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


  On 7 May, Maud pressed on to Reading, where the people came out in multitudes to greet her. Here she issued a charter granting land to her father’s abbey,29 and received Robert d’Oilli, who came with the keys to Oxford Castle.30 Her onward progress was briefly impeded by a hostile royalist garrison at Windsor, obliging her to go north to St. Albans and another warm reception. Here she issued a charter granting land to Llanthony Priory.31

  It was at St. Albans that, ignoring her promise to consult Bishop Henry in Church matters, Maud flouted her father’s accord with Archbishop Anselm in regard to the investiture of bishops. King David had put forward his Chancellor, William Cumin, for the bishopric of Durham, much against the wishes of the cathedral chapter, who were horrified that David had refused to allow the burial of their late Bishop until Cumin had been elected. They sent their representatives to Maud and Bishop Henry, pleading with them to confirm their right to make a free election. Henry supported them, but Maud was having none of it, and around 11 May secretly agreed with David to bestow the bishopric on William Cumin, promising to invest him herself with the ring and staff as soon as she was crowned.32


  “Insufferable Arrogance”

  It was essential that Maud win over London to her cause, but she must have known that it would not be easy. Its citizens had supported Stephen because he had granted them privileges and liberties; thanks to him and Matilda, they also enjoyed safe and easy trading access via Boulogne to their important markets on the Continent. The King had been generous to them, and he and the Queen were great patrons of religious houses in the City, where they were well liked, and where, the evidence suggests, they had both built up a network of mutually advantageous relationships.1 Maud would have to work hard to win the Londoners’ favor.

  At a conference at St. Albans, in June, she made a poor beginning by buying the continuing support of Geoffrey de Mandeville, confirming him in the earldom of Essex, which Stephen had conferred on him, and making him sheriff of London and Essex and justiciar of Middlesex.2 The Londoners hated him (as noted in Maud’s charter granting him the sheriffdom), but she was hoping that, from his strategically placed landholdings in Essex, he would assist her in the expulsion of the Queen’s loyal tenants from the honor of Boulogne. In fact she could not have entered London without securing his allegiance, for he was all-powerful there. At this time, she gave a house at Westminster to Miles FitzWalter, of whom it was said, “he made her queen of all England.”3

  That summer, in defiance of Stephen and Matilda, she confirmed Waltham Abbey as part of Queen Adeliza’s dower, with all the customs the community had enjoyed in the time of her mother, Queen Matilda,4 and also the gift of the church in Stanton Harcourt that Adeliza had made to Reading Abbey.5 This was perhaps an olive branch extended in the hope of a reconciliation with her stepmother—or perhaps there already had been a reconciliation. Maud maintained her patronage of her father’s foundation at Reading, granting several charters in the 1140s, one “for the peace and stability of the realm.”6

  England was all but hers. Her chief aim now was to be crowned, and a deputation from London met with her in St. Albans, but they were openly hostile toward her, and it took some time and negotiating to persuade them to admit her, for they were jealous of, and fearful for, their liberties, and probably resentful of her appointment of Geoffrey de Mandeville as their sheriff.7 But her army was camped just north of the City, so they conceded her claim and agreed terms.

  When, at last, Maud had received homage from the chief citizens, and taken hostages to ensure that they stayed loyal, “she had brought the greater part of the kingdom under her sway, and on this account was mightily puffed up and exalted in spirit. Finally she came to London with a vast army, at the request of the inhabitants, who met her with entreaties.”8 A few days before the Nativity of St. John, 24 June, she entered the City,9 riding in procession to Westminster10 in the company of Earl Robert, King David and Bishop Henry, and being “received with honour”11 by the citizens. Here “bishops and belted knights assembled with overweening display for the enthronement of their lady.”12

