|Born in 1102 to a man with a disputed claim to the throne, Matilda was betrothed at eight to the twenty-four-year-old Henry V, who had recently been elected King of the Romans and a valuable ally to her father, Henry. By the time she married him, he had been crowned Holy Roman Emperor by a suspended Archbishop in what was technically not a coronation; when Matilda was crowned in her own non-coronation, the Archbishop and her husband had both been excommunicated. Nevertheless, Matilda knew the power of a catchy title and continued to style herself Empress until it caught on; when Anglo-Norman chroniclers incorrectly recorded that she had been crowned so by the Pope, she mysteriously never got round to correcting them.
When Henry V died, Matilda, unable to act as regent and left only with her collection of royal jewels and her Hand of St James the Apostle, faced the choice of whether to remarry or become a nun. However, her future was once again held by her father: her brother had died in a drunken shipwreck five years previously, and Henry named Matilda and her offspring his successors. He had his barons swear an oath to honour this three times throughout his reign.
He then began looking for a new match for Matilda, and, once again motivated by politics, settled on Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. Matilda was unimpressed for two reasons: firstly, an unwillingness to demote herself from Empress to Countess, and secondly, an unwillingness, aged twenty-five, to marry a thirteen-year-old boy. Nevertheless, in 1128 they married, and it was by all accounts a bad match. They didn't like each other, and this was exacerbated by Geoffrey's growing annoyance at his intentionally vague position in Matilda's inheritance and dowry.
When Henry died, England headed into chaos. The two claimants for the throne were Stephen of Blois who had originally sworn an oath to Matilda, but held the support of London and the Church (helped in no small way by the fact that his brother was Bishop of Winchester) and Matilda, who was the only child of the previous king, had been named as successor and whom the barons had sworn allegiance to but was facing various barons revising their oaths, Stephen convincing Hugh Bigod to say that Henry changed his mind on the whole thing on his deathbed, and the undebateable fact that she was a woman.
Geoffrey's scorched earth policy of warfare quickly established Theobald and Louis VI as Stephen's allies, but Matilda had Robert of Gloucester and the South-West of England, and David of Scotland and the North, as well as much of her homeland of Normandy. What became known as "The Anarchy" started badly for her, however, and in 1139 she found herself under seige in Arundel Castle. Partly due to Arundel's reputation as impregnable, and partly due to the chivalrous Stephen considering the female Matilda a non-threat, he simply let her go, and by 1141, Matilda had Stephen captured and was moving to get herself crowned.
This was not to prove easy though. No woman had ever ruled in her own right before, and indeed at the time the word 'queen' meant only 'wife of king'. She was eventually given the title of 'lady of the English and Normandy', in a speech which labelled her the 'daughter of a king' and the king himself 'a peacemaker
without peer in our time'. Significantly though, as lady, or domina, she had a dominium like a king.
Matilda's reputation immediately suffered. She was accused of acting with 'insufferable arrogance' and 'intolerable pride and willfulness' an aspect of her which had hitherto never been documented. The main chronicle of the period, the Gesta Stephani, records why this trait was so distasteful: she was not exhibiting the ...modest gait and bearing proper to the fairer sex. In fact, this was a hurdle which Matilda was unable to overcome: the impossible balance between being a woman, and a king.
Matilda's reign was shortlived, and by the end of 1141 Stephen was King once more. Over the next few years her main supporters died off, and in 1153 a treaty was brokered in which Stephen was recognised as King, with Matilda's son as his successor.
Although Matilda never really ruled in her own right, and was certainly never Queen, it was her son who inherited the throne, and she went on to play a political role in famous cases such as the dispute between Henry II and Thomas Becket. Her epitaph proclaimed her "Great by birth, greater by marriage, greatest in her offspring", but arguably more important might be that she invented the idea of a woman being able to rule England in her own right, and changed history forever.
She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth, Helen Castor
Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the English - Marjorie Chibnall
Last edited by Zziggy on Sun Mar 29, 2015 1:29 pm; edited 1 time in total