1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Stephen, King of England
STEPHEN (1097?–1154), king of England, was the third son of Stephen Henry, count of Blois and Chartres, and, through his mother Adela, a grandson of William the Conqueror. Born some time before 1101, he was still a boy when he was taken into favour by his uncle, Henry I. of England. From Henry he received the honour of knighthood and the county of Mortain. In 1118 he severed his connexion with Blois and Chartres, renouncing his hereditary claims in favour of his elder brother Theobald. But he acquired the county of Boulogne by marrying Matilda (c. 1103-1152), the heiress of Count Eustace III. and a niece of Henry's first wife. The old king arranged this match after the untimely loss of his son, William Atheling, in the tragedy of the White Ship; until 1125 Stephen was regarded as the probable heir to the English throne. But the return of the widowed empress Matilda (q.v.) to her father's court changed the situation. Henry compelled Stephen and the rest of his barons to acknowledge the empress as their future ruler (1126). Seven years later these oaths were renewed; and in addition the ultimate claims of Matilda's infant son, Henry of Anjou, were recognized (1133). But the death of Henry I. found the empress absent from England. Stephen seized the opportunity. He hurried across the Channel and began to canvass for supporters, arguing that his oaths to Matilda were taken under coercion, and that she, as the daughter of a professed nun, was illegitimate. He was raised to the throne by the Londoners, the official baronage and the clergy; his most influential supporters were the old justiciar, Robert, bishop of Salisbury, and his own brother Henry, bishop of Winchester. Innocent II. was induced by Bishop Henry to ratify the election, and Stephen thus cleared himself from the stain of perjury. Two charters of liberties, issued in rapid succession, confirmed the King's alliance with the Church and earned the good will of the nation. But his supporters traded upon his notorious facility and the unstable nature of his power. Extortionate concessions were demanded by the great barons, and particularly by Earl Robert of Gloucester, the half-brother of the empress. The clergy insisted that neither their goods nor their persons should be subject to secular jurisdiction. Stephen endeavoured to free himself from the control of such interested supporters by creating a mercenary army and a royalist party. This led at once to a rupture between himself and Earl Robert (1138), which was the signal for sporadic rebellions. Soon afterwards the king attacked the bishops of Salisbury, Ely and Lincoln — a powerful family clique who stood at the head of the official baronage â€” and, not content with seizing their castles, subjected them to personal outrage and detention. The result was that the clergy, headed by his brother, the bishop of Winchester, declared against him (1139). In the midst of these difficulties he had left the western marches at the mercy of the Welsh, and the defence of the northern shires against David of Scotland had devolved upon the barons of Yorkshire. Stephen was thoroughly discredited when the empress at length appeared in England (Sept. 30, 1139). Through a mis- placed sense of chivalry he declined to take an opportunity of seizing her person. She was therefore able to join her half-brother at Gloucester, to obtain recognition in the western and south-western shires, and to contest the royal title for eight years. Stephen's initial errors were aggravated by bad general-ship. He showed remarkable energy in hurrying from one centre of rebellion to another; but he never ventured to attack the headquarters of the empress. In 1141 he was surprised and captured while besieging Lincoln Castle. The empress in consequence reigned for six months as "Lady (Domino) of the English"; save for her faults of temper the cause of Stephen would never have been retrieved. But, later in the year, his supporters were able to procure his release in exchange for the earl of Gloucester. After an obstinate siege he expelled Matilda from Oxford (Dec. 1142) and compelled her to fall back upon the west. The next five years witnessed anarchy such as England had never before experienced. England north of the Ribble and the Tyne had passed into the hands if David of Scotland and his son, Prince Henry; Ranulf earl of Chester was constructing an independent principality; on the west the raids of the Angevin party, in the east and midlands the excesses of such rebels as Geoffrey de Mandeville, earl of Essex, turned considerable districts into wildernesses. Meanwhile Geoffrey of Anjou, the husband of the empress, completed the conquest of Normandy (1144). In 1147 the situation improved for Stephen; Robert of Gloucester, the ablest of the Angevin partisans, died, and the empress left England in dispair. But her son soon appeared in England to renew the struggle (1140) and conciliate new supporters. Soon after his return to Normandy Henry was invested by his father with the duchy (1150). He succeeded to Anjou in 1151; next year he acquired the duchy of Aquitaine by marriage. Stephen struggled hard to secure the succession for Eustace, his elder son. But he had quarrelled with Rome respecting a vacancy in the see of York; the pope forbade the English bishops to consecrate Eustace (1151); and there was a general unwillingness to prolong the civil war. Worn out by incessant conflicts, the king bowed to the inevitable when Henry next appeared in England (1153). Negotiations were opened; and Stephen's last hesitations disappeared when Eustace was carried off by a sudden illness. Late in 1153 the king acknowledged Henry as his heir, only stipulating that the earldom of Surrey and his private estates should be guaranteed to his surviving son, William. The king and the duke agreed to co-operate for the repression of anarchy; but Stephen died before this work was more than begun (Oct. 1154).
On his great seal Stephen is represented as tall and robust, bearded, and of an open countenance. He was frank and generous; his occasional acts of duplicity were planned reluctantly and never carried to their logical conclusion. High spirited and proud of his dignity, he lived to repent, without being able to undo, the ruinous concessions by which he had conciliated supporters. In warfare he showed courage, but little generalship; as a statesman he failed in his dealings with the Church, which he alternately humoured and thwarted. He was a generous patron of religious foundations; and some pleasing anecdotes suggest that his personal character deserves more commendation than his record as a king.
See the Gesta Stephani, Richard of Hexham, ^Elred of Rievaux' Relatio de Standardo, and the chronicle of Robert de Torigni, all in R. Howlett's Chronicles of the Reigns of Stephen, &c. (4 vols., London, 1884-1889); Ordenc Vitalis s Historia ecclesiastica, ed. Le Prevost (5 vols., Paris, 1838-1855); William of Malmesbury's Historia novella, ed. W. Stubbs (London, 1889); John of Worcester's Continuation of Florence, ed. J. H. Weaver (Oxford, 1908); the Peterborough Chronicle, ed. C. Plummer (1892-1899). Of modern works see Miss K. Norgate's England under the Angevin Kings, vol. i. (London, 1887); O. Rossler's Kaiserin Mathilde (Berlin, 1897); J. H. Round's Geoffrey de Mandeville (London, 1892); H. W. C. Davis's "The Anarchy of Stephen's Reign" in Eng. Hist. Review for 1903.