The Other Matilda

A non-contemporary depiction of Matilda of Boulogne

The Anarchy is best remembered (assuming it’s known to you at all) as a civil war between the unfortunate King Stephen and Empress Matilda. There was, however, another Matilda in the mix which does very little to keep things straightforward. There were also two Henrys, but isn’t there always?

Anyway, the second Matilda wasn’t Stephen’s rival, but his wife, and she went a long way in positioning him as able to claim the throne when the Empress Matilda’s father, Henry I, died in 1135.

Naturally we don’t know when exactly Matilda was born, but it was likely between 1103 and 1105. She was the daughter of Eustace III, Count of Boulogne and Princess Mary of Scotland, who, herself, was the granddaughter of King Edmund Ironside. Thus, Matilda’s English lineage predated the Norman Conquest of 1066.

Stephen, meanwhile, was the grandson of William I (or William the Conqueror) through his mother, Adela of Normandy, who had married the Count of Blois. He was not the eldest son and, as such, had no claim to his father’s lands or title. This, however, worked out well for Matilda and her family since she was her parents’ only child and would need a husband alongside her to hold and keep her inheritance.

The couple married in 1125, the same year Eustace III died, allowing Matilda and Stephen to assume the titles Count and Countess of Boulogne almost immediately after marriage. The match was a mutually beneficial; for all that Stephen needed his own fortune, he also offered Matilda a direct link to the English House of Normandy. In fact, in the early years of their marriage they often resided in London as guests of King Henry I.

Henry I

Stephen was close with the English king and profited enormously from his uncle’s patronage, accumulating lands and money throughout his reign. This kinship extended to making an oath of loyalty to Henry’s daughter, the Empress Matilda, as the future monarch of England once Henry’s only legitimate son, William Adelin, drowned on the White Ship in 1120.

Even so, when Henry died in 1135, Stephen rushed from Boulogne to London. Popular with the public and the English magnates alike, the crowds in the capitol shouted declarations of his kingship and his younger brother, Henry of Blois, was able to deliver him the support of the church. Within three weeks of late king’s passing, Stephen was crowned king of England.

So, where was Matilda in all this? Right by his side. As his wife, Matilda more than fulfilled her position as mistress of Stephen’s estates. In fact, she ran them so efficiently that much of the couple’s wealth could be credited to her stewardship. It is believed that prior to ascending the throne, Stephen and Matilda had a son and a daughter who both died young. At the time of Henry I’s death, Matilda was reportedly pregnant and remained behind. Once her son, christened Eustace after her father, was born, she joined Stephen in London and was crowned queen of England on March 22, 1136.

King Stephen

One person who was less than pleased was Empress Matilda, who had been expecting to follow her father on the throne. Nor, particularly, was her husband, Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, who wanted to rule alongside her. Thus, what came next was inevitably civil war.

Matilda was more than the keeper of the domestic and courtly sphere during her husband’s reign. Countess of Boulogne in her own right, she was an asset for Stephen on the stage of Christendom, able to call on military support from Boulogne and Flanders and negotiate alliances with other monarchs. At one point she successfully led a siege of Dover Castle when it was held by the Empress’s forces.

In 1141, six years after he ascended the throne, Stephen was captured. Luckily for him, forces under Matilda’s command would go on to capture Robert of Gloucester, the Empress’s illegitimate half-brother. The two queens (or one queen, one empress, I suppose) arranged a prisoner swap which, arguably, was the Empress’s fatal miscalculation. With Stephen as a prisoner she handed back her most valuable asset. That December, Stephen and Matilda were again crowned king and queen to re-establish their authority.

Empress Matilda

Intermittent war co-mingled with lawlessness went unabated for another 11 years, until, on May 3, 1152 Matilda passed away at Hedingham Castle in Essex. Perhaps the timing was merciful: 15 months later her eldest son, Eustace, also died. His death paved the way for peace and, finally, after nearly 20 years of anarchy, Stephen and the Empress negotiated that Stephen would keep the throne for the duration of his life and be succeeded by the Empress’s eldest son, Henry of Anjou.

That Henry would succeed Stephen on the throne just two months later as King Henry II, founder of the House of Plantagenet and, even more famously, husband of the legendary Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Yet, whatever one may say about Stephen’s claim to the throne or his rule, he was very fortunate in his queen.

Faversham Abbey

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