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Empress Matilda

Empress Matilda (c. 7 February 1102  10 September 1167), also known as Matilda of England or Maude, was the daughter and heir of King Henry I of England. Matilda and her younger brother, William Adelin, were the only legitimate children of King Henry to survive to adulthood. However, her brother's death in the White Ship disaster in 1120 resulted in Matilda being her father's sole heir.

As a child, Matilda was betrothed to and later married Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor, acquiring the title Empress. The couple had no known children and after eleven years of marriage Henry died, leaving Matilda widowed. However, she was then married to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou in a union which her father hoped would produce a male heir and continue the dynasty. She had three sons by Geoffrey of Anjou, the eldest of whom eventually became King Henry II of England. Upon the death of her father in 1135, Matilda was usurped to the throne by her rival and cousin Stephen of Blois, who moved quickly and became crowned King of England whilst Matilda was in Normandy, pregnant with her third child.

Their rivalry for the throne led to years of unrest and civil war in England that have been called The Anarchy. Matilda was the first female ruler of the Kingdom of England, though the length of her effective rule was brief - a few months in 1141. She was never crowned and failed to consolidate her rule (legally and politically). For this reason, she is normally excluded from lists of English monarchs, and her rival (and cousin) Stephen of Blois is listed as monarch for the period 1135 1154. She campaigned unstintingly for her oldest son's inheritance, living to see him ascend the throne of England in 1154.


Early life and marriage to Henry V

Matilda was the elder of the two children born to Henry I of England, son of William the Conqueror, and his wife Matilda of Scotland (also known as Edith) who survived infancy; her younger brother and heir to the throne was William Adelin. Her father sired at least twenty illegitimate children, half-siblings to Matilda.[1] Her maternal grandparents were Malcolm III of Scotland and Saint Margaret of Scotland. Margaret was daughter of Edward the Exile and granddaughter of Edmund II of England. Most historians believe Matilda was born in Winchester, but one, John M. Fletcher, argues for the possibility of the royal palace at Sutton (now Sutton Courtenay) in Oxfordshire. Her paternal grandparents were William the Conqueror and Matilda of Flanders. As a child her relationship with her father was probably not close, considering Henry I ventured to Normandy whilst Matilda was two years old, and the King stayed there for three years. It is likely she saw little of him upon his return either, as Matilda then commenced her education at the Abbey of Wilton, where she was educated by the nuns.[2]

Emperor Henry V and Matilda
Emperor Henry V and Matilda
When Matilda was still in early childhood, envoys from Henry V, King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor, travelled to England and asked for her hand in marriage. In spring of 1110 she was sent to Germany, taking with her a large dowry, estimated at 10,000 marks in silver, to become the bride of Henry V.[3] She met her husband-to-be at Li ge before travelling to Utrecht where, on 10 April, Matilda became officially betrothed to Henry.[4] On 25 July of the same year she was crowned Queen in a ceremony at Mainz.[5][6] As well as being a young stranger in a foreign court, she also saw most of her English retinue dismissed by the Emperor; Henry V also wished that Matilda learn to speak German. She found herself continuing her education in Germany, being taught by Archbishop Bruno of Trier.[7] Matilda and the Emperor married in June 1114.[8] Her official title as Holy Roman Empress is somewhat dubious; she was never crowned by the Pope, though she was crowned in Rome by the archbishop of Braga, Maurice Bourdin, at Pentecost (13 May, 1117).[9] As Matilda later claimed to have been crowned twice, a ceremony may have take place earlier in the year at Easter. To add further ambiguity to the title, Archbishop Bourdin was declared excommunicate by the Pope in April of 1117, before Pentecost but after Easter.[9] However, as she was the betrothed wife and anointed queen at the time of her husband's coronation by Pope Paschal in 1111, her title held some legitimacy and official records addressed her as regina Romanorum.[9] Bourdin, following the death of Paschal in January 1118, became Antipope Gregory VIII, in opposition to Pope Gelasius II.[9] Later, she led Norman chroniclers to believe that she had been crowned by the Pope himself.[10]

