By Colleen Slater
Paper given at Session 6: Hostage and Captive Taking in the High Middle Ages
Charles Homer Haskins Conference (2010)
Slater’s paper dealt with the treatment of two captives in England during The Anarchy of King Stephen’s reign – the captives being Stephen himself and Robert of Gloucester, and about their captors – Empress Matilda and Queen Matilda (Stephen’s wife).
Many chroniclers have portrayed Empress Matilda, the daughter of Henry I, as being too aggressive and harsh, and certainly un-Queen-like in her behaviour. She is often depicted as a tyrant, with “insufferable arrogance.” Her actions during the captivity of Stephen made impressions of her worse.
Stephen was captured at the Battle of Lincoln in 1141, and soon found himself in chains (or irons). This was seen by many chroniclers, and English nobles, as being far too excessive treatment for a king.
Matilda had a difficult situation in dealing with Stephen – executing a consecrated king was not an option, and releasing him risked Stephen just resuming the war against her. Following her father’s example, Matilda wanted to show her strength and be seen as acting decisively by chaining Stephen, with hopes that it might convince her enemy’s supporters to surrender.
Instead, many nobles turned against Empress Matilda and saw this as further examples of her being too haughty and angry, and therefore unfit to rule.
Meanwhile, Queen Matilda acted very differently when Robert of Gloucester was captured – she placed him under a loose form of house arrest, even promising never to put him in chains. She earned universal praise for this move, and solidified her reputation as an ideal queen.
Queen Matilda gained a reputation as having acted on behalf of her husband and son, and never claiming power for herself. She won over noble support not by threats and intimidation, but through supplication and generosity.
By the end of 1141, Stephen and Robert were exchanged for each other, ending their captivities. Slater characterizes Empress Matilda’s treatment of Stephen as “a major political blunder,” while Queen Matilda earned much credit for her actions.