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


  Hugh of Amiens, Archbishop of Rouen, had been with Henry when he died, and had sent an account of his last days to the Pope, in which he made no mention of the King changing his mind and leaving the crown to Stephen. Audoen of Bayeux, Bishop of Evreux, was also present. Yet both they and the four barons who had attended the King all supported Stephen’s claim. Only Robert of Gloucester would declare for Maud. This does not necessarily mean that Henry did nominate Stephen as his heir; it suggests, rather, that these lords were unhappy at the prospect of a woman ruling over them, at Matilda’s recent unfilial behavior, and at her marriage to an Angevin.

  1

  “In Violation of His Oath”

  In the twelfth-century church of St. Peter at Tickencote, Rutland, a pair of stone crowned Janus heads on the Norman chancel arch turn disdainfully away from each other. They are said to represent Stephen and Maud, and as such encapsulate the conflict to come. For Henry I’s death left England open to civil war.

  Stephen, probably believing what Bigod had told him, and perhaps having sounded out various barons in recent years,1 acted with unusual decisiveness and impressive speed. Disregarding the oath of fealty he had sworn to the Empress, and taking advantage of the absence of the barons mourning the late King, he left his pregnant wife Matilda in Boulogne and raced across the English Channel, resolved to seize the crown. Dover, guarded by Earl Robert’s soldiers, would not admit him, but he managed to land elsewhere in Kent. The exact date is not recorded, but on that very morning, there was “a terrible peal of thunder, with most dreadful lightning, so that the world seemed well-nigh about to be dissolved,”2 which some saw as ill omened.

  Stephen rode like the wind for the capital, Winchester. He may well have laid contingency plans for his accession with his younger brother, Henry of Blois,3 an ambitious man whose rise had been meteoric thanks to Henry I’s patronage. Henry of Blois had been twenty-eight when his uncle summoned him from Cluny in Burgundy to become abbot of Glastonbury; he had been appointed bishop of Winchester at thirty-one, and was now the richest clergyman in the kingdom. He was a strong-minded, energetic and ambitious man, “crafty and inordinately fond of money,”4 in a very different mold from his brother, but staunch in his support of Stephen from the first, and he readily opened up the royal treasury at Winchester, giving him the wherewithal to bribe those who had not yet declared for him.

  Thus enriched, Stephen hastened on to London, at this time a city of between fifteen thousand and thirty thousand inhabitants. Here he won enthusiastic support by declaring it a self-governing commune with the power to raise the taxes it needed. The London merchants were also pleased that Channel trade would be protected and tariffs kept low, thanks to Stephen’s control of shipping from Boulogne.

  Stephen’s promise to uphold the liberties of the Church secured for him the support of the Justiciar, Bishop Roger of Salisbury. Archbishop William de Corbeil, who had initially declared that the oath to Maud could not be broken, was also won over, especially by Hugh Bigod’s testimony. The Archbishop had been the first to swear fealty to the Empress, which moved Henry of Huntingdon—who had been firmly in Bishop Roger’s camp and therefore hostile to Maud5—to comment that there was “nothing to praise” in him. The Archbishop’s acceptance more or less guaranteed that the rest of the clergy would follow his example. Thus bolstered, Stephen “snatched the crown in violation of his oath,” “shamelessly tempting God”6—and unopposed by Maud or her adherents.

  Modern historians might not wholly agree with Henry of Huntingdon’s view of Stephen as “a man of great resolution and audacity,” yet he did display these traits on this and other occasions, and certainly he was a man who “trusted in his own strength.”7 He had several advantages. He was much favored by the barons and the officers of the royal household as Henry I’s successor. His territorial power lay in the east and the Midlands, and his wife’s estates were strategically located in and around London. He was the late King’s nephew and was married to a descendant of the House of Wessex. He was rich, he was popular, and he had spent much of his life at the English court. Maud, by contrast, having spent much of her life in Germany, must have seemed like a foreigner—and she was married to a hated Angevin. There seemed to be no contest.