A 14th century depiction of the White Ship sinking of 1120 Matilda acted as Henry's regent in Italy, gaining valuable political experience.[10] Her tenure as regent of the Italian lands of the Holy Roman Empire probably lasted from 1117 to 1119, whereupon she rejoined her husband in Lotharingia.[11] However, in 1120, England's heir and Matilda's brother William Adelin drowned in the White Ship sinking. Being the only legitimate male heir, his death cast uncertainty over the succession of the throne. Matilda was Henry I's only legitimate child, but as a female, she was at a substantial political disadvantage. The closest male blood heir at the time was William Clito,[12] but instead of naming a successor, Henry turned his attention to fathering another child. Widowed from Matilda of Scotland in 1118, Henry commenced negotiations for a remarriage following Adelin's death. In 1121 he married Adeliza of Louvain, though the union failed to produce any children.[12]

Meanwhile, the marriage between Henry and Matilda remained childless, and Matilda's father was at the time unwilling to rest his hopes on his daughter providing an heir, assuming that she may be barren.[13] Henry V had already produced an illegitimate daughter, so it was presumed that he was not infertile.[13] Nonetheless, though she had failed to produce an heir for Henry V, she was not blamed; instead, the couple's childlessness was regarded as God's punishment to Henry V for his mistreatment of his father.[14] Henry V died on 23 May 1125, leaving Matilda a widow, aged 22.[14] The imperial couple had no surviving offspring, but Hermann of Tournai stated that Matilda bore a child who lived only a short while. On his deathbed, Henry V entrusted Matilda with the imperial insignia.[15] Having not produced a legitimate child, the Salian dynasty ended. Though the position of Holy Roman Emperor was an elected one, the title often passed from father to son. Matilda handed over the insignia, which were at Trifels Castle, to Adalbert, archbishop of Mainz, and he began proceedings towards the election.[16] The procedure was that the Bavarians, Swabians, Franconians (home of the Salians) and the Saxons elected a successor. Lothair, Duke of Saxony, and rival to the Salians, was elected.[17]

Widowhood, heiress and second marriage

Henry I summoned Matilda to Normandy following the Holy Roman Emperor's death. Matilda was displeased, considering Germany had been her home since a young age, German was now her first language and she was a respected figure in Germany.[18] Nonetheless, she had ceased to be involved in German political affairs and with an opponent on the throne, her future there did not promise anything significantly worthwhile.[17] Accepting that likeliness of his marriage providing him a boy was slim, Henry I decided that Matilda would be his heiress. After residing in Normandy for nearly a year with her father and step-mother, they set sail for England in 1126.[19] In January 1127, Henry made his court swear an oath of allegiance to Matilda and that if no male heir was provided, they must accept her as their ruler.[20] Stephen of Blois was present, and swore the oath of allegiance to Matilda. John of Worcester described a second oath, that was taken one year after the first, at Henry's Easter court (29 April, 1128).[21]

Geoffrey of Anjou, Matilda's second husband The question of marriage was entirely down to Matilda's father. Louis VI, King of France, was discontented about Normandy and England united and as such, promoted the claim of William Clito as heir, in order to attempt to cause a rift in the court.[22] Furthermore, Fulk, Count of Anjou, was likely to support Clito's claim due to the longstanding hostility between Normandy and Anjou.[22] The animosity between Normandy and Anjou had temporarily been repaired with the marriage of Henry I's son William Adelin to Fulk's daughter Matilda.[22] However, Adelin's death meant the match was brief. Fulk then married his younger daughter Sibyl to William Clito, though Henry managed to sever the union by having Pope Calixtus II annul the marriage on the grounds of consanguinity.[22][20] However, Louis VI then offered his wife's half-sister Jeanne to Clito for marriage. Her dowry was the Vexin, an area of land bordering Normandy.[22] Furthermore, the murder of Charles I, Count of Flanders in 1127 gave Louis the opportunity to install William as the new Count of Flanders, thus setting him up to be a strong rival of Matilda.[23]

