THE middle years of the 12th century were turbulent times in England because Stephen and Matilda fought a vicious civil war for the Crown of England, as readers of Ellis Peters’ Brother Cadfael books will know.

Eventually the Empress Matilda gave up her claim, leaving Stephen to become undisputed king. He died in 1154, and, by agreement, Matilda’s son became King Henry II.

Stephen had had two children, William and Mary. Mary became a nun at Romsey by the age of 14, and because of her social standing, was elected abbess soon after. Then in 1159-60, her brother died and she became heiress of his extensive estates in France. As possessor of this property, she was considered far too valuable a prize to be a celibate nun.

Her cousin, Henry II, kidnapped her from the abbey and forced her to marry Matthew of Alsace, the youngest son of the Count of Flanders. The whole of aristocratic Europe, including Matthew’s parents, was scandalised by this treatment of a consecrated nun.

The marriage lasted ten years and produced two daughters. Then Princess Mary renounced her property and entered the monastery of St Austrebert at Montreuil in France where she lived out the rest of her life, dying in 1182. The legal status of the daughters had to be regularised, because the status of their mother’s marriage was questionable. However, if you were rich enough and important enough, the Pope would regularise questionable births, and this happened to the ladies Ida and Maud, doubtless with considerable payment to the papal coffers.

Amongst Mary’s supporters was Thomas Beckett, who became archbishop of Canterbury, and was murdered in 1170 at the instigation of Henry II. Amongst Beckett’s enemies was Matthew of Alsace who, not unnaturally, did not like a senior cleric casting aspersions on the legitimacy of his marriage.

Princess Mary seems to have been the last member of the royal family ever to become a nun at Romsey Abbey, although King John’s daughter, Princess Joanna, was educated by the nuns of Romsey. Whether other abbeys were becoming more fashionable, or whether the scandal associated with princess Mary, caused it to decline in status, is something that is still open to question.