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

  Late in 1145, another attempt was made to resolve the conflict. Maud sent Reginald de Dunstanville as an emissary to Stephen, hoping to woo back Philip of Gloucester, but he was taken prisoner by Philip, who was then obliged to set him free when a truce was called. A conference was set up, but “when the King with his supporters and the Empress with hers met together to establish peace, since an overweening spirit prevailed on each side and both parties courted strife, they accomplished nothing.” Maud’s adherents insisted that the throne was hers by hereditary right, while Stephen was adamant that it was his, and “firmly stated that he would not make them any concession at all.” Negotiations broke down and they “went back again to their former condition of hostility.”9


  At Christmas 1146, Stephen held a ceremonial crown-wearing in Lincoln, the scene of his first defeat.10 He and the Queen stayed in the castle for a few days.11

  The previous August, showing poor judgment as so often, he had had Ranulf, Earl of Chester, arrested on a trumped-up charge of treason and imprisoned in chains, which drove Ranulf promptly to re-embrace Maud’s cause and deterred other would-be defectors from abandoning her. But her support base was decreasing. In 1142–43, thirty-five castles had been held for her. In 1146–47, that number had dwindled to twenty, most of them in the west.12 Her adherents were falling away too, among them the Earls of Pembroke and Hertford, and Nigel, Bishop of Ely.

  Late in 1146, Maud sent another plea for aid to her husband. Geoffrey had heard about Earl Ranulf’s arrest, and early in 1147 he sent Henry FitzEmpress, now fourteen, to England with a small force. Even the partisan author of the Gesta Stephani was now referring to Henry as “the lawful heir and claimant to the kingdom of England.” Stephen’s heir, Eustace, had not yet been knighted. Already he was showing signs of a vicious character, which may not have endeared him to the King’s supporters, and may have contributed to the growing consensus that Henry FitzEmpress, the grandson of Henry I, had a better claim to succeed Stephen.

  Henry came with a small force of mercenaries, intending to go to the support of his mother, who was then in Wiltshire. “At his arrival the kingdom was straightway shaken and set in a turmoil, because report stated falsely that he was at the head of many thousand troops, soon to be very many thousand.” His adherents “joyfully pricked up their ears; it seemed to them a new light had dawned,” while the King’s supporters, “as though cowering beneath a dreadful thunderclap,” were disheartened. But Henry’s mission was not a success. After being trounced twice by adherents of Stephen, running out of funds, and feeling overwhelmed and ashamed, “he appealed to his mother, but she herself was in want of money and powerless to relieve his great need.” So Henry appealed to Earl Robert, but he, “brooding like a miser over his moneybags, preferred to meet his own needs only.”13

  “As all in whom he trusted were failing him,” Henry, wanting to get back to Normandy, sent a secret appeal, “in friendly and imploring terms,” to the man he had come to overthrow, his cousin the King. The chivalrous Stephen, “being ever full of pity and compassion,” paid for the boy to go home, but he too had been shaken into turmoil by inaccurate reports that Henry had come at the head of “many thousand troops” and was plundering and ravaging as he marched, and it was doubtless those rumors that moved him to pay the youth to go away. Many blamed him for acting unwisely and “childishly” toward “one to whom he should have been implacably hostile,”14 but maybe, weary of war, Stephen was trying to extend an olive branch to his enemies. Henry left England in May 1147.15


  Around 1147, Maud gave land to a small community of anchorites established by Stephen at Radmore, Staffordshire, and persuaded them to establish a Cistercian abbey.16 That year, when Earl Robert founded a Cistercian abbey at Margam in Wales, the devout Nivard, youngest brother of Bernard of Clairvaux, came to England for the dedication ceremony. There is no evidence that Maud attended, but she was in contact with Nivard during his visit.17

  Stephen had never approved of Maud’s appointment of Robert de Sigello as bishop of London, chiefly because Sigello, having sworn allegiance to her, had repeatedly refused to swear an oath of fealty to him. That had led to the Bishop feeling persecuted, and driven him to appeal to Pope Eugenius III. On 6 July 1147, Eugenius wrote to the King pleading Sigello’s case, and to Queen Matilda in the hope that she could persuade Stephen to accept a promise of loyalty instead.

