King Stephen of England and Matilda

The king, Stephen of England, was not nominated as heir to the throne of England. His cousin, Matilda, who was Henry I’s daughter, was instead. Matilda (or Maud as she is sometimes known) had the strongest claim, and her father rallied for an oath to be sworn by his Anglo-Norman barons, before his death, that she would become Queen of England.

However, Matilda was not a popular choice with the barons. Not only was she female, but Matilda was married into the Angevin house to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. The Anglo-Norman barons were not in favour of an Angevin presence on the throne of England! On the other hand, Stephen of Blois, a favoured nephew of Henry I, was a very suitable candidate. With his wealth and land in Boulogne, he was able to push his claim with swift movements a few weeks after Henry’s death.

So now cue the bitter rivalry between the cousins, Stephen and Matilda. Ultimately leading to a civil war in England with uprisings, turmoil and loss of territory over the next 15 years.

Stephen of Blois

Stephen of Blois was the son of Stephen, Count of Blois and Adela (William the Conqueror’s daughter). After Stephen’s father was killed on a crusade in 1102 in Israel, Stephen was placed into the royal court of his uncle, Henry I. There he gained wealth, land and power by marrying Matilda of Boulogne in 1125. This marriage enabled him to control a major trade route between England and France.

Stephen of Blois was very well liked amongst most of Henry I’s barons, and was very intelligent. However, Stephen was not a ruthless warrior like his Norman predecessors, and this would cause problems later on in his reign.

Empress Matilda

Empress Matilda

Matilda was the daughter of Henry I, and granddaughter of William the Conqueror. She was also the cousin of Stephen of Blois. Matilda, sometimes known as Maud, moved to Germany as a child and married Henry V, King of Germany and the Holy Roman Emperor. In 1125, Henry V died, and Henry I of England summoned Matilda back to Normandy upon news of the death of her brother, William Adelin, on the White Ship. This tragedy would leave Henry without a male heir.

In a bid to protect his borders, Henry arranged the marriage of Matilda to Geoffrey of Anjou. Henry nominated Matilda as his heir, as no other heirs were available. He insisted that his barons swear an oath of loyalty to Matilda, upon his death. This would seal his succession, in his mind, with House the Angevin. However, after Henry’s death, Matilda and Geoffrey faced opposition to their claim from all but a few loyal barons. Stephen was seen as the favoured successor.

King Stephen of England

A few weeks after Henry I’s death, Stephen swiftly travelled to England from France. He made his claim to be King Stephen of England, and was backed by some loyal barons. Matilda was not in England at the time. Stephen was crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey on 26 December 1135. But it wasn’t long before Stephen’s reign would come under attack.

The Battle of Standard

Battle of Standard

David I of Scotland, who spent his teenage years at the royal court of Henry I, supported his niece Matilda’s claim. David decided to invade northern England, to not only support Matilda but to also increase his territory. He received support from Eustace de Vescy, who handed over his fortress, Alnwick Castle to support the effort. Stephen sent a smaller army of armoured mercenaries up to meet David, with the Archbishop of York gathering most of the troops under the pretence they were doing God’s work. The combination of consecrated banners from York Minster, John of Beverley and Wilfrid of Ripon (with symbols of the patron saints of each city) were combined on a mast at the centre of the English line. This formed the standard, and the name of the battle.

David’s army attacked in 1138, confidant with a larger army. But England’s troops were heavily armoured and the wild Scots fell quickly. David had no choice but to retreat, and the English did not pursue. Stephen later met David at Durham, and signed a truce, giving Carlisle to David and giving David’s son, Prince Henry, the Earldom of Huntingdon. A soft approach from Stephen that angered his barons.

The Anarchy Civil War in England

The Anarchy was the name of the civil war in England between 1135 and 1154. The exact time that Stephen was king of England. During the civil war, Stephen had to deal with various uprisings. Some coming from from the Welsh and most notably lots coming from his disloyal barons and his cousin Matilda.

