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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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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©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

Adela of Normandy – Daughter of the Conqueror

Adela
Adela of Normandy, Countess of Blois and Chartres

Adela of Normandy was the daughter of William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy and King of England,  and his wife, Matilda of Flanders.

Although most sources give her date of birth around 1061/2, the Oxford Database of National Biography argues that her birth was after the Norman Conquest, as contemporary poetry suggests she was born the daughter of a king.

Adela was one of 9 or 10 children born to William and Matilda, with at least 4 sisters and 4 brothers. Given her high level of literacy, and her patronage of poets in adulthood, it is likely that Adela was very well-educated as a child; either through tutors or possibly through residence in a convent, as happened with many daughters of the nobility at that time.

As a child, it seems, a marriage was arranged between Adela and Simon Crispin, count of Amiens; however, the groom chose to take monastic vows. As part of an alliance directed against the aggressive counts of Anjou, Adela was then  betrothed to Stephen of Blois, son of Count Theobald III, count of Blois and Champagne. Stephen was about 20 years her senior. The formal betrothal  took place at Bourgueil and was later followed by a lavish wedding ceremony in Chartres Cathedral in about 1081.

StepanBlois_1089
Stephen, Count of Blois and Chartres

Adela and Stephen would have about 11 children in all, with at least 2 sons born before Stephen succeeded his father as Count of Blois and Champagne in 1090.

Of their 5 daughters, Matilda married Richard d’Avranches, 2nd Earl of Chester. The couple drowned in the White Ship disaster which deprived Henry I of his son and heir, William. Another daughter, Eleanor, married Raoul, Count of Vermandois and brother of Isabelle de Vermandois, Countess of Leicester and Surrey.

Adela’s eldest surviving son seems to have been disinherited at an early age. However, while he is described as an ‘idiot’ by some, William   married Agnes, the daughter of Giles, Lord of Sulli, and was given the titles Count of Chartres and Lord of Sulli, but was not allowed to inherit the richer county of Blois; which went to his younger brother, Theobald.

Poetry from the time of her wedding describes Adela as valorous, learned and generous. Indeed, she seems to have been a great asset to her husband, who included her in charitable donations and even in his early judicial rulings. Adela developed a cordial relationship with Bishop Ivo of Chartres, which worked well to maintain the peace between the laity and the clergy in the county.

In 1095 Stephen of Blois joined the First Crusade, leaving Adela as head of the family and regent of his domains.  Letters that the count sent to his wife indicate a great level of affection and trust; Adela was given charge of the family’s finances. However, Stephen’s return from crusade appears of have been less than happy. Adela  believed that he had not fulfilled his crusader’s vow and her criticism may have been a contributing factor in his return to the Holy Land in 1101 – she certainly approved of it.

Theobald
Theobald IV, Count of Blois and Champagne

Stephen was killed in combat in the Holy Land, during the siege of Ramallah in May 1102. He was succeeded as Count of Blois by his 2nd surviving son, Theobald. Theobald was knighted in 1107, by which point his older brother, William, had already been removed from the succession to Blois. William inherited the lesser title of Count of Chartres.

Following Stephen’s death Adela continued to act as regent until Theobald attained his majority. Even after Theobald came of age, mother and son ruled jointly until Adela retired from public life in 1120.

Adela was particularly close to her younger brother, Henry, who would later become King Henry I of England. She even supported him against their oldest brother, Robert, when Henry claimed the English crown.

An able administrator and negotiator, Adela settled many disputes among monasteries, and even between monasteries and laymen, in her own domains and beyond. Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of William II and Henry I, praised her skills as negotiator and peacemaker following her success at achieving a temporary truce between Anselm and her brother in 1105.

HenryBlois
Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester

Anselm described her as an ardent supporter of papal reform, and enjoyed her hospitality during his exile from England. Adela hosted many other church dignitaries, including archbishop Thurstan of York and Pope Paschal II. Her family’s prestige and power was bolstered by her friendships with the leading ecclesiastic figures in both France and England.

An avid  patroness of the arts, Adela corresponded with such dignitaries as Hildebert, bishop of Le Mans and Abbot Baudri of Bourgeuil – later bishop of Dol – who both wrote poems dedicated to the countess. The book Ecclesiastical History Together with the Deeds of the Romans and the Franks, written by Hugh of Fleury, was dedicated to Adela.

One of Adela’s youngest sons, Henry of Winchester, was dedicated to the church at an early age, and was raised at the Priory of Cluny in France. He was nominated as Bishop of Winchester in 1129 and was a great support to his older brother, Stephen, when he claimed the throne of England on his uncle Henry’s death in 1135, at the expense of Henry’s daughter, Matilda

An active ruler Adela regularly toured the family’s domains, both as regent and mother of the reigning count. She also maintained links with the Anglo-Norman and Capetian kings. In 1101 Adela sent knights to help Philip I of France’s son, Louis, battling against rebels north of Paris.

Stepan_Blois
King Stephen

However, by 1107 her son Theobald had joined the revolt and relations with France were to deteriorate further in 1113 when the allied forces of Theobald, Henry I and Adela defeated a Capetian-Angevin army. After further conflict in 1118 Adela used her wealth and diplomatic skills to benefit her family.

In 1120 Adela stopped using the title of countess and retired to the Clunaic Priory of Marcigny;  the same year that her daughter Matilda died in the White Ship disaster off Barfleur in Normandy. She continued to be active in political affairs and lived to see her son, Stephen, claim the throne of England, though not the 20 years of conflict that ensued.

Aged almost 70, and having been a widow for half of her life, this most remarkable woman, Adela of Normandy, former Countess of Blois and Chartres, died in 1137, possibly on 8th March. Although later tradition has her buried with her mother at Holy Trinity in Caen, contemporary sources say she was buried at Marcigny.

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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Sources: England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings  by Robert Bartlett; Heroines of the Medieval World by Sharon Bennett Connolly; Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest by Sharon Bennett Connolly;  Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; oxforddnb.com;  epistolae.ccnmtl.columbia.edu; womenshistory.about.com.

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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.

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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly.