Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Matriarch of the Plantagenets - the Empress Matilda V

Matilda (15th century)
Taking Sides

Of the nobility there were only two defectors to Matilda; Brian Fitzcount[i] and Miles of Gloucester, an able military tactician who was henceforth to keep Stephen’s forces running from one castle under the threat of siege to another. Miles immediately launched an attack on Stephen’s troops besieging Brian Fitzcount’s castle at Wallingford. He broke the siege which freed Fitzcount to do his worst.

Miles then appeared to have London in his sights. Stephen broke off his attack on Bristol; William of Malmesbury wrote;

‘He [Stephen]also approached Bristol, and going beyond it, burnt the neighbourhood around Dunstore, leaving nothing, as far as he was able, which could minister food to his enemies, or advantage to any one.’[ii]

Stephen turned his army about to protect his capital. Miles then wrong-footed Stephen by turning back and attacking Worcester, now the property of Waleran de Beaumont. Miles left the city devastated.

Ranulf de Gernons coat of arms
Stephen’s position was further weakened by his falling out with Ranulf de Gernons, Earl of Chester. Stephen failed to conciliate de Gernons, preferring instead to promote the Beaumont twins who were vying with de Gernons for control of much of the midlands. De Gernons also felt slighted by the handing over of Carlisle castle[iii] to David of Scotland in the peace that followed the second Scottish incursion. De Gernons’ wife was the daughter of Robert of Gloucester, but her husband did not espouse Matilda’s cause.

A Sea Change

At the end of the year Roger of Salisbury died of a quartan ague[iv]; it cannot have been long before many of his countrymen wished they could join him.

‘The whole of this year [1140] was embittered by the horrors of war. There were many castles throughout England, each defending their neighbourhood, but, more properly speaking, laying it waste. The garrisons drove off from the fields, both sheep and cattle, nor did they abstain either from churches or church-yards.’[v]

This was a harbinger for the years to come.

East gate of Lincoln Castle
Late in 1140 de Gernons seized the royal castle of Lincoln and Stephen realised that he needed to conciliate de Gernons. Stephen allowed de Gernons extensive concessions to keep him onside. But a few weeks later changed his mind and attacked de Gernons at his new Lincoln stronghold.

De Gernons called for help from his father-in-law who brought troops up, surrounding the besieging army. The battle on 2nd February 1141 saw Stephen taken captive; many of the nobility had deserted, but that did not mean that they were keen for Matilda to take the throne. Negotiations for support among the various stakeholders meant that Matilda’s coronation was delayed.

Stephen’s wife Matilda of Boulogne called for her husband’s release. She was supported by her brother-in-law, Henry of Winchester who saw a chance to claw back power and position lost to the Beaumont twins.

A Rash and Proud Woman

Henry of Winchester, as Papal Legate, summonsed a church council, demanding that the prelates honour their original oaths of allegiance to Matilda and that they join him in setting Stephen aside. Matilda of Boulogne sent an emissary of her own asking for Stephen’s release and for his return to the throne. The king’s supporters were excommunicated and Matilda of Boulogne’s plea ignored.

Matilda of Boulogne was Countess of Boulogne in her own right and had access to funds and men to keep control of her lands in Essex. In addition the captain of Stephen’s mercenaries, William of Ypres, stayed loyal to Stephen’s cause and held Kent with the assistance of more mercenaries paid for with money from Boulogne.

Matilda meanwhile was having problems gaining control of the capital. The Londoners’ sympathies were with Stephen and his wife. Until Matilda was able to persuade them to change their loyalties it would be difficult, if not impossible, for her to be crowned. The Londoners had sent representatives to the church council with;

‘A request that their lord the king should be released from captivity.’[vi]

Matilda took a leaf out of Stephen’s book by buying support; she created a number of new earldoms, making Geoffrey de Mandeville earl of Essex, giving him control over London and Middlesex as well. With Geoffrey de Mandeville’s help Matilda entered the city of London in the summer of 1141.

But by now her headstrong, overbearing and extremely tactless behaviour had alienated many of the nobility and clergy. Matilda was even arrogant when dealing with her close relations, her brother Robert and her uncle King David of Scotland.


