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From the Emperor’s Desk: I couldn’t find any contemporary portrait of King Stephen that I liked so I’m using shots of King Stephen from the TV mini series “Pillars of the Earth” which I highly recommend!

Relations among King Henry, Empress Matilda, and Geoffrey became increasingly strained during the King’s final years. Matilda and Geoffrey suspected that they lacked genuine support in England. In 1135 they urged Henry to hand over the royal castles in Normandy to Matilda whilst he was still alive, and insisted that the Norman nobility swear immediate allegiance to her, thereby giving the couple a more powerful position after Henry’s death.

Henry angrily declined to do so, probably out of concern that Geoffrey would try to seize power in Normandy. A fresh rebellion broke out amongst the barons in southern Normandy, led by William III, Count of Ponthieu, whereupon Geoffrey and Matilda intervened in support of the rebels.

Henry campaigned throughout the autumn, strengthening the southern frontier, and then travelled to Lyons-la-Forêt in November to enjoy some hunting, still apparently healthy. There he fell ill – according to the chronicler Henry of Huntingdon, he ate too many (“a surfeit of”) lampreys against his physician’s advice – and his condition worsened over the course of a week.

Once the condition appeared terminal, Henry gave confession and summoned Archbishop Hugh of Amiens, who was joined by Robert of Gloucester and other members of the court. In accordance with custom, preparations were made to settle Henry’s outstanding debts and to revoke outstanding sentences of forfeiture.

The King died on December 1, 1135, and his corpse was taken to Rouen accompanied by the barons, where it was embalmed; his entrails were buried locally at the priory of Notre-Dame du Pré, and the preserved body was taken on to England, where it was interred at Reading Abbey.

When news began to spread of Henry I’s death, many of the potential claimants to the throne were not well placed to respond. Geoffrey and Matilda were in Anjou, rather awkwardly supporting the rebels in their campaign against the royal army, which included a number of Matilda’s supporters such as Robert of Gloucester.

Many of these barons had taken an oath to stay in Normandy until the late King was properly buried, which prevented them from returning to England. Stephen’s elder brother Theobald was further south still, in Blois. Stephen, however, was in Boulogne, and when news reached him of Henry’s death he left for England, accompanied by his military household.

Robert of Gloucester had garrisoned the ports of Dover and Canterbury and some accounts suggest that they refused Stephen access when he first arrived. Nonetheless, Stephen probably reached his own estate on the edge of London by December 8 and over the next week he began to seize power in England.

On December 15, Henry of Huntingdon delivered an agreement under which Stephen would grant extensive freedoms and liberties to the church, in exchange for the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Papal Legate supporting his succession to the throne. There was the slight problem of the religious oath that Stephen had taken to support the Empress Matilda, but Henry of Huntingdon convincingly argued that the late King Henry had been wrong to insist that his court take the oath.

Furthermore, the late King had only insisted on that oath to protect the stability of the kingdom, and in light of the chaos that might now ensue, Stephen would be justified in ignoring it. Henry of Huntingdon was also able to persuade 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.

Meanwhile, the Norman nobility gathered at Le Neubourg to discuss declaring Theobald king, probably following the news that Stephen was gathering support in England. The Normans argued that the count, as the more senior grandson of William the Conqueror, had the most valid claim over the kingdom and the duchy, and was certainly preferable to Empress Matilda.

Theobald met with the Norman barons and Robert of Gloucester at Lisieux on December 21. Their discussions were interrupted by the sudden news from England that Stephen’s coronation was to occur the next day.

Theobald then agreed to the Normans’ proposal that he be made king, only to find that his former support immediately ebbed away: the barons were not prepared to support the division of England and Normandy by opposing Stephen, who subsequently financially compensated Theobald, who in return remained in Blois and supported his brother’s succession.

The crowds in London proclaimed Stephen the new monarch, believing that he would grant the city new rights and privileges in return. Henry of Blois delivered the support of the church to Stephen: Stephen was able to advance to Winchester, where Roger, Bishop of Salisbury and Lord Chancellor, instructed the royal treasury to be handed over to Stephen.

Stephen’s coronation was held a week later at Westminster Abbey on December 22.

Assessment: Stephen of Blois was clearly a usurper. King Henry I designated the English throne to his only surviving legitimate child, Empress Matilda. Barrons and other nobles swore an oath of allegiance to the Empress Matilda which they renounced upon the death of King Henry. Ignoring thier oaths, the nobility supported Stephen in the battle for the crown.