  On Solomon’s testimony, we learn that a wise woman edifies the home, but a foolish one destroys the construction with her hands. We rejoice for you and praise your zeal of devotion in the Lord; we have heard from some religious that you have the fear of God before your eyes, and are intent on works of piety and love, and honour ecclesiastical persons. That you may therefore progress from good to better, with God’s inspiration, we ask your nobility in the Lord and asking we instruct and exhort in the Lord, that you join better results to good beginnings, and more attentively love and honour our venerable brother, Bishop Robert of London, out of reverence for him who had been rich in the past, but wanted to become poor for us. With your husband, our beloved son Stephen, the distinguished King of the English, strive to bring about, with instructions, urging, and counsel, that he receive him with benignity and love, and hold him commended out of reverence for St Peter and us. And since, as truth testifies, he cannot bind our aforementioned son without danger to his salvation and position, we wish and counsel you, with paternal affection for him and you, that it be sufficient for you to accept his promise with true and simple words, that he will not bring hurt or harm to him or his land.18

  Matilda was evidently successful, for Robert de Sigello remained in post until his death in 1150.


  “An Example of Fortitude and Patience”

  The Empress lost her greatest champion and commander when Earl Robert died of a fever on 31 October 1147, at Bristol. William of Malmesbury felt that, “for his steadfast loyalty and distinguished merit,” his patron the Earl “pre-eminently deserved that the recollection of him shall live for all time.”

  Her brother’s death was a terrible blow to Maud. Even though she was “an example of fortitude and patience,”1 she now had to face up to the fact that the crown would never be hers. For all her efforts, she had never borne or received the title of queen.2 She could not maintain herself in England without Robert’s help. Joscelin de Bohun, the new Bishop of Salisbury, had demanded the return of her chief place of refuge, Devizes Castle, and late in 1146 Pope Eugenius III had backed him, threatening anathema to anyone unjustly depriving him of his castle.3

  With her other supporters falling away and wearily giving up the fight, Maud came to the decision to leave England for good. She hung on at Devizes until February 1148, when she traveled south to Arundel—which must have evoked bitter memories of the hopes she had cherished when she first came there in 1139—and there took ship for Normandy, leaving behind the faithful and now aging Brian FitzCount, who was himself soon to die, and may have taken monastic vows in his last months.4 Around 1145–50 Maud granted the manor of Blewbury to Reading Abbey for the souls of her ancestors and the love and loyal service of Brian FitzCount.5

  Few noticed Maud’s departure; it was recorded by just one chronicler, who observed that this humbled wife had returned “to the haven of her husband’s protection.”6 Never again would she style herself “Lady of the English.”7 After her departure, the civil war, lacking focus, dragged on for a time in a desultory fashion.


  Crossing to Normandy that February, the Empress was caught in such a violent storm that her ship was in danger of sinking. Believing that she was in imminent danger, she made a vow to found an abbey to the Virgin on the very spot where her ship safely made land. She came ashore west of Cherbourg, at the mouth of a brook that would afterward be called Chantereine, because, during the worst part of the storm, she had promised to sing a hymn as soon as she could see land. The pilot of the vessel, sighting the shore, call
ed out to her: “Chante reine, voici terre!”

  Maud’s grandfather, William I, had founded the abbey of Saint-Marie nearby, and in fulfillment of her promise, she refounded it, dedicated it to Saint-Marie de Voto—Our Lady of the Vow—and built a new chapel.8 After 1151, Richard, Bishop of Coutances, wrote to “his worshipful lady, the Empress Matilda, daughter of King Henry,” that “she may make the abbey [of St. Mary] de Voto at Cherbourg free for whatever order it may please her Highness, saving the rights of the church of Coutances. May God grant her perseverance in well-doing and, to the house she has founded, increase.” The twelfth-century abbey church of Saint-Marie de Voto still survives today, much restored.

  Spurned in England, Maud must have been heartened to find that, on her arrival, “all the people in Normandy turned from the King and gave fealty to the Count of Anjou, for he had besieged them in their castles until they surrendered them.”9

  Maud rode to Rouen, where, by the autumn, she had been reunited with her husband and sons.10 After being apart for nine years, she and Geoffrey did not resume married life, although they remained allies, resolved to press Henry FitzEmpress’s claim to England.

