Nor­man Eng­land’s War­rior Queen

The achieve­ments of Matilda of Boulogne, wife of King Stephen, are of­ten over­looked in favour of her enemy, Em­press Maud. Ali­son Weir ex­am­ines the woman who raised an army in the 1140s to de­fend the English throne


Ali­son Weir ex­am­ines Matilda of Boulogne, the woman who raised an army in the 1140s to de­fend the English throne

She proved a strong queen, feisty and in­de­fati­ga­ble in her sup­port of her hus­band, Stephen

In the spring of 1141, as Eng­land suf­fered in the midst of a bit­ter civil war, Queen Matilda of Boulogne was in Kent, busily rais­ing an army. Gal­vanised by the news that her hus­band, King Stephen, had been im­pris­oned by his venge­ful ri­val and cousin, the Em­press Maud (also known as Em­press Matilda), the queen was ut­terly de­ter­mined to march on London and en­sure that the em­press would never wear the crown she so fiercely cov­eted.

It was rare in the 12th cen­tury for a woman to bear arms. Al­though the Nor­man queens of Eng­land had wielded con­sid­er­able power as shar­ers in the royal do­min­ion, it was now be­ing eroded thanks to the cen­tral­i­sa­tion of gov­ern­ment ad­min­is­tra­tion at West­min­ster, over which queens of­ten had less in­flu­ence. Had it not been for the war, Matilda might have had a very dif­fer­ent role.

The only child of Eus­tace III, Count of Boulogne, and Mary of Scot­land, Matilda was born c1103. She was one of the most de­sir­able princesses in Europe, on ac­count of hav­ing royal Saxon and Scot­tish blood, and the great in­her­i­tance that would come to her on her fa­ther’s death: the county of Boulogne and its lands – its ‘hon­our’ – in Eng­land.

When Matilda was two, her un­cle, Henry I of Eng­land, be­trothed her to her cousin, Stephen of Blois, the grand­son of Wil­liam the Con­queror. In 1125 her fa­ther be­came a monk and ceded Boulogne and his English es­tates to Matilda. He died soon af­ter­wards, where­upon Henry I ar­ranged for her mar­riage to take place. It made Stephen the rich­est mag­nate in Eng­land. With Boulogne, he gained con­trol of the short­est Chan­nel cross­ing to Eng­land and, with it, mer­chant ship­ping. The mar­riage was happy, and there is much ev­i­dence for the cou­ple’s af­fec­tion for one another.


Henry I’s sole heir was his daugh­ter, Maud; next in line came his neph­ews of Blois. Henry had con­strained his barons, in­clud­ing Stephen, to swear oaths ac­knowl­edg­ing Maud as his suc­ces­sor to the throne, but when Henry died in 1135 Stephen broke faith, seized the throne, and was crowned king on 22 De­cem­ber.

Matilda ar­rived in Eng­land in Jan­uary 1136. Her coro­na­tion was lav­ishly per­formed at West­min­ster Abbey on Easter Sun­day.

She proved a strong and re­source­ful queen – feisty, en­er­getic and in­de­fati­ga­ble in her sup­port of her in­ef­fec­tive hus­band, whom she far ex­ceeded in ca­pa­bil­i­ties. De­scribed as “a woman of sub­tlety with a man’s res­o­lu­tion”, she demon­strated sound judg­ment. She won praise not only for her un­wa­ver­ing loy­alty to Stephen, but also for her courage, her hon­our, her diplo­macy, and for hav­ing “a manly heart in a woman’s body”, as a con­tem­po­rary chron­i­cler ob­served.

Matilda wielded great power. Her hon­our of Boulogne was cen­tred largely upon London and Colch­ester, which gave her a strong ter­ri­to­rial advantage. She was closely in­volved in gov­ern­ment, for Stephen trusted her po­lit­i­cal judg­ment and re­lied on her sup­port.

Shared re­li­gious in­ter­ests strength­ened the bond be­tween her and Stephen. They gave their daugh­ter Marie to God as a nun, and founded abbeys at Fur­ness and Faver­sham. Matilda es­tab­lished the Royal Hospi­tal of St Katharine’s by the Tower.

