King Stephen

The civil war of Stephen’s reign has etched itself on the national consciousness. The 19 summers and winters when, according to the Peterborough chronicler, the saints slept have become a byword for feudal anarchy and violence.

To contemporaries the chaos of Stephen’s reign seemed all the worse for coming after the long peace enforced by Henry I. The youngest and most successful of the Conqueror’s three sons, Henry was renowned for his ability to enforce order in his lands. After his death in 1135 people looked back on his reign as a lost golden age. For all the success of his governance, however, Henry failed in one significant respect – he failed as a dynast. With the loss of his only son by his queen in the wreck of the White Ship in 1120 he had no legitimate male heir to succeed him. In the later years of his reign he launched a half-hearted campaign to secure recognition of his daughter Matilda, the Empress, as the next ruler. On his death, however, it was his nephew Stephen of Blois who seized the crown.

On the face of it the civil war of Stephen’s reign was a simple war for the succession. Historians have long wondered, however, whether there might have been other, deeper issues involved. Some have seen the struggle as a reaction against the harsh rule of Henry I; some as a rebellion by Henry I’s ‘new men’, who allegedly disliked Stephen; while still others  have pointed to Stephen’s loss of Normandy to his enemies as weakening his grip on England.

Edmund King’s discussion of these issues is the fullest and most detailed to date, offered through the medium of a compelling biography of the king. His study is based on a close reading of the sources, principally the chronicles and the charters issued in the king’s name, the witness lists to these last indicating who was in the king’s company and thus in his favour.

The book’s verdict on Stephen is largely negative. While recognising his positive qualities, notably his generosity and chivalric courtesy, the author presents him as largely the creation of others. Stephen, he says, owed his rise to Henry I, who saw him as a counter to his nephew William Clito, whom he detested. His elevation to the kingly title was largely engineered by his ambitious brother Henry, Bishop of Winchester, who was enthusiastic for a church-crown alliance. In his direction of the war, Stephen was heavily reliant on his able wife, Matilda of Boulogne, whose ambition was to secure the succession for her son Eustace. Even the king’s pious benefactions, the author argues, were inspired by his wife, the prime mover in the foundation of the family mausoleum, Faversham Abbey.

The unsung heroes of King’s account are the men usually condemned for stoking the anarchy, namely the leading barons and political bishops, whom the author credits with bringing the war to an end. King identifies this group as the leading lights in a ‘peace process’ instituted in 1153. His use of the modern terminology of ‘process’ is deliberate and he goes on to speak of ‘decommissioning’ – the decommissioning of castles, not weapons. On King’s evidence it is difficult not to see parallels between what was done in 1153 and what has been done in more recent conflict resolution. In each case the key task has been that of establishing a consensus in a divided society. The civil war of Stephen’s reign has long exercised a macabre fascination for students of feudal anarchy. It may be that it should now become required study for those whose concern is resolving conflict in modern societies.

King Stephen
Edmund King
Yale University Press   382pp   £25
ISBN 978 0 300 11223 8

Nigel Saul is the author of English Church Mouments in the Middle Ages (Oxford University Press, 2009).