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


  Becket himself asked Maud to act as mediator between him and the King. He wrote her an impassioned, peremptory letter that contained a hint of reproof:

  We thank God, who illumined your nobility with signs of virtue greater than of birth, for your name is great, and the churches of the saints recount your alms. Although the subsidy of temporal things which you extend to Him in His members pleases God greatly, we believe He is no less pleased by your solicitude for ecclesiastical peace and liberty which, as it is rumoured, you strive for with such feeling. Wherefore we, who by reason of your humanity and beneficence, speak very confidently in your ear about the peace of the Church, asking and praying assiduously to the Lord for your salvation and the temporal as well as eternal glory of your son, that you charge him diligently to procure peace for the Church.

  Let him remember, we beg, by your prayers and exhortations, how God lifted him beyond the titles of his noble fathers and extended his boundaries beyond the boundaries of his elders. What good will it do a ruler if he transmits sins to his heirs and makes them enemies of God and the Church in his testament? What good to his ancestors if, having seized the occasion of their crimes, he offends God as if by hereditary right?

  If he came to his senses, the Father of mercies is prompt to forgiveness, but beyond doubt He will render judgment without mercy to those who exercise no mercy. He is powerful and the powerful punish powerfully; he is terrible and destroys princes.

  You ought, if you please, to employ the diligence of a mother and the authority of a lady to recall him to duty, you who acquired the kingdom and duchy for him with much effort, and transmitted hereditary rights to him in succession, by the use of which the Church is now oppressed and trampled, innocents punished, and the poor intolerably afflicted. We willingly do what we can for your salvation and his soul, imploring the mercy of God by our prayers as best we can continuously. We will pray more confidently if, with peace restored to the churches, he returns to God, his author and benefactor, with prompt devotion. Let him not be ashamed to humble himself before God in penitence.21

  Maud tactfully refused to become further involved, telling Prior Nicholas that Henry never discussed such matters with her these days. But at Pope Alexander III’s instigation, she did try to negotiate a peaceful agreement between the two protagonists. In 1165, she wrote in admonitory vein to Becket:

  To Thomas, Archbishop of Canterbury, Matilda the Empress.

  My lord Pope sent to me enjoining me, for the remission of my sins, to interfere to renew peace and concord between you and the King, my son, and to try to reconcile you to him. You, as you well know, have asked the same thing from me, wherefore, with the more good will, for the honour of God and the Holy Church, I have begun and carefully treated of that affair. But it seems a very hard thing to the King, as well as to his barons and Council, seeing he so loved and honoured you, and appointed you lord of his whole kingdom and of all his lands, and raised you to the highest honours in the land, believing he might trust you rather than any other; and especially so because he declares that you have, as far as you could, roused his whole kingdom against him; nor was it your fault that you did not disinherit him by main force. Therefore I send you my faithful servant, Archdeacon Lawrence, that by him I may know your will in these affairs, and what sort of disposition you entertain towards my son, and how you intend to conduct yourself, if it should happen that he fully grants my petition and prayer on your behalf. One thing I plainly tell you, that you cannot recover the King’s favour except by great humility and most evident moderation. However, what you intend to do in this matter signify to me by my messenger and your letters.22

  Just two of Maud’s letters relating to the conflict survive: the one quoted above, and another, undated but probably sent in 1165, to Louis VII, begging him to cease hostilities against Henry II. But Louis was sympathetic to Becket, for pious reasons and because, while Henry was wrangling with Becket, he was not threatening Louis territorially.

  Her plea having failed, Maud wrote to Pope Alexander III—then himself an exile in France—seeking his help in avoiding a war between Henry and Louis, begging him to meet with her to mediate between them. The Pope sent the Abbot of Valasse to ask her to arrange a meeting, which she set up in April that year at Gisors, Normandy, herself presiding with Rotrou, Archbishop of Rouen. John of Canterbury, Bishop of Poitiers, a close supporter of Becket, made him attend, assuring him that he had the support of the Empress. Maud even joined forces with Eleanor to resolve the conflict. Late in the summer, John of Salisbury informed Becket that, “at the request of the Empress and the Queen,” Thierry of Alsace, Count of Flanders, was working for a settlement.23

