King Stephen

Article excerpt

King Stephen. By Edmund King. [Yale English Monarchs Series.] (New Haven: Yale University Press. 2011. Pp. xviii, 382. ISBN 978-0-300-11223-8.)

Edmund King offers a well-researched and valuable biography of King Stephen. His study adds to the seven other monographs and two sizable collections of essays on the topic published to date. The reason why Stephen is probably the most studied king of England, next to John, lies in continued interest in his ultimate failure as an Anglo-Norman monarch and, in particular, his inability to control his Church and unruly nobility. The traditional view is that Stephen's reign formed an unsatisfactory interlude between the more successful and peaceful rule of Henry I (1100-35) and that of his talented grandson, Henry II (1 1 54-89). To contemporaries, the turmoil of Stephen's nineteen years was in stark contrast to the previous reign that is viewed by many as a vanished golden age. Modern historians choosing to write on Stephen's reign almost inevitably run the gauntlet of dealing with the substantial collection of primary sources and the monumental historiography of the subject. Adding something new and valuable to the debate is difficult, and the merits of this could be questioned. King admits that his is a work of biography - a fair point - yet here offers a narrative that maneuvers around (and sometimes ignores) the most recent historiography of Stephen's reign.

Much attention is given to Stephen's religious nature and activities as well as his well-documented relationship with the bishops - in particular, his brother, Henry of Winchester (to whom King attributes much of his success). Less well explored is the critical association between Stephen and the barons, with limited analysis of the roles of Waleran II of Meulan and Robert of Gloucester, as well as curial lords such as Ranulf II of Chester. …