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.
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.
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.
There’s a great deal to like about Donald Matthew’s book on Stephen, not the least of which is its author’s straightforwardness. At the very start of his book, he makes his purpose clear, which is to provide an account of Stephen’s reign that is accessible to the general reader. It’s a goal that he fulfills successfully with a text that explains the key issues in a clear style free of historical jargon and the employment of Latin, French, and other foreign terms beyond what is absolutely necessary. He adds to this with a charming anecdote in his preface in which he describes how his introduction to Stephen began as it did for many of his other readers, with a description of the Anarchy in a book aimed towards a popular audience. It’s a disarmingly effective way to connect with his target audience.
The anecdote is also important in another respect, as it sets up Matthew’s target in his book. From the first chapter onward he makes his view clear that Stephen is an unfairly maligned king. While this is an argument that had gained considerable currency before Matthew’s book was published in 2002, he takes it much further than previous Stephen biographers by focusing less on Stephen and more on his historical reputation. This becomes evident with his approach to his subject, which begins not with Stephen’s early life, but with a chapter entitled “Scene Setting” in which he provides a short synopsis of his reign before delving into the evolution of his historical reputation in the centuries that followed. It isn’t until after a chapter describing the monarchy Stephen inherited that he returns to his reign in greater detail, recounting events and summarizing the choices.
Using this approach Matthew makes a number of interesting points absent from the previous biographies that I had read, my favorite of which was his observation that, had Stephen been succeeded by one of his sons, the subsequent dynasty would have done more to nurture his historical reputation. It’s one of those so-obvious-you-missed it points that I didn’t fully appreciate until Matthew made it, but it makes excellent sense. It’s certainly one to keep in mind as well when considering other monarchs who were the last of their line, such as the later Richards, but it’s one that is employed here effectively as a defense.
And therein lies the main issue with Matthew’s study of Stephen, which is that it’s less of a biography than it is an effort to rehabilitate his historical reputation. There’s a complete absence of personal details (Stephen’s wife doesn’t even merit a mention in the book), as the focus is more on Stephen’s actions and the criticisms against them. In refuting them Matthew is to an extent pushing against an open door, as many of his arguments are similar to those Stringer and Crouch make in their books. But Matthew’s rehabilitation certainly eclipses theirs in terms of its focus and clarity. It’s a great book for anyone interested in Stephen’s historical reputation and the damage done to it, but it falls short as a biography of the king.
When David Crouch’s study of Stephen was released in 2000, it was the first major work focused on his reign since Ralph Davis’s biography was published over three decades before. In that time, the ongoing scholarship about the period raised questions about some of the conclusions and suppositions on which Davis’s book was based. Though Keith Stringer addressed this in his admirable short study of Stephen’s reign, the nature of his work – a short study designed as a focused introduction to its subject – precluded the broader reexamination that Crouch provides in this work.
As his title indicates, Crouch’s study is not a biography of Stephen but an examination of his rule over England. Yet Crouch’s approach is more overtly biographical than Stringer’s book in that it focuses on Stephen’s character to understand the problems he faced during his reign. This fuels his avowedly revisionist approach to his subject, as he argues that Stephen was both a better king and a better person than he has been traditionally regarded. As evidence of the latter in addition to highlighting Stephen’s bravery on the battlefield – a point all but his most hostile chroniclers acknowledge — he points to Stephen’s devotion to his wife Matilda as a demonstration of his fundamentally character, and argues that such orders as his directive to devastate Wiltshire were common to the warfare of his age.
Yet it is the question of Stephen’s record as king that is the main focus of Crouch’s book. And he makes a persuasive case for Stephen as an underrated monarch both by his analysis of his subject and his engagement with the existing historiography. Part of Crouch’s case rests with Stephen’s relations with his contemporaries, presenting Stephen as a good judge of men and observing that the loyalty he won from them demonstrates the regard in which he was held. Crouch also views Stephen as a better manager of the nobility and relations with the Church than has been claimed, with the promotion of his supporters far more restrained than many have claimed. This would help explain why, even in the worst stages of the “Anarchy,” most of England remained loyal to Stephen and free from warfare.
If all this is true, then why is Stephen’s reign viewed as poorly as it is? Crouch cites a combination of factors, starting with Stephen’s inability to judge situations as well as he could men. Aspiring to be another Henry, he lacked the intellectual capabilities that made his predecessor such a successful ruler. Crouch faults him in particular for mismanaging both Normandy and his relations with Wales, which created opportunities that Empress Matilda was able to exploit. Nor did it help Stephen’s reputation that he was followed by a monarch who earned credit from historians for establishing traditions in administration and common law. Sandwiched between two such consequential kings esteemed for their governance, is it any wonder that Stephen’s reign suffered by comparison?
I finished Crouch’s sympathetic examination of Stephen’s reign with a new understanding of his subject, one more nuanced than what I had gained from either of the previous books I read about it. That I found it as persuasive as I did was due to Crouch’s skills as both a historian and as an author, as he does a very skillful job of laying out his arguments and explaining the reasons for his conclusions. With my examination of the available biographies of Stephen only at its halfway point it remains to be seen whether it is the best book available about him. At this point, however, it is certainly the book by which I will measure the ones to follow.
The Lancaster Pamphlets are a series, that, according to their cover copy, “provide a concise and up-to-date analysis of major historical topics” for students taking their “A” levels and enrolled in college courses. Until now I had never read any of the titles published under its imprint, nor was I familiar with Keith Stringer, who, like many of the authors of the other books in the series, was a member of the history department at Lancaster University when he wrote it. As a result, when I began reading his study of Stephen’s reign I had few expectations for what I might find inside.
This may have been a factor in why I enjoyed it as much as I did. Stringer’s book offers its readers a concise analytical examination of key factors shaping Stephen’s rule and its outcome. His approach is impressively direct, as he stakes out his views and explains his reasoning behind them. In this manner he makes a revisionist case for regarding Stephen as a better king than he has been traditionally regarded. Henry gets a share of the blame for failing to provide for an “untroubled succession,” which Stringer underscores was one of the key duties of any monarch. From this perspective, Stephen’s seizure of the throne was a welcome effort to fill a dangerous vacuum created by Henry’s unwillingness to commit fully to Matilda’s succession.
But if Stephen actions in 1135 were a promising step towards stability, where did it go wrong? Here Stringer presents Stephen as facing a crisis not seen since the year of the Conquest. Unlike Henry, who only had to manage one crisis at a time, Stephen sometimes faced as many as three simultaneously: with Scottish and Angevin enmity inhibiting his ability to concentrate his forces against Matilda. Here Stringer’s expertise as a historian of medieval Scotland comes into play, as he does a fine job of explaining David’s role in exacerbating Stephen’s problems. Along with the other challenges, this soon exhausted finances which the Anglo-Norman state could not readily replenish. The result were wars which dragged on, posing a constant drain on the treasury and which ended only because of Henry Plantagenet’s willingness to accept the promise of succession instead of the elusive total victory he and his mother had both sought.
For all of its concision, Stringer’s coverage of Stephen’s reign is surprisingly comprehensive, covering the standard subjects of government operations, relations with the magnates, and Stephen’s dealings with the Catholic Church. What it does not provide, though, is any discussion of Stephen’s life prior to taking the throne, or his personal life while he occupied it. To be fair to Stringer, this is not what he set out to cover, and in describing Stephen’s reign he does a fine job of examining the key developments and in presenting Stephen’s actions in a sympathetic light. But anyone who is looking for a biography of the ill-fortuned king would be better advised to turn elsewhere.
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.
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.