  It is clear that Maud saw the chief issues as Becket’s pride, and his lack of appropriate loyalty and gratitude, but she had tried to be just. When Henry imprisoned and tortured one of Becket’s messengers to make him reveal who had sent him, Maud wrote to him insisting that the wretched man be freed.24

  4

  “A Star Fell”

  Maud had long worked for an alliance between Henry II and the Roman Empire, but in April 1165, she opposed Emperor Frederick Barbarossa’s proposal of a marriage between Henry’s daughter Matilda, the granddaughter born in 1156 and named after her, and Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria. England and the Empire were then supporting rival popes, a conflict that caused much bitterness. When the Imperial envoys arrived at Rouen to discuss the marriage and other matters, Maud would not receive them.1 Rotrou, Archbishop of Rouen, warned the Papal legate, Cardinal Henry of Pisa, “Do not imagine for a moment that she will vacillate in any way.”2

  But in 1168, after Maud’s death, when the marriage eventually took place, it brought to fruition her hopes of a new alliance between England and the Empire. In a manuscript illustration showing the hands of God placing the ducal crowns on the couple’s heads, the Empress is shown standing beside Henry II, with Eleanor of Aquitaine behind her, demonstrating that Maud’s memory was still prominent in Germany, and that she was strongly identified with her granddaughter and namesake.3

  In 1165–67, Maud witnessed a charter granted by Henry II to Rotrou, Archbishop of Rouen. In 1166, she founded the Cistercian abbey of La Noë near Evreux.4 It was her last religious foundation. Before August that year, she was devoting her energies to averting a war between Henry II and Louis VII over the allocation of funds collected in Henry’s domains for the relief of the Holy Land.5 Henry wanted to send them directly, but Louis wanted to act as a middleman. In the interests of peace, Maud wrote to the King of France:

  To Louis, by the grace of God excellent King of the Franks and her natural lord, Maud, Empress and daughter of a king, sends greetings and loyal service with love. May your Excellency recall that I have often asked you about the quarrel between you and my son, the King of England, but you have made no response which satisfies or informs me. Therefore I am sending Rainald of Saint-Valéry [Justiciar of Normandy] to implore your Highness: do not delay, if it please you, to send me the details about the quarrel. For unless you do so, such may happen between you that I will not be able to amend; especially for the people you ought to rule and for the people of Jerusalem who are now desolate and terrified. It is useful and will be an honour to you to take pains so they have peace. Witnessed by Alduin, chaplain of Pratum.6

  In a show of strength, Henry raided Louis’s arsenal. To avert further conflict, Maud counseled him to satisfy the French King’s honor by letting him take Les Andelys, one of Henry’s towns.7 In August, as a result of her intervention, Henry and Louis agreed a truce of sorts.

  In 1166, Becket sent Maud a letter informing her that he had excommunicated several bishops for supporting Henry in their escalating quarrel, yet she merely observed to Prior Nicholas that those bishops were already excommunicate. But she would not speak to a messenger from one of them, Richard of Toclyve, Bishop of Ilchester, because he was under divine anathema.8 She did not live to see the violent and tragic culmination of Henry’s quarrel with Be
cket. In 1170, four of the King’s knights blazed into Canterbury Cathedral with drawn swords and murdered the Archbishop, an atrocity that shocked Christendom. Henry had not intended for it to happen, and did penance for it, but he had blamed Becket for the death of his brother William. It had not been forgotten. Striking a blow, one of the knights had cried, “Take this, for the love of my Lord William, the King’s brother!”9

  —

  Around 1167, Maud was present with Henry in Rouen when he settled a dispute between his chamberlain, Ralph FitzStephen, and the monks of Saint-Georges-de-Boscherville.10 That summer, she wrote to King Louis urging him to help resolve the impasse between Henry and Becket. In August, a truce between the protagonists was agreed, and Henry galloped off to conquer Brittany.

  Maud had for a long time suffered a debilitating fever, but now, at the age of sixty-five, she was in a mortal decline. According to the chronicler Geoffrey of Vigeois, as she lay dying at Notre-Dame de Pré, she asked to be veiled as a nun of Fontevrault;11 it was not an unusual request on the part of a pious woman, but neither Stephen of Rouen nor any other source mentions it.