Henry was faced with a predicament of Clito's rising power and he recognised that his daughter must marry in a union of diplomacy to counter this. He arranged for her to marry Geoffrey of Anjou, Fulk's son. Matilda was outraged, and viewed Geoffrey as entirely beneath her, though she could not do anything to prevent the marriage. Matilda was sent to Normandy early in 1127, under the care of Robert of Gloucester, her half-brother.[24] The wedding could not take place straight away, as Geoffrey was considered too young, having not yet turned 14. Nonetheless, he was considered handsome and intelligent, though neither of these traits served to console Matilda. The marriage took place in June 1128 at Le Mans.[25] A month after the marriage, her rival William Clito died suddenly from a battle wound, thus strengthening Matilda's position further.[26]

The marriage, however, was a tempestuous relationship, and after little over a year since their wedding, Matilda left Geoffrey, travelling to Normandy, residing at Rouen.[25] The cause behind the soured relations is not fully known, though historian Marjorie Chibnall stated that, "historians have tended to put the blame on Matilda [...] This is a hasty judgement based on two or three hostile English chroniclers; such evidence as there is suggests Geoffrey was at least as much to blame".[27] Henry eventually summoned her from Normandy, whereupon Matilda returned to England in August 1131.[28] At a great council meeting on 8 September, it was decided that Matilda would return to her husband.[28] Here she received another oath of allegiance, where Stephen once more made his vow to Matilda.[25] The marriage proved a success when, in March 1133, Matilda gave birth to their first child, a son, named Henry in Le Mans.[29] In 1134 the couple's second son, Geoffrey, was born in Rouen.[30] Matilda nearly died in childbirth, and as she lay critically ill, her burial arrangements were planned.[30] However, she recovered from her illness.

Struggle for the throne of England

In 1120, her brother William Adelin drowned in the disastrous wreck of the White Ship, making Matilda the only surviving legitimate child of her father King Henry. Her cousin Stephen of Blois was, like her, a grandchild of William (the Conqueror) of Normandy; but her paternal line meant she was senior to Stephen in the line of succession.

After Matilda returned to England, Henry named her as his heir to the English throne and Duchy of Normandy. Henry saw to it that the Anglo-Norman barons, including Stephen, twice swore to accept Matilda as ruler if Henry died without a male heir of his body.

When her father died in Normandy, on 1 December 1135, Matilda was with Geoffrey in Anjou, and, crucially, too far away from events rapidly unfolding in England and Normandy. She and Geoffrey were also at odds with her father over border castles. Stephen of Blois rushed to England upon learning of Henry's death and moved quickly to seize the crown from the appointed heir. He was supported by most of the barons and his brother, Henry, Bishop of Winchester, breaking his oath to defend her rights. Matilda, however, contested Stephen in both realms. She and her husband Geoffrey entered Normandy and began military campaigns to claim her inheritance there. Progress was uneven at first, but she persevered. In Normandy, Geoffrey secured all fiefdoms west and south of the Seine by 1143; in January 1144, he crossed the Seine and took Rouen without resistance. He assumed the title Duke of Normandy, and Matilda became Duchess of Normandy. Geoffrey and Matilda held the duchy conjointly until 1149, then ceded it to their son, Henry, which event was soon ratified by King Louis VII of France. It was not until 1139, however, that Matilda commanded the military strength necessary to challenge Stephen within England.

During the war, Matilda's most loyal and capable supporter was her illegitimate half-brother, Robert, 1st Earl of Gloucester.

Matilda's greatest triumph came in February 1141, when her forces defeated and captured King Stephen at the Battle of Lincoln. He was made a prisoner and effectively deposed. Her advantage lasted only a few months. When she arrived in London, the city was ready to welcome her and support her coronation. She used the title of Lady of the English and planned to assume the title of queen upon coronation (the custom which was followed by her grandsons, Richard and John).[31] However, she refused the citizens' request to halve their taxes and, because of her own arrogance,[31] they closed the city gates to her and reignited the civil war on 24 June 1141.

By November, Stephen was free (exchanged for the captured Robert of Gloucester) and a year later, the tables were turned when Matilda was besieged at Oxford but escaped to Wallingford, supposedly by fleeing across snow-covered land in a white cape. In 1141, she escaped Devizes in a similar manner, by disguising herself as a corpse and being carried out for burial.

In 1148, Matilda and Henry returned to Normandy, following the death of Robert of Gloucester, and the reconquest of Normandy by Geoffrey. Upon their arrival, Geoffrey turned Normandy over to Henry and retired to Anjou.

