Review of “King Stephen” by R. H. C. Davis

When Ralph Henry Carless Davis published his short biography of Stephen in 1967, he had the field entirely to himself. Indeed, in the book’s preface, he states that the “classic study of Stephen’s reign” until then was a biography of Geoffrey de Mandeville written three-quarters of a century earlier by the Victorian medievalist J. Horace Round. It’s quite a statement about Stephen’s standing in the pantheon of English kings that for decades he best book about him was a biography about a former follower turned rebel. During that time, however a number of collections of charters, most notably the Gesta Stephani and Regesta Regun Anglo-Normannorum were published, both requiring a revision of the understanding of the events of Stephen’s reign and the materials on which to base it.

For this task Davis was well equipped. The son of Henry William Carless Davis, who had served as Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford until his premature death in 1928, he had inherited his father’s work on the third volume of the Regesta and was co-editor of this collection of known charters from Stephen’s reign. This work made him ideally suited to undertake a fresh look at Stephen’s reign based on the sources, and he rose to the challenge successfully. His book offers an efficient narrative of Stephen’s life that briskly covers his early years in France, his ascent to the English throne, and his efforts to maintain his hold on the crown. His focus throughout is on the political and military activities of his subject, with little examination of many of the aspects of his reign (such as his personal life or his court) that have been addressed by many of the other biographies of monarchs from this period that I have read.

Davis more than makes up for this, however, with the scope of his assessment. Not content simply to chronicle Stephen’s activities, he offers an explanation as well for why Stephen took the actions he did and why they succeeded or failed. This helps support his view of Stephen as a man of poor judgment and a devious ruler who failed to engender trust among his contemporaries. This proved damaging to his ability to win over the magnates, whose support was key to determining the outcome of the war. In Davis’ estimation, Stephen was fortunate to have Matilda as an opponent, as her mixture of stubbornness and caution prevented her from turning Stephen’s capture in 1141 into final victory in their clash for power.

It will be interesting to compare this judgment with those of Stephen’s subsequent biographers. That a quarter century would pass before another historian would publish another book about Stephen’s life and reign, however, suggests that few contemporaries took serious issue with his judgments. Based as they are on Davis’s formidable command of the sources of the era, they proved an enduring reassessment of Stephen and his ill-fated rule. Yet Davis wears his knowledge lightly, making this book an excellent starting point for my exploration of the king and his times and a high standard of scholarship for subsequent works to meet.

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