  Maud took up residence in the palace built by Henry I at Quevilly, which lay to the south of the city in his hunting park on the left bank of the Seine. Here she set up her court, with her own household knights, administrative clerks and chaplains.11 She came to rely on the monks of nearby Notre-Dame de Pré for spiritual support and intellectual conversation,12 and often retreated to the lodgings they kept for her in their guesthouse, living among them as if she was a member of their community,13 and growing increasingly pious as she aged.14

  Her Norman charters were all dated at Quevilly or de Pré.15 She was lavish with her gifts to Bec-Hellouin in her later years,16 and the monks of the motherhouse and the priory were staunch in their support of her son’s claim to the English throne. She probably visited Bec-Hellouin itself, as she dated a charter there.17 In March 1149, probably at her instigation, and as provision for her, Geoffrey made the abbey a substantial gift of three prebends.18

  Henceforth, Maud resided chiefly at Rouen, where her court offered a refuge for those of her party who had chosen exile, and for the poor and the wretched, who benefited from her extensive good works.19 She remained a threat to Stephen, as she did not, for some time, give up hope of launching another invasion of England; for with Geoffrey supreme in Normandy, many barons preferring to give their allegiance to him, and Stephen in weakening health, the tide might have turned. In the meantime, she led a peaceful existence that gave her leisure to pursue pious and charitable works and impart her experiences, and the wisdom she had learned from them, to her son, over whom she would always exert considerable influence.

  On 10 June 1148, she rode to Falaise and personally apologized to Bishop Joscelin for keeping his castle of Devizes from him. Then she wrote to her son, explaining that she had decided to restore it to the Church, and asking him if he would take care of the formalities.20

  That year Geoffrey sent Milon, Bishop of Thérouanne, to Rome to press the Pope to recognize Henry’s claim to England.


  “For the Good of My Soul”

  Stephen and Matilda had kept the Christmas of 1147 in London, where they also held the Easter court of 1148.1

  Relations between King Stephen and Archbishop Theobald had long been antagonistic, not least because Theobald had faced constant challenges from Henry of Blois, and Stephen had fallen out with the Pope. In March 1148, Stephen forbade Theobald to attend a Papal council at Rheims, but Theobald, “being more afraid of God than the King,” went anyway.2 A furious Stephen exiled the Archbishop.

  In the interests of making peace, the Queen and William of Ypres summoned Theobald to Saint-Omer, urging him to remain there, at the abbey of Saint-Bertin, where royal messengers could easily find him, and hold himself in readiness to negotiate,3 while Matilda interceded for him. It was probably during this trip that Matilda was at Steenvorde, issuing a charter to Coggeshall Abbey.4 Steenvorde is only thirty-two miles from Saint-Omer.

  An angry Pope Eugenius III placed England under an interdict as punishment for the King’s treatment of the Archbishop, but while it was in force, Mass was nevertheless celebrated for the Queen at Canterbury.5 In response to her pleas, Theobald returned to England soon afterward, in defiance of the King, and sought refuge at Framlingham Castle, Suffolk, which was held by Hugh Bigod for the Empress. Stephen quickly capitulated and made a fragile peace with the Archbishop, but it was soon to be shattered. Aware that Henry FitzEmpress was determined to wrest his throne from him, Stephen resolved to follow the French tradition and have his heir Eustace crowned in his lifetime; but on the advice of the Papal Curia, Theobald refused to comply. The message was clear: Stephen might be an anointed king, but his was not the right line.


  Around 1148, Stephen and Matilda transferred their daughter Marie and some other nuns from Saint-Sulpice in Brittany to the Benedictine priory of St. Leonard at Stratford-le-Bow, which had been founded before 1122, and lay near the Queen’s estates in Essex. It was in this convent school that Geoffrey Chaucer’s fourteenth-century Prioress, in his Canterbury Tales, learned to speak the anglicized version of Norman French “after the school of Stratford-atte-Bowe, for French of Paris was to her unknowe.” Matilda gave her daughter the manor of Lillechurch, near Rochester, Kent, as dowry.6