Coat of arms of the Counts of Boulogne
Henry of Winchester’s rapprochement with Matilda was short-lived; she refused to assist having the hereditary estates of Blois settled on Henry’s nephew Eustace[vii]. She also broke her undertaking to take Henry’s advice on church affairs. In retaliation Henry of Winchester ensured that

‘His complaints against the empress were disseminated through England, that she wished to seize his person; that she observed nothing which she had sworn to him; that all the barons of England had performed their engagements towards her, but that she had violated hers, as she knew not how to use her prosperity with moderation.’[viii];

In early summer Matilda demanded an enormous sum of money from the city of London. The Londoners then made a pact with Matilda of Boulogne after her men had run amok in the capital. Matilda was forced to flee the city when she was set upon at a banquet on 24th June by armed citizens. Matilda made for Winchester to secure the treasury. She was followed by the news that Henry of Winchester had returned to the fold at his sister-in-law’s urging.

Escaping Oxford

Winchester Cathedral
William of Ypres moved his men down to Winchester with such speed that Matilda’s men were taken by surprise and almost completely encircled. Robert of Gloucester fought a delaying action to allow his half-sister to escape. He was then captured and Matilda found herself forced to exchange Robert for Stephen.

Many of Matilda’s wavering supporters had wavered back to Stephen’s side, while others of her supporters had lost horse and armour in a desperate attempt to escape. Robert of Gloucester travelled over to see Geoffrey of Anjou with pleas that he come to his wife’s aid. Robert of Gloucester was met with the answer that Geoffrey was too busy taking Normandy to worry about England. Instead, in November 1142, he sent his 9 year old son as his proxy along with over 300 knights and 52 ships. The young Henry was to be the standard bearer of the Angevin cause.

Oxford Castle
Henry’s mother was besieged in Oxford Castle[ix] where she had taken refuge while her champion was in Normandy. Matilda was able to free herself from captivity, crossing the frozen River Thames and then walking through the snow covered Oxfordshire countryside to reach the safety of Wallingford;

‘The empress, with only four soldiers, made her escape through a small postern, and passed the river. Afterwards….she went to Abingdon on foot, and thence reached Wallingford on horse-back…. the soldiers who had remained at her departure, after delivering up the castle, had gone away without molestation, and the holidays admonished them to repose awhile, they resolved to abstain from battle, and retired to their homes.[x]

Robert’s troops enabled him to halt Stephen’s fresh offensive and gained control of key fortresses in Dorset and Somerset. Robert seems to have decided over the next few months to throw his weight behind putting young Henry on the throne, rather than his discredited mother.

In the aftermath of the retreat from Winchester, Matilda rebuilt her court at Devizes Castle, one of the properties formerly belonging to Roger of Salisbury that had been confiscated by Stephen. Matilda established her household knights on the surrounding estates, supported by Flemish mercenaries, ruling through the network of local sheriffs and other officials. Many of her supporters who had lost lands in the regions held by the King travelled west to take up patronage from Matilda.


The Feudal Kingdom of England 1042-1216 – Frank Barlow, Pearson Education Ltd 1999

Stephen and Matilda – Jim Bradbury, The History Press 2005

She Wolves – Helen Castor, Faber and Faber 2010

Early Medieval England – MT Clanchy, Folio Society 1997

The Plantagenets – Dan Jones, William Collins 2013

King Stephen – Edmund King, Yale University Press 2010

Doomsday to Magna Carta – AL Poole, Oxford University Press 1987

At the Edge of the World – Simon Schama, BBC 2002

Early Medieval England – Christopher Tyerman, Stackpole Books 1996

Henry II – WL Warren, Yale University Press 2000


[i] Also known as Brian of Wallingford
[iii] Carlisle had been a de Gernons stronghold until 1120, when Henry I had removed it from their control.
[iv] Malaria
[vi] King Stephen - Bradbury
[vii] Stephen’s son born in 1129; he later inherited the count-ship of Boulogne from his mother
[ix] Held by Robert D’Oyley the Younger, a former supporter of Stephen’s

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