King Stephen of Blois: England’s Anarchist King

There’s a reason that only one English king has ever been called King Stephen.

Feb 22, 2024By Chester Ollivier, BA (Hons) History
king stephen blois anarchy


Without a shadow of a doubt, King Stephen (r. 1135-54) is one of English history’s most controversial rulers. From usurping the throne to ending the Norman line of kings, Stephen is one of only two English kings who have never had another monarch named after them — the other being the notorious King John, which tells you the kind of stead King Stephen is held in!


King Stephen’s Early Life

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Four English Kings, (King Stephen bottom right), by Matthew Paris, c. 13th century, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Stephen was born in Blois, France, around 1092-96. His father was called Stephen-Henry, and was the Count of Blois, a hugely important role in medieval France. His mother, Adela, was a daughter of William the Conqueror (King William I of England), which is where Stephen’s claim to the English throne stemmed from.  His grandfather was King William I, while two of his uncles had also been English kings: William II and Henry I.


Stephen’s father was killed while on crusade when Stephen was about 10 years old, and he was raised by his mother, before being sent to King Henry I’s court in England. It was apparent that Stephen thrived at his uncle’s court, and he developed a particularly good relationship with him when he fought alongside him at the Battle of Tinchebray on September 28th, 1106. The victory at Tinchebray helped Henry secure control over Normandy. As a result, Henry knighted Stephen.


The White Ship Disaster

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The White Ship Disaster, c. 1321, Source: The British Library


On November 25th, 1120, English history would change forever. King Henry I had set sail back from Barfleur, France across the English Channel, while a vessel carrying his son and heir William would cross the channel later in the evening.

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In the meantime, the crew and passengers had been getting drunk, so when the ship carrying them (called the White Ship) set sail, both passengers and crew weren’t at their best. Not far out of the harbor, the ship crashed into some rocks, and sank.


There was only one remaining survivor from the 300 passengers on board — a butcher from Rouen. The king’s heir was now dead and England had a succession crisis on its hands.


The Succession Crisis


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Henry I, date unknown, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Henry I now had a tough decision to make. He knew that he could put Stephen forward as his successor but he also had a legitimate daughter, Matilda. Henry chose Matilda, the first time a woman had been directly named as an heir since the Norman invasion, and many of the barons and nobility were upset by this notion. Stephen was unhappy with it too, particularly given how close he was with his uncle.


King Henry I then arranged a marriage between Matilda and Geoffrey of Anjou (who was also known as Geoffrey Plantagenet). He made his court — including Stephen — swear an oath of loyalty to the newly married couple, stating that they would support their claim.


Despite making the oath, many members of the royal court looked unfavorably upon Henry’s decision. Not only was Matilda a woman, but Geoffrey of Anjou was a Norman enemy — the choice was clear who the barons would support when it came to crowning the next English monarch, and it would not be Matilda and Geoffrey.


On December 1st, 1135, Henry I died. Stephen wasted no time, and claimed the crown for himself. Just 21 days after Henry’s death, Stephen was crowned King of England, thanks to the large support from the nobility in court. With the alternative being a woman ruling the country, there was very little opposition from the nobility when it came to organizing Stephen’s coronation.


King Stephen’s Early Reign

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Empress Matilda, from the Gospels of Henry the Lion, c. 1188, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Stephen’s early reign was dominated as much by controversy as the rest of his reign would be. Almost as soon as he took the throne, he made steps to consolidate his power, but there was the ever-looming threat of Matilda, who had an arguably more rightful claim to the throne than he did.


Naturally, because of this, Matilda had a number of supporters, who kept growing. This unrest ushered in a period of historical social upheaval known as “the Anarchy.”

What did not help Stephen, was the fact that unlike his predecessors, he was notoriously indecisive. While Henry I, William II and William I had all been generally strong leaders, Stephen found it difficult to make decisions, often flitting between a decision and a non-decision, and when he finally made his mind up, it was often too late.


His indecisive nature undoubtedly exacerbated the effects of the Anarchy, leading to more political fragmentation and social upheaval. His indecisiveness also meant that the barons and other members of the nobility could take advantage of him for their own personal and political gain.


Many barons who had exploited King Stephen for their own gain had become even more greedy and built unlicensed and unapproved castles, from which they governed their local populace with cruelty. In response, Stephen attempted to choose new earls in their place, but this only made the problem worse and annoyed the nobles who were a part of his court. However, the civil war was far from over — it would last throughout Stephen’s reign, and until his death.


