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


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  Henry FitzEmpress was now King Henry II of England. After suffering years of war, anarchy and misrule, his new subjects welcomed his accession joyfully, hailing him as the “son to the most glorious Empress Maud.”7 The chronicler Aelred of Rievaulx acclaimed him as the descendant of the two monarchies, Norman and Saxon, which had been united by the marriage of Henry I and Matilda of Scotland: “Rising as the light of morning, he is like a cornerstone joining the two peoples. Now, certainly, England has a king of the English race.”

  In a manuscript dedicated to the new King, Robert of Cricklade wrote of Maud’s triumph: “In our age there is one woman, daughter and wife of a king, who has seen her son become a most powerful king, and—what is even more wonderful—each of them has the name of Henry.” This was the way in which Maud would now be remembered and celebrated—not for her deeds, or her failings, but as the woman who had transmitted the legitimate right to rule to her descendants.

  Before Henry left for his new kingdom, he went to Rouen and took counsel of his mother, now the respected and vindicated matriarch of the new dynasty, and his brothers. Walter Map, a witty observer of the period, did not like Maud, calling her partly good, but mostly evil.8 He asserted that his master’s unpleasant character traits were the fault of his mother’s teachings. She had urged him to “spin out all the affairs of everyone, hold long in his own hand all posts that fell in, take the revenues of them, and keep the aspirants to them hanging on in hope. She supported this advice by an unkind analogy: an unruly hawk, if meat is offered to it and then snatched away or hid, becomes keener and more inclinably obedient and attentive.” She had also enjoined that Henry “ought to be much in his chamber and little in public. He should never confer anything on anyone at the recommendation of any person, unless he had seen and learnt about it.” To this advice, Map groused, she added “much more of the worst kind,”9 including the injunction to be “free in bed, infrequent in business.”10 In fact, Maud gave Henry wise counsel, and he took good heed of it. From now on, though, he would increasingly act independently of his mother, although he still relied on her, and delegated to her, when the occasion required.11

  He was crowned, with the heavy gold crown Maud had brought from Germany,12 at Westminster Abbey with his Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, on 19 December 1154.

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  Maud had remained in Normandy; she was to visit England only once more. She had made too many enemies there, and she and Henry may have felt that, in the interests of peace and harmony, it was better that she stayed where she was, although Henry did confirm some charters and grants she had made in England.13 She was mellowing with age, and remained greatly influential with her son, especially in regard to his dealings with foreign rulers; she was apparently his chief adviser on the affairs of Christendom. Clearly he trusted her implicitly. He always deferred to her, and let her take precedence before him, as an empress should before a king. In their joint charters, her name came first.14

  In Normandy, Maud continued to rule in Henry’s name, effectively as regent. She heard legal cases and administered justice during his frequent absences, issuing writs, confirming ecclesiastical appointments and winning praise for the beneficial guidance she gave him. She made land transactions, and issued or witnessed royal charters as “Domina Imperatrix.” One, dated 1155, was addressed to “all her lieges of Normandy,” and confirmed a gift of alms that had been bestowed on Foucarmont Abbey in her presence.15 Her authority is apparent in Henry’s order to his lords, justices and bailiffs to ensure that certain lands were given to the abbey of Fécamp, which he concluded: “Let my lady and mother the Empress see that it is done.”16

  It was Maud who kept pressing Henry to make an alliance with the Roman Empire. In 1164, even the King of France was among the great and the good who sought her mediation from time to time, himself acknowledging her authority in Rouen when he wrote to her on behalf of one of his subjects who was facing a legal action in Normandy. Maud instructed Lawrence, her clerk, to inform King Louis that she would see that his subject received justice as if he were one of the most important burgesses of the city.17

  Although Queen Eleanor sometimes acted on Henry’s behalf in England,18 Maud served him as absentee regent there, as well as in Normandy, on at least one occasion. In 1159, when he was away trying to conquer Toulouse, the Justiciar, Robert de Beaumont, Earl of Leicester, sought her advice more than once.19 Although her influence over Henry was regarded with suspicion in England,20 the counsel she gave him in these years was laced with a wisdom that had not manifested itself while she was at war with Stephen. It was on her advice that, in March 1155, at Wallingford, he swore to confirm the laws of King Alfred and Edward the Confessor, as set forth in a charter granted by Henry I.

