King Stephen of England was born in Blois in France in either 1092 or 1096. It’s quite unusual that we do not have a birth date for a future king of England, but by the time of his birth it was no expected that he would ever be king. His parents were Stephen-Henry, Count of Blois and Chartres and Adela of Normandy, who was the sister of Henry I of England. He was their third surviving son. Stephen’s father was killed in the Battle of Ramlah in 1101.
Stephen grew up at the court of his uncle and he became a great favourite, being knighted in 1112. With his uncle’s powerful support he quickly became richer than he could have expected as the third son of a mere count. His marriage to a wealthy heiress was arranged by his uncle in 1125. He married Matilda of Boulogne, who became Countess of Boulogne in her own right that same year when her father abdicated and retired to a monastery.
The succession to the English throne had seemed secure but was dramatically changed when The White Ship carrying Henry I’s only son and heir sank and all but two of the passengers died in 1120. Henry’s heir William Adelin was among the dead. Stephen was supposedly to be on The White Ship as well, but he had changed his mind at the last moment. Henry’s only living legitimate child was his daughter Matilda. Though the throne of England had never been inherited by a woman, didn’t mean it couldn’t be done. Henry took a second wife, Adeliza of Louvain, in hopes of fathering a male heir but they never had any children. Matilda was the only viable option for Henry. Matilda had been married to Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor but her husband had died in 1125. She remarried in 1128 to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. Henry made his court swear oaths to her and her descendants in 1127, 1128 and 1131 and Stephen was among those who took the oath. Matilda probably already suspected that they did not have genuine support in England. Henry died in 1135 and it happened exactly as Matilda had feared.
Stephen was quite popular at court, being wealthy and well-mannered and most importantly, he was a man. Matilda and Geoffrey were unfortunately at the wrong place in Anjou and many nobles with them had sworn an oath to stay in Normandy until Henry had been properly buried. Stephen left for England immediately, accompanied by his military household and he was the first to reach England on 8 December and he began to seize power. He was proclaimed King of England by the crowds of London who traditionally claimed the right to elect the King. By 22 December Stephen firmly had the crown planted on his head at Westminster Abbey.
The civil war that followed would shape Stephen’s reign. He was even captured at one point, but was traded for Matilda’s illegitimate half-brother Robert of Gloucester, who had been captures by Stephen’s forces. By the mid 1140s the war was at a stalemate and England had suffered tremendously. In 1147 Robert of Gloucester died and Matilda left for Normandy, slowly the pace of the war. Matilda’s son Henry had taken over the cause. Henry unexpectedly married Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152, who had been famously divorced from Louis VII of France and who was Duchess of Aquitaine in her own right.
Stephen began to focus on the succession and he was pressured to name his eldest son Eustace as his legitimate successor. He did not do so, but he did confirm Eustace as Count of Boulogne, after his wife’s death in 1152. Eustace died suddenly in 1153 without leaving an heir. His younger brother William succeeded him as Count of Boulogne. Finally a perpetual peace was negotiated in November 1153. The Treaty of Winchester recognized Henry as Stephen’s adopted son and successor. William would renounce his claim to throne in exchange for promises of the security of his lands.
By 1154 it became clear that Stephen was ill. He was busy throughout the summer and he traveled to Dover to meet the Count of Flanders. He died from some kind of stomach disorder on 25 October at Dover Priory and he was buried at Faversham Abbey with his wife Matilda and his son Eustace. Henry succeeded him as planned and William was confirmed as Earl of Surrey by the new king. William died childless in 1159, still only 22 years. Stephen’s only surviving child was a daughter Marie, who succeeded as Countess of Boulogne.