The panel of the Bayeux Tapestry featuring Eustace alongside William encouraging him to show himself amidst rumours he was dead.

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The Counts of Boulogne in England

The first overlords of Ongar following the Norman invastion weren't Norman, they were the Counts of Boulogne.

Throughout the Saxon period of English history, the country was at a pivotal point as influences from Scandinavia were being replaced by those from France and the kingdoms that owed fealty to the French Kings. Kings of France and those of the noblest birth ruling as Dukes and Counts over the provinces and regions on the other side of the Channel could trace their lineage back to Charlemagne, first King of the Franks (France) and Emperor of the West, who died in 814. The Counts of Boulogne were descended from Baldwin II, Count of Flanders and grandson of King Charles the Bald, the third king of the Franks. Baldwin’s son, Adalulf, became the first Count of Boulogne and four generations later, Count Eustace I married Matilda of Louvain, another descendant of Charlemange from the line of Louis IV, the sixth King of the Franks.

Count Eustace II of Boulogne

Count Eustace II of Boulogne was descended from two lines of French kings. He also had connections to England as his great, great, great grandmother was Aelfthryth, the daughter of King Alfred the Great, and his wife was Godgifu, sister of King Edward the Confessor and daughter of King Ethelred the Unready. Through his wife he was also connected William Duke of Normandy who was her cousin on his father’s side. William’s mother had been a washer woman, hence his enemies called him William the Bastard and he had fought his way to claim and retain the Dukedom of Normandy. Therefore, when Count Eustace II brought his army to fight alongside Duke William, under a Papal Banner at the Battle of Hastings, his was by far the purest and noblest lineage of the two. This was something that might have explained in part, his attempt to seize England from William in 1067 and was to be part of a failed claim for the throne of England made later for his great grandson Eustace IV, son of King Stephen and his granddaughter Matilda.

Eustace II and the Godwins, 1035

Eustace II also had history with his adversary at Hastings, King Harold, but in this case they were not friendly connections. Harold’s father was Earl Godwin of Wessex and a very powerful man in England who had put his family into powerful positions within the Kingdom to extend his control across the country. When Canute invaded England and killed King Ethelred the Unready, Ethelred’s wife, Emma, had sent their two children, Alfred and Edward to the safety of her father’s court in Normandy, and married King Canute to bring peace and harmony to England. She had a third child with Canute who also had another son from a previous marriage so, upon his death, there were four contenders for the throne of England. At this point, Alfred and Edward made separate trips to England from their home in Normandy. Edward was uncertain about his safety and quickly returned to Normandy, but Alfred had travelled via Boulogne to visit to his sister and her husband Eustace who had provided him with some of his men for protection. Upon arrival in England Alfred was tricked and captured along with Eustace’s men and all were killed by Earl Godwin.

Both of Canute’s sons took the throne of England and died in quick succession leaving only one heir, Edward who returned once more from Normandy to become King. He had been brought up a Norman and ran a Norman court surrounded by Norman friends. By now the Godwin family effectively ruled England and the Earl arranged for his daughter Edith to marry Edward. Edward was a weak but very religious man who spent much time at prayer earning him the title ‘Confessor’ and his arranged marriage to Edith failed to produce the heir that the Earl hoped would cement his family’s future control over the throne.

Eustace II and the Godwins, 1051

In 1050, Eustace married Godifu, King Edward’s sister, and the next year he travelled to England to meet his brother-in-law. When Eustace and his entourage had arrived in Kent, an inn keeper had refused lodgings to one of his retainers who responded by killing the man and was himself killed in revenge. This led to a skirmish between Eustace’s men and the men of Kent in which many were killed and injured on both sides. As an affront to his brother-in-law, King Edward demanded that Earl Godwin march on Kent and punish those involved. There was resentment from the Saxons for the way the King favoured Normans and Earl Godwin was not inclined to punish Saxons over Normans. Instead he demanded Eustace and his men be held accountable. Both the Godwin family and the King took to arms to defend their positions and, in the end, the Godwins backed down and were banished by the King with Queen Edith, being sent to a nunnery. They returned the next year with such support that Edward was forced to restore them to the positions they had enjoyed before. Earl Godwin died in 1053 and his son Harold Godwin became the new Earl of Wessex and the king’s closest advisor, running the country.

Godifu died around 1055 and in 1056 Eustace married Ida, daughter of Duke Geoffrey of Lower Lorraine and a descendant of the fourth King of the Franks, Louis II.  He received Bouillon and its castle as her dowry and they had three sons, Eustace, plus Godfrey and Baldwin who would go on to be leaders of the crusades and become rulers of Jerusalem.

