The Usurpation of Matilda’s Throne

Stephen of Blois usurped the throne from his cousin, Empress Matilda, and was crowned King Stephen of England on 22 December 1135. 

King Stephen being crowned

After the White Ship disaster in 1120, the only legitimate child of King Henry I of England was his daughter, Empress Matilda. The English Barons did not want to accept a mere woman as heir to the throne, but King Henry bullied them into agreeing to it. Stephen of Blois, the third surviving son of the king’s sister Adela, also took an oath to support Matilda as heir.

Stephen and some of the other barons must have had their finger’s crossed behind their back when they took the oath, because when King Henry died in 1535 Stephen hurried to London from Boulogne and declared himself the new king. Stephen had always been a popular figure at court, and many nobles rallied behind him rather than accept a woman – one who was married to the traditional Norman enemy the Count of Anjou no less! – as monarch. Stephen was even able to sweet-talk “Hugh Bigod, the late King’s royal steward, to swear that the King had changed his mind about the succession on his deathbed, nominating Stephen instead.”

It wasn’t just his cousin that Stephen displaced. He had two older brothers, William and Theobald, who should have been ahead of him in the succession. William was unfit for rule in some way (physically or mentally handicapped), but Theobald had come north from Blois as soon as he heard about King henry’s death to declare himself as the natural heir to the English crown.

However, Stephen had gotten the jump on his elder brother, so by the time “Theobald met with the Norman barons and Robert of Gloucester at Lisieux on 21 December … their discussions were interrupted by the sudden news from England that Stephen’s coronation was to occur the next day.” Theobald was still interested in being king, but the barons didn’t want to split the kingdom in a civil war between brothers. Stephen sent his brother a bunch of money as a way of apologizing for grabbing the crown, and in exchange Theobald officially declared his support of Stephen’s reign.

King Stephen of Blois family

The one thing the Brothers Blois hadn’t expected was that Matilda was not going to quietly give up her birthright. Instead, the Empress Matilda fought tooth and nail for the crown, and Stephen wasn’t king enough to keep the country from devolving into the Anarchy.

Worse for Stephen, his kingdom was frazzling at both ends. David I of Scotland invaded from the north, and though King Stephen was able to get most of the land back, he had to give up Carlisle and concede that King David’s son, Prince Henry, had several “possessions in England, including the Earldom of Huntingdon.” There was also a revolt in Wales. Welsh leaders Owain Gwynedd and Gruffydd ap Rhys “successfully captured considerable territories … and by the end of 1137 the King appears to have abandoned attempts to put down the rebellion.”

Furthermore, King Stephen had deal with TWO insurrections in the south-west of England led by Baldwin de Redvers and Robert of Bampton, as well as invasions of Normandy by Matilda’s husband, Geoffrey of Anjou. Stephen secured a temporary peace by promising to pay Geoffrey 2,000 marks a year to leave the Norman boarders alone, but Stephen’s coffers were rapidly emptying and this wasn’t going to work for long.

Worse, in 1138 Robert of Gloucester, an illegitimate son of Henry I and therefore the half-brother of the Empress Matilda, openly rebelled against King Stephen. Robert, who “was one of the most powerful Anglo-Norman barons, controlling estates in Normandy as well as the Earldom of Gloucester” had not supported Matilda initially because he wanted Theobald of Blois to be king. However, when Stephen had made such a hash of things in Wales (from Robert’s perspective), the Earl of Gloucester decided to back Matilda instead.


The civil war ripped England to shreds for decades, but King Stephen was still committed to holding the throne for himself and his progeny. On 6 April 1152 the king had barons swear their allegiance to his eldest son, Eustace IV, Count of Boulogne, as the heir to the crown. Support was rising, however, to make Empress Matilda’s son, Henry FitzEmpress, the king. The young man was as charismatic as he was impulsive and generous, and was gathering a rather large cult of personality throughout England and Normandy.

When Eustace died suddenly in August of 1153, King Stephen seemed to lose all heart for continuing the struggle for England. Shortly after Eustace’s death, Stephen and Henry “agreed to the Treaty of Winchester, in which Stephen recognised Henry as his heir in exchange for peace” rather than Stephen’s second son, William I of Blois. King Stephen didn’t want to keep fighting, especially when up against a firebrand like Henry Plantagenet, and William as yet unable to step into his elder brother’s shoes as an effective military heir.

King Stephen fell ill in Dover with some sort of stomach disorder in the autumn of  1154, and passed away on 25 October. The former (and to my mind illicit) King of England was buried at Faversham Abbey alongside his wife, Matilda of Boulogne, and beloved son Eustace. If Stephen had lived longer, perhaps his son William would have made a try for the throne, but as it was he became the Earl of Surrey and never sought the crown for himself.

King Henry I’s grandson was now King Henry II, and would create the Angevin Empire … and a whole lot of interesting history.  

2 thoughts on “The Usurpation of Matilda’s Throne

  1. Were chess games for political and military education, what with all the players involved?

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