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.