Two September Deaths

10 September 1167 saw the passing of one of the most important figures of the 12th century, Henry the Young King's paternal grandmother, Empress Matilda (b.1102). Matilda died at the Abbaye de Notre-Dame de Prés, near Rouen and was buried at the Abbaye du Bec, the religious house she had cherished throughout her life. The monks, following their benefactress’s wish, interred her body before the altar of the Virgin Mary. According to Stephen (known as Stephen of Rouen- Fr. Etienne de Rouen), one of the monks, when she died the flower of the meadow (Fr.le pré) withered and a star fell. It was the first time when Empress Matilda was compared to a flower. Usually she was described in different terms, such as ‘haughty, hard, inflexible and lacking feminine qualities’. She is still best remembered for pitching England into a disastrous civil war while trying to win back what she considered her rightful inheritance. And she might have won, had she only not alienated those whom she ought to have treated with due respect. Her chief allies, David I, king of Scotland (her maternal uncle) and Robert of Gloucester (her half-brother and the eldest of Henry I numerous illegitimate children) were influential backing in her war against Stephen, but proved not enough to overcome the main obstacle, Matilda’s own personality. Instead of trying to win as much support as possible, the Empress showed the same lack of political acumen as her enemy and cousin, king Stephen. After ‘God’s judgment was passed on’ Stephen and he was captured at the battle of Lincoln, ‘the Empress was regarded as their lady by all the English except in Kent, where the queen and William of Ypres fought against her with all their might. She was first recognized by the bishop of Winchester, the papal legate [and Stephen’s brother], and soon after by the Londoners. But she was puffed up with intolerable pride because her followers had been so successful in the uncertainties of war, and she alienated everyone from her. So, 'whether by conspiracy or by divine providence (for whatever men do is by the will of God) she was expelled from London’. She had levied a heavy tax from the citizens (who showed enough eagerness to support her cause) and offended nobles who could have provided arms, ipso facto turning their loyalty and willingness to cooperate into resistance. Still it is hard not to admire her iron will and determination. She was an exceptional and powerful woman in an age dominated by men. Tough and ambitious, she never deviated from her political aims. In the end, it was she who won and lived to see her beloved eldest son, Henry crowned king of England. Her epitaph in the Rouen Cathedral (to which her remains were moved from Bec) reads, “Great by birth, greater by marriage, greatest in her offspring, here lies Matilda, the daughter, wife and mother of Henry”.
                    15th-century depiction of the Empress (source: Wikipedia)

The epitaph does not mention the Empress's second husband*, the founder of the Plantagenet dynastywho was an exceptional man in his own right** and whom she outlived for sixteen years. Geoffrey of Anjou, for he was the man, died on 7 September 1151. This is how John of Marmoutier, Geoffrey's first biographer, described his sudden death at the Chateau-du-Loir, in the Pays de la Loire region of France: ‘… on 7 September 1151, the victorious duke of the Normans, of the people of Anjou, Touraine and Maine, returning from a royal council [held in Paris by Louis VII of France], having been taken seriously ill with a fever [after he went to swim on a hot day] … collapsed on his couch. Then, looking into the future of his land and his people with the spirit of prophecy, he forbade Henry his heir to introduce the customs of Normandy or England into his own county, nor the reverse, as it might be, according to the succession of changing fortune’. Geoffrey was only thirty-eight at the time and did not live long enough to see his eldest son, Henry crowned king of England. He was buried in the church of St Julien at Le Mans ‘in a most noble tomb which the righteous bishop, William of pious fame, had built fittingly. Such a venerable likeness of the count was fashioned there, suitably ornamented with gold and precious stones, that it seemed to express their doom for the proud and grace to the humble. At the altar of the crucifix, at which the dead man lay, a chaplain was appointed by the bishop with a stipend in perpetuity, who each day offered the sacrifice to God for the count’s sake…’

Blessed with good looks Geoffrey was called ‘le Bel’, a nickname he won due to being ‘tall in stature, handsome and red-headed’. He had other praiseworthy qualities as well: ‘unusually skilled at warfare… energetic soldier, shrewd in his upright dealings, exceptionally well educated, generous to all’. John of Marmoutier claimed that the count ‘differed in no respect from the most excellent princes of his time and was loved by all, although he endured much trouble from his own men’. Good-looking or not, Geoffrey failed to impress his imperial bride. She remained cold and aloof throughout the twenty-three years of their marriage. She never ceased to despise him as her social inferior. Their marriage was described as tempestuous. They disliked each other from the start. On the other hand, they both proved to be tough and ambitious, as well as shrewd politicians. They fulfilled their duty and produced the children necessary to guarantee the continuation of their lines***. When she was fighting with Stephen over her inheritance in England, he made himself busily occupied in Normandy, the conquest of which he completed in 1144, after taking Rouen and being invested as duke. One year later, the last of Stephen’s strongholds, Arques, fell to him. In 1149 Geoffrey had turned over the duchy to his eldest son Henry. Perhaps John of Marmoutier gave us a clue, a key to Geoffrey’s success, when he wrote that ‘being intelligent and of strong character, he [Geoffrey] did not allow himself to be corrupted by excess or sloth in early adulthood, but spent his time riding around the country and performing illustrious feats, but saying little about himself as he did so’. I daresay that in that love of illustrious feats, Henry the Young King must have resembled his grandfather. A pity they had never been given a chance to meet. Unless the posthumous meetings do count, of course. I have Henry the Young King’s speedy and utterly unplanned burial at St Julien in mind, where his body was  interred next to his grandfather’s resting place for a short time in the course of the hot and humid summer of 1183.

Enamel effigy of Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou on his tomb at Le Mans (source: Wikipedia)

Note: Both Matilda nad Geoffrey are important characters in Ms Elizabeth Chadwick's novel, Lady of the English and in Ms Sharon Kay Penman's When Christ and His Saints Slept.

* Geoffrey was Matilda's second husband. In 1114 she had been married to Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor. Upon the latter's death eleven years later Matilda returned to England. She never ceased to use the imperial title, styling herself as "the Empress".

** At this point I would like to recommend a brilliant post on Geoffrey by Ms Elizabeth Chadwick. Find out how exceptional man he really was. Pity he is usually in the shadow, neglected by historians, whereas his formidable spouse takes centre stage ;-)

*** Geoffrey and Matilda had three sons: Henry (later Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou, Maine and Touraine, King of England) in 1133, Geoffrey (future count of Nantes) in 1134, and William, count of Poitou in 1136.


History of Duke Geoffrey by John of Marmoutier in The Plantagenet Chronicles edited by Dr. Elizabeth Hallam. Greenwich Editions, 2002.
The History of the English by Henry of Huntigdon in the Plantagenet Chronicles ed. by Elizabeth Hallam. Greenwich Editions, 2002.
'The Empress Matilda and Bec-Hellouin' by Marjorie Chibnall in Anglo-Norman Studies X ed. by R.Allen Brown, Google Books.
Henry II by W. L. Warren. Eyre Methuen, 1977.
The Angevin Empire by John Gillingham. Edward Arnold, 1984.
Historical Dictionary of the British Monarchy by Kenneth J. Panton. Google Books.
Eleanor of Aquitaine and the Four Kings by Amy Kelly. Vintage Books, 1950.


  1. Ironic that one died on the 8th and one on the 10th - even if it was separated by 16 years. I'm sort of amused by the irony that Mathilda got to see Henry crowned, but Geoffrey didn't - but then I'm a Maud "fan" in a way. In a way, though, I think Stephen's wife Mathilda made a better ruler than either of her cousins (her husband or his rival)!!! But at least England got Young Henry's father - and not Stephen's son Eustace!!!

    1. It's the outcome that counts, isn't it? :-) Although I read that there might have been King Eustace had his father suceeded and received the Pope's permission to crown his son in his lifetime.

    2. The tangled web of history. Eustace's nomination got outmaneuvered in the curia, ironically by an energetic clerk working in Rome who would become a stout proponent for Henri of Anjou - Thomas Becket representing the views of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury.

    3. I too find it ironic, Mark. Especially that the aforementioned energetic clerk would later try to stop the aforementioned Henri [King of England at the time] from crowning his son in his lifetime. Double irony, I would say.

  2. Mauthild's short English reign stems from offering her hostage and cause, King Stephen be traded back. Is that how an Empress behaves? I've always been curious why her husband Geoffrey refrained from aiding her, for he would have been the next King of England. His conquering all of Normandy was no small feat, but even then, he could have demanded homage to a long-standing Norman cause. I am sure she resented him for this.

    As for Geoffrey's death, I find it hard to believe he died suddenly from frolicking in a stream. Just a week before Bernard of Clairvaux cursed him to death. His holy henchmen had been known for poisonings to satisfy his moral prophecies. Then, a month before Eustace and King Louis were marching on the Seine to defeat Geoffrey and his son, all in support of Stephen as the rightful King of England. (Henri falls into Eustace's trap on a raid and is nearly captured.) Finally, I've always wondered how angry/ambitious Henri was. His father Geoffrey was ready to divide the realm between the three sons. Henri was weeks ago smitten by King Louis's accomplished wife. Geoffrey had known Eleanor the Queen in some personal manner in the heady crusade recruiting days according to three accounts. When Geoffrey dies, Henri will let no one near the body for days. To the delight of Louis and Eustace the demise threw the Angevin realm into utter disarray with Henri immediately seizing all assets and marginalizing his brothers, one of whom will try to abduct Eleanor for himself.

  3. I can hardly keep up with all your posts Kasia:> Matilda is a fascinating person, and I do have some sympathy for her.

    1. I don't know what's going on myself, Anerje! Either I got some extra super power or it's just because two of my children are back at school since 1 September, meaning more time for Henry :-D

      I too admire the Empress. She must have been an extraordianry woman.

  4. I've always found Matilda interesting. One of only a few women of the period who tried to rule in a man's world. She made some horrendous mistakes, one of the worst was failing to appease the Londoners I think, but her greatest fault to the eyes of many of the barons she was trying to rule was that she was a woman. If she had been a man she would have ruled without problems most likely, or not any more than usual. It's funny that Matilda was accused of being too cold, to unwomanly, whereas her rival Stephen was basically too chivalrous, too nice, he kept forgiving people. But between Matilda and him they managed to force England into a time when, as the Anglo Saxon Chronicle described, "Christ and His Saints Slept." Also I've just found your blog, it's really interesting. I know a reasonable amount about the young king because my main area of interest is William Marshal.

    1. Thank you, Ellen! I have just checked your site. Very interesting. Would you mind if I added it to my blogroll?

      PS I am a happy owner of The Kings and Their Hawks.Thanks to it I have learnt about Henry the Young King's Salisbury mews :-) Highly recommendable.

    2. Hi Kasia, thanks glad you like it. Feel free to add it to your blogroll. :) The Kings and their Hawks is a great book. I've been using it to find out what sort of birds would have hunted what, especially taking down cranes and herons.

    3. Added :-) The Kings and their Hawks is indeed an invaluable source of info. I focused mainly on the chapters discussing Henry II and their sons' hawking habits and their hawks, but also on the names of the falconers (great they were recorded for posterity :-)).

    4. Thanks :)
      Same chapters I focused on, mainly because that's the area of time i'm most interested in.

  5. Wow, you have been busy, Kasia. I only get a post up every 3 weeks or so. ;-)

    Maybe Matilda got a wrong example in her first husband. Henry V led a very uncompromising course against his nobles after 1111 (when he was crowned emperor) and Matilda witnessed some of these firsthand. She was at the diet in Mainz 1114 (it was her wedding, after all) where Henry arrested the landgrave of Thuringia against prior agreements, and forced the Duke of Saxony to undergo a humiliating deditio.

    Though she must have missed the second part of the lesson. Lothar of Saxony rebelled again the moment he put a foot into his own duchy and basically kicked Henry out of it.

    1. Gabriele, the school year has begun so I have two extra hours for Henry before noon :-)

      Thank you for the information. Till now I knew very little about Matild'a stay in Germany.


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