Kings and Queens in London – Stephen (and Matilda)
Continuing our series on the legacy of Kings and Queens in London – this time King Stephen and the woman who he seized the throne from – Matilda
We talked about Henry I‘s death from eating lamphrey eels last time. His daughter Matilda was his formal heir. At the Christmas court of 1126 Henry required his nobles to swear a solemn oath to her right to inherit his throne, and any of her sons, there was no contention, well not written anyway. Repeated pledges were not denied as Matilda was recognised as ruler-in-waiting.
Could a woman rule? There was no formal prohibition. The principles governing inheritance in the Anglo-Saxon realm were fluid to say the least, realpolitik rather than theoretical also few incontrovertible rules by which candidates were selected or excluded. Bar only one, of course, which was due to the Church having taken control over the sacrament of marriage – no bastards allowed! Ironic really considering her grandfather, William the Conqueror.
So where was Matilda at the time of Henry’s death? She was not at his death bed. Father and daughter had fallen out over her dowry settlement of several fortresses on the border. On his death, Matilda went to secure the forts important to protect her claim in Normandy. She was also pregnant with her third child, Matilda had nearly lost her life with her second, so was unwilling to put herself at risk. Also the access to the coast was almost impossible, through hostile territory, the Count involved in fighting his own battles was not prepared to provide the military might she needed. Did Matilda perhaps believe her father’s court and her cousin (Stephen) to uphold their oath, to rally round her?
Stephen took her delay to seize the moment, this was not a new idea, might over right! Stephen was a man of action. He had access to Boulogne within easy striking distance of the English coast. He wasted no time upon arrival to head for the Cathedral at Winchester where his brother was Bishop who applied the holy oil of the sacramental rite, Stephen arrived at the cathedral a travel-weary man but left as an anointed King. Whatever the country felt about his claim now they could not deny him Kingship.
England was thus plunged into civil war. Stephen soon enraged the people who needed to support him allowing Matilda’s army the chance to chase him around England, finally being captured in England. However Matilda was never popular in London and was unable to gain the support needed to be crowned. This resulted in stalemate. Negotiation and reconciliation ensured the dynasty was secured when Stephen acknowledged Henry, Matilda’s son as his heir.
There is very little recorded about Matilda, what is, depicts a woman of extraordinary intelligence, strong will and political acumen. Duty and the exercise of power had always come before sentiment or personal satisfaction, a concept that would make no sense to a woman brought up to be an Empress. Her behaviour on receiving the title ‘our lady of England and Normandy’ is recorded and repeated by many as ‘She was lifted up to insufferable arrogance’ (Henry of Huntingdon), this kind of behaviour acceptable for a man who is pronounced king but considered unwomanly for a Countess. There are complimentary contemporary reports if you care to seek them out which speak of ‘that formidable lady’ and we must remember there would have been many who would fear a woman holding power in her own right. It took another four hundred years to for this to come to pass.
So what can we find in London to commemorate Stephen and Matilda? We have the portrait of Stephen in the National Portrait Gallery (not on display at present) and the manuscript containing a picture of Matilda in the British Library, but neither date from Stephen’s reign. Stephen’s brother Henry de Blois was Bishop of Winchester and began work on his palace which you can find the remains of in Clink Street in Southwark
Confusingly Stephen’s wife was also called Matilda. Two of her children died at a very young age, and the grief stricken Matilda decided to found a church and hospital in their memory. The church was called St Katharines’s by the Tower – due to being next to the Tower of London. It grew into a religious community which cared for the sick. The hospital survived the reformation and carried on until land was required for a dock in 1825. The medieval building was demolished and in its place we now have St Katharine’s Dock. The The Royal Foundation of St Katharine moved out to Regents Park before moving on to Limehouse in 1946. Their role today is to provide a meeting place for charities and faith groups.
You can find another fragment of a religious house founded in the reign of King Stephen in Bromley By Bow. St Leonard’s Priory was founded as a Benedictine nunnery in the 12th century by William, Bishop of London. The medieval priory was pulled down in 1635 and the church that replaced it was rebuilt in 1842. This church was badly bombed during World War Two, and the remains finally finished off in 1969 by work to complete the Blackwall Tunnel. All that remains is a memorial gateway from 1894 – but its interesting to think that this is the descendant of a building started in King Stephen’s time
With civil war across England there was a wave of military building, castles being built by both sides. You can find a trace of a castle built under the authority of Matilda just north of London at South Mimms. Now we associate South Mimms with the service station that forms the gateway to London, however in 1141 Matilda was keen to see a castle guarding the approach to London, and granted the right to build a motte and bailey to Geoffrey De Mandeville. Geoffrey had originally been a supporter of Stephen, but after Stephen’s capture at Lincoln, Geoffrey switched sides. However by 1143 Geoffrey had switched back to Stephen’s side again. Obviously Geoffrey De Mandeville was not the most loyal of supporters – and possibly this led to Stephen having him arrested and his castles seized. The short lived castle was demolished. Traces of the mound and some of the ditch remain. NB this castle is on private land which is used for shooting, so if you wish to visit contact English Heritage first.
With so much energy going into the battle for the crown it is perhaps unsurprising that Stephen and Matilda have left little concrete to us in London. At least with Matilda’s son recognised to heir as heir to the throne, the reign of Henry II was more stable, as we shall see next time.
Thanks to Tina Baxter, Robin Rowles, Neil Sinclair and Rob Smith for contributing to this. All of them have walks in next months Literary Footprints Festival