Henry died suddenly on the 25th of November 1135, while he was on a visit to his duchy of Normandy. The moment that his death was reported the futility of oaths became apparent. A majority of the Norman barons appealed to Theobald, Count of Blois, son of the Conqueror's daughter Adela, to be their duke, and to save them from the yoke of the hated Angevin. His supporters and those of Matilda were soon at blows all along the frontier of Normandy.
Meanwhile in England another pretender had appeared. Stephen, count of Boulogne, the younger brother of Theobald, had landed at Dover within a few days of Henry's death, determined to make a snatch at the crown, though he had been one of the first who had taken the oath to his cousin a few years before. The citizens of London welcomed him, but he was not secure of his success till by a swift swoop on Winchester he obtained possession of the royal treasure, an all-important factor in a crisis, as Henry I had shown in 1100. At Winchester he was acknowledged as king by the bishop, his own brother Henry of Blois, and by the great justiciar, Roger, bishop of Salisbury, and the archbishop, William of Corbeil. The allegiance of these prelates was bought by an unwise promise to grant all the demands of the church party, which his predecessor had denied, or conceded only in part. He would permit free election to all benefices, and free legislation by ecclesiastical synods, and would surrender any claims of the royal courts to have jurisdiction over clerks or the property of clerks. It then remained necessary to buy the baronage, of which only a few members had as yet committed themselves to his side. it was done by grants of lands and privileges, the first instalment of a never-ending crop of ruinous concessions which Stephen continued to make from the day of his accession down to the day of his death.
The pretender was crowned at Westminster on the 22nd of December 1135, less than a month after his uncle's death. No one yet openly withstood him, but he was well aware that his position was precarious, and that the claims of Matilda would he brought forward ere long by the section of the baronage which had not yet got from him all they desired. Meanwhile, however, he was encouraged to persevere by the fact that his brother Theobald had withdrawn his claim to the duchy of Normandy, and retired in his favour. For a space he was to be duke as well as king; but this meant merely that he would have two wars, not one, in hand ere long. Matilda's adherents were already in the field in Normandy; in England their rising was only delayed for a few months.
Stephen, though he had shown some enterprise and capacity in his successful snatch at the crown, was a man far below his three predecessors on the throne in the matter of perseverance and foresight. He was a good fighter, a liberal giver, and a faithful friend, but he lacked wisdom, caution and the power to organize. Starting his career as a perjurer, it is curious that he was singularly slow to suspect perjury in others; he was the most systematically betrayed of all English kings, because he was the least suspicious, and the most ready to buy off and to forgive rebels.
His troubles began in 1136, when sporadic rebellions, raised in the name of Matilda, began to appear; they grew steadily worse, though Stephen showed no lack of energy, posting about his realm with a band of mercenary knights whenever trouble broke out. But in 1138 the crisis came; the baronage had tried the capacity of their new master and found him wanting. The outbreak was now widespread and systematic civil war caused not by the turbulence of a few wild spirits, but by the deliberate conspiracy of all who saw their advantage in anarchy. Matilda had a few genuine partisans, such as her half-brother Robert, Earl of Gloucester, the illegitimate son of Henry I, but the large majority of those who took arms in her name were ready to sell their allegiance to either candidate in return for lands, or grants of rank or privilege. A long list of doubly and triply forsworn nobles, led by Geoffrey de Mandeville, Aubrey de Vere and Ralph of Chester, made the balance of war sway alternately from side to side, as they transferred themselves to the camp of the highest bidder. It is hard to trace any meaning in the civil war; it was not a contest between the principle of hereditary succession and the principle of elective kingship, as might be supposed. It was rather, if some explanation must be found for it, a strife between the kingly power and feudal anarchy. Unfortunately for England the kingly power was in the hands of an incapable holder, and feudal anarchy found a plausible mask by adopting the disguise of loyalty to the rightful heiress.
