By James Turner
A look at four men – Robert Curthose, William Clito, Theobald II and Eustace – who almost became the King of England. Why didn’t they reach the throne?
In contrast to modern conceptions of statehood, the vast majority of the rulers of medieval polities and kingdoms did so through personal rather than institutional authority. Indeed, the extent and definitions of such polities were often plastic, stretching only as far as their ruler’s ability to meaningfully exert authority and changing from generation to generation as a result of changing dynastic and political contexts.
Yes, often a region’s relationship to a particular kingdom was informed by historical and geographical factors but ultimately the form and terms of their inclusion were the result of a personal accommodation between the ruler and that region’s powerbrokers. Sometimes this bargain was as simple as “you’ll do what I say and pay me taxes otherwise I’ll attack you with my army,” but the majority of medieval kings ruled the aristocracy on the rough understanding that they were first amongst equals. Medieval kings and Princes had to walk a narrow tightrope of projecting unassailable power while maintaining a practical awareness that their positions rested upon effective cooperation with the aristocracy.
Kings that forgot this, neglecting prominent aristocratic factions, and isolating them from the political and financial rewards of government, seldom thrived. Because of the personal and therefore variable nature of the various relationships and ties which formed medieval kingdoms, the authority of medieval kings was predicated upon the continual renegotiation and renewal of such relationships.
It should be no surprise that the importance of these personal connections to royal governance and the subsequently elasticated nature of royal authority had a profound impact upon the succession. Indeed, the transition between rulers was one of the most advantageous occasions for members of the aristocracy to secure or improve their positions. This system worked both ways, of course, and the kings of England regularly demanded cash payments in exchange of their acknowledgment of aristocrats’ rights to inherit the lands and titles of their deceased relatives. For much of the medieval period there was no formalized system to control the flow of land and titles through inheritance. There were, of course, certain traditions and principles, the relative importance of which differed from region to region, but they were neither systematized nor carried the unequivocal weight of the law.
Ultimately, such inherited resources went to the family member best able to secure them, regardless of their exact relationship to the deceased. The ability of aristocrats to do so was based upon a whole range of contextual factors but the most important of which were their existing resources, the support of their neighbors and relatives, as well as the acquiescence of higher authority.
In the case of kingdoms, and the Kingdom of England in particular, though there was no practical higher authority to appeal to if there was some ambiguity or dispute within the succession. In cases such as these, the varying ability of the royal candidates to cultivate aristocratic support became a determining factor in conflicts over the crown. Even during the tail end of the medieval period when the inheritance process had become enshrined within the law, we see that such legal niceties played second fiddle to the realities of political and military strength.
With these concerns foremost in mind I’ve elected to exclude from the list potential heirs such as Wiliam Aethling who never came to the throne simply because they predeceased their royal parent. After some hesitation, I also decided not to include Henry I’s daughter and chosen heir Empress Matilda even though she came within a hair’s breadth of being coronated Queen of England in her own right. I did so somewhat reluctantly because she was in many ways no less the Queen of England than her cousin Stephen was its king. For years Matilda maintained an alternate royal court based in Oxford, strategically dispensing largesse and ratifying and issuing charters in the portion of the country under her effective control in exactly the same manner as Stephen did.
That however is a complicated discussion for another day. Here, I attempt to select would-be royal claimants and family members whose careers illuminate the paramount important but highly conditional nature of aristocratic support.
As we explored briefly in the introduction, succession and inheritance in the eleventh century could be a fraught and contentious issue. In the absence of a formal and universal procedure, the distribution of land and titles was decided by a combustible mixture of tradition, personal foibles, and contextual factors. The most important of all contextual factors being if members of the deceased family decided their interests would be better served by contesting this distribution through political or military means.
When William the Conqueror died in 1087, he left his patrimony, that is to say those lands which he inherited from his own father by hereditary right, to his eldest son, Robert Curthose. This was perfectly in keeping with contemporary Continental inheritance traditions. William was, however, in the slightly unusual position that the lands he gained from acquisition and conquest, the Kingdom of England, were far greater in terms of prestige, wealth and size than his patrimony, the Duchy of Normandy. The Conqueror’s Will left the Kingdom of England to his second son William Rufus. Interestingly, Henry, the Conqueror’s third son was left a large sum of silver, despite the vast size of the royal demesne in England.
It is possible, I would say likely, that the elder king William’s decision to exclude Robert from the lion’s share of his inheritance was influenced by his eldest son’s penchant for armed rebellion. In 1079, during one such uprising, Robert, abetted by his maternal uncle, Count Robert of Flanders, succeeded in personally unhorsing his father, inflicting significant wounds upon him. Everything about the Conqueror’s career suggests that he was not one to let go of an insult or grudge lightly. According to the Conqueror’s Chaplain turned biographer, William of Poitiers, when in 1051 the defenders of Alençon made an oblique reference to the besieging Duke’s illegitimacy, his response was to have the hands and feet of over two dozen of the captured town’s people chopped off. Robert’s epithet, Curthose, which means short stockings or leggings, reportedly given to him by his father, exemplifies their complicated relationship; a formerly affectionate childhood nickname that curdled into something close to an insult as the two grew to resent each other.
Regardless of whatever the deceased William had hoped to achieve, neither Robert nor his allies amongst the Anglo-Norman aristocracy were mollified by rule over Normandy alone. In 1088, having spent the better part of a year securing his control of Normandy, Robert advanced the not wholly unreasonable claim that as the former King of England’s eldest son, he should have inherited the throne. Robert was generally well-liked amongst the members of the cross-channel Anglo-Norman aristocracy.
The aristocracy, the majority of whom held lands in both Normandy and England, had significant reservations about the division of the Duchy and the Kingdom and the prospect of being trapped between two rival masters. Therefore, Robert, who many judged to be the more amiable and approachable overlord, enjoyed significant support in his bid for the throne as many of William Rufus’ most prominent vassals rose up in rebellion. The most prominent of these rebels were the Conqueror’s maternal half-brothers, Odo the bishop of Bayeux and Earl of Kent and Robert Count of Mortain and Earl of Cornwall. They were joined by such influential and powerful figures as Roger de Mowbray, Geoffery de Montray, Roger Bigod and Roger Montgomery, all of whom controlled extensive concentrations of land within England and had been prominent within the Conqueror’s government.
At the start of 1088, the balance of power undoubtedly lay with Duke Robert and his powerful cabal of loyalists. Yet the rebel’s campaign against William Rufus was piecemeal and poorly coordinated. Rather than uniting to challenge the king directly, the rebels largely contented themselves with raiding nearby sections of the royal demesne and their royalist neighbours. This allowed the embattled William Rufus to concentrate his forces and strike at the rebel magnates one at a time, quickly overwhelming and capturing the rebel ringleader Bishop Odo.
More disastrous still was Robert’s strange passivity during the conflict. Bad weather forcing the reinforcements he dispatched to Odo to abort their crossing of the Channel was sheer bad luck, but, strangely, Robert didn’t make further attempts to reinforce his allies in England or cross over into England himself. With Odo in prison and Robert seemingly disinclined to press the issue further, the rebellion petered out as one by one the rebel magnates sued for peace. With the war over, William Rufus and Robert fell into a cycle of wary reconciliation, alliance against a common foe and sudden opportunistic betrayal which lasted until the king died in 1100.
In the meantime, Robert had gained enormous fame and prestige in the First Crusade, during which he had served as one of the armies’ foremost commanders. He was even put forward as a candidate for the kingship of the freshly captured Jerusalem but declined the position. Robert returned home to Normandy to find that Willaim Rufus had died and that their younger brother, Henry, had seized the throne of England in his absence. Robert again claimed the kingship of England, a claim based both upon his status as the Conqueror’s eldest son and a long-defunct agreement in which William Rufus had recognised him as his heir.
Acting decisively this time, Robert and his army crossed over into England. Unfortunately, many of Robert’s natural allies and supporters had long since been ousted from power and Henry, leaning heavily upon the support of his native English subjects, was able to thwart Robert’s hopes of a swift victory and bring him to the negotiating table. The intermittent outbreaks of internecine warfare between the two, that followed over the next few years, found the severely cash-strapped Duke on the defensive.
In 1106, King Henry decisively defeated Robert at the Battle of Tinchebray, scattering the ducal army and capturing Robert. Henry wasted no time in consolidating his position, claiming the Duchy of Normandy for himself and formally reuniting it with England under his rule. Robert, far too important or influential to ever be released, had the unhappy fate of spending the rest of his life in comfortable but close confinement. Curthose, the eldest son of William the Conqueror and one-time hero of the First Crusade, spent the next twenty-eight years in captivity. In 1134, he passed away in Cardiff Castle at the impressive age of eighty-three.
Despite the disaster at Tinchebray and Robert Curthose’s subsequent extended stay as his brother’s most heavily guarded guest, the threat to Henry I’s throne was not entirely diffused. Born in 1102, after his father’s return from the crusades and second failure to secure the English crown, William Clito was the son of Robert Curthose and his wife, Sibylla of Conversano.
A member of the aristocracy of southern Italy, Sibylla was a first-generation descendant of the Norman mercenaries and adventurers who had wrestled control of the region away from the Byzantines and the native Lombard aristocracy. An extended Norman enclave that retained strong ties to their northern relatives. The couple met when Robert was travelling through southern Italy in preparation for the mustering of the First Crusade. They were then reunited and married in Apulia on his homeward journey. Near contemporary chroniclers, such as Abbot Robert of Torigni, made much of Sibylla’s beauty and intelligence, noting her positive contributions to the previously chaotic ducal government.
Alas, Sibylla died in the winter of 1103, a few months after giving birth to William. William of Malmsbury suggests that she died as a result of a post-natal medical complication, while Orderic Vitalis relays a rather suspect but dramatic account in which the Duchess was murdered by a cabal of noblewomen, led by the duke’s now neglected mistress.
When Duke Robert was captured in 1106, King Henry placed William in the custody of Helias of Saint-Saëns, the Count of Arques. Helias was in a way a natural guardian for William, since his wife, an illegitimate daughter of Duke Robert, was the young princeling’s half-sister. However, Helias, as suggested by his marriage, had been a strong supporter of Robert Curthose, with few ties to Henry I. It seems clear then, at this juncture, that King Henry felt secure in the totality of his victory and believed his nephew to be of little threat. Evidently by 1110 Henry had begun to reconsider this position, giving orders that William should be delivered into his custody. Rather than surrender the child, Helias and his wife had him smuggled out of Normandy, taking refugee first with Henry’s nemesis, the rebel magnate Robert de Bellême, and then in the court of his cousin, Count Baldwin VII of Flanders.
Raised in exile William, whose carefully cultivated epithet Clito indicated his royal lineage, quickly became a figurehead for discontented Anglo-Norman magnates. While his claim was slightly complicated by his father’s survival in captivity, Clito was the eldest son of William the Conqueror’s eldest son and therefore an excellent candidate for the English crown. For Anglo-Norman magnates who found themselves clashing with Henry I or fell afoul of the king’s notorious cupidity, William was an ideal alternative royal candidate to rally around. Declaring for Clito at once united potential rebels with potent allies and lent their grievances legitimacy. Similarly, Henry’s many foreign enemies and belligerent neighbours could use William as a proxy, championing his claim to the throne as a way of justifying their campaigns against the ever-ambitious king; campaigns which benefited from the often-considerable support of Anglo-Normand dissidents.
In 1118, William and his host and ally Count Baldwin of Flanders invaded Normandy, in support of a major aristocratic uprising. The rebellion did much to destabilise Henry’s rule of the Duchy, sweeping aside all but the most determined of royalist resistance with large swatches of northern Normandy falling to Clito and his allies. Things began to quickly deteriorate for the rebels, however, when Count Baldwin was seriously injured at the siege of William’s former home, Arques. Without the resources and energetic leadership of the Flemish Count, the rebellion began to bleed momentum. In 1119, fresh hope emerged for the freshly knighted William Clito when King Louis VI of France threw his support behind his claims to Normandy and England. Both Henry and Louis rushed to the heavily disputed Vexin with their military entourages, determined to secure the vital border region by cajoling the support of local barons and lords. The result was the Battle of Brémule in which the French army was defeated and both Louis and William narrowly avoided capture.
Despite the defeat, William remained determined to secure the rule of Normandy and England and continued to enjoy considerable support from the French King. In 1123, William’s prospects increased significantly when Henry I’s only legitimate son, William Atheling, drowned in the English Channel after his ship struck a submerged rock. Clito was now not only the representative of a rival branch of the Anglo-Norman royal family, but he was also as Henry’s nephew and the senior legitimate grandson of the Conqueror, one of the king’s most plausible successors. Henry, of course, favoured the claims of his only remaining legitimate child, Matilda, but it remained questionable whether the truculent Anglo-Norman aristocracy would follow a woman, despite the strenuous oaths Henry had his magnates take in an effort to bind them to his daughter.
William quickly moved to take advantage of the crisis and the ill will Henry’s greed and strong-arm diplomacy had generated. After Henry refused to return the dowry of his late son’s fiancée, Matilda of Anjou, the daughter of Count Fulk of Anjou, William became engaged to another of Fulk’s daughters. However, William was ultimately outmanoeuvred when Henry’s deep pockets and the influence they granted him in the Papal Curia eventually saw William’s marriage disallowed on the grounds of consanguinity.
Despite this diplomatic frustration and the vacillating loyalty of the Angevins, significant segments of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy again rose up in an attempt to secure William’s rights and status as King Henry’s heir. Yet William’s French allies were engaged in a conflict with Henry’s allies in the Holy Roman Empire and were thus unable to lend the rebellion any support. Without a core military force to rally around, the scattered rebel forces struggled to coordinate their actions. When royalist forces defeated two of the most prominent rebel magnates as they tried to unite their forces at the Battle of Bourgthéroulde, the uprising petered out shortly afterwards.
In 1127, perhaps determined to make up for his inaction in 1124, Louis VI once more threw this whole support behind William. Clito was married to the king’s sister-in-law, connecting him not only to the French royal family but also to the influential rulers of Savoy and Burgandy. He also placed all of his castles and territories in the Vexin under William’s control, giving him a formidable bridgehead into Normandy and significant scope to further recruit disenfranchised members of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy. Next and most momentously of all, Louis seized upon the death of Charles of Flanders to install William, the maternal-great-grandson of Baldwin V as the new Count. William made great strides in securing control of the country until Henry I, deeply alarmed by this development, began supplying a rival claimant, Thierry of Alsace.
In 1128, William, whose forces had been driven almost wholly from Flanders, launched a devastatingly successful counterattack, defeating Thierry and pinning him within the besieged city of Aalst. While overseeing the siege, William took a minor wound to his sword arm which soon turned gangrenous, killing him. Throughout his life William had been a sword placed precariously above his uncle’s head. Had he not been struck down by a stroke of ill fortune at the moment of triumph in Flanders, he may very well have had the prestige and resources to once again challenge the English king or convince the Anglo-Norman aristocracy to accept him as Henry’s heir.
Count Theobald II
As the ruler of the counties of Blois, Chartres, Champagne and Brie, Theobald was one of the most powerful members of the twelfth-century French aristocracy. Born sometime around 1090, he was the son of Count Stephen-Henry of Blois-Chartres and Adella of Normandy. Theobald’s mother was the daughter of William the Conqueror and his wife Matilda of Flanders, making him a close relative and natural ally of the Anglo-Norman royal family. Indeed, probably because of their similar age and shared upbringing, Adella was the favourite sibling of Henry I who upon attaining the throne of England in 1100 did much to guard her interests and advance the careers of her children.
