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King Stephen.

King Stephen, by Edmund King. Yale English Monarchs Series. New Haven, Connecticut, Yale University Press, 2010. xvii, 382 pp. $55.00 US (cloth)

Edmund King has written a fitting contribution to Yale University's prestigious English Monarch series, which contains the standard biographies of most English monarchs from Edward the Confessor through George IV. For many historians King Stephen is hardly a household name: in fact it is said that one can tell how successful an English king was by how many later rulers were named after him, and England has produced only one King Stephen, thus indicating unpopularity or a lack of legacy. Yet his usurpation of the throne in 1135 ushered in one of the most tumultuous eras of English history, sometimes called the Civil War, sometimes the "Anarchy." Stephen seized the crown from the designated heir, Matilda, whose brother--the only son of the previous king, Henry I--had died in a shipwreck years before. The fact that a female was designated to rule was highly problematic for any medieval government, so unsurprisingly her cousin Stephen, Henry I's nephew, made his bid for the crown soon after the king's death. While Stephen may have usurped the crown technically, the situation was more complicated. Whether a female should or even could reign presented a serious issue; whether the magnates and prelates who had sworn oaths agreeing to her eventual accession while her father was still alive did so under duress presented another. Many claimed coercion, allowing them to disregard their oaths after Henry's death to endorse Stephen. Stephen himself had been one of the very magnates who had pledged his loyalty to Matilda and broke his word by assuming the throne.

Though King claims not to have written a "life and times" (p. xi) of Stephen's reign, the man plays a smaller role in the biography than one might expect. Partly this is because twelfth-century sources, so rich compared to earlier eras, rarely discuss personality beyond stock phrases and cliches. Stephen emerges from King's biography much as other historians and biographers have rendered him: gregarious, good-natured, slow to anger, quick to forgive and brave in combat. King emphasizes that Stephen was in fact so willing to forgive that this exacerbated his troubles, as he never made rebellious lords and churchmen sufficiently afraid of him.

Readers may be disappointed that Stephen takes a back seat to events in his reign, but those unfamiliar with the era will find that in some cases the supporting players turn out to be more interesting than the titular subject. For example, Stephen's brother Henry emerges as a fascinating, complex figure who deserves his own full-length biography. Henry became Bishop of Winchester before Stephen became king, and served as papal legate between 1139 and 1143 during the early years of his brother's reign. Henry not only shared his brother's positive qualities but possessed a cleric's education and cosmopolitan tastes based on his years spent on the continent, among them as a professed monk at the leading monastic house of the age, Cluny. Henry acted as the king's counselor and chief supporter, but so too did Stephen's wife Matilda, an admirable, loyal figure who served as effective military commander and political strategist, especially after Stephen's capture in 1141. The would-be ruler, Stephen's cousin Matilda, the "empress," since she had been married to the Emperor of the Romans Henry V until his death, is not extensively treated here. The empress comes across as both shadowy and indecisive in spite of--or perhaps because--she regularly appears in histories about female rulers and has been the subject of a major biography herself, Marjorie Chibnall's The Empress Matilda. Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the English (Oxford, 1991).

Perhaps the most curious event of Stephen's reign occurred in 1141, beginning with his capture at the battle of Lincoln. After the king's imprisonment it appeared that his regime would collapse but by a weird irony, the most effective and talented opposition leader, Robert of Gloucester, Empress Matilda's half-brother, was captured by royalist forces at Stockbridge later that year. Robert, bastard son of old king Henry, would probably have been the very best king of all had he been born on the right side of the bed sheet. Because he was not, he could only lend his considerable talents to his legitimate half-sister Matilda's attempts to win the crown back. The two leading figures in captivity produced a classic Mexican stand-off. In the end Stephen and Robert were both released into their respective political camps, which essentially ensured that civil war would continue for more than a decade.

Stephen's line did not survive him. The war dragged on until Empress Matilda's son Henry (the eventual Henry II) became a viable claimant. Stephen, good-natured as he was, eventually concluded that perpetual war benefited no one and adopted Henry as his heir in 1153. This proved rather awkward for his own son, Eustace. Naturally Eustace was bitterly disappointed and angrily fled the court over his dispossession but made no moves to contest it, conveniently dying later that year of natural causes. Thus, at Stephen's death in 1154, the crown passed peacefully to the most famous and innovative English king of the Middle Ages.

In keeping with the high standards of the Yale Monarch series, King has produced an effective account of the man and his reign that will hold up for a long time. His scholarship demonstrates a comfortable familiarity with the era. Successfully scouring the many chronicles, charters, letters and papal correspondence, King has rendered it all in crisp prose. He treats Stephen as neither misunderstood hero nor villain in this biography. In fact King depicts him pretty much as his twelfth-century contemporaries did, as a pleasant man whose reach exceeded his grasp and whose most intelligent decision was peaceably ending the civil war by adopting his rival's son. While King does not necessarily break a lot of new ground, anyone who would like to know more about the monarch and his troubled times should start here.

Laurence W. Marvin

Berry College
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Author:Marvin, Laurence W.
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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