Civil War Under King Stephen

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Contemporary depiction of the Battle of Lincoln, Stephen (fourth from right), listening to a battle speech, c. late 12th or early 13th century, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Matilda was naturally deemed a cause worth fighting for when it came to the English throne. As early as 1138, her half-brother, Robert of Gloucester challenged Stephen and his rule. A year later, Matilda, along with Gloucester and King David I of Scotland (her uncle), invaded England. Matilda’s husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, focused his efforts on Normandy, giving Stephen two places to defend at once.


While Stephen successfully managed to garner control over the south-east, the rebellion really began to take shape in the south-west. However, a key turning point would come on February 2nd, 1141 at the Battle of Lincoln.


Stephen had besieged the rebel-held Lincoln Castle, but his forces soon found themselves under attack from a force led by Robert of Gloucester, and a contingent of Welsh soldiers. It soon became apparent that Stephen’s forces were outnumbered.


Stephen himself was captured and imprisoned, which should have marked the beginning of Matilda’s reign as Queen of England. However, this was not the case. The people of London did not support Matilda at all, who gave her the title “Lady of the English” rather than “Queen of England.”


Luck was on Stephen’s side this time. In September 1142, his military commander, William of Ypres, and his wife Matilda of Boulogne, set him free. William’s forces had managed to capture Robert of Gloucester, and had exchanged him for Stephen in an agreement. Unfortunately for Matilda, this seemed to have put an end to her ascendancy.


Stephen’s Later Reign

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St. George’s Tower at Oxford Castle, from where Matilda allegedly escaped, Source: Wikimedia Commons


With Stephen now out of prison, his reign continued, but the civil war was still not over. While skirmishes had erupted around the country, the next big attempt Stephen made to take the throne was in September 1142 at the Siege of Oxford.


A surprise attack led by the royal forces forced Matilda and her forces to retreat to the castle — which is exactly what King Stephen and his royal troops had hoped for.


The royal army held the siege at the castle for a further three months, knowing the weather would get colder and supplies would be in short measure.


Then, in one of English history’s most famous tales of daring, Matilda managed to escape. According to the story, Matilda had wrapped herself up in a white sheet, and, escorted by a few soldiers who were in similar garb, escaped during the night by climbing down a castle wall.


The white sheet helped her blend into the snowy surroundings, and she escaped unnoticed and crossed the River Thames to safety. When Stephen’s forces discovered that she had escaped, they gave up the siege, and the castle surrendered the following day. Stephen managed to retain the crown over the next decade, but Matilda finally conceded and reluctantly moved back to Normandy in 1148.


The Rise of the Plantagenets

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King Henry II of England and his issue, 1301-40, Source: The British Library


Matilda may have sacrificed the crown for herself, but she was not going to let it elude her successors. While King Stephen had managed to keep a hold of the crown, he was not necessarily a popular ruler, and Matilda knew it was time to take advantage of this.


Matilda chose her son, Henry FitzEmpress, who would later be known as Henry Plantagenet, and who would become the eventual King Henry II of England, fought for the crown on her behalf. In 1153, Stephen’s son and heir Eustace died, leaving King Stephen with no heir. The Treaty of Winchester was signed between King Stephen and Henry Plantagenet in the same year, and it essentially gave Stephen the right to rule until his death, and from then on Henry would rule. This treaty was responsible for ending the Anarchy and the Civil War, which had raged on for the majority of King Stephen’s reign.


Stephen’s Death and Legacy

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King Stephen, c. 1620, Source: Wikimedia Commons


Stephen would die the following year, on 25 October 1154. While he was indecisive at times, he certainly managed to hold his own for the most part, and remained king during what was a difficult period of English history. After King John, King Stephen is usually regarded as one of the least popular medieval English kings, and he was also the last king of the Norman line.


When Henry II took to the throne in 1154, he established the Plantagenet Dynasty, which was one of the most powerful dynasties of any country in the Middle Ages. Henry II certainly left behind a stronger legacy than King Stephen did, establishing a dynasty that would rule England under eight different kings until Richard II’s deposition in 1399.

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By Chester OllivierBA (Hons) HistoryChester is a contributing history writer, with a First Class Honours degree BA (Hons) in History from Northumbria University. He is from the North East of England, and an avid Middlesbrough FC supporter.