Stephen-Herny was a prominent member of the leadership cabal of the First Crusade and the head of one of the crusading army’s largest constituent parts. However, the lengthy siege of Antioch persuaded the count of the futility of the crusade, and he abandoned the endeavour, heading for home. On the way he further compounded the damage he had inflicted upon the Crusader’s efforts, when he persuaded the Byzantine Emperor, Alexios I, who was coming to the Crusader’s aid at the head of a large, allied army, to simialry abandon what he described as a lost cause. When the circumstances of his return became clear, Stephen-Henry’s wife was furious. Evidently, she felt that abandoning his fellow crusaders, amongst whom could be counted her brother, Duke Robert of Normandy, was an act unworthy of a son-in-law of the great William the Conqueror. At his wife’s insistence, the Count left once again on the arduous journey to the Holy Lands, only to die shortly after in the exceptionally bloody second Battle of Ramla in 1102.
Adella then took over management of the family’s vast conglomeration of landed interests, acting as regent for her eldest son William. At some stage around 1105, the decision was made to set William’s claims aside in favour of his younger brother, Theobald, with Adella remaining in the position of regent until Theobald’s coming of age in 1107. The reasons for this decision are somewhat opaque, with many historians suggesting that he may have suffered from some manner form of learning disability or handicap. The promotion of Theobold as heir over William was almost certainly influenced by William’s actions during his family’s dispute with the canons of Chartres cathedral, in which he attempted to persuade the town folks to slaughter the canons. While an actual diagnosis is now impossible, the incident suggests that at the very least, William suffered from poor judgement. William would remain the Count of Sully, a position he held through his wife, but it seems that he remained closely managed by his family. As we shall see shortly, he, unlike Theobald, was never considered as a potential heir to their uncle Henry I.
The majority of Theobald’s lands were concentrated on the eastern border of the Il-de-France, those lands around Paris which the King of France held direct control over. As a result of constant border tensions and Louis VI and his immediate successors’ efforts to expand the reach and authority of French kingship, Theobald quickly became embroiled in a tense but largely non-violent struggle with the French king. Similarly, to his cousin William Clito, the death of Henry I’s only legitimate son in 1123 made Theobald a potential candidate for the throne of England. However, unlike Clito who sourced the majority of his supporters from members of the aristocracy disenfranchised by Henry I’s energetic but authoritarian rule, Theobald’s candidacy had a potentially broader appeal. Theobold’s mother was on excellent terms with her royal brother, while Theobold was the head of a powerful family with close political ties to their royal English relatives.
In fact, Theobald’s two younger brothers, Stephen and Henry, had been groomed for leadership roles in their royal uncle’s court, both having achieved positions of considerable influence and authority as a result of their dedicated service to the English crown. Theobold was therefore a candidate of clear royal blood who, unlike Clito, was acceptable to Henry’s supporters and who could reasonably have expected the support of some of the most influential members of the English royal court. Theobold was already a powerful magnate in his own right, if he had also become the King of England and Duke of Normandy, then the personal territory of the Kings of France would have been pinned between a now tightly bonded Normandy and the Charters-Blois bloc, massively hampering their ability to exercise authority over either region.
While Henry clearly and vociferously favoured the candidacy of his daughter Matilda, it was unclear if the aristocracy would embrace a female ruler, with most presuming that she would be a figurehead for her husband. In this regard Henry helped neither himself nor Matilda when he opted to repair his fractured alliance with Count Fulk of Anjou by marrying Matilda to Fulk’s heir, Geoffery. The Angevin’s were generally unpopular with the Anglo-Norman aristocracy and Matilda’s connection to them almost certainly damaged her candidacy.
When Henry died in the winter of 1135, Theobald was therefore an excellent royal candidate with every chance of becoming King of England. Indeed, shortly after the King’s death, Theobald was approached by Henry’s eldest illegitimate son Robert of Gloucester and a cabal of Anglo-Norman magnates about taking the throne. He was, if you discount his long set aside brother William, the eldest surviving legitimate grandson of William the Conqueror and Henry’s closest legitimate male relative. Here, however, he made a catastrophic mistake, rather than striking out to secure his coronation in England, Theobold, overconfident in his position and perhaps enjoying all the attention remained in Blois, languorously negotiating the terms of their support.
