21 October 2011

The Not-So-Wicked Stepmother

Today, stepmothers have become an ordinary part of many children’s lives. Heck, some people even end up with more than one. This was also the case for many royal children throughout history—particularly royal daughters. You see, when royal sons predeceased dear old dad, it was up to the aging king to find a young wife.

So, here you are a princess and in comes the new queen, who is probably about your age. This isn’t always the best formula for a harmonious family life. You don’t have to be a great historian or a psychiatrist to deduce that Henry VIII’s daughter, Mary, probably had little reason to love Anne Boleyn. After all, seeing your own mother cast aside and being declared illegitimate yourself so papa can try again with one of your mother’s maids has a way of cramping your style. The latent causes of “Bloody Mary’s” bloodiness may have started with this catastrophic second marriage.

Nevertheless, one royal stepmother did fare very well with her tempestuous stepdaughter. King Henry I was a melancholy old man of 52 when his friends persuaded him to marry again. His first wife had died a few years earlier and, Henry probably could have cared less. She had given him a couple of robust sons, William and Richard, to be the heir and a spare. However, in November 1120, Henry and the family (including several illegitimate children) set out for a little jaunt to Normandy. But Prince William, who could give the current Prince Harry a run for his money, decided to party longer on the English coast with his brother and one of his sisters and their friends. Henry’s boat rowed away as the youngsters enjoyed a few too many. By the time they finally set out, the helmsman and all the oarsmen were completely wasted. The boat struck a huge rock often covered by tidal floods and all but a lowly butcher was killed.

King Henry was distraught. His only surviving child, Matilda, not only was a girl, but was far away in Germany, the wife of the German emperor. So, the saddened old man chose to try for another heir, and promptly married the teenaged daughter of the Count of Louvain. Adela (sometimes called Adelicia or Adeliza) was considered gentle and loving and very beautiful. One of her illegitimate stepsons wrote “no maid as fair as she was seen on middle earth,” but that’s a Freudian issue we won’t get into here.

Despite being young and hot, Adela gave the king no children of any kind, male or female. He had several more illegitimate children and she had seven kids by her second husband after his death, but the stork never arrived at Adela and Henry’s castle. A few years later, Henry had a bit of luck; the German emperor had died without fathering any kids with his hot, young bride either. Henry’s daughter, 23-year-old Empress Matilda came home to England and found Queen Adela well established in her mother’s place. Evidently though, Adela’s winning ways impressed the usually proud Matilda and the two became friends. In fact, after Henry named Matilda his heir and insisted that she marry the too-short, very uncouth 14-year-old Geoffrey of Anjou, it was to Adela’s house that she fled.

Adela let Matilda stay secluded with them for many weeks while she protested the marriage. Why should she, an empress, marry a distasteful little count? King Henry won out in the end, however, and the marriage took place.

Years later, Adela was a little better at protecting her stepdaughter from a disagreeable king. After Henry died, his nephew Stephen usurped Matilda’s place as heir. Within a couple of years, Matilda and her illegitimate brother (the same one who thought Adela was a cutie) decided to raise an army and take the throne away from their cousin. The two of them arrived from the Continent and hurried to their stepmother’s house, Arundel Castle—where strangely enough she had already produced two sons for her second husband. Stephen got wind of their location and marched on the castle with a large force. Matilda and Robert had not thought to bring many men with them and the castle had a rather small entourage of its own. Adela, who until now had not taken a side against the new king, decided to take a stand. While Robert fled out a back door, Adela told Stephen she had no intention of handing over her stepdaughter.

Stephen, was persuaded by the pretty, thirty-something former queen and agreed to do the chivalric thing. He granted safe passage for Matilda, gave a jaunty wave to his lovely little aunt and rode away. After all, he thought he had more to fear from Robert than from a woman. Matilda, however, had other ideas. (Read my post about Matilda, Royal Escape Artist.) This was the start of civil war that lasted 14 years, ending only when Stephen agreed to make Matilda’s son, Henry, his heir. If Adela had not stood up to Stephen, the war might have been nipped in the bud and Stephen’s son, Eustace, might have become king rather than the energetic Henry II.

So, now we see what a good stepmother can do for a kingdom.