Stephen was the grandson of William the Conqueror through his mother, Adela. Adela appears to have been quite a formidable individual - a worthy offspring of the great Conqueror. She was married to Stephen of Blois, whose best claim to fame comes via the Crusades. Stephen of Blois joined the First Crusade in 1096, and must have shown himself to be an able commander, as he appears to have been chosen to head the whole forces by the time of the seige of Antioch. Unfortunately, he fled the seige when a Turkish army arrived, surrounding the Crusaders who had beseiged the city. On his way back to Europe, Stephen senior convinced the Byzantine Emperor, who was bringing a Christian relief force of his own, that all was already lost, and caused him to turn back to Constantinople. These were hardly the acts of a brave man, one worthy to be the son-in-law of the Conqueror, and there can be little doubt that Adela told him so upon his return. No doubt he would have been considered merely prudent, rather than cowardly, had the Christian forces not upset the odds, and actually succeeded, after his departure, in capturing Antioch. To make amends, Stephen returned to the Holy Land, no doubt at his wife's insistence, and died there.
After his father's death, the younger Stephen was sent to his uncle, Henry's court. Henry provided a wealthy heiress for him to marry, and he soon became one of the richest men in England. In the usual course of events, this would probably the best that the third son of a French nobleman could have been expected to do, however when Henry died, in 1135, without a male heir, Stephen claimed the throne.
He was not universally accepted, of course. His claim came through his mother, which made it a bit dodgy, plus there was the fact that he had two older brothers. The eldest, Henry, was in some way incapacitated; whether he was physically or mentally handicapped is unknown, but he was never allowed to wield any power at any time in his life. The second brother, Theobald had inherited Blois following his father's death, but appears to have been quite willing to give up any claim he may have had to the English throne to his brother. The third claimant was Henry's daughter, Matilda, who, had she not been female would have been the obvious heir, as the previous king's only surviving legitimate offspring. A fourth possible claimant was Robert of Gloucester, the eldest of Henry's illegitimate sons, of which there were a quite considerable number. However Robert appears to have never made a serious claim for the throne, perhaps in part because he was one of the barons who, at Henry I's behest, had sworn to honour Matilda as their monarch following the old king's death.
The dominant theme in Stephen's reign was one of internal strife as his cousin Matilda sought to claim the crown from him, with varying levels of support, and degrees of success. Certain parts of the barony appear to have taken advantage of the competing claims to the throne to ensure personal gain, swapping sides at will, with little fear of retribution, and ever increasing payment for their 'loyalty'.
Stephen seems to have encouraged this sort of attitude through his actions. He appears to have seen himself as a benefactor distributing his largesse at will amongst the people, and protecting them from harm. Henry I's well-stocked treasury provided him with large revenues with which to do this, at first, but his promises soon out-stripped his ability to fund them, and once that happened, some of his followers began to defect to Matilda's camp.
Nevertheless, the constant civil war seems to have worn out the nation, and perhaps even Stephen himself, because in 1152 it was finally agreed that Stephen should be succeeded by Matilda's son, Henry, who became Henry II in 1154, at the age of 19. Stephen
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