As I noted in my introductory post on Stephen, it’s a little surprising that a king whose reign was defined and consumed with a dramatic civil war (the setting for Ken Follett’s peerless novel The Pillars of the Earth, among others) has been the subject of barely a half-dozen biographies over the past six decades. Fortunately, the overall quality of the books makes up for the lack of the expected quantity, as all of them are written to a high standard of scholarship. Yet ever one of them point to one of the challenges in writing about Stephen that may intimidate some prospective authors, which is the need to explain the odd mix of success and failure that is at the heart of his time on the throne.
For a long time, this meant taking on R. H. C. Davis’s biography, which fifty-five years after it was first published still exerts an influence on interpretations of the king. Part of the reason for this was for the way it filled the vacuum of Stephen biographies by providing the first modern study based on the surviving sources. These he used to provide an account of Stephen’s life that is very well-informed and makes a powerful argument for what might be regarded as the case for Stephen as a failure. In a sense, the biographies that have followed have been in response to Davis’s pioneering work on him.
It is likely a testament to the effectiveness of Davis’s work that it would be another generation before anyone even undertook a biography of Stephen. Yet while not a biography, Keith Stringer’s short study points to the sort of “Davis revisionism” that would characterize the books about the king that would follow. No work better exemplified this than David Crouch’s book, which stands as a formidable and persuasive rebuttal to Davis’s work, thanks to the author’s abilities as both a historian and a writer. It’s also a more comprehensive account than Donald Matthew’s subsequent study, which is more narrowly focused and not as appealing as a result
Such was the trend of Stephen revisionism that perhaps a reaction to it was inevitable. This is what can be found in Edmund King’s contribution to the Yale English Monarchs series, which, while not presenting as negative a depiction of the king as Davis had, serves as an effective reminder that there are good reasons why so many people over the centuries have judged Stephen’s reign a failure. And while Carl Watkins’s excellent short study does not go quite that far, his framing of Stephen’s reign as a disruptive interregnum highlights the king’s limitations in other damming ways. Yet as well argued (and, particularly in Watkins’s case, well-written) as these books are, Crouch’s book remains the best biography of Stephen for anyone seeking the best single book to read about him and the tumult of his reign. Though some of his arguments have been tempered by the more recent works, it’s still hard to beat Crouch’s combination of readability and analysis.