On 25 November 1120 the White Ship sank off the coast of Normandy not long after it set out for England. The ship, which was fast and well-built, went down quickly, with only two survivors. Unfortunately, William, the sole legitimate son of King Henry I was not one of them.
The drowning of Henry I’s heir left the English succession in crisis. Sensibly the king overcame his grief to marry again, with his new bride, Adeliza of Louvain, who was the same age as his lost son, arriving in England in January 1121. Henry I had fathered over twenty illegitimate children, as well as his two legitimate children – William and Matilda – and can have had little doubt that he would soon produce a new heir. Unfortunately Adeliza, who would later bear a second husband several children, did not conceive by Henry. By 1131 she had stopped travelling with Henry on his frequent trips between England and Normandy and it is clear that the couple had lost hope of children.
By 1131 Henry had already made alternative provision for the succession. On 23 May 1125 his son-in-law, the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V had died, leaving a childless widow. Henry I’s daughter, the Empress Matilda, had spent over fifteen years in Germany and may well have been happy to remain there. However, as her father’s only legitimate child, he was anxious to secure her return. At the Christmas court at Windsor in 1126, Henry did the unthinkable and named his daughter as heir to the English crown and the duchy of Normandy. In order to secure her position, he made all those present swear to recognise Matilda as his successor. This was repeated on other occasions over the next few years with Henry’s nephew, Stephen of Blois, prominent amongst those who gave the oath.
By recognising Matilda as his heir, it is clear that Henry wished to continue his own royal line and become the ancestor of kings. It was therefore imperative that Matilda should quickly remarry in order to ensure the succession. In the spring of 1127 Henry opened negotiations for her to marry Geoffrey, the fifteen year old son of the Count of Anjou.
For Matilda, the widow of an emperor, the suggestion that she marry the son of a count and a mere boy was insulting. Henry, however, was determined, locking her in her room until she submitted. The couple were married on 17 June 1128 at Le Mans and quickly became estranged, with Matilda returning to her father at Rouen in July 1129, seeking a divorce.
Personally the couple, who had an eleven year age gap, were entirely incompatible and Matilda always refused to use the title of Countess of Anjou, referring to herself instead as Empress. Henry I seems to have been uncertain about what to do with his daughter and, in 1131, a council was held at Northampton to discuss the matter. It was decided to send Matilda back to her husband, with the couple reconciling sufficiently to produce three sons. Matilda wept throughout the baptism of her eldest son, Henry, in March 1133 since his birth, when she was thirty-one finally removed the stigma of her childlessness.
Matilda was in Anjou and pregnant with her third son when word arrived that her father had died in December 1135. By rights, this meant that she had become queen of England and Duchess of Normandy, but her cousin, Stephen of Blois, had other ideas, rushing to England to have himself crowned king. Stephen’s coronation ushered in years of civil war in England with Matilda arriving at her stepmother’s residence of Arundel Castle in Sussex in 1139 to make an attempt on the crown.
Matilda made her base in the west of England and, for fifteen months, there was a war of sieges with little gains on either side. In 1141, however, when Stephen quarreled with his powerful brother, Henry, Bishop of Winchester, the tide of war turned. On 2 February 1141 Stephen was captured at the Battle of Lincoln and imprisoned by Matilda in chains at Bristol Castle.
As far as Matilda was concerned, she had now ‘gained possession of the kingdom, which had been promised to her by oath’. She was recognised by Stephen’s brother and the people of Winchester ‘as their lady and their queen’ before moving on to London for her coronation. As a recognition of her right to the crown, Matilda adopted the title of ‘Lady of the English’, although she did not refer to herself as queen – probably intending to do so only after her coronation.
Unfortunately, for Matilda, the coronation of England’s first ruling queen was still four hundred years in the future. On 24 June 1141, she was sitting down to dinner in Westminster when a mob of Londoners, who supported Stephen, came streaming out of the city. Matilda was able to flee to Oxford, but in such haste that she left her possessions behind. This marked the end of her hopes for a coronation and when, later that year, her half-brother, the powerful Robert of Gloucester was captured, she was forced to exchange him for King Stephen.
Matilda continued to fight for the crown until 1148 when she finally sailed for Normandy, which had been captured on her behalf by her husband. She left her son, Henry, to continue her claim and, in November 1153 he was finally recognised as Stephen’s heir, bringing the war to an end. This must have been a bittersweet moment for the woman who was so nearly England’s first ruling queen. She must, however, have prided herself on keeping her own claim alive: all English monarchs since 1154 have been descended from her. It was also Matilda who brought the old Anglo-Saxon royal bloodline back into the English royal family since, on her mother’s side, she was the great-great-great-granddaughter of Ethelred the Unready.
Matilda remained in Normandy for the rest of her life, acting as Henry II’s unofficial regent there. She died on 10 September 1167 aged sixty-five years old – an advanced age for the time.
Photo credit: St Catherine depicted as a Medieval queen from Deerhurst, Gloucestershire (author’s own collection)