“Great by birth, greater by marriage, greatest in her offspring: here lies Matilda, the daughter, wife, and mother of Henry”
– The epitaph on Empress Matilda’s tomb
In the first blog of this series, we looked at the prominent medieval figure of Eleanor of Aquitaine. However, Eleanor wasn’t the only dominant female, or ‘Queen Mother’ to be specific, of the Middle Ages. It is in this installment that we look at Empress Matilda. Best known for her daring escapes, fearless spirit and the 19 year-long battle she fought against her cousin, King Stephen, over the throne of England, Empress Matilda was a formidable woman. There can be no doubt that she passed on her abilities as a strong leader to her son Henry, who would go on to rule England as King Henry II – the first and greatest of the Plantagenet Kings.
Matilda was born in 1102, and was the daughter of King Henry I and his wife, Matilda of Scotland. Her grandfathers were William and Conqueror and Malcolm III of Scotland, and, through her mother, Matilda was also descended from the famous Anglo-Saxon ruler, Alfred the Great. Had she lived today, Matilda would have been a force to reckon with. However, in the 12th century, Kings tended to use their daughters as political pawns, arranging for them to be married to leaders of other nations to improve relations and form alliances.
Very little is known about Matilda’s childhood. When she was only twelve years old she married Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor, and adopted the title of Empress Matilda. There was a considerable age gap between the two, and Henry often went off to faraway lands to suppress rebellions, leaving Matilda, by then a young woman, to govern Italy as his regent. But the marriage was not to last, and Henry died in 1125. As the marriage had not produced any children, Matilda had no reason to stay at the Imperial court, and returned to her native land of Normandy alone. However, she did continue to use the title of Empress and would do so for the rest of her life.
As a daughter of King Henry I, Matilda had never expected to be Queen. But disaster struck in 1120 when Matilda’s younger brother, William Adelin, died in a shipwreck, leaving the King without a male heir. The succession of England was no longer secure. King Henry’s first wife had died two years previously, and so he took another in the hope that she would bear him a son. But this seemed unlikely, and the King declared that Matilda would be his rightful successor upon his death. He gathered his barons and made them swear loyalty to Empress Matilda.
King Henry hoped to marry Matilda to Geoffrey of Anjou, but Matilda looked down upon the match because Geoffrey was only the son of a Count – and she had once been married to the Holy Roman Emperor remember! The twelve year age difference between the two didn’t help very much either. But eventually, she agreed, and in 1128 Matilda and Geoffrey were married. Little did they know that their marriage was the beginning of the Plantagenet dynasty, and has resulted in history as we know it.
In 1135, things changed drastically. King Henry I died while Matilda was in France, leaving the throne of England empty. Upon hearing the news, the King’s nephew, Stephen of Blois, marched to England himself and began seizing power. Even though they had sworn to support Matilda, the barons accepted Stephen as their King and he was crowned at Westminster Abbey.
And so began ‘The Anarchy’, a civil war between Stephen and Matilda that lasted nearly two decades. Matilda was supported in her efforts to take the Crown by her half brother, Robert of Gloucester, who had previously tried to stop Stephen from landing on English shores. After Stephen became King, Robert continued to help his half-sister, starting rebellions in Kent and parts of south-west England. He would later play an important part, effecting the balance between the two warring sides.
Matilda’s first great victory came during the Battle of Lincoln in 1141. King Stephen was overwhelmed by Robert’s soldiers and taken prisoner, and Matilda, thinking that the other side was defeated, began to make preparations for her coronation. As a precursor, Matilda was given the title of “Lady of England and Normandy”. However, just before her coronation, the followers of King Stephen, who had been waiting in London, rose up against her and Matilda was forced to flee. She subsequently set up her headquarters in Winchester. This plan did not go well as an army, led by King Stephen’s wife Matilda (a very popular name at the time!) laid siege on Winchester Castle, and defeated the army from Anjou.
It is said that Empress Matilda was trapped in Winchester Castle during the siege. She devised a plan to escape, and had her followers tell the guards that was sick, and then that she had died. She then hid in her coffin, pretending to be dead, and got out of the city safe and sound. Unfortunately, there is no solid evidence that such an event actually occurred.
What did happen was that Robert of Gloucester was captured by enemy forces. With both Stephen and Robert being held prisoner, Empress Matilda and Queen Matilda reached an agreement, and simply swapped prisoners. With Stephen back on his own side, the battle was once again fairly matched, and the Empress had lost her advantage.
But the real test for Matilda would come now. What follows is one of her most famous escapades, which saved her from an almost certain death.
When Matilda was at Oxford in 1142, the town was attacked by King Stephen’s forces. Matilda’s side were taken by surprise, and the Empress herself was trapped in Oxford Castle. Rather than storming the castle, which would be quite useful to him in the future, Stephen decided to settle down for a long siege. On a snowy day just before Christmas, Matilda supposedly escaped through one of the back entrances, along with some of her loyal knights. She was on foot and dressed entirely in white so as not to be seen through the snow. She ran for miles in the harsh weather and even crossed an icy river. The cold nearly killed her, but finally she made it past Stephen’s guards and to safety.
The warring continued intermittently through the years, but the Anarchy reached a conclusion in 1153, when Matilda and Geoffrey’s son, Henry, marched to England with his troops. Geoffrey had died a couple of years previously, and as his eldest son, Henry, was now Count of Anjou and Maine. But neither his army nor King Stephen’s were keen to fight and an agreement was reached between the two leaders. Henry would now recognise Stephen as his King, and upon the monarch’s death Henry would ascend the throne of England. Stephen died the following year, Henry was crowned King Henry II and, at long last, Empress Matilda’s ambition was fulfilled.
With Henry as King, Matilda was his representative in Normandy. The King would often come to her for political advice, and she played a major role in trying to mend the rift between Henry and his infamous Chancellor, Thomas Beckett. She died in 1167, and all her possessions were given to the Church.
To this day, there remains a dispute among historians as to whether Empress Matilda can be considered as a ‘Queen of England’. Her claim to the throne was certainly very strong, she was a powerful leader, and she was accepted as ruler by a large part of England. Despite never ascending the throne herself, Matilda fought long and hard to secure the succession for her son, and became a noteworthy ‘Queen Mother’ in the process. Her dynastic ambitions were fulfilled through Henry II – all future English Monarchs would be descendants of Empress Matilda – and she was an able and efficient ruler of Normandy while Henry was absent. In my opinion, Matilda was probably the first, and maybe even the most, influential Queen Mother in our history. Even the epitaph on her tomb says that she was “greatest in her offspring”. However, one can’t help but wonder whether she felt the slightest twinge of regret at never having herself been crowned “Queen Matilda”.