King Stephen

King Stephen

Stephen, the son of Stephen, Count of Blois and Adela, daughter of William the Conqueor was born in about 1097.

Stephen's father was one of the leaders of the First Crusade, and in 1102 he was killed at the Battle of Ramla. Adela ruled Blois and Chartes until 1107 when she handed over power to her son Theobald II. (1)

His uncle, King Henry I granted him estates in England and Normandy and became one of the richest men in the country. In 1125 Stephen married Matilda of Boulogne. Her loyalty and energy was to be a great help to her husband over the next few years.

After the death of his only son William, King Henry I married Adeliza of Louvain in the hope of obtaining another male heir. Adeliza, was 18 years-old and was considered to be very beautiful, but Henry was now in his fifties and no children were born. After four years of marriage he called all his leading barons to court and forced them to swear that they would accept his daughter, Matilda, as their ruler in the event of his dying without a male heir. This included Stephen. Although he had a hereditary claim to the throne through his mother, he appears to have taken the oath willingly. (2)

Stephen and Matilda

Henry now decided to find a husband for Matilda to help her to rule England. He heard good reports of Geoffrey Plantagent of Anjou. According to John of Marmoutier he was "tall in stature, handsome and red-headed... he had many outstanding, praiseworthy qualities... he strove to be loved and was honourable to his friends... his words were always good-humoured and his principles admirable." (3)

Henry began negotiations with Geoffrey's father, Foulques V d'Anjou and on 10th June 1128, the fifteen-year-old Geoffrey, who was more than eleven years her junior, was knighted in Rouen by Henry in preparation for the wedding. Geoffrey of Anjou married Matilda at Le Mans on 17th June 1128. "On his wedding day, Geoffrey of Anjou was a tall, bumptious teenager with ginger hair, a seemingly inexhaustible natural energy and a flair for showmanship." (4)

King of England

Matilda's first child, was born in Le Mans on 5th March, 1133. Henry was named after "the Anglo-Norman king whose Crown it was intended that he should inherit". Matilda give birth to a second son, Geoffrey on 1st June, 1134. Henry I died on 1st December, 1135. Under the agreement signed in 1125, Matilda should have become Queen of England. The Normans had never had a woman leader. Norman law stated that all property and rights should be handed over to men. To the Normans this meant that her husband Geoffrey of Anjou would become their next ruler. The people of Anjou (Angevins) were considered to be barbarians by the Normans. (5)

Most Normans were unwilling to accept an Angevin ruler and decided to help Matilda's cousin, Stephen, the son of one of the daughters of William the Conqueror, to become king. According to the author of The Deeds of King Stephen (c.1150), Stephen persuaded the people to support him by a mixture of bribes and threats. (6) Crowned king at Westminster Abbey he was also given the title of Duke of Normandy. "Stephen shrewdly issued a charter of liberties promising to respect all the laws and customs of the realm. (7)

Matilda reacted by establishing herself at Argentan Castle. Her third son, William, was born on 22nd July 1136. Geoffrey Plantagent led annual raids into Normandy but was unable to gain complete control of the area. The situation improved in 1138, when Matilda's half-brother, Robert, 1st Earl of Gloucester, renounced his allegiance to Stephen, after an attempt had been made to assassinate him. (8)

Gilbert Foliot, the abbot of Gloucester, claims that Robert changed sides because of his reading of the Book of Numbers. "It seemed to some that by the weakness of their sex they should not to be allowed to enter into the inheritance of their father. But the Lord, when asked, promulgated a law, that everything their father possessed should pass to the daughters". (9)

Earl Robert attacked Stephen's forces in the west of England. He then travelled to Normandy and joined Geoffrey Plantagenet in an attempt to take control of the region. This was unsuccessful and Stephen was also able to capture Robert's castles in Kent. Robert returned to England and in November, 1139, his army managed to capture Worcester from King Stephen. (10)

Stephen was eventually captured at the Battle of Lincoln (February, 1141). When Matilda went to be crowned the first queen of England, the people of London rebelled and she was forced to flee from the area. Stephen's army captured the Earl of Gloucester. An exchange of prisoners was agreed, and Stephen obtained his freedom. (11)

In Normandy, Geoffrey Plantagenet, was making good progress in taking control of the region. Matilda's army was forced to retreat to Oxford where she was besieged. In December, 1141, she escaped and managed to walk the eight miles to Abingdon. Eventually, she established herself in Devizes and controlled the west of the country, whereas Stephen continued his rule from London. (12)

Civil War

Dan Jones, the author of The Plantagenets (2013), has pointed out: "Stephen and Matilda both saw themselves as the lawful successor of Henry I, and set up official governments accordingly: they had their own mints, courts, systems of patronage and diplomatic machinery. But there could not be two governments. Neither could be secure or guarantee that their writ would run, hence no subject could be fully confident in the rule of law. As in any state without a single, central source of undisputed authority, violent self-help and spoliation among the magnates exploded.... Forced labour was exacted to help arm the countryside. General violence escalated as individual landholders turned to private defence of their property. The air ran dark with the smoke from burning crops and the ordinary people suffered intolerable misery at the hands of marauding foreign soldiers." (13)

Stephen was accused of waging war on his own people. One anonymous chronicler wrote: "King Stephen set himself to lay waste that fair and delightful district, so full of good things, round Salisbury; they took and plundered everything they came upon, set fire to houses and churches, and, what was a more cruel and brutal sight, fired the crops that had been reaped and stacked all over the fields, consumed and brought to nothing everything edible they found. They raged with this bestial cruelty especially round Marlborough, they showed it very terribly round Devizes, and they had in mind to do the same to their adversaries all over England". (14)

