Sunday 7 November 2010

The Other Queen: The Life of Matilda of Boulogne, Queen of England

"In many ways, Matilda of Boulogne was a model consort. As a regent, diplomat, warrior, counsellor and mother, she occupies a position alongside her predecessors Matilda of Scotland and Matilda of Flanders, at the apogee of English queenship, after which many historians concur that the power invested in the office began to decline ... Matilda's husband is one of the great, if misunderstood, failures of English kingship. Matilda herself, though, was never anything less than a great queen." 
- Lisa Hilton, Queens Consort: England's Medieval Queens (2008)

Author's Note

Firstly, a note of apology for having taken so long to write and upload the fourth instalment in this blog’s “Queens of England” series. The last update – “The Fair Maid of Brabant” – chronicling the life of Adeliza of Louvain was posted on August 31st, over two months ago. With writing the sequel to Popular and working on various scripts and my Masters degree in Medieval History, things have rather gotten away from me. This post – the life of Adeliza’s successor (although Adeliza never really regarded her as such) – is the last post chronicling the lives of the queens of the House of Normandy, which ruled England from 1066 to 1154. In terms of time, it was a short dynastic reign; in terms of importance, vast. After this, I shall be posting on the House of Normandy’s genealogy and then moving onto the queens of the House of Plantagenet, who reigned from 1154 to 1399. 

Secondly, a note on structure. Just as the names Eleanor and Isabella were to dominate the lists of their immediate successors, the name Matilda was very much the preferred name of the queens of the Anglo-Norman empire. In fact, with the exception of the decorous Adeliza of Louvain, every Anglo-Norman queen bore the name of Matilda. In part, this was because the British-Norman elite was a relatively tiny and close-knit group. Its first queen, Matilda of Flanders, stood as godmother to her future daughter-in-law and successor, who was thus also named Matilda, in her honour. This Matilda (of Scotland), in turn, stood as godmother to this queen, her niece Matilda of Boulogne. All this would potentially be complicated enough from a narrative point-of-view were it not for the fact that for the entirety of Matilda of Boulogne’s time as queen, her life was fatally intertwined with that of her cousin, also named Matilda (herself the daughter of Matilda of Scotland). At the very same time as Matilda of Boulogne claimed to be the true queen-consort of England, her cousin was claiming to be the true queen-regnant. Needless to say, neither acknowledged the legitimacy of the other’s claim. The two Matildas were intimately aware of one another, but from the perspective of telling their story, having two Matildas appearing so frequently in the text is going to be distracting. Luckily, their world was bi- and sometimes even tri-lingual. “Matilda” was the European version of their name, but their Anglo-Saxon subjects preferred to render it by its more traditional usage – “Maud.” This chapter in the series focuses primarily on the life of Matilda of Boulogne, a French heiress married to the prince who controversially seized the throne of England in 1135 and became known as “King Stephen.” Their cousin and rival, who claimed to be the true inheritor of the English crown, was an English princess and the widow of the German Emperor. She will thus be referred to either as “the Empress” or by the Anglo-Saxon variant of her name, “Maud.”

In the Year of Grace, 1135
The mystic’s eyes gleamed with certainty as he pronounced his prophecy. It is always difficult to tell where the fire of spiritual surety springs from – either a religious gift or a mental imbalance. But the hermit need not have worried; the prince standing before him was a pious soul, much more inclined to see the old man’s mutterings as visionary, rather than insane. It was a dangerous time in England, dangerous, even, for the prince to be consulting the hermit about the matter in question. An old and sick man, who had long outlived the sons of his first marriage, was sitting upon the throne; his queen, beautiful and charming, was barren. After over a decade of marriage, she had produced no children to replace those lost years ago in a catastrophic shipwreck off the coast of Normandy. A crisis of the succession was brewing, just as surely as there was a God in Heaven. Recently, the King’s only surviving legitimate child - a daughter - had recently been made a widow by the death of the German Emperor. In her widowhood, she had returned to her father’s realm, which placed her back in play as viable contender for the succession. Certainly, it seemed to be the old king’s wish to leave his crown to his imperial daughter. But within the elite of his kingdoms in England and Normandy, there were many great lords who said that for them to be ruled over by a woman would be an abomination. They said that the true heir was not the King’s daughter, but his nephew, Stephen.

It was that prince, Stephen, who now stood before the old man, who years earlier had eschewed the vanities of the world and retreated into a life of religious seclusion and poverty where, it was said, the angels had endowed him with the dubious gift of prophecy. The Hermit fixed his rheumy eyes upon the prince who, despite his quiet and chivalrous exterior, wanted so desperately to take the throne of England when his aged uncle at last died. The holy man spoke: the Queen would remain barren. It had been ordained by Heaven that no child would quicken the womb of Adeliza of Louvain, whilst the Crown of England still sat upon her head. The King would not die in England, the monk said next, but rather in his possessions beyond the sea – in Normandy, the land of his ancestors. Finally, he concluded the prophecy by giving the prince the news he had been so desperate to hear – the Empress would not sit upon the throne when her father died. England and Normandy would pass instead to Stephen. Infused by an intoxicating mixture of piety and ambition, Stephen received the hermit’s blessing and hurried swiftly from the dank cave where the holy man chose to worship Christ in solitude and suffering. 

A grandson of William the Conqueror on his mother’s side, Stephen of Blois had been dispatched across the Channel to make his fortune in England when his father’s territories in modern-day France had been given to his two elder brothers, following their father’s death on Crusade. He had begun by enlisting in the army and by virtue of his exemplary military bravery and skill, he had won both the approval (and even the affection) of his notoriously difficult uncle, King Henry I. Now, he was not just one of the major land-owners in his uncle’s domains, but also, according to the hermit, God’s chosen inheritor of the royal crown. Exultant at the prophet’s vision, Prince Stephen thundered back to London on horseback to bring this secret news to his wife – a woman apt to believe in religious visions and the pronouncements of self-styled saints. And a woman who believed, with equal certainty, that it was her husband’s destiny to be the next King of England.

