A Thwarted Love Match and the Murder of Becket

Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury

You may have hears of the murder of Thomas Becket, but did you known one of the four knights involved may have had a more personal motive for attacking the controversial archbishop of Canterbury than his colleagues? Richard Brito had been a knight in the household of Henry II’s youngest brother, William of Anjou, also known as William FitzEmpress. He was also William’s friend. William was the youngest son of Empress Matilda and her husband Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. Empress Matilda had been one of the rival claimants for the English throne during the Anarchy, fighting against her cousin, King Stephen.

King Stephen’s youngest son, William of Blois, had been married to the great heiress, Isabel de Warenne, Countess of Surrey and Warenne in her own right. His death while returning from campaigning in Toulouse, left Isabel a wealthy young widow, and highly desirable marriage prize.

Though recently widowed, Isabel would have been well aware that she was expected to remarry, just as her mother had done. The fact she held the mighty earldom of Surrey would have made settling her future even more pressing; the earl of Warenne had contributed knights and men from his own lands to the armies of both King Stephen and Henry II. This was expected to continue, but Isabel could not be expected to lead men into battle. It is all the more surprising, therefore, that Isabel was allowed some respite in the marriage market and the prospect of a husband is not mentioned until 1162.

By this time Henry II’s youngest brother, William FitzEmpress, was seeking a dispensation to marry her. The dispensation was refused by Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, on the grounds of consanguinity. The
objection was not due to a blood relationship between Isabel and William, but between William and Isabel’s first husband, William of Blois, who were second cousins. It has often been suggested that this was a love-match rather than an arranged marriage. We will, of course, never know how Isabel felt but William died shortly afterwards, at Rouen on 30 January 1164, whilst visiting his mother, possibly seeking her assistance in the matter. Many of his friends claimed that he died of a broken heart after being disappointed in his desire to marry Isabel. He was 27.

Seal of Isabel de Warenne, Conisbrough Castle

The relationship between Henry II and Thomas Becket had been rocky ever since Becket became archbishop of Canterbury. Henry had thought that putting his friend in charge of the church in England would mean the two would be able to work together. However, once in the post, Becket had essentially abandoned Henry’s policies and sought to defend and extend the influence and rights of the church in England, while Henry sought to curb them. A clash was inevitable and came about when Henry sought to extend the jurisdiction of secular courts over English clergymen and to protect the traditional rights of royal government in regard to the church. In January 1164 Henry had issued the Constitutions of Clarendon. The sixteen constitutions were intended to curb clerical independence and weaken the connection of the English church with Rome. Becket consented to the Constitutions, but disputes continued throughout 1164. Henry called for the archbishop to appear at a great council at Northampton Castle on 12 October 1164, to answer to the charges laid against him.

Among numerous other issues, Becket was called to account for his behaviour concerning land disputes between the church and crown, contempt of royal authority and malfeasance in the chancellor’s office. The bishops, earls and barons of the realm were all present, including Roger, archbishop of York, the most senior clergyman in England after the archbishop of Canterbury. Henry II’s brother, Hamelin, was at the trial and spoke in support of Henry. Indeed, the new earl and the archbishop appear to have started a war of words; Hamelin defended Henry’s dignity and called Becket a traitor. Ironically, it is thought that Hamelin’s denunciation of Becket was motivated by the injury caused to the royal family in Becket’s refusal to allow King Henry’s brother, William, to marry Isabel de Warenne; who was now Hamelin’s wife. Convicted of the charges against him, Becket stormed out and fled to exile in France, where he received protection from Louis VII.

There followed six years of negotiations, accusations and counter-accusations, before an accord was agreed and Becket was finally able to return to England and his see at Canterbury. Henry II wrote to his son Henry, the Young King, saying:

Henry king of England to his son Henry, king of England, greeting.

May you know that Thomas archbishop of Canterbury has made peace with me in accordance with my wishes. Therefore I order that he and his followers may have peace and that you see to it that he and his followers, who on his behalf left England, should have their possessions in peace and with honour, as they did three months before they left England. Summon before you some of the best and oldest knights of the honour of Saltwood and on their oath you should make an inquiry as to what of the fief of the archbishopric of Canterbury is there, and make sure that the archbishop gets what has been recognised as part of his fief. Witness Archbishop Rotrou of Rouen, at Chinon.

The Plantagenet Chronicles, edited by Elizabeth Hallam

After six years of exile, Thomas Becket arrived at Sandwich, on the Kent coast, on 1 December 1170. Shortly before arriving on England’s shores, however, in November 1170 Becket, rather than being conciliatory, had sent representatives ahead to pronounce the excommunication of those clerics (the archbishop of York and the bishops of London and Salisbury) who had been involved in the coronation of Henry II’s son and heir, Henry the Young King, in June 1170. He then proceeded to impose his discipline on his monks, refusing to ordain all but one of those who had been admitted during his six-year absence.

On hearing of the excommunications, during his Christmas court in Normandy, Henry is said to have pronounced the fateful words:

‘What miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born clerk!’ 

Franck Barlow, Oxforddnb.com
Contemporary illustration of the murder of Thomas Becket

Four knights heeded Henry’s words and left Normandy to confront the archbishop. One of William FitzEmpress’s former knights, Richard Brito, was among the quartet who murdered Thomas Becket on 29 December 1170. The knights had travelled from Normandy to demand that the archbishop restore the English bishops who had been suspended from their offices, and to absolve those under sentence of excommunication. Becket refused, saying that it was not

‘for a lesser judge to dissolve the sentence of a superior, and that it was not for any man to undermine what had been decreed by the apostolic see.’

The Plantagenet Chronicles, edited by Elizabeth Hallam

According to William FitzStephen the knights attempted to arrest the archbishop and a struggle ensued after he refused to go with them. The archbishop’s companion, Master Edward Grim, stepped into the path of the first stroke meant for Becket. The archbishop then gave thanks to God, saying

‘Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.’ As he knelt down, clasping and stretching out his hands to God, a second stroke was dealt him on the head, at which he fell flat on his face hard by an altar there dedicated to St Benedict … On the right hand he fell, as one proceeding to the right hand of God. While he lay there stricken, Richard Brito smote him with such force that the sword was broken against his head, and the pavement of the church: ‘Take that,’ said he, ‘for the love of my lord William, the king’s brother.’

The Plantagenet Chronicles, edited by Elizabeth Hallam

Beyond this extreme reaction by William’s knight, Richard Brito, there is little evidence that the proposed marriage between William and Isabel was a true love match, and we have no indication of Isabel’s thoughts on the matter. Even without the love angle, for William, marrying Isabel would have been an attractive prospect and would have given him position and power in England, not only as the king’s brother but also as one of the foremost magnates in England and Normandy.

