Earls and barons, whom the rumour of his illness had drawn together, surrounded the death-bed of Henry I and awaited the result. Among them was his natural son Robert of Gloucester; but his legal heiress, the daughter for whom he had done so much and risked so much, was not there. The recent attempt of her husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, to gain by force the footing in Normandy which Henry had denied him, had drawn her away from her father, and she was still in Anjou. It was afterward declared that Henry on his death-bed disinherited her and made Stephen of Boulogne heir in her place; but this is not probable, and it is met by the statement which we may believe was derived directly from Robert of Gloucester, that the dying king declared his will to be still in her favour. However this may be, no steps were taken by any one in Normandy to put Matilda in possession of the duchy, or formally to recognize her right of succession. Why her brother Robert did nothing and allowed the opportunity to slip, we cannot say. Possibly he did not anticipate a hostile attempt. At Rouen, whither Henry's body was first taken, the barons adopted measures to preserve order and to guard the frontiers, which show that they took counsel on the situation; but nothing was done about the succession.

In the meantime, another person, as deeply interested in the result, did not wait for events to shape themselves. Stephen of Boulogne had been a favourite nephew of Henry I and a favourite at his uncle's court, and he had been richly provided for. The county of Mortain, usually held by some member of the ducal house, had been given him; he had shared in the confiscated lands of the house of Belleme; and he had been married to the heiress of the practically independent county of Boulogne, which carried with it a rich inheritance in England. Henry might very well believe that gratitude would secure from Stephen as faithful a support of his daughter's cause as he expected from her brother Robert. But in this he was mistaken. Stephen acted so promptly on the news of his uncle's death that he must already have decided what his action would be.

When he heard that his uncle had died, Stephen crossed at once to England. Dover and Canterbury were held by garrisons of Earl Robert's and refused him admittance, but he pushed on by them to London. There he was received with welcome by the citizens. London was in a situation to hail the coming of any one who promised to re-establish order and security, and this was clearly the motive on which the Londoners acted in all that followed. A reign of disorder had begun as soon as it was known that the king was dead, as frequently happened in the medieval state, for the power that enforced the law, or perhaps that gave validity even to the law and to the commissions of those who executed it, was suspended while the throne was vacant. A great commercial city, such as London had grown to be during the long reign of Henry, would suffer in all its interests from such a state of things. Indeed, it appears that a body of plunderers, under one who had been a servant of the late king's, had established themselves not far from the city, and were by their operations manufacturing pressing arguments in favour of the immediate re-establishment of order. It is not necessary to seek for any further explanation of the welcome which London extended to Stephen. Immediately on his arrival a council was held in the city, probably the governing body of the city, the municipal council if we may so call it, which determined what should be done. Negotiations were not difficult between parties thus situated, and an agreement was speedily reached. The city bound itself to recognize Stephen as king, and he promised to put down disorder and maintain security. Plainly from the account we have of this arrangement, it was a bargain, a kind of business contract; and Stephen proceeded at once to show that he intended to keep his side of it by dispersing the robber band which was annoying the city and hanging its captain.

It is unnecessary to take seriously the claim of a special right to fill the throne when it was vacant, which the citizens of London advanced for themselves according to a contemporary historian of these events.[29] This is surely less a claim of the citizens than one invented for them by a partisan who wishes to make Stephen's position appear as strong as possible; and no one at the time paid any attention to it. Having secured the support of London, after what can have been only a few days' stay, Stephen went immediately to Winchester. Before he could really believe himself king, he had to secure the royal treasures and more support than he had yet gained. Stephen's own brother Henry, who owed his promotion in the Church, as Stephen did his in the State, to his uncle, was at this time Bishop of Winchester; and it was due to him, as a contemporary declares, that the plan of Stephen succeeded, and the real decision of the question was made, not at London, but at Winchester.[30] Henry went out with the citizens of Winchester to meet his brother on his approach, and he was welcomed as he had been at London. Present there or coming in soon after, were the Archbishop William of Canterbury, Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, the head of King Henry's administrative system, and seemingly a few, but not many, barons. On the question of making Stephen king, the good, though not strong, Archbishop of Canterbury, was greatly troubled by the oath which had been sworn in the interest of Matilda. "There are not enough of us here," his words seem to mean, "to decide upon so important a step as recognizing this man as king, when we are bound by oath to recognize another."[31]