Later life

Matilda's first son, Henry, was showing signs of becoming a successful leader. It was 1147 when Henry, aged 14, had accompanied Matilda on an invasion of England. It soon failed due to lack of preparation but it made him determined that England was his mother's right, and so his own. He returned to England again between 1149 and 1150. On 22 May 1149 he was knighted by King David I of Scotland, his great uncle, at Carlisle.[32] Although the civil war had been decided in Stephen's favour, his reign was troubled. In 1153, the death of Stephen's son Eustace, combined with the arrival of a military expedition led by Henry, led him to acknowledge the latter as his heir by the Treaty of Wallingford.

Matilda retired to Rouen in Normandy during her last years, where she maintained her own court and presided over the government of the duchy in the absence of Henry. She intervened in the quarrels between her eldest son Henry and her second son Geoffrey, Count of Nantes, but peace between the brothers was brief. Geoffrey rebelled against Henry twice before his sudden death in 1158. Relations between Henry and his youngest brother, William X, Count of Poitou, were more cordial, and William was given vast estates in England. Archbishop Thomas Becket refused to allow William to marry the Countess of Surrey and the young man fled to Matilda's court at Rouen. William died there in January 1164, reportedly of disappointment and sorrow. She attempted to mediate in the quarrel between her son Henry and Becket, but was unsuccessful.

Although she gave up hope of being crowned in 1141, her name always preceded that of her son Henry, even after he became king. Matilda died at Notre Dame du Pr near Rouen in 1167 and was buried in the Abbey of Bec-Hellouin, Normandy. Her body was transferred to Rouen Cathedral in 1847; her epitaph reads: "Great by Birth, Greater by Marriage, Greatest in her Offspring: Here lies Matilda, the daughter, wife, and mother of Henry."

Historical fiction

The civil war between supporters of Stephen and the supporters of Matilda has proven popular as a subject in historical fiction. Novels dealing with it include:

  • Graham Shelby, The Villains of the Piece (1972) (published in the US as The Oath and the Sword)
  • The Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters, and the TV series made from them starring Sir Derek Jacobi
  • Jean Plaidy, The Passionate Enemies, the third book of her Norman Trilogy
  • Sharon Penman, When Christ and His Saints Slept tells the story of the events before, during and after the civil war
  • Haley Elizabeth Garwood, Forgotten Queen'' (1997)
  • Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth
  • E. L. Konigsburg, A Proud Taste for Scarlet and Miniver
  • Cecelia Holland, The Earl
  • Joan Wolf, No Dark Place and The Poisoned Serpent are medieval romantic mysteries about supporters of both Stephen and Matilda
  • Ellen Jones, The Fatal Crown (highly inaccurate)
  • Juliet Dymoke, The Lion's Legacy (Being part of a trilogy, the first being, Of The Ring Of Earls, the second, Henry Of The High Rock)
  • Elizabeth Chadwick, "Lady of the English" (2011)

Indeed, some novels go so far as to posit a love-affair between Matilda and Stephen, e.g. the Janna Mysteries by Felicity Pulman, set during the civil war between Stephen and Matilda.

Matilda is a character in Jean Anouilh's play Becket. In the 1964 film adaptation she was portrayed by Martita Hunt. She was also portrayed by Brenda Bruce in the 1978 BBC TV series The Devil's Crown, which dramatised the reigns of her son and grandsons.

Finally, Alison Pill portrayed her in the 2010 TV miniseries The Pillars of the Earth, an adaptation of Follett's novel, although she is initially known in this as Princess Maud not Empress Matilda.


See also

  • Gervase of Canterbury
  • Gesta Stephani
  • Robert of Torigni
  • Roger of Hoveden
  • Walter Map




Further reading

  • Bradbury, J. (1996) Stephen and Matilda: the Civil War of 1139 1153, Sutton Publishing, ISBN 0-7509-0612-X
  • Fletcher, John (1990) Sutton Courtenay: The History of a Thameside Village
  • Gardener, J and Wenborn, W the History Today Companion to British History
  • Parsons, John Carmi. Medieval Mothering (New Middle Ages), sub. Marjorie Chibnall, "Empress Matilda and Her Sons"

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