24 March 2024

Queens of Britain Series: Matilda

Welcome to the Queens of Britain series. In 2024, the blog will spotlight the reigning queens from the island of Great Britain. Check back each month to learn about the women who led their nations.

Her moment had finally arrived. The day she had planned for since she was a young woman, but she couldn't seize the reins her father had left her. How she must have cursed the pregnant belly that kept her trapped on the wrong side of the English Channel while her cousin usurped her place.

The English crown had not been Matilda's original destiny. Like so many princesses, she had been sent as a tiny girl to a distant land to serve as a political pawn. Her father, King Henry I, was the youngest son of a bastard who had asserted his tenuous claim to the English throne in a military power move that we remember today as the Norman Conquest. As the third king of a young dynasty, Henry I had married Edith of Scotland, a descendant of England's revered King Alfred the Great as well as the King of Scotland's daughter. Taking the more Norman-sounding name of Matilda upon her marriage, she also named her daughter Matilda while her son was named William Adelin after the Conqueror. The couple had produced a healthy heir as well as a daughter who could extend their political power and military might.

So, it was no surprise that the King and Queen welcomed envoys from the future Holy Roman Emperor who asked for Princess Matilda as an imperial bride. Little Matilda was only eight years old the last time she saw her mother and sailed away to Germany to meet her 24-year-old fiance. Since she was so young, she was raised in a separate household and trained in the language and traditions of her intended husband. She was nearly 12 when Emperor Henry V finally married her. 

Matilda was 14 when she accompanied her husband in the fight against the Pope, who had excommunicated him. Despite her youth, she was fully imbued with political power. Once they reached Rome, Matilda was formally crowned as Empress. A couple years later, Henry left her as his regent in his Italian territories while he returned to Germany to deal with issues there. After a couple of years, they were reunited but still had no children. When he died of cancer, Matilda was 23. Her childlessness left her in a politically ambiguous state. It was not long before she decided to leave Germany forever and pursue another opportunity that fate had presented her. 

Her family had been rocked by tragedy. First, her mother had died in 1118. Then, two years later, her only legitimate sibling, Prince William Adelin had died in a tragic shipwreck. With no legitimate sons to succeed him, King Henry remarried the young Adeliza of Louvain (see my post The Not-So-Wicked Stepmother) but that marriage remained childless. Running out of options, Henry summoned Empress Matilda back to England and Normandy to proclaim her as his heir. The move was unprecedented; no woman had assumed kingship before. However, Henry was a powerful king and the nobles swore their allegiance to his daughter. 

As for Matilda, despite her glorious title and her now glorious future, she still had no authority over her life. Hoping to get grandsons to eventually succeed himself, he forced Matilda into another marriage, this time to a mere count. Geoffrey of Anjou was considered a handsome man. More importantly, his French territories bordered Henry's Norman lands, providing more military might for Henry and for Matilda in the future. Matilda was unimpressed. She had been married to one of the most powerful men of the error and reigned with him as an Empress. Worse than that, perhaps, Geoffrey was only 15 while Matilda was 26 when they married in the summer of 1128. Worse still, the couple really did not like each other and was not long before they started living separately. Realizing this would prevent the birth of a male heir, King Henry forced them back together. Their first son was finally born in March 1133. Not surprisingly, he was called Henry. A year later, her second son Geoffrey's birth nearly killed Matilda. 

The couple spent all of these years living in Anjou and Normandy. They began to be concerned that they were losing English support and demanded that the King give them authority in Normandy. He refused. Geoffrey and Matilda, united by ambition, joined a rebellion in southern Normandy. During this struggle, the 67-year-old king died from a sudden illness at the end of 1136. Matilda and Geoffrey moved immediately to secure their power in Normandy, but then they paused while Matilda awaited the birth of their third and final child, William.

In England, Henry's nephew Stephen wasted no time asserting his claim as an adult male heir even though his royal descent was through the female line, Henry's sister Adela. Stephen secured the support of many nobles, including Matilda's powerful older but illegitimate brother Robert of Gloucester. Then, Stephen got his own brother, Henry Bishop of Winchester, to crown him as king. For most people, the fact that he was male gave him a strong enough claim over Matilda. The fact that he was in England did not hurt his cause. Then, once he was anointed and crowned, his reign was sealed by God himself.

Stephen had grown up in his uncle King Henry's court. His military prowess had been well-rewarded by the king with riches and lands. He was well-liked among the Anglo-Norman nobility. And, he was a man. He quickly gathered a following and secured England as his own. At this time, the English and Norman titles had gone through several contested successions from William the Conqueror's defeat of Harold Godwinson to the battle between William's two eldest sons that split the two countries apart until his third son King Henry reunited them by force. The need for might to make right led many to doubt the ability of a woman to lead.

Stephen almost immediately faced ambushes from either end of the kingdom from both Scotland and Wales, losing territory to both. Securing Normandy was an even bigger challenge. Geoffrey had successfully launched a scorched earth strategy that allowed him to keep moving forward without having to hold or administer the land he captured. As Stephen lost support of more and more Norman nobles, partly because Stephen had spent the treasury and could not reward his allies nor pay his mercenaries. At one point, his army even split in half and battled itself, nobles versus mercenaries. Most critically, he lost the support of Matilda's illegitimate half-brother Robert of Gloucester, who held extensive land and wealth on both sides of the Channel.

King David of Scotland continued invading from the north, pushing all the way to York, claiming he did so in support of his niece Empress Matilda. Robert's declaration for Matilda started a rebellion in Kent and across southwest England. Meanwhile, he remained in Normandy, helping Matilda build an invasion force. They finally invaded England, which had descended into chaos and civil war, in the summer of 1139. Matilda's stepmother invited her to land at Arundel Castle, where Stephen encircled them while Robert led forces northward. Stephen, however, was unsure how to deal with two such highly ranked ladies and eventually allowed Matilda to leave and rejoin Robert, who was fighting in the west. (See my post Royal Escape Artist). 

Matilda's influence was growing, extending across the southwest in Devon and Cornwall up to the Welsh marshes and Herefordshire. The two sides skirmished back and forth until another defection from Stephen's side gave Matilda a powerful upper hand. In February 1141, Robert of Gloucester captured Stephen at the Battle of Lincoln. With her rival in custody, Matilda pushed forward with a deal she had made with his brother Bishop Henry. In return for control of the church, the Bishop gave her the nearly empty treasury and excommunicated any of Stephen's supporters who refused to change sides. On April 7, the Archbishop of Canterbury and other leading clergy declared Matilda "Lady of the English" and began making plans for her coronation.

Matilda made her way to London to be crowed in June, but tensions in the city were still high. The historians of the day--all male, of course--alleged that Matilda grew even more pompous than she usually was. In becoming a female King, she was no longer behaving in accordance with her gender role. Just before her planned crowning, the Londoners rose up against her, forcing her faction to flee to Oxford. As some turncoats turned back to Stephen's cause and Stephen's wife, Queen Matilda, led his supporters and soon captured Robert of Gloucester. Queen Matilda and Empress Matilda agreed to exchange their high value prisoners, returning Stephen to his wife and Robert to his sisters. Shortly thereafter, the church leaders changed their minds again and re-crowned Stephen on Christmas 1141. 

Robert of Gloucester crossed the channel to assist Count Geoffrey against the Anglo Norman nobles battling to maintain their own power. This left Matilda alone at Oxford Castle, which Stephen soon besieged. By the first snows of late 1142, Matilda executed another bold plan, sneaking out of the castle and crossing a frozen river in the dead of night.  (See my post Royal Escape Artist). 

With Robert's return to England in 1143, Matilda's position improved for a bit, but the civil war soon devolved into back-and-forth struggles, with various nobles switching from one side to the other, temporarily boosting whoever they newly supported. As for Matilda, she could never quite consolidate her power. The war between the cousins limped along during the rest of the decade as various nobles decamped to join the Second Crusade or made peace locally to protect their own land and power. Neither Stephen nor Matilda were greatly esteemed.

However, the war had dragged on long enough that Matilda's son Henry had grown into a strong teenage commander. Matilda returned to Normandy while Henry led the efforts in England. Henry secured the support of the French king for Henry while Count Geoffrey convinced the Pope to endorse Henry before Geoffrey died in 1151. Matilda had effectively vacated her claim to her son.

In 1153, Empress Matilda returned to England but by then only Stephen and Henry were interested in the fight. Everyone else pushed for a truce that was brokered by the church. Henry recognized Stephen as king in return for being named as Stephen's heir. It was an uneasy peace that may not have lasted had Stephen not died the following year. 

Initially, Henry and Matilda issued charters jointly, with Matilda primarily administering Normandy while Henry focused on his father's Angevin lands, England, and the powerful Aquitaine that he had acquired by marrying the dynamic former French queen consort, Eleanor of Aquitaine. Like many leaders of the day, Matilda focused on the church in her later years, but never fully yielded her royal authority. As Henry and Eleanor took on more and more power, Matilda passed away in 1167, leaving everything to the church. She was 65 years old.


Boudica, Queen of the Iceni 
Empress Matilda 
Margaret Maid of Norway 
Lady Jane Grey
Queen Mary I - coming in June 2024
Queen Elizabeth I - coming in July 2024
Mary Queen of Scots - coming in August 2024
Queen Mary II - coming in September 2024
Queen Anne - coming in October 2024
Queen Victoria - coming in November 2024
Queen Elizabeth II - coming in December 2024


The Not-So-Wicked Stepmother
Royal Escape Artist
Today's Princess


Great by Birth: Empress Matilda on Plantagenet Lions
Lady of the English on The Mad Monarchist
The Empress Matilda on Dangerous Women
Empress Matilda on Emily Kittel-Queller
The Empress Matilda on History Is Important
Empress Matilda on Meandering through Time
Empress Matilda on Sagas of She
Empress Matilda on Sheroes of History
Empress Matilda and 'The Anarchy' on The Historic England Blog
Empress Matilda, Lady of the English on Oxford Castle & Prison
Empress Matilda's Bling on Living the History
Empress Maud on Historic UK
Historic Figures: Matilda on BBC History