  Maud died at one o’clock on the morning of 10 September 1167, surrounded by the monks who had become her friends in the years she had lived at Quevilly. They had come to look upon her as their spiritual mother, and she had loved them as if they were her own children. Stephen of Rouen wrote that, when she passed away, the flower of the meadow withered and a star fell. “Great as was her distinction as empress, daughter and mother of kings, it was a greater thing that she was wise and pious, merciful to the poor, generous to monks, the refuge of the wretched and a lover of peace. She excelled in good works; she, who lived well, died well.”12 This is in vivid contrast to how Maud was seen in England, but Stephen of Rouen loved her for her piety.

  Thirty-three years earlier, in 1134, and again in 1160, Maud had made her will, in which she asked to be buried at Bec-Hellouin. Henry I had opposed this, arguing that the only fitting resting place for her was Rouen Cathedral. But now her wish was honored, and her body, sewn into an oxhide, was interred before the high altar of the Virgin Mary at Bec-Hellouin, with Rotrou, Archbishop of Rouen, presiding over her obsequies, which were attended by Arnulf, Bishop of Lisieux.13

  Stephen of Rouen described them in detail, relating how, in the dimness of the Romanesque church, her grave was illuminated by a massive seven-branched candelabrum and a crown of lighted lamps. Around 1155, Peter the Venerable, the brilliant and saintly Abbot of Cluny, had visited Maud, at her request, to advise her on how those obsequies should be celebrated. It was usual to have thirty Masses said over as many days, but he recommended that twice that number be celebrated at Cluny and in all its daughter houses, and that alms be distributed to the poor in Maud’s name. Masses and alms were offered for her in all the Cluniac monasteries, just as Peter the Venerable had advised.14

  Stephen of Rouen was probably the monk who carried the news of her death to Henry in Brittany,15 prompting the King’s immediate return to Rouen.16 As testimony to his love for his mother, Henry donated generous sums of money in her memory to churches, religious houses, leper hospitals and the poor; he executed every provision of her will, and gave money for a marble tomb to be raised to her memory. On it was placed the famous epitaph that has come to define her life: “Here lies Henry’s daughter, wife and mother: great by birth, greater by marriage, but greatest by motherhood.”17

  Maud had given her two Imperial crowns to the monks of Bec-Hellouin. Her many other gifts to the abbey included two golden chalices, a gold cross encrusted with precious stones, two Gospels bound in gold and studded with jewels, two silver censers decorated with gold, a silver box for incense with a spoon, a gold dish, a gold pyx for the Eucharist, three silver flasks, a ewer for holy water, a silver basin, an ebony chest filled with relics, two portable altars of marble mounted in silver, plate, chasubles, dalmatics, copes and her Imperial cloak of gold.18

  She bequeathed £1,500 to the austere Order of Grandmont, another of the religious orders that had come into being in the previous century, and a favorite of her son’s, who matched the gift.19 She left Bec-Hellouin the contents of her chapel, among them liturgical books, a gold chalice and spoon, two silver censers, two silver basins, four chasubles, two tunics, two dalmatics, six copes, two woven in silver, and two egg-shaped boxes of silver resting on griffins’ talons. For centuries, the monks celebrated her obit annually on her anniversary, 10 September. The treasures she gave the abbey remained at Bec-Hellouin until war and revolution caused them to be destroyed or dispersed in the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries.20

  In 1263, the abbey church of Bec-Hellouin burned down and Maud’s tomb was lost. When the church was rebuilt in 1282, her remains were discovered in a coffin, still wrapped in oxhide. A new sepulcher was raised in the chancel, where they were reburied before the high altar with great solemnity. That tomb was destroyed in 1421 by English soldiers at the time of Henry V’s conquest of Normandy, but during renovations in 1684 by the Congregation of Saint-Maur, some of Maud’s bones were found with rags of silk fabric and an inscription. They were wrapped in green silk embroidered with gold and reburied in a new double coffin of wood and lead, with an inscribed brass plate marking the site of the grave. This was lost in 1793, when Bec-Hellouin was destroyed and left in ruins.

