In another post we told the story of the Empress Maud, daughter of King Henry I of England who married the German Emperor and fought for her inheritance of the English throne against her cousin King Stephen. King Stephen’s wife was instrumental keeping him on that throne and she was Matilda of Boulogne. Bear with me as we untangle this web of relationships between cousins.
Empress Maud was the daughter of Matilda of Scotland, whose mother was Saint Margaret, Queen of Scotland. Saint Margaret had another daughter named Mary who married the Count of Boulogne (a county in Northern France) and was the mother of Matilda of Boulogne. So Empress Maud and Matilda of Boulogne were first cousins. King Henry I of England had a younger sister named Adela who married the Count of Blois and her son was Stephen of Blois. So Empress Maud and Stephen of Blois were first cousins. Stephen of Blois married Matilda of Boulogne and he took the throne of England from Empress Maud. Hopefully the reader is not too confused now.
Matilda of Boulogne was born c. 1105. Her father was Eustace III, Count of Boulogne. Her mother was Mary, daughter of Saint Margaret and King Malcolm III of Scotland. Not much is known about Matilda’s early life. Her mother had been educated at the convent schools of Romsey and Wilton in England and it is likely she sent her daughter Matilda to be educated there also. By 1125, King Henry I of England had negotiated a marriage between his favored nephew Stephen of Blois and Matilda of Boulogne.
Matilda’s father wanted to retire to the monastery at Cluny. Eustace was the brother-in-law of King Henry as well as his vassal for lands he owned in England. In order to keep Boulogne an independent entity upon his retirement, he agreed to marry his daughter to Stephen and they would rule Boulogne in their own right. They were married in 1125 and Eustace died in the same year. Stephen and Matilda were Count and Countess of Boulogne and King Henry gave them a home in London. Henry was giving mixed signals on who his heir would be by favoring Stephen and making Stephen and other nobles swear to support his daughter, Empress Maud as his successor.
Matilda and Stephen had five children, three sons and two daughters. When Henry died in 1135, Stephen quickly crossed the Channel to England and seized the throne in a bloodless coup. He was crowned at Westminster Abbey on December 22, 1135. Matilda joined Stephen later with the children. There is no official evidence she was crowned at Westminster Abbey on March 22, 1136 although some historians mention this date. Matilda and Stephen held a sumptuous and glittering court at Oxford all summer, impressing powerful nobles from England and Normandy. Their son Eustace was an important centerpiece of the court, showing there was a legitimate heir in England.
Matilda and Stephen were the model medieval couple. They were both very spiritual and devoted to their faith. Stephen took his marital vows very seriously, unusual for a medieval monarch. Their abiding love of Christianity cemented their relationship. They supported the emerging anchorite movement and founded nunneries and monasteries in the Cluniac, Cistercian and Savignac orders. Matilda was an eminent supporter of the Templar Knights, warrior monks who supported the Crusades. When two of their children died, Matilda and Stephen broke with social convention of the time by publicly weeping at the funerals.
By the summer of 1138, rebellions in favor of Empress Maud and against King Stephen began when the King of Scotland and Empress Maud’s half brother, the Earl of Gloucester changed allegiances. Queen Matilda’s uncle, King David of Scotland was attacking in the north and Stephen was fighting the Welsh in the west. Queen Matilda had gone south to Kent, gathering troops from her home county of Boulogne and from Flanders. The Scots lost the Battle of Northallerton and Stephen sent Queen Matilda north to negotiate peace with her uncle, hoping to keep him from supporting Empress Maud. Matilda did her job skillfully and a treaty was signed on April 9, 1139. But the “Anarchy” period of English history had begun, dominated by fighting between the forces of Empress Maud and King Stephen.
Shortly after Queen Matilda concluded the Scottish treaty, she traveled to France to negotiate a marriage between her eldest son, Eustace and the sister of King Louis VI of France, Constance. A betrothal was formally announced and they were married in 1140. Matilda returned to England and Stephen asked her to negotiate a peace with the Earl of Gloucester, Empress Maud’s greatest supporter. But then Stephen undermined Matilda with his own disjointed dealings. The “Anarchy” was spiraling out of control and by February of 1141, Empress Maud had captured and imprisoned King Stephen.
Queen Matilda was in the south when she got word of her husband’s capture. She sought safety by lodging in the Tower of London. Empress Maud had gone to Oxford and then to Winchester where Matilda sent messengers, begging the Empress to release her husband. When Maud rejected her plea and she was forced to leave the Tower, she moved further south and was preparing to take her family to Boulogne. Matilda had her Flemish troops on alert to intimidate the Empress in London. The Empress made her way in triumph to London and was planning a coronation. But her haughty and arrogant behavior alienated the Londoners and she was driven out of London, never to be crowned.
Despite Maud’s disgrace in London, she still had many allies so Queen Matilda resorted to political tactics and her own graciousness to persuade some of Maud’s greatest supporters to adhere to her cause. She managed to do this and more. One of her loyal adherents, the Earl of Warrene, managed to capture the Earl of Gloucester. Queen Matilda brokered a deal, trading Gloucester for her husband. Stephen was released. At Christmas, Stephen and Matilda wore their crowns at Canterbury Cathedral. After his captivity, Stephen never again had the strong backing that gained him the throne in the first place. He was also a broken man, now in the depths of depression.
Matilda did her best to carry on with ruling the kingdom and backing her husband despite his mental illness. At one point, she traveled to Boulogne seeking troops and money. She returned to London, issued charters and managed the everyday affairs of government maintaining some semblance of normality while the civil war raged on. But the country was exhausted by the war and its effects on the economy. The Empress was to leave England after the death of the Earl of Gloucester in 1147 and Matilda and Stephen had two years of relative peace. But it didn’t last long. Empress Maud’s son Henry of Anjou returned to England and fought some skirmishes with Stephen and Matilda’s son Eustace. Queen Matilda was to travel again to France on a diplomatic mission.
Stephen did his best to get the noblemen to acknowledge Eustace as his heir, making them swear an oath of support. But he knew better than anyone the value of this oath. Neither Eustace nor Henry of Anjou could obtain a decisive victory. In the meantime, an exhausted Matilda went to Hedingham Castle to visit her close friend, Euphemia, Countess of Oxford. She collapsed and died there on May 3, 1152. She was buried at Faversham Abbey.
Stephen and Matilda’s son Eustace was to die a year later. Stephen, at the end of his rope, negotiated the Treaty of Wallingford in November of 1153, naming Empress Maud’s son Henry of Anjou as his heir. The “Anarchy” was over. Stephen died on October 25, 1154 and was buried next to his beloved Matilda at Faversham Abbey.
Further reading: “Queens Consort” by Lisa Hilton, “The Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the English” by Marjorie Chibnall, entry on Matilda of Boulogne in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography written by Marjorie Chibnall, “Queens of the Conquest: England’s Medieval Queens” by Alison Weir