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  In Normandy, Maud was a munificent benefactor of the Church, and gave alms, lands and property to various religious houses, often for the souls of her father and mother, her late husband and her son Henry. After 1154, most of her charters were to religious establishments.21 She had long been a great patron of the abbey of Bec-Hellouin, even during her years in England, and remained so all her life.22

  On 10 June 1157, a delegation of monks from Mortemer Abbey was dispatched by Stephen, their Abbot, to meet with Maud near Rouen. They were escorted to Valasse, near Bolbec and Lillebonne, where they found Maud and her half sister Matilda, Abbess of Montvillers (a bastard daughter of Henry I), waiting for them in a meadow by the Seine. The Abbess urged the Empress to aid and protect the monks, and five days later, on the advice of her friend Hugh of Amiens, Archbishop of Rouen, Maud refounded the Cistercian abbey of Notre-Dame du Voeu at Valasse. It had originally been founded in 1149–50 by Waleran de Beaumont, as a gesture of gratitude after being shipwrecked on his way home from the Second Crusade.23 Now, after years of fraught negotiations, Maud took over his foundation, in fulfillment of a vow that she herself had made while under siege in Oxford—that, if she was spared, she would found an abbey. She managed to offend Waleran by replacing his monks with the monks of Mortemer, but by the following year he had forgiven her and sought her protection for the abbey’s endowments.24

  A reliquary in the shape of a jewel-studded golden filigree cross from the abbey of Valasse, dating from the tenth or eleventh century and now in the Musée Departmentale des Antiquités in Rouen, is of German work and associated with the Empress Maud. She had it set within a larger cross, and possibly gave it as a gift to Valasse. It is the only treasure she owned to survive.25

  In 1153, Henry FitzEmpress had become a benefactor of Radmore Abbey, founded by his mother, and on his coronation day, at her instigation, the monks came to him to ask if they might exchange Radmore, which was suffering the depredations of local foresters, for the royal manor of Stoneleigh, Warwickshire. Henry agreed.26

  Maud retained a special affection for her father’s foundation at Reading, and issued a writ, dated at Rouen, commanding the Sheriff of Hereford to take the abbey’s lands under his protection.27 When the Emperor Frederick Barbarossa demanded the return of the hand of St. James in 1157, Henry ensured that it stayed at Reading Abbey, and pacified the Emperor with lavish gifts, among them a rich ceremonial tent so heavy that it required a crane to lift it. Maud, with her understanding of Imperial diplomacy, may have had a hand in negotiations and the choice of gift.28

  Between 1156 and 1161, Henry granted his mother “the chapelry of Valognes” for her abbey at Cherbourg, and in 1160, the Empress herself ordered Osbert de Hosa, Constable of Cherbourg, to give the Abbot of Cherbourg possession of land at Beaumont “at once.”

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  “A Woman of the Stock of Tyrants”

  At Michaelmas 1155, Maud returned to England after an absence of seven years, to attend a meeting of the Great Council at Winchester. According to the account of her friend Stephen of Rouen, a monk at Bec-Hellouin, she had learned that Henry had dreamed up an ill-advised scheme to invade Ireland and make his youngest brother William its king, and when he
laid the plan before his barons at the meeting, she opposed it. Ireland, she said, was a land of barbarians, which would not be worth the trouble it would bring the King; moreover, the Irish were likely to resist his scheme.1

  Maud warned Henry that his priority should be to deal with his other brother, the landless, untrustworthy and treacherous Geoffrey, who had tried unsuccessfully to kidnap and marry Eleanor of Aquitaine when she was on her way to Poitiers after her divorce from King Louis. When Louis had turned on Henry, his vassal, for marrying Eleanor without his permission, Geoffrey had sided with him.2 Since then, Geoffrey had been taken prisoner by Theobald V, Count of Blois, and it had been Maud who persuaded a reluctant Henry to secure his release, and urged the slighting of Theobald’s castle at Chaumont-sur-Loire.3

