Queens of the Conquest: England’s Medieval Queens by Alison Weir

  Now, in April 1124, Adeliza was present when Henry summoned three prisoners to appear before him. All were his vassals, and one, Luc de la Barré, had been his friend, but had circulated satirical songs against him. Henry sentenced them all to have their eyes burned out and to perpetual imprisonment. Even when Charles the Good, Count of Flanders, interceded on behalf of the condemned knights, the King remained obdurate. “They broke their faith, violated their oath of allegiance: and therefore they deserve death, or at least to be punished by the loss of a limb,” he insisted. But when, on the public scaffold, the executioners seized Luc de la Barré to put his eyes out, he wrenched himself away and crashed his head against the wall, splitting it open and dying soon afterward. Adeliza was seeing another side to the man she had married.


  “His Only Heir”

  On 23 May 1125, “in the very flower of his age and victories,”1 the Emperor Heinrich died of cancer at Utrecht, his wife at his side.2 He was thirty-eight. The last years of their marriage had been less turbulent, after Heinrich was reconciled to the Pope in 1122 at Worms. As he neared his end, he entrusted the Imperial regalia to Maud for safekeeping in Trifels Castle until his successor was elected; and, by placing his scepter in her hands, signified his will that she rule the Empire in the period immediately following his death, for “her prudent and gracious behaviour to her Imperial spouse was one of the causes which won the esteem of the German princes.”3 Heinrich was buried with his forebears in Speyer Cathedral. After the obsequies, Adalbert of Saarbrücken, Archbishop of Mainz, persuaded Maud to resign the Emperor’s regalia into his keeping. He was one of the electors who would choose Heinrich’s successor,4 Lothar II, who was no friend to Maud.

  At twenty-two, Maud was a widow; her fate was now in the hands of her father. Henry I was then in Normandy, and as soon as he learned of the Emperor’s death, “he recalled his daughter by honourable messengers”5 and sent an escort to bring her to Normandy. Her late husband’s subjects were dismayed at the prospect of her departure. She was greatly loved,6 and the German princes “were urgent in their entreaties to her royal father for her restoration,” but there was nothing for her now in Germany, and Henry was insisting that “she was his only heir and must dwell among her own people.”7

  Maud had “become habituated to the country which was her dowry and had large possessions there”—and she had thrilled to the prospect of remaining as empress.8 Having enjoyed certain freedoms in Germany—where she was known as “the good Matilda”9—and still mourning her husband, she did not want to live in subjection to her father, who might arrange an unwelcome second marriage in pursuance of his policy of empire-building. Henry was unlikely to let her remain a widow for other reasons too. He wanted grandsons to assure the succession.

  Thus Maud had no choice but to renounce her lands in Germany and say farewell to those who had peopled her world for the past fifteen years. In December 1125, she “returned with reluctance”10 to Normandy, “not through any desperate need or feminine levity, but in response to a summons from her father. And though she had attained such high rank, she was in no way puffed up with pride, but meekly submitted in all things to her father’s will.”11 She arrived in time to join the King for Christmas, bringing with her jewels, precious relics, and several years’ experience in the troubled world of Imperial politics. Although she had not been crowned empress, but had signed herself “Queen of the Romans” when witnessing her husband’s charters, she would never forget that she had been a Roman empress, and was to use the title until she died, styling herself “imperatrix augusta,” and being widely known and addressed as “the Empress.”12


  In 1125, Count Eustace of Boulogne retired from the world to become a Cluniac monk, probably at Rumilly Priory near Boulogne, and ceded the county of Boulogne and all his rich estates in England to his daughter Matilda, making her one of the most desirable heiresses in Europe—not only on account of her great inheritance, but also because, like Matilda of Flanders and Adeliza of Louvain, she was impeccably descended from Charlemagne, and was also the great-granddaughter of King Cnut, the great-niece of Edward the Confessor, and the niece of the beloved Matilda of Scotland. Royal Saxon, Scottish and Imperial blood ran in her veins. This heritage, together with her courage and determination, would in time make her one of the Empress Maud’s great adversaries.

  The young Countess’s seal is affixed to her father’s abdication charters.13 In one that he granted that year, Eustace described himself as “once count of Boulogne, but now, at the dispensation of God, monk of Cluny,” and confirmed that the charter had been “confirmed and upheld by Stephen, count of Boulogne, to whom I gave my patrimony with Matilda, my daughter, who also upheld and confirmed this gift, in the presence of many people.”14

  Count Eustace died soon afterward, probably that same year, and “when she became marriageable, after the death of her father,” Henry I arranged for Matilda of Boulogne’s marriage to Stephen of Blois, Count of Mortain, to take place. This suggests that Matilda turned twelve—marriageable age for girls—after Count Eustace died, so she must have been born around 1113. Her husband-to-be was at least twenty-eight. On their wedding, which probably took place in 1125, perhaps at Westminster, Stephen became the wealthiest magnate in England, by virtue of acquiring the rich honor of Boulogne. He took the title of count of Boulogne in right of his wife, and by acquiring her port of Wissant, advantageously gained control of the shortest Channel crossing to England and thereby trade in the Channel, so crucial for the English wool trade, which was probably Henry I’s primary reason for arranging the match.15 It was a highly successful marriage and there is much evidence in charters for Stephen’s affection for Matilda and the children she bore him. In later years he would come to rely on her heavily.

  Stephen was ambitious, as time would prove. Should Henry I leave no legitimate son to succeed him, his next male heirs were the sons of his sister Adela by the Count of Blois; thus Stephen stood near, but not next, in line to the English throne, which in the years to come would have serious implications for the royal succession. He had two older brothers. The eldest, William the Simple, was mentally unbalanced and never considered for the throne, but the second brother, Theobald, was an able man.

  Tall, with a good physique, Stephen was “a man of activity, but imprudent,” as time would show, “a mild man, soft and good”16—“a fine knight, but in other respects a fool.”17 His love of convivial feasting and hunting, and his “readiness to joke and sit and regale, even with low people,” won him many friends.18 He was attractive to women and had had three bastard sons with a Norman mistress called Dameta, and possibly a daughter, all born before his marriage. He was dashing, charming and courteous to all classes, genial, candid, generous, tolerant, brave and well liked, yet he was also unreliable and vacillating, with poor judgment and little capacity for leadership, and was to manifest a fatal inability to sustain any enterprise or action. He was bold and brave, but a bad general in war, while the courage that both friends and foes praised was marred by recklessness.

  He proved a good husband to Matilda, having the loving example of his parents before him, which is evident in a letter that his father wrote to his mother: “Count Stephen sends to Adela, his sweetheart and spouse, the best and the tenderest love that his spirit may tender. I have travelled to Rome, my dear, surrounded in honours…”19 Stephen had also grown up seeing his outstandingly able, well-educated widowed mother capably ruling his father’s domains, and his admiration and respect for the abilities of the female sex underpinned his attitude toward his wife, who was no less capable.

  When in London, the young Count and Countess of Boulogne resided at the Tower Royal, a fortified tower house built by Henry I, who had presented it to them as a wedding gift. Located near Cheapside, in the parish of St. Michael Paternoster, it was also known as La Riole, Le Riall or La Ryole. It was rebuilt in the reign of Henry III, and became the Queen’s Wardrobe.

da’s first child was a daughter called Marie (or Mary) after her grandmother; Marie became abbess of Romsey in 1155–56. The minimum age for election as an abbess was then thirty, so she must have been born in 1125–26. (Her date of birth is often given as 1136, although there is no contemporary evidence for that.) Eustace, the second child and eldest son, was born between 1126 and August 1131, when he is mentioned in a charter issued by his parents.20 He was named for his maternal grandfather. A second son, called Baldwin after Matilda’s uncle, the King of Jerusalem, arrived between 1127 and 1135.21 Around 1133–34, Matilda bore a second daughter, who was called after her. The child’s year of birth is estimated from the fact that she was betrothed, aged two, to Waleran de Beaumont, Count of Meulan, in 1136.

