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


  “Then was England much divided; some supported the King and some the Empress. For, when the King was in prison, the earls and the great men came to terms with the Empress.”2 Among them was Mandeville’s brother-in-law, Hugh Bigod, who was still angry at Stephen’s seizure of Norwich Castle. He had fought for the King at Lincoln, but then changed sides, for which Maud bestowed on him the earldom of Norfolk, as either an incentive or a reward. Waleran of Meulan, William de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, William Martel, steward of the royal household, “and many others remained loyal to the Queen, and vowed to fight manfully for the King and his heirs.”3 Ranulph de Gernon, Earl of Chester, had offered his support, but Matilda rebuffed him, knowing him to be untrustworthy, and the cause of Stephen being captured, whereupon Ranulf offered his sword to the Empress.

  Already some who had declared for Maud had been alienated by the hauteur and tactlessness she had displayed after her victory at Lincoln. Apart from in the West Country, she was not well liked: the paucity of signatories to her charters testifies to this. In all, she issued 88 (of which 22 survive in their original form), compared to 720 by Stephen, illustrating that the King, generally, held a stronger position.

  Matilda had taken her son Eustace and sought refuge in Kent, where they made a stand against the Empress. While Maud had Robert of Gloucester to support her, Matilda had William of Ypres, who helped her to raise troops of Flemish mercenaries and organize resistance to Maud. Charter evidence shows that he was close to her in interests, connections and location.4 In Kent, “the Queen and William of Ypres opposed her with all their might.”5 Matilda was in a strong position for she held control over Kent and Essex and could command substantial military strength as well as the English Channel. William of Ypres and Pharamus of Boulogne now assumed command of the King’s household and troops,6 and Matilda herself would ride with them at the head of her forces, although she did not take part in the fighting. She would also take upon herself something of the royal authority and some of the executive and bureaucratic functions of the Crown in the King’s absence.7 It was probably during Stephen’s imprisonment that she issued an undated writ to a justice, John the Sheriff of London, and the barons of the city, which began, “I order and command you on the King’s part, and on my own…”

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  Meanwhile, Maud had marched, with her ever-growing following of bishops, barons, knights and supporters, from Gloucester to Cirencester.8 She had been advised “to win the attachment of Henry, Bishop of Winchester, because he was reckoned to surpass all the great men of England in judgment and wisdom, and to be their superior in virtue and wealth; for, she was told, if he were willing to favor her party, he must be honoured and made her first counsellor; but if he showed himself in any way hostile and rebellious, the whole armed force of England must be sent against him.”9 Winning over Bishop Henry, the Papal legate in England, was also the best means of securing the full backing of the Church—and the path to the throne, as Henry I and Stephen had demonstrated, lay via Winchester and London.10

  Henry had already given Maud cause to hope for a rapprochement. From 16 February, as she moved eastward, she made several attempts to set up a meeting with him. She and Earl Robert “dealt by messengers” with the Bishop, “that he should receive her immediately in the cathedral as queen, since she was King Henry’s daughter, to whom all England and Normandy had sworn allegiance.”11

  Maud’s demands placed Bishop Henry “in a quandary.” “On the one hand, it was most difficult to support the King’s cause; on the other, it appeared to him a dreadful thing, and unseemly in the sight of men, to yield so suddenly to his brother’s foes while that brother was still alive. So he was in bewilderment, dragged this way and that by different hooks until, strengthened by advice, he resolved to make a pact of peace and friendship with his enemies for a time, that with peace thus assured to him and his, he might quietly watch the inclinations of the kingdom, and might rise more briskly and with less hindrance to assist his brother if a chance were offered.”12 At the time, however, he may well have had other motives. He was an ambitious man. What he was clearly trying to avoid was looking like a traitor to Stephen and an opportunist who was serving his own best interests. Brian FitzCount would later assert that the Bishop “had a remarkable gift of discovering that duty pointed in the same direction as expediency.”13

  A joint “pact of peace and concord” was duly made between Maud and Henry,14 and “by means of negotiators, they agreed to meet in conference.” This took place on Sunday 2 March 1141, “a dark and rainy day,” on an open plain15 near Wherwell Abbey, Hampshire. Henry greeted Maud “in cordial fashion,”16 but because Stephen had reneged on his promises, he was determined to get guarantees from Maud, who was so keen to secure his support that she obligingly “swore and pledged her faith to the Bishop, that all matters of importance in England, and especially the bestowing of bishoprics and abbeys, should be under his control, if he, with the Holy Church, would receive her as sovereign and observe perpetual fidelity towards her. Her brother swore as she did, and pledged his faith for her,” as did Miles FitzWalter, Brian FitzCount and others.17

  When Maud agreed to appoint Henry chancellor, so that his power would be second only to hers,18 he did not hesitate to acknowledge her as the rightful ruler of England, and pledged his faith that, “so long as she did not infringe the covenant, he would keep faith with her” and receive her formally into his church as his sovereign lady.19

  The next day, 3 March, Maud rode to the capital, Winchester. When she neared the city, “the nobles of England met her, and many abbots with barons and many knights, two convents of monks and a third of nuns, with the clergy and populace, among praises and processional songs.”20 Bishop Henry received her and admitted her to the city, escorting her in “splendid procession” to the cathedral, walking at her right hand, with Bernard, Bishop of St. David’s (former chancellor to Queen Adeliza), at her left.21

  Five other bishops assisted in the reception ceremony, during which Henry formally handed over “the rule of the city”22 and Winchester Castle to Maud, along with the crown and regalia, “which she had always most eagerly desired,” and the “scanty” treasure the King had left in the treasury, which effectively amounted to little more than his crown. Then, at a public meeting in the marketplace, he bade the people “salute her as their lady and their Queen,”23 and, “standing on high, cursed all who would curse the Empress or oppose her, and blessed all those who would bless and consent to her. And when this formality was finished, she departed from Winchester,”24 but not before granting a charter to Glastonbury Abbey, where Bishop Henry had been abbot.25

  Maud wasted no time in having a great seal in the German style struck for her in Winchester, on which she was styled “Romanorum Regina Mathildis”;26 it was round, as was appropriate for an empress, the seals of queens being oval.

  Securing Bishop Henry’s support had paved the way for her acceptance by many others. But Maud, “being raised with such splendour and distinction to this pre-eminent position, began to be arbitrary, or rather headstrong, in all that she did. Some former adherents of the King, who had agreed to submit themselves and what was theirs to her, she received ungraciously and, at times, with unconcealed annoyance; others she drove from her presence in fury after insulting and threatening them. By reckless innovations, she lessened or took away the possessions and lands of some, held on a grant from the King, while the fees and honours of the very few who still adhered to the King she confiscated altogether and granted to others.”27 This was not unreasonable, given that Maud believed she was the rightful monarch, but being ungracious to those who had belatedly changed sides showed a woeful lack of judgment and forethought.

  Yet she treated even her chief supporters with what looked like contempt.

  Displaying extreme haughtiness and insolence when the King of Scots, the Bishop of Winchester and her brother, the Earl of Gloucester, the chief men of the whole kingdom, whom she was then taking around with
her as a permanent retinue, came before her with bended knee to make some request, she did not rise respectfully, as she should have, when they bowed before her, or agree to what they asked, but repeatedly sent them away with insolence, rebuffing them by an arrogant answer, and refusing to hearken to their words; and by this time she no longer relied on their advice, as she should have, and had promised them, but ordained everything as she herself thought fit, by her own arbitrary will.28

  She repeatedly failed to follow the advice of King David and, “elated by woman’s levity, assumed a majestic haughtiness of demeanour, and so she provoked the nobles by arrogant denunciations.”29

  These were not the only blunders she made. “She arbitrarily annulled any grant fixed by the King’s royal decree. She hastily snatched away and conferred on her own followers anything he had given in unshakable perpetuity to churches or to his comrades in arms,” a measure guaranteed to upset the clergy. Her tactlessness fueled the flaring of discontent and unrest that pervaded the realm. “All England was disturbed more than it had been before, and there was every evil in the country.”30 The land was “filled with plundering and burning and massacres.”31 What it needed was a strong ruler who could put an end to the lawlessness.