The Warenne coat of arms

For King Henry, the proposed marriage would have been a very practical match. It would have been the perfect solution to the dilemma of what to do with Isabel and the vast Warenne holdings in England and Normandy; to bring them into the royal family and to have them held by the king’s own brother. Henry II was not to be so easily thwarted, however, and indeed did not object to Thomas Becket’s ruling against the marriage of William FitzEmpress and Isabel de Warenne. He came up with a solution that would achieve the same end, while satisfying the restrictions of the church: his brother Hamelin.

In the aftermath of the murder, Richard Brito and his three accomplices

plundered the property of the archbishop, the clothes of the clergy and servants, and even the utensils from the workshop. They swiftly made off with all the which they found in his stables, as spoils.

The Plantagenet Chronicles, edited by Elizabeth Hallam

Brito and the three other knights, Riginald Fitzurse, Sir William Traci and Hugh de Morville fled to Scotland and then to Knaresborough Castle in Yorkshire. All four were excommunicated by Pope Alexander III at Easter 1171. They were each ordered to make a 14-year pilgrimage to the Holy Land in penitence. Brito, also known as Richard le Breton, is said to have eventually retired to the island of Jersey, but nothing more is known of his eventual fate.

Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, was canonised on Ash Wednesday, 21 February 1173.

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Images:

Courtesy of Wikipedia except seal of Isabel de Warenne which is ©Sharon Bennett Connolly.

Sources:

Robert Batlett, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings; Elizabeth Hallam, editor, The Plantagenet Chronicles; Dan Jones, The Plantagenets; Donald Matthew, King Stephen; Medieval Lands Project on the Earls of Surrey, Conisbrough Castle; Farrer, William and Charles Travis Clay, editors, Early Yorkshire Charters, Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne; Rev. John Watson, Memoirs of the Ancient Earls of Warren and Surrey and their Descendants to the Present Time; Morris, Marc King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta; Church, Stephen, King John: England, Magna Carta and the Making of a Tyrant; doncasterhistory.co.uk; Oxforddnb.com.

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My books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly.

Mary, Reluctant Countess of Boulogne

Mary’s mother, Matilda of Boulogne

Mary of Blois was the youngest daughter of Stephen of Blois and his wife, Matilda of Boulogne, herself the granddaughter of St Margaret, queen of Scotland. Mary was born in Blois, France around 1136. She was destined for the cloister from an early age and, while still a young girl, was placed in a convent at Stratford, Middlesex, with some nuns from St Sulpice in Rennes.

Mary’s lineage and the quirks of fate, however, meant that Mary’s peaceful convent life would be violently cut short.

Mary’s father Stephen was the nephew of Henry I, and his closest, legitimate, male relatives. Following the death of his only legitimate son, William Adelin, in the White Ship disaster of 1120, and with his only other legitimate child, Empress Matilda, living in Germany, it seems that Henry looked at Stephen as a possible successor. However, when Matilda’s husband died in 1125 and the empress returned to her father’s court, Stephen’s position was left undetermined. Stephen remained prominent at the English court, always present as a viable alternative to the succession of a woman – Empress Matilda.

In the confusion following Henry’s death in December 1135, it was Stephen who acted quickly and decisively. As he claimed the crown in England and his adherents secured Normandy in Stephen’s name, Empress Matilda was home in Anjou with her husband Geoffrey, Count of Anjou and two young sons, Henry and Geoffrey. She was pregnant with her third and youngest son, William.

What followed was a period known as the Anarchy, almost 20 years of conflict and bloodshed as Stephen and the Empress Matilda battled for supremacy of England and Normandy. Ultimately, Stephen managed to retain control of England but lost Normandy to Count Geoffrey, who passed it on to his and Matilda’s eldest son, Henry FitzEmpress. Henry, was eager to win back his birthright and following several incursions by Henry – whilst still in his teens – he and Stephen came to an agreement.

King Stephen

Stephen and his wife Matilda had five children in total, but only three, including Mary, who survived infancy. Of Stephen and Matilda’s three children, Eustace IV, Count of Boulogne, was the eldest to survive into adulthood, and was groomed as his father’s heir. He was married to Constance of France, daughter of King Louis VI and sister of Louis VII, in 1140 and knighted in 1147. He died in August 1153, after suffering some form of seizure. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle said of him

‘he had little success, and with just cause, because he was an evil man, because wheresoever he came he did more evil than good; he robbed the lands and laid great taxes on them.’

Anglo_Saxon Chronicles, edited by Michael Swanton

The Gesta Stephani, however, paints a picture of

‘a young man of high character … his manners were grave; he excelled in warlike exercises and had great natural courage … he was courteous and affable … and possessed much of his father’s spirit … ever ready to draw close the bands of peace’ but ‘never shrank from presenting a resolute and indomitable front to his enemies.’

Gesta Stephani

Stephen’s youngest son was William, who was born around 1134/5. In 1149 he married Isabel de Warenne, sole heiress to William de Warenne, third earl of Surrey, in order to bring the vast 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 Mortain and Earl of Surrey.

Romsey Abbey

Mary, who had been in the convent in Stratford, Middlesex, was moved around 1150-52 after some discord with the nunnery. Her parents founded a new convent for her at Lillechurch (Higham) in Kent, making it a sister convent with Rennes’ St Sulpice. Mary does not appear to have been given the title of prioress. However, a charter of Henry II, dated around 1155-58, confirmed Lillechurch to Mary and her nuns, suggesting she held some position of authority. Before 1160 Mary had become abbess of the great abbey at Romsey, an older and more prestigious institution than her little foundation at Lillechurch.

Mary’s brother William died without issue in 1159 during the Siege of Toulouse. Though a nun, Mary succeeded him in the County of Boulogne. In 1160 Mary’s life was turned upside down. She was suddenly a great heiress, countess of Boulogne in her own right and too great a marriage prize to be allowed to remain secluded in the cloisters. She was abducted from Romsey Abbey by Matthew of Alsace, second son of the Count of Flanders, and forced to marry him. This may well have been a political move; although there does not appear to be any proof that Henry II sanctioned it, most sources imply that the marriage was forced on her by the king and he certainly benefited from Mary being safely married to a loyal vassal. She was, after all, not only a great heiress but, through her father, she had a strong, rival claim to the throne of England.

Henry II and his mother, Empress Matilda, from a 12th century manuscript

There was great outrage among the clergy; marriage with a nun was a breach against canon law and opposed by the leading ecclesiastical figures of the day. One source suggested the pope had granted a dispensation for the marriage. However, given that Pope Alexander III expressed great disapproval in a letter to the archbishop of Rheims, his consent seems highly unlikely. The pope imposed an interdict on Matthew of Alsace and pressed the claims of the wife of Mary’s brother, Eustace, to the Boulogne estates; even though Constance had died some fourteen years before. The furore seems to have died down eventually, and the marriage was allowed to stand.

Unfortunately for Henry II, Matthew turned out to be a not-so-loyal vassal and rebelled at least twice. The first occasion arose when Matthew tried to press his claims to Mortain, land that should have been part of Mary’s inheritance but was now held by Henry II. The king was not too accommodating. An agreement was eventually reached whereby, in return for £1,000, Matthew would renounce all claims to those parts of his wife’s estates that were still in royal hands.

Mary seems to have had little love for Henry II, possibly due to his involvement in her abduction and marriage, or simply because of the fact their respective families had spent many years at war. With so much bad history, you wouldn’t expect them to have an affectionate relationship, but Mary appears to have actively worked against Henry. Following a meeting with the ambassadors of the emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, she wrote to King Louis of France. In the document, she describes Henry II as ‘the fraudulent king’, while informing Louis of Henry’s manoeuvring against him.

Mary and Matthew had two children, daughters Ida and Mathilde; and it was after the birth of Mathilde that the couple were divorced, in 1170. There is some suggestion that Matthew was pressured to agree to the divorce by his dying father and the emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, probably in the hope of having the interdict – placed on Matthew on his marriage to Mary – lifted. After the divorce, Matthew would continue to rule Boulogne and was succeeded by Ida on his death in 1173.

Mary’s younger daughter Mathilde, Duchess of Brabant

Ida (b. c1160) married three times; her first husband, Gerard III, count of Gueldres, who died in 1183. Her short marriage to her second husband, Berthold IV, Duke of Zehringen, ended in his death in 1186. Ida’s last marriage was to Reginald, or Renaud, de Tree, Count of Dammartin, who was a childhood friend of France’s king, Philip Augustus. It seems Renaud abducted Ida and forced her into marriage. He died in 1227, outliving Ida, who died in 1216, by eleven years. It was Matilda, the daughter of Ida and Renaud, who inherited Boulogne from Ida, and would also become Queen of Portugal through her marriage to Alfonso III of Portugal.

Born in 1170 Ida’s younger sister, Mathilde, married Henry I, duke of Louvain and Brabant, when she was nine-years-old. She would have seven children before her death sometime in 1210 or 1211; she was buried in St Peter’s Church, Leuven.

The interdict, which had been placed on Matthew on his marriage to Mary, was finally lifted when she returned to the convent life, becoming a simple Benedictine nun at St Austrebert, Montreuil. Mary died there in July 1182, aged about forty-six, and was buried in the convent. A woman who obviously believed that her life should be devoted to God, she is remarkable in that she managed to fulfil her dynastic duties in a forced marriage, and yet asserted herself so that she was able to return to the secluded life she so obviously craved.

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Sources:

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; S.P. Thompson, Oxforddnb.com, Mary [Mary of Blois], suo jure countess of Boulogne (d. 1182), princess and abbess of Romsey; Anglo_Saxon Chronicles, edited by Michael Swanton; Gesta Stephani.

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My Books

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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The Children of King Stephen

King Stephen

I have always been fascinated by the story of The Anarchy, that period of civil war in 11th century England. Empress Matilda fought her cousin, King Stephen, for the crown of England and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle famously reported:

… they said openly that Christ and His saints slept. Such things, and more than we know how to tell, we suffered 19 years for our sins.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, edited and translated by Michael Swanton, p.265

King Stephen of England and his wife, Matilda of Boulogne, had 3 children who survived infancy, and yet – on his death – Stephen disinherited his surviving son, William, to leave his throne to Henry, Count of Anjou and Duke of Normandy. Henry was the son of Stephen’s bitter enemy, Empress Matilda.

Matilda of Boulogne, herself, was a cousin of Empress Matilda through her mother, Mary of Scotland, sister to the empress’s mother, Matilda of Scotland. Matilda of Boulogne and Empress Matilda were both granddaughters of Malcolm III of Scotland and his saintly wife, Margaret of Wessex; they were nieces of King David I of Scotland.

The Empress was was the only surviving legitimate child of Henry I (reigned 1100-1135), and his designated heir – but she was a woman  and England’s nobles were reluctant to be ruled by a woman. Their reluctance to allow Matilda to take the throne was heightened by their dislike and distrust of Matilda’s husband, Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. Stephen of Blois was Henry I’s nephew and the son of Henry’s sister, Adela of Normandy. He was one of the old king’s closest male relatives and in the confusion following Henry’s death it was Stephen who took the initiative, acting quickly and decisively, and taking the kingdom of England and duchy of Normandy for himself.

Silver penny of Empress Matilda, from the Oxford mint

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?

Stephen and Matilda had 2 children, Baldwin and Matilda, who did not survive to adulthood. Matilda was married in 1136, as an infant, to Waleran de Beaumont, eldest twin son of Robert de Beaumont, 1st Earl of Leicester, and Isabel de Vermandois. The poor little girl died the following year, aged only 4.

Eustace IV, Count of Boulogne

The eldest surviving son of Stephen and Matilda was Eustace IV, Count of Boulogne. Eustace was an unpleasant character, by most accounts. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle called him ‘an evil man’ who ‘robbed the lands and laid heavy taxes upon them’. Henry of Huntingdon’s appraisal of Eustace was almost as damning:

… he was a man proven in military skill, but obdurate against the things of God, very harsh towards the incumbents of churches, very loyal towards those who persecute the Church.

The History of the English People 1000-1154 by Henry of Huntingdon

Eustace was married in Paris, in 1140, to Constance, the only daughter of Louis VI of France and his 2nd wife, Adelaide of Savoy. She was the sister of King Louis VII, the first husband of Eleanor of Aquitaine. Constance ‘was a good woman but enjoyed little happiness with him’. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

1140. Then Eustace the king’s son travelled to France and took to wife the sister of the king of France and thought to get Normandy through that, but he had little success, and with jut cause, because he was an evil man, because wheresoever he came he did more evil than good; he robbed the lands and laid great taxes on them. He brought his wife to England and put her in the castle at Canterbury. She was a good woman but she had little happiness with him, and Christ did not wish that he should rule long, and he [1153] and his mother [1152] both died.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, edited and translated by Michael Swanton, p.267
330px-matilda_of_boulogne
Matilda of Boulogne

Stephen made attempts to have Eustace crowned, in his own lifetime, as heir-designate, in order to guarantee his succession. This was blocked by the Papacy; though they supported Stephen as king, over Matilda, they were keen to see the throne return to the senior legitimate line of Henry I through Matilda’s son, Henry.

The young prince had retired from court after Stephen came to terms with Henry. He was;

‘greatly vexed and angry because the war, in his opinion, had reached no proper conclusion’.