While still engaged in this lengthy process of negotiations, Theobold and others had received word that his younger brother, Stephen, had taken the throne. While others hesitated or contented themselves with negotiating the terms upon which they would hold the throne, Stephen acted quickly securing the royal treasury and winning the support of the people of London and the assorted ranks of the English bishops. With these key resources under his thumb, he was able to have himself coronated in short order. With no real mechanisms or precedent for the removal of an anointed king, Stephen presented both his rivals and the Anglo-Norman magnates with a fait accompli.
With a king already sitting upon the throne, the aristocracy abruptly discarded their scheming and began tripping over each other in their haste to declare for the new king. This included Theobald’s would-be supporters who all hurried back to England, eager to avoid being seen as disloyal to the new king. While the initially furious Theobald would eventually reconcile with his brother, he never again came close to claiming the English throne. Despite the legally and technically strong aspects of his claim, future conflict over the thrown would be waged between and on behalf of Stephen, Matilda and their children.
Prince Eustace of England
Speaking of which, Eustace was born sometime around 1130, the son of royal kinsmen Count Stephen of Mortain and his wife Matilda, the hereditary Countess of Boulogne. As discussed above Stephen, whose county and highly influential marriage were gifted to him as rewards for his loyal service by his uncle Henry I, was crowned King of England on the 22nd of December 1135. Stephen, whose coronation occurred less than a month after his uncle’s death, attained the throne through cunning and decisive action more than hereditary right. His claim to the throne was manifestly inferior to that of his cousin Matilda and elder brother Theobald. However, Matilda was a woman and was, through marriage, a member of the widely disliked and distrusted ruling family of the country of Anjou on Normandy’s southern border. Worse, at the time of Henry’s death, Matilda’s husband and father-in-law had been actively fighting against the English king, supporting an aristocratic uprising against him in the south of the duchy. The unfortunate nature of these circumstances meant that the late king’s numerous and powerful allies were extremely reluctant to accept Matilda or her husband.
Likewise, Theobald was a relative stranger to the Anglo-Norman court. Stephen on the other hand had been a member of the late king’s inner circle and therefore both well known to the Anglo-Norman magnates and extremely wealthy. As soon as word of Henry’s death reached Stephen in Boulogne, he raced back to England and his London estates. With the aid of his younger brother Henry, the Bishop of Winchester, Stephen secured the support of the English bishops by promising to exempt them from taxation. With the bishops on his side, Stephen was able to have himself coronated and free his fellow Anglo-Norman aristocrats from the oaths of loyalty to Matilda that Henry I had made them take. Stephen’s coronation created a political momentum all of its own and with the throne unambiguously occupied by an anointed king, the vast majority of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy quickly swore their allegiance to him.
Stephen’s decisiveness in having himself coronated unbalanced the Anglo-Norman aristocracy and the usual calculus of power. The Anglo-Norman aristocracy had fallen into line because none wanted to be left the lone dissident when the dust thrown up by Stephen’s coronation finally cleared. Unfortunately for the king, as the situation stabilised and a new status quo was established during the initial years of his reign, he began to encounter more and more aristocratic opposition. Things sharply took a turn for the worst when the king’s cousin, Earl Robert of Gloucester, declared his support for his half-sister, Empress Matilda in 1139. Despite Stephen’s energetic response to the situation and initial success against the Earl’s English allies, the resultant war spiralled in scope.
Stephen’s royalist forces eventually lost control of Normandy which fell to the Angevins and their partisans. In England the fighting raged on with one side and then the other gaining the upper hand. In 1141, Stephen was captured at the Battle of Lincoln, yet Eustace’s mother Matilda, acting as regent for her young son and captured husband, masterfully held the royalist war effort together. Under her command, royalist forces were able to inflict a stinging defeat upon their Angevin-aligned rivals and secure the king’s release. Following these events, a gradual stalemate would form between the two factions in England, with sporadic outbreaks of renewed violence. This period of civil strife and violence, often referred to as The Anarchy, dominated Stephen’s reign. Eustace therefore grew up in this period of factionalism and violence, the heir apparent to a contested throne and deeply divided kingdom.
