In the spring of 1141, as England suffered in the midst of a bitter civil war, Queen Matilda of Boulogne was in Kent, busily raising an army. Galvanised by the news that her husband, King Stephen, had been imprisoned by his vengeful rival and cousin, the Empress Maud (also known as Empress Matilda), the queen was utterly determined to march on London and ensure that the empress would never wear the crown she so fiercely coveted.
It was rare in the 12th century for a woman to bear arms. Although the Norman queens of England had wielded considerable power as sharers in the royal dominion, it was now being eroded thanks to the centralisation of government administration at Westminster, over which queens often had less influence. Had it not been for the war, Matilda might have had a very different role.
The only child of Eustace III, Count of Boulogne, and Mary of Scotland, Matilda was born c1103. She was one of the most desirable princesses in Europe, on account of having royal Saxon and Scottish blood, and the great inheritance that would come to her on her father’s death: the county of Boulogne and its lands – its ‘honour’ – in England.
When Matilda was two, her uncle, Henry I of England, betrothed her to her cousin, Stephen of Blois, the grandson of William the Conqueror. In 1125 her father became a monk and ceded Boulogne and his English estates to Matilda. He died soon afterwards, whereupon Henry I arranged for her marriage to take place. It made Stephen the richest magnate in England. With Boulogne, he gained control of the shortest Channel crossing to England and, with it, merchant shipping. The marriage was happy, and there is much evidence for the couple’s affection for one another.
Henry I’s sole heir was his daughter, Maud; next in line came his nephews of Blois. Henry had constrained his barons, including Stephen, to swear oaths acknowledging Maud as his successor to the throne, but when Henry died in 1135 Stephen broke faith, seized the throne, and was crowned king on 22 December.
Matilda arrived in England in January 1136. Her coronation was lavishly performed at Westminster Abbey on Easter Sunday. She proved a strong and resourceful queen – feisty, energetic and indefatigable in her support of her ineffective husband, whom she far exceeded in capabilities. Described as “a woman of subtlety with a man’s resolution”, she demonstrated sound judgment. She won praise not only for her unwavering loyalty to Stephen, but also for her courage, her honour, her diplomacy, and for having “a manly heart in a woman’s body”, as a contemporary chronicler observed.
Matilda wielded great power. Her honour of Boulogne was centred largely upon London and Colchester, which gave her a strong territorial advantage. She was closely involved in government, for Stephen trusted her political judgment and relied on her support.
Shared religious interests strengthened the bond between her and Stephen. They gave their daughter Marie to God as a nun, and founded abbeys at Furness and Faversham. Matilda established the Royal Hospital of St Katharine’s by the Tower. She was a benefactress to many religious houses and helped establish the Knights Templar in England.
Meanwhile, the empress was battling to gain control of Normandy as a springboard for invading England and wresting the crown from Stephen. Her support-base broadened when her illegitimate half-brother, Robert, Earl of Gloucester, espoused her cause. In 1138, he sent his vassal, Walchelin Maminot, across from Normandy with an invading army, intending to land it at Dover, which he held.
With his presence desperately needed to quell rebellion in the west, and with every confidence in his wife’s ability, Stephen deputed Matilda to regain Dover. She faced a huge challenge because Dover Castle, on its massive cliff commanding the sea, was a formidable stronghold, but she had considerable resources at her command.
She besieged Dover with a large army on the landward side, and ordered her men of Boulogne to blockade it by sea. With a great fleet of ships, they closed the narrow strait to prevent the garrison receiving any supplies.
Thanks to the strategy Matilda deployed, in concert with her kinsman Pharamus of Boulogne, Dover was surrounded, with Matilda herself commanding the men who laid siege to the castle. Maminot was forced to surrender to the queen.
In 1139, Maud invaded England and civil war between her and Stephen broke out. Neither had superior strength, a situation that many unscrupulous barons took full advantage of, unleashing a period of oppression and lawlessness that became known as the Anarchy. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded this as a time during which “Christ and His saints slept”.
Queen Matilda proved a redoubtable opponent to Maud. She was as brave and determined as her rival, but never as arrogant or dictatorial, despite operating effectively as a female warlord. As a result, she avoided alienating those who disapproved of women breaking through the boundaries imposed on them by a male-dominated society.
A crisis came in February 1141, when Stephen was captured at Lincoln and imprisoned in chains on Maud’s orders. Galvanised to Herculean efforts to free him, Matilda surged through Kent, raising troops with the loyal William of Ypres, to oppose the empress. In the king’s absence, she took upon herself the royal authority.
The Empress Maud was now carrying all before her, though. She secured the support of the church, through the good offices of Stephen’s treacherous brother, Henry, bishop of Winchester, and was acknowledged as ‘Lady of the English’ by most of England bar Kent, where the queen was entrenched.
London strongly supported Stephen, and Matilda worked to secure its loyalty, promising its citizens riches once her husband was freed. However, Maud also needed to win over London to her cause, so that she could be crowned. Finally, its gates opened to her, but the mood was hostile.
