King Stephen

John Walker is impressed by a lively narrative of King Stephen’s disastrous reign but feels that some questions still remain to be answered

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Reviewed by: John Walker
Author: Edmund King
Publisher: Yale University Press
Price (RRP): £25

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Edmund King’s biography of Stephen, King of England (reigned 1135–54), is the third major life of this monarch published in the last decade. Yet it is not only in recent years that Stephen has attracted the interest of historians, as is illustrated by the large collection of articles and a number of other monographs dealing with all aspects of the man and the reign dating back beyond the last century.

Professor King of the University of Sheffield has himself written a number of articles, and edited an excellent collection of essays entitled, The Anarchy of King Stephen’s Reign, published in 1994.

This new biography provides a detailed examination of King Stephen, following a chronological framework which takes us from the little we know of Stephen’s early years to his accession to the throne in 1135 and his attempts to consolidate his authority in England and Normandy in the late 1130s.

It then goes on to consider the outbreak of civil war in England, Stephen’s disastrous defeat at Lincoln in 1141, and his, ultimately unsuccessful, attempts to reassert his authority following his release towards the end of that year. Finally, the author traces the factors that led to the end of the civil war and the settlement which saw Henry Plantagenet succeed to the English throne in 1154.

The book also highlights the motives and actions of a range of other characters who played a crucial role in the period. These include Stephen’s opponents the Empress Matilda and her half-brother Robert of Gloucester; Stephen’s wife, Queen Matilda, and his brother Henry, bishop of Winchester; as well as other members of the lay aristocracy and church operating on both sides of the channel.

The lively narrative is supported closely by reference to the primary sources for the reign, including the work of chroniclers such as William of Malmesbury, Orderic Vitalis, Henry of Huntingdon and the author of the Gesta Stephani (a contemporary history of Stephen’s reign).

These sources provide us with extremely detailed information on the period and the characters involved but come with their own problems of interpretation as each writer had their own, sometimes strong, opinions of the participants in the civil war.

If there is one thing that would have enhanced this study it would be some detailed engagement with the historical debate which has covered almost every aspect of the reign

Among areas of controversy are why Stephen became king in the first place; the reasons behind the defection of Robert of Gloucester in 1138; the impact of the Arrest of the Bishops in 1139; the aims of the aristocracy; the role of the church; and the reasons why the civil war ended.

The list is not quite endless but certainly, at times, can be quite overwhelming and that is before the reader engages with the complex debate on the condition of the country of which we are given only a tantalising glimpse in the final chapter.

It may be that the author does not want to distract the reader from the narrative of events by dealing with these debates and certainly someone new to the period might find discussion of the issues mentioned above rather daunting. However, for the expert in the period and the student at university, it is unfortunate that this area is neglected.

Professor King does at least make his own contribution to this wider debate in the final chapter, ‘Appraisal’. This chapter is, in many ways, the most illuminating as it provides us with the author’s own interpretation of the individuals and events previously outlined. In particular, his final assessment attempts to understand why Stephen failed, “for fail he certainly did”.

Stephen died in October 1154, his eldest son, Eustace, had predeceased him and the settlement that the king made with Henry Plantagenet ultimately led to the latter’s succession as Henry II after Stephen’s death.

Professor King is not unsympathetic to Stephen but he leaves us with the lasting impression that he was not really the right man for the job, manipulated by others including his brother Henry, and at crucial times out of his depth as the political struggles of the period engulfed him.

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Dr John Walker teaches in the Department of History at the University of Hull