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Stephen (c. 1096 – 25 October 1154), often referred to as Stephen of Blois, was a grandson of William the Conqueror. He was the last Norman King of England, from 1135 to his death, and also the Count of Boulogne jure uxoris. His reign was marked by civil war with his rival the Empress Matilda and general chaos, known as The Anarchy. He was succeeded by Matilda's son, Henry II, the first of the Angevin or Plantagenet kings.

Early life

Stephen was born at Bloismarker in France, son of Stephen, Count of Blois, and Adela of England, the daughter of William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders. One of ten children, his surviving brothers were Count Theobald II of Champagne, Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester, and William of Sully. He also had four sisters, including Eléonore of Blois.

Stephen was sent to be raised at the English court of his uncle, King Henry I, in 1106. He became Count of Mortain in about 1115, and married Matilda, daughter of the Count of Boulogne, in about 1125, who became Countess of Boulogne. Their marriage was a happy one and his wife was an important supporter during the struggle for the English crown. Stephen became joint ruler of Boulogne in 1128.


King of England

There were several principal contenders for the succession to Henry I. The least popular was the Empress Matilda, Henry I's only legitimate surviving child, not only because she was a woman, but also because her husband Geoffrey, Count of Anjou was an enemy of the Normans. The other contenders were Robert, Earl of Gloucester, illegitimate son of Henry I; Stephen; and Stephen's older brother, Theobald, Count of Blois. However, Theobald did not want the kingdom, at least not enough to fight for it. Before his death in 1135, Henry I named his daughter Matilda his heir and made the barons of England swear allegiance to her. Stephen was the first baron to do so. However, upon King Henry's death, Stephen claimed the throne, saying Henry had changed his mind on his deathbed and named Stephen as his heir. Once crowned, Stephen gained the support of the majority of the barons as well as Pope Innocent II. The first few years of his reign were peaceful, notwithstanding insurgences by the Welsh, King David I of Scotland, and Baldwin de Redvers.

The Anarchy: War with Matilda

By 1139, Stephen had lost much support and the country sank into a civil war, commonly called The Anarchy. Stephen faced the forces of the Empress Matilda at several locations, including Beverston Castlemarker and Lincolnmarker. Bad omens haunted him before the Battle of Lincoln, at which Stephen faced Matilda's illegitimate half-brother Robert and Ranulph, Earl of Chester. According to chroniclers, Stephen fought bravely but was captured by a knight named William de Cahaignes (a relative of Ranulph, ancestor of the Keynes family). Stephen was defeated and brought before his cousin Matilda, and was imprisoned at Bristolmarker.

Stephen's wife rallied support amongst the people of London and the barons. Matilda was, in turn, forced out of London. With the capture of her most able lieutenant, her half-brother the Earl of Gloucester, she was obliged to trade Stephen for him, and Stephen was restored to the throne in November the same year.

In December 1142, the Empress was besieged at Oxfordmarker, but managed to escape, dressed in white, across the snow to Wallingford Castlemarker, held by her supporter Brien FitzCount.

In 1147, Empress Matilda's teenage son, the future King Henry II of England, decided to assist in the war effort by raising a small army of mercenaries and invading England. Rumours of this army's size terrified Stephen's retainers, although in truth the force was very small. Having been defeated twice in battle, and with no money to pay his mercenaries, young Henry appealed to his uncle Robert for aid but was turned away. Desperately, and in secret, the boy asked Stephen for help. According to the Gesta Stephani, "On receiving the message, the king...hearkened to the young man..." and bestowed upon him money and other support.

Reconciliation and death

Stephen maintained his precarious hold on the throne for the remainder of his lifetime. However, after a military standoff at Wallingfordmarker with Henry, and following the death of his son and heir, Eustace, in 1153, he was persuaded to reach a compromise with Matilda (known as the Treaty of Wallingford or Winchester), whereby Stephen's son William of Blois would be passed over for the English throne, and instead Matilda's son Henry would succeed Stephen.

Stephen died in Dovermarker, at Dover Priorymarker, and was buried in Faversham Abbeymarker, which he had founded with Countess Matilda in 1148.

Besides Eustace, Stephen and Queen Matilda had two other sons, Baldwin (d. before 1135), and William of Blois (Count of Mortainmarker and Boulogne, and Earl of Surrey or Warenne). They also had two daughters, Matilda and Marie of Boulogne. In addition to these children, Stephen fathered at least three illegitimate children, one of whom, Gervase, became Abbot of Westminster.

An unfavourable thumbnail sketch of Stephen is given by Walter Map (who wrote during the reign of Matilda's son Henry II): "A man of a certain age, remarkably hard-working but otherwise a nonentity [idiota] or perhaps rather inclined to evil."

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (the Peterborough Chronicle, second continuation) provides a more favourable picture of Stephen, but depicts a turbulent reign:-
"In the days of this King there was nothing but strife, evil, and robbery, for quickly the great men who were traitors rose against him. When the traitors saw that Stephen was a good-humoured, kindly, and easy-going man who inflicted no punishment, then they committed all manner of horrible crimes . . . And so it lasted for nineteen years while Stephen was King, till the land was all undone and darkened with such deeds, and men said openly that Christ and his angels slept".
The monastic author said, of The Anarchy, "this and more we suffered nineteen winters for our sins."


Fictional portrayals

Stephen has rarely been portrayed on screen. He was played by Frederick Treves in the BBC TV series The Devil's Crown (1978) and by Michael Grandage in "One Corpse Too Many", the first episode of the television adaptation of the Cadfael novels by Ellis Peters (1994).

He was also portrayed in Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth.

In fiction, he is a prominent character in Sharon Kay Penman's novel When Christ And His Saints Slept, portrayed as a loving husband and good warrior, but an indecisive monarch who cannot control his barons.

King Stephen is often mentioned in all books of the historical detective series "Brother Cadfael", which take place during The Anarchy. He appears onstage in two of them:
  • "One Corpse Too Many" (written 1979, set in August 1138), takes place against the background of Stephen's conquest of Shrewsburymarker and his decision - described as "uncharacteristically harsh" - to execute all members of the former garrison which had held the city for Empress Maud.
  • "Brother Cadfael's Penance" (written 1994, set in November 1145), in which much of the plot takes place during and in the immediate aftermath of an abortive peace conference organised by the Church in an effort to reconcile Stephen with Maud and end the civil war.

Cecelia Holland's The Earl, also published as "Hammer for Princes" (1971) depicts the old and quite tragic King Stephen, facing the death of his own son Eustace and the inevitability of recognising Prince Henry, his rival's son, as his heir.

King Stephen is also featured in 1991's Ellen Jones novel The Fatal Crown. There he is depicted not only as Empress Matilda's rival but her primary love interest, despite her marriage, and the true father of Henry II.

Roberta Gellis, a writer of meticulously researched and colorfully presented historical fiction, deals with the turbulent era of the civil war during Stephen's reign in a series of books, beginning with "Bond of Blood" set in the first incursion of Henry into Stephen's kingdom, and continuing with "Knight's Honor". "The Sword and the Swan" deals with the final scenes of the disintegration of Stephen's kingdom and the accession of Henry to the throne.

English royal descendants

Philippa of Hainault, the wife of Edward III, was a descendant of Stephen, and he was thus ancestor of all subsequent kings of England.



  • Crouch, David. The Reign of King Stephen, 2000
  • Davis, R H C. King Stephen, 1135-1154, 1967

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