The Reign of King Stephen by Sarah Woodbury

Posted by on Jan 29, 2018 in Featured Book, Historical Tidbits, Medieval Great Britain | 0 comments

My Gareth & Gwen Medieval Mysteries are set during King Stephen’s reign, a time full of turmoil because of the conflict between him and King Henry’s daughter, Maud (Matilda).  Both claimed the throne of England and tore the country apart trying to get it.  Maud was supported by her half-brother, Robert of Gloucester, who couldn’t claim the throne himself because he was illegitimate.  Otherwise, he was the richest and most powerful man in England behind Stephen.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle has a very lengthy entry on the time of King Stephen, and oddly, the entire book ends with his death in 1154.  The Chronicle describes the brutality of events and reads, in part:

When King Stephen came to England, he held his council at Oxford; where he seized the Bishop Roger of Sarum, and Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln, and the chancellor Roger, his nephew; and threw all into prison till they gave up their castles. When the traitors understood that he was a mild man, and soft, and good, and no justice executed, then did they all wonder. They had done him homage, and sworn oaths, but they no truth maintained. They were all forsworn, and forgetful of their troth; for every rich man built his castles, which they held against him: and they filled the land full of castles. They cruelly oppressed the wretched men of the land with castle-works; and when the castles were made, they filled them with devils and evil men. . . . I neither can, nor may I tell all the wounds and all the pains which they inflicted on wretched men in this land. This lasted the nineteen winters while Stephen was king; and it grew continually worse and worse. . . . To till the ground was to plough the sea: the earth bare no corn, for the land was all laid waste by such deeds; and they said openly, that Christ slept, and his saints. (James Ingram translation)

King Stephen

Stephen was a grandson of William the Conqueror. After his father’s death in 1102, Stephen was raised by his uncle, Henry I. Henry appeared to be fond of Stephen, and he granted his nephew estates on both sides of the English Channel. By 1130, Stephen was the richest man in England and Normandy.

Before King Henry’s death, Stephen promised to recognize Maud as the lawful heir, but like many of the English/Norman nobles, was unwilling to yield the crown to a woman. While Stephen gathered the support of the barons, his brother Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester, arranged for approval of his rule by the pope and the church in general. Maud was in Anjou, married by then to Geoffrey of Anjou. Knowing he had a chance to reach London first, Stephen crossed the Channel and was crowned king by the citizens of London on December 22, 1135.

“Stephen’s first few years as king were relatively calm but his character flaws were quickly revealed. Soon after his coronation, two barons each seized a royal castle in different parts of the country; unlike his hot-tempered and vengeful Norman predecessors, Stephen failed to act against the errant barons. Thus began the slow erosion of Stephen’s authority as increasing numbers of barons did little more than honor their basic feudal obligations to the king. Stephen failed to keep law and order as headstrong barons increasingly seized property illegally. He granted huge tracts of land to the Scottish king to end Scottish and Welsh attacks on the frontiers. He succumbed to an unfavorable treaty with Geoffrey of Anjou to end hostilities in Normandy. Stephen’s relationship with the Church also deteriorated: he allowed the Church much judicial latitude (at the cost of royal authority) but alienated the Church by his persecution of Roger, Bishop of Salisbury in 1139. Stephen’s jealous tirade against Roger and his fellow officials seriously disrupted the administration of the realm. Matilda, biding her time on the continent, decided the time was right to assert her hereditary rights.”

With her half-brother Robert, Earl of Gloucester, Matilda invaded England in the fall of 1139. By 1141, they dominated western England. All seemed to be going against Stephen when Robert captured Stephen in battle at Lincoln in 1141, Stephen’s government collapsed, and Empress Maud was recognized as Queen of England.

Maud was arrogant and contentious in personality, however, and almost immediately she angered the citizens of London and was expelled from the city. Stephen’s forces, led ably by Stephen’s queen (also named Maud/Matilda) rallied, captured Robert, and exchanged the Earl for the King.

With this exchange, Maud was defeated for the most part, but the succession remained in dispute: Stephen wanted his son Eustace to be named heir, and Matilda wanted her son Henry to succeed to the crown. They continued to wage war against each other to little effect until Maud departed for France in 1148. Meanwhile, many barons were reluctant to choose sides—or repeatedly switched sides—out of fear of losing personal power or ending up on the wrong side when it all came to an end.

These issues were resolved in 1153 when Eustace died. The two sides finally reached a compromise with the Treaty of Wallingford: Stephen would rule unopposed until his death but the throne would pass to Prince Henry. And then Stephen himself died in 1154 of a stomach ailment, oddly not unlike the way King Henry had died 19 years earlier.

For Wales, Stephen’s reign allowed some measure of renewed sovereignty, most notably under the rule of Owain Gwynedd.

The Favored Son is set in 1147 Bristol, at the seat of Robert of Gloucester. It released January 21, 2018.

Sarah Woodbury, January 29, 2018

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