Stephen had granted the citizens privileges and liberties, and he and Matilda were well liked. Maud was not, and her arrogance and punitive demands for money angered the citizens.
Matilda set about exploiting the unrest, never letting anyone forget that their anointed king languished in chains. She sent representatives to the empress, begging her to release her husband from his filthy dungeon. She offered herself as hostage in exchange, as well as castles and great riches. She even promised that, once Stephen was freed, she would ensure that he relinquished his claim to the throne.
Several romantic paintings portray Maud haughtily turning down the supplicant queen, yet it is clear that they did not meet personally at this time, but instead communicated through envoys.
Matilda now resolved to take up arms to achieve what her words had failed to. She marched on London at the head of an impressive army and, although she did not take part in the fighting, she ordered her forces to “rage most furiously around the city with plunder and arson, violence and the sword”, as described in a chronicle of the time. Londoners watched in impotent terror as the outlying suburbs were ravaged, bitterly regretting abandoning a bountiful ruler for the tyrannical empress. When Matilda’s troops laid siege to the Tower, the citizens sent messengers to reason with her – and then drove Maud from the city.
As Stephen’s supporters congratulated each other joyfully, Matilda was warmly welcomed into London. A contemporary chronicler wrote: “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 to demand their lord back to her.”
Bishop Henry now abandoned Maud and, in retaliation, her forces besieged Winchester. Meanwhile, the queen had met with Henry, and was so persuasive that he vowed to forsake Maud’s cause and help liberate King Stephen.
Matilda marched on Winchester, her army strengthened by a thousand angry Londoners. She arrived to find the bishop’s castle under siege by Maud’s forces, and herself blockaded the city, in effect the queen was besieging the besiegers.
The siege lasted for nearly two months, until disease and starvation impelled the empress to escape. Her forces were routed by the queen’s army, and Robert of Gloucester was captured, which cost Maud her advantage. Without her chief mainstay, she could do nothing.
Matilda did not have Robert fettered. Instead, she ensured that he was treated honourably. After tough negotiations, it was agreed that the king should be restored and Robert should be released. On 1 November 1141, Stephen was freed and he and Matilda entered London in triumph.
In 1142, Maud occupied Oxford, and England was plunged back into the turmoil of civil war. Stephen besieged the city and Matilda raised reinforcements for him, but the empress made a daring escape, dressed in white, camouflaged against the snow. Her cause was lost, but still she would not give in. Only after Earl Robert died in 1147, and her other supporters lost heart, did she leave England. Her cause was taken up by her son Henry, who was determined to take the crown himself .
In April 1152, Matilda was visiting Hedingham Castle, Essex, when she fell sick with a fever. Stephen was summoned, and was with her when she died on 3 May. She did not live to see the end of the war. In 1153 it was agreed that, on Stephen’s death, Henry would succeed to the throne (as Henry II). Stephen died in 1154 and was buried beside Matilda at Faversham. Matilda’s epitaph read: “If ever woman deserved to be carried by the hands of angels to Heaven, it was this holy queen.”
Alison Weir is the UK’s bestselling female historian. Queens of the Conquest, the first of her new quartet of books on England’s medieval queens, is on sale now, published by Jonathan Cape.
Matilda v Maud
The two royal women who battled for power in England in the 1140s…
Name: Matilda of Boulogne
Who was she? She became queen consort when her husband, Stephen, seized the throne of England in December 1135. She was crowned queen on 22 March 1136 in Westminster Abbey
When was she born? c1103
Who were her parents? Eustace III, Count of Boulogne, and Mary of Scotland
Who did she marry? Stephen of Blois, Count of Mortain (c1097–1154)
Who were her children?
• Marie, nun, Abbess of Romsey
• Eustace, Count of Boulogne
• William, Earl of Surrey
When did she die? 3 May 1152 at Hedingham Castle, Essex
Where is she buried? Faversham Abbey, Kent
Name: The Empress Maud (or Matilda)
Who was she? She was the sole legitimate heir of Henry I after the death of her brother in November 1120, and was acknowledged as such by the barons in 1127 and 1131
When was she born? 7 February 1102, probably at the palace of Sutton (Courtenay), Oxon
Who were her parents? King Henry I and Matilda of Scotland
Who did she marry? First marriage to the Roman emperor Heinrich V on 7 January 1114 at Worms Cathedral, Germany; second marriage to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, Duke of Normandy on 17 June 1128 at Le Mans Cathedral, Anjou
Who were her children?
• She possibly bore one child to Heinrich, who died soon after birth
• She had three children to Geoffrey: Henry FitzEmpress (the future Henry II), Geoffrey, Count of Nantes, William
When did she die? 10 September 1167 in Rouen
Where is she buried? Abbey of Bec-Hellouian, Normandy; reburied in 1847 in Rouen Cathedral
This article first appeared in the October 2017 issue of BBC History Magazine
Catherine Hanley will be speaking about ‘Matilda: The Greatest King England Never Had’ at our Kings and Queens Weekend in March 2019. Find out more here