Henry I saw his worst nightmare come true on 25 November 1120. His only son and heir to the Kingdom of England drowned in the White Ship disaster. Without a son, he turned to his only surviving legitimate child, Matilda. Young Matilda had been married to the Holy Roman Emperor since 1114, but when he died in 1125 and Henry’s second marriage to Adeliza of Louvain produced no surviving children, Matilda was designated as his heir. This was truly a daring step. Never before had a woman ruled England in her own right. At Christmas 1126 Henry made his barons swear an oath to recognize Matilda as his heir.
Matilda married again in 1128 to Geoffrey of Anjou, a mere 15 years old to her 26 years and also a mere Count while Matilda continued to be titled as Empress. Though the couple did not particularly like each other, the marriage did produce the much needed heirs. Henry I died on 1 December 1135 in Normandy and oaths went out the door.
Though Henry had no sons he did have several nephews through his sister Adela who was married to the Count of Blois. Stephen of Blois, was conveniently located in Boulogne when he was informed of Henry’s death and quickly seized power while Matilda was effectively stuck in Anjou. He was well liked in the city and he was proclaimed King by the crowds of London. His coronation took place on 22 December 1135 in Westminster Abbey.
Meanwhile, Matilda gave birth to her third and last child on 22 July 1136, which may have delayed her initial response. By 1139 Matilda’s invasion was planned and she landed in Arundel late September. Matilda had an important and strong ally in her half-brother, Robert of Gloucester. In the beginning Matilda’s forces took one step forward and one step back. This changed dramatically at the Battle of Lincoln on 2 February 1141.
Stephen had fallen out with Ranulf of Chester and his castle in Lincoln had been placed under seige. Ranulf and Robert of Gloucester advanced on the castle and suddenly Stephen was surrounded by Robert’s soldiers. He was captured by the Angevin army, while his own forces bravely fought on before finally being defeated. Matilda actually received Stephen in person before having him moved to Bristol Castle. Now, Matilda could finally begin to plan for her own coronation.
Matilda was not to be called ‘Queen of England’ instead she was styled ‘Lady of England and Normandy’ at a gathering at Winchester at Easter. The event was attended by many of her own followers, but many others procrastinated or failed to attend. Moving towards London for her coronation she was suddenly face to face with the city and its inhabitants and she was not prepared for its response. The city rose up against Matilda and she was forced to flee to Oxford.
Matilda’s position was once again in danger after her forces were defeated at the Rout of Winchester. Matilda escaped from the city, but her most important ally Robert of Gloucester was taken prisoner during the retreat. After negotiations failed it was to decided to simply exchange the prisoners. Stephen had regained support of the clergy and saw himself and his own queen, another Matilda, crowned yet again.
Those precious few months during 1141 were the only time Matilda effectively ruled but she is not considered England’s first Queen regnant and she was never considered Queen of England during her rule. The dispute continued after Matilda’s forces were defeated. By the late 1140’s Matilda’s supporters started dying out. Her half-brother Robert of Gloucester died in 1147 and the conflict reached a stalemate. Matilda’s eldest son Henry began to take a leading role in the conflict. He returned to England in 1153 with some baronial support, but both sides were tired of fighting. In the end a truce was reached. Henry would be designated at Stephen’s heir and become King after his death. Stephen died on 25 October 1154 and Henry succeeded as Henry II of England.
Though Matilda lived to see her son crowned king, it would take England another 400 years to get used to the idea of a female ruler.
Photocredit: Portrait of Empress Mathilda, from “History of England” by St. Albans monks (15th century); Cotton Nero D. VII, f.7, British Library. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons; Stephen of England, from MS British Library Cotton Vitellius A. xiii, f.4v. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons; Battle of Lincoln by Henry of Huntingdon (Historia Anglorum). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons