Caz,  England,  France,  Western Europe

Stephen of Blois

A depiction of the Coronation of King Stephen I
A depiction of the Coronation of King Stephen I

Following on from my recent post on the civil war known as The Anarchy ( ), I thought I would delve a bit further into the major players in this period.

Stephen was born in the County of Blois in central France in 1092 or 1096; there are conflicting reports of the date of his birth, probably due to the fact he was not an heir to the throne, nor a major member of the royal family, so there would not have been a lot of publicity surrounding his birth. He was however, a Grandson of William the Conqueror. His mother, Adela was the daughter of William the Conqueror and his wife Matilda of Flanders, a pious woman, who would have a strong influence on her son. His father, Stephen – Henry was Count of Blois and Chartres, a powerful French nobleman, and an active crusader, who had gained an unfortunate reputation for cowardice during the First Crusade. He was only a part of the young Stephen’s life for a short time, before returning to the Crusades in 1101 in an attempt to redeem himself, where he was killed at the battle of Ramlah.

Stephen was one of many children, at least four brothers and one sister, three of his brothers were older than him, and so he was never expected to inherit his father’s lands or titles. His oldest brother, William, would have stepped into his father’s place but it seems he had some form of intellectual disability, and his mother chose to have the title passed over to her second son Theobold. The third brother Odo, died at a young age, probably in his early teens. Stephen had one younger brother, Henry of Blois, whom he formed a close bond with. Henry headed toward a career in the church, whereas Stephen took the path of a military career. This plan was possibly devised and encouraged by their mother in order to avoid her son’s personal interests clashing. Adela raised her children within her own household, which at the time was rather unusual, as most boys were sent to a close relative for their education. Stephen’s tutor was William the Norman, and under his guidance he learned riding, Latin, History and Biblical Stories.

Stephen formed a close relationship with his uncle, King Henry I of England, being knighted by him in around 1112 when on military campaign with the King in Normandy, and journeyed to England for the first time in 1113 or 1115, as part of Henry’s court. His uncle became a powerful patron of Stephen’s, and under this patronage he began to accumulate land in England, as well as being granted confiscated honours and titles by the King. In 1125 Henry arranged for Stephen to marry Matilda, the sole heiress of the Count of Boulogne, who owned vast estates in the north west and south east of England.

In 1120, Stephen intended to set sail on a ship along with William Adelin, the son and heir of King Henry I, to sail from Normandy to England. Whatever his reason for changing his plans, his delayed journey saved his life, that ship sank, along with the heir to the throne of England. Sources state that it was a bout of diarrhoea that forced the change of plan, however concerns about overcrowding on the doomed vessel have also been stated as his reason for awaiting another ship. This disaster changed the political landscape of England; almost 300 important nobles had lost their lives along with the King’s son. The succession was thrown into turmoil; Henry was only left with one legitimate child, a daughter, and in many parts of Europe male primogeniture was popular, meaning only a son could inherit. In the previous sixty years there had been no peaceful, uncontested succession to the throne of England, William I had taken the throne by force, his sons had fought each other over their inheritance, and King Henry I himself had only taken control of Normandy by use of force. Henry I’s daughter Matilda was at a considerable political disadvantage.

By 1135 Stephen had established himself as a major political player, known to be well mannered, pious and easy going; he was well liked by most. However, he was also powerful, and was a man capable of taking firm action if needed. Stephen’s younger brother Henry of Blois had also risen to power under Henry I, he’d travelled to England with Stephen, first becoming a Cluniac monk, then Abbot of Glastonbury and finally being made Bishop of Winchester, whilst retaining Glastonbury, the combined revenues made him the second richest man in England, after the King. Unhappy with the amount of power Norman kings had over the church, Henry of Blois was keen to reduce the monarchy’s claim on the rights of the church.

When King Henry I died in December 1135, both Matilda and Stephen were out of the country, Matilda in Anjou with her husband Geoffrey, and Stephen in Boulogne. Stephen immediately set sail for England along with his military household. It seems that by this point he had already decided that he would lay claim to the English throne, public opinion was certainly in his favour, many did not want a female ruler. The crowds of London traditionally claimed the right to elect a King of England, and they proclaimed Stephen their King, believing he would probably grant them privileges in return I’m sure. Stephen’s brother was aptly placed as Bishop of Winchester to offer the support of the church, a shrewd man, he grasped his opportunity to negotiate a deal in which Stephen would grant extensive freedoms and liberties to the Church, and so Stephen was crowned King Stephen I of England on December 22nd 1135. The rest of Stephen’s reign would be remembered as a time of civil war and unrest, when the country was divided by those who supported him and those who supported the claim of Matilda, the daughter of King Henry I.

King Stephen would not pass his crown to any of his six legitimate children. His eldest son Eustace died in 1153, one year before his father. Only two of his children outlived their father, Marie and William, both would inherit the titles of Countess and Count of Boulogne. The crown instead was passed on to Matilda’s son Henry FitzEmpress, as part of a peace treaty called The Treaty of Winchester. In October 1154 King Stephen fell ill with a stomach disorder, and died at a priory in Dover. He was buried in Faversham Abbey, which he had founded in 1148, with his wife, who’d died two years previously, and his son Eustace.

Henry FitzEmpress was crowned King Henry II, alongside his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine at Westminster on December 19th 1154.