Tuesday, 5 July 2016

The Matriarch of the Plantagenets - the Empress Matilda IV

Geoffrey of Anjou
Matilda at a Loss

Matilda was in an ambiguous position vis-à-vis Stephen; she had not been present at her father’s death bed, she had not made an attempt to reach England, nor had she been crowned. And Matilda’s husband was a man deeply distrusted by the English barons, who was engaged in leading raiding parties into Normandy. Orderic Vitalis noted that;

‘[Geoffrey’s forces] made themselves hated forever by their brutality’[i]

even as the Norman barons began fighting amongst themselves. As soon as they heard of Henry’s death;

‘They rushed out hungrily like ravening wolves to plunder and ravage mercilessly.’[ii]

More telling was the undeniable fact that Matilda was a woman, ten years younger than Stephen and less skilled at the political games needed to balance the needs of kingdom and duchy.

Moreover Matilda was a virtual unknown while Stephen had been a habitué of his uncle’s court for decades and was a proven soldier as well as Count of Boulogne and Mortain. Once crowned Stephen raised an army of mercenaries to fight against King David who’d overrun the borders, persuading him to come to terms. This success rallied the English barons behind their new king. Matilda’s half-brother Robert of Gloucester[iii] bent his knee to his cousin rather than his sister.

Lining up for a Civil War

Exeter Castle
In the summer of 1136 one Baldwin de Revières, who had been a devoted supporter of Henry’s, refused to recognise Stephen as his king and fortified Exeter castle[iv] against him. Stephen raced with his army to besiege the castle. When the well ran dry and the wine ran out Baldwin pleaded for mercy.

Henry of Blois argued that an example should be made of Baldwin and his men while Robert of Gloucester and others took the opposite position. Stephen lacked his uncle’s ruthlessness and allowed the garrison to go free. The moral was noted; opposing Stephen was not necessarily fatal.

Eight months later Stephen turned his attention to Normandy where the ravening wolves were still roaming the duchy. His army turned its attention to Argentan where Matilda still lay at bay, but en route quarrelling amongst the nobility saw it fall apart. Robert of Gloucester accused Stephen of attempting to ambush and kill him and withdrew to his powerbase around Caen and Bayeux.
Stephen, after a lacklustre campaign which left the Norman barons still fighting amongst themselves, returned to England.

In June 1138 Robert of Gloucester declared for his sister, publicly renouncing his allegiance to Stephen. His forces were opposed in Normandy by Count Waleran of Meulan while Stephen rushed to seize Gloucester’s English territories. His attempt to take Wallingford castle failed and Robert’s man Miles of Gloucester[v] proved an able substitute for his lord. Stephen failed in his attempt to besiege Robert’s stronghold at Bristol. William of Malmesbury wrote;

‘So the whole district around Gloucester far into Wales, partly through force and partly from good will, gradually went over to the lady empress.’[vi]

The news was better from the border where David once again brought his army down to the Scottish-English borderlands. He was opposed by an army of Yorkshire men who routed the Scots in a two hour battle.

The Fight in Rome

Early in 1139 both sides made attempts to embroil the Vatican on their side and receive official moral support against their deadly foe. Stephen sent Archbishop Theobald, newly appointed[vii], at the head of a large embassy of clerics to the Second Lateran Council. Pope Innocent gave him the pallium when Theobald arrived. Matilda sent Bishop Ulger of Angers over the Alps in April.

Unfortunately for her Ulger was no match for Theobald and the assembled ranks of English clergy. Ulger, described as a ‘lily among thorns’, presented Matilda’s case to the council but Ulger was no advocate and he was trounced by Stephen’s defender Arnulf[viii], Archdeacon of Sées. He claimed that Matilda was not her father’s legitimate heir as her mother Enid had been a nun before her marriage which was therefore invalid. This was a specious argument as Enid had never taken vows and Archbishop Anselm[ix] had decreed that Enid was free to marry Henry. It did not help that Ulger lost his temper and said to Arnulf;

‘I would marvel at the shamelessness of your lies were it not that your whole race is garrulous and deserves to be held up as an example of sinful life and skill and effrontery in lying. In these arts you are conspicuous among the Normans.’[x]

Innocent backed the incumbent, accepting Stephen’s gifts along with his claims. Innocent himself had only just returned to Rome after the death of the Antipope Anticletus II. Matilda protested that Innocent had been bribed but it was too little too late.

