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Now in Paperback: King Stephen

King Stephen

by Edmund King

Yale University Press, 2012

Yale’s English Monarchs series, which has yielded so many contemporary classics, continues with Edmund King’s exhaustively comprehensive and often quite brilliant King Stephen, now out in paperback. It’s a thoroughly remarkable book, and it has the double-edged distinction of being by far the best biography ever written of one of the most ill-starred English monarchs in the whole roster. Considering the borderline-contemptuous treatment Stephen has received at the hands of most of his modern biographers, a reconsideration under the auspices of a heavyweight series such as this one is something to anticipate with interest.

It doesn’t happen here. Historian Edmund King is surely the world’s leading authority on King Stephen and his troubled times, and that knowledge guarantees the result: it can’t happen here.

Stephen was the nephew of King Henry I, grandson of William the Conqueror and his wife Matilda of Flanders. He was born around 1092 and married the formidable Matilda of Boulogne in 1125, and two years after that, he and virtually every other member of Henry I’s court swore an oath on the sanctity of their souls that they would hold Henry’s sole surviving offspring, the empress Matilda (so called because her first husband was Henry V, Emperor of Germany, known to his friends as Matilda), as his rightful heir, and her children after her. Despite the hugely mendacious efforts of high Church officials to vacate that oath after Henry died, there was absolutely nothing ambiguous about it. The empress was well within her rights to fight for the kingdom intended for her by the late king, and so when Stephen the oath-breaker claimed the throne, he plunged England into twenty years of internecine strife.

After a good deal of utterly invigorating background-exploration, Edmund King settles in to tell the story of that strife, and he’s aided by the fact that Stephen’s 12th Century is not only extensively evidenced but magnificently chronicled – most especially by the great William of Malmesbury, whose Historia Novella covers Stephen’s reign (and whose magnum opus, the Gesta regum Anglorum, is the greatest work of history in the 12th Century and one of the greatest works of history in any century). Sifting carefully through the Gesta regum – and through such other works as the Gesta Stephani and the writings of Henry of Huntington (and a vast modern bibliography as well) – Edmund King succeeds in creating that rarest of results: a scholarly work that’s also a gripping read. These pages all end in dense footnotes, but readers need not be dismayed: Stephen’s life and times come vividly alive, not least through our author’s ability to create immensely effective pen-portraits of his characters, like Adela, daughter of the Conqueror, mother of King Stephen:

It is a career that challenges many of the stereotypes of medieval lordship. High birth of itself does not explain her authority; her elder sisters are shadowy figures. Her birth gave her prestige but it was aptitude, her own character, that was the key. She was widowed when at the height of her powers and also at the height of her responsibilities. In 1102 her two surviving brothers, Robert, Duke of Normandy, and Henry I, King of England, disputed control over the Anglo-Norman realm, and the time was approaching when her sons would need to be established in lordships of their own. Her overarching authority gave direction and allowed for flexibility. She was subtle and she was persuasive. In over twenty years, between her husband’s second departure on crusade in the winter of 1098-9 and her retirement to the nunnery of Marcigny in the spring of 1120, she did not put a foot wrong.

A great army of these characters come and go through the pages of King Stephen, and Edmund King has unearthed the best accounts, the most telling quotes, and the sharpest inferences about all of them. Since the central conflict of Stephen-v.s.-Matilda is going to be the gravity-center of any book like this, in some ways the acid test of the author is whether or not he can do right by everything else going on, and this book soars in that regard. Every twisty aspect of Stephen’s famously troubled reign is given a thorough going-over, and always Edmund King remembers to make it good reading. Take as one example the sudden arrest in 1139 of the quintessential ‘over-mighty subject,’ Geoffrey de Mandeville. The arrest changed him, and King not only inquires into that but insists on the inquiry:

In the year between his arrest and his death he was a relentless and ruthless opponent of the king. The worse he behaved – and even the historian of the monastery of his own foundation admits that he and his men behaved very badly – the more the case against him seemed to be proved. But what exactly was the case? Why was the earl arrested? These were the first questions that would be asked. The historian who could not answer them, whether in the mid-twelfth or in the early years of the twenty-first century, was not up to his or her job.

But Stephen himself is the inevitable center of things, and in the final analysis, that can make for some depressing reading.

The story of Stephen’s reign was one of divided counsels. The theme provided a template for an analysis of the main events of the reign: at the siege of Exeter in 1136, when the king’s supporters “changed him to another man”; at Normandy in 1137, when his army split into factions; in 1139, when his “excessive favour” to some of his magnates led to the arrest of the bishops; and in 1141 at Lincoln, when he “ignored the advice of prudent men” and offered battle. The most protracted example of indecision came with his treatment of Ranulf of Chester in 1146. The earl approached the king and made an agreement with him: “it came to nothing, because after this the king captured him at Northampton through bad counsel, and put him in prison; and soon he let him out through worse counsel on condition … that he would surrender his castles.” The way the story is told here in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests that the king’s indecisiveness was something of a standing joke.

The conclusion Edmund King derives from all his digging is a grim one. It’s not the only possible one, of course – even that bit from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle can, pace our author, be read for something other than simple indecisiveness (and there are many other such bits, to say nothing of the fact that wishy-washy wimps didn’t tend to hold power for twenty years in the Middle Ages) – but it shares a good dozen or so elements from Greek tragedy all the same.

No matter how you spin events, they don’t reflect very well on poor lying King Stephen, who’s characterized here – in the best and fairest biography he’s ever likely to get – as “the creation of others, used to further their ambitions.” A harsh verdict – too harsh, and not something this or any other author would have dared to say to the man’s face – but not an insupportable one. Stephen followed a great king and preceded an even greater one, but there’s no tenable argument for his own greatness; all historians can do instead – and Edmund King does it superbly – is count heads, dole out scanty credit, and assess the damage.