Ask anyone to name the Queens of England and they will probably manage the two Elizabeths and Victoria, perhaps Queen Anne if they are keen on furniture and Bloody Mary if they really know their Tudors. Few know much about our first post-Norman Queen, the Empress Matilda. When she died the epitaph on her tomb read ‘Here lies, Henry’s daughter, mother, wife, great in all three, her son the glory of her life’. Her extraordinary story would be as astonishing today, and we may wonder if the barriers put up against her because of her gender are any less in the modern world.
So who was this woman? Matilda was the daughter of Henry I and Matilda of Scotland. She grew up in Germany and married the future Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V, was crowned Empress in St. Peter’s Basilica and went on to act as the imperial regent in Italy. She was only 23 when her husband died and still childless she returned to England where everything had changed. Her brother William had tragically drowned in the ‘White Ship’ disaster leaving Matilda as Henry’s only legitimate heir. Henry gathered together his barons and they all swore an oath to recognise Matilda as their future ruler. Matilda then married Geoffrey of Anjou in a loveless marriage designed to protect the southern borders of Normandy where they dutifully had three children.
All looked set for Matilda to be Queen, but when Henry died of food poisoning Matilda’s cousin Stephen of Blois claimed the throne with the aid of his brother, who happened to be Bishop of Winchester. Despite the barons oath, most of them supported Stephen who was crowned King of England in 1135. Many of the chroniclers explained that is was simply not possible for England to be ruled by a woman.
Matilda was incensed at this treachery, but being heavily pregnant at the time could do little. After giving birth to her third son William she, Geoffrey and Matilda’s half-brother Robert mounted an invasion of England which precipitated a 20 year civil war, commonly known as The Anarchy.
After many ups and downs Stephen was captured in 1141 and the clergy gathered at Winchester to declare Matilda the “Lady of England and Normandy”. She travelled to London to arrange her coronation, but civil unrest prevented the coronation. This seems to me the key moment. Matilda appears to have won, yet the people reject her. Chroniclers who favour Stephen describe Matilda as arrogant and haughty while William of Newburgh declares that the best men were alienated by the Empress’s “intolerable feminine arrogance”. They suggest the people of London reject the queen for being too arrogant though few Kings would have been rejected for such a reason. On the other hand, William of Malmsbury who favours Matilda, ignores her gender in describing her as the rightful and legitimate successor of Henry.
From 900 years in the future it is hard to tell the accuracy of these judgements, but it seems likely that these are sexist jibes aimed at Matilda simply because she is a woman. Worse, perhaps a woman acting like a man.
The war continued and eventually, in 1153, a compromise was reached with Stephen retaining the crown for the remainder of his lifetime, whereupon it would revert to Matilda’s son and his heirs. Matilda lived on in Normandy and remained involved in governing the Duchy until she died in 1167 at the age of 65.
Historians argue that a woman could not wield the same royal power as a man in the anglo-Norman court, but neither Matilda, her father nor her supporters seem to have had many doubts about her ability to do so. She was an Empress, she had a lifetime of experience of wielding power, she was the daughter of a King and a mother of a King. For some years she ruled as a King and was almost crowned as Queen. If she lost the battle to be leader, she won the war that saw her son regain power.
Matilda was a leader, a fighter and determined to have her just rights – as well as being a mother. Many of the battles she fought will seem familiar to later generations of powerful women. For me, the Empress Matilda really should be an icon for all women who strive to be treated equally with men.
Written by Brian Creese (he/him) from Guildford, UK. Visit his website! This project, Tales from Wo-Fan’s Land, is a series of stories written by Frank Turner fans, inspired by his new album No Man’s Land.
The easiest starting point is Marjorie Chibnall’s excellent book “The Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the English”. However, the history of this period was written by the chroniclers and they all have a view which may, or may not depend on their patrons. It is worth reading Gesta Stephani, Oderic Vitalis, William of Malmsbury and Henry of Huntingdon. There are also some periodical articles which are worth looking at including “The Boundaries of Women’s Power: Gender and the Discourse of Political Friendship in Twelfth‐Century England” by Rebecca Slitt, “The English Chroniclers’ Attitude Towards Women” by Betty Bandel and “Making a Name for Herself: The Empress Matilda and the Construction of Female Lordship in Twelfth-Century England” by Charles Beem.