Matilda, Empress (1102–1167)

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Matilda, Empress (1102–1167)

Daughter and heir of King Henry I of England, who waged a 15-year civil war to establish her right to rule the kingdom of England and the duchy of Normandy . Name variations: Aaliz, Aethelic, or Adela; Lady of England; Empress Maud, Mathilda or Matilda of England; Matilda Augustus of England; Mold. Born Matilda Alice on February 7, 1102, in Winchester, Hampshire, England; died at Rouen, duchy of Normandy, France, on September 10, 1167; daughter of Henry I (1068–1135), king of England (r. 1100–1135), and Queen Matilda of Scotland (1080–1118); married Henry V (1081–1125), Holy Roman emperor (r. 1106–1125), on January 7, 1114 (d. 1125); married Count Geoffrey of Anjou, on June 17, 1128; children: (second marriage) Henry II, king of England (r. 1154–1189, who married Eleanor of Aquitaine); Geoffrey de Gatinais (Geoffrey IV of Anjou), count of Nantes (r. 1134–1157); William de Gatinais, count of Poitou (r. 1136–1164).

Betrothed to Henry V, Holy Roman emperor (1109); widowed (1126); recognized as her father's heir (1126); allied with the house of Anjou through marriage to Geoffrey Plantagenet (1128); barons swore fealty to her a second time as her father's heir (1131); gave birth to future King Henry II of England (1133); fealty sworn to her a third time after birth of second son (1134); began struggle to secure holdings in Normandy after death of her father (1135); failed in appeal to Second Lateran Council to recognize her right to the English throne (1139); waged war against Stephen of Blois for English throne (1139–54); returned to Normandy, where she frequently acted as regent for her son (1148).

The exalted ancestry of the daughter born to King Henry I of England and Queen Matilda of Scotland assured that she would play a commanding role in the history of her time. Henry was the third son of William the Conqueror, who led the Normans in their takeover of England in 1066, while Matilda of Scotland was the daughter of King Malcolm III of Scotland and descended on her mother's side from Edmund Ironside, making their union a consolidation of the conquering dynasty with the Anglo-Saxon ruling house. In the political climate of the time that made heritage an important consideration in Henry's selection of a mate, it had also been virtually inevitable that the validity of the marriage would be questioned, since Matilda of Scotland had lived for a time at Romsey abbey, with her aunt Christina . The marriage had not received the blessing of Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury until a church council met, in 1100, to accept the word of Matilda of Scotland that she had never taken religious vows.

On February 7, 1102, the marriage produced a daughter, Matilda; the following year, her brother William was born and declared heir to the throne. Nothing is known of Matilda's early life or education, except that her mother was said to have kept a pious and learned court. In another political alliance through marriage, Matilda was betrothed, at age seven, to Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, who was then about 23. In February 1110, Matilda left England in an entourage destined for the court in Germany of her husband-to-be. According to one chronicler, the emperor sent her escort home at once in order to keep them from profiting from the position of their mistress, but it is more likely that he wanted to separate the child from English influences so that she would be quicker to learn the language and customs of her new homeland. On July 25, 1110, the young Matilda was crowned queen of the Romans at Mainz, then left in the care of Archbishop Bruno of Trier while her husband proceeded to Rome for his imperial coronation. In January 1114, before she turned 12, Matilda was formally married to Henry V.

From the time of her arrival in Germany, Matilda was firmly linked with her husband in the governing of his far-flung empire. Her name appears frequently in the records as both intercessor and co-sponsor of royal grants; she traveled with Henry to Italy to claim the lands he inherited from Countess Matilda of Tuscany , and in 1117 she was crowned in St. Peter's Basilica by the Archbishop of Braga. When the emperor returned to Germany to deal with a rebellion, he left Matilda as regent of his newly acquired Italian lands, where she governed and often presided independently over courts of law. In 1119, she rejoined her husband in Lotharingia, and remained there as regent when Henry left to deal with another rebellion in Saxony.

On May 23, 1125, after entrusting the imperial insignia to his young wife on his deathbed, Emperor Henry V died of stomach cancer. If the empress had had a son, she might have remained in Germany as regent for the child, but as a childless widow at age 23, she lacked the power base to hold the throne. The insignia was turned over to the archbishop of Mainz for him to conduct the imperial election, and she returned to England in September 1126. Her departure was apparently regretted by the Germans, and chroniclers in later years reported that princes from Lorraine and Lombardy came to England to ask Matilda to be their sovereign.

In England, Matilda found her father's realm in the midst of a deepening succession crisis. Her brothers William and Richard had perished in a shipwreck in December 1120, leaving Henry I without an obvious heir and under pressure from his barons to recognize William Clito, the son of Robert II Curthose, his older brother and bitter enemy, to succeed him. At his Christmas court in 1126, King Henry instead took the unprecedented step of naming Matilda as his heir, and required that all his barons swear a solemn oath in support of his daughter's succession to the rule of the two great regions under his domain, the kingdom of England and the duchy of Normandy. According to contemporary chronicles, there was no immediate protest, and there even seems to have been a quarrel between Matilda's illegitimate half-brother Robert of Gloucester and her cousin Stephen of Blois, the son of William the Conqueror's daughter Adela of Blois (1062–1137) and Stephen Henry, count of Blois, over who would be first to swear allegiance to the newly declared heir.

In May 1127, King Henry betrothed Matilda to Geoffrey Plantagenet, the son of Count Fulk of Anjou. The move was probably met with consternation by the Anglo-Norman barons, since the Angevins had always been enemies of the dukes of Normandy. For Henry, the issue at stake was more to secure his borders against a traditional enemy than to provide an acceptable future ruler; he may have hoped that his second wife, Adelicia of Louvain , would produce a male heir. At the time of Matilda's marriage on June 17, 1128, Geoffrey was a youth of 16, ten years her junior, and neither found the match compatible. The following summer, Matilda returned to her father in Normandy, where she remained for two years. In September 1131, the barons swore fealty to her a second time as Henry's heir before she returned to her husband in Anjou.

In March 1133, Matilda gave birth to the couple's first son, the future Henry II of England. A second son, Geoffrey, was born the following spring, and Matilda was seriously ill after this birth. When she recovered, the barons swore a third oath in support of her right to the royal succession. Then a quarrel with Henry I ensued, after Matilda and Geoffrey demanded that the castles on the border between Normandy and Anjou be put under their rule. On December 1, 1135, the king suddenly died, still estranged from his daughter.

Matilda of Scotland (1080–1118)

Queen of England . Name variations: Matilda Dunkeld; Mahalde; Edith Matilda of England, Maud; Good Queen Molde. Born Edith Matilda in 1080; died in Westminster, London, England, on May 1, 1118; buried in Westminster Abbey; daughter of Malcolm III, king of the Scots (r. 1057–1093), and St. Margaret (c. 1046–1093); became first queen of Henry I (1068–1135), king of England (r. 1100–1135), on November 11, 1100 (his second wife was Adelicia of Louvain , 1103–1151); children: Euphemia (b. 1101, died in infancy); Empress Matilda (1102–1167); William Atheling (1103–1120), duke of Normandy; Richard (d. 1120).

The couple moved quickly to secure their inheritance in Normandy. Matilda immediately went to take possession of the border castles that had been part of her dowry, at Exmes, Domfront, and Argentan, where the castles surrendered to her. Geoffrey was on his way to join her when he was forced to turn back because of a rebellion in Anjou. In September 1136, the Angevins besieged the castle at Le Sap, and Geoffrey was wounded. Matilda brought additional forces to his rescue, but the expedition eventually had to turn back, because of Geoffrey's wound and an outbreak of dysentery among the troops.

While Matilda and Geoffrey concentrated on securing their continental inheritance, Matilda's cousin Stephen of Blois rushed to take possession of the English throne. According to the contemporary document Gesta Stephani, Stephen of Blois was the ruler preferred by the English barons, who considered him the only one strong enough to put down the disorders that gripped the country after the death of King Henry. The archbishop of Canterbury, William of Corbeil, was at first unwilling to crown Stephen of Blois because of the oaths he and others had sworn to Matilda. Stephen of Blois and his supporters persuaded the prelate that the oath had been taken under duress, and that, on his deathbed, the king had repented exacting the oath. Stephen of Blois' coronation took place on December 22, 1135.

Never have I read of another woman so luckily rescued from so many mortal foes and from the threat of dangers so great.