She was not beautiful, or even pretty, but what she lacked in looks Matilda of Boulogne more than made-up for in charm and intellect. The only child and heiress of a French feudal lord and his wife, a Princess of Scotland, the destiny of this young French heiress had always seemed to be tied to England. Her mother Mary was the King of England’s sister-in-law, having been the sister of his first wife, Matilda of Scotland, now long-dead. Countess Mary had christened her only daughter in honour of her royal aunt, who had also stood as godmother to the child, and it therefore seemed natural that when the time came Mary had dispatched her daughter across the Channel to receive an English education, just as she herself had once done years earlier, in the convents of Wilton and Romsey.

With her English education, impeccable blood-line and vast inheritance, King Henry saw Matilda as the perfect wife for his new favourite nephew. Perhaps sentiment too played a part in the King’s match-making since, despite his marriage to Adeliza, the true love of the King’s life remained the dead Matilda of Scotland, young Matilda’s aunt. A marriage between Stephen and Matilda would thus unite two of the branches of the extended royal family in holy matrimony; more importantly, at the time the marriage was planned, his son and heir was dead and his daughter married in far-off Germany. King Henry was thus more and more forced to consider the idea that Stephen might one day have to succeed him. If this was the case, Stephen would need to be the possessor of vast estates, in both England and Normandy beforehand, so that he might already be known to the aristocracy as a man of importance before he became their king. 

In this scenario, Matilda of Boulogne made sense as a bride and future queen for Stephen. During the negotiations, the King reached an agreement with Matilda’s father, the pious Count Eustace of Boulogne, by which England would guarantee the political independence of Boulogne, if Stephen would be allowed to inherit it suo uxoris (in the right of his wife.) Believing that a woman could not in her own right without the protection of her husband, Eustace agreed to this clause, and, to King Henry and Stephen’s delight, he also decided to speed up this transition of power by abdicating, so that he could fulfil a life-long dream of taking holy vows and retiring to a Cluniac monastery, to live-out the rest of his life in Christian seclusion.

Matilda and her father bid an emotional farewell to each other, shortly before her marriage to Stephen. Herself an intensely religious woman, she did not criticise her father for his decision to renounce the world. Indeed, she is far more likely to have envied him. With her father now removed from the secular world entirely, Matilda’s defender and master was her new husband, Stephen, Count of Mortain and Count of Boulogne. 

Scottish actor, Tony Curran, as Matilda's husband Stephen in the 2010 television series "The Pillars of the Earth"
As Matilda settled down to married life, she must initially have been fairly optimistic about her prospects of becoming the next queen, just as her Scottish aunt had been before her. With every year that Adeliza remained childless, Stephen and Matilda’s chances of inheriting the crown became proportionally higher. That was until a death in what is today the Netherlands totally altered the political reality of England’s royal family, in a way less dramatic but not much less profound than the shipwreck of 1120. The Holy Roman Emperor Heinrich V had died, leaving his wife, King Henry’s daughter Maud, a childless widow. With the former empress now freed from any concerns in central Europe, she could be brought home to England where, if her father so desired it, she could become the first queen-regnant in English history. All of a sudden, the Empress was a viable candidate for the succession and Stephen’s eventual triumph seemed a good deal less certain. By the strictures of primogeniture, Maud was, in fact, the clear first choice if King Henry failed to produce a son with Queen Adeliza.

For some time, the King certainly seemed to favour the arguments of primogeniture, rather than inheritance through the male line. He now gave very clear signs that he wanted Maud to succeed him when he died, not Stephen. In 1127, he summoned the leaders of Church and State to his magnificent castle at Windsor where he ‘caused archbishops and bishops and abbots and earls and all the thegns that were there to swear to give England and Normandy after his death into the hand of his daughter’. The first to swear was the King of Scots, David, a mutual uncle of both Maud and Matilda’s (it should be remember that as well as being Stephen’s cousin on her father’s side, the Empress was also Matilda’s cousin, since their Scottish mothers had been sisters.) After the Scottish king, Stephen also swore in the presence of his uncle, the Queen, the Empress and the great and good of the Anglo-Norman Empire that, when the time came, he too would defend Maud’s right to succeed to the throne. For such a religious man, he seems to have taken that oath relatively lightly. 

With the former Empress now apparently sworn-in as Heiress-Apparent, the next thing to do was to get her in foal. Her marriage to the late Emperor Heinrich had been childless, but with the marriage of the King and Queen likewise afflicted, it would not do for both generations of the House of Normandy to be seen as barren. The ever-present and unhelpful mutterings about a curse were likely to begin. The Empress would have to be married again and to a man of her father’s choosing. 

The Empress, a vigorous and proud woman, was infuriated when she was placed into an arranged marriage with Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, one of the great French feudal lords, but a man ten years her junior who certainly did not carry the grand imperial rank of her first husband. Politically useful in defending the borders of her father’s territories in Europe, the marriage between Maud and Geoffrey ironically ended-up crippling her apparently unassailable claim to the English throne because, once again, she had to leave London and cross the sea to be with her husband. Time would tell what a costly mistake that move would be.

The two Matildas – cousins and rivals – were not just competing for the monarchy, but also for motherhood. Geoffrey and Maud immediately seemed to prove King Henry’s faith in them by producing two sons in quick succession – Henry and Geoffrey. Meanwhile, Stephen and Matilda had become the parents of four children – Baldwin, Eustace, William and Matilda. Both couples had thus produced both an heir and a spare; both were therefore equally desirable when it came to being pre-prepared with the ideal royal family. Had it not been for the King’s clear preference for Maud as heiress-designate, it would have been impossible to say which candidate had the stronger pragmatic claim to the royal inheritance. 

However, by the time of the hermit’s prophecy in the dying days of his reign, Henry I made the criminally stupid mistake of seeming to hesitate about who to leave the crown to, after nearly a decade of having seemed determined on everything going to Maud when he died. Perhaps he was concerned that the Empress’s strident personality would alienate the great magnates, who were unwilling to accept in a woman characteristics they would praise in a man. Perhaps he panicked that with her gender, the Empress would be unable to hold both England and Normandy and that her succession would thus help destroy the empire his father had built at Hastings. He had also come to dislike the husband he had picked for his daughter and it is possible that his blood boiled at the idea of handing everything over to Geoffrey, who might be able to exert as much control over Maud’s inheritance as Stephen had done over Matilda’s. Or maybe the King’s hesitation was completely inflated later, by chroniclers anxious to justify what Stephen did next.

On the first day of December 1135, Henry I died after a reign of thirty-five years. He died in Normandy, just as the hermit had foretold and the news was brought to Stephen and Matilda, who were currently visiting her homeland of Boulogne. Geoffrey and the Empress, too, were on the Continent and at a geographical disadvantage, being in Anjou, when they were formally notified that her father the King had died. 

Seizing advantage of the uncertainty within the ruling classes, Stephen made a mad dash for England, taking only a few loyal attendants with him. He reached London before the Empress had even had time to properly react to her father’s death and by the end of the week, while the Royal Household was still arranging Henry I’s funeral, Stephen had himself proclaimed King of England and Duke of Normandy. On December 22nd, exactly three weeks after Henry’s death, Stephen was solemnly crowned in Westminster Abbey. It had been a swift and bloodless coup. So far.

Exultant at her husband’s triumph, Matilda joined him in England once the situation was declared safe enough for her and the children to travel. She received her own coronation at Westminster, during the festivities for Easter 1136. Following this, the new Royal Family relocated to Oxford, where they held a magnificent summer Court, inviting the most powerful lords in England and Normandy to declare their loyalty to the new regime. An impressed Henry of Huntingdon recorded that the message of splendour and security sent out by the new King and Queen could not have been any clearer. Oxford was a triumph and in the entire history of royal courts in England, ‘never was there one to exceed it in numbers, in greatness, in gold, silver, gems, costume and in all manners of entertainments.’ Sitting next to his parents, Eustace was prominently displayed to highlight the fact that – unlike the last reign – this time the succession was secure. In this heady and glittering atmosphere of triumph, the news arrived that the Pope, Innocent II, recognising political reality when he saw it, had declared his own support for the legitimacy of King Stephen’s new rule. One by one, the Empress’s supporters fell by the wayside – even her uncle, the King of Scotland, eventually switched his allegiance to Stephen and Matilda, apparently being persuaded by the entreaties of Matilda herself who, like the Empress, was also his niece and deserving of his support.

As the Empress (left) sat stunned, devastated and pregnant in Anjou, it seemed that Stephen had won and won completely. In the immediate aftermath of the coup of 1135, the new King could get on with the business of ruling, whilst the Queen settled into her new position as first lady of the Royal Court. Maud seemed like an irritant, not a dilemma. The couple were soon joined by their fifth and final child, Mary, born in the year after her father’s accession to the throne. 

In every way apart from their rather unsavoury seizure of the throne, Stephen and Matilda were the ideal medieval royal couple. Stephen was a brave warrior, handsome, physically fit and devoted to the rules of chivalry; Matilda, whilst not beautiful, was dignified, tactful, gracious and intelligent. Both of them were also faithful to their marriage vows – expected in a queen, but truly remarkable in a king. Prior to his marriage, Stephen had enjoyed a long-term relationship with an unmarried commoner in Normandy, which had resulted in the birth of an illegitimate son called Gervaise. After marrying Matilda, Stephen had immediately broken-off this affair, but he had honourably continued to maintain his former lover, meet her bills and help their son where and when appropriate. After marriage, there were no more mistresses. Stephen took the fidelity clause in his marriage vows very seriously, in stark contrast to his late uncle, who had fathered over two dozen illegitimate children with a string of mistresses during the course of his two marriages. 

Aside from being devoted to each other, Stephen and Matilda were also devoted to God. Both were the products of deeply pious upbringings – Stephen’s father had died on Crusade, his mother was active in founding religious houses and preparing reliquaries to house the relics of the saints; Matilda’s father had spent the last years of his life as a Cluniac monk and her mother had insisted that Matilda receive a convent education in England. A loving veneration for Christianity was thus something which Stephen and Matilda wove very much into their lives as a couple and as parents. Both were entranced and moved by the twin extremes of medieval piety – on the one hand, the gorgeous theatrical opulence of “high church” worship; on the other, the self-mortifying asceticism of hermits and the emergent anchorite movement. They co-funded the foundation of monasteries and nunneries linked to new, radical continental religious orders. They gave generously to both the Cluniac and Cistercian orders and helped fund the import of the Savignac religious movement to England, paying for the intensely strict monastic sect to establish monasteries in Essex, Lancashire and Devon. Independently of her husband, the Queen regularly went on religious retreat to Holy Trinity Aldgate, which had been founded by her late godmother and aunt, Matilda of Scotland, in the heart of London. She was also an enthusiastic patron of the Templar Knights, a group of warrior-monks who protected and partly financed the goals of the Crusades. Inspired by their mission statement, Matilda paid for the foundation of temples for the order in Essex and Oxfordshire, during which time she struck up a close friendship with the Templars’ Grand Master. As the historian David Crouch noted in his biography of her husband, Matilda’s devotion to the Knights revealed a deep and hidden zeal in the queen’s heart for a more militant form of Christianity: ‘If she could not lead the knights of Christ against the enemies of the Church, she could at least provision them.’ Impressed by her piety, the future saint Bernard of Clairvaux (below), a man so utterly devoted to the Virgin Mary that he became known as her troubadour, wrote to Matilda describing her as ‘the glory of your kingdom’. 

For the first two and a half years after King Henry’s death, these spiritual observances and the lavish splendour of Court life occupied most of the royal couple’s attention. There was also some personal heartache following the birth of their youngest child, Mary, in 1136; at some point, they lost their eldest child, Baldwin (almost certainly before Matilda’s coronation, actually) and then their eldest daughter, Matilda. The children’s bodies were taken to the Queen’s favourite religious house – Holy Trinity Aldgate – where they were buried with funerals at which the King and Queen broke with etiquette by publicly weeping. According to chroniclers, the monks were deeply moved by such an open display of royal grief. By the summer of 1138, however, things were beginning to crumble and the haunting spectre of the Empress’s claim to the throne was felt once again in Stephen and Matilda’s lives.

Following an uncharacteristic moment of hesitation in the wake of her father’s death, the Empress had given birth to her third and final child (another boy), William, Count of Poitou, before sitting down to scheme how she could undo the effects of Stephen’s coup. Since then, she had been working tirelessly to promote her cause by liaising with anyone in Normandy, England, Paris or Rome who might be able to help her. Nor was the 36 year-old Empress simply an embittered and angry woman, living alone with her fantasies of revenge; rather, despite the apparent support for Stephen, there had remained a fairly sizable body of opinion within the Anglo-Norman elite which was unhappy with his seizure of the crown. Chief amongst these dissenters was Henry I’s widow, the Dowager Queen Adeliza, who did not seem to be under any doubt that her stepdaughter had been robbed of her inheritance. Secure in the knowledge that as the second lady of the realm she was practically untouchable, Adeliza continued to send affectionate letters across the Channel to the Empress and her decision to absent herself from Stephen and Matilda’s coronations, and from the Oxford Court, is revealing. Never one to cause a scene, Adeliza was not exactly treasonous or obstreperous in her support for the Empress’s cause, but she was nonetheless quietly persistent. She liked Stephen on a personal level and he clearly liked and respected her, but not once did Adeliza’s opinion waver. Even when she married again, for love, to Lord William d’Aubigné, one of Stephen’s most loyal supporters, her new husband was incapable of making her change her mind or to publicly swear loyalty to Stephen’s régime. The Earl of Gloucester, the late King’s eldest and most powerful illegitimate child, was also unhappy at what had happened; like Adeliza, he seems to have believed that Henry’s wish was that the Empress should succeed him, not Stephen. Enormously rich, a ferocious warrior and politically influential, Gloucester’s sympathy for his half-sister’s cause was increased as the two siblings exchanged letters; by 1138, Gloucester was unable to justify no longer fighting to restore Maud to her rightful place on the throne. (It is certainly interesting in light of Stephenite claims that both Henry I’s widow and his eldest son were quite clear that he had never meant for Stephen to succeed him.) Finally David, King of Scots, had suffered a crisis of conscience, recalling the oath he had sworn in 1127 at Windsor to place his niece Maud on the throne of her ancestors, when the time came. David had been entirely devoted to Maud’s late mother, his sister, and despite the fact that he was also Matilda’s uncle, by virtue of another sister, David seemed to be genuinely torn about which niece had the right to wear the crown – Maud as regnant or Matilda as consort?

In the summer of 1138, the first rebellions against Stephen’s rule broke-out across England, in what was destined to become one of the nation’s most turbulent and unhappy periods. Gloucester and the King of Scots both publicly switched allegiance and embraced the Empress’s cause, with a serious rebellion subsequently breaking-out along the English border with Wales. With Gloucester agitating near Wales and King David preparing to invade from the north, the Empress finally returned to English soil and made for the safety of Arundel Castle, the home of the Dowager Queen Adeliza, who offered her sanctuary and support. Having waited almost three years to reclaim her birthright, the Empress was in no mood to delay further or to show any mercy. As one of Stephen’s supporters begrudgingly wrote of her, she was ‘above feminine softness and had a mind steeled and unbroken in adversity’.

Galvanised by this threat to both her husband’s rule and her son’s inheritance, Matilda sped south to the picturesque county of Kent, where she liaised with her home county of Boulogne to enlist mercenaries and soldiers to come to England and fight for King Stephen’s cause. It was a successful endeavour, which effectively boosted the numbers and morale of the king’s armies; yet, whilst Matilda was enlisting more troops and Stephen was engaging with the rebels in the Welsh Marches, the Scottish armies swept into Yorkshire, opening the war up to the nightmare scenario of at least two theatres of conflict at any one time.

It all might have been over for Stephen and Matilda, as quickly as it had begun, were it not for the fact that King David badly mishandled his military strategy at the Battle of Northallerton, which the Scots lost decisively. Hoping to once again play on family sentiment, Stephen dispatched Matilda north to Durham to negotiate with her uncle and try to persuade him to sign a more permanent peace treaty with England, which would require him to cease supporting Maud’s claim. Matilda, as ever, was charming and cogent; she was certainly persuasive. She achieved her husband’s objectives and a treaty was signed between England and Scotland on April 9th 1139, with Queen Matilda being widely accredited as its chief architect. Still, despite this, Gloucester remained defiant and the Empress still waited behind the walls of Arundel Castle, certain that Adeliza would never abandon her. That year, the Christmas Court, held at Salisbury, was a miserable and quiet event, with both the King and the Queen seeming out of sorts. 

Not long after, Matilda set sail for France with her eldest son, Eustace, for a state visit to Paris. There, they were royally entertained by the young King of France, Louis VII, and his glamorous queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine (who could have foreseen then that she would one day be Matilda’s successor as Queen of England?) Stephen and Matilda were desirous of a marriage between Eustace and King Louis’s younger sister, 15 year-old Princess Constance. A marriage between Eustace and Constance would strengthen Stephen’s claim to royal legitimacy and despite the recent unrest, Louis continued to show himself amenable to the proposed match. Matilda, however, could not help but notice that there were some concerns in Paris about betrothing their princess to an English prince who, very soon, might not even have a royal inheritance. After all, Stephen may have all the trappings of power, but his main rival still lay ensconced within the walls of Arundel Castle, on English soil, with the protection of the second lady of the kingdom and the alleged king seemed powerless to drive her out. By medieval standards, it was an uninspiring spectacle. That being said, Matilda and Eustace’s state visit to Paris was not exactly a disaster. Indeed, it was a success, from the point of view that the betrothal between the two teenagers was eventually formally announced, but the mutterings of concern over her family’s future cannot have filled Matilda with confidence, nor is she likely to have withheld this uncomfortable reaction from Stephen.

In sheltering the Empress at her magnificent castle of Arundel, the Dowager Queen Adeliza’s intentions were not to cause trouble, but rather to heal it. Adeliza felt that her stepdaughter had been robbed of the crown, but she also seems to have been enough of a realist to acknowledge that the realities of power now rested in Stephen’s hands. Moreover, she not only liked Stephen as a man, but she was also married to a Stephenite and if that did not change her own political opinion, it nonetheless must have encouraged Adeliza in her desire to broker a peaceful agreement between both parties. However, despite the direct line of communication running between Stephen and Matilda and the Empress, via Adeliza and her husband, Lord d’Aubigné, there could not be any peaceful resolution for what was essentially a black-and-white issue for the two competing factions – either Maud must reign, or Stephen. A monarch must reign alone and absolutely. There was no obvious middle ground and eventually Stephen’s respect for Adeliza and his affection for d’Aubigné reached its limits. He made it known that he could no longer tolerate the Dowager Queen’s nurturing of the Empress. Stephen was still too chivalrous to make war on a woman like Adeliza, but he insisted that Maud leave the refuge of Arundel Castle. The Empress, surprisingly, accepted Stephen’s offer of safe passage, in which he promised not to molest her movements or capture her during her initial exit from Adeliza’s household. Perhaps it was sympathy for her stepmother and a desire to spare Adeliza any further trouble which prompted Maud to accept the offer, but equally Stephen’s ultimatum may have come at exactly the right time for the Empress. If she was to press on with her claim to the crown, she would need to leave Arundel at some point anyway and begin whipping-up her English supporters. Stephen’s insistence that she part from the protection of the Dowager Queen gave her this opportunity and in the best possible set of circumstances. William d’Aubigné’s relief at the Empress’s departure can be imagined.

Within a month of leaving Arundel, the redoubtable Empress had seized control of the southern marches and the entire Severn Valley. Minor rebellions in her favour broke-out all over the kingdom, with a more serious attack being made on the city of Gloucester by her supporters. Returning from Paris with Eustace in tow, Matilda went straight to the city of Bath in the company of her friend, the Archbishop of Canterbury, to negotiate face-to-face with the empress’s chief military supporter, the earl of Gloucester. Matilda had shown her skills as a diplomat during her negotiations with King David of Scotland and then with King Louis of France, but this time her efforts to broker a peace deal were undercut by her own husband. 

Perhaps infuriated by the consequences of his leniency in allowing the Empress to leave Arundel, Stephen refused to make any serious concessions to her again. At times, he seemed to realise that some kind of productive political summit would have to be held, but the king now seemed more intent on dividing the Empress’s supporters, rather than engaging with her directly. For most of 1140 and right up to the spring of the following year, Stephen’s political actions were a tragically clueless mix of truculence and incompetent hesitancy. At Christmas, he brokered a deal with the Earl of Chester, another major supporter of the Empress, but a month later he changed his mind and reneged on the promises he had made, thereby enraging Chester and driving him even further into Maud’s camp.

The rebellion was now spiralling out of control and more and more bore all the dreaded hallmarks of a civil war. By the time the Feast of Candlemas rolled around in February of 1141, Stephen was preparing to lay siege to the city of Lincoln, a hotbed of support for the Empress. The feast marked the day on which the infant Jesus was formally presented by His mother and stepfather at the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and it thus also marked the day on which the Virgin Mary was formally purified by the rites of the Jewish faith, removing from her the “stain” of childbirth. Thus known variably as Candlemas, the Presentation of Jesus or the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin, the day was one celebrated by a festival of light and candles within Christian churches. Shortly before commencing battle on Lincoln, Stephen dutifully attended Candlemas Mass, only to have his candle break in his hand as he approached the altar. It was viewed by many as an ill-omen and some of his supporters ostentatiously crossed themselves in dread, which cannot exactly have fired the King with confidence as he went into battle. 

If the breaking of his Candlemas candle was indeed an omen, Stephen would have done well to heed it. The battle for Lincoln was the single greatest disaster of his political and military career and one which permanently weakened his once-strong hold on his adopted country. During the battle itself, Stephen fought bravely – he personally wielded an axe against the Empress’s soldiers, before pulling out his sword and engaging in hand-to-hand combat. However, spotting the rival king, one of the Empress’s supporters threw a rock at Stephen’s head. It struck him and he fell down unconscious, which gave the enemy soldiers the chance to drag him off into captivity. It was an ignominious way to be capture and, as Lisa Hilton wryly noted in her 2008 account of the battle, ‘so much for the glamour of chivalry.’ 

Still in the south, Matilda was devastated to hear that her beloved husband had been taken prisoner. On a personal level, it was heartbreaking; on a political level, near-catastrophic. She could not exercise power in Stephen’s absence indefinitely, nor could the Stephenite cause long survive without the presence of their leader and figurehead. The Empress, needless to say, was euphoric. She had achieved precisely what Stephen had failed to do when she was under Adeliza’s protection at Arundel; she had captured the enemy. The two cousins and rivals met at Gloucester, when Stephen was at last brought into the Empress’s presence. The rules of etiquette were observed and all was done with a fair degree of civility, considering everything that had happened since the last time they had met. Now, the man who had stolen her inheritance stood before Maud as a defeated captive. Given what we know of the Empress’s personality, it’s hard to resist hypothesising what a sweet moment this was for her. After the interview, Stephen was taken to the port of Bristol, where he was placed under effective house arrest. It was genteel imprisonment, but imprisonment nonetheless.

As Matilda wept at her husband’s misfortune, the Empress and her entourage moved towards the city of Oxford. It was here that Stephen and Matilda had held their first, magnificent court shortly after Stephen seized the crown and so it was here too that the Empress wanted to make a very grand and pointed statement about who was now in charge. After a very showy display of might in Oxford, she then moved on to Winchester, where she received her first official communication from Matilda since Stephen’s capture. 

Matilda’s messengers bowed as they entered the Empress’s audience chamber and, once given permission to speak, they delivered Matilda’s message to her imperial cousin: she begged with ‘prayer, promises and fair words for the deliverance of her husband’ from prison. Everything – family sentiment, bribery, religious rhetoric – was employed to try and persuade the Empress to release Stephen. How on earth Matilda could have thought this would work is anybody’s guess. After everything that had happened, the Empress would have to have been mind-bogglingly stupid to let Stephen go. When the messengers had finished speaking, she all-but laughed in their face.

The Empress’s triumph and her predictable rejection of Matilda’s plea marked a nadir in Matilda of Boulogne’s life. One of Stephen’s chief supporters, Geoffrey de Mandeville, Earl of Essex, defected and pledged his loyalty to the Empress at Winchester. Even Matilda’s brother-in-law, the Bishop of Winchester, was privately convinced that his brother’s cause was lost and that the best thing to do was to reach some kind of settlement with the Empress. 

Geoffrey’s decision to switch allegiances meant that Matilda and her children were now evicted from their palace in the Tower of London. Haemorrhaging allies, separated from her husband and devoid of any clear idea of what to do next, Matilda and her remaining servants assumed a nomadic existence, journeying slowly towards the southern-most county of Kent, from where it would be possible for the entire family to flee across the Channel, back to Matilda’s home county of Boulogne. 

As the deposed royal family prepared to go into exile, the Empress left Winchester and made a triumphal entry into London, something which was made possible by both Stephen’s imprisonment and the newfound loyalty of men like De Mandeville. Contrary to popular myth, the ex-empress did not have herself proclaimed Queen-Regnant of England – that title was first to be used properly in 1553 – but rather, she adopted the title “Lady of the English.” The Lady-Empress made for the palaces of her girlhood, ensconcing herself in the luxurious royal apartments and understandably revelling in the triumph which so few people thought she would ever achieve. 

However, it was this revelling in her triumph which eventually destroyed it. Maud received yet another message from Matilda, who was still in Kent but certainly gave every sign of planning to leave England, soon. Since she was taking her children back to the continent, Matilda was very much aware of the fact that she would have to make some European provision for Eustace. Stephen and his family still held certain aristocratic titles within the French and Anglo-Norman aristocracy; the latter lay in the Empress’s re-won domains. Matilda asked for a guarantee that Eustace would still be allowed to inherit Stephen’s European estates, when the time came. Perhaps finding it a bit rich that Matilda or Stephen should be lecturing her on the sacred rights of inheritance given what they had done to hers, Maud refused in the rudest terms possible. And in everything she did, the same brusque “manners” were evident. The Empress’s charm offensive was non-existent; her desire for petty vengeance completely over-rode her common sense. She demanded huge amounts of money from the city of London to reward her supporters and reimburse her own coffers. After London’s treachery in supporting Stephen’s theft of her crown in 1135, the Empress took great pleasure in humiliating its civic representatives and rather than show any amount of verbal magnanimity towards her deposed cousins, she gloated obscenely over Stephen’s imprisonment and Matilda’s impending exile. Londoners, then as now, were a feisty bunch and on June 24th, the church bells began to ring backwards – it was the age-old signal for a rebellion. The city rose-up against the Empress and she was forced to flee the palace and the city, having lost (forever) the support of the capital.

All of a sudden, a return to Boulogne no longer seemed like the only sensible option for the beleaguered Matilda. Shrewdly realising not only that the Empress had squandered her advantage but also, crucially, how she had managed to do so, Matilda embarked upon a triumphant exercise in public relations and political strategy. She was grace and charm personified when it came to dealing with those aristocratic lords who had supported Maud and, by this policy of honey rather than vinegar, she won back the crucial support of Geoffrey de Mandeville, now apparently mortified by his decision to support the imperious Lady of the English. The Earl of Pembroke too returned to the Stephenite fold. The support of the two earls for her husband’s cause coincided with another triumph for Matilda’s family when their loyal subject, the Earl of Warenne, captured the Empress’s half-brother and greatest supporter, the Earl of Gloucester. Without Gloucester’s presence to lead them, Maud’s cause was now almost as lost as Stephen’s was.

Matilda immediately realised that keeping Gloucester prisoner was not a long-term possibility. Gloucester was a bargaining chip, not a prize. Carrying the culture of female intercession to its limits, she travelled to negotiate in person with Gloucester’s wife, Countess Mabel. The most logical thing to do for both sides was to arrange an exchange – Stephen for Gloucester. And between them, Matilda and Mabel hammered out the details. The exchange would take place at Winchester and, during it, Stephen and Gloucester even managed to indulge in what Victorians would have recognised as the curiously “cricket mentality” of the English upper-classes. Despite their bloody feud, the two men stopped to have a polite chat, with both insisting that the other should not take the war personally.

For a moment, it looked as if Matilda had every reason to see 1142 as a year of personal victory. She was once again reunited with the husband she adored and the Empress had been dislodged from London. But, the Stephenite régime were never again to recapture the old sureties of when it had first come to power. Despite the débâcle of her time in London, the Empress’s cause was still strong and with the release of Gloucester, the war showed absolutely no sign of desisting. Indeed, the Empress seemed to be preparing to take the fight into the next generation and she had her eldest son, Henry, brought over from Anjou to commence his training at her side. If she could not wrest the throne from Stephen, she would make damn sure Henry would wrest it from Eustace. 

