Empress Matilda – a summary

The story of England’s first civil war is one of strong personalities and conflicts. The Empress Matilda is one such personality who for her sheer determination and ambition, stands head and shoulders above the rest. Though she was never able to secure the succession for herself, she was instrumental in bringing about the rule of her son, Henry II, and the welcome return of peace to the kingdom after almost two decades of fighting.

The King’s Heir

Born on 7 February 1102 at Sutton Courtenay in Oxfordshire, Matilda was the only legitimate daughter of Henry I and his first wife, Edith of Scotland. When her brother William died in the White Ship disaster of 1120, Henry nominated Matilda as his heir to the throne of England – an unusual position for a medieval princess. In an era where the role of monarch encompassed that of a soldier and politician, a woman’s unsuitability for rule was a foregone conclusion.

Of all Henry’s leading men, only two supported Matilda’s nomination – David, King of Scotland, and Robert of Gloucester – Matilda’s uncle and half-brother.

But whether the barons liked it or not, Matilda had already proven herself capable of direct rule. Back in 1114 Matilda had married Henry V, the German King and Holy Roman Emperor. During their 11 year union, Matilda ruled alongside her husband and independently during his many periods of absence. On his death in 1125, Matilda was recalled to England by her father and soon after married Geoffrey Plantagenet, son of the Count of Anjou. Like her first marriage, the match was purely political and designed to produce a son who might, one day, sit on the English throne. In the meantime Henry had his barons swear an oath of fealty to Matilda on three separate occasions – in 1127, 1128 and 1131 – to ensure the smooth succession of his crown.

King Stephen

Henry I and Stephen I of EnglandBut on Henry’s death in 1135, it was not Matilda who stepped forth to claim the throne of England. That person was Stephen of Blois, Henry’s nephew, who rushed from his French territories to London and had himself declared king. He was crowned at Winchester on 22 December 1135 while Matilda, over in Anjou, appeared to do nothing but sit back and let Stephen take her place. By Easter of the following year, Stephen (pictured here with Henry I) had secured papal support for his rule and had won over nearly all of the English barons and clergymen. The situation for Matilda now seemed hopeless.

Matilda did, however, launch an offensive. She focused first on Normandy, rallying support and taking possession of several key castles and fortifications. It was only in 1138 with the defection of her half-brother, Robert of Gloucester, to Matilda’s side that an English expedition became the new focus of her attention. She landed in Sussex on 30 September 1139 and took refuge with her stepmother at Arundel Castle. This might not have been a grand entrance but it marked the beginning of open war and England’s descent into chaos and Anarchy.

After a brief stay with her step-mother at Arundel Castle, Stephen had Matilda escorted to Bristol where she received the homage of two key men – Miles, Castellan of Gloucester and Brian FitzCount, Lord of Wallingford. This may not have been a very dramatic beginning to the war but was enough to spur Stephen to action. He responded by laying an unsuccessful siege to Wallingford and wasting the countryside around Hereford, Bristol and Dunster – an act that only hardened attitudes against him in the south-west.

But it wouldn’t be long before the two sides came head to head. On 2 February 1141 Matilda’s forces, headed by Robert, met King Stephen’s army in the Battle of Lincoln. The result was disastrous for Stephen who was captured during the fighting and held prisoner at Bristol. With Stephen behind bars, the majority of his supporters submitted at once to Matilda. For the first time since Stephen’s usurpation, Matilda had a real shot of taking the throne. On 2 March she received the fealty of the Bishop of Winchester and took up residence in the royal castle. The only thing she needed now was a coronation.

“Vast military display”

From Winchester, Matilda “came with vast military display to London, at the humble request of the citizens” (Gesta Stephani) and settled down to the business of ruling. She needed cash to fund the new regime and demanded the substantial sum of £500 from the city’s richest men. The men pleaded poverty to which the Gesta Stephani tells us, Matilda “with a grim look, her forehead wrinkled into a frown, every trace of woman’s gentleness removed from her face, blazed into intemperate fury.” To make matters worse, she then denied the Bishop of Winchester’s request to give Stephen’s son access to the family lands in Boulogne.

Historians have often looked to Matilda’s past to explain her behaviour in London. She had spent her formative years as empress of the Holy Roman Empire where ideas of absolute monarchy reigned supreme. When confronted with similar situations in the past, she fought fire with fire, harshly reprimanding any who stood in her way. But these actions would not be tolerated by the English who had come to expect a different style of rule from their monarch. The events in London provided the opportunity for the remaining Royalists, led by Stephen’s queen, to take the upper hand: Matilda and her supporters were routed from the capital. Her one shot at the crown had proved a complete failure. The capture of her right-hand-man, Robert of Gloucester, at Winchester later in the year forced Matilda to surrender Stephen and her only remaining advantage.

Over the next seven years, Matilda was never able to recapture the glory that had followed the Battle of Lincoln. With the death of her beloved Gloucester her cause appeared lost and in March 1148, she left England, never to return. From her base in Normandy she championed the claim of her eldest son, Henry, who eventually defeated Stephen and became King Henry II of England in 1154. She often interfered in political affairs on his behalf, including his famous quarrel with Archbishop Thomas Becket.  Matilda may not have ruled as England’s queen but without her, Henry may have been a very different monarch, if he had ever ruled at all.

Matilda died on 10 September 1167 and is buried at Bec Abbey in Normandy.

Kaye Jones

The Medieval Anarchy: History In An Hour published by Harper Press is available in various digital formats, only 99p / $1.60.

See also articles on the White Ship Disaster and King Stephen.