29 November 2009

Royal Escape Artist: Empress Matilda

With each creeping step, she could feel the ice unsteady beneath her feet. Trumpets blasted on every side—the soldiers were bearing down but at least the noise covered the sound of her ragged breathing. Matilda pulled the heavy white hood over her face. Draped in white from head to toe, she was nearly invisible in the dark, snowy December night. A few more feet and she would be across the frozen river on her way to safety.

When Henry I’s only legitimate daughter left England at age eight, she probably never imagined that she would one day be sneaking out of Oxford. Sent as a child bride of the German emperor, Matilda might never have returned, but two tragedies intervened: her husband widowed her and her only legitimate brother was killed in the accidental sinking of the White Ship. Henry recalled the beautiful Empress Matilda, now in her twenties, to England, and made the English and Norman lords swear allegiance to her as his heir.

If it had been the 17th century, Matilda would have enjoyed a peaceful reign as the only contender for the throne. In the 12th century, however, hereditary right only counted if you enforce it. Matilda’s claim had some weaknesses. First, the English did not like the idea of a woman ruler. Second, her second husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, was hated by the English who feared he would become king. (Empress Matilda despised him too—she resented being forced to marry the son of a mere count.) Third, Matilda was in France in December 1135 when her father died and she failed to immediately set out for England.

It was an opportunity that her cousin Stephen, younger son of her father’s sister, seized with alacrity. Stephen raced from Boulogne and braved the winter weather to cross the English Channel. Initially rebuffed by Matilda’s illegitimate half-brother, Robert of Gloucester, he eventually made his way to London with the support of the powerful Archbishop of Canterbury who crowned him on Dec. 26. Stephen’s brother, the Bishop Henry of Winchester, had control of the royal treasury and willingly gave Stephen access to it. The barons, some encouraged by bribes, swore fealty to Stephen.

Matilda’s closest supporters were not ready to surrender her right. Her maternal uncle, the King of Scotland, took advantage of the situation to invade England from the north. From his county of Anjou, her husband attacked the neighboring Normandy to assert her claim there. For almost four years, Matilda worked to raise an invasion force. Finally, in September 1139 she and her half-brother, Robert of Gloucester, made their move against Stephen, whose initial popularity had worn thin through his poor judgment, even his brother, Bishop Henry, had decamped.

Robert and Matilda landed at Arundel which was controlled by Matilda’s stepmother, Dowager Queen Adeliza. While Stephen’s men surrounded Arundel Castle, Robert slipped away with assistance from Bishop Henry and returned to his own territory in Gloucestershire. Stephen found himself in the uncomfortable position of laying siege to two women. Thinking that Matilda had little support, Stephen allowed his brother to convince him to let her leave. Bishop Henry then escorted her directly to Gloucestershire. This was her first “escape” in what would be many tedious years of civil war.

Robert and Matilda solidified their position and captured Stephen. By spring, Matilda was preparing for a summer coronation in London. But, the Londoners, fed up by her tax demands, forced her to escape from the city on the eve of her crowning. In the mean time, Stephen’s wife, the popular Queen Matilda, raised an army and began fighting the increasingly unpopular Empress Matilda. Queen Matilda captured Robert. Now, each Matilda held a valuable prisoner. The Empress had no choice but to make an exchange.

Having lost the support of Bishop Henry, Empress Matilda besieged him at Wolvesey in September, but the “King’s Queen” blockaded her. The Empress’s starving forces fought their way out and Matilda fled from place to place, eventually arriving at Devizes. Relentlessly pursued by the Queen, the Empress was desperate to return to her brother’s stronghold at Gloucester. She affected her escape by having herself tied to a funeral bier. Thus, disguised as a corpse, she was carried unnoticed into Gloucester.

Stephen re-established himself in London and was re-crowned. Robert and the Empress appealed to her husband to bring reinforcements from the continent, but Geoffrey was more interested in his increasingly successful efforts to wrest Normandy from Stephen’s control. Without this critical infusion, Matilda continued to struggle.

By the next December, Stephen once again had her under siege, this time at Oxford Castle, with no intention of repeating his Arundel mistake. Refusing to surrender or be captured, Matilda then made her most dramatic escape, draped in white and creeping across a frozen river.

For several more years, Stephen and Matilda battled inconclusively until Robert’s death in 1147 effectively lost her cause. Matilda went to Normandy to co-rule there with her husband while her teenaged son Henry pursued her English claim although he also lacked sufficient strength to overpower Stephen. In 1153, the period called “The Anarchy," ended with the unexpected death of Stephen’s beloved son and heir, Eustace. Lacking the will to fight, the King named Henry as his heir.

Content to allow her son to usurp her claim, Matilda returned to England when Henry peacefully succeeded Stephen a year later.


  1. I think if I were Empress Matilda I would be content to let my son usurp my place, too. That woman had a real fight on her hands!

  2. This reads so dramatically, like a contemporary tale of a queen's struggles...it can easily transform into a novel! You are definitely a creative writer. Thank goodness Matilda found peace...it was worried about her for a second!

  3. It's a wonderful post! Have you read 'When Christ And All His Saints Wept' by Sharon Penman. It's a very moving book about Queen Matilda.

    1. It's actually "when Christ and His Saints Slept" not Wept

  4. Thanks for the suggestion, Viola. I'll have to check it out. In many ways, I think Matilda has been neglected by history. I was surprised not to find more scholarship about her.

  5. Popular culture has made Eleanor of Aquitaine the more popular figure of the 12th century because of Katherine Hepburn and more recently, Glen Close. Not to take away from Eleanor though she was a remarkable woman; Matilda was the far more spirited individual (the woman in a man's world taking up arms fighting for what was rightfully hers) who paved the way for the Plantagenet dynasty and set the subsequent course of Western History.