Lady of the English - The Life of Empress Matilda

This year marks the 60th anniversary of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation which is a remarkable achievement.   Elizabeth II is the 6th Queen regnant in over 1,000 years of English history, following in the footsteps of Mary I, Elizabeth I, Mary II, Anne, and Victoria.  The anniversary also started me thinking about the woman, who should have been the first Queen regnant of England, the Empress Matilda.  One can’t help but speculate how the history of England might have been different if Matilda had been able to take her rightful place on the throne of England.  Would it have made the road easier for later Queens such as Margaret of Anjou who worked to hold the throne for her husband and son, or later on Mary Tudor? Or would Matilda have been seen as a fluke, an experiment never to be repeated?

Matilda was the eldest child of Henry I of England, son of William the Conqueror, and his first wife Edith of Scotland.  She was born on February 7, 1102 in England, where has been a subject of debate.  Some historians claim that she was born in Winchester, others that she was born at the royal palace at Sutton in Berkshire.  Little is known about her early childhood, like most royal children, she probably soon had her own establishment.  She would have seen little of her father.  When she was two years old, he went to Normandy and stayed there for three years.  Norman French would have been her first language, although she probably learned English as well. She was betrothed to Henry V, the Holy Roman Emperor at a young age, traveling to Germany at the age of 8 along with her large dowry. 

Like Marie Antoinette centuries later, Matilda’s Anglo-Norman retinue was dismissed soon after her arrival. Her education was taken over by the Archbishop Bruno of Trier.  Matilda would have quickly learned German in order to communicate with her subjects.  Over the next four years, she was educated to be the spouse of the Emperor, sort of Queen school if you like.  At the age of 12, she was considered old enough to wed and the couple was married in June of 1114. Despite the age difference, Henry was 15 years older than his bride; the couple appears to have grown fond of each other.  Henry trusted her and respected her enough to leave her as regent in Italy for two years which gained her valuable political experience.  The only thing that would have cemented the relationship would have been if Matilda had given birth to a son, but there were no children of the marriage.  However there are some historians who believe that Matilda may have had a son who died when he was a few months old.

Two events changed Matilda’s life forever.  The first event was the death in 1120 of her brother William Atheling who drowned in the White Ship disaster.  His death cast a shadow over the succession.  As Matilda was Henry’s only legitimate child, she should have been named his successor.  Instead Henry I married again, to Adeliza of Louvain.  There was every chance that Adeliza would bear a son who would inherit (after Henry’s death, Adela remarried and gave birth to seven children by her new husband). The second event was the death of her husband in 1125.  At the age of 23, she was now a childless widow.  Matilda was now summoned to Normandy by her father.  She was displeased at his summons; she was a respected and much loved figure by her husband’s subjects.  There had even been offers of marriage by other German princes.  After 15 years abroad, she was now more German than Norman.   There was however one upside to her return.  Her father had now decided that she would be the heiress presumptive to the throne.  In 1127, Henry made his court, including his nephew Stephen of Blois; swear an oath of allegiance to Matilda. There was also a second oath a year later at Henry’s Easter Court.

However Matilda’s succession was not a sure thing as she had several strikes against her. The idea of primogeniture was a new one for England.  Before the Norman Conquest, the King of England was chosen by a council of nobles.  After William’s death, the throne was seized by his second son William Rufus who fought his eldest brother Robert for the crown.  After William Rufus’s early death, his youngest brother Henry wasted no time before having himself crowned King of England.  There were other claimants to the throne including Henry’s nephews Stephan and his brother Eustace (sons of his sister Adela), and another nephew William Clito, the son of Henry’s oldest brother Robert.  Henry also had something like twenty illegitimate children.  Later on, her husband Geoffrey would be considered a problem.  The Normans actively disliked and distrusted the Angevins.

But the biggest obstacle was that England was not ready for a Queen, certainly not one who actually expected to rule. Chroniclers of the era called her proud and haughty, traits that would have been applauded in a man but not in a woman.  While it was perfectly permissible for a woman to rule in her husband’s stead while he is off waging war or tending to his other lands (as Matilda’s mother did), it was another for her to rule alone.  The church taught that women were weaker than men, more prone to sin.  For a woman to rule was considered an abomination.  Church leaders were fond of bringing up Queen Jezebel as an example of why women should not rule, forgetting of course that Jezebel was only a Queen consort.  And then there’s Cleopatra, another cautionary tale of what happens when a woman rules. This attitude didn’t change even in the 16th century.  Ask Mary, Queen of Scots about her bête noire John Knox.

