It is rare in history to find two royal ladies leading armies against each other, with a kingdom at stake. That is exactly what happened at Winchester, however, in the summer of 1141, during the period of English history later known as the Anarchy.
In 1127, having no surviving legitimate son, Henry I nominated his daughter, the Empress Matilda, as his successor.
All the nobles of England and Normandy swore to accept her as such, but when Henry died in 1135, Matilda was far away in Anjou, at odds with her father and married to a husband unacceptable to both English and Norman nobles.
Her cousin Stephen of Blois, third son of Henry’s sister Adela, immediately travelled to England. With the aid of his brother, Henry, bishop of Winchester, he seized the throne.
The empress finally arrived in England late in 1138, backed by Robert of Gloucester, her half-brother. In February 1141 they soundly defeated Stephen at the Battle of Lincoln and captured the usurper.
When Bishop Henry threw in his lot with the empress, her final triumph seemed a certainty. But Stephen’s queen, also called Matilda, had other ideas.
The Empress Matilda, first legitimate child of Henry I, had spent little of her life in England. Sent away to Germany at the age of 10 to marry the Holy Roman Emperor, she may never have been formally crowned as empress, but she clung to that title for the rest of her life.
Matilda had ruled northern Italy as regent for her husband when only 16 years old, but when he died in 1125, Henry I recalled her to England and named her as his heir, before forcing her into marriage with the 14-year-old Geoffrey of Anjou. It was a political marriage, securing a useful ally and giving Henry the hope of a grandson, but the choice of bridegroom was unpopular – both with the bride and also with most of the nobility of England and Normandy.
Matilda of Boulogne, on the other hand, enjoyed a harmonious relationship with her husband King Stephen.
She had inherited the county of Boulogne on the continent, and also the Honour of Boulogne, comprising estates in Essex and the south-east of England. Her marriage to Stephen, if not arranged by Henry, had at least been approved by him.
She was not merely a consort, however, but co-ruler of the lands she had inherited, and had already had considerable influence over English affairs, being rather more astute than her affable, easy-going husband.
The royal confrontation
Bishop Henry had secured the crown for Stephen with the backing of the church, a few nobles and the people of London. Now he sought to do the same for the empress, calling a council to justify his actions and summoning representatives of London to meet him there.
Queen Matilda, however, immediately demanded the release of her husband and his return to power. This defiance persuaded the Londoners to refuse to endorse the new regime.
Over the next few months, as the empress slowly negotiated her entry to London, Queen Matilda was equally busy organising the opposition.
The mercenary leader, William of Ypres – in all but name Earl of Kent – remained solidly loyal to King Stephen and with his help, “a magnificent body of troops” was assembled, from Kent, from Matilda’s own lands and from mercenary sources. This army then ravaged the outskirts of London, even as the empress was establishing herself at Westminster.
Empress Matilda didn’t help her cause by demanding heavy taxes from London, and conducting her affairs ‘imperiously and rashly’. Threatened by one side, and with no sympathy for the other, on 24 June 1141 the Londoners rose up and expelled her from Westminster, at the same time admitting the queen and her supporters.
Now Bishop Henry began to feel he had been too hasty in backing the new regime. Separating from the empress, he made his way to Wolvesey Castle, his palace-cum-castle in Winchester, and reestablished contact with the queen.
Empress Matilda, in turn, brought up her army to threaten Winchester, and, according to one account, as she came in one gate the bishop departed through the other.
As the empress settled in the royal castle on the hill, Wolvesey Castle was put under siege. The defenders responded by burning down most of the town.
Bishop Henry, though, had called for aid from the queen, and while William of Ypres and various nobles brought their own men and mercenary forces, it was Queen Matilda herself that summoned a force of almost a thousand Londoners ‘splendidly equipped with helmets and mail coats’, whose presence tipped the balance in her favour.
Now the besiegers became the besieged.
Hemmed around by enemy forces, by 14 September the empress was desperate.
A decoy force was sent to try and draw off the queen’s men. Then abruptly the gates of Winchester were thrown open, and the whole army, with Empress Matilda to the fore, marched out together. For a little they held good order. But then, as the queen’s troops poured in on them from every side, the bulk of the army and its followers were scattered in all directions.
The priority was to get the empress safely away, and as she galloped to Ludgershall with a close escort, Robert of Gloucester fought a determined rearguard action at the Stockbridge crossing of the River Test.
Among others to escape was King David of Scotland, who had supported the empress, but the whole area was strewn with the abandoned belongings of those who had fled.
The most serious loss to the empress, however, was Robert of Gloucester, captured at the bridge. Months of negotiations followed before eventually he was swapped for King Stephen, and both sides were back where they had started.
Another dozen years of anarchy would pass before – with Queen Matilda dead and Empress Matilda retired to Normandy – a compromise eventually handed the crown to the empress’s son, Henry II.
Teresa Cole was a teacher for thirty years before turning to writing. The author of several medieval works, her latest book, ‘The Anarchy: The Darkest Days of Medieval England‘, was published on 15 July by Amberley Publishing