On a personal and political level, Matilda also had to cope with disasters in the two areas of her life which mattered most to her – faith and family. The new Pope, Celestine II (left), qualified the papacy’s earlier support for Stephen by saying that the Curia recognised Stephen as de facto sovereign, not necessarily as the de jure heir of Henry I. It was not exactly a lethal blow, but it was a subtle indicator that the papacy was no longer sure of who was going to win in England and it didn’t want to alienate the Empress, in case she ever again came as close to holding the throne as she had in London. To make matters worse at this moment, when they so desperately needed clear and firm leadership, Stephen was suffering a nervous breakdown. 

Despite the apparent bonhomie displayed upon his release, especially his banter with the earl of Gloucester, it was clear that his spell as a hostage had left long-term scars on King Stephen’s mental health. Perhaps, in part, the chronic depression Stephen suffered from throughout 1142 was caused more by the sheer exhaustion of a civil war which showed no sign of ending, but the humiliation of having been Maud’s prisoner must certainly have played its part in the inertia and misery the once-energetic Stephen displayed during this crucial phase of his career. Unsurprisingly, he came to rely more and more on Matilda, who struggled on valiantly to cover-up the signs that all was not well with her husband. Like Marguerite of Anjou and Marie-Antoinette in centuries to come, Matilda of Boulogne was stuck with the unenviable task of being on the one hand a queen in a monarchy under siege, but on the other being the naturally devastated wife of a man struggling with depression. At one point, the king’s depression became so severe that at York, a great army had to be sent home because the king quite simply couldn’t decide what to do with them. It was a devastating fusion of personal and political unhappiness for Matilda.

Not long after the King’s breakdown at York, she travelled home to Boulogne to try and raise money and men to fight for her husband’s cause. In the warm summer air of Boulogne, the blood and mess and stress of England and its hideous war must have seemed very far away. But Matilda could not stay away for long; Stephen bungled yet another opportunity in the autumn, when he laid siege to Oxford, where the Empress had set-up camp. By December, when the countryside was coated in snow, Maud sensed an opportunity to evade her cousin’s armies. Dressed all in white in the dead of night, she scaled the city walls and, blending into the snow, fled under cover of darkness to nearby Abingdon. Whatever else one could say of the Empress, she clearly did not lack bravery and audacity.

The brutal, bloody and internecine civil war dragged on – with the Empress still at liberty and still capable of inspiring loyalty, whilst Stephen chased her around from siege-to-siege, sometimes lethargically, other times with flashes of the old vigour. The west of the country remained predominantly in the Empress’s control and parts of the English empire on the continent also fell to her armies, when the splendid Norman city of Rouen was captured by her husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, in 1144. 

Whilst the war raged and Stephen pursued his tenacious cousin, Matilda remained in and around the capital, where she issued charters and took care of the day-to-day matters of government. She managed to hold the capital and to maintain some appearance of normality, but the war did not stop. The misery in the countryside and of the people of all social classes was palpable. The effects on the economy were predictably dire. The violence became sickening and exhaustive. The entire nation seemed to be suffering from the same kind of collective malaise which afflicted the King’s own spirits. They were, quite simply, exhausted by the war and exhausted by suffering. There was a grim joke in England in the 1140s that Christ and His saints must have decided to go to sleep, since they clearly were not answering anybody’s prayers anymore.

Even the other major leaders of the war effort eventually seemed to reach the kind of fatigue of spirit which had first broken King Stephen. Worn out by his military escapades, the Earl of Gloucester died in October of 1147. Bereft at her half-brother’s death and lost without his military support, the Empress could no longer face the perpetual flight, fight and relocation which was now the staple of her existence. A few months after Gloucester’s death, she crossed the Channel to return ‘to the haven of her husband’s protection’. The marriage of the Empress Maud and Geoffrey of Anjou was hardly a love match but, at the very least, they were always when they needed each other. 

With Gloucester dead and the Empress back in Europe, for almost two years Stephen and Matilda were able to relax, as much as was possible. For a time, the absence of the war, which had so long dominated her life, seemed to make Matilda almost giddy with happiness. She entertained wild and impossible ideas like going on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, with Stephen, of course. Realising the political impossibility of this idea, the queen did enjoy going on prolonged religious retreat to the monastery of Saint Augustine in Canterbury. The community there was largely silent and, every now and then, the queen would find herself in the need of some secular diversions and return to the Court in London. Still, for a pious woman, being able to spend such time free and unmolested by concerns in a religious environment must have been a cherished respite to the difficulties of the last decade. 

But, of course, the respite was only temporary. Brewing on the horizon was yet another crisis in the long history of crises which had beset the royal family ever since Henry I’s death a dozen years earlier and one which only the Empress had apparently been shrewd enough to foresee in the first place. Despite her own failure to secure the throne, many people firmly believed that the next king should be Maud’s eldest son, Henry Plantagenet. Even those who had supported Stephen’s kingship had only done so because they objected to the Empress ruling in her own right as a woman, rather than because they wanted to disinherit her entire branch of the family. 

Tall, handsome, brave and ruthless, Henry Plantagenet landed in England less than two years after his mother had left it. He travelled to Devizes, where he held court, and where he received the official backing of the Scottish Royal Family, who felt, as many did, that Stephen’s kingship was a temporary measure. For Stephen to rule was acceptable, but for him to pass the crown onto Eustace was not. Bit by bit, Matilda came to the heartbreaking realisation that it had all been for nothing – no-one wanted to see the war carry on into the next generation. Not only had Matilda’s uncle, the King of Scotland, refused to support her son’s inheritance of the English crown, but her old and dear friend, the Archbishop of Canterbury, told her in no uncertain terms that, as much as he loved her and admired Stephen, for Eustace to take the crown after Stephen’s death was morally indefensible. Neither he, nor any cleric under his jurisdiction, would participate in his coronation. The new Pope, Eugene III, concurred with his predecessors Celestine II and Lucius II, in only referring to Stephen’s kingship in terms of it being de facto, rather than the crucial de jure. The French Royal Family also seemed reluctant to renew their alliance with Stephen’s family, as Matilda witnessed first-hand when she travelled to Paris to negotiate there, once again. Eustace, naturally enough, was infuriated at all this and, with his father’s blessing, he garrisoned the old stomping ground of Oxford and the two heirs-apparent to England’s throne engaged in several minor skirmishes with one another, both attempting to establish a reputation for military prowess which would certainly help their claims to the throne. Attempting to back-up Eustace’s military campaign against Henry Plantagenet with political legitimacy, Stephen forced the great lords and magnate to swear an oath in which they promised to defend Eustace’s succession to the crown. But he, of all people, knew exactly what such oaths were worth.

