The queen who took down the empress
Some time ago, I published a post about that rather impressive lady Matilda of Flanders who married William the Conqueror and thereby became the matriarch of the Norman kings. Today, I thought we’d spend some time with her namesake, the equally impressive Matilda of Boulogne.
This Matilda was born in 1105 or thereabouts. Her father, Eustace of Boulogne, was a Crusader and a proven warrior, having participated in the siege (and subsequent massacre) of Jerusalem. Given future events, I’m guessing Matilda had inherited quite a few of her father’s more ferocious qualities, traits that were to come in handy later in her life.
Eustace married relatively late in life—all that crusading had kept him quite busy for some years—but I suspect he was quite pleased with his wife. After all, Mary of Scotland was of royal descent and came with the added bonus of being the sister to Henry I’s queen, yet another Matilda. Thereby, Eustace became a royal in-law, and even if Henry I does not come across as a man who had much time for family ties (this is, after all, the king who allowed his granddaughters to be blinded) it was probably never a disadvantage to be related to the king, however indirectly.
Mary and Matilda Sr had been raised in a convent. In fact, they’d spent so much time with the nuns Henry I had to acquire the pope’s permission to marry Matilda Sr as there were those who muttered that both Matilda Sr and Mary were effectively nuns. What the sisters themselves thought of this, I have no idea, but the upside of their irregular upbringing was that they were both quite well-educated.
As to why Henry I (who seems to have had an unquenchable appetite for women, resulting in twenty plus illegitimate children) was so determined to marry Matilda Sr, this was because of her (and Mary’s) mother: St Margaret of Scotland was not only the mother of eight children, including the two sisters. She was also the descendant of Edmund Ironside, thereby contributing a dollop of Anglo-Saxon royal blood to her offspring.
Neither Mary nor Matilda Sr seem to have been all that fertile. Matilda Sr only gave Henry I two children (and, as we’ve seen above, he had no issue with fertility). Mary presented her husband with one child: Matilda, named after her aunt.
Just to add to the name confusion, Henry I’s daughter by Queen Matilda was also named Matilda, and seeing as this Matilda and our Matilda were to play very important roles in each others’ lives, I’ve decided to call Henry’s daughter Maud, as otherwise we will all develop a headache trying to separate one from the other. (In general, I am not impressed by the variation in names during the Middle Ages. Seems to me people snowed in on a couple of them and then went on to use them ad nauseam, resulting in large amounts of Matildas and Alfonsos and Eleanors and Isabellas and Henrys and Williams and…right: no need to elaborate further, I think)
Anyway: Matilda grew up in comfort, mostly in Boulogne, but also in England—her father had estates there. Her mother died when Matilda was around 11 or so, and for some reason Matilda remained unwed throughout her teens. Maybe her father was holding out for a good marriage, or maybe Henry I had a vested interest in ensuring Matilda and her vast inheritance ended up in the right hands. Whatever the case, in 1125 Matilda was married to Stephen of Blois, nephew to king Henry I.
For Stephen, marrying Matilda was a major move upwards financially. As a younger son to the Count of Blois and Adela, Henry I’s sister, Stephen did not expect to inherit much land. Now, by right of his wife, he stood next in line to become the Count of Boulogne. Close to ten years older than his bride, Stephen seems to have found Matilda very much to his liking—a sentiment returned in full by his wife, or at least that is the impression one gets, given just how loyal she would prove to be.
1125 was the year in which Matilda gained a husband and lost a father. Upon Eustace’s death, the newly married couple became the Count and Countess of Boulogne, and for the coming decade or so, they divided their time between their large estates in England and Boulogne, their family growing with the addition of a couple of children.
And then, in 1135, everything changed.
Before we go there, we need to detour briefly to Henry I and the fate of his two legitimate children by Matilda Sr. By the time Stephen wed Matilda of Boulogne, Henry I’s precious male heir, William, was already dead, having drowned in the tragedy of the White Ship. All Henry had left was a bevy of eager nephews (among them Stephen) and his daughter, Maud, recently returned to England after the death of her husband, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V.
King Henry was determined to ensure his bloodline retained the throne. He’d hastily wed again after the death of William, but so far no royal babies were forthcoming. Maud had not presented her first husband with an heir, but she was still youngish (as per the standards of the time), so Henry decided to marry her again—to the very much younger Geoffrey of Anjou. Not a marriage made in heaven, one could say. Maud resented the fact that her husband was not much more than a child and only a count. She, after all, was an Empress, albeit without the adjoining empire. However, Maud needed a husband as Henry had obliged his barons to recognise Maud—and her legitimate heirs—as his heirs. Just in case, Henry had his barons swear allegiance to his daughter twice.
In 1133, Maud gave birth to a son whom she named Henry. In 1134, she gave birth to a second son, Geoffrey. Henry I could expel a relieved breath: he now had two male heirs, albeit at present no more than infants, but still.
In December of 1135, Henry I died, supposedly after having gone wild and crazy over a dish of lampreys. The more likely reason is that he fell sick after an autumn campaigning against rebels in Normandy—rebels supported by Maud and Geoffrey.
No sooner was Henry dead but a fight over the succession broke out. Several of the barons decided not to honour their oath to Maud (many of them disliked the ambitious Geoffrey) and Theobald of Blois, Stephen’s eldest brother, prepared to go to England and claim the crown.
Stephen moved faster. Upon hearing the news of his uncle’s demise, he set off like greased lightning, accompanied by his household knights. Some weeks later, he was crowned, which no doubt caused big brother Theobald to grind his teeth, but once anointed always anointed, and so Theobald could do nothing but bow to the inevitable.
Not so our Empress Maud. To give this lady her due, Maud was not the type who gave up. Oh, no: the crown was hers by right—those perjured barons had sworn on it—and she wasn’t about to let this juicy price slip away from her or her sons. Geoffrey agreed, and while these two were often at odds on a personal level, they were scarily alike when it came to ambition, ruthlessness and intelligence. No wonder their son, the future Henry II, would turn out as he did.
We don’t know whether Matilda supported her husband’s bid for the throne. It seems likely, if nothing else because he consulted with her on various other matters, and such a life-changing decision would reasonably be something he’d have talked over with her beforehand. Maybe they’d been planning for this for some time, both of them fully aware of how unpopular Geoffrey d’Anjou was among the English barons.
In difference to Geoffrey, Stephen was universally liked. He was rich, easy-going, good-looking, a proven warrior—and, most importantly, a man. What baron in his right mind would prefer Maud to this charmer? Initially, it would seem very few, but Maud was nothing if not determined, and some years into Stephen’s reign, civil war flared up. The anarchy (as it was dubbed by those who lived through it) was to plague the rest of his reign, the barons divided between those who supported Maud (led by her illegitimate half-brother Robert of Gloucester) and those who held with the king.
One of those who definitely held with the king was Matilda. Just like her cousin Maud, she also had a son to look out for, little Eustace. So when Stephen at times leaned towards leniency, she’d prod him into action, reminding him it wasn’t only his future that was at stake, it was their future, the future of their children.
That her husband trusted her abilities implicitly was made very clear in 1138, when Matilda was dispatched to handle the rebellions in Kent. Later that same year, she was entrusted with brokering a peace with Scotland—in general, 1138 was a bad, bad year for Stephen, what with rebellions in Kent, the Scots attacking from the north, Robert of Gloucester declaring for Maud, and Geoffrey of Anjou harassing Normandy.
Stephen was an impressive fighter, preferring to lead from the front. This is precisely what he did at the Battle of Lincoln in early 1141, but no matter how well he wielded sword and a battle axe, ultimately his forces were overrun by the much larger armies captained by Robert of Gloucester. King Stephen was taken prisoner, and all, it seemed, was now lost.
Matilda succumbed to some moments of desperation. She sent messengers to Maud, pleading that her husband be restored to her, but Maud was no fool and had no intention of releasing Stephen until she’d been properly acclaimed as the ruler of the English. So while Stephen kicked his heels in captivity at Bristol Castle, a triumphant Maud rode for London, there to prepare for her coronation. Like rats on a drowning ship, those who had so far been loyal to Stephen started to defect, including Stephen’s own brother, Henry of Blois.
I have never really liked this Henry (albeit that one must give the man credit for commissioning the Winchester Bible) a self-serving bishop who happily changed sides depending on how it suited him best. In early 1141, he therefore did some major brown-nosing, promising Maud the full support of the church, thereby throwing his own brother overboard.
