Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
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Saturday, February 7, 2015

Matilda of England: The Woman Who Would Be Queen

Matilda of England, empress and "lady of the English" (born c. 7 February 1102)

The daughter of Henry I of England and his queen, Matilda of Scotland, Matilda of England was, like so many young royal women, an important part of her father's diplomacy--later, she became a powerful political force in her own right.

Matilda's Great Seal
Her first political role, though, was as a bride. In order to secure an important alliance for her father, Matilda was betrothed to Henry V, king of the Romans, in 1108 or 1109: the king of England wanted to connect himself to one of the most important dynastic powers in Europe, one which could help buttress his control of Normandy, while the king of the Romans wanted Henry of England's money to secure for himself the title of emperor. Matilda was the means to both their ends.

As a result of the alliance, the young Matilda was sent to the German court where she was schooled in the language and customs of her husband-to-be--and she learned a great deal about the art of government. She was finally old enough in January 1114 for her marriage to Henry to be formalized.

Throughout the years of this marriage, which lasted until Henry V's death in 1125, she participated in imperial politics, traveling with him and, from 1118 to 1119, acting as his regent in Italy. When the emperor died, Matilda was still only twenty-three years old.

In the mean time, the political situation in England had become uncertain--Henry I's son and heir, William, had died in 1120. Although the king had remarried, hopeful for a new male heir, that son did not appear. After Matilda returned to England following her husband's death, Henry named her as his heir, his English and Norman barons swearing to recognize her in January 1127.

But another dynastic marriage was in order for Matilda. This time, and again in order to secure his Norman possessions, Henry arranged for an alliance with Geoffrey of Anjou. The marriage took place in June of 1128. It was not particularly happy or peaceful, but it did result in three sons, the eldest of whom would become Henry II of England.

After her father's death in 1135, and despite the oaths they had sworn, the English lords did not welcome Matilda as queen. Instead, she spent more than a decade at war trying to gain recognition of her title and her throne. For six months in 1141, she was in power and formally recognized as "lady of the English," but she was never crowned as queen regnant. She fought on until 1148, after which she retired to Rouen. While she administered Normandy, her son, Henry, took up the fight in England. At long last, a truce was reached in 1153; "King" Stephen would continue to rule in England until his death, after which Henry would become king. (He succeeded to the throne as Henry II in 1154.)

Until her death in 1167, Matilda remained in Normandy. She continued to be an important adviser for her son, acted on his behalf in Normandy, and involved herself on his behalf in international diplomacy.

Contemporary chroniclers expressed a variety of opinions about Matilda, depending on their own political perspectives and alliances. Her right to inherit the English throne as a queen regnant became an important part of the debate about female rulers in the sixteenth century. From my point of view, she is an inspiring figure--a queen who might have been. 

Helen Castor discusses Matilda in her She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England before Elizabeth, but the best and most comprehensive treatment is in Helen Chibnall's full-length academic biography, The Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the English

You may also be interested in listening to a podcast about "the Anarchy," the civil war between Matilda and her cousin, Stephen of Blois, who claimed the English crown in her stead. You will find this episode of Melvyn Bragg's In Our Time by clicking here.

Update, 20 February 2019: To listen to historian Catherine Hanley's excellent discussion of Matilda, broadcast on the BBC's History Extra podcast, click here. Hanley has just published a terrific new biography, Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior. It is wonderfully readable!

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