Gesta Stephani

In the first years of his reign, Stephen of Blois struggled to consolidate his power against rebellions in the West Country and Wales, as well as an invasion from the north by King David I of Scotland. By 1137, he had secured his English possessions enough to mount a military campaign against Matilda and Geoffrey in Normandy. His son Eustace did homage to King Louis VI of France for his support of their invasion of the duchy, but Stephen then abandoned the campaign in order to return to England to quell rebellious barons.

It may have been Stephen of Blois' ineffectual leadership that caused Robert of Gloucester to ally himself with Matilda after the failed invasion; certainly the alliance was an important one for the Angevins, giving them possession of two strategic castles on the mainland, at Bayeux and Caen. In 1139, Matilda also appealed to the Second Lateran Council for recognition of her right to the English throne. In the document known as Historia Pontificalis, John of Salisbury argued the points of King Stephen of Blois' case: Matilda was illegitimate because her mother had been a nun at Romsey abbey; the oath sworn in her support had been exacted under duress; the oath had been conditional and enforceable only in the event that Henry chose no other heir, and Henry had actually changed his mind and named Stephen of Blois on his deathbed. Matilda's representative was Bishop Ulger of Angers, who declared the charge of illegitimacy ridiculous since the marriage of her parents had been blessed by the saintly Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury; he also pointed out that Hugh Bigod, the man who had testified that Henry had made Stephen of Blois his heir, had not in fact been present at Henry's death. Settlement of the case was up to the pope, who declined to render a definite decision but demonstrated his preference by continuing to receive letters and gifts from Stephen of Blois and to recognize him as king.

In June 1139, King Stephen of Blois made a serious mistake by arresting three bishops, Roger of Salisbury, Alexander of Lincoln and Nigel of Ely, and forcing them to relinquish their castles. The powerful English Church, including even Stephen of Blois' own brother Henry, bishop of Winchester, was deeply alienated by the move. Matilda seized the opportunity to travel with Robert of Gloucester to England, where she was received by her stepmother, Adelicia of Louvain, at Arundel Castle. When Stephen of Blois laid siege to the castle, Adelicia persuaded him to grant Matilda safe passage to join Gloucester in Bristol.

The next two years were spent in a war comprised mainly of sieges, during which many English barons repeatedly switched their allegiance from one side to the other as self-interest dictated. In December 1140, Ranulf of Chester and William of Roumare sent their wives on a friendly visit to the wife of the castellan (governor) of Lincoln castle. At the end of the visit, Ranulf and William arrived with a small force to escort the women home, then suddenly produced weapons and subdued the castle guards. Stephen of Blois rushed to the scene, followed by Matilda and her forces, who routed the king's army and took him prisoner on February 2, 1141.

On March 3, Matilda was ceremoniously received at Winchester Cathedral by its bishop, Henry, the brother of and only remaining leader in Stephen of Blois' government, and the most powerful figure in the English Church. A church council under his leadership soon agreed to accept Matilda as queen, and she set off with her followers for London. Scholars disagree about what Matilda intended to happen there—most believe she meant to be crowned queen herself, but some think she planned to rule as regent for her son. Surviving charters describe her granting rewards and honors to her followers in documents in which she is referred to as "Lady of the English," a title she might have used either as regent or as an intermediate designation prior to her coronation. In any case, the ceremonies planned for London never occurred, because a violent uprising on June 24, 1141, forced Matilda to flee to Oxford. 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 follow the advice of her chief subjects, but it was probably instigated by Stephen of Blois' wife, Matilda of Boulogne , who was popular with the Londoners and had kept her husband's cause alive since his imprisonment. On the eve of the rebellion, Matilda of Boulogne appeared just outside London with William of Ypres, the commander of Stephen of Blois' Flemish mercenaries, and a large body of troops, in a show of force that apparently inspired the expulsion of the former empress from London.

Faced with this setback, Henry of Winchester began to waver in his support of Empress Matilda. After she refused to grant possession of Stephen of Blois' ancestral lands to Stephen's son Eustace, the bishop left her court for Winchester, and in early August Matilda laid siege to Winchester. Stephen of Blois' forces, commanded by his queen and William of Ypres, laid siege to the besiegers; Matilda escaped, but Gloucester, her military commander and chief advisor, was captured. Faced with this disastrous loss, Matilda agreed to exchange the imprisoned King Stephen of Blois for her loyal half-brother, and the political situation was back to what it had been before the battle of Lincoln.

