Saturday, 26 July 2014

The Empress Matilda: England's First 'She-Wolf'?

Above: Empress Matilda could, perhaps, have been England's first queen regnant.

Medieval England experienced some spectacular rulers, both male and female. This was an age, in particular, of extraordinary and resourceful women: consider Eleanor of Aquitaine, queen of Henry II, who continued shaping government policy, escorting brides across Europe, and leading armies well into her seventies. Isabella of France, wife of Edward II, launched an invasion against her ineffectual husband alongside her lover, deposed the king, and was possibly involved in his later murder. Then there was Margaret of Anjou, who courageously took hold of the reins of government when her saintly if unassuming husband Henry VI fell into madness, and took a spirited and energetic role of leadership in the conflict known as the Wars of the Roses, so vividly depicted in the works of Shakespeare. Elizabeth Woodville was another courageous and strong-willed queen who fought for the Yorkist inheritance during the Wars of the Roses and was every bit as formidable as her adversary Margaret. All of these women have, to differing degrees, been remembered as 'she-wolves': powerful, determined women who seized the reins of power seen as correctly belonging to their husbands, defying contemporary expectations of females as weak, gentle and submissive beings.

But none of these women, with the exception, perhaps, of Margaret, has endured so negative a reputation as that of the Empress Matilda, daughter and heir of Henry I of England, and 'Lady of England'. Indeed, this spirited and determined woman could have, had circumstances gone her way, been England's first queen regnant, rather than the teenaged Lady Jane Grey enjoying that honour over four hundred years later, in 1553. Contemporary chroniclers and modern historians alike have remembered Matilda as a feisty, 'haughty' and arrogant woman who alienated her followers and provoked loathing in the citizens of London when she attempted to claim the crown she viewed as rightfully hers following her father's death. Yet, as historian Helen Castor compellingly suggests, such negative characterisations of Matilda 'were never used to describe any male member of her fearsomely domineering family; and they do not fit well with what we know of Matilda in the decades before and after that brief moment in 1141'. So who, then, was this fascinating and complex woman, a daughter, mother and wife of kings, who fought tenaciously but ill-fatedly to become the first queen regnant of England in the twelfth century?

Above: Twelfth-century portrayal of the wedding feast of Matilda and her first husband, Emperor Heinrich V of Germany.

Matilda was born in February 1102 at Sutton Courtenay in Oxfordshire as the eldest child, to Henry I, king of England and duke of Normandy, and his pious, beautiful wife Matilda of Scotland. Later, a son was born, William Adelin, who died in 1120 aged seventeen in a tragic incident involving the White Ship. Her brother's premature end was to have momentous consequences for Matilda's subsequent career. Her father also had twenty-two illegitimate children by other women. In 1108/9, when Matilda was around six years old, the German emperor sued for her hand in marriage, an attractive prospect to King Henry because it would bolster the prestige of the crown as well as strengthening England's links with the most preeminent European power. In a sense, it was the most successful marriage he could have achieved for his young daughter. Aged only eight years old, Matilda left England for Germany in February 1110.

The couple met at Liege before voyaging to Utrecht in the Netherlands where they were formally betrothed in April 1110. Three months later, Matilda was crowned Queen of the Romans at Mainz, and became known thereafter as the 'Empress Matilda', a lavish and supremely regal title and position that represented a considerable achievement for an eight-year old girl. Although she was some sixteen years younger than her twenty-four year old husband, it was to prove a successful and prosperous marriage. Matilda was educated in the customs, manners and culture of her new domains. In 1114, she was actually married to her husband, for twelve was the minimum age at which a female could marry. 

Matilda was widely praised in these years, with no hint of the later abuse and hostility that would be directed toward her by her future English subjects. An anonymous chronicler at the German court described his Empress thus: 'a girl of noble character', 'distinguished and beautiful, who was held to bring glory and honour to both the Roman Empire and the English realm'. Orderic Vitalis tells us that Emperor Heinrich loved his new wife dearly, and so graceful, gentle and dignified in her queenly duties would Matilda be that her German subjects immortalised her as 'the good Matilda'. In these early years, she was hardly the 'she-wolf' later disparaged by hostile chroniclers. 