Stephen was naturally very keen to ensure Eustace’s succession to the throne. Because of the persistent threats to his authority and military position within England and the challenge posed by the rival claims of Empress Matilda and her own sons, Stephen sought some mechanism or ploy that would bolster Eustace’s position. Possibly influenced by the political effectiveness of his own coronation in securing power, Stephen sought to have Eustace crowned as co-king of England. While there was a tradition of French kings crowning their heirs in their own lifetime as a means to guard the integrity of the succession, this custom had never before been implemented in England.
The king and his heir were opposed in these efforts by the Bishops of England. While initially the bishops were amongst Stephen’s foremost supporters, the demands of the ongoing war had left the king dangerously low on money, prompting him to break his former promises regarding the Church’s exemption from taxation. To make matters worse, the arbitrary and rough-handed manner in which taxes were levied and collected from Churches in places, bore a close resemblance to naked banditry. This betrayal shattered Stephen’s previous cooperation with the bishops. Meanwhile the continued excesses of the war had convinced the majority of English bishops that peace was needed. Peace under any of the royal candidates was preferable to the continuation of the war under Stephen.
The bishops continually resisted Stephen’s attempts to have Eustace crowned, at least in part, because his coronation would have curtailed any feature diplomatic overtures about the future of the throne and a potential peace-winning compromise. Even the king’s attempt to outflank the bishops and take the matter of Eustace’s coronation directly to the Papal Curia in Rome was thwarted by a showing of ecclesiastical solidarity with successive popes siding with the bishops.
By 1153, the Angevin party had found new life under the leadership of Empress Matilda and Geoffery of Anjou’s eldest son Henry, the future Henry II. Landing in England with a small army, Henry, who already held the title of Duke of Normandy, gathered his English supporters together before marching to finally relieve Wallingford Castle, whose long-running siege was now being personally supervised by Stephen. There the two armies faced each other across the ford. However, the collective will and war weariness of the assembled Anglo-Norman nobility overrode the wishes of Henry and Stephen, who had both hoped for one last decisive battle to end the now decades-spanning war. Faced with the refusal of their supporters to fight, the feuding royal kinsmen had no choice but to turn to the negotiating table. The result was the Treaty of Winchester in which Stephen was allowed to retain the throne of England on the condition that he named Henry his heir rather than Eustace or his younger son William.
Of course, such agreements, while in theory binding, tended to be fragile in practice. Stephen who was in his late fifties or early sixes at the time of the treaty, probably still hoped to secure Eustace’s succession. In many ways time was on his side, the treaty had after all left him king and had required that the previously recalcitrant Angevin supporters finally acknowledge his rule and swear loyalty to him. In a sense then, Stephen and Eustace were perfectly positioned to weaken and pick apart the Angevin party, in preparation for a renewal of hostilities. It was however not to be, Eustace died within a month or so of the treaty’s signing, with some chroniclers suggesting that his death was the result of the stress and humiliation brought about by his nominal relegation from the throne. Eustace’s younger brother, William, who had unlike him grown up without the expectation of ever becoming king of England, was perfectly happy to abide by the terms laid out in the Treaty of Winchester in exchange for a prominent place in the new regime and an arranged marriage to the Anglo-Norman world’s richest heiress.
When Stephen died suddenly the following year, exhausted by a reign marred by near-constant war and perhaps weakened by the loss of his beloved heir, he was succeeded without struggle or opposition by Henry II. The crown of England slipped out of the hands of the house of Blois and passed to their Plantagenet relatives.
James Turner has recently completed his doctoral studies at Durham University before which he attended the University of Glasgow. Deeply afraid of numbers and distrustful of counting, his main research interests surround medieval aristocratic culture and identity. You can follow James on Twitter @HistorySchmstry
Top Image: Drawing from 1885, depicting William Clito, Count of Flanders, mortally wounded during the siege of Alost (1128) – image from Flickr/British Library