The maternal ancestry of Count Eustace II of Boulogne could hardly be more different to the lowly origins of the mother of William, Odo and Robert, for in Eustace's veins ran some of the noblest blood in Christendom.1 His mother, Matilda of Louvain, was a granddaughter of Charles of Lorraine, the last lineal male descendant of the Emperor Charlemagne (747-814). A contemporary genealogy traces Eustace's maternal ancestry even further, beyond the Carolingians to the earlier Merovingian kings of France, whose dynasty began in the fifth century AD, and through them to mythical beginnings with Priam of Troy. Count Eustace's father, too, could trace his ancestry to Charlemagne, through the ninth-century union of Judith, the emperor's great-granddaughter, with Count Baldwin I of Flanders.2 How Eustace must have looked down upon Duke William of Normandy, the grandson of an artisan, and a bastard descended in the male line only from a tenth-century pagan, Rollo. Above all, in the eleventh century, it was the blood of Charlemagne that was prized most. Eustace's dual Carolingian bloodline was the richest of any of his eleventh-century contemporaries and it gave him a lustre that was widely recognised. Even William of Poitiers begrudgingly notes near the end of his work that Eustace was 'illustrious in many ways and a distinguished count'. The Carmen refers to him as 'the scion of a noble dynasty', while Orderic Vitalis calls him 'a man of the very highest birth, sprung from the stock of Charlemagne, most renowned king of the Franks'.3
Throughout the Middle Ages the name of Charlemagne was held in awe and mystique. As King of the Franks from 768 to 814, Charlemagne had conquered Lombardy, subdued Saxony, annexed Bavaria, campaigned in Spain and Hungary, and he held the war banner of Christianity aloft against the pagans on many fronts. Allying himself with the papacy, he created a papal state in central Italy and in 800 was crowned by Pope Leo III as the Emperor of the West. At the height of his power Charlemagne ruled over a veritable superstate comprising practically all the lands of Western Christendom, with the exception only of the Asturias in Spain, southern Italy and the British Isles. After his death, however, this agglomeration quickly splintered into rival and warring territories. It is not surprising that, in retrospect, people looked upon the age of Charlemagne as a golden era, a time when Christendom was led by the true prototype of the Christian king and warrior. Stories of Charlemagne were told and retold in castles and halls and along the pilgrim routes; his achievements were celebrated, magnified and mythologised. Two and a half centuries after Charlemagne's death some of these stories took shape in the Chanson de Roland (the Song of Roland), the first great work of French literature. The origin and authorship of this poem remain mysterious but the story it tells, of the death of Charlemagne's nephew Roland fighting against the Muslims in the Pyrenees and of Charlemagne's subsequent revenge, was undoubtedly circulating in the France of the second half of the eleventh century. Charlemagne, as he appears in the Chanson de Roland, is a impossibly old figure in a flowing white beard, an indomitable and ceaseless warrior, a wise ruler with the aura of an Old Testament prophet, a man singularly favoured by God and palpably in touch with the divine. To have the blood of Charlemagne running through your veins was prestige indeed.
Prestige, however, was not enough; Charlemagne's dynasty had long ceased to reign over France. In the ninth century a series of weak and divided kings resulted in the kingship passing out of the Carolingian lineage. The heirs of Charlemagne regained the title sporadically from 893 but their reign finally came to an end in 987 with the death of the childless King Louis V. Hugh Capet, the duke of the Franks, supported by Archbishop Adalbero of Rheims, persuaded the magnates of France that the kingship was elective rather than hereditary and that Louis' uncle Charles of Lorraine was unfit to rule. Hugh was thus elected king. The subsequent attempts of Charles of Lorraine to wrest the crown from Hugh Capet came to naught. He was captured and imprisoned in 991 and died shortly afterwards. Although the Carolingian lineage continued to flourish in the noble families of Lorraine, Verman-dois, Blois, Flanders and Boulogne, never again was it to assume the royal title of France.
As Count of Boulogne and neighbouring Therouanne, Eustace was a vassal of the Capetian kings of his day. From 1054 he was also the Count of Lens, which he held from the Count of Flanders, himself a vassal of the French king. Such ties were limited in effect. Within his own territories Eustace, like William of Normandy, was virtually a sovereign prince, with power of life and death over his subjects and the ability to build castles, mint money and pursue his own independent policies. Though small by comparison to Normandy or Flanders, Boulogne was a prosperous county. Its geographical position, as the gateway between England and the continent, had long been a source of wealth. We have a description of Wissant, the chief port of Eustace's county, in 1068, from which we learn that it could be a bustling place, full of noisy merchants and pilgrims waiting for their ships to leave.4 The commerce of Boulogne was certainly active enough for the county to mint its own coins. Boulogne also attracted pilgrims. In the seventh century, in the days of King Dagobert, the Virgin Mary was believed to have arrived miraculously on an unmanned boat at the harbour of Boulogne and she made an apparition to the inhabitants while they were at prayer in their little hilltop chapel. The story made Boulogne one of the most important centres of pilgrimage in France throughout the Middle Ages. But it was still a small county, surrounded by powerful neighbours. Eustace had to strive hard to maintain his independence, in particular from Norman interests to the south and Flanders to the north. He had everything to fear from a powerful Normandy and much of his early policy was inimical to the interests of the Norman duke. Equally, although his links with Flanders were strong, his relations with the Count of Flanders were not always cordial. Eustace was always his own man and of necessity he was a schemer. He needed to construct deft alliances and to shift with the times in order to steer his lands through the turmoil of the age. It also seems quite likely that he harboured a secret hope that one day the House of Boulogne would occupy a throne worthy of its bloodline. Eventually it would.
There are no surviving chronicles written from the perspective of Boulogne, and Count Eustace, for the most part, is a shadowy figure. Despite the obvious respect that chroniclers held for his noble ancestry, Eustace generally appears only briefly in the chronicles of other lands, only fleetingly in stories whose central concern is someone else. It is only recently that historians have begun to put the spotlight more closely on Boulogne, to unpick the evidence and rediscover something of the importance that he once had in the contemporary world of northern France and Flanders.5 It was probably in about 1036 that Eustace's father, Count Eustace I of Boulogne, arranged that he should marry Godgifu, the sister of the two English princes, Edward and Alfred, who were then living in exile in Normandy as England lay under Danish rule. The first consequence of this English alliance was to entangle Boulogne in the cruel tragedy of Alfred's murder. Alfred had been lured back to England during the period of confusion that followed the death of King Canute.6 Refusing aid from Flanders, he came instead with a bodyguard of knights from Boulogne. Once in England, however, the party was deceived and disarmed by Earl Godwin, who then delivered them all into the hands Harold Harefoot, Canute's illegitimate son; in this period of confusion Harefoot was attempting to impose his own rule over England and, suspicious and disreputable by nature, he perceived them as a threat. The Boulonnais knights were shackled and many were promptly slaughtered in cold blood; others were sold into slavery. Alfred was cruelly tortured and he subsequently died of his wounds in the care of the monks of Ely. This episode, one of the darkest in English history, cannot fail to have made a deep impression on the young Eustace, who was perhaps then around twenty years of age. Alfred was the brother of his new wife and he must have known - and perhaps even grew up with - many of the knights of Boulogne who were so cruelly murdered. Though Godwin later insisted that he had played no active part in the murders, and that he was only obeying Harefoot's orders, many thought otherwise. The tragic events of 1036 must have left Count Eustace, like Edward the Confessor, nursing an abiding grudge against Earl Godwin - a grudge that could easily be transferred against Godwin's son, the future King Harold.
This was hardly an auspicious start to Eustace's alliance with England's exiled royal family, but the gamble soon paid off. In 1042 Edward became King of England. By then the surviving sons of Canute - the bastard Harold Harefoot and the legitimate Harthacanute - had both died young, after reigning only for short periods, and the way was open for Edward's peaceable succession. Eustace was now the brother-in-law of the reigning English monarch. By 1047 he had also inherited the county of Boulogne from his father, Eustace I. How different the fate of England might have been if Count Eustace and Godgifu had produced children, who, as nephews of Edward the Confessor, might have stood to inherit the crown in 1066. It seems, however, that their union was entirely without issue and, as best as may be judged from the evidence, Godgifu died before 1049.7 By her previous marriage to Drogo, Count of the Vexin, she left two children who became Eustace's stepsons, Ralf, whom King Edward made Earl of Hereford, and Walter, Count of Maine. Eustace next married Ida of Lorraine, who, like himself, was a descendant of Charlemagne; she was to provide him with three sons. As with Duke William's marriage with Matilda, there was papal opposition on the grounds that Eustace and Ida were too closely related, and Eustace was excommunicated in 1049. It was an obstacle that must have been shortly overcome and the new marriage added to Eustace's prestige as well as increasing his network of alliances.
In 1051 Count Eustace visited England.8 The purpose of this visit seems to have been a secret even to his contemporaries and it remains mysterious to this day. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (E) tells us merely that the Count of Boulogne spoke with King Edward 'about what he wanted, and then turned homeward'. Eustace would have been concerned at the prospect of Duke William's marriage with Matilda of Flanders, for it was an alliance of the two great powers on either side of his county and as such a potential threat to his interests. Uppermost in his mind may have been the need to reiterate his ties with Edward. Whatever the true purpose of the visit, its result is clear. Eustace unwittingly became the catalyst for some of the most dramatic events in Edward's reign and once more he came into conflict with the Godwin family. According to the E version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which may be the best informed, Count Eustace was returning from his meeting with the king and was on his way through Kent to the port of Dover. Perhaps with the events of 1036 fresh in mind, he and his men took the precaution of putting on their chain mail some way before they had reached the town. Once there they highhandedly set about seeking the best private lodgings they could find. One of Eustace's men demanded quarters at the house of a certain townsman, and this Englishman, valuing his privacy above providing hospitality at the point of a sword, refused to let the man cross his threshold. In the ensuing scuffle the householder was wounded. He promptly retaliated and on the spot killed his Boulonnais assailant. Eustace was enraged. He and his men mounted their horses and riding straight to the house in question they swiftly dispatched the townsman on his own hearth. More Englishmen then joined in the riot. Twenty or so were killed on each side, many were wounded by the sword, others by horses' hoofs, before Eustace was able to escape from Dover with his men and hurried back to King Edward. Naturally enough he gave the king his own version of events. The king, believing that the men of Dover were entirely at fault, ordered Earl Godwin to harry the town as punishment. It was Godwin's refusal to harry his own people that led, unexpectedly, to the dramatic showdown between Godwin and Edward. Ultimately, civil war was only prevented by Godwin's flight to Flanders. It seems to have been during the brief period of freedom from Godwin's influence that King Edward felt able to confirm to Duke William of Normandy his then intention that William should succeed him. The following year the Godwins returned in force and Edward, unable to resist, was obliged to reinstate them.
The outcome of these events was hardly in Eustace's interests. He was no friend of the Godwins and he was no friend of Duke William. At the same time a feud had also developed between his stepson Ralf, the Earl of Hereford, and Swein, the most violent and irresponsible of Godwin's sons, whose lands were in the same region. The response of Eustace and his allies to the growing threat posed by Duke William was to support the rebellion of William's uncle, William of Arques. When this came to naught in 1053, Eustace provided the Count of Arques and his wife with exile in Boulogne and thereafter it appears that the Normans made a retaliatory raid into Eustace's county.9 In 1056 we find Eustace at the court of Count Baldwin of Flanders at the same time as Earl Harold was also visiting. Eustace, too, was a witness to the charter dated 13 November 1056 along with his cousin Count Guy of Ponthieu and Earl Harold. History unfortunately does not record whether Eustace and Harold spoke on this occasion or what they thought of each other. Their relations on this occasion were probably cold but correct.
In the year 1066, when Harold had succeeded to the English throne and an angry Duke William was laying his plans to invade, Eustace made the fateful decision to throw in his lot with the Normans. It was certainly not any sense of loyalty to William that moved him to take this course. Nor can he have been impressed by William's invasion of Maine three years earlier and the subsequent deaths of Eustace's stepson Count Walter of Maine and Countess Biota in Norman custody. Eustace must have weighed matters in the balance and concluded that his best chance of advancement was, for the time being, to reverse his policy of hostility towards Normandy and ally himself with Duke William's plans. Rich rewards were no doubt promised should the invasion succeed. It has even been suggested that Duke William proposed, if victorious, to share the whole kingdom of England with Count Eustace II of Boulogne, but there is really nothing to support this claim.10 Perhaps what tipped the balance in his mind was the chance to gain revenge on the Godwins.
William's father-in-law Baldwin, the Count of Flanders and regent of France, had maintained close ties with the Godwin family as well as with Duke William of Normandy, and he chose to remain neutral and aloof from the conflict. Many individual Flemish knights, however, seem to have joined Count Eustace's army; Baldwin's neutrality did not extend to preventing them doing so. It is known that during the tense summer of 1066, as preparations were made for the invasion, Eustace travelled into Normandy and met Duke William at Bayeux.11 Here, no doubt, they discussed terms and laid down the tactics. For the first time, so far as recorded history is concerned, Eustace met with Bishop Odo as well. The precise contribution of Boulogne and its allies to the invasion force is impossible to determine (the Ship List deals only with Norman contributions). William of Poitiers mentions at one point that Eustace had fifty knights in his following12 but the implication of the Carmen - as well as the hidden import of the Bayeux Tapestry - is that the French contribution to the whole was significant. Notwithstanding Eustace's pledge of support, Duke William remained suspicious. It was accepted only upon condition that Eustace hand over his young son (who may have been the first born, Eustace III) as a hostage.13 This hostage was possibly handed over at the meeting at Bayeux and held in the custody of Bishop Odo. Such, on the eve of the invasion of England, was the level of mistrust between Duke William of Normandy and Count Eustace II of Boulogne.