Stephen De Blois, one of the two principal players in the 12th-century civil war known as the Anarchy, had a somewhat atypical childhood. His father, also named Stephen, was a crusader in the First Crusade, and while he stood high in the Crusader councils, still he was considered a coward for returning home before the crusade concluded, abandoning his vows. His wife, Adela, daughter of William the Conqueror, clearly did not relish being the wife of a man considered craven, and pressured him to join the crusade of 1101 (a crusade so minor it is not counted in the numbering of them). Known as The Crusade of the Faint-Hearted (due to the number of participants who, like Stephen, had previously abandoned their vows on the first crusade) this ill-fated venture lacked both the unity and the strong professional core that had led to the successes of the First Crusade (not to mention their access to naval power to cut out the dangerous overland trek through hostile territory).This crusade (intended to reinforce the Kingdom of Jerusalem) was largely cut to pieces by the Seljuk Turks. Stephen was actually one of the few knights who made it to Jerusalem, fulfilling his oath. He would never return home, however – having stayed to assist in the defense of the Crusader Kingdom, he was killed in a failed Egyptian invasion.
The spectre of his coward father seems to have haunted the future King Stephen throughout his life, providing a possible explanation for some of his later rash decisions. In the immediate moment, however, the main result was to leave him firmly in the control of his mother. He was either 5 or 9 years old (the date of his birth is a matter of some debate), and so he grew up watching his mother navigate the rough political waters of medieval France. As the fourth son, Stephen had little expectations placed upon him and was educated to serve as a household knight. However fate intervened – his eldest brother William was removed from the succession (either because he was mentally unfit to rule, or possibly because he was too strong-willed for his mother to control); while Adela’s third son, Odo, died in his teenage years. This left Stephen as putative heir to the county until his brother Theobald sired an heir. Aware of the increase in value this gave him, Adela installed him in her brother Henry’s court. The young Stephen (now probably in his late teens) became a staunch ally of Henry. Henry no doubt saw a lot of use in a trustworthy family member who was nonetheless out of the line of succession, while Stephen, for his part, prospered under the patronage and was reportedly a good friend of the King’s son William. Stephen was in fact one of the passengers on board the fateful White Ship before it left harbour, though he left the ship before it set sail, reportedly due to a bad case of the runs.
Following the death of his heir, as he struggled to hold his kingdom together, Henry arranged for Stephen to marry Matilda of Boulogne, who as her father’s only heir inherited both the powerful French port of Boulogne as well as large estates throughout England. Stephen had become one of the wealthiest men in the country, and indeed also one of the most popular – his “common touch” and reputation for piety combined to earn him a great deal of respect. His younger brother, Henry of Blois, had meanwhile risen in the church to become Bishop of Winchester, a key city as it normally housed the royal treasury. He was also Abbot of Glastonbury, and the two incomes combined actually made him the second richest man in England after the King. Whether Stephen had planned for Henry’s death (unlikely, as it was both sudden and unexpected), or whether he merely took advantage of being in the right place at the right time is hard to say. The Empress Matilda was tied up in southern Normandy, and besides, most of her support had died with her father. The Norman nobles were little inclined to bend the knee to a woman, much less the German-speaking wife of a hated Angevin. His brother Theobald, technically ahead of him in the succession, was still in Blois. The previous contenders for the throne (Robert Curthose and his son William Clito) were either imprisoned or dead. Stephen seized his destiny, and sailed from Boulogne to Engand.
At first, everything went swimmingly for Stephen. First the crowds of London hailed him as King (hoping to win his favour), then Roger, Bishop of Salisbury and Lord High Chancellor, gave him both his support and access to the royal treasury. (Roger was chiefly motivated by his hatred of Angevins such as Matilda’s husband, Geoffrey of Anjou.) Roger then brokered a deal where Stephen restored the power of the church (which Henry had eroded) in exchange for their support. Finally he offered financial compensation to his brother Theobald (who had been attempting to gather support in Normandy) in return for him renouncing his claim and supporting Stephen, which he agreed to do. For the moment, the throne looked secure – which was good, as to the north Stephen had just been invaded.
King David I of Scotland had at one time been a member of the court of King Henry, and it was with Henry’s backing that he had seized power in Scotland following his brother’s death. Perhaps it was this loyalty to his patron that led him to support Matilda’s claim to the throne, although it may have been simply a pretext for invading the north of England. Certainly it is true that he took advantage of the invasion to press his claim to Cumberland (a traditional claim of the Scottish kings) as well as Northumbria (which he had inherited a claim to by marrying the daughter of our old friend Waltheof). Stephen marched north, and the two men met at Durham. There they chose not to fight but instead hammered out a peace deal – David gave back the land he had seized (except for the city of Carlisle), while Stephen officially recognized the holdings of David’s son Prince Henry in England.
Stephen returned to hold his first royal court at Easter, where he confirmed the earls of the kingdom in their seats, enacted the changes he had promised the church, and lavished gifts on his nobles. This was the beginning of an unfortunate trend – Stephen’s extravagant courts would be one of the major factors that led to him running out of funds at a critical juncture two years later. Another contributing factor was the invasion of Normandy by Geoffrey of Anjou – Geoffrey’s constant invasions (more in the nature of raids than an attempt at serious conquest) disrupted production in the region. Stephen hired Flemish mercenaries to help defend the territory, but they wound up falling out with the local barons who they were supposed to be supporting and fought a battle against them. This led to the Normans refusing to fight, and Stephen was forced to pay a danegeld to Geoffrey to prevent him from raiding on the borders.
This was not the only frontier to give Stephen trouble – the Welsh took the opportunity to rise in revolt, and after two half-hearted attempts to put them down, Stephen appears to have written the territory off. Matters at home soon deteriorated too. Stephen’s attempts to placate both the church and the nobles wound up pleasing neither, and though the support of the church had won him official recognition from the pope as King of England, it soon began to sour when he began taking the lands of deceased churchmen (such as the Archbishop of Canterbury) back into the crown’s gift. Meanwhile he had to deal with several revolts, the most noteworthy of the early ones being that of Baldwin de Redvers, ruler (and later Earl) of Devon. Baldwin is notable as having never accepted Stephen’s rule, and responded to the crowning of the new king by declaring himself for Matilda and seizing Exeter. He briefly resided on the Isle of Wight and acted as a pirate before being driven out by Stephen. He fled to Anjou, where he became one of the Empress Matilda’s most vocal supporters.
All of these, however, were simply setting the stage for the fateful year of 1138. First Robert of Gloucester, the eldest illegitimate son of Henry I and one of the Earls that Stephen had reconfirmed, rose in rebellion. The Geoffrey of Anjou invaded Normandy, this time bent on conquest. Finally King David of Scotland, officially declaring his support for Matilda, invaded Yorkshire, not only seizing land but also (still being mostly Celtic in culture) also seizing woman and children to take back to Scotland as slaves. Stephen responded decisively – sending his wife to the southwest to deal with a rebellion in Kent that threatened to leave Dover open to invasion, and some of his knights north to hold off David (which they did with a victory on Cowton Moor under Thurstan, the Bishop of York, in what became known as the Battle of the Standard). Stephen himself moved against the rebels in Gloucester, who clearly expected their Earl Robert to appear in support. However he remained in Normandy attempting to persuade Matilda to invade, and without his support they were defeated. England was resecured – but Normandy was lost to Matilda’s forces. Stephen was left under no illusions – the Angevins were coming to England.