Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Matriarch of the Plantagenets - the Empress Matilda VII

Henry and Eleanor
Return to England

Henry’s return to England was in part delayed by the hostility of Louis VII, newly returned from the Second Crusade. He was not pleased to realise that Normandy and England could soon be ruled by the same person and refused to recognise Henry as Duke of Normandy. Eventually Geoffrey advised bribing Louis by giving up the Vexin in return for recognition as duke[i]; it worked. At the end of August 1151 Henry paid homage to the king of France for Normandy.

Less than a month later Geoffrey died at the age of thirty-nine. Henry FitzEmpress had to travel to Anjou to take homage from his vassals. He was then embroiled in an affair of the heart[ii], kept secret as his future wife was the wife of his liege lord; Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France. In a fraught divorce it was finally agreed that Louis would keep custody of the two French princesses, their daughters and on 18th May 1152 Henry married the heir of William X, Duke of Aquitaine[iii].

Louis then took sides with Stephen and Eustace in a futile attempt to drive out Henry from his lands in Normandy. Henry FitzEmpress saw off the attacks but time was marching on and his supporters in England were crying out for his return. By the time Henry FitzEmpress returned to England the war had turned in Stephen’s favour; he was besieging Wallingford Castle having taken Newbury in 1152.

Malmesbury Abbey
Henry FitzEmpress arrived on 6th January 1153 bringing 140 knights and 3,000 foot soldiers carried in 36 ships. He was hastily followed over the Channel by Eustace. Henry made his way to Malmesbury where the castle was surrendered to him after a stand-off.

Henry then rode to Stockbridge to meet with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishops of Winchester, Bath, Salisbury and Chichester. The purport of the meeting was to discuss the return of Devizes Castle to the control of the Bishop of Salisbury. This done the bishops agreed to use their best efforts to reach a consensus between the warring parties.

Coming to Terms

Wallingford Castle
Stephen was now over sixty and had lost his appetite for war. He had relied a lot on Matilda of Boulogne and her death the previous summer had knocked away one of his main supports. Of his supporters the Earl of Leicester had transferred his support to Henry FitzEmpress who was taking control of the midlands. William d'Aubigny, Earl of Arundel argued the futility of further fighting.

By July Henry arrived at Wallingford where Stephen was once again besieging Brian Fitzcount’s castle. Henry’s forces in turn besieged Stephen’s wooden siege-castle at Crowmarsh Gifford. Stephen and Henry were ambushed by their own supporters who persuaded the two men to meet and agree a temporary truce.

Stephen's son Eustace opposed any rapprochement with the enemy, he clearly felt betrayed by his father’s actions;

Eustace for his part, greatly vexed and angry because the war, in his opinion, had reached no proper conclusion, left his father and went out of sight of the court, and met his death from grief within a few days.’[iv]

but he died suddenly in the August, allegedly struck down by the wrath of God while plundering church lands near Bury St Edmunds. Eustace’s death left the way open for the two parties to agree peace terms.

Henry FitzEmpress and Stephen were persuaded to meet on 6th November 1153 at Winchester. Stephen announced the Treaty of Wallingford at Westminster Cathedral at Christmas: he recognised Henry FitzEmpress as his adopted son and successor in return for Henry paying homage to him.

‘The king first acknowledged….the hereditary right which the duke had in the kingdom of England. And the duke generously conceded that the king should hold the kingdom for the rest of his life, if he wished.’[v]

Other conditions included:
  • Stephen promising to listen to Henry's advice, but he retained all his royal powers; Henry conceded that;
  • Stephen's remaining son, William, would do homage to Henry and renounce his claim to the throne, in exchange for promises of the security of his lands;
  • Key royal castles would be held on Henry's behalf by guarantors, whilst Stephen would have access to Henry's castles;
  • The numerous foreign mercenaries would be demobilised and sent home.
Cathedral cloister
Stephen and Henry sealed the treaty with a kiss of peace in the cathedral. The treaty was signed at a later date at Westminster.

Henry less than a year to wait; the young FitzEmpress became Henry II on 25th October 1154 when;

‘[Stephen] was suddenly seized with a violent pain in his gut, accompanied by a flow of blood.’[vi]

Matilda did not attend the coronation but it was one of the two crowns of gold that Matilda brought back from Germany with her that Henry wore that day.

