King Stephen and his wife, Matilda of Boulogne, had 3 children who survived infancy, and yet – on his death – Stephen left his throne to Henry, Count of Anjou and son of Stephen’s bitter enemy, Empress Matilda.
Matilda was Henry I’s only surviving legitimate child, and designated heir – but she was a woman and England’s nobles were reluctant to be ruled by a woman. Stephen was Henry I’s nephew, one of his closest male relatives and in the confusion following Henry’s death it was Stephen who acted quickly and decisively, and took the crown.
What followed was a period known as the Anarchy, almost 20 years of conflict and bloodshed as Stephen and Matilda battled for supremacy. Ultimately, Stephen managed to retain control of England but Matilda’s eldest son, Henry, was eager to win back his birthright.
Following several incursions by Henry – whilst still in his teens – he and Stephen came to an agreement: Stephen would hold the throne until his death, but Henry would succeed him.
So, what happened to Stephen’s children?
Eustace IV, Count of Boulogne, was the eldest son of Stephen and Matilda, to survive into adulthood. Eustace was an unpleasant character, by all accounts. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle called him ‘an evil man’ who ‘robbed the lands and laid heavy taxes upon them’.
Eustace was married in Paris, in 1140, to Constance, the only daughter of Louis VI of France and his 2nd wife, Adelaide of Savoy. Constance ‘was a good woman but enjoyed little happiness with him’; following their marriage, she was kept as a virtual prisoner at Canterbury Castle.
Stephen made attempts to have Eustace crowned, in his own lifetime, as heir-designate, but this was blocked by the Papacy, who backed Henry’s claim to the crown.
Although Eustace had been recognised, as Stephen’s heir, by the secular baronage, I can’t help thinking that it was a real stroke of luck for England when Eustace died of a seizure or ‘in a fit of madness’ in August 1153. Rumours of poisoning are not surprising; Eustace’s death paved the way for an ‘understanding’, over the succession, between Stephen and Henry of Anjou.
Stephen’s youngest son was William, who was born around 1134. In 1149 he was married to Isabel de Warenne, sole heiress to William de Warenne, 3rd Earl of Surrey, in order to bring the vast de Warenne lands within the influence of the crown. William would succeed to the County of Boulogne in 1153, on the death of Eustace.
Shortly after his brother’s death, and with the help of the clergy, William made an agreement with Henry of Anjou, whereby he waived his own rights to the crown in return for assurances explicitly recognising his rights to his lands, as Count of Boulogne and Earl of Surrey. Although, it is not known whether he did this willingly, or was persuaded by others, the agreement was an essential tool for the peaceful accession of Henry.
William was implicated in a plot against Henry in early 1154 – or he at least knew about it – and there may have been a tit-for-tat attempt as William’s leg was broken in an ‘accident’ at about the same time. However, when his father died, he made no attempt to oppose Henry’s accession and even accepted a knighthood from the new king.
William died, without issue, in 1159, during the Siege of Toulouse and was buried in the Hospital of Montmorillon in Poitou, France.
He was succeeded in the County of Boulogne by his sister, Mary, the 3rd surviving child of Stephen and Matilda. Mary was born around 1136 and placed in a convent at an early age, first at the Priory of Lillechurch, Kent, and then at Romsey Abbey, where she was elected Abbess sometime before 1155.
Five years later – shortly after William’s death – Mary was abducted by Matthew of Alsace, 2nd son of the Count of Flanders, and forced to marry him. There was outrage among the clergy – the incident was even discussed by the Pope – but the marriage was allowed to stand. Mary and Matthew had 2 children – Ida and Mathilde – and it was after the birth of Mathilde that the couple were divorced, in 1170.
Matthew would continue to rule Boulogne and be succeeded by Ida on his death in 1173. Mary returned to the convent life, becoming a Benedictine nun at St Austrebert, Montreuil. She died there in July 1182, aged about 46.
The abduction and forced marriage of Mary may well have been a political move. Although there does not appear to be any proof that Henry II sanctioned it, he certainly benefited from Mary being safely married to a loyal vassal. She was, after all a great heiress and – through her father – a rival claimant to the throne of England.
Further reading: Donald Matthew, King Stephen; Robert Bartlett, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings; David Williamson, Brewer’s British Royalty; the History Today Companion to British History; Dan Jones, the Plantagenets; englishmonarchs.co.uk; The Oxford Companion to British History; Mike Ashley, The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens; Alison Weir, Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy.
Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia