Stephen I - English King

Stephen I of England
Stephen I of England

Stephen I of England was born to Stephen, count of Blois and Chartres, and Adela, daughter of William the Conqueror, in 1096. The exact date of Stephen’s birth is not known; he had four brothers and three sisters. Stephen’s father died while taking part in the First Crusade.

In 1113 while he was still quite young, Stephen’s mother, Adela, sent him to make his fortunes at the court of her brother, Henry I, king of England and duke of Normandy. Stephen’s uncle warmly received his nephew.

Henry quickly bestowed upon Stephen many honors including lands in England and Normandy, as well as the title of count of Mortain. In 1125 Henry orchestrated Stephen’s marriage to a wealthy heiress, Matilda of Boulogne.

In December 1120 Henry I’s only surviving legitimate son, William the Aethling, drowned when the White Ship capsized in the English Channel. After his son’s death, Henry I became very concerned about the succession. As his first wife had died in 1118, Henry quickly remarried with the hopes of fathering a new male heir.

Despite the fact that Henry was the father of several bastard sons by various mistresses, when it became clear that his second marriage would not produce any issue, Henry was faced with a difficult decision in regard to whom he should name as his heir.

The most prominent contenders for the honor included Henry’s only surviving, legitimate child, Maude (also known by the Latinized version of her name, Matilda); his bastard son, Robert of Gloucester; and Stephen, his nephew.

Among Henry’s magnates, Stephen was the most popular choice given his gender and his legitimacy. Stephen was well liked for his bravery and skill in battle, his easygoing disposition, and his kind nature.

However instead of Stephen, Henry named his daughter Maude as his heir. Henry argued that, despite her gender, Maude held the best hereditary claim to the throne of England. In December 1126 Henry insisted that all of his magnates, including Stephen, swear an oath of loyalty to Maude as his heir.

In 1128 Henry negotiated the widely unpopular marriage of Maude to Geoffrey la Belle, count of Anjou and Maine. However Henry was quite pleased with the marriage, and Maude further secured her father’s favor when she produced a son in 1133. The baby was named Henry in the king’s honor.

Henry I died on December 1, 1135, while in Normandy. As soon as word reached Stephen of his uncle’s death, he set sail from Boulogne for England. Securing the royal treasury at Winchester, Stephen immediately proclaimed himself king.

Stephen claimed that upon his deathbed, Henry I had renounced his support of Maude as his heir in favor of Stephen. He also asserted that the oaths of loyalty he had pledged to Maude were null and void, as his uncle had forced him to swear fealty under duress.

On December 26, 1135, Stephen was crowned and anointed by William de Corbeil, archbishop of Canterbury. As soon as word reached Maude that Stephen had usurped the English throne, she immediately made plans to fight her cousin for the succession.

She first appealed to Pope Innocent II for support despite the fact that Innocent had already declared Stephen as the rightful heir to Henry’s throne. When the pope failed to grant Maude any political support, she chose to undertake a military solution.

Between 1139 and 1153 civil war raged in England. One monk noted in The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that the anarchy of Stephen’s reign was a time when “men said openly that Christ and His angels slept.” Maude initially waged a successful war against Stephen. She captured Stephen on February 2, 1141, at the Battle of Lincoln.

Proclaiming herself Anglorum Domina or “Lady of the English,” Maude made ready to be crowned queen in London. However several unpopular political decisions resulted in rebellion against Maude. Fighting soon resumed under the command of Stephen’s wife, Matilda of Boulogne.

In September 1141, Matilda’s forces captured Robert of Gloucester. Maude was forced to agree to a prisoner exchange—Stephen for Robert. Stephen’s restoration and Maude’s retreat to Robert’s stronghold at Bristol marked the end of the first phase of the civil war.

The second phase of the civil war began in 1148. Maude left the fighting in England to her eldest son, Henry. Known as Henry Fitzempress, Henry had a rise to power that was amazingly swift.

He acceded to the dukedom of Normandy in 1151, became count of Anjou and Maine upon his father’s unexpected death later that year, and consolidated his power base by marrying Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152.

Eleanor’s wealth provided the money and soldiers that Henry needed if he were going to successfully take up his mother’s claims to the En glish Crown. Fearful of Henry’s growing power, Stephen wished to ensure that his eldest surviving son, Eustace, would succeed him as king of England.

In 1150 Stephen took steps to solidify Eustace’s position as his heir by having him crowned and consecrated as king during Stephen’s own lifetime. Pope Celestine II refused to comply with Stephen’s request.

On August 17, 1153, Stephen’s main impediment to peace with Duke Henry was removed when Eustace suddenly died. Shortly thereafter, Stephen’s leading magnates, tired of the fighting, forced a peace settlement upon Stephen and Duke Henry.

In the Treaty of Westminster, Henry agreed to allow Stephen to rule as king for the remainder of his lifetime. In return, Stephen adopted Henry as his son and named him as heir to the throne of England.

Sick and worn out from years of fighting, Stephen died on October 25, 1154. He was buried next to his wife, Matilda, at Faversham Abbey in Kent, having ruled as the last of the Norman monarchs in England.