Stephen - The Unknown King

~~ Paul V. Hartman ~~

If you asked the average person where King Stephen was positioned, in the succession of English kings, the answer would be "Stephen? There never was any King Stephen!"

But there was, and he ruled England for 20 turbulent years. It plays out like this:

Henry (the First), son of William the Conqueror, had purposely married an English woman who could identify descent from Ethelred, for the purpose of appealing to the very large non-Norman population of England. A son and daughter would be born but the son would die young. Although Henry had nineteen illegitimate sons among various mistresses, he dared not infuriate the nobility by naming one of them his heir, and besides, his daughter Matilda, now married to the Count of Anjou, would have greater legal claim.

Historians will take note that William the Conqueror was the illegitimate son of Robert, Duke of Normandy, so there was recent precedent in having bastards on the English throne. But Henry named Matilda his heir.

However, Henry had a sister, Adela, also married to a French count, and they had a son named Stephen. At Henry's death, Stephen claimed the throne, successfully. Sort of, because his 20 year reign (1135 - 1154) was so full of strife that it was called "The Anarchy".

Some Barons aligned with Matilda, others with Stephen. Castles were built by Barons against other Barons. Central authority gave way to regional lawlessness. Stephen, desperately in need of support from the clergy (who traditionally gave allegiance to royalty in exchange for land grants and religious authority), made concessions to the independence of the church, which is exactly what the Pope in Rome wanted: the ability to interfere.

From this point the Archbishop of Canterbury would be acting as the Pope's permanent representative, and would appoint bishops, which formerly were nominated by the king. The church acquired authority to rule in court on matters religious, which included matters having to do with land, debts, and contracts. The church could excommunicate someone who had the support of the king.

All of this would finally boil to the surface during the reign of Henry the Eighth, but not for the many kings who would follow Stephen. The turmoil in England was resolved by Stephen's declaration (in 1153) that upon his death, succession would pass to the progeny of his cousin Matilda.

Stephen would live one year more after this announcement, and Matilda's son Henry (the Second) would take the throne. Henry II would marry Eleanor of Aquitaine, and from them would come a family that no one would say was "unknown".

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