She was a bene­fac­tress to many re­li­gious houses and helped es­tab­lish the Knights Tem­plar in Eng­land.

Mean­while, the em­press was bat­tling to gain con­trol of Nor­mandy as a spring­board for in­vad­ing Eng­land and wrest­ing the crown from Stephen. Her sup­port-base broad­ened when her il­le­git­i­mate half-brother, Robert, Earl of Glouces­ter, es­poused her cause. In 1138, he sent his vas­sal, Walche­lin Maminot, across from Nor­mandy with an in­vad­ing army, in­tend­ing to land it at Dover, which he held.

With his pres­ence des­per­ately needed to quell re­bel­lion in the west, and with

ev­ery con­fi­dence in his wife’s abil­ity, Stephen de­puted Matilda to re­gain Dover. She faced a huge chal­lenge be­cause Dover Cas­tle, on its mas­sive cliff com­mand­ing the sea, was a for­mi­da­ble strong­hold, but she had con­sid­er­able re­sources at her com­mand.

She be­sieged Dover with a large army on the land­ward side, and or­dered her men of Boulogne to block­ade it by sea. With a great fleet of ships, they closed the nar­row strait to pre­vent the gar­ri­son re­ceiv­ing any sup­plies.

Thanks to the strat­egy Matilda de­ployed, in con­cert with her kins­man Phara­mus of Boulogne, Dover was sur­rounded, with Matilda her­self com­mand­ing the men who laid siege to the cas­tle. Maminot was forced to sur­ren­der to the queen.

In 1139, Maud in­vaded Eng­land and civil war be­tween her and Stephen broke out. Nei­ther had su­pe­rior strength, a sit­u­a­tion that many un­scrupu­lous barons took full advantage of, un­leash­ing a pe­riod of op­pres­sion and law­less­ness that be­came known as the An­ar­chy. The An­glo-Saxon Chron­i­cle recorded this as a time dur­ing which “Christ and His saints slept”.

Queen Matilda proved a re­doubtable op­po­nent to Maud. She was as brave and de­ter­mined as her ri­val, but never as ar­ro­gant or dic­ta­to­rial, de­spite op­er­at­ing ef­fec­tively as a fe­male war­lord. As a re­sult, she avoided alien­at­ing those who dis­ap­proved of women break­ing through the bound­aries im­posed on them by a male-dom­i­nated so­ci­ety.

A cri­sis came in Fe­bru­ary 1141, when Stephen was cap­tured at Lin­coln and im­pris­oned in chains on Maud’s or­ders. Gal­vanised to Her­culean ef­forts to free him, Matilda surged through Kent, rais­ing troops with the loyal Wil­liam of Ypres, to op­pose the em­press. In the king’s ab­sence, she took upon her­self the royal author­ity.

The Em­press Maud was now car­ry­ing all be­fore her, though. She se­cured the sup­port of the church, through the good of­fices of Stephen’s treach­er­ous brother, Henry, bishop of Winch­ester, and was ac­knowl­edged as ‘Lady of the English’ by most of Eng­land bar Kent, where the queen was en­trenched.

London strongly sup­ported Stephen, and Matilda worked to se­cure its loy­alty, promis­ing its cit­i­zens riches once her hus­band was freed. How­ever, Maud also needed to win over London to her cause, so that she could be crowned. Fi­nally, its gates opened to her, but the mood was hos­tile.

Stephen had granted the cit­i­zens priv­i­leges and lib­er­ties, and he and Matilda were well liked. Maud was not, and her ar­ro­gance and puni­tive de­mands for money an­gered the cit­i­zens.

Matilda set about ex­ploit­ing the un­rest, never let­ting any­one for­get that their anointed king lan­guished in chains. She sent rep­re­sen­ta­tives to the em­press, beg­ging her to re­lease her hus­band from his filthy dun­geon. She of­fered her­self as hostage in ex­change, as well as cas­tles and great riches. She even promised that, once Stephen was freed, she would en­sure that he re­lin­quished his claim to the throne.