A Cardinal Error?

Coins minted during the reign of Henry of Scotland
Stephen now consolidated his position; one of David’s sons, Henry of Scotland came down to Stephen’s court where his bribe was Ada de Warenne[xi]. By 24th June 1139 the court was at Oxford where an affair took place that became known as the ‘arrest of the bishops’.

Roger of Salisbury and his two nephews Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln and Nigel Bishop of Ely, holders of a number of important castles throughout the kingdom and suspected supporters of Matilda, were arrested after failing to surrender their castles in surety for their retainers brawl with the men of Earl Alan of Richmond.

‘The king, eagerly seizing the opportunity, ordered the bishops to….make satisfaction to his court, as their people had infringed his peace: that this satisfaction should be, the delivery of the keys of their castles, as pledges of their fidelity. Though prepared to make compensation, they hesitated at the surrender of their fortresses; and in consequence, lest they should depart, he ordered them into close confinement.’[xii]

Waleran de Meulan
All their castles were seized and the bishops released. The coup against Roger and his family was spearheaded by the Beaumont twins, Waleran de Meulan and his brother Robert. Their influence with Stephen was edging out that of his brother, Henry of Blois.

Stephen may have taken action against Roger in light of the rumours of an impending invasion by Robert of Gloucester and his half-sister. But his actions were to have serious consequences as they destroyed confidence in Stephen’s promise to respect the liberties of the church, alienating many of the clergy including Henry of Blois who found the affair ‘outrageous’[xiii]. Not only that but the arrests of Roger, Nigel and Alexander in one foul swoop removed the realm’s three most experienced administrators.

From now on the administration was to muddle on, rather than react swiftly and smoothly to events. Stephen placed running the counties under the military control of counts or earls with their own feudal vassals. Within the next two years twenty earls were created from the noble families. Local rivalries were deepened and family feuds intensified while royal authority was dismembered and destabilised.

The Incursion

On 29th August Henry of Blois summonsed Stephen to appear before an ecclesiastical council for having ridden roughshod over church liberties. The council broke up after three days, unable to come to an agreement, but it was an indicator of things to come. Stephen was losing a lot of the support he had garnered at the beginning of his reign.

Nearly a month later on 30th September Matilda was to set foot on English soil for the first time in eight years. She landed at Arundel[xiv] to take shelter in the castle held by her stepmother Adeliza’s new husband William d’Aubigny. Along with Matilda came Robert of Gloucester and a group of armed men who rode off the 120 miles to Robert’s castle of Bristol.

Corfe Castle
Stephen who was investing Corfe Castle[xv], ninety miles away in Dorset, immediately marched east to invest Arundel. To avoid the appearance of making war on two female members of the royal family, one of whom was his aunt by marriage and had welcomed Stephen at court, and the possibility of a long siege Stephen took his brother’s advice and agreed to release Matilda into her brother’s care.

‘The ex-queen was awed by the king’s majesty, and….solemnly swore that no enemy of the king had come to England through her doing, but that, saving her dignity, she had provided hospitality to those in authority known to her.’[xvi]

Matilda was sent off to Bristol with an escort that included Henry of Blois, closely followed by Stephen’s army, ready to besiege the castle as soon as Matilda was safely inside.


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] She-Wolves - Castor
[ii] Ibid
[iii] One of the greatest noblemen in the country who feared supporting Matilda would leave him dangerously isolated
[iv] Castle Rougemont
[v] Son of Walter of Gloucester, hereditary castellan (or Constable) and Sherriff of Gloucester
[vi] Stephen and Matilda - Bradbury
[vii] An obscure cleric whose qualifications appeared to be his close acquaintance with the Beaumont twins. Stephen’s brother Henry of Winchester had expected to be given the Archbishopric himself
[viii] Later Bishop of Liseux and a courtier at Stephen’s court
[ix] Canonised in 1163
[x] King Stephen - Bradbury
[xiii] Since the appointment of Theobald as Archbishop of Canterbury Henry had been working to have himself appointed Papal Legate
[xv] Held by Baldwin de Revières
[xvi] King Stephen - Bradbury

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