Review of “Stephen: The Reign of Anarchy” by Carl Watkins

One of the things that has come to distinguish the Penguin Monarchs series for me is the more idiosyncratic nature of its choices for biographers. While the Yale series generally selects for their authors the foremost experts on their respective subjects, the editors of the Penguin series often go for distinguished scholars who are not generally known for their work on the monarch about whom they are writing. While few choices were as far afield as was Tom Holland, who is best known for his books on ancient history, such eminent – and excellent – medievalists as Richard Abels and John Gillingham were not the most obvious ones to write about the monarchs that they covered for the series.

Such is the case with Carl Watkins. As a specialist in the religious culture of the Middle Ages he seems an unorthodox choice to author a book about an English monarch. Yet his engagingly-written biography of Stephen is one of the best I have read so far in the series, thanks to its nice balance of detail and analysis. Unlike other Stephen biographies, he begins not with Stephen’s background (which he addresses only briefly) but that of the succession to Henry’s position as king of England. It’s a great way of addressing within the limited space afforded to Watkins not just Stephen’s claim to the throne, but the inherent instability that would lead to the civil war between him and Mathilda over the course of his reign.

Nevertheless, Watkins identifies the flaws in Stephen’s personality as the source of his problems. In this respect his book hearkens back to the interpretation offered by R. H. C. Davis nearly five decades before, though Watkins’s own arguments incorporate the recent scholarship on the period. While acknowledging Stephen’s martial abilities, Watkins presents him as a fundamentally weak personality, one who was unable to play the commanding role his position demanded. Too kind to be the sort of despot his subjects were accustomed to after three and a half decades of Henry’s firm rule, the combination with the muddled succession made challenges to his rule inevitable.

While this makes the challenges to Stephen’s possession of the throne understandable, it does not explain how he ended his life in possession of it. While Watkins credits in particular the considerable role Stephen’s wife Matilda of Boulogne played as an adviser and advocate for her husband’s cause, his main explanation lies in the deadlocked nature of the war, one in which both sides never could gain a clear advantage. His description of the kingdom is as deft and insightful as the rest of the book, and underscores the decline of order throughout the realm. In the end what he sees as ending this stalemate was not any effort on the part of Stephen or Matilda but the deaths of many of the key protagonists and the eventual exhaustion of the rest of the kingdom. The irony, as Watkins notes in the end, was that Henry II’s succession represented the delayed fulfillment of his grandfather’s plans for the succession, which reduces Stephen’s reign a bloody diversion rather than a new era in English history. While this conclusion may contrast with the trend over the past few decades in the historiography of Stephen’s reign as reflected in the other biographies I’ve read, it’s one that Watkins makes effectively through the clarity of his arguments and the sharpness of his prose. It’s a sprightly and provocative account that is enlivened by effective imagery and clever turns of phrase. To me it embodies perfectly what a series such as this one should aspire to achieve: a clear and accessible overview of its subject that gives its reader a sense of the subject and the time in which they lived. While it may not necessarily be the one book on Stephen everyone should read, it certainly is the one with which people should start if they’re seeking an introduction to him and his era.

Review of “King Stephen” by Edmund King

One of the hallmarks of the Yale English Monarchs series is their selection of top-flight specialists to write biographies of their subjects. This is no less true for Stephen, the biography for whom represented the culmination of Edmund King’s long career studying his reign. Over the course of four decades, not only did King contribute an impressive amount of scholarship on the period – much of which was reflected in the notes and bibliographies of most of the previous books that I’ve read for Stephen up to this point – but he also taught an advanced course on him throughout much of his academic career which, as he states in his acknowledgements, helped him shape the book. As such, he seems not just the logical choice to contribute a volume to a series that strives for definitive studies, but an inevitable one.

And his book on Stephen embodies all of the strengths in such a choice. Starting with an opening chapter describing Stephen’s family background and his early years as a count, King provides an account that moves chronologically through his subject’s life. Though he claims at the start that his book is a biography of Stephen rather than a “life and times” study, he nonetheless provides considerable background explanation of institutions and events. As his notes demonstrate, this is grounded mainly in the contemporary chronicles, which he quotes frequently throughout the text. From them he provides a sympathetic account of Stephen that nonetheless judges him a failure, concluding that he was acting a part and doing so without the conviction that characterized a strong ruler.

It’s an interesting judgment, and one that pushes back in some respects against the favorable revisionism of the biographies that preceded King’s. Yet the effectiveness of his argument is marred somewhat by the way in which he presents it. While the chronological presentation of Stephen’s life is surprisingly coherent, the narrative itself doesn’t flow well between them as the chapters themselves are more akin to essays on periods of his reign than convenient breaks in a single interconnected work. Moreover, after his initial chapter examining Stephen’s rule as count, once his subject takes the throne King focuses on England at the expense of the Norman half of the Anglo-Norman empire. Though hardly unique to King’s study and to an extent an understandable omission in a series devoted to studying English monarchs, many of King’s counterparts have demonstrated persuasively that such a prejudice leaves out factors that are vital to understanding the decisions the occupants of the English throne faced during this period.

To draw a line that excludes an important part of Stephen’s domain is an unfortunate decision on King’s part that defines the limits of the book’s value as a study of his reign. Immensely learned and written with both wit and insight, it’s a book that, like so many of its predecessors in the Yale English Monarchs series is likely to serve as an enduring work on its subject and one that anyone seeking a full and intelligent assessment of Stephen should read. For those desiring a comprehensive assessment of Stephen within the covers of a fluid narrative, though, other books may serve their interests more effectively.