  Striving for legitimacy, Stephen wrote to the Pope insisting that Maud was illegitimate because her mother had been a professed nun. The Pope, waiting upon events, held back from pronouncing her a bastard, while tacitly acknowledging Stephen as king. His sanction had arrived in England by Easter.

  Stephen was crowned by William de Corbeil on 22 December 1135 in a poorly attended ceremony at Westminster. “Shamelessly he received the crown.” As for the Archbishop who had broken his oath, “God visited him with the same judgment which He had inflicted on him who had stricken Jeremiah, the great priest, namely that he should not live out the year.”8 William de Corbeil would indeed die in 1136.

  —

  For a time, confusion reigned among the barons,9 but the substantial majority of those who had sided with Henry I in his recent conflicts with the Empress welcomed the news that he had left the crown to his nephew, and were happy to abjure their oaths to Maud and acknowledge Stephen as king. Most readily acquitted him of perjury in breaking his oath, which he himself was now claiming had been exacted under duress. Of course, they too had broken their oaths.

  Few wanted Geoffrey of Anjou ruling over them. Bishop Roger of Salisbury spoke for many when he declared that Maud’s betrothal to Geoffrey, which had breached the terms of their original oath to her, absolved them of their allegiance to her. Although many barons recognized that she had the better claim, and “everyone knew” that Stephen was a usurper,10 the fact that Stephen had been elected, crowned and anointed, and that many lords and clergy had sworn allegiance to him as king, seriously undermined Maud’s right to the throne. Even Stephen’s enemies would refer to him as king, for all that they upheld Maud’s claim. Nevertheless, some barons continued to support her right, and inevitably that led to friction between them and the new King.

  Late in 1135, as soon as he heard that Stephen had been crowned, David I sent his armies into northern England to enforce his wife’s claim to Northumberland, asserting that he was acting on behalf of his niece Maud.11 Of course, he was also uncle to Matilda of Boulogne, which must have led to some ill feeling, but David had benefited from Henry I’s bounty. He soon withdrew his forces when faced by a host of the King’s mercenaries, but in February 1136 he informed Stephen that he would never forswear his oath to Maud. Subsequently he received from northern magnates “vows and pledges of fidelity to his niece.”12 Stephen pacified David by giving him Cumbria for his son, in return for all the castles he had seized, save for Carlisle.13

  2

  “Ravening Wolves”

  The Empress merited hardly a mention by chroniclers who recorded the events of that winter.1 News of her father’s death reached her in Anjou, where Geoffrey was temporarily laid low by illness, and “for certain causes,” she delayed going to England.2 She was expecting another child, and may have been experiencing the debilitating nausea and exhaustion of early pregnancy, which might explain why she lost her advantage by staying with her family.3 Being at a distance from her father when he died, failing to attend his obsequies and not hastening to England, as Stephen had, and play her part at the center of events—in short, doing nothing to claim the kingdom that was rightfully hers—would have fatal consequences. Yet how could she have secured England at that time? She was barely known in the kingdom, and had no base or lands there;4 most of the magnates and clergy had declared for Stephen, her husband was not in a position to back her with military might, and her half brother Robert, who could have given her valuable support, was wrestling with divided loyalties.

  She was outraged when, early in 1136, she was informed of Stephen’s usurpation and perjury. She must have been aware that her quarrel with her father had left her isolated in Anjou, critically distanced from what was happening in England. I
mmediately both she and Geoffrey claimed the crown, on account of the oaths sworn to Maud by the barons.5

  England may have seemed out of reach, but Normandy was on her doorstep, and it was Normandy on which Geoffrey had his sights. He was not interested in England, probably because he knew that he was never likely to be acceptable there as Maud’s consort. Early in December, he made what turned out to be the mistake of sending Maud across the southern border into the duchy to claim her dower castles,6 following with his own forces. It was his right as her husband to conquer her inheritance and preserve it for their son,7 but his aims encompassed more than that. He and Maud apparently foresaw that, in the circumstances, taking Normandy was the most effective strategy for taking England, for England had been conquered from Normandy once before, and the duchy could again be used as a springboard from which to launch an invasion. But Geoffrey miscalculated, for Normandy would not willingly bow the knee to an Angevin, and while Maud was there and he was fighting to subdue it, Stephen was able to establish himself unopposed on the English throne.

