 Stephen entered the household of William the Conqueror's third son, Henry I of England. This might have happened soon after the Battle of Tinchbray in 1106, when Henry defeated his brother Robert, Duke of Normandy, and took control of both England and Normandy. Henry was now one of the most powerful monarchs in Europe, and his court was the place for a young man to be. At court Stephen seems to have been well liked. Authors valued his patronage. He grew up alongside a brat pack of other powerful and ambitious young men. Following the White Ship Disaster of 1120 when Henry lost his son and heir William, and two of his other legitimate children, the pack was centred around a number of illegitimate sons of Henry. The eldest and most favoured was Robert, Earl of Gloucester. David of Scotland, the queen's brother was also a powerful young man. Soon Stephen was politicking for himself. He lost his authority in Alencon in 1119, following a conspiracy. But then in 1125 a useful marriage to Matilda, the heir to the county of Boulogne restored his position.

Then came the big moment when Stephen's life changed. On 25th November 1135 Henry I became ill whilst on a hunting trip in Normandy. He died within a week. William of Malmesbury wrote that Henry wished his daughter Matilda to succeed him. But the dying king did not want Matilda's husband Geoffrey of Anjou to rule with her, due to a dispute about handing over control of a number of royal castles in Normandy. Geoffrey was meant to become a queen's consort, a role this aggressive man was not suited to play. Other sources, such as the Archbishop of Rouen who attended Henry at the end of his life, mention no nominated successor at all. The fact that Norman magnates argued furiously over the succession following Henry's death indicates that there was, at the very least, confusion over the king's wishes.



Westminster Abbey

As soon as he heard of Henry's death Stephen immediately left for England, landing in Dover. News of the king's death had already reached England, and the garrisons of both Dover and Canterbury, closed their gates to Stephen. They supported the claim of Henry's illegitimate son Robert of Gloucester. London was more supportive, the City magnates perhaps interested in the continental trade that Stephen might bring. With help from powerful figures in London, and his younger brother who was now Bishop of Winchester, Stephen was quickly crowned in a near deserted Westminster Abbey on 22nd December 1135. On 4th January, to make up for this hurried coronation, Stephen sat enthroned at Reading Abbey directing the burial of Henry I. Symbolically power was moving from an old to a new king. Following the ceremonies at Reading, Stephen's power seemed secure. A dispute with King David of Scotland was quickly settled with a treaty in Durham in February 1136. But after this promising start events began to go badly for Stephen. Distracted by a siege at Exeter where the rebel Baldwin de Revers was holding out, Stephen did not give enough support to the "marcher lords" - nobles with land holdings on the turbulent Welsh border. He also upset the Church by trying to reduce the power of senior bishops, such as Roger of Salisbury. Stephen asked, quite reasonably, why Churchmen needed to hold castles.The traditional view of Stephen's reign has it that Bishop Roger had been central to the administration set up by Henry I. Supposedly Roger's removal allowed government to begin unravelling. More recent historical research, quoted by David Crouch does not support this. Stephen had upset powerful Church figures, and it was Churchmen who wrote history, and any move against ecclesiastical power was going to be written about in a negative way. The anonymous author of the Gesta Stephani chronicle was a churchman of high rank; and even though he was deeply critical of the ostentatious lifestyle of Roger of Salisbury and men like him, when it came to the crunch he closed ranks against Stephen. The Gesta Stephani author, compared Stephen to Saul, selected by God as first king of Israel. Saul was seen as a compromised monarch who refused to obey God and honour his priests. The Gesta's author understood Church corruption, but the Church came first. The view he put forward played straight into the hands of nineteenth century churchman historian William Stubbs.




Arundel Castle showing "Sentinels by Philip Jackson

On 30th September 1139 trouble for Stephen really started. Henry' Is daughter Matilda, calling herself an empress, and his illegitimate son, Robert of Gloucester arrived in England from Normandy. They landed on the West Sussex coast near Arundel. Matilda felt that as the former king's daughter she was King Henry's rightful successor and had come to stake her claim. Stephen was busy blockading troublesome Baldwin de Revers, who was now holding out at Corfe Castle in Dorset. Once he heard of Matilda and Robert's landing Stephen hurried to Sussex. When Stephen reached Arundel he was faced with a difficult situation. Arundel Castle was held by Adeliza, the queen dowager, former second wife of Henry I. Adeliza was popular and respected, and was on good terms with both Stephen and Matilda. Quite why she accepted Matilda into Arundel Castle is not really understood. Perhaps Adeliza envisaged herself brokering a peace deal between the two parties.

Stephen felt he could not simply attack the castle of the queen dowager. Instead he felt obliged to allow safe conduct of Matilda to the rebel centre of Bristol. Stephen's inability to act ruthlessly against women was probably also a factor. Once in Bristol Matilda found allies amongst those marcher lords who had felt unsupported in their struggle with the Welsh. Hostilities soon broke out, and Stephen found himself fighting a civil war. Then on 2nd February 1140 Stephen suffered a catastrophic defeat at Lincoln. Naturally this was widely seen by Church writers, and actually by Stephen himself, as divine retribution for his treatment of the bishops. Stephen after fighting bravely at Lincoln was put in chains in Bristol Castle. But even at this time of complete humiliation for Stephen there still wasn't "anarchy". There was only disorder in the places where the two sides met, in the limited war zones. In the rest of the country, as Crouch points out, life continued on as normal.