A Mother’s Influence

Matilda had set up household in Rouen in a residence built by her father at his park at Quevilly, on the banks of the River Seine. The house was near to the priory of Notre Dame du Pré[vii].
It was from here that Matilda acted as her son’s surrogate when Henry was on his travels across his vast domains. Henry trusted his mother’s judgement; one royal mandate, issued in England to the justices in Normandy in the late 1150s said;

‘If you do not do this let my lady and mother the empress see that it is done.’[viii]

Matilda appears to have persuaded Henry not to invade Ireland which he wanted to bestow upon his younger brother William. William was given lands in England in lieu.

In 1156 Matilda was forced to preside over a bitter family conference in Rouen, after the twenty two year old Geoffrey rose up in rebellion against his elder brother. Henry was immovable and Geoffrey stormed off to wage war. Henry took less than six months to take Chinon, Mirebeau and Loudun. Geoffrey ceded his claim to Anjou and settled for an annuity He died two years later, an embittered and humiliated young man. William died in Rouen six years later, his mother by his side.

Frederick Barbarossa
In 1157 Matilda was probably involved in the negotiations with Emperor Frederick Barbarossa over the fate of the mummified hand of St James which Matilda had brought to England after the death of her first husband. The emperor wanted the relic returned to the imperial treasury while Henry was determined to keep it at Reading Abbey. Frederick was eventually persuaded to drop the matter following the receipt of numerous gifts including four great falcons and a magnificent campaigning tent that struck awe into its beholders.

Old Age

In 1160 Matilda suffered a serious illness and her influence over Henry waned when she advised against the appointment of Chancellor Thomas Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury[ix]. Matilda was involved in attempts to mediate between Henry and his Chancellor Thomas Becket when the two men fell out in the 1160s.

Henry II and Beckett
When the Prior of Mont St Jacques asked Matilda for a private interview on Becket's behalf to seek her views, she provided a moderate perspective on the problem Matilda explained that she disagreed with Henry's attempts to codify English customs, which Becket was opposed to. She also condemned poor administration in the English Church and Becket's own headstrong behaviour.

Throughout her retirement Matilda still continued her role as peacemaker; as late as 1167 she was trying to de-escalate the problems between her son and Louis VII, this time a quarrel over crusading funds. A truce was agreed in August and Henry then launched on an invasion of the Duchy of Brittany.

Weeks later Henry was recalled by the death of his mother. Matilda died on 10th September 1167 surrounded by monks from the monastery of Bec. She was buried in the Abbey, in a service led by Rotrou, the Archbishop of Rouen. Whether she would have approved of the inscription on her tomb is moot;

‘Great by birth, greater by marriage, greatest in her offspring, here lies the daughter, wife and mother of Henry.’[x]

Matilda left the abbey the contents of her private chapel, having already donated much of the treasure she had brought back from Germany.


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

Gerald of Wales – Robert Bartlett, Tempus Publishing Ltd 2006

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

Early Medieval England – Christopher Tyerman, Stackpole Books 1996

Henry II – WL Warren, Yale University Press 2000


[i] In 1158 a treaty between Henry and Louis agreed that Henry’s son Henry and Louis’ daughter Margaret would marry and the Vexin would be her dowry
[ii] It is equally likely that Henry had his eye on Eleanor’s vast inheritance. It was alleged by Gerald of Wales (a chronicler hostile to the Angevins) that Eleanor had an affair with Geoffrey of Anjou
[iii] Henry failed to gain Louis’ consent to the marriage, as by right he should have done as one of Louis’ vassals
[iv] King Stephen - King
[v] Henry II - Warren
[vi] She-Wolves - Castor
[vii] An offshoot of the Abbey of Bec that Matilda had long supported
[viii] She-Wolves - Castor
[ix] Henry must later have rued the day that he did not follow his mother’s advice
[x] She-Wolves - Castor

1 comment:

  1. She did more for England as the monarch's mother than as queen though it was a shame she couldn't persuade Henry to pass over Becket. A contentious choice, and rather a turbulent priest.