Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Stephen (1097?-1154)
STEPHEN (1097?–1154), king of England, was the third son of Stephen Henry, count of Blois and Chartres, and his wife Adela [q. v.], daughter of William the Conqueror. As he had at least one younger brother, he must, from the dates of his father's two crusades and death, have been born either in 1099–1100, or, more probably, not later than the spring of 1097. His uncle, Henry I of England [q. v.], undertook to ‘bring him up and promote him,’ educated him with his own son, knighted him with his own hand, and granted him broad lands in England, and the county of Mortain in Normandy. In 1118 Henry gave the lordship of Alençon to Stephen's brother Theobald, and Theobald made it over to Stephen in exchange for the latter's share of their patrimony. Stephen treated the townsfolk, whose loyalty he doubted, with a harshness which drove them to the verge of rebellion; then he demanded hostages for their fidelity. In his absence one at least of the hostages was shamefully ill-treated; their relatives laid the blame on Stephen, and avenged themselves by admitting the Count of Anjou into the town and joining him in an attack on the castle. Stephen and his brother hurried to its relief, but were defeated in a battle beneath its walls. Stephen was with King Henry at the siege of Evreux in 1119. A passing attack of illness prevented him from embarking, on 25 Nov. 1120, with his cousin William, Henry's son, in the White Ship, and thus saved him from sharing in its wreck, in which William was drowned. Thenceforth Henry adopted him, as far as he could, into William's place. He kept him constantly at his side, and married him to the heiress of Boulogne, a niece of his queen [see Matilda of Boulogne]. At Christmas 1126 Stephen took precedence of all the other lay barons in swearing that on Henry's death they would acknowledge his daughter, the Empress Matilda [q. v.], as lady of England and Normandy. In 1127 Henry sent him to Flanders to negotiate a league with the Flemish nobles for preventing William ‘the Clito,’ the son of Henry's brother and rival, Duke Robert of Normandy, from obtaining possession of the duchy (Walter of Térouanne, c. xlv.). Stephen again stood at the head of the English barons when, in 1133, they repeated their oath to Matilda, and also swore fealty to her infant son, whom his grandfather ‘appointed to be king after him’ (cf. Ralph de Diceto, i. 247, and Rog. Hov. i. 187).
Three years later one great baron, at least, asserted that Henry had afterwards absolved his subjects from both these engagements and designated Stephen as his heir. However this may have been, no sooner was Henry dead (1 Dec. 1135) than Stephen sailed from Wissant for England to claim the crown. Repulsed from Dover and Canterbury, he was warmly welcomed in London, and chosen king by its ‘aldermen and wise folk.’ Winchester, and with it the treasury, was secured for him by his brother, Bishop Henry [see Henry of Blois], who also, by pledging his own word for the new king's fulfilment of a promise to maintain the liberties of the church, induced Archbishop William of Canterbury to crown him at Westminster, seemingly on 22 or 25 Dec. Stephen then issued a brief charter confirming to his subjects, in general terms, ‘all the liberties and good laws which they had under King Henry and King Edward.’ On 6 Jan. 1136 he attended his predecessor's funeral at Reading. Normandy had now acknowledged him as its duke, while Matilda had lodged an appeal against him at Rome for his perjury towards her. The appeal was heard early in 1136 (Round, Mandeville, app. B). Pope Innocent II gave no formal judgment on it, but practically he decided in Stephen's favour by sending him a letter in which he recognised him as lawful sovereign of England and Normandy. Meanwhile the king of Scots [see David I] had invaded Northumberland in Matilda's behalf. Stephen bought him off by a grant of three English earldoms to his son [see Henry of Scotland]. Soon after Easter, at Oxford, all the barons swore fealty to Stephen, and he issued a second charter, dealing chiefly with the rights of the church, but containing also a pledge to surrender all lands afforested since the time of William Rufus, and a general promise to abolish unjust exactions and maintain the good old customs of the realm. A few weeks later, on a report of the king's death, Hugh Bigod [see Bigod, Hugh, first Earl of Norfolk] seized Norwich Castle, Baldwin of Redvers [q. v.] threw himself into Exeter, and Robert of Bampton revolted in Devon. Stephen first dislodged Hugh, then he besieged and took the castle of Bampton, blockaded that of Exeter till thirst drove its garrison to surrender, pursued Baldwin to Southampton, and frightened him into doing the like. He spent 1137 chiefly in Normandy, which its overlord, Louis VI of France, agreed to let him hold on the same terms as his predecessor had held it, viz. his eldest son did homage for it in his stead. Stephen also made a truce with Matilda's husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, who was threatening to invade the duchy. On the king's return to England in December, he was met by a demand from David of the earldom of Northumberland for his son Henry. Its refusal was followed by another Scottish invasion. In February 1138 Stephen drove the Scots back across the Tweed. David retreated upon Roxburgh, and endeavoured to lure the English king after him, hoping to surround him and bring him to ruin. But Stephen turned aside and harried south-western Scotland, till lack of provisions compelled him to retire to his own realm.
By this time Englishmen were finding out how greatly they had been mistaken when, at Stephen's accession, ‘they weened that he should be even so as his uncle was.’ Brave, generous, high-spirited, warm-hearted, open-handed, courteous and affable towards all classes, Stephen was a man to attract affection, but not to inspire awe or command obedience. Haunted, as he naturally was, by a feeling of insecurity, he had begun by surrounding himself with a host of Flemish mercenaries, whose violence and greed made them an abomination to the people, and taking for his chief counsellor a Flemish adventurer, William of Ypres [q. v.], whose influence over him excited the jealousy of the barons and the old ministers of King Henry. Next, he had ‘broken his vow to God and his pledge to the people’ by holding, in autumn 1136, a forest court at Brampton (Huntingdonshire), evidently one of the places which he had promised to disafforest. He sought to form a party devoted to himself by creating new earldoms and alienating crown lands to men whose attachment he was anxious to secure. A statement said by William of Malmesbury to have been current a few years later, that Stephen debased the coinage, is not borne out by his extant coins (Howlett, preface to Chron. of Stephen, vol. iii. p. lii); but he ‘dealt out and scattered soothly’ the treasure which Henry had left; and when nothing of his own remained for him to give, he did not scruple to despoil those whom he mistrusted for the benefit of his favourites. For instance, on Christmas eve 1137, without any apparent provocation, he laid siege to Bedford Castle, in order to take it from its commandant, Miles Beauchamp, and transfer it to Hugh le Poor, whom he had created Earl of Bedford (cf. Gesta Steph. pp. 30–32 and 73, with Ord. Vit v. 103–4, and Hen. Hunt. l. viii. c. 6, who gives the true date). During the year then closing he had quarrelled with the most influential of all the barons, Matilda's half-brother Robert, earl of Gloucester [q. v.]; and in the spring of 1138 Robert sent him a formal defiance, which proved the signal for a rising of the barons in the south and west of England. Geoffrey Talbot had already seized Hereford Castle, which he held against the king in person for nearly five weeks (May–June). While Stephen was in London collecting fresh forces, Talbot was made prisoner by the bishop of Bath, and the bishop was captured in his turn by the garrison of Earl Robert's castle of Bristol, from whom he bought his release by giving Talbot up. At this Stephen was so angry that he marched upon Bath, and was with difficulty restrained from deposing the bishop. He went on to Bristol; but the nature of its site made a siege appear so hopeless that he was persuaded to abandon the idea, and, after a reconnoitring expedition to Castle Cary and Harptree (Somerset), he moved northward to Dudley and Shrewsbury. He ‘smoked out’ the occupants of Shrewsbury Castle by firing some brushwood in the ditch, captured its commandant's uncle and hanged him with (it is said) over ninety comrades, made a truce with the rebel lord of Dudley, and returned to the south to besiege Robert's fortress of Wareham. There he had no success; but early next year (1139) he took another of Robert's castles—Leeds in Kent—while the queen negotiated a treaty with the Scottish king, which Stephen ratified at Nottingham shortly before Easter. Thence Henry of Scotland accompanied him to an unsuccessful siege of Ludlow, where the rebels nearly captured the Scottish prince by means of an iron hook, but he was ‘splendidly rescued’ by the king. At midsummer Stephen summoned the justiciar, Bishop Roger of Salisbury [q. v.], to a meeting at Oxford. Though the new king had showered gifts and favours upon the old minister of his predecessor, they had been from the outset suspicious of each other. Both went to the meeting with a train of armed followers; a fray broke out between the latter, and the king made it an excuse for arresting the justiciar, his son Roger the chancellor, and his nephew Alexander, bishop of Lincoln. He then went to besiege the justiciar's castle of Devizes, dragging the two Rogers with him; the elder he lodged in a cowshed, the younger he threatened to hang if the place were not given up; and the chancellor's mother, who held the keep, was thus terrified into surrender. After securing Bishop Roger's other castles—Sherborne and Malmesbury—Stephen marched against those of the bishop of Lincoln—Newark and Sleaford—and won them by keeping their owner starving at the gates of each in turn till he bade his people yield. For these outrages upon two bishops the king was cited by his brother Henry, now papal legate, to answer before a church council at Winchester on 29 Aug. Stephen's defence was that he had arrested Roger and Alexander as traitors, and that the castles which he had taken from them were not parts of their episcopal baronies, but private possessions, which by canon law they had no right to hold. On this latter point the council decided in his favour; but it compelled him to do public penance for his violence to the persons of the bishops.
