Matilda “Empress of Germany” of ENGLAND (1102 – 1167)

47 Generations of Family History

Generation 28

Matilda “Empress of Germany” of ENGLAND (1102 – 1167)

Holy Roman Empress

German Queen

Queen of Italy

Empress_Mathilda

Portrait of Empress Mathilda, from “History of England” by St. Albans monks (15th century); Cotton Nero D. VII, f.7, British Library

Facts

Name: Empress Matilda

Birth: 7th February 1102
Place of Birth: Sutton Courtnay, Nr Abingdon, Oxfordshire, England

Father: Henry I of England
Mother: Matilda of Scotland

Spouse(s):
Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor (m. 1114; d. 1125)
Geoffrey V, Count of Anjou (m. 1128; d. 1151)

Issue:
Henry II of England;
Geoffrey, Count of Nantes;
William FitzEmpress

Titles:
Lady of the English
Queen consort of the Romans
Empress consort of the Holy Roman Empire

Death: 10th September 1167,
Place of Death: Abbey of Notre Dame des Prés, Rouen, France
Place of Burial: Rouen Cathedral, France

House: House of Normandy

Heraldry: Blason du duché de Normandie

Blason_duche_fr_Normandie.svg

Blason du duché de Normandie

My Family Connection: 27th Great Grandmother

Biography

Matilda was the first queen of England, though she was never crowned. The story of Matilda (sometimes known as Maud) is the story of how a remarkable woman, one who could never quite become the great ruler she was destined to be during the time in which she lived.

Daughter of Henry I and granddaughter of William the Conqueror, on her mother’s side Matilda was the grandchild of Malcolm III of Scots and St Margaret of Scotland, who was descended from the Anglo-Saxon kings of England.

Had she become monarch, Matilda’s unique hereditary and forcefulness of character should have enabled her to unite the various factions of the developing Anglo-Norman society, the wider British Isles and perhaps even Europe. It was never to be, but her legacy is profound.

Early life & family

At the age of eight, Matilda was escorted to Liège to meet her husband-to-be, the Holy Roman Emperor and King of Germany, Henry V. Perhaps it is useful to think of Henry as Heinrich V to avoid confusing him with the English king Henry’s who abound through history.

The Emperor’s reign was characterised by bitter disputes with the papacy and with rebel groups throughout Germany. Because of this, he would become reliant on his wife to maintain order when he was away.

The couple were married for 11 years but had no children. Heinrich died in 1125 when Matilda was just 23. Matilda’s Germanic adventure had already equipped her with sufficient regal aplomb for what was to come.

The White Ship disaster

Sometimes dubbed the “Titanic of its age” [1], the sinking of the White Ship in 1120 changed the course of mediaeval history. Built for speed and skippered by the son of the captain of the ship on which William the Conqueror invaded England, the vessel was the marvel of its time.

Loaded with 150 individuals from the leading Norman families, the ship also contained William, heir to the throne. Tales tell that much wine had been drunk before the White Ship set sail and shortly after its launch, it struck a submerged rock.

William was spirited onto a small dinghy – the only one on the ship – but hearing the cries of his half-sister Marie who was still onboard, the prince ordered the boat be turned back to rescue her. It was a brave but fateful decision as other desperate souls tried to get on and the dinghy was overcome by the sea. Only two people who had survived.

It is said that having learned the fate of his only surviving legitimate son and heir, Henry I never smiled again [2]. And with good reason perhaps. His only other legitimate issue was his daughter Matilda and Henry set about trying to ensure she would succeed him on the throne.

The Anarchy

What actually ensued was a protracted period of unrest known as ‘The Anarchy’. Henry I forced his nobles to swear an oath to support Matilda’s claim. Once he passed away they quickly forswore their promises and a whole boatload of trouble, which had been set in motion by the sinking of the White Ship, ensued.

Stephen of Blois hurried to claim the throne. Matilda made no immediate move and in something of a “first come first served” manoeuvre, Stephen was crowned in 1135. Stephen had intended to sail on the White Ship, but a fateful bout of dysentery prevented him from boarding [3].

Though he lasted 19 years as king, the period was filled with anarchy and civil war. Saved from certain death by a dose of diarrhoea, you can insert your own punchline to describe how Stephen’s reign ended up.

Matilda had been married off to the Count of Anjou by this time. She was 25 and he 14. Their marriage was a tempestuous one. Both were prone to violent rages, but they did manage three sons, the eldest of whom would become Henry II.

Four years after the death of her father, and leaving her husband firmly behind, Matilda set off for England to press her own claim to the English throne. Years of fighting ensued as forces loyal to both Stephen and Matilda sought to establish superiority.

The queen who never was

In 1141 it seemed the “Lady of the English” – as she now styled herself – would finally achieve her ambition. After her forces captured Stephen, Matilda installed herself in London. Gaining access to the royal treasury, Matilda prepared for her coronation.

Just a few months later, the nobles of London turned against the queen-in-waiting. There remained a deep distrust towards the intended monarch [4] and the city rose up against Matilda and her supporters. She would never be crowned. There had been Anglo-Saxon queens of England but perhaps the new Norman society was not yet ready for a female monarch.

Matilda was forced to flee London and made for Oxford where she was besieged. The tale of her escape is a romantic one. Matilda eluded her would-be captors by draping herself in a white cloak to camouflage against the heavy snowfall and made her way past the enemy lines.

Later years & legacy

Matilda returned to Normandy and lived out her days ruling the duchy while advising her son Henry on pursuing his own claim to be king of England. Eventually, Henry would be successful and ascend to the throne which had eluded his mother.

Her pragmatism at securing the succession of her son at the expense of her own hopes to become queen would be Matilda’s lasting legacy [5]. Matilda died on 11th September 1167.

Some consider that Matilda’s enduring place in history is best noted by the inscription on her tomb – “Great by birth, greater by marriage, greatest in her offspring – here lies the daughter, wife and mother of Henry”.

Somehow, that representation of this most impressive of woman seems to underestimate her achievements. For Matilda truly was every bit the force her father (Henry), husband (Henry/Heinrich) and son (Henry) had been and would become.

It would be another 400 years before England would see another female monarch. Matilda, the grandmother of all.

English queens would surely have been fiercely proud of those who would follow.


Sources:

[1] Lacey, R., 2004. Great Tales from English History: The Truth about King Arthur, Lady Godiva, Richard the Lionheart, and More, Vol. 1. Hachette Book Group. ISBN 9780316109109.

[2] E. H. Marshall. 2006. Our Island Story. Yesterday’s Classics. ISBN 1599150093.

[3] Bradbury, Jim. (2009) Stephen and Matilda: The Civil War of 1139–53. Stroud, UK: The History Press. ISBN 978-0-7509-3793-1.

[4] Chibnall, Marjorie (1991), The Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the English, London, UK: Basil Blackwell, ISBN 0-631-15737-9.

[5] Castor, H., 2011. She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth. Faber & Faber, ISBN 9780571237067.

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