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  “Sovereign Lady of England”

  The Empress rode on in triumph to Oxford, which opened its gates on the orders of Robert d’Oilli, the hereditary royal constable of the castle, where Maud now took up residence. Almost encircled by two rivers, the Thames and the Isis, it had been built in 1071 and stood at the western end of the city, with walls sixty feet high. Within its precincts was a collegiate chapel dedicated to St. George. Its Romanesque crypt survives today, as does St. George’s Tower, which was “of great height”1 and probably the bell tower of the chapel.2

  On 30 March, Maud kept Easter royally at Oxford,3 and issued a charter granting pasture and easement of the forest laws to the Knights Templar of Cowley, the preceptory founded by her rival, Queen Matilda; in it she instructed: “All their things shall be firm in my peace. Let no one do them harm.”4 Her uncle, King David, hastened south from Scotland to pay homage to her for his lands in England. He joined her in Oxford, appearing as a witness to charters dated there.5

  Maud was still in Oxford on 7 April, when a legatine council of the English Church was convened by Bishop Henry at Winchester. William of Malmesbury, who was present, wrote a detailed account of the proceedings. Although Archbishop Theobald was also present, attendance was poor, but “what was to be done engrossed the minds and conversations of all.”

  Henry began by taking soundings in private of the clergy.6 The next day he made a long speech to the assembly, in which he declared that, “by the condescension of the Pope, he acted as viceregent in England,” and that it was on his authority that they had come to “deliberate the peace of the country, which was exposed to immediate danger.” He reminded his listeners that the late King Henry had caused the whole realm to acknowledge the Empress as his heir, by sworn oaths. To excuse his and others’ initial support for Stephen, he put his own tactful spin on the events that had followed the King’s death, asserting that, “because it seemed tedious to wait for the lady, who made delays in coming to England, since her residence was in Normandy, thought was made for the peace of the country, and my brother allowed to reign.”

  He reminded everyone that Stephen had sworn to “honour and advance Holy Church, uphold good and abrogate evil laws, yet it grieves me to recall, it shames me to say, how far justice failed and prosperity ended almost within the year. Then were the bishops captured, their possessions seized, abbeys sold, churches robbed, the counsels of the wicked taken, and of the virtuous despised. I should love my brother in the flesh, but as the greatest duty I must sustain the cause of my immortal Father. And as God, without my help, has executed His judgment on my brother in allowing him to fall into the power of the strong, I invite you to deliberate lest, for lack of a ruler, the realm should decay. Having first, as is fit, invoked the aid of Almighty God, I have invited you all here to elect the daughter of that most peaceful, that glorious, that rich, that good and incomparable King as sovereign of England and Normandy, and to her we promise fealty and support.”

  There was no great acclamation, but no dissenting voices. The clergy “either becomingly applauded his sentiments, or by their silence assented thereto,”7 and the Bishop proclaimed “that the Empress Maud was lawfully elected as the sovereign lady of England.”8 Bishop Henry threatened the excommunication of anyone who supported Stephen, whose deposition was now proclaimed.

  “The Empress was received as Lady by all the English nation except for the men of Kent, where the Queen and William of Ypres opposed her with all their might,”9 with the Queen enlisting support for Stephen and raising troops in Kent and Surrey in her son’s name.

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  Acting again as a femme sole, with no nod to her married status, Maud would from now on normally style herself “Anglorum Domina” (Lady of the English),10 Empress or Queen of the Romans, and “daughter of King Henry,” to emphasize the legitimacy of her title. It was not the custom of the Norman rulers of England to style themselves king until they had been crowned, for their sovereignty was only conferred by that sacred act and sanctified by the anointing with holy oil. A drawing of a lost seal attached to a charter Maud gave Geoffrey de Mandeville in 1141 shows her as “Queen of the English”; if an authentic copy, it may have been a seal made in anticipation of her coronation.11 Nevertheless the word “Domina” made it clear that Maud exercised dominion and power over the people,12 and we are told that “she gloried in being so called.”13