Eustace II and Duke William of Normandy

Both Eustace and William owed fealty to the French Kings, along with all the other Counts and Dukes that ruled over domains and possessions across France, acquired by inheritance, marriage, gift or conquest. Alliances came and went and it was in the French King’s interest to play one faction off against another by supporting different sides to ensure that no individuals or alliances became too powerful. Thus in the early 1050’s King Henry was concerned when the already powerful Duke William attacked his uncle, The Count of Arques, and besieged his castle after he criticised William’s conduct and appeared to be a rallying point for others with grievances against William.  The King sent troops to lift the siege with the added hope that William, who was directing the siege personally, would be killed and his uncle could be installed as Duke in his place. The rescue attempt failed and having surrendered his castle, the Count of Arques was allowed to go free by William and it was Eustace II to whom he turned for sanctuary.

Not long after Eustace had visited his brother-in-law, King Edward of England, Duke William made a visit. Amongst the subjects discussed was the question of who would succeed the king given he had no heir. It was the Norman and French tradition that a King named his heir and could even install him as monarch before his death. In justifying the invasion of England in 1066, it was said that Edward had agreed to Duke William replacing him on the throne of England during this visit.

When in 1066, King Edward the Confessor died the council of Saxon nobles, known as the Witan, selected his successor as was the Saxon tradition. It was not surprising that they selected Harold Godwin who was the most powerful noble in the country and was already effectively running the country. Believing he had a right to the throne of England, Duke William of Normandy decided to invade England and to get legitimacy, he sought and received the blessing of the Pope making his campaign a religious crusade.

Eustace II and the Battle of Hastings

William needed a bigger army than he could provide out of Normandy. By gaining Papal support he was able to persuade his neighbours to join him promising rich rewards when he became England’s King. Therefore, the forces he took across the channel with him included Eustace II and his troops from Boulogne.

William did not trust Eustace and took one of his family, possibly a son or nephew, as surety for his good behaviour. Given shifting alliances and the politics of the time, this kind of precaution may not have been uncommon, and Eustace may not have been the only noble required to give some form of surety.

The Battle of Hastings is well known and documented although the role of Eustace differs depending on which version you read. The most trustworthy description, which also fits the story told in the Bayeux Tapestry, has Eustace fighting side by side with William and his half-brother Bishop Odo and at one point offering him his horse when the Duke has been unseated. It also says that Eustace is one of four knights that found the mortally wounded Harold Godwin and that he beheaded him, the ultimate revenge for the Godwin’s actions of 1035 and 1051.

With the battle won and William’s coronation at the end of 1066, the new king handed out the rewards to the nobles who had supported his victory and gained control of the country at the same time by removing Saxon nobles and replacing them with Normans as the new Lords of England. Its not recorded what was initially given to Eustace but a year later it is recorded that he had it all taken away.

Eustace II and his failed invasion of England

Having neglected his domains in Normandy to conquer and consolidate his control over England, King William returned across the channel in March 1067 leaving Bishop Odo and Earl William Fitz-Osbern in charge, with Odo based in the strategically important Dover Castle. Eustace had also returned home to Boulogne but with William absent and intelligence telling him that Odo had travelled to north of London to deal with some trouble, he returned to Kent in force with the intention of capturing Dover Castle. He had been told that the men of Kent were ready to support him which was surprising given his last encounter with the people of Kent but it appeared their hatred of William and wish to see him gone made Eustace a more acceptable option.

The whole operation went badly from the start. The troops left to defend Dover Castle put up a much better defence than expected as Eustace put the castle to siege to give the English time to gather their forces and join him. After fighting for a number of hours, Eustace decided to withdraw his troops. Realising this, the defenders took the opportunity to launch an attack on horseback which Eustace and his men mistook for Odo returning and fled back towards their ships. A low sea mist and fleeing over unfamiliar ground meant that many of Eustace’s men failed to return to the ships, some stumbling over the cliffs or drowning under the weight of their mail when their overcrowded vessels sank. Eustace himself returned safely to Boulogne but a young nephew, who had joined him on this ill-fated campaign, was left behind, captured by Odo’s men.

As a result of this treachery, Ongar, and all the rest of Eustace’s lands in England, were confiscated by King William.