Gesta Stephani

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. He had recently laid waste to the lands of the abbey of Bury St Edmunds and so some said the revered saint had exacted his revenge. Another theory was that he choked to death and, of course, rumours of poisoning are not surprising; Eustace’s death paved the way for an ‘understanding’, over the succession, between Stephen and Henry of Anjou.

William, Earl of Surrey

Stephen’s youngest son was William, who was born sometime in the mid-1130s. It is thought William was born following Stephen’s accession to the English throne in 1135, as he was named after his great-grandfather, William the Conqueror, King of England and Duke of Normandy, rather than with a name associated with the County of Boulogne, as had his older brothers, Eustace and Baldwin.

Seal of Isabel de Warenne, 4th Countess of Surrey

In 1148 he was married to Isabel de Warenne, sole heiress to William de Warenne, 3rd Earl of Surrey, in order to bring the vast Warenne lands within the influence of the crown. Isabel’s father had departed on the Second Crusade in 1147 and would not return, being killed at the Battle of Mount Cadmus, in Laodicea, in January 1148. William was being addressed as an earl even before his father-in-law’s death.1 He would succeed to the County of Boulogne in 1153, on the death of Eustace and the county of Mortain on the death of his father in 1154.

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.

In spite of this agreement, William was implicated in a plot against Henry in early 1154 – or he at least knew about it – in which some Flemish mercenaries planned, but failed, to ambush Henry on the road near Canterbury. There may have been a tit-for-tat retaliation as William’s leg was broken in an ‘accident’ at about the same time.

However, when King Stephen died, William made no attempt to oppose Henry’s accession. In the early years of his reign, Henry acted to curb some of the power and influence William may have wielded by confiscating some of the lands and castles from his patrimony of Mortain, but allowing him to retain the earldom of Surrey, for the most part. William was even knighted by Henry II, after he joined the new king on his campaign against Toulouse.

William died in France, without issue, in 1159, after falling ill at the Siege of Toulouse and was buried in the Hospital of Montmorillon in Poitou, France. He was in his early 20s and left his young wife, Isabel, about the same age, a widow.

Mary of Boulogne

188px-blason_courtenay-svg
Arms of the county of Boulogne

William 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, at least until Mary produced and heir to the county of Boulogne. 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, his eldest daughter by Mary, on his death in 1173. Mary was allolwed to return 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.

It is, perhaps, a sad legacy for King Stephen that, after almost 20 years of warfare in order to hold onto his throne, the king was not able to pass it on to any of his children. His sons dying without issue meant that his bloodline continued only through his daughter, Mary, and the County of Boulogne, which Stephen had inherited through his marriage to Matilda.

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Footnotes: 1 Farrer, William and Charles Travis Clay, editors, Early Yorkshire Charters, Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne.

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; Farrer, William and Charles Travis Clay, editors, Early Yorkshire Charters, Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne; Gesta Stephani; Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154; J. Sharpe (trans.), The History of the Kings of England and of his Own Times by William Malmesbury; Catherine Hanley, Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior; Orderici Vitalis, Historiae ecclesiasticae libri tredecem, translated by Auguste Le Prévost; Chronicles of the Reigns of Stephen, Henry II and Richard I; Edmund King, King Stephen; Donald Matthew, King Stephen; Teresa Cole, the Anarchy: The Darkest Days of Medieval England;  Matthew Lewis, Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy.

Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

The First Battle of Lincoln, 1141

1141 Battle of Lincoln from Historia Anglorum

I have written previously about the 1217 Battle of Lincoln, but did you know that was the Second Battle of Lincoln? The First Battle of Lincoln occurred during the period known as The Anarchy, the conflict for the throne fought between King Stephen and Empress Matilda.

Early in 1141, news reached King Stephen that Ranulf de Gernons, the disgruntled Earl of Chester, had captured Lincoln Castle. Disappointed in his aspirations to Carlisle and Cumberland after they were given to Prince Henry of Scotland, Ranulf had turned his sights on Lincoln Castle, which had once been held by his mother, Lucy of Bolingbroke, Countess of Chester. Countess Lucy had died around 1138, leaving her Lincolnshire lands to her son by her second marriage, William de Roumare, Ranulf’s half-brother. Her lands elsewhere had been left to Ranulf de Gernons, who was the son of her third marriage, to Ranulf le Meschin, Earl of Chester.

It seems that in late 1140 Ranulf and his brother had contrived to gain possession of Lincoln Castle by subterfuge. As the story goes, the two brothers waited until the castle garrison had gone hunting before sending their wives to visit the castellan’s wife.  A short while after, Earl Ranulf appeared at the castle gates, wearing no armour and with only three attendants, supposedly to collect his wife and sister-in-law. Once allowed inside, he and his men overpowered the small number of men-at-arms left to guard the castle and opened the gates to his brother. The half-brothers took control of the castle and, with it, the city of Lincoln.

The citizens of Lincoln appealed to the king, who had promptly arrived outside the castle walls by 6 January 1141 and began his siege. Earl Ranulf somehow escaped from the castle and returned to his lands in Chester in order to raise more troops. He also took the opportunity to appeal to his father-in-law for aid. Ranulf’s father-in-law was, Robert, Earl of Gloucester, the illegitimate son of Henry I and brother of Empress Matilda. A very capable soldier, Earl Robert commanded Matilda’s military forces and his daughter, Maud of Gloucester – Ranulf’s wife – was still trapped inside Lincoln Castle. If the need to rescue his daughter was not enough motivation to persuade Robert to intercede at Lincoln, Ranulf also promised to switch his allegiance, and his considerable resources, to Empress Matilda. Robert marched to Lincoln, meeting up with his son-in-law along the way. The earls’ forces arrived on the outskirts of Lincoln on 1 February, crossed the Fossdyke and the River Witham and arrayed for battle.  Their rapid approach caught Stephen unawares. Outnumbered, Stephen was advised to withdraw his forces, until he could muster enough men to make an even fight of it.

King Stephen

Stephen, perhaps remembering the destruction of his father’s reputation after his flight from Antioch, refused to withdraw. He would stand and fight. The next morning, 2 February 1141, before battle was joined, King Stephen attended a solemn mass in the cathedral; according to Henry of Huntingdon, who claimed Bishop Alexander of Lincoln as his patron and may well have been present, the service was replete with ill omens:

‘But when, following custom, he offered a candle fit for a king and was putting it into Bishop Alexander’s hands, it broke into pieces. This was a warning to the king that he would be crushed. In the bishop’s presence, too, the pyx above the altar, which contained the Lord’s Body, fell, its chain having snapped off. This was a sign of the king’s downfall.’

Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154

After mass, the king led his forces through Lincoln’s West Gate, deploying them on the slope leading down to the Fossdyke. He formed his army into three divisions, with mounted troops on each flank and the infantry in the centre. On the right flank were the forces of Waleran de Meulan, William de Warenne, Simon de Senlis, Gilbert of Hertford, Alan of Richmond and Hugh Bigod, Earl of Norfolk. The left was commanded by William of Aumale and William of Ypres, Stephen’s trusted mercenary captain, who led a force of Flemish and Breton troops. The centre comprised the shire levy, which included citizens of Lincoln, and Stephen’s own men-at-arms, fighting on foot around the royal standard.

The opposing army also deployed in three divisions, with ‘the disinherited’, those deprived of their lands by King Stephen, on the left. The infantry, comprising of Earl Ranulf’s Cheshire tenants and other levies, and dismounted knights were in the centre under Earl Ranulf himself. The cavalry, under the command of Earl Robert of Gloucester formed the right flank. The Welsh mercenaries, ‘ill armed but full of spirits’ were arrayed on the wings of the army. Before the battle, Earl Ranulf addressed his father-in-law and fellow barons, saying,

Robert of Gloucester and his wife, Mabel

‘Receive my hearty thanks, most puissant earl, and you, my noble fellow-soldiers, for that you are prepared to risk your lives in testimony of your devotion to me. But since it is through me you are called to encounter this peril, it is fitting that I should myself bear the brunt of it, and be foremost in the attack on this faithless king, who has broken the peace to which he is pledged. While I, therefore, animated by my own valour, and the remembrance of the king’s perfidy, throw myself on the king’s troops … I have a strong presage that we shall put the king’s troops to the rout, trample under foot his nobles, and strike himself with the sword.’

Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154

Earl Robert of Gloucester responded to Ranulf and addressed the army:

‘It is fitting that you should have the honour of the first blow, both on account of your high rank and your exceeding valour… The king has inhumanely usurped the crown, faithless to the fealty which he swore to my sister, and by the disorder he has occasioned caused the slaughter of many thousands; and by the example he has set of an illegal distribution of lands, has destroyed the rights of property… There is one thing, however, brave nobles and soldiers all, which I wish to impress on your minds. There is no possibility of retreat over the marches which you which you have just crossed with difficulty. Here, therefore, you must either conquer or die, for there is no hope of safety in flight. The only course that remains is, to open a way to the city with your swords. If my mind conjectures truly, as flee you cannot, by God’s help you will this day triumph… You. Victorious, will see the citizens of Lincoln, who stand in array nearest their walls, give way before the impetuosity of your attack and, with faint hearts, seek the shelter of their houses…

There is Alan of Brittany in arms against us, nay against God himself; a man so execrable, so polluted with every sort of wickedness that his equal in crime cannot be found… Then, we have opposed to us the Earl of Mellent [Meulan], crafty, perfidious; whose heart is naturally imbued with dishonesty, his tongue with fraud, his bearing with cowardice … slow in advance, quick in retreat, the last in fight, the first in flight. Next, we have against Earl Hugh, who not only makes light of his breach of fealty against the empress, but has perjured himself most blatantly a second time; affirming that King Henry conferred the crown on Stephen, and that the king’s daughter abdicated in his favour. Then we have the Earl of Albemarle [Aumale], a man singularly consistent in his wicked courses, prompt to embark in them, incapable of relinquishing them; from whom his wife was compelled to become a fugitive, on account of his intolerable filthiness. The earl also marches against us, who carried off the countess just named; a most flagrant adulterer, and a most eminent bawd, a slave to Bacchus and no friend to Mars; redolent of wine, indolent in war. With him comes Simon, earl of Northampton, who never acts but talks, who never gives but promises, who thinks that when he has said a thing he has done it, when he has promised he has performed… So of the rest of Stephen’s nobles: they are like the king; practised in robbery, rapacious for plunder, steeped in blood and all alike tainted with perjury… If you are of one mind in executing the divine judgement, swear to advance, execrate retreat, and in token of it, unanimously raise your hands to heaven.’

Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154
Gatehouse
West Gate of Lincoln Castle, leading out to the most likely location of the 1141 battle

Earl Robert’s speech spared no criticism of King Stephen’s noble commanders. By process of elimination, we can surmise the Earl William de Warenne is the unnamed earl who carried of the wife of the earl of Aumale and is dismissed as a drunkard womaniser who was ‘indolent in war’. Though Warenne had had little success in conflict, this harangue is somewhat of an exaggeration; Earl Warenne, at this time, was still relatively young, being no more than 21 years. He had managed to achieve quite a reputation in a very short time if Robert of Gloucester was referring to him.

Henry of Huntingdon reports speeches from both sides, exhorting the men to battle and insulting the opposing commanders. As his voice ‘was not clear’ Baldwin fitz Gilbert was deputed to speak for King Stephen:

‘All ye who are now about to engage in battle must consider three things: first, the justice of your cause; secondly, the number of your force; and thirdly, its bravery: the justice of your cause that you may not peril your souls; the number of your force that it may not be overwhelmed by the enemy; its valour, lest, trusting to numbers, cowardice should occasion defeat. The justice of your cause consists inn this, that we maintain, at the peril of our lives, our allegiance to the king, before God, against those of his subjects who are perjured to him. In numbers we are not inferior in cavalry, stronger in infantry. As to the valour of so many barons, so many earls, and of our soldiers long trained to war, what words can do it justice? Our most valiant king will alone stand in place of a host. Your sovereign, the anointed of the Lord, will be in the midst of you; to him, then, to whom you have sworn fealty, keep your oaths in the sight of God, persuaded that he will grant you his aid according as you faithfully and steadfastly fight for your king, as true men against the perjured, as loyal men against traitors…’

Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154

Baldwin fitz Gilbert’s speech goes on to describe Earl Robert of Gloucester as having ‘the mouth of a lion and the heart of a hare,’ saying he is ‘loud in talk, but dull in action.’ Earl Ranulf of Chester is described as ‘a man of reckless audacity, ready for a plot, not to be depended on in carrying it out, rash in battle, careless of danger; with designs beyond his powers aiming at impossibilities…’ The speech is just as scathing for the rest of the rebel army, announcing, ‘For the other nobles and knights, they are traitors and turncoats, and I would that there were more of them, for the more there are the less are they to be feared.’ The harangue ends with the exhortation, ‘Lift up your hearts, and stretch out your hands, soldiers, exultingly, to take the prey which God himself offers to you.’1

According to Henry of Huntingdon, the armies were mobilising before Baldwin fitz Gilbert’s speech ended. The rebels were the first to advance, ‘the shouts of the advancing enemy were heard, mingled with the blasts of their trumpets, and the trampling of the horses, making the ground to quake.’ The ranks of the ‘disinherited’ moved forward with swords drawn, rather than lowered lances, intent on close quarter combat. This left flank of the rebel army fell upon Stephen’s right flank, ‘in which were Earl Alan, the Earl of Mellent [Meulan], with Hugh, the Earl of East Anglia [Norfolk], and Earl Symon, and the Earl of Warenne, with so much impetuosity that it was routed in the twinkling of an eye, one part being slain, another taken prisoner and the third put to flight.’ Faced with the ferocity of the assault and the very real prospect of death, rather than being taken prisoner and held for ransom, the earls fled the field with the remnants of their men. It was every man for himself as Stephen’s right wing disintegrated in panic.2

The Lucy Tower, Lincoln Castle

The left wing of the royal army appeared to have greater success, at least initially. The men of William of Aumale, Earl of York and Stephen’s mercenary captain, William of Ypres, rode down the Earl of Chester’s Welsh mercenaries and sent them running, but ‘the followers of the Earl of Chester attacked this body of horse, and it was scattered in a moment like the rest.’3 Other sources suggest that William of Ypres and William of Aumale fled before coming to close quarters with the enemy.4 Either way, William of Ypres’ men were routed and he was in no position to support the king and so fled the field, no doubt aware that he would not be well-treated were he to be captured.

Stephen’s centre, the infantry, including the Lincolnshire levies and the king’s own men-at-arms, were left isolated and surrounded, but continued to fight. Stephen himself was prominent in the vicious hand-to-hand fighting that followed. Henry of Huntingdon vividly describes the desperate scene as ‘the battle raged terribly round this circle; helmets and swords gleamed as they clashed, and the fearful screams and shouts re-echoed from the neighbouring hill and city walls.’5 The rebel cavalry charged into the royal forces killing many, trampling others and capturing some. King Stephen was deep in the midst of the fighting:

‘No respite, no breathing time was allowed, except in the quarter in which the king himself had taken his stand, where the assailants recoiled from the unmatched force of his terrible arm. The Earl of Chester seeing this, and envious of the glory the king was gaining, threw himself upon him with the whole weight of his men-at-arms. Even then the king’s courage did not fail, but his heavy battle-axe gleamed like lightning, striking down some, bearing back others. At length it was shattered by repeated blows, then he drew his well-tried sword, with which he wrought wonders until that, too, was broken.’

Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154;

According to Orderic Vitalis and the Gesta Stephani, it was the king’s sword that broke first, before he was passed a battle-axe by one of the fighting citizens of Lincoln, in order to continue the fight. Whatever the order, the king’s weapons were now useless and the king ‘fell to the ground by a blow from a stone.’6 Stephen was stunned and a soldier named William de Cahaignes then rushed at him, seized him by his helmet and shouted, ‘Here! Here! I have taken the king!’7

Silver penny of Empress Matilda, from the oxford mint

The king’s forces being completely surrounded, flight was impossible. All were killed or taken prisoner, including Baldwin fitz Gilbert, the man who had given the rousing pre-battle speech to the men. In the immediate aftermath of the fighting, Lincoln was sacked, buildings set alight, valuables pillaged, and its citizens slaughtered by the victorious rebels.

Defeated, Stephen was first taken to Empress Matilda and then to imprisonment at Bristol Castle. A victorious Matilda was recognised as sovereign by the English people; the people of London being among the first to accept her.

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Footnotes:

1 Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154; 2 ibid; 3 ibid; 4 Gesta Stephani; 5 Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154; 6 J. Sharpe (trans.), The History of the Kings of England and of his Own Times by William Malmesbury; 7 Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154

Bibliography:

Gesta Stephani; Henry of Huntingdon, The History of the English People 1000-1154; J. Sharpe (trans.), The History of the Kings of England and of his Own Times by William Malmesbury; Catherine Hanley, Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior; Orderici Vitalis, Historiae ecclesiasticae libri tredecem, translated by Auguste Le Prévost; Chronicles of the Reigns of Stephen, Henry II and Richard I; William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay, editors, Early Yorkshire Charters, Volume 8: The Honour of Warenne; Edmund King, King Stephen; Donald Matthew, King Stephen; Teresa Cole, the Anarchy: The Darkest Days of Medieval England; David Smurthwaite, The Complete Guide to the Battlefields of Britain; Matthew Lewis, Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy.

Images:

Courtesy of Wikipedia except those of Lincoln Castle which are ©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly

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My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

Article: © Sharon Bennett Connolly 2020

Book Corner: Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy by Matthew Lewis

The Anarchy was the first civil war in post-Conquest England, enduring throughout the reign of King Stephen between 1135 and 1154. It ultimately brought about the end of the Norman dynasty and the birth of the mighty Plantagenet kings. When Henry I died having lost his only legitimate son in a shipwreck, he had caused all of his barons to swear to recognize his daughter Matilda, widow of the Holy Roman Emperor, as his heir and remarried her to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. When she was slow to move to England on her father’s death, Henry’s favorite nephew Stephen of Blois rushed to have himself crowned, much as Henry himself had done on the death of his brother William Rufus.

Supported by his brother Henry, Bishop of Winchester, Stephen made a promising start, but Matilda would not give up her birthright and tried to hold the English barons to their oaths. The result was more than a decade of civil war that saw England split apart. Empress Matilda is often remembered as aloof and high-handed, Stephen as ineffective and indecisive. By following both sides of the dispute and seeking to understand their actions and motivations, Matthew Lewis aims to reach a more rounded understanding of this crucial period of English history and asks to what extent there really was anarchy.

Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy by Matthew Lewis, is a wonderful book looking at the civil war, known as The Anarchy, through the eyes of the two leading protagonists, King Stephen and his cousin, Empress Matilda. A totally absorbing read, this book is enjoyable and informative, analysing the actions of both sides in a critical but sympathetic light.

Matthew Lewis digs deep into the personalities involved in both sides of the war and puts flesh on the bones of these characters. The result is a fair and balanced appraisal of the conflict between these two cousins, both as rival claimants to the throne and as leaders of their disparate supporters. The story is told in alternate chapters from the views of Stephen and Matilda, helping to keep the analysis and narrative balanced and fresh.

Matthew Lewis tries to be fair to both sides. You can tell that he feels for Empress Matilda, faced not only with a challenge to her right to the throne, but with the extra challenges that arose out of her being a woman and unable to lead the military aspects of the war. The author highlights Matilda’s failings, but does temper them with an explanation of how her actions would have been received differently, had she only been a man!

On the other side, King Stephen’s own faults and weaknesses are also singled out, though Matthew Lewis also stresses that where Matilda was hindered by her sex, so was Stephen – by Matilda’s gender, that is. There were limits put on Stephen by the fact he was challenged by a woman; just as Matilda could not lead her troops into battle, neither could Stephen face his challenger in an all-for-nothing trial by combat that could have put an end to the war years later. The result was a long, protracted war during which it was said ‘Christ and his saints slept.’

Before any move was made, there were probably four prime candidates to succeed Henry. His daughter, Empress Matilda, was perhaps the most obvious, but also in many ways the least attractive. Female rule was still something unheard of, at least in England, a nation that would have no queen regnant for another 400 years. The second possibility was Robert, Earl of Gloucester. Robert was an illegitimate son of Henry I, widely considered his favourite. He had extensive lands and power both in Normandy and England and was well respected. He was, however, illegitimate. That was less of a bar to power in Normandy: the Conqueror himself had been called William the Bastard. In England, it was unheard of. Legitimacy was still an absolute, marking the distinction between a duke and a king. Robert had everything required to follow his father except the right mother.

The two other contenders came from the House of Blois. They were Henry’s nephews, the sons of his sister Adela and her husband Stephen, Count of Blois. Theobald, Count of Blois and Champagne was the senior male of the house, though his younger brother Stephen, Count of Mortain, had been in England for years and was close to his uncle. They offered the prospect of legitimate, male successors as grandsons of William the Conqueror, albeit in a female line of descent. None of these solutions appeared perfect, and only one could win the throne. As it turned out, only two displayed an interest, and neither would give up during the nineteen years that followed.

Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy by Matthew Lewis is a thoroughly enjoyable read, offering the perfect balance in a non-fiction book; accessible, interesting and informative. It gives a whole new perspective to the Civil War which divided England for the whole of Stephen’s 19-year reign. The book looks into each aspect of the war. The battles, conferences, truces and stalemates, are all analysed through the disparate eyes of those involved; not only looking into how they effected events, but also how events affected them.

Although it concentrates on the 2 leading protagonists, Stephen and Matilda, the book also gives insight into the lead supporting characters on both sides, giving the reader a comprehensive, panoramic view of the era through the personalities of those involved; from the steadfast and loyal Robert, Earl of Gloucester, to Stephen’s queen, also Matilda and the gruff, fearless John Marshal, father of William Marshal, first Earl of Pembroke and arguable the greatest knight England ever had.

Although more known for his books on the Wars of the Roses, Matthew Lewis has managed to demonstrate the breadth and depth of his historical knowledge with Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy. He had put his usual level of passion and attention to detail into this book and the result is well worth reading. Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy by Matthew Lewis is a thoroughly compelling read.

Stephen and Matilda’s Civil War: Cousins of Anarchy by Matthew Lewis is available from Amazon.

About the author:

Matthew Lewis trained in law and is now a full time author of historical fiction and non-fiction. He also blogs on his website, Matt’s History Blog, and can be found on Twitter as @mattlewisauthor. His main interest is medieval history and he has a number of books on that topic, including The Survival of the Princes in the Tower and Richard, Duke of York: King by Right.

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My Books

Coming soon! 

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England will be released in the UK on 30 May 2020 and is now available for pre-order from Pen & SwordAmazon UK and from Book Depository worldwide. It will be released in the US on 2 September and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, Amazon US and Book Depository.

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You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter and Instagram.

©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

The Atheling and the Tragedy of the White Ship

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William the Atheling

In the late summer of 1103 England’s queen, Matilda of Scotland, gave birth to a son. Named after his grandfather, William the Conqueror, the young prince would be known to history as William the Ætheling. He is one of those historical figures who resides in the shadows, more famous for his death than his all-too-short life as the heir to England’s throne.

William’s father, Henry, was a younger son of William the Conqueror. When his father had died in 1087, the patrimony of England and Normandy was divided between Henry’s older brothers;  the eldest, Robert Curthose, inherited Normandy while William II Rufus became King of England. It was intended that Henry would go into the church or maybe inherit their mother’s lands. However, the little brother seems to have set his sights on greater things and, as a result, was distrusted by William, who kept him close to home, so he could not cause any mischief.

On 2nd August, 1100, while out hunting in the New Forest, William was struck by a stray arrow and killed. Some say it was planned, others that it was an accident; I guess we’ll never know for sure…

Henry, however, did not waste the opportunity. With his older brother Robert still on his way back from Crusading in the Holy Land, Henry seized the initiative, the treasury and the kingdom; he was crowned at Westminster Abbey just 3 days after his brother’s death. Within months Henry had found himself a bride with impeccable parentage. Matilda had been born Edith of Scotland and was the daughter of Malcolm III, King of Scots. Through her mother, St Margaret, she was the great-granddaughter of Edmund II Ironside, Saxon king of England. She changed her name on marrying Henry, as Edith was considered ‘too Saxon’ a name for Norman tastes.

Matylda_zena
Matilda of Scotland

Henry and Matilda were married in November 1100 and within 3 years were the proud parents of 2 children. Their daughter, Adelaide, was born in 1102; she would adopt the name Matilda on her marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V, and would be known to history as the Empress Matilda (or Maud). Although some historians suggest they were twins, it is most likely that Matilda’s younger brother, William, was born in 1103; a message of congratulations was sent to Henry I by Pope Paschal II on 23rd November of that year.

The soubriquet of Ætheling is attributed to chronicler Oderic Vitalis and harks back to Saxon times as a title given to the king’s designated heir. According to William of Malmesbury, William, with a Saxon mother and Norman father, represented the hope of reconciliation between the conquered and conquerors of England.

Although the king and queen had only 2 children – a 3rd, Richard, is thought to have died young – the king had numerous illegitimate offspring by various women, several of whom were raised alongside his legitimate children. William and a number of his illegitimate brothers, including Robert, Earl of Gloucester,  were tutored by Otuel (or Othuer) FitzEarl, natural son of Hugh, Earl of Chester. FitzEarl had been made castellan of the Tower of London and so it is likely that the prince and his brothers were frequently in residence there, in order to pursue their education.

330px-Empress_Mathilda
William’s sister, Adelaide; Empress Matilda

According to William of Malmesbury, William was trained for his future role ‘with fond hope and immense care’. In 1108, while their father was away in Normandy, William and his sister were entrusted to the spiritual care of Anselm, the revered Archbishop of Canterbury.

In 1110 William’s sister, Adelaide/Matilda, left for Germany; she was to continue her education at the court of her future husband, but would not be married until January 1114, just before her 12th birthday. William was still only 6 years old when his sister left; Matilda was 8. It’s sad to think the young siblings would never meet again.

Following his sister’s departure, William’s education continued apace. By 1113, aged just 10, William began to attest royal documents. While still only 9, in February of that year, William was betrothed, at Alençon, to Alice (who changed her name to Matilda on her marriage), the daughter of Fulk V, count of Anjou and Maine. The betrothal formed part of his father’s wider diplomacy, which had also included his sister’s marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor.

Henry I spent the early part of his reign fighting against his brother, Robert Curthose, and, later, Robert’s son, William Clito, trying to secure a smooth succession for William. Robert had been decisively defeated at Tinchebrai in 1106 and  spent his remaining years – until his death in 1134 – a prisoner of his brother. Henry subsequently claimed Normandy for the English crown, but William Clito was still a thorn in his side. Clito was supported by the French king, Louis VI; who used him as a counter to Henry’s attempts to conquer Maine.