Meanwhile, William of Mohun had revolted at Dunster, and Baldwin of Redvers had seized Corfe. Stephen formed a hurried blockade of the former place, and was besieging the latter when he learned that the empress had landed at Arundel. He hastened to blockade her there, till his brother advised him to let her join Earl Robert, whereupon he gave her a safe-conduct and an escort to Bristol. In a few months she was practically mistress of the western shires. Early in 1140 the bishop of Ely raised the standard of revolt in the east; the king attacked his island fortress with equal skill and energy, and drove him out. At Whitsuntide Stephen held his court in London, but in the Tower instead of at Westminster, and only one bishop, a Norman, attended it. Stephen next marched against Hugh Bigod and took his castle of Bungay; in August he had to make another expedition against the same offender, and came to an agreement with him ‘which did not last long’ (Ann. Waverley, an. 1140). He also wrested Cornwall from its earl, who had joined Matilda; but this was only a temporary success. Shortly before Christmas he went into Lincolnshire to meet Earl Randulf of Chester [see Blundeville, Ranulf or Randulph, Earl of Chester] and his brother, William of Roumare [q. v.] Scarcely had he returned to London when he learned that they had seized Lincoln Castle. He at once went and laid siege to it; Randulf slipped out alone, to reappear on Candlemas day (1141), not only followed by the men of his own earldom, but accompanied by the whole force of the Angevin party, with the Earl of Gloucester at its head. In the battle that ensued the bulk of Stephen's men ‘betrayed him and fled,’ and he was left with a mere handful of comrades in the midst of a host of enemies. The little band, all on foot, stood firm against charge after charge of the horsemen; and the life and soul of their resistance was the king himself, who ‘stood like a lion,’ cutting down every man who came within reach of his sword, or, when that was broken, of a battle-axe which a citizen of Lincoln gave him in its stead. When only four (or three) of his companions were left, he still fought on, with ‘the fury of a wild boar’ and the courage of a hero, till the axe too broke in his hands, probably from the force of a blow which had laid Randulf of Chester in the mire at his feet (cf. John of Hexham, p. 308, with Hen. Hunt. l. viii. c. 18, Ord. Vit. v. 128, and Robert of Torigni, an. 1141). At last he fell, struck on the head by a stone; but even then he shook off a knight who sought to capture him, and would surrender to no one but Earl Robert. He was sent to Matilda at Gloucester, and thence to prison at Bristol. A church council summoned by the legate, 7–10 April, declared him deposed by the manifest judgment of God, and acknowledged Matilda as sovereign in his stead. Stephen himself, as if in despair, had already sanctioned the transfer of the primate's allegiance to his rival.
Matilda's harsh government, however, soon turned the tide against her. In November she released Stephen in exchange for Robert, who had been captured by Stephen's partisans; and on 7 Dec. another legatine council reversed the proceedings of the April one, acknowledged the justice of a plaint which Stephen laid before it against the vassals who had betrayed and imprisoned him, and declared him lawful sovereign of England. On Christmas day, in Canterbury Cathedral, Archbishop Theobald again set the crown on the head of the restored king (Gerv. Cant. i. 123; cf. Round, Geoffrey de Mandeville, pp. 137–8). It seems to have been during the same winter that Stephen joined with the abbot and convent of Westminster and the legate in a request to the pope for the canonisation of Edward the Confessor (Rymer, i. 18; for date see Clare, Osbert de). In the spring of 1142 he was for many weeks sick at Northampton; either before or after this he went into Yorkshire to break up a tournament which the earls of York and Richmond had arranged between them, and which he apparently suspected to be a pretext for an armed gathering with a more serious purpose. This was a danger which he had brought upon himself, for he was the first king who allowed tournaments in England. Shortly before midsummer he profited by Earl Robert's departure for Anjou to swoop down upon Wareham, so suddenly that its garrison, taken at unawares, surrendered