  On 1 July 1127, Stephen and Matilda founded Furness Abbey in Cumberland, and endowed it with land, for the salvation of their souls. It was a religious house of the eremitical Order of Savigny, which was much favored by Stephen and Henry I, but would be incorporated into the Cistercian Order in the middle of the twelfth century. Furness Abbey was destroyed by the Scots and rebuilt in 1141. It is now a ruin, but still boasts contemporary crowned busts of Stephen and Matilda on either side of the chancel window. Matilda is shown with loose hair and a gown with a brooch at the throat.

  Matilda had been brought up to emulate the pious example of her grandmother, Ida of Lorraine, wife of Eustace II. Ida had founded several religious houses and gained a reputation for sancity. In 1130, seventeen years after her death, her tomb at the abbey of St. Vaast, near Arras, was opened and her body found to be incorrupt. This was regarded as a sign of holiness, and soon afterward Ida was beatified by the Church; in time she would be venerated as a saint. Within about five years of her exhumation, Matilda may have commissioned the Latin life of her that was written by Hugo, a monk of St. Vaast.22 He mentions that “love of her kin, for which she living had been distinguished, did not desert Ida after death,” and relates how, after 1130, her intercession was believed to have saved the life of her granddaughter when she was “bitterly assailed” by “a relentless and grievous feverish illness.” The young Countess, “not a little worn down through a time of too much pain, at last presented herself to be cured with many others at the venerated tomb, confiding and anticipating in the sanctity of the most blessed Ida, as well as her own blood which descended from Ida, with devoted and multitudinous prayers”; and, by “the merits of the most blessed lady, after a very short delay withdrew healthy and unharmed.”23


  “Royal English Blood”

  Henry and Adeliza were in Normandy from the autumn of 1125 until 11 September 1126, when they returned to England with the widowed Empress and Stephen of Blois.1 In Maud’s travelling chests were the treasures she had owned during her marriage, among them her jewels, and two crowns: her heavy gold Imperial crown adorned with golden flowers, and Heinrich’s coronation crown of solid gold decorated with gems, an enormous jewel and a cross. This crown was so weighty that two silver rods were needed to support it while being worn. Maud also brought to England the incorrupt hand of the Apostle James, which had been among the treasures of the Imperial chapel, and an anonymous chronicle of the life of Heinrich V, which is now in Corpus Christi College, Cambridge. Between 1126 and 1133, she gave the hand of St. James to Reading Abbey, which her father had founded.2

  Maud was now twenty-three, and of striking appearance. She had German manners and probably spoke Norman French with a German accent, in a deep, masculine voice.3 By all accounts, the prudent and gracious young girl beloved by the Emperor’s subjects had matured into a formidable character, confident, unbending and independent-minded—“a young woman of clear understanding and masculine firmness.”4 The sympathetic William of Malmesbury, to whom Maud was patron, referred to her as a “virago,” which then meant a female warrior or courageous heroine, and had not yet acquired its modern sense of being domineering, scolding or shrewish. Other chroniclers mentioned Maud’s masculine stridency. She “had the nature of a man in the frame of a woman.” Her enemy Arnulf, Bishop of Lisieux, wrote that she was an “intrepid spirit” but “had nothing of the woman in her.” The virulently hostile anonymous author of the Gesta Stephani, the chronicle history of the deeds of King Stephen, stated that she was “always superior to feminine softness.” Indefatigable, brave, tenacious and resourceful, she was in many respects her father’s daughter. William of Malmesbury wrote admiringly that she resembled him in her energy, her iron will and her fortitude, “and her mother in sanctity. Piety and assiduity vied with each other in her character, nor was it easy to discern which of her good qualities was most commendable.”

  By 1126, William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum, commissioned by the late Queen Matilda, was completed, and he and his brother monks were hopeful that Matilda’s daughter would become their patron. Through the good offices of David, King of Scots, who was then visiting the English court, the Empress received from their messenger William’s book and a letter expressing their desire, in which they wrote of her royal lineage, the renowned virtues of her mother, and the interest the Queen had shown in her ancestors, an interest they trusted her daughter shared. Thus it came about that the book was dedicated to Maud.5

  One of the works of the Neoplatonist philosopher Bernard of Chartres was dedicated to Maud by a pupil of his, who clearly thought that she would appreciate Bernard’s teaching that reality is composed of three invisible, immutable principles: God, ideas and matter. It was he who coined the saying, “We are dwarfs astride the shoulders of giants.”


  Soon after the royal party arrived in England, Maud witnessed a charter issued by her father at Portsmouth. Another signatory was a friend of her half brother Robert, “a certain Brian FitzCount, a man of distinguished birth and splendid position,”6 who was a bastard son of Alan IV, Duke of Brittany (who had married Constance, daughter of William the Conqueror). Brian had been brought up and well educated at the court of the man he would always think of as “good King Henry.”7 Henry had knighted him and married him to an heiress, Matilda of Wallingford, a widow several years his senior.8 Brian was to become a faithful lifelong friend of Maud’s—and more, it would be hinted. A thoughtful man, he had “a great love of truth,” as he once wrote to Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester. “I know, to the best of my power and knowledge, that I do not deserve to be ranked among the unfaithful.”9

  It was on Maud’s advice, and that of King David of Scots, that Henry transferred his captive brother Robert from the custody of Bishop Roger at Devizes Castle to Bristol Castle, where he was placed under the guardianship of the King’s bastard son Robert, Earl of Gloucester.10 Possibly they feared that Robert might incite the distrusted Bishop Roger to support the claims of his son, William Clito.


  After nearly six years of marriage, Henry was “in grief” that Adeliza had not conceived a child.11 In a queen, barrenness was abject failure and often interpreted as a sign of divine displeasure, but possibly Henry knew that the problem lay with him. Certainly he does not seem to have blamed his wife for failing to bear him a son, although it worried her, as she confided in a letter (now lost) to Hildebert of Lavardin, now archbishop of Tours, in which she sought his advice on the matter. He responded consolingly, exhorting her to channel her maternal instincts into charitable works for the poor: “If it has not been granted to you from Heaven that you should bear a child to the King of the English, in these you will bring forth for the King of the Angels, with no damage to your modesty. Perhaps the Lord has closed up your womb, so that you might adopt immortal offspring. It is more blessed to be fertile in the spirit than the flesh.”12

  That would have been small consolation to the King, who saw a succession crisis looming. “Fearing that his Queen should be perpetually childless, with well-founded anxiety, he turned his thoughts on a successor to the kingdom.”13 It was unthinkable that his troublesome nephew, William Clito—the obvious candidate under the rule of primogeniture??
?should succeed, especially after Henry had done so much to crush the dynastic claims of his older brother Robert’s line. The Norman kings had not hitherto favored primogeniture, but Henry himself subscribed to the contemporary view that being born in the purple (porphyrogeniture)—that is, to a reigning monarch, as he himself had been—conferred a stronger title to the succession. This ruled out the sons of his sister Adela by Stephen, Count of Blois. That left Maud, who, although a woman, yet had many of the qualities admired in men, and had been born the daughter of a reigning king.

  Shortly before he rode to Windsor for Christmas, Henry convened a great number of the clergy and nobility at a council in London, at which he assigned the revenues of the counties of Shropshire and Rutland to Queen Adeliza, who was present.14 The assembled lords swore to her that they would always regard as hers the lands that the King had given her.15 They may have been compensation for her public humiliation at having failed in her foremost duty when Henry openly broached the subject of the succession.

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