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Empress Matilda

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Empress Matilda | Eleanor of Aquitaine | Marie de Guise | Marie de Medici | Margaret of York | Elizabeth of York | Queen Anne | Victoria's Children and their Marriages | Mary of Teck | Joanna the Maid of Castille.

Matilda (or Maud) was the only legitimate daughter of Henry I and his wife Matilda of Scotland. She was born in the ancient English capital of Winchester around 11031 and may have been a twin of William 'the Atheling' who was to become Duke of Normandy.


While Matilda was still a child, her father organised a grand wedding for her to Emperor Heinrich V, who was more than 20 years older than her. It was a dynastic match as it linked England and Normandy with the Germans in a powerful alliance. The ceremony took part in January 1114 when Matilda was just eleven; Heinrich died in 1125 leaving Matilda a childless widow. She returned to England as her father's only legitimate heir2.

Heiress Presumptive and the Battle for the Crown

When Matilda arrived in England, her father named her his heir and made all the barons make a pledge of fealty3 to her; this included her cousin Stephen of Blois. She married a second time to Geoffrey V Plantagenet, the comparatively lowly Count of Anjou; Matilda, more than 10 years his senior, would maintain the title Empress. It was a match made not for love but for procreation, to create an heir and continue the line. She went reluctantly to the ceremony and the bedchamber, though the marriage did produce three sons, Henry (the future King Henry II), Geoffrey and William.

Another pledge of fealty was made on the birth of Henry in March 1133. The young Prince was hardly walking when his grandfather, Henry I, died in December 1135. Matilda's cousin, Stephen, immediately left Boulogne for London, where he gained the support of the citizens and claimed that the King, his uncle, had named him his chosen successor on his deathbed. Matilda of course protested at once. However, with the diverse nature of the Norman and Plantagenet lands, she was still not in England when, on St. Stephen's day December 26, the new King was crowned at Westminster Abbey.

Matilda had spent much of her life away in Germany and wasn't a skilled diplomat. Most of the barons chose to ally themselves with the more charismatic male relative of the late King and forgot their pledges to a mere woman. Matilda started to garner up the support she had been promised while her father was alive in an attempt to overthrow Stephen and his illegitimate claim to the throne.

A turning point in the war of allegiances came soon after the coronation at Salisbury. Stephen attacked using a street brawl as a cover and captured the Bishop of Salisbury and two of his sons. Although he seized his target he lost a lot of support, including that of his own brother, Henry, the Bishop of Winchester.

In 1141, Stephen rushed to Lincoln to challenge Ranulf, the Earl of Chester and a supporter of Matilda, who was accused of mistreating the people of Lincoln. On 2 February, battle was joined; easily seeing off the scouts sent out, Stephen then moved his men from the high ground to a marshy plain next to Lincoln to make it a fair fight - an elementary mistake. While all his knights became disillusioned to the point of surrender, Stephen fought on until both his axe and sword had been broken.

The King’s brother, the Bishop of Winchester, turned against him as he was taken to prison in Bristol. He called a legatine council of the church and deposed Stephen and declared Matilda 'Lady of the English'.

Both sides continued the struggle. Stephen's supporters captured Matilda's loyal half-brother Robert, Earl of Gloucester, and an exchange was made for the King.

Matilda kept up her attacks on Stephen, which made his reign ungovernable. Both sides at times held the upper hand and Matilda fled attacks, sometimes by the narrowest of margins; in 1141 she was carried out of Devizes disguised as a corpse to avoid capture and the following year she fled Oxford Castle via a rope and dressed in white to blend in with the snowy landscape.

In 1144, Matilda's husband, Geoffrey, captured Normandy from Stephen's cousin and a few years later Matilda retired there. She was there when Geoffrey died on 7 September, 1151.

Henry Takes up the Cause

Matilda had settled in Normandy but her nobles were still loyal in England. In 1153 her eldest son Henry, now a young man of twenty, took her place and held the support of those loyal to his mother. He crossed to England but the matter of succession was settled without a further battle. The treaty of Westminster was signed which allowed Stephen to remain on the throne for the rest of his life to be succeeded by Henry instead of his own sons.

There were unsubstantiated rumours that Henry was in fact a son of Stephen, not of Geoffrey Plantagenet. However, the treaty resulted in the return of the bloodline which Henry I had originally chosen when, in October 1154, Stephen died.

Though Matilda never became Queen of England as was her right4 she paved the way for the longest rule of Britain by one dynasty. The Plantagenet Age had begun with Henry II. Matilda died on 10 September, 1167, a widow of just over sixteen years, having seen her son firmly established on the English throne.

1Though there is some evidence to suggest she was actually born at Sutton Courtney, and that she could have been born in 1101.2Her brother, William, had died in the shipwreck of the Blanche Nef (White Ship) in 1120.3This is a seriously binding oath of allegiance made to the monarch to honour his chosen heir.4And which no woman would do until 400 years later when Mary succeeded Henry VIII.

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