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

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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©2020 Sharon Bennett Connolly 

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

Mary of Blois, Reluctant Wife

stepan_bloisToday, I am honoured to be a guest writer over at the English Historical Fiction Authors, with an article on medieval heroine, Mary of Blois. Here’s a taster:

Mary 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 was placed in a convent at Stratford, Middlesex, with some nuns from St Sulpice in Rennes. So how did this nun become a reluctant wife?

Mary’s father Stephen was the nephew of Henry I, one of his closest male relatives. In the confusion following Henry’s death it was Stephen who acted quickly and decisively….

To read the rest of the article, Mary of Blois, Reluctant Wife, simply click here.

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My book, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK and worldwide from Book Depository. It is also available on Kindle in both the UK and USA and will be available in Hardback from Amazon US from 1 May 2018.

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

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Picture of King Stephen courtesy of Wikipedia

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©2017 Sharon Bennett Connolly