  But disputes arose between the English and Breton nuns, for the Prioress of St. Leonard’s imposed a sterner rule on the latter, and “the nuns could not take it on account of the stringency of the order and the conflict with its customs.” It seems that the Queen offered to found a cell of Saint-Sulpice for Marie and her companions at Lillechurch. In her presence, Hilary, Bishop of Chichester, Clarembald, Abbot of Faversham, and Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, agreed to this. The community at Stratford returned the manor of Lillechurch, “on condition that the nuns of Saint-Sulpice who received it with Marie should now leave them and entirely quit the church of Stratford.” These sisters even had to reclaim “all their buried dead.” Once the transaction had been made, and Marie and her fellow sisters had “collected their belongings and gathered up everything of theirs,” they “left entirely the church of Stratford” for Queen Matilda’s new foundation, Lillechurch, or Higham (as it became known), Priory.7

  The transfer of Marie to Lillechurch coincided fortuitously—or intentionally—with the foundation of Faversham Abbey by the King, who, “for the good of my soul and Queen Matilda my wife’s, and Eustace my son’s, and all my other children’s and those of my predecessors the kings of England,” gave his manor of Faversham to found an abbey of the Cluniac Order dedicated to St. Saviour. “My wife, Queen Matilda, and I give to William of Ypres, in exchange for his manor of Faversham, Lillechurch with its appurtenances from the Queen’s inheritance, and the surplus from my manor of Milton.”8

  Matilda was closely associated with Faversham Abbey, which Stephen intended to be the mausoleum of the House of Blois. From March to August 1148, “the Queen was accustomed to frequent the court” of St. Augustine’s Abbey, Canterbury, “because she wanted to complete the work at Faversham, which she herself with her husband King Stephen began from the foundations; and, because silence had been imposed on the Augustinians, she used to summon the monks of Christ Church, so that they could celebrate mass for her at St. Augustine’s.”9 Some historians have interpreted this to mean that Matilda stayed continuously in Canterbury from March to August, but the word “frequent,” then as now, meant to visit regularly.

  St. Augustine’s Abbey was the oldest religious house in England, dating from 598. It had been founded as a mausoleum for the Saxon kings of Kent, and was situated not far from Canterbury Cathedral, just outside the city walls. The church, which almost rivaled the cathedral in size, had recently been rebuilt in the Romanesque style, and the Great Court, in which Matilda stayed on her visits, lay just inside the main gateway. From here she could ride
the ten miles to Faversham to oversee the building of the new monastery and watch its mighty church rise from the foundations—it was to be 360 feet long, larger than Rochester Cathedral. She probably also visited Lillechurch Priory to see her daughter. The Rule of St. Benedict provided for a nun to receive guests with the Abbess’s permission.

  Monks from Bermondsey were brought in to establish the conventual rule at Faversham under the ruler of Abbot Clarembald, former prior of Bermondsey,10 and the Queen gave her new abbey many gifts, including her manor of Tring and a precious relic, a fragment of the True Cross, which had been sent to her by her uncle, Godfrey de Bouillon, ruler, or “Advocate,” of Jerusalem.11 Soon after the abbey’s foundation, Archbishop Theobald, “favourably disposed by the requests of our lady Matilda, Queen of the English,” consecrated a burial place for the monks.12

  Matilda also gave an acre of land for an anchorhold to house a holy nun, Helmid, near Faversham Abbey. After Helmid’s death, the land was to pass to the abbey to support perpetual alms for the souls of Matilda, Stephen and their children.13

  At Christmas that year, Stephen and Matilda held a splendid court at Lincoln.


  In 1149, Henry FitzEmpress returned again to England, visited Bishop Joscelin and obtained his permission to hold on to Devizes Castle until God had brought victory to his cause.14 Henry was now sixteen, “taller than the tallest men of middle height, and blessed with soundness of limb and comeliness of face—one, in fact, whom men flocked to gaze upon. In agility of limb he was second to none; with no polite accomplishment was he unacquainted.”15 This was unmistakably a king in the making. On 22 May, Henry was knighted by his great-uncle, David I, at Carlisle. During his stay he founded, in Maud’s name, Stanley Abbey, at Loxwell, Wiltshire, the first of four Cistercian houses he established in association with his mother, at her behest.16 He was back in Normandy by January 1150.

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