When exploring the Anarchy, the majority of attention understandably goes on the two key rivals for the throne King Stephen and Empress Matilda. However, there was another Matilda who was an incredibly important figure in this period of history: Matilda of Boulogne, wife of Stephen and Queen of England. As Sharon Bennett Connolly said in our recent Q&A about her upcoming book Women of the Anarchy, Matilda of Boulogne “seems to have been the strength behind Stephen’s throne, a steadying hand not seeking the limelight, but working quietly in the background”.
Despite being kin, the two Matilda’s were enemies and their greatest battle of wills came about in 1141.
For the sake of clarity, I will be referring to Empress Matilda as the Empress and Matilda of Boulogne as Matilda for the rest of this blog post.
Things were looking bleak for Matilda at this point, Stephen had been captured in the Battle of Lincoln on the 2nd February and was in the hands of his enemy the Empress. As recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle “they took him to Bristol and there put him in prison and fetters”. Matilda made attempts to have her husband freed to no avail, and key nobles (even Stephen’s brother Henry the Bishop of Winchester!) were now jumping ship and going over to the Empress’ side. Matilda didn’t give in though, and as regent began to muster her forces for what was likely to be an epic showdown.
In the other camp, things had never looked better for the Empress. She had captured the man who’d stolen her throne, and powerful nobles were flocking to her side. The crown that had captivated her for so many years, and was hers by right of primogeniture, was finally within her grasp. For the next few months after Stephen’s capture the Empress was essentially ruling England and Normandy. On the 7th April the Empress was formally recognised as “lady of England and Normandy” at a legatine council and began to prepare for her coronation. London was and remains the English capital, and it was imperative the Empress gain support there. However, she didn’t seem to really want too and rejected petitions made by Londoners which ignited their hostility towards her. Perhaps she was bitter because of their support for Stephen and Matilda over the years, but this was going to be a costly mistake, she needed them more than they needed her.
Whilst the Empress was preparing for her coronation and trying to keep her newfound support, Matilda was utilising every resource available to her. Matilda was a wealthy heiress who had the county of Boulogne in her own right as her father’s only child and heir, she made use of this in establishing a military force to combat the Empress and regaining nobles who had switched sides. If Matilda had not gone to these lengths to secure her husband’s throne, there’s every reason to suspect the Empress would have been crowned, becoming the first Queen Regnant of England.
But the Empress’ hold on power unravelled quickly, as Matilda brought her forces to London threatening violence. The Londoners, already no fans of the Empress, rose up against her. As the bells of London clanged dramatically, the Empress had to flee London with her supporters. She didn’t know it, but she would never get so close to the crown again, the first Queen Regnant would be her descendant Mary I in 1553.
This wasn’t where this epic battle of wills ended though as Stephen was still in the Empress’ custody. Matilda’s luck continued when the Empress decided to besiege the erstwhile Bishop of Winchester, who had gone back to his brother’s side. Matilda’s forces met the besiegers and the Empress’s right hand man Robert Earl of Gloucester was captured. The two Matilda’s hit an impasse, and agreed to a prisoner exchange, with Stephen being reunited with Matilda in November 1141 after 9 months apart.
Matilda may have won this battle, but the Empress won the war as although never crowned herself her son Henry inherited the throne on Stephen’s death in 1154 beginning the legendary Plantagenet dynasty.
What do you make of the two Matilda’s? Do you have a favourite? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below.
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England’s Queens: From Boudica to Elizabeth of York by Elizabeth Norton
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, translated and collated by Anne Savage
Queens of the Conquest by Alison Weir
ODNB Matilda of Boulogne by Marjorie Chibnall
ODNB Matilda of England by Marjorie Chibnall
She-Wolves by Helen Castor