Stephen of Bois served as King of England from 1135 to 1154. Following the death of his uncle, Henry I, he usurped the throne, defying the appointment of Henry’s chosen successor, his daughter Matilda. This contentious move triggered nearly two decades of civil war in England, a period known as ‘The Anarchy’.
Stephen I’s turbulent reign was marked by political instability and a decline in royal authority, resulting from his fierce rivalry with Matilda. Ultimately, however, Stephen managed to negotiate a succession compromise with Matilda’s son, Henry II, heralding the end of the Norman dynasty in England.
What is the number one thing King Stephen is most famous for?
It could be that King Stephen is most famous for being the King of England that everyone seems to forget. However, he shouldn’t be forgotten.
The defining event of Stephen’s reign, which significantly marred his legacy, was the civil war between himself and Matilda.
After his swift coronation, Matilda invaded England in 1139, marking the start of nearly two decades of unrest and lawlessness that disrupted English society. The loyalties of local barons were divided between the two contenders to the throne. Many opportunistic nobles capitalised on the confusion to bolster their own power and territories.
As central authority waned due to the Crown’s focus on internal conflict, the barons increasingly took law enforcement into their own hands, often resorting to violent methods. Rampant looting escalated as barons pillaged church lands and illicitly erected fortifications, hiring mercenaries to wage local wars against rivals. As a result, banditry grew rife as discharged soldiers turned to robbery and extortion.
The common people bore the brunt of the violence, experiencing severe famine and the plundering of their lands and livestock. Farmlands were left uncultivated as peasants fled the disturbances, leading to widespread hunger and deprivation.
This breakdown in order was dubbed ‘The Anarchy’, as neither Stephen nor Matilda could secure a decisive victory in their struggle for the crown. Their long-standing conflict, marred by truces, broken pledges, the capture of castles and nobles, and escapes, plunged England into a state of misery. The ensuing disaster highlighted the catastrophic consequences of Stephen’s rash usurpation of the Crown.
What else will King Stephen be remembered for?
Amidst the chaos, Stephen endeavoured to maintain Henry I’s legal reforms, such as his charter of liberties. He also founded several religious houses and Augustinian priories, including Faversham Abbey, as an attempt to project royal piety and authority.
However, Stephen was primarily preoccupied with the military struggle against Matilda and her noble allies who controlled strategically important territories. Despite initial victories and captures, the ongoing stalemate gradually drained the Crown’s financial and military resources.
His strained relationship with the Church further eroded his control over the clergy. His conflict with Archbishop Thomas Becket presaged the growing tensions between the Church and the Crown in the future.
Although the Treaty of Wallingford, negotiated with Henry II, represented a final compromise on succession, stability remained elusive for the remainder of Stephen’s diminished reign. He continued to reign as a mere vestige of the previously all-powerful Norman kings.
You might not know this about King Stephen
Whilst Stephen is often depicted in English history as a weak and ineffective king, some accounts suggest he had an affable charm, artistic sensibility, and empathetic nature that contradict this simplistic portrayal.
Reportedly, Stephen exhibited an easygoing charm and a knack for engaging with the common people, a stark contrast to the aloofness of the previous Norman kings. In his spare time, away from civil war and court politics, he pursued refined hobbies such as writing poetry, studying philosophy, and appreciating music.
Through his contributions to major 12th-century architectural projects, Stephen displayed an appreciation for the fine arts. As an early patron of the emerging Gothic style, he likely influenced the design of structures such as the round-arched ambulatory of Malmesbury Abbey.
Furthermore, Stephen showed concern for the welfare of the common people during ‘The Anarchy’. He introduced special legal measures to protect the lands and rights of the Church, aiming to alleviate the adverse effects on peasants and villagers.
While his reign is often associated with turmoil and civil war, these glimpses into Stephen’s energetic temperament provide a more nuanced understanding of this embattled monarch. Despite the chaos, he still found room for artistic expression and empathy.