Queen Matilda, otherwise known as Matilda of Boulogne, was arguably one of the most important English queens of the twelfth century. However, she seems to be overshadowed by, and sometimes even confused with, her cousin, the Empress Matilda, who opposed King Stephen during the civil war period known as the Anarchy.
Join Catherine Capel as she considers the role the Queen played as a military leader at the Rout as well as her representation as a ruler within contemporary chronicles.
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Matilda of Boulogne as a Military Leader in the Rout of Winchester
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Catherine: Thank you everyone for joining me for this talk on Queen Matilda where I’m going to explore her role as a military leader at the Rout of Winchester in 1141. Matilda of Boulogne was arguably one of the most important English queens in the twelfth century, but she’s been largely overshadowed by her counterpart, and cousin, the Empress Matilda who led the opposition towards King Stephen in the Civil War period known as the Anarchy. Now as both women mentioned in my talk today were named ‘Matilda’, I will be referring to them by their royal titles in this episode to try and avoid any confusion. The Queen was greatly involved in the civil war period, working alongside Stephen to defend the kingdom and aid him in maintaining his position as King against the forces led by the Empress. The Rout of Winchester was the last event in 1141 which turned the favour of the civil war back to Stephen and resulted in the Empress losing the foothold in the kingdom she had gained after her victory at the battle of Lincoln. At the head of the royal forces was the Queen who, alongside William of Ypres as her primary ally, used her victory at London to continue the trajectory of rebuilding royal power on behalf of her husband, the captive King, to take the fight to the Empress again. In this talk, I will give you some biographical information on Queen Matilda, outline her involvement in the earlier years of the civil war, explore her presence in Winchester and balance the arguments for and against the Queen pursuing the Empress to the city. The main aim is to emphasise the role that the Queen played as a military leader and also think about her representation as a ruler in contemporary chronicles.
Matilda of Boulogne was the only child of Eustace III of Boulogne and his wife Mary of Scotland, born c.1105. Her mother, Mary, was the sister of Matilda of Scotland, Queen consort of Henry I, which made the Queen the first cousin of the Empress Matilda. As the only child of Eustace and Mary, and therefore heir to the county of Boulogne, when her father retired to the abbey at Rumilly, which he founded and patronised, in 1125, she became countess in her own right, making her a wealthy heiress with extensive lands in England, throughout the Honour of Boulogne, as well as her own county. In that same year, a marriage was arranged by Henry I between Matilda and Stephen of Blois, count of Mortain, and son of Etienne-Henri, count of Blois and Adela of Blois. The marriage was a boon for both Stephen and Matilda. Matilda gained a husband who bought to the marriage extensive lands of his own as count of Mortain and in England with the Honour of the Eye. He brought with him the favour of Henry I, and experience in political and military affairs. Stephen gained Matilda’s lands in England, which increased his own influence in the country and wealth, and a partner in rulership. The couple had five children together; Eustace, Baldwin, William, Matilda and Mary, with William and Mary both succeeding their mother as rulers of Boulogne.
Matilda could not have known when she married Stephen what the events of 1135 would mean for her and her position, especially as Stephen had been one of the first to swear the oath to the Empress recognising her as Henry’s legitimate heir, but after the death of his uncle, Stephen rushed from Boulogne to England, where he was crowned at Westminster on the 22nd of December. Matilda travelled to England in 1136 for her own coronation. As Queen, not only was she heavily involved in the civil war, but she was also an avid patron. She built and patronised religious houses, she commissioned the Life of Ida about her grandmother, similarly to her aunt Matilda of Scotland who commissioned a work on the life of her mother Saint Margaret, and she granted money to many hospitals.
We do not know how Queen Matilda felt about her husband seizing the throne in 1135 but considering her actions whilst she was Queen, it was likely that she supported her husband’s decision. She may be famous for her intervention on behalf of her husband in 1141, but the Queen’s efforts in The Anarchy began from the start of her reign. In the early years, she was involved in diplomatic negotiations between King Stephen and King David of Scotland, the Queen and the Empress’ uncle, when David began invading land in the north of England.
In 1138, she successfully besieged Dover castle and siezed it from Walkelin Maminot, who was acting as castellan on behalf of Robert, Earl of Gloucester. Henry of Huntingdon described how Walkelin heard of the King’s victory at Shrewsbury castle and upon hearing this he “surrendered it to the Queen who was besieging it”. Orderic Vitalis also described the event as the second prong of Stephen’s three-point attack plan on the Empress’ allies, “the Queen besieged Dover with a strong force on the land side and sent word to her friends and kinsmen and dependents in Boulogne to blockade the foe by sea”. Her actions at the siege demonstrated her strategic ability and her authority as a countess and Queen consort in that she could lead an army of Stephen’s forces and call upon her men in Boulogne to aid her.
The aftermath of the battle of Lincoln in 1141 was one of the main examples of the Queen’s involvement in the civil war and displayed a wide range of her skills as a political and military leader. After Stephen’s capture, the Queen stepped up to take control of his forces and she attempted to secure his release. It perhaps says a lot about the relationship between Matilda and Stephen that she stayed to fight on his behalf. The Queen could have conceded to the Empress and returned to Boulogne, but she didn’t, she chose to stay. Much like she had done in the earlier years of the civil war, the Queen first sought peace through diplomatic negotiations. The Gesta Stephani described how the Queen beseeched the Empress as “a woman of subtlety and a man’s resolution”, which was the first indication of her adopting masculine traits in order to fight for her husband. Despite the fact that the Queen had previously been involved in military activities in the civil war, this was the first instance in which she was doing it without the physical presence of her husband. Therefore, in this quote she was seen as adopting the traits she needed to effectively rule in Stephen’s absence. This interaction ended with the Empress offending the Queen and so “expecting to obtain by arms which she could not by supplication, the Queen brought a magnificent body of troops across in front of London from the other side of the river and gave orders that they should rage most furiously around the city with plunder and arson, violence and the sword, in sight of the Countess and her men”. This second quote from the Gesta outlined how she was using her forces to display varying types of intimidation to threaten the Empress and her position. This encouraged the Londoners to side with the Queen against the Empress, especially after the Empress had insulted them by insisting they pay her a large financial tribute despite the economic hardship they faced thanks to the civil war. With the added support of the citizens, the Empress was forced to flee and the Queen could assert her authority in the city and ruin the plans for the Empress to hold her coronation. Upon her admittance to the city, the Gesta described her as “forgetting the weakness of her sex and a woman’s softness, she bore herself with the valour of a man”.
The choice of the Empress [Queen] to launch a campaign in Winchester and follow the Empress will be explored to consider how she acted as a military leader. Her presence at Winchester was a significant move in terms of her rulership and highlighted how she fulfilled the expectations of the role of a Queen working on behalf of her husband. As a leader, the Queen would have had a lot to weigh up about her decision to head to Winchester. She chose a place where she had an ally and she had the advantage of a larger force with the added men from London.
Before the Queen embarked to Winchester, she set out to secure an important alliance which would aid her next campaign – Henry, the Bishop of Winchester who was also Stephen’s brother. His influence in the city and his departure from the side of the Empress would be incredibly beneficial for the Queen, especially as the Empress was largely relying on his support as she prepared to make her next move. Henry of Huntingdon claimed that upon the arrival of the Empress to the city the “Bishop sent for the Queen and William of Ypres, and for almost all the nobles in England. So there was a large army on both sides”. Huntingdon here was clearly recognising that an alliance with the Queen would have been beneficial for the Bishop and the combination of her army with his and his allies would create a formidable fighting force against the Empress. The Gesta Stephani outlined how the Queen successfully built up more alliances with men throughout the kingdom after her taking of London and the exchange between the Queen and the Bishop was given in detail. According to the Gesta, “she humbly besought the Bishop of Winchester, legate of all England, to take pity on his imprisoned brother and exert himself for his freedom, that uniting all of his efforts with hers he might gain her a husband, the King a people, the kingdom a champion”. She was once again being recognised by contemporary writers as the leader of the royal forces and recognising that an alliance between the two of them would bring great military and political power. In this quote, the Queen is always emphasised as the wife of Stephen, seeking an alliance with the Bishop not to seize power for herself but to claim it back and restore the rights of the rightful monarch, Stephen. William of Malmesbury claimed that the Bishop had entered into secret negotiations with the Queen and he was influenced by “her tears and offers of amends” so he agreed to forge an alliance with her to free his brother. Malmesbury also stated that the Bishop’s reasons for negating on his agreement with the Empress were because “she had wished to arrest him; that she had disregarded everything she had sworn to him; that all the barons of England had kept their faith with her but she had broken hers, being unable to show restraint in the enjoyment of what she had gained”. These reasons therefore justified the Bishop’s changing of sides yet again and would allow him to be involved in the liberation of his brother. The success of the Queen in convincing the Bishop to join forces put her in a stronger position as she prepared to engage against the Empress again.
The presence of the Queen at Winchester was largely reflective of her actions in London. She came to the city with her army and her trusted commander William of Ypres, and they besieged the besiegers. Despite the inhabitants of Winchester lending their support to the Empress, the combined forces of the Queen and her allies and the Bishop and his allies meant that the Empress was surrounded. The Queen’s tactics at this point where to effectively blockade the Empress’s forces in the city and prevent them from being able to access resources such as provisions of food, money or men. This would also mean that their escape from the city would be limited which would mean that a retreat would likely end in a pitched battle between the Queen and the Empress’ forces. William of Malmesbury outlined the Queen’s strategy as “everywhere outside the walls of Winchester the roads were being watched by the Queen and the earls who had come, to prevent provisions being brought into the Empress’s adherents, and the village of Andover burnt. Necessities were bought in seldom and on a limited scale, and of those who conveyed them a number were captured or killed or mutilated in some part of their limbs”. The Queen here was being given credit by Malmesbury for her forces successfully upholding the siege. The Gesta also accredits the Queen with utilising her forces in the siege as he wrote “the Queen likewise, with a splendid body of troops and an invincible band of Londoners, who had assembled to the number of almost a thousand, magnificently equipped with helmets and coats of mail, besieged the inner ring of the besiegers from outside with the greatest energy and spirit”. Once again, the Queen was being given credit with the military leadership here and recognition of her tactical move. Furthermore, the Gesta’s report on the armour of the Queen’s army arguably showed that they were ready for a battle if one occurred and perhaps that they were expecting it to, suggesting the Queen saw the siege as ending one of two ways; through the Empress’ open surrender or a battle.
It was the latter which decided the outcome of the siege and gave the Queen the leverage she required to secure her husband’s release from prison. The capture of Robert of Gloucester, as the Empress escaped from the city, gave the Queen the ultimate hand against the Empress that she needed to once again enter into negotiations for the return of the King. The Gesta described the end of Gloucester’s stand against the forces supporting the King in Winchester as chaotic as his forces “scattered in different directions and at length [were] cut off and captured, with almost all of his force”. Malmesbury described the capture of the Earl of Gloucester as one with more dignity of character, bravery and organisation in comparison to the Gesta as the Earl “himself thought it unbecoming and beneath his dignity to fly and was alone the special object of everyone’s attack, he was taken prisoner”. The Empress could not afford to lose her most trusted commander and so arrangements were made for the King to be exchanged for the Earl.
The exchanging of hostages after the victory of the Queen at Winchester was divided into two parts; the Queen and her son Eustace served as sureties that the Earl would be released and William, Robert’s son, played the same role as a hostage until the Queen’s release.
Described as “a remarkable siege, nothing like it was ever heard of in their times” by the Gesta Stephani, the Rout of Winchester was perhaps the defining moment of Queen Matilda’s queenship. Her actions in London were a good example of how military events were tied to queenship expectations as she utilised roles fulfilled by her predecessors, namely that of a diplomat, but the Rout of Winchester stands out because it was an event that emphasised her skills as a ruler and it was the event in 1141 which was the turning point for the civil war. Not only did she successfully lead another military campaign, but she also secured the release of the King, which in itself was no small feat. It showed her abilities as a military commander and political leader in tandem with her husband – Stephen may not have been there, but she was fighting on his behalf – but it also displayed the authority she was able to wield without his physical presence. Her actions highlighted her knowledge of tactics, her skill at rallying allies, and her ability to make important and decisive decisions. It was a display of her support for Stephen that she would stay to fight for his release. The events of 1141 are perhaps some of the most notorious of Stephen’s reign and their success was thanks to the leadership of the Queen.
With hindsight, we can 100% say that yes, it was a good tactical and strategic decision made by the Queen to pursue the Empress to Winchester. She was victorious and as the result of her victory she was able to ensure the release of her husband and his reinstatement as King, which was her goal from the beginning of her campaign. She also stopped the Empress from achieving her goal of having a coronation, which would have effectively ended the civil war and made it more difficult for the Queen and her forces to forge a resistance. But at the time, in 1141, the Queen would have had many factors to consider and weigh up the risk and reward that came with launching a campaign and following the Empress to Winchester. So why would it have been a good idea?
The Queen’s control over London and Westminster at this time was solidified. She had the citizens on her side and it was unlikely that the Empress would once again attempt to take control of the city, especially considering the circumstances in which she left. She also had their support which she could add to her army and utilise against the Empress. The Queen’s renewed alliance with Bishop Henry was also a factor for her to weigh up. With the support of the Bishop, the Queen now had an alliance with a powerful magnate whom the Empress was relying on to be HER ally. Although the citizens of Winchester ultimately sided with the Empress, knowing that the Bishop would not likely re-join the Empress’ forces meant that the Queen could use the Bishop’s position to sway the church over to her cause and the plight of her husband. This was also an opportunity for the Queen to prove that she could come to the aid of her allies and defend them successfully.
The Queen also would have recognised that this was an opportunity to set the Empress back with another defeat and attempt to manoeuvre her into a position that would force her to release the King. Again, with hindsight we know that she was able to do this because her forces captured Robert of Gloucester on the battlefield but at the time, how to achieve another victory in the wake of her success at London would have been on the mind of the Queen. Battles were fought in the medieval period with the view of achieving peace in mind and the Queen getting the upper hand once again over the Empress would have allowed her to be in the superior position to conduct peaceful negotiations. Therefore, a decisive military victory would put the Queen in the superior position to be setting the terms of peace. We do not know if she actively set out to capture a high-ranking ally of the Empress or if she was aiming to quash her enemies’ forces to the point where they would be forced to surrender or flee but having someone to exchange for her husband would have been a clever tactical move. The description of the Earl’s retreat from the Gesta Stephani also suggests that the Queen’s forces were attempting to capture him. The specification of the Earl as “the special object of everyone’s attack” suggests that royal forces were perhaps aiming to capture the Earl in order to force the Empress to be more cooperative in negotiations for the King’s release than she was during the first attempts by the Queen. It could also be that they were attempting to kill the Empress’s primary military commander and ally in the hopes that it would leave her in a weakened position. Both scenarios would have been advantageous for the Queen, but the capture of Robert was what successfully put her into the prime position to secure the King’s release.
Whilst the Rout of Winchester was a victory for the Queen, the risks that came with her involvement were considerable. Perhaps the main risk she faced was that as the leader of the royal forces and the symbol for Stephen’s remaining authority as King was that she could be killed or captured herself. The primary sources place her at the city, if not on the battlefield itself, which put her in proximity of danger from the Empress’ forces if they overcame the siege that the Queen was leading. Again, her presence in Winchester was a display of her royal power and arguably her character as well. Much like she had the choice to return to Boulogne after Stephen’s capture at the battle of Lincoln, she could have remained in London and sent her forces to Winchester without her. However, as she is acting essentially in Stephen’s position throughout the events of the year, she is displaying the power still held by the Crown and by herself in being physically present. But if she was defeated at Winchester, she would lose the upper hand she had gained and hand the kingdom back to the Empress. Although the Empress might still have faced some resistance from royal allies, the two main embodiments of royal power would have been in her control. Eustace, the Queen’s eldest son, may have been able to form a pocket of resistance but would be largely relying on his parents’ allies.
We can’t know what would have happened had the Queen’s forces not followed the Empress to Winchester in 1141, but because she did, we saw an example of royal and high-status women effectively leading an army and acting as a military leader.
The events in Winchester in 1141 were significant in the course of English history and in the lives of the Empress and the Queen. Whilst for one it spelled defeat and signified the end of the ground she had gained in the civil war, for the Queen it was a great victory which emphasised her abilities as a ruler. She was successfully able to lead a military campaign which involved many different aspects of leadership including rallying allies, organising and leading troops, strategizing, and securing peace. Although the Rout of Winchester did not end the civil war, it did secure the release of the King and end the first major campaign of the Empress that was a real threat to the Queen and the position she held. The Queen’s actions were accepted by her contemporaries and these writers shaped her representation as a Queen into one who was capable of defending her King and her kingdom. The Queens’ decisive victory at Winchester was a shining moment in her reign as Queen and should solidify her as an example of an incredibly important English medieval Queen. Thank you very much for listening.
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