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Henry I

In 1115, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Henry arranged for the Norman barons to do homage and swear fealty to William, in an attempt to counter the claims of William Clito. A similar ceremony was arranged in England in 1116, for all the great men and barons of England to swear fealty to William as the king’s heir. The Warenne (Hyde) Chronicle referred to William as ‘rex Norman-Angllorum, ut putabatur futurus’ (assumed to be the future king of the Norman-English).

On 1st May 1118 William’s mother, Queen Matilda, died at Westminster and was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. We do not know how the young prince felt at the loss of his mother – he was 15 at the time. However, it is from this point that William took on more responsibility, acting as regent whenever the king was away in Normandy.

In December 1118 Henry’s troops defeated the Angevins, under Fulk of Anjou, at Alençon. To counteract the defeat, William and Matilda were married, with the Count settling Maine on them as their marriage gift, thus deserting the cause of the French king. Inevitably, war with Louis VI followed.

On 20 August 1119, 16-year-old William was with his father at the Battle of Brémule. Henry won the fight against the forces of Louis VI of France and William Clito. During the battle, William had captured the palfrey of his cousin, William Clito, which he chivalrously returned at the end of the battle.

In the same year William witnessed a charter at Rouen, in which he was described as ‘dei gratia, rex designatus’ (by the grace of God, king designate). And continuing his education in diplomacy, in November 1119, William accompanied his father to a meeting with Pope Calixtus II, (William’s 2nd cousin once removed).

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Louis VI of France

At the turn of the year, it must have seemed to Henry that his dynasty – and the future of England – was secure in the hands of his son; at the age of 16 he was experienced in warfare and diplomacy and married to 12-year-old Matilda, who brought with her the county of Maine as her marriage portion (and the promise of Anjou should her father die whilst on Crusade).

In 1120 peace was finally achieved with France, with William being created Duke of Normandy by his father, and paying homage for the duchy to King Louis; a precedent that would be used  by future English kings, in order to avoid a king paying homage to a fellow king for part of his holdings. William, in turn, then received the homage of the Norman barons. Accompanied by his father, wife and several of his half brothers and sisters, it must have been a time of great rejoicing and festivities.

The final entry of the Warenne (Hyde) Chronicle set the scene:

At last King Henry restored peace with his diligence and money and decided to come to England with much triumph and joy, but God omnippotent, who, just as the blessed Job says, ‘loosens the belt of kings, and girds their kidneys with a rope’, out of his just judgment turned the king’s joy into grief and victory into sorrow. Having descended with his two sons, William and Richard, and with Theobald count of Blois, his nephew, and with many relatives and a crowd of nobles, to the seaport, called Barfleur, on the designated day he began to board his ship with favourable winds and a prosperous sea…

The Warenne (Hyde) Chronicle, edited by Elisabeth m.C. Van Houts and Rosalind C. Love

Indeed, when the large party prepared to cross the Channel, to return to England, it seems several of them were still celebrating. While Henry made the crossing in his own ship, taking with him several nobles and his daughter-in-law, the prince took the offer of a newly built ship, the Blanche Nef – or White Ship – which its owner, Thomas Fitzstephen, claimed would guarantee a swift, safe passage. William the Ætheling was accompanied by many of the young nobles of the great families of England, including his half-sister, Matilda, and half-brother, Richard of Lincoln.

WhiteShipSinking
The Sinking of the White Ship

Most of the passengers and crew were still drunk from celebrating when the ship finally left the harbour of Barfleur, in the dark, on the evening of 25th November, 1120. Oderic Vitalis described the scene:

At length he gave the signal to put to sea. Then the rowers made haste to take up their oars and, in high spirits because they knew nothing of what lay ahead, put the rest of the equipment ready and made the ship lean forward and race through the sea. As the drunken oarsmen were rowing with all their might, and the luckless helmsman paid scant attention to steering the ship though he sea, the port side of the White Ship struck violently against a huge rock, which was uncovered each day as the tide ebbed and covered once more at high tide. Two planks were shattered and, terrible to relate, the ship capsized without warning. Everyone cried out at once in their great peril, but the water pouring into the boat soon drowned their cries and all alike perished.

William was ushered into a small boat and was being rowed to safety when he is said to have heard the cries of his half-sister, Matilda. The prince insisted on rowing to her aid, but the little boat was overwhelmed by those trying to make it to safety, and capsized, taking everyone with it.

Vitalis, Oderic, The Ecclesiastical History of Oderic Vitalis.

William the Ætheling was 17-years-old.

With only one survivor, a butcher from Rouen, over 300 souls were lost – drowned – and only a handful of bodies were ever recovered. With the sinking of the White Ship Henry I lost his son, England and Normandy lost their next ruler.

Young Matilda had lost her husband. They had no children. Matilda had made the crossing of the Channel with the King, rather than her husband, and sometime after the disaster she returned to her father’s court. In 1121 Matilda became a nun, eventually becoming abbess of the convent at Fontevrault. She died in 1158.

With the uncertainty that followed, Louis VI renewed his support of William Clito, who continued to be a thorn in Henry I’s side until his death fighting in Flanders in 1128. Henry himself, in the hope of producing another son, married  again in 1121; to Adeliza of Louvain. Unfortunately, the marriage proved childless and Henry spent the final years of his reign trying to secure the throne for his daughter, Matilda. Matilda had returned to Henry’s court following the death of her husband in 1125 and was married again,  in 1128, to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, in the hope that the union would strengthen her claim to the throne.

In the end, however, despite the fact Henry had made the barons of England swear fealty to Matilda as his successor Henry’s nephew, Stephen, claimed the throne on the old king’s death in 1135; thus ushering in 20 years of warfare, an era which became known as The Anarchy.

Reading_Abbey_03
Chapter house of Reading Abbey

William’s death was a tragedy, not only on a national scale, but also a personal one, for Henry I. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle the disaster was ‘a double grief: first that they lost their lives so swiftly; second that few of their bodies were found afterwards’. The young prince’s body was never recovered, leaving no monument to his life, save for Reading Abbey, established as a priory – and later an abbey – in 1121 by Henry I ‘for the salvation of my soul and that of king William my father and king William my brother and William my son and queen Matilda my mother and queen Matilda my wife and all of my predecessors and successors.’

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Sources: oxforddnb.com; Oderic Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis; 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 Edited by John Cannon; Mike Ashley, The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens; Alison Weir, Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy; medievalilsts.net; The Plantagenet Chronicles Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; The Warenne (Hyde) Chronicle, edited by Elisabeth m.C. Van Houts and Rosalind C. Love .

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

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©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly