Back in the Middle Ages, European civilizations were mostly patriarchal, with only a few notable women managing to rise to power. Most of these powerful women were abbesses, whose roles in the church allowed them to exert some form of control over their abbeys, though their authority was still far more restricted than their male counterparts, the abbots. Even fewer women were able to become important figures, such as the famed Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was probably the most eligible bachelorette in those days.
And then, there’s Matilda - daughter of King Henry I of England, widow of Emperor Henry V of the Holy Roman Empire, wife of Geoffrey V, Count of Anjou, and mother of King Henry II of England. Here was one woman who knew what she wanted, what she deserved, and wasn’t afraid to take it herself.
The Wedding Of Her Dreams
Born sometime in 1102 to King Henry I of England and his first wife Matilda of Scotland, Matilda was not considered a candidate for succession to the English throne even though she was Henry I’s eldest, legitimate child. Medieval England was just as patriarchal as the rest of the Western world and the idea of having a female ruler was not a popular one. Instead, Matilda’s younger brother, William Atheling, was the heir apparent to the English throne. Matilda, on the other hand, was betrothed to Henry V, King of Germany and future Holy Roman Emperor, and sent to his court at the tender age of 8.
In 1114, 12-year-old Matilda was married to Henry V and became Empress Matilda of the Holy Roman Empire. While her husband was embroiled in a series of conflicts, Matilda was handling political matters back home in Germany, as early as 1116. She was so effective and became so popular that she came to be known by her people as “Good Matilda”. This was already quite an accomplishment for a woman back then, but it was not to last. Henry V died of cancer in 1125, leaving 23-year-old Matilda a childless widow at what should have been the prime of her life.
Soon after her husband’s death, Matilda’s father Henry I summoned her back to England. Her brother, William Atheling, had died in the sinking of the White Ship in 1120, leaving Henry I bereft of a legitimate male heir to his throne. With Henry V dead, Henry I now had a better candidate as heir than his illegitimate children or his more distant relations. Henry I had his nobles swear to support Matilda as Queen if he died without a male heir, before marrying her off again, this time to one much younger than her: Geoffrey of Anjou, future Count of Anjou.
The Tale of The Cradle-Robber
Matilda’s second marriage was much more turbulent than the first. For one, Matilda was decidedly insulted that she was to be married to a mere Count who was a decade her junior and had to be forced into agreeing to the marriage. The couple also disliked each other from the start and even separated for a time before they reconciled and eventually begat 3 sons.
In 1135, Henry I died and with Matilda having been named as heir with the sworn support of the nobles, it seemed that England was about to get its first female ruler. Alas, changing the status quo is never this easy. The nobles were not keen on the idea of a woman reigning over them and instead threw their support behind the next best candidate – Stephen of Blois, nephew of Henry I, who had himself sworn the same oath of allegiance to Matilda that he now broke.
Stephen crossed over to England with his wife, another Matilda (though known as Matilda of Boulogne), and was crowned as King of England in 1135, taking control of both England and Normandy across the English Channel. Stephen and his English supporters were now oath breakers, and proud Matilda (as in Matilda, daughter of Henry I) was not going to take this violation of the feudal code laying down.
Dark Clouds On The Horizon
Now, Matilda was not a popular candidate as ruler among the Anglo-Norman nobles because she was deemed a foreigner and an Angevin (as the ruling house of Anjou was called), a traditional enemy of Normandy. However, feudal law dictated that she was to be instated as ruler according to the late king’s wishes, and she was determined to win back what was supposed to be hers.
Matilda may have been disliked by most of the nobles in England, but she had strong supporters: her uncle, King David I of Scotland, and her half-brother and one of the most powerful Anglo-Norman nobles, Robert of Gloucester. David invaded England from the north, while Robert revolted against Stephen. Geoffrey and Matilda, hindered by the pregnancy with their third child, eventually joined the fray as well. Geoffrey invaded Normandy from Anjou and harassed the English king from the South, eventually securing control over much of Normandy. Matilda was now ready to make preparations for a cross-channel invasion.
Sons of Anarchy
At the end of summer 1140, Robert, Matilda and her army landed in Arundel, at the invitation of her stepmother and Henry I’s second wife Dowager Queen Adeliza. Robert headed northwest to rouse up the rebellion, and Matilda was immediately besieged by Stephen’s troops. It resulted in a truce, probably because Arundel Castle was considered almost impregnable and Stephen did not want to keep his troops tied down there while Robert wreaked havoc elsewhere. In any case, Matilda was allowed to head southwest, which may have been a bad decision since it allowed her to rejoin Robert and combine their power. By now, Matilda controlled a nice, solid chunk of southwest England, including most of the Thames Valley.
Both sides were now engaged in a war of attrition, besieging castles the other held, as was customary of warfare in medieval times. Meanwhile, the various nobles of the land were taking advantage of the fighting going on around them to settle their own personal feuds, resulting in conflict every which way. This sudden breakdown of law and order is now known as the Anarchy, which basically meant that it wasn’t a very fun time to be living in England. Stephen was now having to deal with little rebellions all over his kingdom, dividing his troops and weakening his position.
By 1141, Matilda was at the peak of her power during the conflict, garnering supporters under her command despite her sex, and managed to capture Stephen at the battle of Lincoln. Triumphant, Matilda moved to London for her coronation but never managed to be crowned officially - it was said that her arrogant demeanor turned the citizens against her, though given the fact that kings were supposed to be proud and commanding, perhaps the issue was that a woman was behaving authoritatively.
Regardless, Matilda was unable to be crowned Queen before the Londoners rose up against her and forced her to flee. Also, a few months later, her greatest supporter Robert was captured and she was forced to release Stephen in exchange. The war continued to drag on and eventually it seemed that Matilda realized she was never going to sit on the throne of England for she started to pave the way for her eldest son, yet another Henry, to win the crown. Henry finally managed to reach an agreement with Stephen in the Treaty of Wallingford in which he would succeed Stephen as King of England. This was likely an unsatisfactory compromise for both sides and it was probably a good thing that Stephen died next year, passing the throne to Henry, now King Henry II of England.
Matilda governed Normandy on Henry II’s behalf, gave him advice from her extensive experience in politics and administration since her days as an Empress, and served as mediator for him and opponents like the church. In her later life, she took a backseat instead of charging to the forefront like she did in her youth, and was much more respected for it. This change in approval seemed to be colored by the expectations back then for women to stand behind the men and act appropriately as the ‘gentler sex’. However, that just meant that Matilda was all the braver for taking the bull by the horns herself and fight for what was rightfully hers regardless of societal expectations.
Although she never became Queen of England, she had laid the foundations for one of England’s most glorious period under the rule of the Plantagenet dynasty, named after the plantagenet flowers that were symbolic of the Counts of Anjou. Under the reign of Henry II, England’s territory extended beyond Normandy and Anjou, as his marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine added Aquitaine and Gascony to it; he was effectively ruling over more than half of France. And all of this could never have been possible without the efforts of his mother - the tenacious Empress Matilda, greatest of the Matildas of her time.