It cannot be doubted that Matilda was both a dedicated wife and a successful queen. In 1118-9, for example, she sat in judgement at a court at Castrocaro near Ravenna, over the competing claims between a bishop and an abbey from Forli and Faenza over a local church. The Empress eventually decided in favour of the abbey. Shortly afterwards, Matilda's younger brother and heir to the English throne, William, died in the White Ship tragedy in November 1120. At eighteen years old, Matilda was now her father's heir.

Picture of the White Ship sinking
Above: A fourteenth-century presentation of the White Ship disaster in the winter of 1120.

While Matilda's marriage to the Emperor was in many ways a success, she failed to fulfil the vital requirement of her position by bearing her husband sons. Why no children were born to the royal couple remains something of a mystery. Neither were considered by contemporaries to be infertile, although it has been speculated that those at the time believed that the Emperor's sins against the Church were to account for the couple's childlessness. Heinrich eventually died of cancer in 1125, leaving his wife, still only twenty-three years of age, a widow. Matilda was now transformed into the most glittering of prizes, heiress as she was to the crown of England. Although Matilda was later besieged with offers of marriage from numerous German princes, she refused all of them, before departing for her homeland, England.

In the meantime, Matilda's father Henry I had remarried, following the death of the revered Matilda of Scotland in 1118. His new bride was Adeliza of Louvain, a year younger than her new stepdaughter the Empress. However, the royal couple did not have any children; meaning that, theoretically, Matilda remained her father's heir and successor to the English crown. If she succeeded, she would be England's first queen regnant. Henry formally acknowledged his daughter's unique position. At Christmas 1126, he ordered his barons to publicly recognise his daughter as heir to the throne, which they did the following January. 

Picture of Geoffrey of Anjou
Above: A man Matilda did not wish to marry: her second husband, Geoffrey of Anjou.

Although Henry I was, apparently, determined that his daughter Matilda should become England's next ruler in the wake of his death, this did not prevent him seeking a new husband for his twenty-five year old heir. In order to secure the southern borders of Normandy, he eventually arranged for her to marry the teenaged Geoffrey of Anjou, son and heir of Count Foulques. Nicknamed le Bel ('the Fair'), Matilda's prospective spouse was gorgeous, beautifully costumed and only fifteen years old. His face was said to glow 'like the flower of a lily, with rosy flush'. Despite his elegant charm and striking appearance, Matilda was decidedly unimpressed. This strong-willed, energetic and intelligent woman was not to be swayed by mere good looks and charm, and may have found the idea of a younger husband distinctly unappealing. Certainly, her reaction suggests this. Matilda was proud, and believed that marrying the son of a mere count served to diminish, even disparage, her status. The Archbishop of Tours, Hildebert, admonished her in letters and begged her to forgo her disobedience. Eventually, she reluctantly and unhappily agreed. So began a turbulent marriage.

Further difficulties were caused when Matilda's dowry was disputed. It was not specified when she would be able to inhabit the castles granted her in Normandy. It is perhaps instructive that soon after her marriage, the Empress returned to Normandy. In 1131, after a separation, the couple were finally reconciled, and if it had not been earlier, the marriage was consummated. Matilda proved a fertile bride (after her childless years with Emperor Heinrich); bearing her second husband three sons: Henry (who later became Henry II of England); Geoffrey (later Count of Nantes), and William (later Count of Poitou).

Picture of Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitain
Above: A twelfth-century image of Matilda's eldest son, Henry, and his wife Eleanor of Aquitaine, as king and queen of England.