The exchange of prisoners took place on November 3, 1141, and Matilda's political fortunes subsequently went into decline. In December 1142, she was forced to escape from Oxford and walk through snow to Abingdon while camouflaged in a white cloak; according to The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, she had been lowered from the castle tower by ropes. For six years she remained headquartered at the great castle at Devizes, controlled by Robert of Gloucester, in the heart of the West Country around Bristol. The domain allowed her some power to reward loyal followers and entice a few barons disenchanted with Stephen of Blois, but generally the two sides had reached a stalemate. In June 1148, Bishop Jocelyn of Salisbury obtained a papal mandate returning the castle at Devizes to him, on the grounds that it had been unlawfully taken from his predecessor in 1139, forcing Matilda to leave.

Returning to Normandy, Matilda settled at Rouen, which was under the strong control of her husband Geoffrey and their son Henry. After her success at Lincoln, Geoffrey had stepped up attacks on the barons with holdings in Normandy, many of whom had assumed Stephen of Blois' rule to be ended and tried to safeguard their possessions on that side of the Channel by surrendering to the count of Anjou. Since his capture of Rouen in January 1144, Geoffrey had been using the title duke of Normandy, and in 1151, a few months before his sudden death, Geoffrey turned rule of the duchy over to his son Henry.

The new duke spent two years subduing rebels against his claims to Normandy and Anjou. In 1153, he invaded England, where Stephen of Blois had apparently lost the will to fight following the recent death of his son Eustace. Stephen of Blois agreed to the Treaty of Winchester, which allowed him to remain king for his lifetime but named Matilda's son Henry as his heir. In 1154, Stephen of Blois died, and King Henry II succeeded peacefully to the English throne.

During the early years of her son's reign, Matilda lived in Normandy, usually at Rouen, where she interested herself in the affairs of the city and contributed money for the construction of a stone bridge called the "Pont Mathilde," which survived until the 16th century. She was a great patron of religious foundations in Normandy, particularly of the abbey of Bec, and when Henry's duties took him elsewhere she acted as regent in Normandy and heard court cases. Her influence was vital to his success in governing his vast empire, which encompassed England, Normandy, and Anjou. When King Louis VII of France, angered by Henry's marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine , stood ready to invade Normandy at the first sign of unrest within its borders, Matilda helped to maintain the region's stability.

Henry II often relied upon his mother's wisdom, but he ignored her advice in one crucial matter. Matilda warned against his appointment of his friend the chancellor Thomas Becket as archbishop of Canterbury. In the early stages of their struggle, both Henry and Becket sought Matilda's support, each asking her to help negotiate with the other. Matilda stood up for her son, although she preferred the guidance of unwritten custom to Henry's attempts to delimit the rights and responsibilities of the Church in the Constitutions of Clarendon. She died on September 10, 1167, and thus did not witness the tragic outcome of the struggle between the king and his stubborn archbishop in 1170.

Although the rule of England by a woman in her own name had to wait for her descendant Elizabeth I four centuries later, Empress Matilda was no stranger to the exercise of power. As wife of Henry V, she often acted independently at a very young age, administering parts of the Holy Roman Empire on his behalf, and her failed quest for the English crown allowed her son's peaceful ascent to the throne. Two lines from the inscription on her tomb, in the abbey church at Bec, fittingly sum up her long and dramatic career:

Great by birth, greater by marriage, greatest in her offspring,
Here lies the daughter, wife and mother of Henry.


The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Edited and translated by G. N. Garmonsway. London: J.M. Dent, 1986, p. 267.

Chibnall, Marjorie. The Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the English. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1991.

Gesta Stephani. Edited and translated by Kenneth R. Potter. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1976, pp. 2–6, 144.

John of Salisbury. Historia Pontificalis. Edited and translated by Marjorie Chibnall. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986, pp. 83–85.

suggested reading:

Davis, R.H.C. King Stephen, 1135–1154. 3rd ed. London: Longman, 1990.

Leyser, Karl J. "The Anglo-Norman Succession 1120–1125," in Anglo-Norman Studies. Vol. 13, 1990, pp. 225–241.

Jean A. Truax , Ph.D. in medieval history, University of Houston, Houston, Texas

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Matilda, Empress (1102–1167)

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