The above photo is the non contemporary memorial for Matilda of England. As there are quite a lot of Matildas found in the medieval period in England, I’m going to start by clarifying who I’m talking about. My Matilda, also known as Maud, was the only legitimate surviving child of Henry I of England, and was made his heir.
Matilda is a very prominent figure in 12th century medieval history, and as such a lot has been written about her, so I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. I will tell Matilda’s story, but in a series of vignettes of the key moments in her life, but I also want to talk about perspective. This question brings me back to the image above. The wording on her tomb, I think, is really interesting. The loose translation is
Here lies Henry’s daughter, wife and mother; great by birth, greater by marriage, but greatest in motherhood.
Matilda daughter of Henry King of England and Duke of Normandy, Wife of Henry Emperor, mother of Henry father of Richard the Lionheart.
The final untranslated section is about the reinterment of her remains in Rouen Cathedral, but I’ll come back to that part later.
The key link to perspective, for me, is that Matilda is defined by her relationship to others. In my short description of her at the beginning of this post, I could find no other way to describe her but as in her role and relationship with others. This was the only way to give context, and it is not lost on me that in doing so I am falling into the same paradigm, as those who wrote the description on her tomb. The inscription was written in the 19th century when her remains were reinterred in the cathedral, but it is believed that the words of the first sentence were commissioned by her son Henry II, on her original tomb. The second sentence has to have been written later as it references her grandson Richard the Lionheart.
Either way, this epitaph shows inescapably how Matilda’s life has been construed by history, as a wife, daughter and mother, not as a ruler in her own right, not in some ways as a person in her own right. This is true of most medieval women who manage to stick their heads above the parapet of history, and actually have some of their story survive the decay of time. In Matilda’s case though, the question of perception extends beyond this, because she is judged in her ability to rule differently to male rulers of her time, both by her contemporaries and by subsequent historians. It is this question of perception, that is at the heart of this series of posts.
If you want to learn more about Matilda, I highly recommend Matilda: Empress, queen warrior by Catherine Hanley. An in depth biography which places Matilda back in the position in history the she should always have occupied, that of a woman with her own skills and power, on the level of male rulers of her time. This book stands in line with other books about medieval women that are coming out now. In the past the paucity of sources has meant that medieval women have very much hovered in the shadows, but as more active work is done to dig them out, their stories are coming back into the light. I’ve just finished an excellent book about the Queens of Jerusalem, which I’ll review later, and I’ve already written a review of the recent book about Joan Lady of Wales, which you can find here.
But to return to Matilda and her story. As I said earlier I am not intending to write an exhaustive account of Matilda’s life.
Matilda was not born with the destiny of being Queen of England. Fairly soon after her own birth in c. 1102, her brother William was born. They were the only two legitimate children of Henry I of England, a king known for having at least 20 illegitimate children. Their mother was Matilda of Scotland, a very pious woman, who was descended from the old Anglo-Saxon kings of England. Matilda of Scotland’s mother Margaret, was the Granddaughter of King Edward Ironside and the sister of Edgar the Aeithling. Edgar was actually elected king after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, but William the Conquerer put paid to that. So Matilda and William were the binding together of both the new and the old royal families. William was known as William the Aethling, an English not Norman term for heir.
From a very young age Matilda was intended for the fate of most royal princesses, marriage to a secure alliances and power for her family. As such, at the age of 8 she was sent to what is now Germany to be the wife of Henry V the Holy Roman Emperor (the second of the Henry’s mentioned), he was 24. While they were formally betrothed and she was crowned queen in 1110 they were not married until 1114 when she reached the canonical age of consent- I’m sure you can do the maths there. In the intervening four years, she was trained in the world of the German court of the Holy Roman Empire, and her role as queen consort. This would have been her life, if not for two factors.
The first was that Henry V died in 1125, leaving Matilda a childless widow- if she’d had a son she might have been able to act as regent. Despite this, she would probably still have remained in Germany if not for the second factor-a disaster that rocked medieval England, the sinking of the White Ship. It was the 900th anniversary of the sinking at the end of last year, so I’ll give you a little background. It was November 1120 and Henry I was sailing back to England from Barfleur, one of the main ports from which to cross the Narrow Sea (today’s it’s more of a fishing village). The White Ship was a magnificent new and shiny ship and (according to contemporary chronicler Oderic Vitalis) its master Thomas FitzStephen approached Henry I, saying his father had carried Henry I’s father (William the Conqueror) to England and I ask you, my lord king, to grant me his fief: I have a vessel which is aptly called the White Ship, excellently fitted out and read for the royal service.