Everything changed in December 1135 when the king of England died. Matilda, now thirty-three, was set to become England's first female ruler, by virtue of her position as Henry's legal heir. Yet there had been difficulties in the previous years. She had experienced strained relations with her father, who perhaps feared her husband's desire to acquire more power in Normandy. Controversy surrounds Henry's plans for the succession on his deathbed. Sources favourable to the Empress confirmed that Henry reaffirmed his intent that she should succeed him, but hostile texts alleged that he had retracted his promise and had apologised to his barons for forcing them unwillingly to swear an oath of allegiance to his daughter.

Matilda's position gravely weakened her cause even before it had begun, for she was residing in Anjou with her husband when news reached her that her father had died. Matilda was by now pregnant for the third time, and it has been credibly suggested that her condition could have prevented her returning to England considerably sooner than she did. Stephen of Blois, Matilda's cousin, reacted in exactly the opposite manner. Dwelling in Boulogne, the count immediately left for England, determined to claim the crown. He had been close to the dead king, and it has been argued that his sex and proximity made him a more appealing monarch than his female cousin, who was not even in the country. On 26 December 1135, Stephen was crowned King of England. He had taken his opportunities, whereas Matilda had not.

Stepan Blois.jpg
Above: Stephen of Blois, king of England.

In July 1136, Matilda delivered her third son, William, at Argentan. How she reacted with news of Stephen's accession is unknown, but she must have been shocked and appalled, at the very least. She may have beseeched the Bishop of Angers to garner support for her claim to the throne with the Pope but if she did, the Bishop was unsuccessful in doing so. Disputes and conflict continued in Normandy between the English king and Matilda, although a truce was later agreed between Stephen and Geoffrey.

Matilda's cause was immeasurably strengthened when her half-brother, Robert of Gloucester, decided to support her, promising her forces. In 1138, he had rebelled against the English king, thus instigating a civil war that was set to last for years. Geoffrey of Anjou took advantage of unrest and rebellion in England by reinvading Normandy. At the same time, King David of Scotland invaded the north of England, and promised support to the Empress simultaneously. Although Stephen travelled both north and west to quell disorder, and to some extent was successful in doing so, Matilda invaded in the summer of 1139, determined to attain the throne she believed was rightfully hers. So began what historians term 'the Anarchy'.

The former queen and stepmother to Matilda, Adeliza, in some ways instigated the rebellion by inviting her stepdaughter to land at Arundel Castle, on the south coast. In September, Matilda arrived with Robert with a force of 140 knights, and Matilda promptly departed for Arundel Castle while Robert headed northwest to Wallingford and Bristol, where he met Miles of Gloucester, the Constable of England who now supported the Empress. Stephen besieged the castle, trapping Matilda inside. Later, she was released, for unknown reasons.

Helen Castor has suggested that Matilda's sex strengthened her cause in that Stephen refused to face her in battle. The next few years saw protracted truces, armed rebellions, and heavy conflict, most notably the Battle of Lincoln in February 1141 which saw the defeat of King Stephen. He was later taken into custody by Robert of Gloucester. Matilda faced him triumphantly in person and incarcerated him in Bristol Castle. She then took steps to crown herself Queen of England, until now having been known as the 'Lady of England'. Stephen's brother and former enemy of the Empress, Bishop Henry, now renounced his support for his brother and defected to Matilda's side, in exchange for her promise that she would allow him control over Church affairs. 

In Winchester at Easter 1141, Matilda was declared 'Lady of England and Normandy' by the assembled clergy, in what seems to have been a precursor to her coronation as queen regnant. The Empress then headed to London, but her position quickly became notably precarious. Forces loyal to Stephen and his wife remained close, and the citizens were visibly fearful about letting Matilda into the city. On 24 June, the city rose up against her. Matilda fled to Oxford just in the nick of time.

Most historians have suggested that it was Matilda's 'haughty', 'arrogant' temperament that so alienated the Londoners, that accounts for her ultimate failure to seize the crown. Henry of Huntingdon wrote that 'she was lifted up into an insufferable arrogance' and 'she alienated the hearts of almost everyone'. Yet, Helen Castor offers a more credible explanation of Matilda's difficulties given the uniqueness of her position and the difficulties she faced:

The truth of the matter was that Matilda found herself trapped. She urgently needed to show that she was a credible ruler... But when she sought to emulate her formidable father and her first husband, the two great kings whose rule she knew best, she encountered not awestruck obedience, but resentment of a 'haughtiness and insolence' that was deemed unnatural and unfeminine.

In a sense, then, it was Matilda's sex rather than necessarily her personal qualities which defeated her and rendered her unacceptable to her subjects. A female ruler was simply not an attractive prospect for the English. Like later queens Isabella of France and Margaret of Anjou, when Matilda tried to take the initiative and proactively shape policy, she was condemned and vilified for being 'manly', unfeminine, cruel, avaricious, arrogant and disdainful - all qualities viewed as the exact opposite of what a woman should be.

Above: Matilda's eldest son, Henry II of England.

Because of this, Matilda never did become queen of England. Her initiative and determined attempts to take the crown were ultimately unsuccessful, in no small part influenced by the deaths of her most notable supporters, including Robert of Gloucester, in the late 1140s. However, her ambition was realised when Stephen accepted her eldest son, Henry, as his successor. He had taken a leading role in the later years of the civil war, reaching England in 1142 from the continent, before returning to Anjou two years later. The English Church supported Henry's claims to the English throne, as did Stephen's nobles and Louis VII of France, for the nobles were weary and disillusioned after years of bloody civil war, disorder and unrest. They wanted peace, and this was promised in the figure of the charismatic, resourceful and determined Henry. 

Matilda lived to see Henry's succession and supported him energetically and faithfully, often acting as her son's representative in Normandy, where she now resided, and presiding over the Duchy's government. Like her daughter-in-law Eleanor of Aquitaine, Matilda remained fully involved well into old age. She was later involved in attempts at mediation between the king and the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. Matilda became increasingly pious during her later years, although one chronicler of Mont St. Jacques described her in her old age as 'of the stock of tyrants'. On 10 September 1167, aged sixty-five, the former Empress and 'Lady of England' died, and she was buried at the abbey of Bec-Hellouin under the high altar. Her tomb's epitaph included the lines: 'Great by birth, greater by marriage, greatest in her offspring: here lies Matilda, the daughter, wife, and mother of Henry'. Clearly, as were all women during this period in a patriarchal world, Matilda's life was remembered according to the role she had played in the lives of her male relatives. She was remembered for being a daughter, mother, and wife, rather than for being herself.

Or so it seemed. Most commentators, beginning in her lifetime and extending well into the present day, have instead focused on her apparently haughty, arrogant, even tyrannical nature, which supposedly doomed her attempts to take the crown of England and become its first ruling queen regnant. Yet scholars such as Helen Castor and Fiona Tolhurst have convincingly drawn attention to the fact that Matilda was criticised and disparaged for qualities that were revered and admired in men but found shocking and unacceptable in women: bravery, resourcefulness, determination, courage, ambition and drive. Had Matilda been a man, she would have been admired and celebrated, but her status as a woman condemned her as an 'unnatural' and 'unfeminine' virago who caused misery, discord and conflict in England, alienating all who met her. It is time for her reputation to be amended. She was ultimately extremely successful, not in becoming the first queen regnant of England in her own right, but by ensuring that, by virtue of who she was, her son Henry would become England's king following the death of her great rival and cousin, Stephen.

Picture of the Empress Matilda's Great Seal
Above: Matilda.


  1. The trouble with feminist historians is that they always want to make out that every woman in history was hard done by, henry of Huntingdon probably knew more about her than they do.

  2. I imagine a degree of haughtiness and arrogance was present in most anglo-Norman rulers. She was clearly a strong willed woman and unjustly denied the throne.

    John Rowe