Sev­eral ro­man­tic paint­ings por­tray Maud haugh­tily turn­ing down the sup­pli­cant queen, yet it is clear that they did not meet per­son­ally at this time, but in­stead com­mu­ni­cated through en­voys.


Matilda now re­solved to take up arms to achieve what her words had failed to.

She marched on London at the head of an im­pres­sive army and, al­though she did not take part in the fight­ing, she or­dered her forces to “rage most fu­ri­ously around the city with plun­der and ar­son, vi­o­lence and the sword”, as de­scribed in a chron­i­cle of the time. Lon­don­ers watched in im­po­tent ter­ror as the out­ly­ing sub­urbs were rav­aged, bit­terly re­gret­ting aban­don­ing a boun­ti­ful ruler for the tyran­ni­cal em­press. When Matilda’s troops laid siege to the Tower, the cit­i­zens sent mes­sen­gers to rea­son with her – and then drove Maud from the city.

As Stephen’s sup­port­ers con­grat­u­lated each other joy­fully, Matilda was warmly wel­comed into London. A con­tem­po­rary chron­i­cler wrote: “For­get­ting the weak­ness of her sex and a woman’s soft­ness, she bore her­self with the val­our of a man. Ev­ery­where, by prayer or price,


she won over in­vin­ci­ble al­lies. She urged the king’s lieges to de­mand their lord back to her.”

Bishop Henry now aban­doned Maud and, in re­tal­i­a­tion, her forces be­sieged Winch­ester. Mean­while, the queen had met with Henry, and was so per­sua­sive that he vowed to for­sake Maud’s cause and help lib­er­ate

King Stephen.

Matilda marched on Winch­ester, her army strength­ened by a thou­sand an­gry Lon­don­ers. She ar­rived to find the bishop’s cas­tle un­der siege by Maud’s forces, and her­self block­aded the city, in ef­fect the queen was be­sieg­ing the be­siegers.

The siege lasted for nearly two months, un­til dis­ease and star­va­tion im­pelled the em­press to es­cape. Her forces were routed by the queen’s army, and Robert of Glouces­ter was cap­tured, which cost Maud her advantage. With­out her chief main­stay, she could do noth­ing.

Matilda did not have Robert fet­tered. In­stead, she en­sured that he was treated hon­ourably. Af­ter tough ne­go­ti­a­tions, it was agreed that the king should be re­stored and Robert should be re­leased. On 1 Novem­ber 1141, Stephen was freed and he and

Matilda en­tered London in tri­umph.

In 1142, Maud oc­cu­pied Ox­ford, and Eng­land was plunged back into the tur­moil of civil war. Stephen be­sieged the city and Matilda raised re­in­force­ments for him, but the em­press made a dar­ing es­cape, dressed in white, cam­ou­flaged against the snow.

Her cause was lost, but still she would not give in. Only af­ter Earl Robert died in 1147, and her other sup­port­ers lost heart, did she leave Eng­land. Her cause was taken up by her son Henry, who was de­ter­mined to take the crown him­self.

In April 1152, Matilda was vis­it­ing Hed­ing­ham Cas­tle, Es­sex, when she fell sick with a fever. Stephen was sum­moned, and was with her when she died on 3 May. She did not live to see the end of the war. In 1153 it was agreed that, on Stephen’s death, Henry would suc­ceed to the throne

(as Henry II).

Stephen died in 1154 and was buried be­side Matilda at Faver­sham. Matilda’s epi­taph read: “If ever woman de­served to be car­ried by the hands of an­gels to Heaven, it was this holy queen.”

Ali­son Weir is the UK’s best­selling fe­male his­to­rian.

Queens of the Con­quest, the first of her new quar­tet of books on Eng­land’s me­dieval queens is out now

A 14th-cen­tury de­pic­tion of Stephen sit­ting on his throne. The English king forged a for­mi­da­ble – and gen­uinely af­fec­tion­ate – part­ner­ship with his wife and queen, Matilda

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