On to Stephen!

King Stephen (not King, Stephen)

Of the different ways by which English monarchs have attained the throne, Stephen’s stands out for one that was so dependent upon travel. Though a grandson of William the Conqueror and a beneficiary of Henry I’s patronage, Stephen seemed destined to spend his days as a French count until his cousin William Adelin died on the White Ship in 1120. While Henry promoted the prospects of his daughter Matilda, it was Stephen’s swift rush to England after Henry’s death in 1135 which proved decisive in determining who would succeed him. Yet for all of the boldness of his action his reign was characterized by instability and warfare, as Stephen and Matilda fought each other in what historians today regard as the first English civil war – one that probably would not have occurred but for those two fateful trips.

Perhaps surprisingly for a monarch embroiled in such a major conflict there are only a half-dozen modern works focused on Stephen’s life and reign. These I have decided to read in their order of publication, which means that I will start with R. H. C. Davis’s 1967 short biography of Stephen. Davies was a medievalist of high regard in his era, and evidently his book was the first biography of Stephen published in several decades. It seems to have served as the standard analysis for the next several decades, which is more likely than not a sign of the quality of Davis’s work Regardless, I will shortly find out for myself.

Once I finish Davis’s book I’m going to read two books with very similar titles that suggest a shared focus. Keith Stringer’s 1993 book The Reign of Stephen is the first book from the “Lancaster Pamphlets” series that I have read for this project, and promises a concise interpretive overview of Stephen’s tenure as king. I plan on following this up with David Crouch’s longer study, The Reign of King Stephen, that was published seven years later. Both titles suggest that the books will be less about Stephen’s life than his time on the throne, but as titles are probably an even worse way to judge books than by their covers I decided to give both works a chance.

By contrast, the final three books will me straightforward biographies of Stephen. Donald Matthew’s 2002 book promises a more revisionistically sympathetic take on the king that incorporates a wider range of sources. The final two books, Edmund King’s 2011 King Stephen and Carl Watkins’s 2015 Stephen: The Reign of Anarchy are both from series – Yale English Monarchs and Penguin Monarchs respectively – with which I am now quite familiar, and promise to be interesting capstones to read after absorbing the previous for studies on their mutual subject.

Just one book on . . . Henry I

Having read the biographies of nearly a dozen monarchs for this project, I find myself at an unexpected milestone. With Henry I, I find myself wishing for the first time that there were more studies of his life and achievements than there are available to read. This isn’t a knock on the three biographies I read about his life, all of which are fine works of scholarship. Rather, it’s that from them I gained an appreciation of the importance of Henry’s reign for English history, particularly in terms of the development of the English state. That a range of differing opinions exist within these books as to the nature of these achievements only underscores how much is left to be said about Henry’s time on the throne and his legacy. Clearly there is much room for new scholarship about his kingship.

The three biographies about Henry offer a surprisingly diverse range of entry points about his life, and given Henry’s significance and the limited number of studies about it all are worth reading. Yet while I found Edmund King’s short book on Henry a valuable study, it is one that is best read by readers who have a prior knowledge of Anglo-Norman history. As such it works better as a compliment to other works on the period than as an entry point to Henry’s life in its own right.

Far better suited in that respect is C. Warren Hollister’s biography of Henry for the Yale English Monarchs series. Thorough and insightful, it provides extensive coverage of Henry’s reign and makes an excellent case for its significance to English history. Its value is only marginally limited by the fact that Hollister died before he could complete work on his manuscript, as the editing would have helped to sharpen the case Hollister makes in it of the transformative nature of Henry’s governing reforms. Such revising also could have made it an incontestable starting point for anyone wanting to read a book about Henry, rather than just a strong contender for the title.

One of the remarkable aspects of Judith Green’s biography is that she challenged Hollister’s interpretation of Henry so closely on the heels of the release of his book in 2001. Yet this is just one of the many things that distinguishes her excellent study, which not only offers a different perspective on Henry’s reputation as a reformer, but which provides a coverage of Henry’s rule over Normandy that is lacking in King’s and Hollister’s more Anglo-centric studies. It’s because of this that, while all three studies deserve reading, Green’s is the one that people should seek out as the best single biography of this important monarch.