  Geoffrey, who had been left only three castles, was now claiming that their late father had promised that, once Henry had succeeded to the English throne, he, Geoffrey, would be count of Anjou and Maine. That, and Maud’s opposition, persuaded the King to abandon the Irish plan and compensate William with large estates.4 Given the problems Henry II would later face in trying to conquer Ireland after her death, his mother’s advice was wise and prescient. Her mission accomplished, Maud returned to Rouen.

  When Henry made it clear that on no account would he allow Geoffrey’s claims to Anjou and Maine, Geoffrey stormed off into Anjou and took up arms against him. On 2 February 1156, Maud was present at a fraught family gathering in Rouen, at which Geoffrey accused Henry of failing to keep their father’s promise.5 It was possibly at her insistence that Henry pardoned his brother, forcing him to abandon his claim and two of his castles in exchange for an annuity,6 but Geoffrey went away unsatisfied, and only ceased plaguing the King when, at Henry’s behest, the people of Nantes rebelled against their overlord and invited Geoffrey to be their count later that year.7 Maud’s role in keeping the peace between her sons was pivotal, but her primary aim was to protect Henry’s interests, which she had fought for and upheld all his life.8

  Both Geoffrey and William, Maud’s younger sons, would predecease her, “nipped in the bud despite the great hopes held of them.”9 Geoffrey died on 26 July 1158, aged just twenty-four. Maud herself suffered a dangerous illness in 1160, and in gratitude for her recovery she donated her silk mattress to the leper hospital of Saint-Jacques in Rouen.10 Many of the charters she issued in the 1160s were witnessed by one “Hugh,” who may have been her physician. In her last years she is said to have endured an increasingly incapacitating illness caused by the difficult birth of her last child in 1136. If left untreated, severe bleeding, infection, obstructed or prolonged labor, birth injuries or pregnancy-induced hypertension can leave a woman with gynecological problems for months, years or a lifetime afterward. Without more specific evidence we cannot diagnose Maud’s illness, which she seems to have endured in silence for decades, not allowing it to interfere with her life, yet it might account for her flares of aggression and occasional exhaustion, and over time her symptoms would have worsened.

  As her health weakened, Maud’s influence with Henry began to diminish. In 1162, she opposed his plan to make his Chancellor, Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, for she had seen at first hand in Germany, between 1112 and 1122, how the two roles could clash, recalling the bitter conflict that had followed when the Imperial Chancellor, Adalbert of Saarbrücken, Archbishop of Mainz, had put the needs of the Church before those of the Emperor, and had turned on his earthly master.11 She and Gilbert Foliot, Bishop of Herford, argued that Becket was too worldly for high ecclesiastical office, having been chancellor of England and enjoyed a life of great state and luxury.12 For the first time, Henry disregarded his mother’s advice.

  Yet he shared her anger when, a year later, Becket forbade the match the King had arranged for his surviving brother, William, Count of Poitiers, with Isabella de Warenne, the widow of Stephen’s son, William, Count of Boulogne, on the grounds that they were too closely related. In 1159, on the death of the Count of Boulogne, Henry had settled upon his brother a substantial part of his estates, thus making him one of the richest magnates in England, with lands in fifteen counties. William was devastated at Becket’s ban, and crossed the sea to Rouen, seeking succor from his mother. When he died, aged twenty-seven, in January 1164, with Maud beside him, it was said that the cause was a broken heart. He was buried in Notre-Dame de Pré, among the monks of Bec-Hellouin, who, like his mother, he accounted among his friends.13 In his memory, Maud bought land for the abbey of Valasse.14

