Matilda, Empress

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Lived from 1102 to 1167. Matilda was born Feb. 7, 1102 to King Henry I of England and his wife, Edith Matilda. At eight years of age she was sent to Germany as the bride of the Holy Roman Emperor, henry v. As an adult, she helped her husband govern his Italian lands and acted as regent for him upon occasion in Italy and Lotharingia. When Henry V died of stomach cancer in 1125, Matilda returned to her father's court.

Matilda's only brother, William, had perished in the wreck of the White Ship in 1120, leaving Henry I without an obvious heir. The king was under pressure from his nobles to appoint William Clito, the son of his elder brother and bitter enemy Robert Curthose, as his heir. Therefore, at his Christmas court in 1126, Henry I named Matilda as his heir and required all the barons to swear a solemn oath to support her, an oath that was repeated twice more prior to the king's death in 1135. Seeking an ally in this struggle, Henry betrothed his daughter to Geoffrey Plantagenet, the son of Count Fulk of Anjou. The decision was greeted with consternation by the Anglo-Norman barons, since the Angevins had always been the enemies of the dukes of Normandy.

When Henry I died suddenly in 1135, Matilda and Geoffrey moved at once to secure their possessions in Normandy. Meanwhile, Matilda's cousin, Stephen of Blois, the son of Henry's sister, Adela, dashed at once to England, where he had himself crowned king on Dec. 22, 1135. By 1137 he had consolidated his power sufficiently to confront Matilda and Geoffrey on the Continent, but quarreling among the baronial leaders of his army soon forced him to return to England.

In 1139, Matilda appealed to the Second Lateran Council in Rome for recognition of her right to the English throne, but the Church declined to rule on her case and continued to acknowledge Stephen as king. Supported by her half-brother, Earl Robert of Gloucester, Matilda invaded England in 1139. During the next two years the combatants sparred indecisively, but on Feb. 2, 1141, Matilda's forces routed Stephen's army at Lincoln and took the king himself prisoner. The empress traveled to London to arrange her coronation, but a violent uprising of the citizens forced her to flee to Oxford in June. The sources are vague about the causes of the rebellion, accusing the empress of haughtiness and excessive pride, of demanding money from the Londoners and of failing to listen to the advice of her chief magnates. However, it is more likely that the rebellion was instigated by Stephen's wife, Matilda of Boulogne, who kept the royal cause alive while her husband was imprisoned.

While the Empress Matilda's forces besieged the city of Winchester, a royalist army led by the queen surprised the attackers and captured Robert of Gloucester. Matilda agreed to exchange King Stephen for her chief adviser and military commander, which returned the situation to what it had been before the battle of Lincoln. Afterwards, Matilda's fortunes declined rapidly. In December 1142 she was forced to escape from Oxford by having herself lowered from the castle tower by ropes, and to walk through the snow to Abingdon. She remained in England for six more years, but from that time forward, neither party succeeded in making any inroads into the territory of the other.

In the meantime, Geoffrey of Anjou had fared better, capturing the city of Rouen and becoming duke of Normandy in 1144. Matilda returned to the continent in 1148 and settled at Rouen, where she remained for the rest of her life. Her son, Henry, succeeded peacefully to the English throne in 1154 following Stephen's death. Matilda assisted her son in ruling Normandy for the rest of her life, frequently acting as regent when his duties took him to other parts of his vast empire. She died on Sept. 10, 1167 and was buried at the abbey of Bec.

Bibliography: m. chibnall, The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis, v. 6 (Oxford 1978); The Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the English (Oxford 1991). k.r. potter, Gesta Stephani (Oxford 1976). e. king and k. r. potter, William of Malmesbury: The Historia Novella (Oxford 1998). e. king, The Anarchy of Stephen's Reign (Oxford 1994).

[j. truax]

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Matilda, Empress

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