  London was a great city. In the description of it he wrote thirty years later, William FitzStephen mentions the “royal citadel” of the Tower to the east, the great fortresses of Baynard and Mountfitchet to the west, “the wall, tall and wide,” that encircled London, with its seven gates, and the Thames “well stocked with fish, with tidal flow and ebb. Everywhere, without the houses, the citizens’ gardens side by side, yet spacious and splendid and set about with trees. To the north lie arable fields, pasture lands and lush, level meadows with brooks flowing amid them, which turn the wheels of watermills with a happy sound. Close by is a mighty forest with well-timbered copses, lairs of wild beasts, stags and does, wild boars and bulls.” Most of the houses in the crowded streets were built of timber, but some wealthy merchants had erected substantial ones of stone. Within the city walls there were 126 churches and many religious houses. Outside the walls lay the palace of Westminster, which Maud had chosen for her residence; it was now “a building of the greatest splendour with outwork and bastions.”13

  The Empress’s reception in the City was strained, but the citizens had little choice but to swim with the tide, for by then “great parts of England had readily submitted” to her government. The see of London had been vacant for three years, but she now nominated a new bishop, Robert de Sigello, a monk of Reading who had been keeper of the King’s Seal under Henry I, and who was probably promoted on the recommendation of Bishop Henry, a fellow Cluniac.14 It was on Bishop Henry’s advice that Maud made a grant to St. Martin le Grand, the church that had been much favored by Stephen and Matilda; it was a gesture intended to pacify the citizens. She also granted a charter to her mother’s foundation, Holy Trinity, Aldgate, conferring pasture rights.15

  Maud could have done much more to win over the Londoners, but she disdained to woo them. Instead, she took a high-handed, punitive approach and succeeded in arousing their hostility even further. When, soon after her arrival, “the citizens thought they had attained to joyous days of peace and quietness, and that the calamities of the kingdom had taken a turn for the better,”16 they appealed to her to restore the laws of King Edward the Confessor because those her father had passed since were so severe. But, refusing to accept good advice, and “swelling from too much bitterness,”17 Maud “very harshly rejected their petition, in consequence of which there was a great tumult in the City.”18

  Then “she sent for the richest men and demanded from them a huge sum of money, not with unassuming gentleness, but with a voice of authority”19—as any king might have been expected to use to recalcitrant subjects. The money was for a tallage—an arbitrary feudal tax—that was to be their punishment for supporting Stephen.

  The burghers were appalled. They “complained that they had lost their accustomed wealth owing to the strife in the kingdom, that they had spent a great deal to relieve the acute famine that threatened them, and that they had always obeyed the King until they were brought to the extremity of want.” Their obedience to Stephen was unlikely to have impressed Maud, and may have angered her. But they humbly petitioned her “that she might take pity on their misfortune, set a limit to the exaction of money from them and spare the harassed citizens, even for a little while, the burden of any extraordinary payment. Later, when, after the lulling of the disturbances of war throughout the kingdom, peace returned with more security, they would aid her the more eagerly as their own wealth expanded.”

  Maud heard them out “with a grim look, her forehead wrinkled into a frown, with every trace of a woman’s gentleness removed from her face.” She “blazed into insufferable fury, saying that many times the people of London had made very large contributions to the King, that they had lavished their wealth on strengthening him and weakening her, that they had long conspired with her enemies for her hurt, and therefore it was not just to spare them in any respect, or make the small
est deduction from the money demanded. On hearing this, the citizens went away gloomily to their homes without gaining what they had asked.”20

  Maud also had good reason to feel aggrieved. The Londoners had supported the usurper Stephen, to her detriment. They had no cause to expect leniency from their rightful sovereign. Immediately, she announced her intention of reversing Stephen’s decrees granting the City self-government and privileges, plainly intending to open the door to wider monarchical interference in its affairs. As if this was not enough to incite outrage, she made the further blunder of showing herself “lifted up to an insufferable arrogance because the hazard of war had favoured her supporters, and she alienated the hearts of almost everyone.”21


  Meanwhile, Queen Matilda was skillfully exploiting the unrest in London, never letting anyone forget that their anointed King languished in chains, and championing the rights of her son.

  “About this time, the Queen sent envoys to the Empress and made earnest entreaty for her husband’s release from his filthy dungeon and the granting of his son’s inheritance, though only that to which he was entitled by her father’s will”22—namely the counties of Boulogne and Mortain. The Queen offered herself and Eustace as hostages, as well as castles and great riches, in exchange for Stephen’s release.23 She promised that, if her husband was released, she would personally ensure that he relinquished his claim to the throne. All that mattered to her was that he was safe and free.

  Her plea was backed by “the chief men and greatest nobles of England, who offered to give the Empress many hostages, castles and great riches if the King were to be set free and allowed to recover his liberty, if not the crown. They promised to persuade him to give up the crown, and thereafter live devoted to God alone as a monk or pilgrim.”24

  The Empress was in no position to seize the Queen’s lands, for to do so she would have had to contend with Matilda’s loyal tenantry; nevertheless, she refused the request in no uncertain terms. Several romantic paintings and engravings portray her haughtily turning down the supplicant Queen, although it is clear that they did not meet personally at this time, but communicated through Matilda’s envoys.

  Still Maud remained obdurate. She had good reason, for Stephen had already shown himself capable of breaking a sacred oath, and therefore it was unlikely that he would keep any promises made by the Queen and the lords in his name. “She would not listen to them, nor would she listen to the Bishop of Winchester’s plea that the earldom which belonged to his brother [i.e. the county of Boulogne] should be given to his nephew, the King’s son.”25

  The Queen, facing the fact that bargaining was futile, was now determined to ensure that the Empress was never crowned queen. “When she was abused in harsh and insulting language, and both she and those who had come to ask on her behalf completely failed to gain their request,” Matilda resolved “to obtain by arms what she could not by supplication.” In Kent, she and William of Ypres had been busily raising a “magnificent” army of Flemish mercenaries and, in company with him and other lords, she marched on London at the head of her troops and camped on the southern shore of the River Thames, thereby impressing upon the citizens that their support of the Empress could lead to dire consequences. To demonstrate that Maud lacked the resources to protect them, the Queen ordered her forces to “rage most furiously around the City with plunder and arson, violence and the sword, in sight of the Empress and her men.”26

  “The people of London were then in grievous trouble.” They watched in impotent terror as the outlying suburbs were “stripped before their eyes and reduced by the enemy’s ravages as a habitation for the hedgehog, and there was no one ready to help them. That new lady of theirs was going beyond the bounds of moderation and sorely oppressing them. They had no hope that in time to come she would have bowels of mercy for them, seeing that, at the very beginning of her reign, she had no pity on her subjects, and demanded what they could not bear.”27

  But if aggravating the Londoners was one blunder too many on Maud’s part, provoking Bishop Henry was a fatal mistake.

  William Cumin had come south with King David, ostensibly to persuade Henry to support the right of the canons of Durham freely to elect their bishop. But Henry found out that Maud had already promised the see to Cumin. He and the clergy were outraged. It was clear that, despite her promises, Maud was determined to assert her rights as queen above the liberties of the Church, and did not care that she had reignited the investiture controversy. And this when she had undertaken to defer to Bishop Henry in ecclesiastical matters. Without hesitation, Henry declared Cumin’s election irregular (he never did become bishop) and wrote to the Pope seeking his advice.28

  It was madness on Maud’s part to alienate the one man whose support could make or break her. “The Bishop, seeing these things done without his approval, and a good many others without his advice, was sufficiently vexed and irritated, yet he disguised his feelings with caution and craft, and watched silently to see what end such a beginning would have.”29


  The Londoners were bitterly regretting abandoning the King who had brought them such advantages. They had exchanged a bountiful ruler for “the tyranny of usurpers.” Fearful for their property, they were fast concluding that the best course was to ally themselves with Queen Matilda and “join together with one mind to rescue their King from his chains.”30 When Matilda’s troops laid siege to the Tower, the Londoners sent covert messengers to treat with her.