at once. Thence he moved northward and eastward to break one by one the links of a chain of forts—Cirencester, Bampton, Ratcot—which the empress had been constructing to protect the line of communication between her brother's territories in the west and her own headquarters at Oxford. On 27 Sept. he reached Oxford itself, forded the river at the head of his men in the teeth of a volley of arrows from Matilda's troops, took the city by storm, and drove Matilda into the castle. There he blockaded her till near Christmas, when she escaped, and the castle surrendered. Robert meanwhile had come back and recovered Wareham; Stephen attacked it again, but in vain. On 1 July 1143 he was routed in a battle near Wilton, and nothing but headlong flight saved him from being made prisoner a second time. After Michaelmas (Liber de Antiq. Legibus, p. 197) he held a court at St. Albans; there he arrested the worst of all the troublers of the land, Geoffrey de Mandeville, earl of Essex [q. v.], and forced him to purchase his release by the surrender of all his castles. Geoffrey resumed his lawless ways as soon as he was free; a vain effort to reduce him to order, another fruitless siege of Lincoln Castle, and a more successful campaign in the west against Earl Robert, occupied the king during 1144. In 1145 his successes against Hugh Bigod in Norfolk and Turgis of Avranches in Essex, following on the death of Mandeville, which had occurred in the preceding August, brought eastern England for a while under subjection to Stephen, who moreover besieged and took a castle which Earl Robert had just built at Farringdon. Deserters from the Angevin ranks now began to join the king, among them Randulf of Chester, who in 1146 helped him to regain Bedford and to build a fortress at Crowmarsh to hold Wallingford in check. Negotiations were begun between the empress and the king, but they came to nothing. Earl Randulf now asked Stephen for his help against the Welsh, who were making raids into Cheshire. The barons persuaded Stephen to let them answer in his name that he would grant the request only if Randulf would surrender Lincoln and some other royal castles, which he still held without licence. Randulf refused; whereupon, as the English chronicler says, ‘the king took him in Hampton’ (i.e. Northampton) ‘through wicked rede, and did him in prison; and soon after, he let him out again through worse rede, with the precaution that he swore to give up all his castles; and some gave he up and some gave he not up.’ Among those which he did give up was Lincoln, and there Stephen kept Christmas (1146) with a splendour unexampled for many years past.
In spring 1148 Matilda withdrew oversea, and her husband proposed another trial of the claims of the rival sovereigns in the papal court, and called upon Stephen to lay down his regal authority pending its decision. This Stephen refused to do, unless Geoffrey would likewise surrender the Norman duchy which he had conquered four years before. Hereupon Geoffrey and Matilda transferred to their son Henry [see Henry II] the task of vindicating his claim to his grandfather's throne; and in spring 1149 Henry came with a small force to England. According to one contemporary writer, finding himself short of money to pay his troops, he appealed to the generosity of his royal cousin and rival, and Stephen sent him the needed sum. The story fits well enough with Stephen's character, but scarcely with that of Henry; and its details require somewhat violent handling to bring them into harmony with ascertained facts (see Howlett, Pref. to Chron. of Stephen, vol. iii. pp. xvi–xx, and Round in Engl. Hist. Rev. v. 747–50). Stephen had just put down a new revolt of the earls of Chester and Pembroke when Henry was knighted by the Scottish king at Carlisle on 22 May. Stephen hurried with all his forces to York; but Henry and David retreated to Scotland, and Henry soon returned to Normandy. Next year (1150) Stephen attacked Worcester, which was held by the Count of Meulan, one of Henry's chief partisans. He burned and plundered the town, but failed to win the castle. In 1151 he tried again, but lacked leisure or perseverance to maintain the siege in person; on his withdrawal his siege-works were destroyed by the Earl of Leicester, Meulan's brother, and ‘so the king's care and labour perished and came to nought.’
Stephen had now been for four years at strife with the church. First, he had refused to recognise the papal deposition (1147) of his nephew William [see Fitzherbert, William] from the see of York, and to acknowledge Henry Murdac [q. v.], whom Eugenius III had consecrated as archbishop in William's stead. Next, he had forbidden Theobald of Canterbury to obey the pope's summons to a council at Reims in Lent 1148, and vowed that if the primate did go he should not be allowed to come home again. Theobald went nevertheless; and, although his intercession saved the king from the excommunication with which Eugenius proposed to punish these insults to the church, Stephen banished him on his return. An interdict soon compelled him to withdraw the sentence; but so strongly did he suspect both primate and pope of being in league with the Angevins against him that in 1149 he forbade the great lawyer Vacarius [q. v.], who had come to England at Theobald's invitation, to lecture at Oxford on the Roman law (John of Salisbury, Polycraticus, l. viii. c. 22; date from Robert of Torigni, an. 1149), and in 1150 he refused a safe-conduct to a papal legate who wanted to pass through England to Ireland. Early in 1152, however, he reversed his policy. He was now anxious to secure the succession to the throne for his eldest son Eustace; so he made his peace with Archbishop Henry of York, and sent him to Rome to plead with Eugenius for permission to have the youth crowned. This the pope would not grant. On 6 April (‘Ann. Winton. Contin.’ in Libermann's Ungedruckte anglo-normann. Geschichtsquellen, p. 82). Eustace was acknowledged in a council at London as heir to the throne; but the bishops refused to crown him in face of the papal prohibition. Stephen shut them all up together and tried to frighten them into submission; but the archbishop of Canterbury escaped oversea, and without him no coronation was possible. At the opening of 1153 Stephen was called away from the siege of Wallingford by tidings that Henry of Anjou had returned and was blockading Malmesbury. Beneath the walls of Malmesbury the rivals fronted each other for a moment, with only the Avon between them, and both at the head of their troops drawn up in battle array; but a storm blew up from the west and beat in the faces of the king and his men with such violence that they were compelled to retreat. Henry next besieged Crowmarsh; Stephen followed to relieve it; the barons persuaded them to hold, across a narrow reach of the Thames, a parley, which ended in a truce and a promise on Stephen's part that Crowmarsh should be razed. Within a few months his spirit was broken by the deaths of his wife and his son, and the barons' reluctance to agree to a settlement was overcome by the successes of Henry and the diplomacy of the primate. On 6 Nov. Stephen and Henry made a treaty at Wallingford (date from Robert of Torigni, an. 1153; place from Rog. Wend. ed. Coxe, ii. 255), whereby it was agreed that Stephen should remain king for life, that Henry should succeed him, and that meanwhile the actual work of government should be done in his name by Henry as his adoptive son (cf. Engl. Chron. an. 1140, Ralph de Diceto, i. 296, and Rog. Hov. i. 212). The treaty was ratified in a great council at Winchester, and proclaimed by Stephen from London (Rymer, i. 18), which he and Henry entered together. On 13 Jan. 1154 they met again at Oxford, and Stephen made the barons do homage to Henry as their future sovereign. At their next meeting, at Dunstable, Henry complained that the king was conniving at the maintenance of some ‘adulterine castles’ whose demolition had been stipulated in the treaty. Stephen put him off with an excuse, and soon after went with him to Canterbury, and thence to meet the Count of Flanders at Dover. There the king's already shattered nerves received a double shock, from an accident which befell his only surviving son William, and from the discovery of a plot among his own Flemish mercenaries against Henry's life. He hurried the young duke out of the country; then he bravely girded up his failing strength to carry on the work which Henry had begun of bringing the barons to order and reducing the adulterine castles; and in this he met with considerable success. His last exploit was the capture of Drax (Yorkshire). At Michaelmas he was at a council in London; thence he went to Dover for another meeting with the Count of Flanders; here a sudden illness seized him, and he died in St. Martin's priory on 25 Oct. He was buried beside his wife and son in Feversham Abbey, which he had founded. [For his children see Matilda of Boulogne.]
Stephen's reputation has suffered from his position in the series of English sovereigns between two much greater men. He lacked the gifts of character and intellect which specially fitted both Henry I, his predecessor, and Henry II, his successor, for the task of governing a country in the transitional stage of development which England was passing through in the twelfth century; but he was in some ways a better man than either of them, and under circumstances less unfavourable than those in which he was placed, he might not have been a worse king. His failure as a ruler was in great part due to causes beyond his control; moreover, the failure itself has been considerably exaggerated. The fairest summary of his character is that given incidentally by the English chronicler: ‘He was a mild man, soft and good, and did no justice’—in other words, he was neither strong enough nor stern enough to crush the anarchic tendencies of a feudalism which it had taxed the utmost energies of Henry I to keep in check, and which, twenty years after Stephen's death, even Henry II was hardly able to subdue.[Ordericus Vitalis, ed. Le Prévost (Soc. de l'Hist. de France); William of Newburgh, lib. i., Gesta Stephani, Richard of Hexham, Robert of Torigni (Chronicles of Stephen and Henry II, vols. i. iii. and iv.), with Mr. Howlett's prefaces; William of Malmesbury's Historia Novella, the English Chronicle, Henry of Huntingdon, John of Hexham (in Sym. Dunelm. vol. ii.), Gervase of Canterbury, vol. i. (all in Rolls Ser.); Continuation of Florence of Worcester (Engl. Hist. Soc.); Historia Pontificalis (Pertz's Monum. Germ. Hist. vol. xx.); Stubbs's Select Charters, Constitutional History, vol. i., and Early Plantagenets; Round's Geoffrey de Mandeville. See also J. R. Green's paper on London and her Election of Stephen, in Old London (Roy. Archæolog. Institute, London Congress, 1866).]