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.

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