  The remains of the church were finally demolished in 1841. In January 1847, Maud’s leaden coffin was rediscovered; it was identified by an inscription recording that it contained the bones of “the illustrious Maud,” and was found to contain bone fragments and a lace of silver. In 1847, the Empress was reinterred in Rouen Cathedral, just as her father had wished.21

  —

  It is easier in today’s cultural climate than it was in the twelfth century to applaud Maud’s dogged strength of character and her fearless pursuit of her rights, but such a view does not take into account her appalling lack of political judgment, her vindictiveness and her lack of mercy. But would those shortcomings have been so evident had she succeeded her father unopposed in 1135? And how do we reconcile the good Maud whom the Germans had revered and the wise, measured and respected elder stateswoman of later years with the woman who so offended the Londoners in 1141? Can she have changed so much in two decades? Before 1134, there is no recorded blemish on her character. She was popular, even loved, in Germany. The differences between her and Geoffrey could have been due to incompatibility, and his fault as much as hers. Her quarrels with her father arose because she had impossibly divided loyalties.

  The chroniclers who wrote about her had their own partisan agendas, and possibly they exaggerated, but the fact remains that the citizens of London did drive Maud out. They had all along made it clear that they preferred Stephen, and Maud, for her part, had probably been on the defensive, seeing them as her enemies. Stress, frustration, fear and anger at the injustice of her situation could have made her the termagant she appeared to them. But diplomatic handling of the citizens could have saved the day.

  Several modern historians have made the valid point that decisive, aggressive behavior that would have been seen as a sign of strength in a king was regarded as unacceptable in a female ruler, and that Maud was in an impossible position because of contemporary expectations of her sex. They have also argued that Matilda of Boulogne did much the same things as Maud, but preserved her good reputation because her efforts were on her husband’s behalf; indeed there was an enduring literary tradition that assigned masculine virtues to heroic women who were said to have transcended the limitations of their sex, much as the Gesta Stephani praised Queen Matilda.22 The same might have been said of Maud, had she not alienated those she should have courted. But it is inappropriate to take a feminist approach to the twelfth century, which did not question double standards in what we now call gender issues.

  Undoubtedly Maud shocked her contemporaries with her unwomanly behavior, but it was her lack of sound political judgment, above all else, that had been her downfall. She acted
arbitrarily, without tact, and refused to take advice. Matilda of Boulogne did not alienate the Londoners or the Church, nor did she treat her chief supporters dismissively. Had she done any of those things, she would surely have earned the same measure of disapprobation. What she did was act in support of legitimate royal authority, which is why she escaped censure.

  A long-standing medical condition arising from the birth of her last child may have accounted for Maud’s mood swings, inappropriate emotional reactions, aggression and intolerance. The Earl of Onslow, her biographer, suggested in 1939 that she was menopausal at the time of her invasion of England and its aftermath. In 1139, she was thirty-seven years old. Most medieval sources give fifty as the most common age for the change of life,23 but then, as now, there could be variations of ten years or more. Menopausal women can suffer extreme and intense mood swings, with immoderate emotional responses. These may have a negative impact on life and relationships. For some of these women, rage, aggression, irritability and impatience can be responses to stress and trauma,24 and there can be no doubt that Maud experienced more than her fair share of that. It is a plausible theory, bolstered by the fact that character traits inherited from her father predisposed Maud to aggression and sudden rages that might have been exacerbated by her fluctuating hormones.

  As she aged, she remained an autocrat, and still appeared to some to be “of the stock of tyrants,”25 and yet her admirer Robert of Torigni asserted that she “was a woman of excellent disposition, kind to all, bountiful in her alms-giving, a friend of religion, of honest life, one who loved the Church, by the abundance of whose gifts the church of Bec has achieved no small degree of splendour.” In the late twelfth century, the chronicler Ralph of Diceto recalled how Maud had set a sterling example to Matilda, Eleanor and Joan, the daughters of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine: “the nobility of their grandmother, the Empress, and her masculine courage in a female body showed her granddaughters an example of fortitude and patience.” At Valasse, the Cistercian monks would celebrate her as an intelligent and sensible woman who had given generously in many causes and had a heart devoted to God.26

 
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