  The wheel of Fortune that so excited the medieval imagination had turned against the Empress. “If Robert’s party had trusted to his moderation and wisdom, it would not afterwards have experienced so melancholy a reverse.” Bishop Henry still “appeared of laudable fidelity in furthering the interests of the Empress. But behold! At the very moment when she imagined she should get possession of all England, everything was changed. The Londoners, who had always been suspicious and in a state of secret indignation, now burst out into open expressions of hatred,”31 and decided “to seize upon her dishonourably.”32 The glaring omission and implication in this passage is that it was Maud who wrecked her own cause, which was why some of her supporters hurriedly abandoned her. According to Henry of Huntingdon and the hostile Gesta Stephani, she had only her arrogant mishandling of the Londoners to blame.

  On 24 June, when Maud, “confident of gaining her will, was waiting for the citizens’ answer to her demand” for money, all the bells of London were set clanging as a signal for battle, and the “whole city flew to arms, with the common purpose of making a most savage attack” on the Empress and her forces. The Londoners unbarred Ludgate and surged in an angry body along the Strand toward Westminster, “like a swarm of bees from a hive.” It was the dinner hour, and Maud, “with too much boldness and confidence, was just bent on reclining at a well-cooked feast; but on hearing the frightful noise from the City, and getting secret warning from someone about the betrayal on foot against her, she, with all her retinue, immediately sought safety in flight.”33 The Empress, Earl Robert, Bishop Henry and the King of Scots mounted swift horses, and, “in short, all her partisans, to a man, escaped in safety.”34

  “Their flight had hardly taken them further than the suburbs when behold, a mob of citizens, great beyond expression or calculation, entered their abandoned lodgings and found and plundered all that had been left behind in the speed of the unpremeditated departure.”35 The Empress “suffered there great loss,” but far worse than that, having effectively been driven from London by force,36 her hopes of being formally acknowledged as queen and crowned had suffered a shattering setback.


  “Terrified and Troubled”

  “When they had thus been frightened away from London, all who favoured the King and were in deep depression from his capture, joyously congratulated each other, as though bathed in the light of a new dawn; and, taking up arms with spirit, attacked the Empress’s adherents on every side.” Early in July, Queen Matilda “was admi
tted to the City by the Londoners,” attended by William of Ypres, and received a warm reception. “Forgetting the weakness of her sex and a woman’s softness, she bore herself with the valour of a man. Everywhere, by prayer or price, she won over invincible allies. She urged the King’s lieges, wherever they were scattered throughout England, to demand their lord back to her.”1

  In every way Matilda was an agreeable contrast to the Empress. To raise funds for the rescue of the King, she negotiated a loan from Gervase of Cornhill, the Justiciar of London, pledging her village of Gamlingay, Cambridgeshire (part of the honor of Boulogne), as security, and granting London greater privileges in return. Thus she bought the support of Geoffrey de Mandeville and secured the Tower. Mandeville had done very well financially from switching his loyalty to the Empress and the Queen in turn, but Matilda allowed him to return to his allegiance because she needed his support. When he tried to excuse his treachery to her, she listened with good grace; soon she would be grateful for his backing.


  William of Malmesbury asserts that Maud’s party had left London “without tumult, and in a certain military order,” but the Gesta Stephani relates how they fled in terror and disarray to Oxford with their depleted forces, with many soldiers deserting on the way. “Though a number of barons had fled with the Empress under the stress of fear, she did not keep them as permanent companions in this disorderly flight. They were so wonderfully shaken by the sudden panic that they quite forgot about their lady, and thought rather of saving themselves by making their own escape and taking different turnings, the first that met them as they fled. They set off for their own lands by a multitude of byroads, as though the Londoners were hot on their heels.”2

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