Welsh Rebellions

In 1136, the Welsh saw an opportunity to recover the lands lost to the Marcher Lords, who were trusted nobles appointed by the king to guard his borders. The Welsh Marches had the most castles built along the border, in an attempt, by William the Conqueror, to control the Welsh. It was this opportunity, when the Welsh saw how weak Stephen was, that sparked the Battle of Llwchwr (Gower). The Norman army under Stephen had underestimated the strength of the Welsh rebellion, and lost 500 men in the battle.

This Welsh victory spurred on other Welsh rebellions, in the Great Revolt, including a battle near Kidwelly castle, and the Battle of Crug Mawr (Great Barrow). South Wales was rising up to the Norman powers, but would be largely left to their own devices by Stephen, who had other considerable concerns from Matilda.

Disloyal Barons and Imprisoned Bishops

Robert Fitzroy, Earl of Gloucester

King Stephen had lost a few barons to Matilda’s cause, the most notable being the powerful Robert Fitzroy, Earl of Gloucester. Robert was an illegitimate son of Henry I and Matilda’s half brother, who had deep loyalties to Matilda’s cause. Robert would be at the forefront of the battle of Lincoln.

Henry of Blois

Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester and the brother of king Stephen, had initially supported Stephen during the push for the throne. He desired to be Archbishop of Canterbury, but obligated his time to Glastonbury Abbey instead. After the Battle of Lincoln, Henry decided it would serve him better to switch allegiance to Matilda’s cause. However, he found Matilda arrogant and decided to switch back to his brother Stephen. Later on, Henry’s help in the successful defence of the Rout of Winchester, would lead to the turning point in the civil war.

Ranulf de Gernon, Earl of Chester

Ranulf, Earl of Chester had inherited lands in the north from his father. During the truce at Durham, after the Battle of the Standard, king Stephen gave away Ranulf’s lands to David I of Scotland. This enraged Ranulf, who left Stephen’s court immediately. His allegiances switched to Matilda’s, and Ranulf would later take Lincoln Castle.

Imprisoned Bishops

King Stephen was losing control of his realm. He had 3 bishops, including Roger of Salisbury, arrested for assumed treason in 1139. He was concerned with the growing power the bishops had, with the number of castles they were building, and the increasingly large armed forces they were producing. Stephen feared that they would plot against him. By imprisoning the bishops, and demanded the castles’ surrender, Stephen had damaged his relationship with this bishop brother, Henry of Blois.

The Battle of Lincoln

The Battle of Lincoln, in 1141, was the culmination of the above events. After Ranulf had taken Lincoln castle, Stephen had decided to negotiate with him. The result was that Ranulf would leave Lincoln castle with powers given to him over the town of Derby and it’s castle. Ranulf accepted this offer and left Lincoln. But Stephen would later hear word of mistreatment from the people of Derby, and so the king marched upon Lincoln and besieged the castle.

Ranulf escaped, but his wife Maud (daughter of Robert, Earl of Gloucester) was trapped inside. Ranulf requested the aid of Maud’s father Robert, and with that Robert raised an army and together with Ranulf, marched on Lincoln. Joining them were a large group of Welsh troops. King Stephen’s advisers suggested the king leave, but Stephen chose to stay, despite the odds.

The king lost most of his leading Earls, as they fled at the site of the advancing armies, led by Robert. Determined to face Robert, Stephen and his remaining nobles attacked. However, no matter how bravely they fought, the Angevins killed most of the royal army, then surrounded the king, captured him and took him to Bristol as their prisoner.

Battle of Lincoln

Lands in Normandy

News of Stephen’s capture reached Geoffrey of Anjou. This prompted him to invade Normandy again, and take the Duchy south of the river Seine and east of the river Risle.

Matilda’s Reign and her Son, Henry’s Rise

With Stephen now imprisoned in Bristol, Matilda could move to London and take control of the throne of England. Just as she and her loyal followers had worked so hard for. However, Matilda was arrogant, greedy and after a while she fell out of favour with the London population.