However, all was not lost. Stephen’s queen was still at large, and after her initial bout of weakness and despair, Matilda regrouped. She was probably helped in this by the fact that Maud had about as much diplomatic skill as an aggressive bull. In a matter of weeks, the haughty and temperamental Empress had alienated not only several members of the nobility, but also the citizens of London. In June of 1141, the Londoners therefore rose on behalf of their king, effectively forcing Maud to flee to Oxford.
At the time, Matilda was in Kent. She may have been a weak female, but she had the heart and guts of a born fighter, and when her husband began to cave in his confinement, agreeing to sign away his crown, Matilda was having none of it. As far as Matilda was concerned, she’d rather be force-fed horse-dung than allow Cousin Maud to plant her backside on the English throne – a sentiment she obviously shared with the Londoners. So Matilda assembled the lieutenants still loyal to her husband and began planning her next steps. Having heard that her husband was held in chains probably served as a major motivator.
This is when Henry of Blois suddenly regretted throwing his brother to the wolves (or maybe he realised just how determined his his sister-in-law was) and renewed his vows of allegiance to the king, his brother. Being a somewhat flamboyant man, Bishop Henry chose to shout his change of allegiance to the world by besieging the royal castle at Winchester. Maud was predictably not pleased by this. In fact, she was seriously enraged and ordered her troops to teach the bishop a lesson.
Upon sighting Maud’s troops, as always led by the loyal and capable Robert of Gloucester, Henry retreated to the episcopal castle on the other side of Winchester. Maud’s troops settled down for a siege, but Matilda was already marching to the rescue, and soon enough the besiegers became the besieged, trapped inside a town with dwindling resources. There was nothing to do but retreat, Robert told Maud, probably going on to say something along the lines of “better live to fight another day.”
If Robert had hoped they’d be allowed to retreat in an orderly fashion, he’d thought wrong. Someone had clearly underestimated Matilda and her loyal second-in-command William of Ypres. No sooner did Maud’s armies begin to pull out from Winchester in good order, but they were attacked by Matilda’s forces. It became something of a rout, with Maud escaping by the skin of her teeth. Not so Robert of Gloucester, who was taken prisoner and hauled before a delighted Matilda. At last the bargaining chip she needed to free her husband!
It took several months of negotiations to broker the agreement whereby Robert was exchanged for Stephen, but by Christmas of 1141 Stephen was reunited with his loyal wife. This did not end the strife, and over the coming years England lived in a state of constant chaos as men loyal to one side or the other clashed. But in 1147, Robert of Gloucester died, and without her stalwart champion Maud felt obliged to retire to Anjou—for now.
Stephen and Matilda enjoyed some years of relative peace, but in 1152 Matilda was struck down by a fever and died. By all accounts, her husband was devastated, left rudderless—at least for a while—by the loss of his dear wife.
When Stephen’s son, Eustace, died a year or so later, it seems Stephen lost all motivation to continue defending his crown. So when the young, red-haired and extremely energetic and capable Henry FitzEmpress landed in England, determined to fight for the crown that belonged to him, Stephen did not exactly charge out to meet him in battle. Truth be told, the barons of England were so sick and tired of all this strife they more or less refused to fight, telling Henry and Stephen they should get over things and negotiate a final solution to this whole mess.
After months of back and forth Henry and Stephen arrived at an arrangement: Stephen would keep his crown, but upon his death Henry would inherit it, not Stephen’s surviving son or his equally surviving daughter (Somehow, I don’t think the daughter figured all that much in these negotiations seeing as she was a nun and very happy being one, thank you very much. That would soon change, though…Future post, people).
And so, finally, England was at peace again. Stephen could at last relax and savour his kingship—a somewhat sour experience, seeing as he had neither his beloved wife nor his heir with which to savour it. Maybe that’s why he died in 1154, thereby bringing to end one of the more dismal reigns in English history. And maybe, in retrospect, it was a good thing that Matilda died when she did. Somehow, I don’t think this brave lady would have allowed her husband to come to terms with young Henry—not as long as they had a living son. And that, dear peeps, would not have been good for England, no matter how admirable Matilda’s loyalty and determination was.