To which Henry was reported as replying Your request meeting with my approval. I have indeed chosen a fine ship for myself and will not change it, but I entrust you my sons William and Richard [Richard was one of the illegitimate ones] whom I love as my own life, and many nobles of my realm. So essentially most of the young nobility sailed on the White Ship, including another illegitimate daughter of Henry I. William the Aethling, allowed the sailors to open the wine in celebration. They decided to to try to overtake the king’s fleet which had already made it to open water, but they were drunk and unlucky and the White Ship struck a rock not far out of the harbour and sank. Some accounts have William the Aethling being put on a boat by his guards, but insisting on going back to rescue his sister, and the small ship was overwhelmed. In the end it is likely that only one person survived, a butcher called Berold who managed to cling to a piece of wood. His cloak was makes of sheep’s wool, so he didn’t die of hypothermia as the more finely dressed nobility did.
When Henry I found out Oderic says, he was overcome with anguish. You can see him depicted mourning the sinking of the ship in the illuminated manuscript of Peter of Langtoft’s Chronicle from the early 14th century.
Henry moved on quickly, because he had to. He married, Matilda of Scotland was long dead, Adeliza of Louvain, who was probably in her 20s. Henry was in his early 50s, but he’d sired many illegitimate children, so it would have been expected that he would have a son with Adeliza. This was another turning point for Matilda, because if a son had been born (Adeliza went on to have a number of children in a later marriage) she would have stayed in Germany. But no son was forthcoming so in 1127 Henry dragged Matilda back to England and forced his barons to swear to accept her as his heir. It’s a testament to his personality that they agreed. William of Malmsbury described the situation as All therefore, in this council, who were considered as persons of any note, took the oath. While all the barons did swear, it is worth noting two men in particular; Robert of Gloucester and Stephen of Blois. They were the greatest landholders in England at the time. Robert was Henry I’s illegitimate son, possibly the oldest of Henry’s illegitimate children, and Stephen was Henry’s nephew. Both would become extremely important to Matilda’s story.
What Henry I was doing, oddly enough, was forcing power upon Matilda. There had never been a queen of England ruling in her own right. There wasn’t even really a word for it. The Anglo Saxon word for queen “cwen’ and the latin word ‘regina’ meant wife of the king. This is what Matilda had been to Henry V, but what Henry I was setting her up as was queen regnant, queen in her own right with the same status as an anointed king.
As Matilda re-enters the story here, her lack of agency is evident. She was not given a choice in going to Germany in the first place, but she would most likely have seen it as home having lived there since she was eight. She in fact styled herself as Empress Matilda for the rest of her life, and her son Henry II was known as Henry FitzEmpress. William of Malmsbury described her position as The empress, as they say, returned with reluctance, as she had become habituated to the country which was her dowry, and had large possessions there.
Matilda, now roughly twenty-five, was brought back to England, and thrust into another completely new world. Henry chose her for a reason, making it very clear, according to William of Malmsbury, that it was Matilda to whom alone the legitimate succession belonged, from her grandfather, uncle, and father, who were kings; as well as from her maternal descent for many ages back: inasmuch as from Egbert, king of the West Saxons, who first subdued or expelled the other kings of the island, in the year of the incarnation 800, through a line of fourteen kings, down to A.D. 1043.
We do not know what Matilda thought about her new position, we know she was at the ceremony and she accepted the position of authority, these were binding oaths, and we know from her subsequent behaviour that she believed fundamentally in her own right to rule. None of the sources talk about her in this ceremony beyond Henry I’s reasons for choosing her. They all focus more on the men who swore to her and the precedence of who swore first. Again Matilda becomes a symbol in her own story.
Even though Henry I had chosen her as his heir no one, expect possibly Matilda, thought she would be able to rule without a husband, preferably to produce a male heir to secure the succession. The choice of husband was fraught though. Firstly, it was unclear how the prospective husband would be king, as the barons had sworn to Matilda, but medieval law, both secular and church, clearly made the woman subject to her husband. What Henry I really wanted was Matilda to marry, produce a male heir and for himself to live long enough for that heir to be old enough to rule.
But first a husband had to be chosen. A foreign marriage risked a foreign lord ruling over the barons, but an English marriage risked raising one baron above all the others, which none of them were really keen on either. In the end Henry I turned to an old alliance. William the Aethling had been married to Fulke of Anjou’s daughter to secure the bottom of the border of Normandy, but that betrothal hadn’t survived the White Ship. Henry still wanted the border secure though and Fulke’s son Geoffrey was of marriageable age. To make him a suitable match for Matilda his father would soon be dispatched off to be King of Jerusalem (by right of marriage to another famous queen Melisende) so Geoffrey could be Count of Anjou. You can see a relatively contemporary image of Geoffrey below.
It is unlikely that Matilda was in favour of the match. She was a widow, one of the only times that a medieval woman held any power in her own right, and Geoffrey was only 13, an untried youth. She was also marrying a Count, when her last husband had been an Emperor. A letter from Hildebert of Lavardin alludes to conflict with her father at this time, saying he wanted to write to her about the will of the king and what the father’s breast was feeling about the offence of the daughter. Roger de Toringi described Henry I as he despatched his daughter, the empress, into France to be married to Geoffrey. It’s fairly clear that Matilda had no choice, but she did acquiesce because they were betrothed in May 1127 where they would have met for the first time. They married in June 1128. She was escorted to her wedding by Robert of Gloucester and Brien FitzCount. Both of whom would become key figures later in Matilda’s story.
As this post is intended to be a collection of vignettes, I’m going to skip forward a little in time. Her marriage to Geoffrey was famously acrimonious, they separated within a year, and they continued to live separately until 1131 when another council was held in England. Both Henry I and Matilda were present and William of Malmsbury described it as the oath of fidelity to her was renewed by such as had already sworn, and also taken by such as hitherto had not. It was also at this council that, according to Henry of Huntingdon, it was determined that the king’s daughter should be restored to her husband, the Count of Anjou, as he demanded. She was accordingly sent, and received with the pomp due to so great a princess. It is worth noting that Huntingdon never refers to Matilda by name, she is either the king’s daughter or the Countess of Anjou, once again defined by her relationship to others.
Matilda did not make her own decision to return to her husband. The reunion worked well enough, they may have both decided that the sooner they had an heir the sooner they could have as little to do with each other as possible, that on the 5th of March 1133 Matilda gave birth to a son, christened Henry. Henry I must have been delighted. He did not manage to fulfil his dream to live long enough to see his grandson grow up as a viable heir to the throne though. Henry I died unexpectedly in 1135. Matilda was in Anjou, she’d had another son christened Geoffrey in 1134 (she almost died giving birth). She didn’t hasten immediately to England for a couple of reasons; it would have taken time for the news to reach her, she was also pregnant again with her third child which made travel difficult, and because after having done everything that was expected of her, after producing two male heirs and after two councils where all the barons of the land and princes of the Church swore to uphold her as heir, she may have reasonably assumed they would keep to their oaths. It was not to be though. Her cousin, Stephen of Blois (remember him from earlier) moved incredibly quickly to steal her throne. Henry died on the 1st of December 1135 and Stephen was crowned on the 22nd of December 1135, with the support of the barons. Once he was crowned he was irrevocably an anointed king. And thus began the period of anarchy described by the Anglo Saxon Chronicle as a time When Christ and His Saints Slept.
I want to pause Matilda’s story, we’ll get back to her response to the usurpation in a moment, to look at Stephen. He was backed by his powerful brother Henry Bishop of Winchester, but William of Malmsbury described him beautifully
He was a man of activity, but imprudent: strenuous in war; of great mind in attempting works of difficulty; mild and compassionate to his enemies, and affable to all. Kind, as far as promise went; but sure to disappoint in its truth and execution. Whence he soon afterwards neglected the advice of his brother, befriended by whose assistance, as I have said, he had supplanted his adversaries and obtained the kingdom.
This would be the pattern of Stephen’s reign, a good man but not a good king.
But we left Matilda in Anjou, pregnant, with her crown stolen. She and Geoffrey were in the process of taking parts of Normandy after Henry I died, and Matilda was probably in Argentan in the south when she found out that her crown was lost. Stephen not only had her crown, he had the treasury of England and while Normandy gave Matilda a starting point, she simply didn’t have the resources to challenge Stephen directly, not with all the barons who had sworn to her supporting him. She couldn’t even style herself at Queen of England, as Stephen’s wife (confusingly also called Matilda) had been crowned Queen. Facing a seemingly unsolvable problem, she could have resigned herself to being Countess of Anjou, and living a reasonably obscure but probably fairly safe and uneventful life. As we will come to see, safe and uneventful were not Maud’s coin of choice.
She did stay quiet for a while, there really wasn’t much she could do while pregnant, and she styled herself as daughter of the King of England and Empress, empress as I said earlier is a title she would continue to use for the rest of her life. There is not a lot known about Matilda in this period, Stephen consolidated his power in England, with the only rebellion being Matilda’s uncle David King of Scotland, which came to nothing.
Stephen’s honeymoon and Matilda’s brush with obscurity was not to last though. Soon the barons began to take advantage of Stephen’s easy-going nature, and to rebel as soon as they saw that there wouldn’t be consequences. Essentially the first rebellion was Baldwin of Exeter, but when Stephen forced him to surrender his castles he not only let Baldwin go free but let the whole garrison go, with no repercussions. Even the pro Stephen chronicle the Gesta Stephani couldn’t manage to make it sound like a sensible decision, the chronicler described it as Stephen “being desirous rather to arrange all things upon an amicable and peaceful footing, than to foster a spirit of discord and disunity.” Although Stephen was ultimately successful in driving Baldwin off, by letting him go he drove him straight to Matilda and Geoffrey, where his arrival was hailed with great joy and Stephen’s gains began to crumble. This was only the middle of 1136, so six months into Stephen’s reign and the cracks were beginning to show.
To return to Matilda though. Baldwin’s dissatisfaction was just the tip of the iceberg. Stephen systematically alienated much of the remaining barony, and rebellions popped up like spot fires across the country. The key defection though was Robert of Gloucester, Matilda’s half brother, one of the most powerful landholders in the country and from 1138 Matilda’s staunchest supporter. More men came over to Matilda’s side, and in 1139 Matilda returned to England for the first time in ten years.
Matilda’s landing in England was due to the support of another woman we have already met. Adeliza of Louvain, her step mother. Adeliza would have been a similar age to Matilda when she married Henry I so that was most likely when they developed a relationship. When Henry I died, Adeliza married William d’Aubigny one of Henry’s advisors and later Earl of Arundel. You can see one of the castles they built, Castle Rising, below.
For Matilda though, Adeliza and William’s key holding was Arundel castle (which Adeliza held in her own right as part of her dower). It is about five miles inland on the south coast of England. Adeliza agreed to let Matilda and her forces land on the 30th of September 1139. Robert departed immediately for his stronghold at Bristol to collect his remaining troops and Matilda remained in Arundel castle, taking the first real steps towards her crown.
The triumph was short lived unfortunately. She had been at Arundel for less than a week when Stephen arrived unexpectedly, with troops. This was a crux point for Matilda. She didn’t have a stronghold in England yet, her supporters were scattered rebellions rather than a directed force, Robert was in Bristol, and Arundel Castle wasn’t hers to command. Adeliza and William were also in a difficult position because William hadn’t renounced his fealty to Stephen. Adeliza played pretty much the only card she had, and played it well. John of Worcester described the situation as
When, however, he [Stephen] learned that the ex-queen had received the ex-empress, with her large band of retainers, at Arundel, he was much displeased, and marched his army thither. But she, being awed by the king’s majesty, and fearing that she might lose the rank she held in England, swore solemnly that no enemy of his had come to England on her invitation; but that, saving her dignity, she had granted hospitality to persons of station, who were formerly attached to her.
Stephen could have taken Matilda at this point, but it would have involved a siege and Robert was in Bristol, and would have come to his sister’s aide, along with her other supporters. Adeliza had put him in a bind as well, because it wasn’t technically illegal for her to have invited her step daughter to Arundel. Stephen as was so often the case throughout his reign, did the honourable thing. He let Matilda go to Robert in Bristol. It seems like an act of lunatic chivalry, and some contemporary chroniclers saw it that way, but none of his options were ideal. Regardless Matilda left Arundel and joined Robert at Bristol. For the first time, in England, in person, on the quest for her crown. Thus the period of anarchy began in earnest, and Stephen probably grew to regret his decision.
And that is where we will leave Matilda for now. Part 2 will cover the years of fighting as Matilda tried to become Queen in her own right, and in the process did actually rule parts of the country.
The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis: Volume VI edited and translated by Marjorie Chibnall 1978. Accessed: https://archive.org/details/ecclesiasticalhi0006orde
Letters of Matilda of Scotland: Queen of the English https://epistolae.ctl.columbia.edu/woman/64.html
Letters of Matilda of England, Empress https://epistolae.ctl.columbia.edu/woman/27.html
William of Malmsbury
Robert de Toringi
Henry of Huntingdon
John of Worcester
Peter of Langtoft’s Chronicle image
Geoffrey of Anjou image
Matilda: Empress, queen warrior by Catherine Hanley.
The photos are mine.