A. L. Morton has argued that the civil war brought out the "worst tendencies of feudalism" and during this period "private wars and private castles sprang up everywhere" and "hundreds of local tyrants massacred, tortured and plundered the unfortunate peasantry and choas reigned everywhere". Morton claims that this "taste of the evils of unrestrained feudal anarchy was sharp enough to make the masses welcome a renewed attempt of the crown to diminish the power of the nobles." (15)

In 1147, Geoffrey and Matilda's, fourteen-year-old son, Henry arrived in England with a small band of mercenaries. His mother disapproved of this escapade and refused to help. So also did Robert, 1st Earl of Gloucester, who was in charge of Matilda's forces: "So with the impudence of youth he applied to the man against whom he was fighting and with characteristic generorosity Stephen sent him enough money to pay off his mercenaries and go home." (16)

The following year Matilda decided to abandon her campaign to gain control of England. She returned to Normandy which was now under the control of her husband, Geoffrey Plantagent. She lived in the priory of Notre-Dame-du-Pré, where across the Seine she could visit Rouen. (17)

In January 1153, Henry, now aged 20, surprised Stephen by crossing the channel in midwinter. The two leaders made a series of truces which were turned into a permanent peace when the death of Eustace, in August, persuaded the king to give up the struggle. (18) In December, 1153, Stephen signed the Treaty of Winchester, that stated he was allowed to keep the kingdom on condition that he adopt Henry as his son and heir. (19)

In March 1154, Stephen went on a tour of northern England. According to William of Newburgh in his journey he "encircling the bounds of England with regal pomp, and showing himself off as if he were a new king". (20) Gervase of Canterbury explains that on 25th October while staying in Dover "the king was suddenly seized with a violent pain in his gut, accompanied by a flow of blood (as had happened to him before), and after he had taken to his bed in the monks' lodgings he died". (21)

Primary Sources


(1) John of Marmoutier, Deeds of the Counts of Anjou (c. 1174)

Tall in stature, handsome and red-headed... he had many outstanding, praiseworthy qualities. As a soldier he attained the greatest glory, dedicating himself to the defence of the community and to the liberal arts. He strove to be loved and was honourable to his friends... his words were always good-humoured and his principles admirable... This man was an energetic soldier and more shrewd in his upright dealings. He was meticulous in his justice and of strong character. He did not allow himself to be corrupted by excess or sloth, but spent his time riding about the country and performing illustrious feats. By such acts he endeared himself to all, and smote fear into the hearts of his enemies. He was usually affable and jovial to all, especially soldiers.

(2) Dan Jones, The Plantagenets (2013)

It was clear that Matilda would need a new husband to bolster her claim to succession.... Henry now sought an alliance with the counts of Anjou. He contacted Fulk V and negotiated a marriage alliance between Matilda and Fulk's eldest son, Geoffrey. On 17 June 1128 the couple were married in the Norman-Angevin border town of Le Mans. The Empress Matilda was twenty-six years old. Her groom was fifteen. John of Marmoutier recorded that the marriage was celebrated "for three weeks without a break, and when it was over no one left without a gift."

On his wedding day, Geoffrey of Anjou was a tall, bumptious teenager with ginger hair, a seemingly inexhaustible natural energy and a flair for showmanship. His fair-skinned good looks earned him the sobriquet Le Bel. Tradition also has it that he liked to wear a sprig of bright yellow broom blossom (planta genista in Latin) in his hair, which earned him another nickname: Geoffrey Plantagenet.... A week before he married Matilda he had been knighted by Henry I in Rouen, dressed in linen and purple, wearing double-mail armour with gold spurs, a shield covered in gold motifs of lions, and a sword reputedly forged by the mythical Norse blacksmith Wayland the Smith. As soon as the marriage was completed, Geoffrey became count of Anjou in his own right, as Fulk V resigned the title and left for the East, to become king of Jerusalem.

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(1) Edmund King, King Stephen : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(2) John Gillingham, The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England (1975) page 31

(3) John of Marmoutier, Deeds of the Counts of Anjou (c. 1174)

(4) Dan Jones, The Plantagenets (2013) page 10

(5) Edmund King, King Stephen : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(6) The Deeds of King Stephen (c.1150)

(7) John Guy, Thomas Becket: Warrior, Priest, Rebel (2012) page 31

(8) William of Newburgh, History of English Affairs (c. 1200)

(9) Lisa Hilton, Queens Consort: England's Medieval Queens (2008) page 91

(10) David Crouch, Robert, Earl of Gloucester: Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(11) Marjorie Chibnall, Matilda : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(12) William of Newburgh, History of English Affairs (c. 1200)

(13) Dan Jones, The Plantagenets (2013) page 20

(14) The Deeds of King Stephen (c.1150)

(15) A. L. Morton, A People's History of England (1938) page 54

(16) John Gillingham, The Lives of the Kings and Queens of England (1975) page 38

(17) Dan Jones, The Plantagenets (2013) page 21

(18) Christopher Brooke, The Saxon and Norman Kings (1963) page 188

(19) Edmund King, King Stephen : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(20) William of Newburgh, History of English Affairs (c. 1200)

(21) Gervase of Canterbury, The Deeds of the Kings (c.1210)