On this date in 1135 Stephen of Blois (c. 1092/6 – 25 October 1154), known in Norman French as Étienne de Blois (then Étienne d’Angleterre) – grandson of William the Conqueror – became king of England. For me for many years, because of the shamefully biased way I was taught history, Stephen existed only in lists of monarchs, and I barely remembered that England even had a king named Stephen. Yet his reign was very turbulent, and extremely important for what came later. He was the last of the kings styled “Norman” (the dynasty founded by William I). After Stephen came the Angevins (Henry II, Richard I, and John) whose rule (and territories) marked a major shift in English history. Stephen’s reign was dominated by what historians usually call “the Anarchy,” a perhaps polite term for civil war. I can’t understand why historians want to speak of the 17th century war between Parliament and the Monarchy in England as THE Civil War. There were many civil wars in England, notably the Wars of the Roses, and the war between Stephen and the Empress Matilda, his cousin. All left an indelible mark on the country.
One point that is not stressed nearly enough by English historians, is that one cannot strictly call England an independent nation at this time, although patriots like to think it was. To do so is to succumb to a species of what is usually called “Whig history” – that is, past events are always seen in terms of where we are now. So . . . England is an independent nation now, therefore it is fitting to talk about it as an independent nation from the time of William the Conqueror. This is fallacious nonsense. William did, indeed, unite the lands of previous Anglo-Saxon (and Danish) leaders into one polity, but it was not distinct from his holdings in Normandy: it was a province. Subsequent rulers felt that way also because they held lands on the continent as well as England, and spent more time abroad than in England (Richard I being a prime example). Until John, English was not their native language, and they certainly did not think of themselves as English. It is well past time to get over the idea that the piece of real estate that is now England has been waiting in the wings to become a nation-state from time immemorial. Stephen and his kin saw England as part of a fluid conglomeration of provinces to be fought over in a neverending game of chess. I don’t have space to explore Stephen’s reign in detail. Here’s some highlights.
Stephen was born in the County of Blois in France. His father, Count Stephen-Henry, died while Stephen was still young, and he was brought up by his mother, Adela, daughter of William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders. Stephen became part of the court of his uncle, Henry I of England, rose in prominence and was granted extensive lands. He married Matilda of Boulogne, inheriting additional estates in Kent and Boulogne that made the couple one of the wealthiest in England.
Stephen narrowly escaped drowning with Henry I’s son, William Adelin, in the sinking of the White Ship in 1120. The White Ship was a newly refitted vessel captained by Thomas FitzStephen, whose father Stephen FitzAirard had been captain of the ship Mora for William the Conqueror when he invaded England in 1066. Thomas offered his ship to Henry I to use to return to England from Barfleur in Normandy. Henry had already made other arrangements, but allowed many in his retinue to take the White Ship, including William Adelin; his illegitimate son Richard of Lincoln; his illegitimate daughter Matilda FitzRoy, Countess of Perche (not to be confused with the Empress Matilda); and many other nobles. Stephen begged off at the last minute and that spared his life. Because of reckless, possibly drunken, navigation, the ship, in attempting to beat Henry’s ship to England, struck a rock and sank with almost complete loss of life of those on board.
William Adelin’s death left the succession of the English throne open to challenge. When Henry I died in 1135, Stephen quickly crossed the English Channel and with the help of his brother Henry of Blois, a powerful ecclesiastic, took the throne, arguing that the preservation of order across the kingdom took priority over his earlier oaths to support the claim of Henry I’s daughter, the Empress Matilda. He was probably right in principle (despite less honorable motives) given that the English, by and large, were not ready to have a queen as monarch even though her claims to the throne were stronger than Stephen’s.
The early years of Stephen’s reign were largely successful, despite a series of attacks on his possessions in England and Normandy by David I of Scotland, Welsh rebels, and the Empress Matilda’s husband, Geoffrey of Anjou. In 1138 the Empress’s half-brother Robert of Gloucester rebelled against Stephen, threatening civil war. Together with his close advisor, Waleran de Beaumont, Stephen took firm steps to defend his rule, including arresting a powerful family of bishops. When the Empress and Robert invaded in 1139, however, Stephen was unable to crush the revolt rapidly, and it took hold in the south-west of England. Stephen was captured at the battle of Lincoln in 1141 and was abandoned by many of his followers and lost control of Normandy. Stephen was freed only after his wife and William of Ypres, one of his military commanders, captured Robert at the Rout of Winchester, but the war dragged on for many years with neither side able to win an advantage.