  Bishop Henry was well aware that London strongly supported Stephen, and that the Queen was there, trying to secure the City,14 making “supplication to all, and importuning with prayer, promises and fair words for the deliverance of her husband.”15 He had diplomatically sent for a deputation of its citizens, “who, from the importance of their city in England, are nobles, as it were.” On 9 April, they arrived at the legatine council in a dour mood and, to Henry’s consternation, “urged that their lord the King might be liberated from captivity.” To their plea was added that of Queen Matilda’s clerk, Christian of London, who produced a letter from his mistress.

  Bishop Henry protested, raising his voice to “the highest pitch,” but Christian, “with notable confidence,” insisted on reading the letter out loud to the assembly. In it, “the Queen earnestly entreated all the clergy assembled, and especially the Bishop of Winchester, the brother of her lord,” to restore Stephen to his kingdom, whom “abandoned persons and even such as were under homage to him, had cast into chains.”16 She “made supplications to all, and importuned all with prayers, promises, and fair words for the deliverance of her husband.”17 They fell on deaf ears.

  “It was now a work of great difficulty to soothe the minds of the Londoners,” who went home in a fury after the meeting came to a fraught end on 10 April. Bishop Henry closed its final session after excommunicating many of Stephen’s supporters and absolving all who had supported Maud.18

  Soon afterward, Maud rode to Wilton, where she was received by Archbishop Theobald,19 who had come at Bishop Henry’s invitation, and large crowds “flocking together, so that the town gates were hardly wide enough for the mass which entered.”20 The Empress and the Archbishop met privately in Wilton Abbey. Despite Maud’s affection for Bec-Hellouin, of which Theobald had been abbot, and the likelihood that they had met several times, there is no evidence of any great rapport between them.21 The Archbishop “deferred swearing fidelity to Maud, deeming it beneath his reputation and character to change sides, till he had consulted the King. In consequence, he and many other prelates were allowed to visit Stephen and converse with him; and, graciously obtaining leave to submit to the exigency of the times, they embraced the sentiments of the legate,”22 Stephen having released them from their allegiance.

  England, it seemed, was Maud’s. Coins showing her crowned profile
were issued by the mints of Bristol, Cardiff, Oxford and Wareham,23 but of a weight below the usual standard. To underline her dynastic credentials, she began associating her son Henry with herself in charters.24 Earl Robert used every means in his power to win support for her, “kindly addressing the nobility, making many promises and intimidating the adverse party,” deploying the generosity, tact, charm and wisdom that were sometimes lacking in his sister. He and his adherents had “almost half of England, from sea to sea, under their own laws and ordinances,”25 and he was doing his best to restore justice and the law of the land “throughout every district that favoured the Empress.”26

  Maud herself wooed the barons. Reginald de Dunstanville, Earl of Cornwall, had enthusiastically supported her and held Cornwall for her, but in February 1140 Stephen had deprived him of his earldom and given it to Alan of Brittany, one of his own adherents. Around April, assuming regal powers as the fount of honor, Maud restored Cornwall to her half brother. Over the next months, with a view to ensuring the support of great men who could command military strength (while ignoring lesser mortals who could not), she created five earldoms (thirty-seven were established during the Anarchy) to buy support:27 Kent, which was awarded to William of Ypres (although he was never formally made earl); Somerset, given to William de Mohun between April and June; Devon, bestowed on Baldwin de Redvers before midsummer; Hereford, given to Miles FitzWalter on 25 July; and Oxford, given in 1142 to Mandeville’s brother-in-law, Aubrey de Vere, who was also promised the earldom of Cambridge, but never received it.

  The men who received these earldoms were given charge of various areas of the country, but of course not all the people in those parts were ready to declare for the Empress. Maud made the mistake of taking the lands of those who opposed her, far more lands than Stephen had ever confiscated, which undermined her cause. When barons who had supported Stephen came to offer their allegiance, she received them with ill grace.28 Predictably, she never won the love of the English as she had that of the Emperor’s subjects.

 
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