Matilda of Boulogne: The Forgotten Medieval Queen

Natalie Izzard

Many may never have heard of Matilda of Boulogne (Matilda III).

Historians have often bypassed her to instead focus upon Empress Matilda, the ruler who came so close to being the first Queen of England in her own right. However, it was in large part due to Matilda III that Empress Matilda never became Queen. Her narrative is extraordinary and needs swiftly revisiting. Matilda III was born in around 1103 and little is known about her until her husband, Stephan of Blois, seized the crown on the death of King Henry in 1135. Henry had planned for his daughter, Empress Matilda, to claim the throne and even made nobles swear an oath of allegiance to her before he died. However, the Empress was abroad and pregnant when her father died, so Stephan saw his opportunity. Stephan and Matilda III were crowned King and Queen of England in 1136. Matilda’s main role was in the anarchy that erupted in 1138 which plunged England into war until 1148. Empress Matilda’s half-brother, Robert of Gloucester, had been fighting for his sister against Stephan in Robert’s lands in the west when news came that an army under Empress Matilda was invading Dover from Normandy. Matilda III was immediately sent with her men to retake Dover. There she took command and laid siege to the castle and won Dover in 1138. Matilda III was an astute leader and the first Queen to have been directly involved in battle since the conquest in 1066. For some this may come as a surprise as myths have been perpetuated that Queens in history held background roles as mere mothers or wives. However, both Empress Matilda and Matilda III show this as simply untrue. When the Empress landed at Arundel, Stephan laid siege before agreeing to allow the Empress to go to Robert in Bristol. This was a huge error. Another blunder came in 1141 when Stephan was captured at Carlisle Castle and subsequently kept under guard. William Malmesbury, an English historian of the time, describes Stephan as ‘a man of energy but lacking in judgments, … lenient to his enemies and easily appeased.’ Upon Stephan’s capture the Empress Matilda began to act as though she had won, and the crown was hers. She made her way to London to be crowned Queen of England. The Gesta Stephani writes that the Empress ‘put on an extremely arrogant demeanour’ which angered the people of London. The author writes that she demanded huge sums of money from the Londoners and when they refused, she blazed into a furious rage.
Matilda of Boulogne: The Forgotten Medieval Queen
Empress Matilda Great Seal

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Matilda of Boulogne: The Forgotten Medieval Queen
Coin of King Stephan and Queen Matilda of Boulogne

When Stephan was captured, Matilda III regrouped.

Matilda first sought refuge in Kent and then raised a troop of Flemish mercenaries in order to battle to gain her husband’s release. The Gesta Stephani writes, ‘the queen, a woman of subtlety and a man’s resolution, sent envoys … for her husband’s release from his filthy dungeon,’ and plotted and turned the people of London against the Empress. She then ‘bore herself with the valour of a man’ and laid siege to the tower of London. On hearing battle bells being rung Empress Matilda fled to Winchester. Matilda III followed her and laid siege to Winchester for nearly two months. Later in 1141 Robert was captured which left the Empress vulnerable. An exchange was arranged—Robert for Stephan—which saw Stephan regain his crown and the anarchy continue. The Empress still held strongholds around England, so Stephan fixed his efforts on gaining control of these areas. Matilda III stayed in London overseeing its administration. In 1147 Robert died and the Empress, broken from her half-brother’s death, decided all was lost. She left in 1148, never to return. In 1152 Matilda III died and did not see the ultimate outcome of the anarchy. Matilda III and Stephan’s only surviving son, Eustace, died in 1153 and so Stephan finally acknowledged the son of the Empress, Henry, to be his successor under the Treaty of Winchester. Matilda III defies what we think of Queens in this period as her narrative is dominated by her active involvement in war and her constant attacks on the Empress to ensure her husband maintained the throne. She was intelligent, ruthless, and headstrong. She deserves more historical notoriety than she currently has.
Ancestry UK
Matilda of Boulogne: The Forgotten Medieval Queen

Natalie Izzard

I have a BA in History and recently completed a Masters in History research which focused on the Queens of the Conquest. My specialism is Medieval Queenship, and I enjoy sharing historical content on my Instagram page @the_history_around_us. I also love dragging my husband and dog to as many historical sites as possible on the weekend!
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