“Get thee to a nunnery” – in reverse
In medieval times, women who had no desire to marry and risk the uncertainties of childbirth had the option of becoming a nun – well, assuming their father was amenable to the idea. In some cases, women who had every desire to marry and have babies still ended up as nuns, usually because their father felt this was a good idea. Some girls ended up forcibly veiled, i.e. they were immured in a convent so as to get rid of them. Such was the fate of Llewellyn the Last’s daughter Gwenllian of Wales, whom Edward I locked away with the nuns at Sempringham Priory. Such was the fate of Hugh Despenser’s three young daughters, who in 1327 were sent off to three different convents and there veiled, thereby removing them for ever from the marital market.
Sometimes, however, a nun ended up being a marital pawn no matter what vows she had taken. At times, it may have been the nun herself who regretted her choices and absconded (but it was a serious, serious offence to take up with an ex-nun, so she’d have to work hard at keeping her identity secret). Or, in some cases, the nun in question ended up being the sole heiress to lands and wealth, thereby attracting ambitious suitors who were willing to risk the opprobrium of the church to feather their nests.
Marie of Blois is one of those nuns, and somewhat ironically she is also one of those little girls who was destined for the cloisters already as a young child. Her parents, King Stephen of England and Matilda of Boulogne, were devout and what better gift to God than their own precious child?
Little Marie was accordingly placed in a convent, and whether she was delighted at the idea or not was neither here nor there. Besides, the girl seems to have adapted well enough, and by the time her father died in 1154, she was about twenty years old and the Abbess of Romsey. Had things gone according to plan, likely Marie would have remained there for the rest of her life, capably managing her little universe.
Fate, however, had other plans. Marie had one surviving brother, William, who swallowed his pride, submitted to Henry II, and was rewarded with a nice heiress as his consolation price. Seeing as William could have insisted the English crown was his – the previous king, Stephen, was his father – the Earldom of Warenne was a cheap price for Henry II to pay so as to ensure peace in his new realm.
William died in 1160—childless. In one fell swoop, Abbess Marie became a major landowner, inheriting the substantial Boulogne lands that came from her mother. Having said lands under the control of a woman sat somewhat uncomfortably with Henry II, who preferred his lords to be adequately beholden to him for their fiefs and grants. Besides, what was a woman—and a nun to boot—to do with all that wealth, all that power?
Henry wasn’t the only one thinking along those lines. One of those considering the possibilities offered by William’s demise was Matthew of Alsace, younger son to the Count of Flanders. Being a man of action (and I suspect Henry II gave him a discreet go-ahead) Matthew decided to make a grab for the prize in the literal sense. Marie, Abbess of Romsey, was therefore forcibly abducted in 1160 and carried off by Matthew who was determined to make her his wife.
Most contemporary sources are of the opinion that Marie was not at all delighted by this turn of events—rather the reverse. One source tells us she was raring to go, panting eagerly at the thought of finally having a man in her bed. Whether willingly or not, soon enough she was wed and the wedding consummated, as demonstrated by the birth of a daughter, Ida, in 1160/61. I’m thinking Marie derived some pleasure from presenting her husband with a girl and not a boy, but truth be told I have no idea what her feelings were for Matthew. She seems to have actively disliked Henry II, thereby indicating he did more than give Matthew a discreet go-ahead, this despite the fact that abducting an abbess was a serious breach of canon law. So serious, in fact, that Matthew was placed under interdict. But hey, why wait for heavenly rewards when earthly rewards are ripe for the taking?
I suppose a marriage that began with an abduction was not destined to be successful. Or maybe it was – after all, we don’t know if Marie stayed with Matthew because she had nowhere else to go or because she started developing warmer feelings for him. Whatever her thoughts, the Church was not about to let this go: a nun had promised herself to Christ, and unless she received a papal dispensation, those vows were binding unto death.
There was no papal dispensation—or at least we can’t find any records of one. Besides, would the Church have kept up the pressure had there been one? But keep up the pressure they did, and by 1170, Matthew’s father was beginning to have serious fears for his son’s eternal soul. So much so, in fact, that the ailing Count of Flanders urged Matthew to accept the Church’s demands that the marriage be annulled.
Suddenly, Marie was neither married nor a nun. The man who had once imperilled his own soul—and hers—no longer wanted her enough to risk the Church’s wrath. Poor Marie was in limbo, but the Church offered to welcome her back, and whether this was what she wanted (she had just been delivered of a little girl, so one would have thought she might have wanted to stay with her baby) this was what she did. Obviously, her forays into the outside world had left her religious reputation somewhat tarnished, which meant Marie returned to her cloistered life as a plain nun. Not for her the lofty station of abbess, not anymore.
As to Matthew, he continued to rule Boulogne, now on behalf of his eldest daughter, Ida. I’m betting there’d been some horse-trading behind the scenes, along the lines of “I can send my wife back to the convent, but my daughters must be declared legitimate”. After all, this was what Matthew had always wanted: to pass Boulogne down to his heirs. Yes, he’d have preferred male heirs, but any heirs were better than no heirs, right?
Ensuring her children were recognised as legitimate was probably very important for Marie as well, and the Church had no beef with little Ida or baby Matilda, so agreeing to this was no hardship.
Matthew died in 1173. Marie remained in her convent, and her daughters were raised by their paternal uncle, the new Count of Flanders. In 1182, Marie died, no doubt relieved to know her eldest daughter was already safely married. Not for her Ida an existence as tumultuous as her own, Marie probably thought, sending off a prayer or two of gratitude to God for having arranged it thus. Turns out all that gratitude was premature, as soon enough Ida of Boulogne’s private life would eclipse her mother’s. But that, I think, is a subject for another day, as otherwise this post would become far too long!