  “Stubborn Normandy” was descending into turmoil, “an unhappy mother country suffering wretchedly from her viper brood,” for the moment King Henry died, his Norman subjects had “rushed out hungrily like ravening wolves to plunder and ravage mercilessly.”8 At Argentan, Maud was admitted by the steward, Guigan Algason, who gave her the keys to the border strongholds of Domfront and Exmes,9 while those of Alençon and Sées, which were among the castles that Henry I had confiscated from William Talvas, fell quickly to Geoffrey,10 affording Maud a strong foothold in Normandy. But Geoffrey’s troops “made themselves hated forever by their brutalities,”11 laying waste the land, burning and pillaging, and he had to retreat into Anjou. Maud’s cause was further weakened by public outrage at her husband’s depredations, which undermined much of her support in the duchy. Geoffrey was so loathed by the Normans that only one baron declared for her, as the rest resolved to elect Stephen’s older brother, Theobald IV, Count of Blois, as their Duke; but they recognized Stephen as soon as they heard that he had been crowned, and five Norman bishops crossed to England to assure him of their loyalty.

  —

  Maud’s bastard half brother Robert, Earl of Gloucester, had remained in Normandy. He was the greatest magnate in England, a proud and powerful man “of proved talent and admirable wisdom” and a patron of letters. William of Malmesbury’s Historia Novella and his revised version of his Gesta Regum were dedicated to him, as was Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain.

  Some advised Robert to claim the throne himself, but he was “deterred by sounder advice,” and “by no means assented, saying it was fairer to yield it to his sister’s son, than presumptuously to arrogate it to himself.” At Lisieux, in December, he had met with some Norman barons and discussed the possibility of putting forward Theobald of Blois as king of England. But Theobald declined the honor.12

  Stephen was later to brand Robert as an opportunist “with the mouth of a lion and the heart of a rabbit,”13 but the admiring William of Malmesbury states that Robert was counting on Stephen losing the barons’ support when they saw what sort of king he made, which would give the Earl the advantage when urging them to acknowledge Maud. But clearly Robert did not initially expect that Maud herself would press her claim.

  Despite her advancing pregnancy, Maud evidently did not rest idle. She pressed on as far as she could into Normandy, accompanied probably only by an entourage and a military escort, but it was hostile terrain and she could not get near the coast, still less to any ships, and it would have been foolhardy anyway to cross to England, where she had no support. All she could do was wait for Geoffrey to assist her in her laborious advance across the duchy. But Geoffrey had his hands full, quelling a rebellion in Anjou.

  Another severe blow was dealt to her cause when, around March 1136, Earl Robert crossed to England and acknowledged Stephen as king at Oxford. Later, he would explain that he had felt it expedient to do so as an interim measure. Given his vast landholdings in England, he dared not remain too long in Normandy. His motto, after all, was “to do what he could, when he could not do what he would.” But at the time he was torn: “if he became subject to Stephen, it seemed contrary to the oath he had sworn to his sister; if he opposed him, he saw that such conduct could nothing benefit her or his nephews, but would certainly most grievously injure himself.”14

  3

  “A Manly Heart in a Woman’s Body”

  Matilda of Boulogne had not been crowned with her husband, for whom haste had been imperative; moreover, she had just given birth.1 It was probably in December 1135, when she was already queen, that she met the renowned Bernard, Abbot of Clairvaux, in Boulogne. Bernard already had a towering reputation for sanctity, and Matilda “revered the holy man of the Lord with incredible intensity, so much so that she ran outside the town to him as he approached Boulogne, when she was pregnant.”

  A few days later her labor began, and went badly wrong. “She was so gravely afflicted that both she and all her household despaired of her life; and then, having consigned all her chattels to paupers and churches, the Queen even prepared the clothes in which she was to be buried, just as if she would die on the spot. The hour of delivery was most gravely fraught with danger, so much that she expected only death, and prepared for the funeral exequies.”

