Stephen and Matilda

Following the deaths by drowning of his two legitimate sons, William and Richard, plus their half brother Outtel, Henry I did all he could to ensure that his daughter Matilda would succeed him to the throne and forced his nobles to swear to this on more than one occasion, the last being at Oxford when all present, including Stephen of Blois, son of the Conqueror’s sister Adela gave his word. Stephen was a pleasant, affable and likeable man and a favourite of Henry who gave him so much land and property both sides of the channel that he became one of the richest and most powerful of noblemen. He lacked the moral strength and ruthlessness however to be a firm leader which ultimately proved to be the cause of his failure to secure his line through the accession of his son. He was one of the party intended to travel to England in 1120 on the White Ship, but declined due to diarrhea, an attack which probably saved his life.

Matilda was the legitimate daughter of Henry, but was a quarrelsome and difficult woman. Her marriage to the Emperor Henry V of Germany was of huge diplomatic importance to the English King as witnessed by the dowry of 10,000 marks of silver. The marriage gave Henry an ally against the French King and also enhanced status as the father in law of the Emperor. Following her husband’s death in 1125 she returned home and it was probably her experience as an Empress which included witnessing royal acta, channeling petitions to the Emperor, being entrusted with the royal insignia and even becoming titular regent of Italy in 1118, which persuaded her father to put her forward as his successor following the White Ship disaster. Her training had ensured that she had a mind of her own and sufficient self confidence to be her own woman.

Her marriage to Geoffrey of Anjou, who was 10 years her junior, in 1128 was another strategic move by her father who was always seeking allies in his territorial disputes with the French King and the other nobles ever nibbling at the edges of his lands. Geoffrey’s father Fulk went off immediately after the wedding to become the consort of Melisende of Jerusalem leaving Geoffrey as Count and thus, a suitable match for a princess.

Fulk would however rule as King of Jerusalem to Melisende’s Queen whereas no such arrangement was envisaged for Geoffrey, the allegiance sworn to Matilda in 1131 being to her alone. It is typical of her that she retained the title of Empress even after her marriage to Geoffrey and her son Henry, born of this marriage was called Henry Fitzempress

The marriage did not have an auspicious start; she had a notoriously sour nature while he was rather shallow. Henry desperately needed a grandson to secure his line but Matilda and Geoffrey lived apart for the first three years of the marriage. It was only the prospect of the succession of Anjou going to a half brother from Palestine (born in 1131) that forced reconciliation. Thus the combination of duty and greed resulted in the birth of Henry (1133), Geoffrey (1134) and William (1136).

Henry, recognizing the weakness in Geoffrey would not let him have any authority or influence in Normandy or England. Matilda spent much of her time in Rouen being taught government administration, but this all came to an end with Henry’s death.

Stephen wasted no time in hurrying to England to claim the throne despite his oath to support Matilda. In this he was supported by many nobles, particularly his brother Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester and Hugh Bigod, a powerful Earl of East Anglia. They could not countenance being ruled by a woman and also saw some potential personal gains to be had under the rather weak Stephen.

Within 3 weeks he had secured the support of London, Henry’s officials and the church. It was vital for him to be recognized by the royal administration based in Winchester as it gave Stephen access to the royal treasure. Stephen was duly crowned on 22nd December 1135 by William, Archbishop of Canterbury, even though the cleric had sworn allegiance to Matilda.

Stephen’s swift action had taken his rivals by surprise, Matilda and her husband Geoffrey of Anjou, Henry’s illegitimate son Robert of Gloucester and of course, Stephen’s elder brother Theobald whom many favoured for the accession. The Only options open to them following the coronation was acceptance or rebellion and civil war.

Stephen also ensured his acceptance by the church by enlisting the support of the Pope, in return for which, he opened the way for increased papal influence in English political affairs and granted the church a Charter of Liberties.

All should have been set fair for Stephen, but his precarious position required the ruthless streak of the Conqueror and this trait was sadly lacking in him. His weak attempts to play the nobles off against each other and to seek compromise in an age when only strength was admired soon alienated those who had declared for him. His first test was against Baldwin De Redvers who rose against Stephen in 1136. Stephen attempted to lay siege to Baldwin in Exeter, but the disaffection of his Flemish mercenaries and their squabbles with the Norman contingent of his army led to disarray and retreat. Sensing the lack of resolve in Stephen, the nobles started to fight among themselves settling old scores and seizing what they could from each other. Civil war was to scar Stephen’s reign and throughout this time it was said that ‘Jesus and the Saints slept’.

During this time, Geoffrey of Anjou, Matilda’s husband had been increasing his influence in Normandy. He was little concerned with England and its troubles but saw an opportunity to further his own ambitions to annex the Duchy. Stephen mounted a campaign against Geoffrey in 1137, but again his army fell into disarray with the Flemish and Norman troops disintegrating into rival factions and fighting each other. In England the barons continued to fight among themselves, frequently changing sides in their support or otherwise of Stephen.

A stronger man might have been able to pull all these conflicting factions together, but the situation worsened when Robert Earl of Gloucester, Matilda’s half brother, rose against Stephen in 1138 to exploit the dissatisfaction felt by many at Stephen’s inability to impose order in the country and handing over the important towns of Caen and Bayeux to Geoffrey. It should be remembered that Robert had as good a claim to the throne as any, but had accepted the fait accompli of Stephen’s accession up till now. He became alienated however, by the many favours granted by the King to the Beaumont family twins Waleran of Meulan and Robert of Leicester. Many of his neighbours fell in with him and the West Country became the centre of the anti Stephen revolt.

Stephen, with events getting out of hand, and seeing treachery everywhere, ordered the arrest of the powerful Bishop Roger of Salisbury and his relatives. This act, which lost him the support of the clergy, was another wrong move. Heartened at news of the growing uprising, Matilda came to England, landing at Arundel where her stepmother now lived. Here Stephen displayed the strange workings of a medieval mind. After threatening to besiege Arundel castle, with incredible chivalry he had Matilda and her forces escorted to her half brother in Bristol.

The support Matilda enjoyed was not solely from supporters of her hereditary claim, but more from those who felt cheated from their lands under Henry or were jealous of favours bestowed on others by Stephen and who felt that they may profit better under a change of ruler. Stephen’s forces were numerically stronger than those of Matilda and her half brother, but shortage of resources, indecision and lack of resolve to crush his enemies, whose power base was centered around Robert’s West Country estates, prolonged the rebellion.

Stephen was beset by enemies all around: Geoffrey in Normandy, Robert of Gloucester in the west and, in July 1138, the Scottish King David invaded England ostensibly to lend support to his niece Matilda’s claim to the English throne, but seeing in the turmoil a chance to annex Northumberland. Stephen being preoccupied with the rebellion in the south west, the defence of the north fell to the ageing bedridden Thurstan, Archbishop of York who declared the forthcoming conflict a crusade and promised heavenly reward to the participants and eternal damnation to those who would not fight.

Jim Keys
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Jim Keys

Since his retirement Jim Keys has indulged his passion for history, writing two books on Britain’s past: The Dark Ages and The Bloody Crown. He is currently writing the last of the trilogy, Fighting Brits which covers Britain’s military struggles from the Armada to Afghanistan.

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