Stephen became increasingly concerned with ensuring that his son Eustace would inherit his throne. He tried to convince the Church to agree to crown Eustace to reinforce his claim but Pope Eugene III refused, and Stephen found himself in a sequence of increasingly bitter arguments with his senior clergy. In 1153 the Empress’s son, Henry FitzEmpress, invaded England and built an alliance of powerful regional barons to support his claim for the throne. The two armies met at Wallingford, but neither side’s barons were keen to fight another pitched battle. Stephen began to contemplate a negotiated peace, a process hastened by the sudden death of Eustace. Later in the year Stephen and Henry agreed to the Treaty of Winchester, in which Stephen recognized Henry as his heir in exchange for peace, passing over William, Stephen’s second son.
Stephen’s decision to recognize Henry as his heir was, at the time, not necessarily a final solution to the civil war. Stephen might potentially have lived for many more years, whilst Henry’s position on the continent was far from secure. Although Stephen’s son William was young and unprepared to challenge Henry for the throne in 1153, the situation could well have shifted in subsequent years—there were widespread rumors during 1154 that William planned to assassinate Henry, for example.
Certainly many problems remained to be resolved, including re-establishing royal authority over the provinces and resolving the complex issue of which barons should control the contested lands and estates after the long civil war. Stephen burst into activity in early 1154, travelling around the kingdom extensively. He began issuing royal writs for the south-west of England once again and travelled to York where he held a major court in an attempt to impress upon the northern barons that royal authority was being reasserted. After a busy summer in 1154, however, Stephen traveled to Dover to meet the Count of Flanders; some historians believe that the King was already ill and preparing to settle his family affairs. Stephen fell ill with a stomach disorder and died on 25 October at the local priory, being buried at Faversham Abbey with his wife Matilda and son Eustace.
Today’s date is also famous because of the acts of another king – Alfred the Great, who was not really king of England, as such, but did style himself king of the English (or Anglo-Saxons). On this date in 877 Alfred the Great passed a law that no servant should work for the 12 days following the winter solstice. This was in the days before Christmas was a widespread holiday.
Alfred is the only king of the English (or England) to be called “the Great.” His lot (Ethelred, Aelfric, etc.) all tend to be forgotten in the school history books except for simple children’s stories like Alfred (or should I say Ælfrǣd) and the burnt cakes. REAL English history apparently starts in 1066. Any fule kno that. (The latter is a test to see how old you really are). Another pathetic example of Whig history.
The story of Alfred and the cakes is, of course, apocryphal – a Victorian invention that has the merit of being a story we can all relate to. Oh, the pots I have burnt! Supposedly he was in hiding and plotting his next attack on the Danes when he was taken in by a peasant woman who asked him to watch her cakes cooking whilst she attended to other things. The poor man got lost in his battle plans and so let the cakes burn, which earned him a tongue lashing from the woman who was unaware that he was her king. I’m not sure whose side I’m on. The smell of smoke emanating from the kitchen whilst I am lost in my writing is painfully familiar. Fortunately I live alone . . . and those who know me well know that cooking and smoke are not strange bedfellows in my house. In any case, here’s a recipe for cakes that may be like Alfred’s, and are certainly seasonal. They are similar to scones.
King Alfred’s Cakes
1 cup flour
¼ cup sugar
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp ground nutmeg
3 tbsp butter, cut into small pieces
½ cup raisins, dried apricots, prunes or other dried fruit, cut into pieces
1 large egg
⅛ cup heavy whipping cream
⅛ cup orange juice
Preheat your oven to 425°F.
Mix all the dry ingredients in a large bowl. Cut in the butter until the mixture is crumbly. (I use a food processor for speed). Stir in the fruit.
In a small bowl, mix the egg, cream, and orange juice.
Pour the egg mixture into the dry ingredients and mix until all is moist. Turn on to a floured surface and knead gently. Then break the dough into small cakes and shape them with your hands to form rounds.
Place the cakes on a greased baking sheet and bake for 8-10 minutes or until golden. DO NOT LET THEM BURN !!!
Serve warm with butter.