The civil war was not Stephen's only trouble; foreign invasion was added. David I, king of Scotland, was the uncle of Matilda, and used her wrongs as the plea for thrice invading northern England, which he ravaged with great cruelty. His most formidable raid was checked by the Yorkshire shire levies, at the battle of the Standard (Aug. 22, 1138). Yet in the following year he had to be bought off by the grant of all Northumberland (save Newcastle and Bamborough) to his son Earl Henry. Carlisle and Cumberland were already in his hands. Some years later the Scottish prince also got possession of the great Honour of Lancaster. It was not Stephen's fault that the boundary of England did not permanently recede from the Tweed and the Solway to the Tyne and the Ribble.
But the affairs of the North attracted little attention while the civil war was at its height in the South. In 1139 Stephen had wrought himself fatal damage by quarrelling with the ecclesiastical bureaucrats, the kinsmen and allies of Roger of Salisbury, who had been among his earliest adherents. Jealous of their power and their arrogance, and doubting their loyalty, he imprisoned them and confiscated their lands. This threw the whole church party on to the side of Matilda; even Henry, bishop of Winchester, the king's own brother, disowned him and passed over to the other side. Moreover, the whole machinery of local government in the realm fell out of gear, when the experienced ministers who were wont to control it were removed from power.
Matilda had landed in England in the winter of 1139-1140; for a year her partisans made steady progress against the king, and on the 2nd of February 1141 Stephen was defeated and taken prisoner at the battle of Lincoln. All England, save the county of Kent and a few isolated castles elsewhere, submitted to, Matilda. She was hailed as a sovereign by a great assembly at Winchester, over which Stephen's own brother Bishop Henry presided (April 7, 1141) and entered London in triumph in June. It is doubtful whether she would have obtained complete possession of the realm if she had played her cards well, for there were too many powerful personages who were interested in the perpetuation of the civil war. But she certainly did her best to ruin her own chances by showing an unwise arrogance, and a determination to resume at once all the powers that her father had possessed. When she annulled all the royal acts of the last six years, declared charters forfeited and lands confiscated, and began to raise heavy and arbitrary taxes, she made the partisans of Stephen desperate, and estranged many of her own supporters. A sudden rising of the citizens drove her out of London, while she was making preparations for her coronation. The party of the imprisoned king rallied under the wise guidance of his wife Matilda of Boulogne and his brother Henry, and many other of the late deserters adhered to it. Their army drove the lately triumphant party out of Winchester, and captured its military chief, Robert, earl of Gloucester. So much was his loss felt that his sister exchanged him a few months later for King Stephen.
After this the war went on interminably, without complete advantage to either side, Stephen for the most part dominating the eastern and Matilda the western shires. It was the zenith of the power of the baronial anarchists, who moved from camo to camp with shameless rapidity, wresting from one or other of the two rival sovereigns some royal castle, or some dangerous grant of financial or judicial rights, at each change of allegiance. The kingdom was in the desperate state described in the last melancholy pages of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, when life and property were nowhere safe from the objectless ferocity of feudal tyrants when every shire was full of castles and every castle filled with devils and evil men, and the people murmured that Christ and his saints slept.
Such was England's fate till 1153, when Matilda had retired from the strife in favour of her son, Henry of Anjou, and Stephen was grown an old man, and had just lost his heir, Eustace, to whom he had desired to pass on the crown. Both parties were exhausted, both were sick of the incessant treachery of their more unscrupulous barons, and at last they came to the compromise of Wallingford (October 1153), by which it was agreed that Stephen should reign for the remainder of his life, but that on his death the crown should pass to Henry. Both sides promised to lay down their arms, to dismiss their mercenaries, and to acquiesce in the destruction of unlicensed castles, of which it is said, with no very great exaggeration, that there were at the moment over 1,000 in the realm. Henry then returned to Normandy, of which his mother had been in possession since 1145, while Stephen turned his small remaining strength to the weary task of endeavouring to restore the foundations of law and order. But he had accomplished little when he died in October 1154. The task of reconstruction was to be left to Henry of Anjou: his predecessor was only remembered as an example of the evil that may be done by a weak man who has been reckless enough to seize a throne which he is incapable of defending. England has had many worse kings, but never one who wrought her more harm. If his successor had been like him, feudal anarchy might have become as permanent in England as in Poland.
Text extracted from the entry for ENGLISH HISTORY in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.