Eventually her support waned, and Matilda of Boulogne (Stephen’s queen) rallied London into a revolt against Matilda, forcing her out before ever being crowned. Shortly after, Robert Earl of Gloucester, the loyal supporter of Matilda was captured. Matilda was then forced to trade prisoners, King Stephen for Robert, which she did.

King Stephen was once again back on the throne of England, and re-crowned on Christmas Day in 1141 at Canterbury Cathedral. Stephen’s reign would continue to be blighted by civil war until his death in 1154. Barons took advantage of the turmoil and built many unauthorised castles across the land, forcing misery onto the general population.

By 1147, when Robert Earl of Gloucester died, Matilda gave up her pursuit of the crown, and returned to her husband in Normandy. There she would concentrate her ambitious plans on her son, Henry FitzEmpress. Henry would later invade England in 1147, with a small, poorly paid army. The invasion would fail, and for some unknown reason, King Stephen paid the costs for their safe return to Normandy! Perhaps to continue the relative peace that was present.

King Stephen’s generosity would not be appreciated long, and Henry FitzEmpress invaded again in 1149, forming an alliance with Ranulf of Chester and David I of Scotland. The plan involved Ranulf giving up his claim to Carlisle (owned by the Scots) in return for rights to Lancaster. This would form a peace agreement between Ranulf and David, and with Henry at the helm, they could attack York together. Stephen marched north to intercept the invasion, and Henry swiftly returned to Normandy.

King Stephen’s succession

King Stephen’s eldest son, Eustace, was the obvious heir. Stephen tried to get Eustace crowned while he was still alive, as they did in France, but this was banned in England. Despite desperate attempts to have Eustace crowned, even imprisoning bishop Theobald for refusing to carry out the coronation, Eustace was never crowned.

Henry FitzEmpress returned to England again in 1153, with a small army. This time, Stephen could not control Henry’s invasion and negotiated a temporary truce. This left Henry free to control the north, midlands and south-west of England.

Wallingford Castle was still a stronghold for Angevin supporters, and Stephen’s army tried again to besiege it. When the first signs appeared that the castle may fall, Henry arrived with a relief army and besieged Stephen’s forces from behind. When Stephen arrived with his own army to help, Henry was waiting for him across the River Thames. This time the church negotiated a truce at the banks of the river. Stephen and Henry had a private discussion about ending the war.

Furious by this truce, Eustace returned to Cambridge to gather support for a fresh campaign, but he died from illness shortly after arrival in 1153. It is said that the cause of Eustace’s anger was actually from the fact that his succession was not discussed during the private conversation between Stephen and Henry. Perhaps pointing to a long-term peace with Henry at the throne.

At Winchester Cathedral, the Treaty of Winchester was announced, which stated that Stephen recognised Henry FitzEmpress as his adopted son and successor. In return, Henry would pay homage to Stephen, William (Stephen’s other son) would pay homage to Henry and renounce his claim to the throne. All foreign armies would leave, and all Henry’s castles would be accessible to Stephen.

The King Stephen of England died on 25 October 1154, and Henry FitzEmpress succeeded the throne as Henry II of England. A new French House had become successor to the English throne.

King Stephen of England Facts

  • Stephen was born in 1097, Blois, France
  • His father was Stephen, Count of Blois
  • His mother was Adela (daughter of William the Conqueror)
  • He was crowned on 26 December 1135 at Westminster Abbey, and again on 25 December 1141 at Canterbury Cathedral
  • He married Matilda of Boulogne
  • He had 5 legitimate children, most notably:
    • Eustace
  • He died on 25 October 1154 at Dover, Kent aged 57
  • His entire reign was blotted with civil war and rebellions

3 thoughts on “King Stephen of England and Matilda”

    • William, Stephen’s third son, was the Count of Blois, who’s right of succession was passed over to Henry Plantagenet by his father. William would later receive the Earldom of Surrey as a generous gift from Henry.

      However, there was a plot against Henry in 1154, and apparently William was aware of it. But there is no evidence to suggest William was behind the plot to over throw Henry. William died in 1159, without fathering any children with his wife Isabel de Warenne.


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