Now that Henry had made her his heiress, it was time to arrange another marriage for her.  As before, Matilda would have no say in the choice of her groom. To her dismay, her father arranged for her to marry Geoffrey, the son of Count Foulke of Anjou.  Her new husband, although handsome with blond hair and blue eyes, was not quite fourteen to her twenty-five.  He was also, like most adolescents, spoiled and petulant.  He was also a mere count when Matilda had once been an Empress.  She considered the marriage to be beneath her.  When Matilda refused to through with the marriage, Henry locked her in her room until she agreed. The couple was married at Le Mans in June of 1128.  All her life, Matilda refused to use her new title as Countess, preferring to be known as Empress.

The marriage was tempestuous from the beginning and after a year Matilda left her husband and returned to Normandy.  Matilda no doubt took out her resentment on her young husband.  Having been in the same position once as her new husband, you would have thought Matilda would have cut him some slack and shown him the same kindness and consideration she had been shown when she arrived in Germany. The estrangement didn’t last long.  Henry wanted grandchildren and for that to occur Matilda needed to go back to her husband.  Henry got his wish when Matilda gave birth to healthy baby boy in 1133 named Henry.  A second son was born a year later, but Matilda almost died from complications with the labor.  Her condition was so critical that burial arrangements were planned.  However Matilda recovered and a third son named William was born two years later.

Although Henry had named Matilda his successor, no doubt he had hopes of living until his eldest grandson was old enough to ascend the throne. His wishes were thwarted with his sudden death in 1135 after eating an excessive amount of lampreys.  Of course there were all kinds of conspiracy theories surrounding his death.  The relationship between Matilda and her father had become strained in the last few years of his life.  Matilda and Geoffrey had suggested that Henry turn over the royal castles in Normandy to them and have the Norman nobles swear allegiance to her.  This would have put her in a more powerful position after Henry’s death, but Henry refused.

Matilda was caught off guard by her father’s death.  There was no time to raise an army and her way to the coast was blocked by enemies of her husband.  She was also pregnant with her third child.  Like Henry I before him, Stephen acted swiftly to consolidate his hold on the crown. He was crowned at Westminster Abbey the day after Christmas in 1135 by his brother Henry, Bishop of Winchester. Matilda was furious.  Even her half-brother Robert of Gloucester rallied to Stephen. This period of English history is called ‘The Anarchy’ and anarchy it certainly was.  It went on for fifteen years.   Matilda was bowed but not broken.  Since Stephen had been anointed, Matilda appealed to the Pope. But Stephen’s lawyers claimed that Matilda was illegitimate since her mother had not only been raised in a convent but professed desire to be a nun. It was a bit of a stretch but the Pope bought it.  There would be no help for Matilda from that quarter.

Matilda was not without friends and supports.  Her uncle King David of Scotland invaded England several times.  Her former stepmother Adeliza was also in her corner. For two years, Geoffrey waged war to secure Normandy, always a thorn in the English crown.   It wasn’t until 1138 that Matilda finally set foot in England after eight years.  Her half-brother Robert of Gloucester now switched sides, accusing Stephen of trying to kill him.  It wasn’t until 1141 that Matilda’s forces defeated and captured King Stephen at the Battle of Lincoln.  Now a prisoner, he was deposed as King.  When she arrived in London, the city was ready to welcome and support her coronation.  It was Matilda’s moment of triumph but it was short-lived. Matilda had the crown within her grasp so what went wrong?
Stephen’s Queen, Matilda, pleaded with the Empress for his release but was refused.  In response, she raised an army to put her husband back on the throne.  The city of London asked Matilda to halve their taxes.  Again she refused and with good reason but this didn’t sit well.  To be a Queen regnant, Matilda had to take on the characteristics of a King and that just wasn’t acceptable.  She was seen as unwomanly.  If Matilda had been a man, no one would have thought twice about her actions. Apparently they expected Matilda to rule with more compassion. Because of Matilda’s actions, the city of London closed its gates to her and the civil war was reignited in June of 1141.  By November, Stephen was free in exchange for Robert of Gloucester who had been captured and the war raged on.  In 1148, Matilda finally returned to Normandy after the death of Robert of Gloucester.  There she remained in Rouen until her death 1167 at the age of 65.

After waging war for a decade for her right to wear the crown, Matilda had to settle for her eldest son Henry succeeding to the throne after her cousin’s death in 1153.  But even in defeat, Matilda triumphed.  She was her son Henry’s confidante and advisor until her death.  But her ‘reign’ was used as evidence for four hundred years that women weren’t meant to rule.

Helen Castor – She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England before Elizabeth, Harper Collins, 2011

Antonia Fraser – Warrior Queens: The Legends and the Lives of the Women Who Have Led Their Nations in War, Anchor, 1990

Elizabeth Norton – She Wolves:  The Notorious Queens of Medieval England, The History Press, 2010


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