  Maud took Henry’s part in his bitter dispute with Becket about ecclesiastical jurisdiction over “criminous clerks”—offenders in holy orders. Henry wanted them punished by the King’s courts and to receive the same penalties as everyone else, and his aims were enshrined in sixteen articles of law called “the Constitutions of Clarendon,” which were drawn up in 1164. But Becket stood up for the traditional right of the clergy to be tried in the more lenient ecclesiastical courts. Early in 1165, Henry sent his clerk, John of Oxford, to Maud in Rouen, to express the opinion that the Archbishop was fighting for ecclesiastical privileges for the sake of personal ambition and worldly gold, and that his defense of the liberty of the Church was aimed at preserving its right to practice extortion. Evidently Maud wrote to Henry approving of his stand.15

  Three days later, Nicholas, Prior of Mont-Saint-Jacques in Rouen, who was hopeful of finding a solution to the conflict, sought an audience with the Empress to plead for his friend Becket, then an exile on the Continent, and took with him letters for her from the Archbishop. She refused to see Nicholas, or read the letters. He kept asking, and on the third attempt she relented, receiving him privately in her chamber, and having the letters read out to her, by him, not by her clerks, whom she did not trust and feared might misrepresent what Becket had written. Nicholas described their interviews in a letter to Becket. After hearing his arguments, Maud expressed regret for what she had written to Henry, stating her belief that he had concealed the full extent of his poor relations with the Church from her because he knew she valued its freedom more than she did his will.16

  When Prior Nicholas had gone, Maud wrote another letter to Henry, asking him to inform her of his intentions toward the Church and his Archbishop. “And if, when I know his wishes, I consider that any efforts of mine can accomplish anything, I will do all in my power to bring about a peace between him and the Church,” she stated.

  Soon afterward, Prior Nicholas visited her again and brought her a copy of the Constitutions of Clarendon. She asked him to read them out to her in Latin, which she understood, then explain them in French. Nicholas gave his opinion that some were contrary to the Christian faith, and almost all to the liberty of the Church, and warned that she and her son ought to fear for their spiritual as well as their temporal welfare.17

  Maud’s response dismayed the Prior, who had been expecting her to react more favorably. He wrote to Becket: “She is a woman of the stock of tyrants,” but went on to relate how reasonably she had approached the matter:

  She approved some, such as the one about not excommunicating the justices and ministers of the King without his consent. Others she condemned. Above all, she thought it wrong that they had been reduced to writing, and the bishops forced to promise to observe them; such a thing had never been done by their predecessors. After much discussion, when I urgently pressed her to suggest what might be a basis for peace, I made the proposal, and she agreed, that an attempt should be made to induce the King to submit to the advice of his mother and other reasonable persons, who might find a compromise, so that, setting aside the written document and the promises, the ancient customs of the realm might be observed, with the proviso that the liberty of the Church should neither be diminished by the secular justices nor abused by the bishops.

  You must know that the Lady Empress was ingenious in defense of her son, excusing him now by his love of justice, and now on account of the malice of some of the bishops. She was acute and discreet in comprehending t
he origin of the church disturbances. She said some things in which we greatly praise and admire her sense, and made many acute remarks on the plurality of benefices and the idleness and luxury of some of the clergy, who have no fear of being called to account, do what they will. And these statements she illustrated by recent examples. Bishops ordain clerks irresponsibly without a title to any church, and large numbers of ordained clerks turn to crime through poverty and idleness. They do not fear either losing their benefice, because they have none, or suffering any penalty, because the Church defends them. They do not fear the prison of the bishop, who would rather allow them to go unpunished than have the trouble of feeding and guarding them. Yet one clerk might hold anything from four to seven churches or prebends, though the canons of the Church everywhere forbade clerks to hold even two.18

  In giving these examples, Maud showed herself to be well informed and cogent about the dispute and its causes. Nicholas gave Becket wise advice: “If you love the freedom of the Church, show by your words and deeds that you disapprove of these things. If you send letters to the Lady Empress, make your disapproval clear. I could not possibly have sent word to you more quickly, for I prepared these letters when I was reading the Constitutions with the Empress.”19 By this, Becket was given to understand that she had dictated them.20

 
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