  Suddenly, she remembered Bernard, “the man of God,” and “invoked his name with full faith,” begging for his help. Seemingly miraculously, “in the same moment, she gave birth without the desperate danger,” which she attributed to his spiritual aid—for even though he had not yet received her message, he must have known of her ordeal, being in Boulogne at the time, probably lodging in the castle, and had doubtless been praying for her.

  The Queen sent a monk to render very devoted thanks to her liberator. Nor did she delay distributing the pledged bequests, by which she gave thanks to her celebrated rescuer, calling the newborn himself, not unmeritedly, his son. Possibly Bernard consented to be the child’s godfather. Whenever people mentioned his divine intervention in the Prince’s birth, Bernard would say, “not a little humbly, refuting it jokingly, ‘That certainly is to be imputed to me, as I was entirely unconscious of him.’ ”2

  Having been born in the purple, the child was given the Anglo-Norman royal name of William; he was probably named after William the Conqueror. In a letter that Abbot Bernard wrote to Matilda soon afterward, he enjoined her, “Preserve my son for me, to whom you just gave birth, since I also—if it does not displease the King—lay claim to a portion in him.”3

  —

  Matilda arrived in England in January 1136.4 Her coronation, at which William de Corbeil officiated, was lavishly performed at Westminster Abbey on Easter Sunday, 22 March 1136, when an Easter court was being held with great splendor at the palace opposite,5 a court that was “more splendid for its throng and size, for gold, silver, jewels, robes and every kind of sumptuousness, than any that had ever been held in England.”6 It was attended by all the leading churchmen and nearly thirty peers, including Robert, Earl of Gloucester, and at the King’s right hand sat Henry, heir to David, King of Scots. With his father’s sanction, Henry had sworn fealty to Stephen for Cumbria,7 David having decided to wait and “see to what end the enterprise [between Stephen and Maud] would come, pondering the ultimate result.”8 The King and Queen wore their crowns, and their son and heir, Eustace, was present; on his father’s accession, Eustace, who was ten years old at most, had became count of Boulogne in right of his mother.9 Like William the Conqueror, who had also been crowned in haste, Stephen used his wife’s coronation to underline his royal estate.

  There was a twofold cause for celebration, since Stephen had just received a letter from the Pope endorsing his coronation and absolving him from his oath to Maud.10 During the festivities, Matilda, the eldest daughter of the King and Queen, was married, aged two, to thirty-two-year-old Waleran de Beaumont, Count of Meulan,11 son and heir of Robert d
e Beaumont, Earl of Leicester, and the owner of vast lands in Normandy.12 The Princess’s hand was a reward for Waleran’s offering his allegiance to the King, and with it he received the earldom of Worcester. The marriage was never consummated, for young Matilda died in the Tower of London before the winter of 1141–42, when Waleran married Agnes de Montfort.13 Clearly Stephen and his family were using the royal apartments in the Tower.

  Matilda’s brother Baldwin also died in the Tower on an unspecified date. The fact that the two children died in the same place suggests that they succumbed to the same illness around the same time. Both were buried by the high altar of the priory of Holy Trinity, Aldgate,14 founded by their great-aunt Matilda of Scotland, where their parents would raise monuments to their memory. The priory’s cartulary records: “King Stephen and the Queen so much loved Prior Ralph and that church that their son Baldwin and their daughter Matilda should be buried honourably in that church: that is, Baldwin at the northern part of the altar and Matilda at the southern.”15

  —

  Matilda of Boulogne proved a strong, resourceful queen, feisty, energetic and indefatigable in her support of her ineffective husband, whom she far exceeded in vigor and capabilities. She was “a woman of subtlety with a man’s resolution.”16 She demonstrated sound judgment and an ability to deal with men effectively. In the years to come, she would win praise for her unwavering loyalty to her husband, her courage, her honor and her conciliatory diplomacy, and for having “a manly heart in a woman’s body.”17 She enjoyed great popularity with Stephen’s subjects.

 
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