Oxford Castle

Empress Matilda's triumph did not last long. She won temporary support from Londoners, and for a short time it looked as though she would actually be crowned queen at Westminster. But then it seems arrogance, and the denial of requests for privileges, lost her London's support. On 24th June 1141 a mob drove Matilda out of Westminster, forcing her to flee to Oxford. By the end of 1141 Matilda's position had weakened to the point where she even lost control of the imprisoned king. Stephen was released in return for the release of Robert of Gloucester who was being held at Rochester Castle. This simultaneous release took place in November, and on Christmas Day 1141 Stephen was re crowned.

Empress Matilda now set about fortifying her last bastion in Oxford. She had some breathing space, while Stephen fell into a state of nervous exhaustion. We might even call this a breakdown today. But by August 1142 Stephen had recovered his strength. After victories over Matilda's supporters in Wareham and Cirencester, the royal army arrived at Oxford on 26th September 1142, trapping Matilda in Oxford Castle. The siege was to continue until December 1142, Oxford Castle being continually battered by siege engines. Then on a snowy December night, with an escort of a few knights, Matilda managed to climb over the castle walls and escape across the frozen Thames just below the western castle walls. She fled to friends at Wallingford. The castle surrendered the next day. Stephen with characteristic magnanimity offered the garrison easy terms of surrender.



Norman ramparts at Old Sarum Castle

Stephen then pursued Matilda, and by spring of 1143 he had gathered a large army at Wilton just outside Salisbury in Wiltshire. The plan was to attack the rebel garrison in Old Sarum Castle. But the royal army was surprised by Earl Robert of Gloucester's forces. Robert attacked during the evening just as the king and his household were settling down to sleep, scattering the royal army. Following this defeat the war became a stalemate, with England's powerful nobles supporting neither side with enthusiasm. Most tried to remain neutral and preserve their own property. Slowly, however, the situation started to turn Stephen's way. At the end of 1145 Earl Robert's son defected to Stephen, weakening the rebel position considerably. Then in October 1147 Robert of Gloucester died, Matilda's campaign losing its greatest leader. This marked the end of Matilda's hope for the throne. She left for Normandy in February 1148, and handed her cause over to her young son, Henry Plantagenet. He had been brought to England occasionally as a reminder that as Henry I's grandson, the line of that popular king lived on in Matilda. He had even fought his own little crazy campaign in 1147, during which he had ran out of money. Young Henry was bailed out and sent home by of all people, kind hearted Stephen.


Church historians portrayed Stephen for hundreds of years as morally lacking, when in fact it was his essentially good nature which caused him problems. He found it hard to be ruthless with women and foolish young men setting out on silly adventures. In 1150 Stephen was fighting rebels led by John Fitz Gilbert in the Severn Valley. John used his five year old son William Marshall as a hostage for good faith when he negotiated a truce with the King. John broke the terms of the truce by resupplying his castle, thus leaving young William to the mercy of the king. In a biography he would later write, William Marshall described how Stephen's advisors suggested several painful deaths for their hostage. Stephen ignored his bloodthirsty advisors and took the boy into his household for over a year as a page. "William records a priceless memory of being with the king (a distinguished man now approaching sixty) in his flower-strewn royal tent in the siege camp, playing a child's game of knights, with straw dolls" (Crouch P 260). Perhaps John Fitz Gilbert knew that Stephen wouldn't harm his son. Stephen had always had a soft spot for children, just as he had for women. His wife was devoted to him, and had fought tirelessly for him while he was in prison in Bristol. Her death on 3rd May 1152 was a terrible blow for Stephen.

With Empress Matilda retiring to Normandy, her son Henry quickly moved to take up his own cause. He landed in England and immediately advanced to Malmesbury and laid siege to the castle there. Stephen tried to relieve Malmesbury, but his relief column was beaten back by freezing weather, and the indifference of leading barons. At Wallingford in August 1153 Stephen had a real chance to defeat Henry, but his army refused to fight. The barons were simply tired of fighting, and started peace talks amongst themselves. Stephen saw the way things were going and did not struggle against events. The king and Henry met at Winchester on 6th November 1153. A settlement was reached where Henry was designated Stephen's successor. In return Henry swore loyalty to Stephen. King and duke made a joint progress from Winchester to London in early December, crowds cheering as they passed. The war was over. In mid March 1154 Henry returned to Normandy.

Henry did not have long to wait. In October 1154 news arrived of Stephen's death. He had spent his last days in Dover Priory, and died there on 25th October. As for how Stephen was then judged, his fate shows the arbitrariness of historical judgments. As Frank Barlow says in The Feudal Kingdom of England the Durham Chroniclers judged Stephen favourably because he had helped repel the Scots. Meanwhile the English ecclesiastical chroniclers, offended by Stephen's matter of fact attitude to Church corruption, laid the foundations for his poor reputation in later times. As Barlow says: "Probably no two men thought alike: everything turned on a person's place or on fortune's swinging wheel" (P233).

From my place on fortune's swinging wheel, my view of Stephen is favourable. He deserves to be better known and judged beyond the usual cliches that have attached themselves to his reign.