 Hedingham Castle - the site of Queen Matilda's death

In the aftermath of the magnates’ oath, an exhausted Matilda took some time off to spend a short holiday at Hedingham Castle (above), the home of one of her closest friends, Euphemia, Countess of Oxford. There, the Queen and Lady Euphemia enjoyed the spring weather before, suddenly, the Queen’s health collapsed and her confessor, Prior Ralph, was summoned from the Priory of Holy Trinity Aldgate. What exactly killed Matilda of Boulogne is a mystery, given the paucity of medieval records; we do not even know how long her health had been affected and if her visit to Hedingham was designed to give the Queen some time to recover from her illness in the company of a friend. As it was, there was just enough time for Prior Ralph to make it to Hedingham to deliver the Last Rites before Matilda, Countess of Boulogne and Queen of England died on May 3rd 1152. She had not yet reached her fiftieth birthday.

Stephen and Eustace were both devastated by her death and even those who had opposed her husband’s kingship could publicly mourn the late queen’s death. In the course of her political career, she had exhibited great dignity and charm, as well as magnanimity, diplomacy and mercy. She was also commendably and determinedly loyal to her immediate family, as well as intelligent, devout and one of the greatest political and diplomatic negotiators of the 12th century. Yet, there can be little doubt that Matilda of Boulogne colluded in a coup of doubtful legitimacy and became one of its greatest supporters and figureheads. Her actions and, more specifically, those of her husband, were eventually to destroy not only their own lives, but that of their children and thousands of their subjects also. That she may actually have believed in Stephen’s destiny to be king, rather than Maud’s, is entirely possible – after all, she had gladly acquiesced to Stephen ruling Boulogne in her name on precisely the same grounds that she had supported Maud’s exclusion from the English throne. Their gender. Maybe she did genuinely believe that Stephen’s gender made him fit to rule over both her inheritance and Maud’s. Maybe she believed in the divine origins of the hermit’s prophecy. Or maybe, like so many of us, she could persuade herself she believed all these things because it was to her advantage to do so. Alas, we shall never know.

As a character and even as a politician, Matilda was undoubtedly preferable to her cousin Maud, but a terrible decision had been made – or rather, made for her – when Stephen seized the throne upon his uncle’s death. After 1135, there was no escaping from the fall-out of the usurpation. Like the sword of Damocles, the consequences of it overshadowed the rest of Stephen and Matilda’s life. No wonder then that, at times, the queen seemed to seek refuge in prolonged religious retreats or country house visits far-away from court. By the time of her death, she was certainly an exhausted woman. 

In the end, as Matilda had feared, it all had been for nothing. Nature conspired to assist politics in destroying forever the ambitions of Matilda’s family. Her eldest son Eustace died fourteen months after his mother, aged about twenty-three. Strong-willed but far less popular than either of his parents, Eustace’s death was greeted with ill-disguised relief by most of his compatriots. For providentialists, it seemed as if God had saved the monarchy from a second generation of crisis by striking the rival claimant down and paving the way for the Plantagenets to take the throne. Only Maud’s son Henry now remained as a serious candidate for the succession. There was nobody else left. The civil war would not return. Stephen now had nothing left to fight for and three months after his son’s death, he signed the Winchester Agreement. Under its terms, Henry was recognised as the uncontested heir to Stephen’s throne; Stephen could hold the crown until his death and his only surviving son, William, would be well provided for. It was all a very quiet end to a bloody family conflict. The only victory Stephen could now claim was that he had managed, at the last, to keep the crown out of the hands of Maud. Like Eustace, she would never wear it either.

Eleven months later, in the town of Dover, the King’s bowels began to haemorrhage. The Archbishop of Canterbury and Matilda’s old confessor, Prior Ralph, rushed to the dying monarch’s bedside, where he passed away on October 25th 1154. His body was conveyed to Faversham Abbey, an institution which he and his queen had founded, as they had founded so many. There, Stephen of Blois, sometime King of England, was laid to rest next to his son, Eustace, and his queen, Matilda of Boulogne, described by one contemporary as having shown the astuti pectoris virilisque constantiae femina – ‘the virile courage of a man, the loyalty of a woman’. Whatever else one might think of her husband’s claim to the throne, Matilda of Boulogne was one of the most energetic and gracious of England’s medieval queens. 

© Gareth Russell

Recommended Further Reading

The Empress Matilda by Marjorie Chibnall
Letters of the Queens of England edited by Anne Crawford
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett


  1. Thank you for this. Well worth the wait.

  2. Thank you very much, Elena Maria. I'm so glad you liked. Have to confess I'm more than a little daunted at the prospect of moving onto the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine next!

  3. I am a new follower, and it was refreshing to read this post after seeing Pillars of the Earth. I can't wait to read your future posts.

  4. A interresting woman; i wonder what the two matilda exactly feeling about eatch other, just hate and rivality or does they were a sort of respect? in a way they are alike (and cousin!). they are both courageous and determined.
    i would like to see a book who focuse on the two. sorry for my bad english, i am french!

  5. Wonderful post! Your article about Matilda of Boulogne is very informative considering that she's one of the lesser-known and less written-about queens consort of England. This will certainly help me with my future research. Thank you!

  6. Thank you very much for this. I'm putting together a talk on England's Kings, Queens and Coronations (and Jubilees if they were around long enough) and this has filled a gap with a wonderful story.
    Gareth - you've got another follower on your Blog


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