Lady of the English

The greater part of the kingdom at once submitted to the countess [Matilda] and her adherents.

Gesta Stephani

With Stephen now imprisoned in Robert of Gloucester’s castle at Bristol, the majority of his supporters, believing the Royalist cause to be lost, submitted at once to the Empress Matilda. Some, like Waleran of Meulan, took a little longer but defected nonetheless. There followed a similar situation in Normandy where Royalist magnates made peace with Matilda’s husband, Geoffrey. But it was not just the nobility that Matilda needed to win over. If she wanted official recognition and a coronation, she would need to convince the Church to back her and renounce Stephen.

On 2 March 1141 Matilda and Robert met with Stephen’s brother, Henry, Bishop of Winchester. Henry asked her to promise ‘that all matters of chief account in England, especially gifts of bishoprics and abbacies, should be subject to his [Henry’s] control.’ In return he would receive her ‘in Holy Church as lady of England’ and would keep his faith to her unbroken. Matilda agreed and on the following day entered the city of Winchester to a triumphant reception. The citizens proclaimed her the queen of England and she took up residence in the castle, receiving the royal crown and the keys to the treasury.

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Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester, with his Staff and Ring

There were some members of the clergy, like the Archbishop of Canterbury, who refused to break their oaths of fealty to Stephen. But a series of secret meetings, arranged by the Bishop of Winchester, managed to convince them otherwise. As Henry pointed out to his colleagues ‘that while I should love my mortal brother [King Stephen], I should esteem far more highly the cause of my immortal Father.’ As long as Matilda kept her side of the bargain, the Church was firmly on her side.

While Matilda prepared for her coronation in London, the few remaining Royalists busied themselves with resurrecting their cause. At the helm was Stephen’s wife, Queen Matilda, Henry’s niece, who fought not only on her husband’s behalf but also for her son, Eustace, claimant to his father’s throne. Since Stephen’s capture, Queen Matilda acted as regent of the kingdom and tirelessly petitioned the Angevins and the Church for her husband’s release. With the help of her right-hand man, William of Ypres, she desperately sought to win back those magnates who now threw their weight behind the Empress and her cause. As the Gesta Stephani noted:

Having now obtained the submission of the greatest part of the kingdom … she came with vast military display to London, at the humble request of the citizens.

With the support of the Church, and the citizens of Winchester and London in place, Matilda had only one remaining hurdle – her coronation as queen of England. While the final preparations got underway, Matilda settled down to the business of ruling. She sent for the richest men in London and demanded the substantial sum of £500. The men claimed that the war in England had emptied their pockets and so they pleaded that payment be delayed until prosperity had returned to the city. According to the Gesta Stephani, Matilda ‘with a grim look, her forehead wrinkled into a frown, every trace of a woman’s gentleness removed from her face, blazed into intemperate fury.’

She demanded full payment immediately, even threatening to remove the commune status that Stephen had granted in 1135. And so ‘the citizens went away gloomily to their homes’. The Londoners had never been treated so harshly by a monarch; it was one thing to remove their commune status, but quite another to demand such high sums of money. All this, too, from a woman; expected to be maternal and subservient.

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Empress Matilda, Lady of the English

The next to face Matilda was Bishop Henry, acting on behalf of his nephew Eustace. Henry asked that Eustace be given control of his family’s lands in Boulogne. This may appear an innocent request but Matilda immediately recognised its potential problems; if she allowed Eustace to inherit Boulogne, he could build up a power base from which to launch an attack on England and seize the throne. She flatly denied the request, preferring to keep Eustace landless and under her supervision in England.

Historians have often looked to Matilda’s past to explain her behaviour in London. She had spent the majority of her life as empress of the Holy Roman Empire where the ideas of absolute monarchy reigned supreme. When confronted with similar situations in the past, she had fought fire with fire, harshly reprimanding any who dared to stand in her way. In many ways, her actions in London, they argue, were a reflection of such an upbringing. But these actions would not be tolerated by the English, who had come to expect a different style of rule from their monarch; a person expected to be just, merciful, and to act in the best interests of their people. This behaviour served only to alienate her supporters, pushing them into Stephen’s arms.

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Matilda of Boulogne, Queen Consort of King Stephen I

The discontent in London provided the perfect backdrop for the Royalists’ next move. Led by Queen Matilda and William of Ypres, they marched on London, having raised a significant army. The Royalists were warmly welcomed by Londoners and together they stormed the city gates and made for the royal palace. Matilda and the Angevins fled the city on horseback and rode to sanctuary at Oxford Castle. Matilda may have had a lucky escape but now Bishop Henry and the citizens of London had switched allegiance back to Stephen. Without their support, she had lost any hope of a coronation.

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