No one knows the reason for Eustace’s actions. Several plausible reasons have been put forward. He may have hoped to take control of Dover and the surrounding area in Kent in order to control the straits of Dover by possessing the major ports on each side. He might have felt that holding the key castle at Dover would give him a bargaining chip to get a better deal from William – or the release of his son who may still have been held captive as surety since the start of the crusade. As mentioned already, Eustace was of much nobler birth than William and had lineage to past kings of England including Alfred the Great, so may have been trying to get the country on his side against the Normans and make a claim for the English throne.

Eustace II back in favour with William

Despite his actions at Dover, within a few years Eustace II and King William were reconciled and Ongar, together with the rest of his possessions in England, were returned to him. The reason for this turn of events may be connected to the politics of the time when the balance of power between rulers was governed by alliances and these were constantly changing. The death of kings and nobles, strategic marriages and acquisitions by conquest would alter the balance and subsequent realignments to counter new threats could see enemies suddenly becoming friends. At the time of their reconciliation, both William and Eustace were threatened by events in Flanders, neighbour to both Boulogne and Normandy. Flanders ruler, Count Baldwin V, who was William’s father-in-law, died and the new count, his son Baldwin VI died three years later leaving a young son, Arnulf III, to inherit. Arnulf was challenged by his uncle Robert the Frisian. Flanders descended into civil war with Robert aligned to King Philip I of France who was hostile to Eustace and William who had both supported Arnulf. Therefore to maintain the balance of power, William and Eustace needed to remain on the same side to protect each other’s borders and check the power of Robert and his benefactor Philip I.

Eustace III

On his death, Eustace II had created a substantial land holding in England on top of his possessions on the continent.  These were inherited by his son, Eustace III. This was the time of the Crusades and Eustace joined his brothers Godfrey and Baldwin to fight in the First Crusade in the Holy Land in 1096.

Eustace III and the Crusades

Eustace was deeply involved in the First Crusade where he commanded troops and was known as a fierce fighter. He was also involved in the council that oversaw the assembled international Christian Army and mediated between the various factions. He played a leading role in the siege of Nicaed, the siege and capture of Antioch and the siege and capture of Jerusalem and commanded a division of the Crusader Army at the Battle of Aascalan in 1099, the last major action of the First Crusade. Unlike his brothers, who remained in the Holy Lands and went on to become the first Ruler of Jerusalem and first King of Jerusalem, Eustace returned home where the mint at Boulogne struck silver coins to commemorate his deeds and victory in the First Crusade.

Eustace III marriage

With major land holdings in England and France, including castles and ports, and wealth and military might, together with his international standing following the First Crusade and his brothers ruling Jerusalem and controlling the Holy Land, Eustace Count of Boulogne was a very powerful man. King Malcolm III of Scotland had married one daughter to King Henry I of England and his daughter Mary was married to Eustace. They had one daughter, Matilda.

Eustace III offer of Jerusalem and death

In 1118, his brothers being dead, Eustace was offered the crown of Jerusalem. Being elderly he declined it at first and then changed his mind only to find another had been crowned whilst in Italy on his way to the Holy Lands. He returned home once more to Boulogne where he died at a monastery in around 1125.

Countess Matilda of Boulogne

At her father’s death, Matilda inherited the title and all the wealth and land that came with it, known collectively as the Honour of Boulogne. King Henry I of England arranged her marriage to his nephew Stephen Count of Blois whose mother was Adela, daughter of King William I of England. Stephen was part of Henry’s court and favoured by his uncle who had helped him build his wealth and influence. On top of his lordship of Blois, Henry granted Stephen lands in Alencon and made him Count of Mortain in France and granted him the Honour of Lancaster in England, a large estate which included land between the rivers Mersey and Ribble. The marriage brought the two fortunes together making Stephen and Matilda very powerful in both England and France.

Henry I had a son, William Adelin, who would have inherited the crown but was drowned traveling from Normandy to England in 1120. Henry remarried but when it was clear there would be no more children, he forced his court to recognise his daughter Matilda as his heir by swearing oaths. When Henry died suddenly in 1135 he was in Normandy, his daughter was in Anjou and Matilda Countess of Boulogne was with Stephen in Boulogne from where he was able to leave quickly for England to lay claim to the throne.

Henry’s daughter had control of Dover which was garrisoned by her half-brother, Robert Earl of Gloucester. However, Stephen managed to get ashore and travel to his estate east of London from where his power base grew as he arranged to be crowned King of England. At this point, Ongar would have been closely acquainted with a key turning point in English history.

