Matilda was born in around 1105 in Boulogne in Northern France; she was of noble and royal descent as her parents were Eustace III, Count of Boulogne and Mary of Scotland. Her mother Mary was the daughter of the Scottish King Malcolm III and Matilda’s bloodline also heralded from the pre-conquest kings of England. Despite her high-rank, had Matilda’s life not taken the path it did, we would probably know little about her today due to the lack of recording of women’s history at the time.
Matilda was the only child of her parents Mary and Eustace and therefore inherited Boulogne from her father in 1125. Due to France’s laws on female rule and inheritance, Matilda did not rule in her own right; however, she was co-ruler with her husband. Matilda’s husband was Stephen of Blois, Count of Mortain who was a nephew of King Henry I of England, making him the grandson of William the Conqueror. King Henry had arranged the marriage between Stephen and Matilda as he knew his nephew would have rights over Boulogne and Matilda’s estates in England which she had inherited from her father. Matilda and Stephen were married in 1125.
Stephen had grown up at the court of his uncle Henry I and was knighted by him after a military campaign in 1112. Henry I protected Stephen and gave him patronage which allowed him to gain wealth and titles. The king did this because Stephen was family and a useful ally but also because Stephen was not deemed a threat to the succession; Stephen was the third son in his family and at the time Henry I had a grown-up son and heir. In 1120 however things began to change, and Stephen found himself a little closer to the throne when Henry I’s heir William died in the White Ship disaster.
After the death of William, Henry I was only left with one child, his daughter Matilda who was the cousin of Matilda of Boulogne on her mother’s side and the cousin of Stephen of Blois on her father’s side. This Matilda is remembered as Empress Matilda due to her marriage to Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor, despite Empress Matilda remarrying after her first husband’s death. King Henry I proclaimed that his daughter Empress Matilda was his rightful heir and the barons swore an oath agreeing to this.
In 1135, King Henry I of England died, and although the barons had sworn to support Empress Matilda as the next monarch, it was Stephen of Blois who took the throne, and therefore Matilda of Boulogne became Queen. By this time, Stephen had amassed wealth and power and was well-liked amongst the Anglo-Norman nobility, this and the fact that he and Matilda had four children together by this stage made him a great candidate for the throne, and he and his readymade royal family were widely supported.
At this time, Empress Matilda was in Anjou with her husband Geoffrey of Anjou, and due to her father dying in Normandy, she and many of her supporters were stuck on the continent until he was buried, meaning Empress Matilda could do little as Stephen and Matilda took over in England. Due to pregnancy and the birth of her third son, Empress Matilda was unable to return to England and this delay allowed for Stephen and Matilda to be crowned King and Queen in separate coronations, as Matilda of Boulogne’s coronation was delayed also by childbirth. While the Empress was in Anjou, Stephen and Matilda laid on lavish banquets for their courtiers in England.
The ensuing years are remembered in history as ‘the Anarchy’, a civil war in which King Stephen and his cousin Empress Matilda battled for the English throne. Although Stephen had won the crown once, he was never truly safe as Empress had such widespread support and power. The Anarchy is said to have lasted from 1135 to 1153 and was a time of instability and lawlessness for England and Normandy.
In 1139, Empress Matilda and her half-brother Robert of Gloucester began a major rebellion which led to her ruling areas of England in her own right while King Stephen fought to keep hold of the rest of his territory. In 1141, King Stephen was even captured by the Empress’ forces. During this time, Matilda of Boulogne was a devoted wife to her husband, and her support did not come and go like that of many of Stephen’s barons. Matilda cannot be seen as a typical woman from this period, as she was highly involved in politics and wars. Matilda even called troops of her own from Boulogne and Flanders in order to attack Dover Castle, then moved on to Durham to negotiate a treaty with her Uncle King David I of Scotland. While King Stephen was held in captivity, his wife had to use all of her political knowledge and strength to make sure her husband kept his throne.
There were two particular occasions where Matilda truly defeated her cousin the Empress and saved her husband. While her husband was in captivity, Matilda raised an army, and when the Empress was preparing to be crowned Queen, Matilda of Boulogne and her army attacked and chased her away from the city. On another occasion, Empress Matilda had captured King Stephen’s brother Henry of Blois, and so Matilda of Boulogne’s army captured the Empresses half-brother Robert in retaliation. Matilda of Boulogne then negotiated a prisoner exchange and for the Empress to agree to King Stephen returning to the throne.
On top of her military skill and dedication to her husband’s cause, Matilda of Boulogne achieved much more in her own right. She founded a number of Abbeys and Temples and was a supporter and patron of the Knights Templar. Matilda died in 1152 as the anarchy was drawing to a close; she went to her grave believing that her son Eustace would be the next king of England. This, however, was not to be and it was eventually the Empress Matilda’s son who succeeded Stephen, becoming King Henry II of England, meaning Empress Matilda finally came out on top at the end of The Anarchy.