The Templars and the Two Mathildas

By Steve Tibble

In an age largely dominated by men, the Templars have a stand-out reputation for being one of the most resolutely macho groups. But the military brothers could also prove themselves adept at developing strong relationships of trust with powerful women too.

Strangely enough, the unprepossessing reign of King Stephen in England, and the period of English history ominously known as ‘The Anarchy’, created opportunities for extending the influence of the order – and women were at the heart of that process.


The Templars took that opportunity. As the ruling families of England broke into factions and turned in on themselves, the brothers began to play an increasingly active role in government. They used their political capital to act as mediators and exerted their influence to nudge the country towards more stable governance.

The Templars played the difficult game of pleasing everyone extremely well. They were adept at maintaining their neutrality, whilst at the same time instinctively, and quietly, supporting the status quo as their default position.


They were helped in this by the way in which the crusading vision began to take hold in England – the idea that to fight in defence of the Holy Land was a beautiful, just and uniquely devout task. Crusading enthusiasm was high, and the Templars were Christendom’s poster boys. Brother knights were the perfect vanguard for a movement that was both militarily muscular and spiritually compelling – their glamour was a powerful recruiting sergeant in establishing the order in Britain, even in the midst of civil war.

King Stephen’s Angevin opponents, Empress Mathilda and her son Henry, had close ties to the crusading movement. The order made efforts to remain on good terms with them, whenever possible – Templar interests, after all, were internationalist and transcended those of local family issues in the West. The King of Jerusalem, for instance, Fulk of Anjou (r. 1131–42), was both a Templar associate and Henry’s grandfather. Not coincidentally, mother and son made significant grants to the Templars during the civil war. The empress gave the order pastures in Shotover Forest in Oxfordshire in the spring of 1141. Keen to emphasise the legitimacy of her cause, she ostentatiously made the gift for the soul of her father, King Henry I.

Their example was inevitably followed by those of their party. One of Mathilda’s leading supporters, her steward, Reginald of St Valéry, gave the Templars lands in Gloucestershire, money rents in Tarenteford and a church in Oxfordshire. Another of her backers, Henry of Hose, gave the order lands in Berkshire, at Sparsholt.

Mathilda and Henry – Cambridge, Corpus Christis College, Ms. 373, fol. 95v.

Other major grants were also made by Empress Mathilda’s men, including Miles of Gloucester at Lockeridge and William II of Braose at Sumpting. These were important additions to the order’s property portfolio. The donation of the large estate at Hirst, which became the second Templar preceptory in Yorkshire, was made by Ranulf of Hastings, another of Mathilda’s supporters. Significantly, Ranulf was himself the brother of Richard of Hastings, master of the British Templars (c. 1155–76/9). Connections meant a lot.


Empress Mathilda and her supporters were good friends to the order. But, all things being equal, the Templars gravitated to the political status quo of the centralised power – regardless of their moral standing (or otherwise). Despite being neutral on one level, they also had the entirely rational objective of wanting to create an undistracted England – their ultimate interest lay in having a state that could participate as fully as possible in the crusading movement.

The order was helped in this by the close links that King Stephen’s household had with the crusading movement in general – and the Templars in particular. The House of Blois was related to the founder of the Templars, Hugh of Payns, and Stephen was the eponymous son of one of the most controversial leaders of the First Crusade. His father had been accused of cowardice during the original expedition and, shamed by his wife, went back to rebuild his reputation soon afterwards.

Count Stephen had been captured by the Fatimid Egyptians and then beheaded. The knowledge of his father’s tortured last moments doubtless affected his son’s view of the fight in the East. For him the cause was deeply personal and the Templars were the men who could pursue it on his behalf.


But the connections went even deeper than that. King Stephen’s wife and fellow patron, Queen Mathilda of Boulogne (not to be confused with Empress Mathilda), was deeply immersed in the crusading movement. Her father had been a crusader and she was the niece of the first two rulers of the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem – Godfrey of Bouillon and King Baldwin I. She had attachments of her own to the Holy Land – and she too was a devoted supporter of the Templars.

19th-century depiction of Mathilda of Boulogne – Wikimedia Commons

These family links even impinged on her decisions about major affairs of state. On 2 February 1141, Stephen was surrounded by enemy forces at the end of the Battle of Lincoln. He fought on until the men of his household had been killed or overwhelmed – the king was said to have bravely held off his opponents with an axe and, when that broke, with a sword. He was only taken down when he was concussed by a stone thrown at his helmet.

Negotiations for Stephen’s release took place later in the year. Inevitably, these were fraught with difficulties. Tellingly, the queen suggested an extraordinary way in which the impasse might be broken. She proposed that, if Stephen were released, he might promise to immediately leave the country and fight in the crusader states instead. In the event such radical promises were not needed to secure his freedom. The matter was resolved by a high-level prisoner exchange – but the defence of the Holy Land clearly loomed large in her mind.

The Templars were highly respected In the royal household, and that respect was reflected in the generosity shown to the order by the king and his party. King Stephen himself was, perhaps not surprisingly, the most generous patron of all. He gave the Templars assets in Hertfordshire and Oxfordshire, in Essex, including a market at Witham, and what became the important preceptory of Eagle in Lincolnshire.


But his wife, Queen Mathilda, was a driving force in this process and a major donor in her own right. She played a vital role in establishing the Templar order in England. She gave the Templars a large estate and church at Cressing in 1137, which soon became one of their most important commanderies. Perhaps significantly, the grant of Cressing was made for the benefit of the soul of her crusader father, as well as those of herself and Stephen. By 1185 Cressing and Witham were being treated as a single estate, with eighty-five tenants farming the order’s lands there.

The queen similarly made major grants of lands and mills at Dinsley in Hertfordshire to the Templars and helped establish the commandery at Cowley in Oxfordshire in 1139. By the time of the 1185 Inquest, three-quarters of the Cowley estate was let out to tenants, with the remainder held back as demesne land, retained for the direct use of the order. And, to round off the picture of a devout family predisposed towards the Templars, their son, Eustace of Boulogne, was also an enthusiastic donor. Queen Mathilda and her husband played a crucial part in kick-starting the order’s estate network in large parts of England.

Significantly, the support of women was of great importance to the Templars in establishing their presence in England. Quite apart from the two Mathildas, we know that Agnes of Sibford became a patron and gave the Templars the church of Sibford and lands nearby in 1153. Similarly, Adelizia of Louvain gave the order part of her estate at Stanton in Oxfordshire in 1139–44. Showing the strains of a war between fellow countrymen, Adelizia was the stepmother of Empress Mathilda, but had married into a family loyal to King Stephen. It is hard to say which party she belonged to in this time of political turmoil. Perhaps in matters of private piety such as this, it was of less significance than one might imagine.

However masculine the Templars might have tried to appear, they knew how to develop relationships with powerful and influential women – and how important they were in sustaining the crusading movement.

See also: The Templars in Britain: A Difficult and Ominous Beginning

You can buy Templars: The Knights Who Made Britain from | |
Yale University Press

Dr Steve Tibble is a graduate of Jesus College, Cambridge and London University. He is an Honorary Research Associate at Royal Holloway College, University of London. Steve is a leading authority on warfare and violence in the crusading era.

His Templars: The Knights Who Made Britain (Yale) is due out in September 2023, and his two most recent books (‘The Crusader Armies’, Yale 2018, and ‘The Crusader Strategy’, Yale 2020) were received to critical acclaim. The latter was short-listed for the Duke of Wellington’s military history award, 2021.

He is a contributor to ‘The Cambridge History of the Crusades’ and ‘The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades’, both forthcoming in 2023. You can learn more about Steve on his personal website, or follow him on Twitter or Instagram.

Further Reading:

Barber, M., The New Knighthood: A History of the Order of the Temple, Cambridge, 1994

Crouch, D., The Reign of King Stephen, 1135–1154, Harlow, 2000

Tibble, S., Templars – The Knights Who Made Britain, London, 2023
Interested in learning more about the Templars? This October, Steve Tibble will be teaching an online course about them – Click here for more details.

Top Image: Empress Mathilda depicted in a 15th-century manuscript. British Library MS Cotton Nero D. VII, f.7