As well as being a patron to Stephen, King Henry had also promoted Stephen’s brother, Henry of Blois to a powerful position within the English Church making him Abbot of Glastonbury and Bishop of Winchester. It was with his brother’s support that Stephen gained the support of the church to become King and took control of the royal treasury at Winchester. When the citizens of London threw their weight behind Stephen the way was clear for him to be crowned at Westminster Abbey on December 22nd.

Count and Countess of Boulogne now King and Queen of England

England now had new royalty, but it was a troubled land in which Stephen, supported by nobles, had made a grab for the throne whilst Henry's family were away in France arranging his burial. For some Stephen was the better choice. He was generally liked being someone who was firm but fair and easy to get on with. Henry’s heir Matilda, on the other hand, was married to Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou, and therefore now a member of the neighbouring Angevin Dynasty who were disliked and distrusted by the Normans. However there were more deep-seated issues that troubled both the Norman nobility and the church. Henry had brought new people into positions of power at the expense of nobles and there were issues around hereditary rights to land in England that did not exist in Normandy and heavy taxation that was building a wealthy royal treasury. Then there were intrusions into England from Scotland and Wales that had to be dealt with or paid-off and attacks into Normandy by Geoffrey Count of Anjou to contend with.

The Anarchy

The final slide into the civil war known as The Anarchy, was triggered by powerful Robert Earl of Gloucester who rebelled against the King in 1138 in favour of his half-sister and Henry I’s daughter, Matilda, to replace Stephen. The move was supported by Matilda’s uncle, the Scottish King, who invaded England once more and her husband Geoffrey who increased his attacks on Stephen’s Normandy borders. To counter these threats, Stephen made deals with nobles and allies including King Louis VI of France who recognised Stephen’s son Eustace as Duke of Normandy. He also spent a great deal of the royal treasury employing mercenaries to effectively wage war on all fronts and creating new earldoms granted to supporters who were also capable military commanders whilst removing adversaries within the church who were also building castles and armies.

In 1138 Robert of Gloucester arrived in England from Normandy with Empress Matilda and an invading army and made a base at Arundel Castle on the Sussex coast. The fighting between Stephen and Matilda was concentrated in the South East and South West of England whilst the North and East Anglia was fought over by rebel barons, and Matilda’s husband, Geoffrey, Count of Anjou invaded and conquered Normandy. Nobles made allegiance to whichever side was in their personal interest, and this could change if required. Many deliberately chose the opposite side to a neighbour to give them legitimacy as they settled old scores and expanded their land holding and asserted power by building castles. Military leaders knew that major battles were costly and to be avoided so concentrated on siege warfare leaving the most brutal fighting at a local level. The ensuing anarchy and devastation led to this period of misfortune and misery being known as the “Nineteen long winters when Christ and his Saints slept”.

Attempt to crown Eustace IV King of England

Victories and setbacks for both sides eventually led to a settlement bringing the conflict to an end. All Stephen’s attempts to secure his dynasty, including an attempt to have his son Eustace crowned king in his place, had failed and then Eustace had died. At a local level, nobles were drawing up treaties and agreements between each other to end conflict and consolidate their gains. In 1153, following stalemate and truce at the Siege of Wallingford where both sides were too weary to fight, Stephen sealed the Treaty of Winchester, brokered by his brother Henry. The treaty recognised Empress Matilda and Geoffrey Plantagenet’s son Henry as heir to the English throne and ended the fighting. The agreement also secured Stephen and Matilda’s remaining son, William, position with his titles and lands secure.

King Stephen died the next year and the reign of the Plantagenet Dynasty began with King Henry II who, with the land’s of his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, ruled a domain stretching from the Scottish border in the north, to the Spanish border in the south.

When William became the new Count of Boulogne, he retained the Honour of Boulogne and all his estates in England and France as Henry had agreed.  The manor of Ongar passed out of the hands of the Counts of Boulogne, being gifted to Richard de Lucy, William’s son-in-law through marriage to his daughter Rohese.

Notes on photos above: These show The panel of the Bayeux Tapestry featuring Eustace alongside William encouraging him to show himself amidst rumours he was dead, and the landward gates to the old walled town of Boulogne. The shield shows the arms of Boulogne, a symbol which would have flown over Ongar.

Find out more about Medieval Ongar here.

Find out more about the next over-lord of Ongar, Richard de Lucy here.

Map & Directions

The Counts of Boulogne

Type:Blue Plaque

High Street, Ongar, Essex, CM5 9JG

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