Stephen (King of England)

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King Stephen (c1096 – 1154) was King of England (1135–54), and Duke of Normandy (1135–44). He was third son of Stephen, Count of Blois, and Adele, daughter of William the Conqueror, and nephew of Henry I at whose court he was brought up, and to whose daughter, Matilda, he swore he would give fealty after Henry’s death. However, when Henry died Stephen seized the throne; taking advantage of the king’s sudden death – legend has it that Henry died of a “surfeit of lampreys”, a form of eel – and many of the barons’ disinclination to have a women as ruler.

Matilda was an indomitable woman who had once been Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, and was now married to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. She landed in England in 1139, intent on attaining her right. From then until 1153 England was in the grip of civil war. Both Stephen and Matilda had their chances – both spent time as the others’ prisoner – but both mismanaged times of ascendancy and neither at any time had conclusive superiority. It was a time of changing treaties and alliances between the Anglo-Norman magnates, with the frantic construction of illegal castles across the land; and cracks appearing in the systems of law and finance.

Whilst Stephen tended to have the backing of most of the magnates, Matilda always had support from without. In 1144-5 her husband, Geoffrey, conquered Normandy. Their son Henry was to succeed to the dukedom in 1150-51. Also, she had supporters amongst the Welsh, and backing from the King of the Scots. Worse for Stephen; he fell out with the Pope over the succession of the archbishop of York; the Pope refusing to bless Stephen’s son as heir.

In 1153 the barons were sick of fighting. An agreement was reached (the Treaty of Winchester) whereby Stephen would retain the Kingship for life whilst Matilda’s son, Henry – a man far more popular with the magnates than his mother – was accepted as his heir.

In 1154, Stephen died, and Henry succeeded to the throne of England as Henry II.