My first introduction to medieval monarchy in England came in the form of an omnibus history book I had found on the bargin rack at a Barnes & Noble many years ago. Needless to say, I haven’t had that book for many years now (though I do admit, there are still times I wish I had it, or could find an additional copy – no luck though, the one I bought was the only copy I’ve ever seen), but I do remember that it touched not only on those kings and queens who are accepted to have ruled, but those whose rule has been disputed for lack of historical evidence (along the likes of the mythical King Arthur) as well as those who never quite consolidated power.
Somehow in the earlier rush (perhaps because I was focusing solely on their connections with William Marshal), I never got to one of those rulers: Matilda, daughter of Henry I and mother of Henry II, and Stephen’s rival in the Anarchy. That shall be remedied here, at least in part.
Matilda of England, (1102 – 1167) House of Normandy
“After a few days had elapsed, the empress Matilda, daughter of king Henry, came into England, and excited the compunction of many of the nobility, when they remembered the oath of succession which they had formerly taken to her; while others, from their own feelings, had little dread at opposing king Stephen. Thus was the kingdom divided, some favoring and assisting the king, others the empress; and the divine saying was fulfilled ‘Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation.'”
– William of Newburgh, Historia rerum Anglicarum
Modern biographer Edmund King calls the reign of Stephen in part “…a story of Matildas”, and this is indeed an apt description. His wife was Matilda of Bolougne, and she would in fact come to play a vital role in her husband’s kingship, helping to sustain it through its darkest period. But this was not the Matilda that loomed largest over Stephen of Blois. That distinction would go to his cousin, the daughter of King Henry I, with whom his tenuous reign is associated more than anybody else.
And yet, even with that connection, Stephen often gets a mention, while Matilda often is left with simply a footnote in his entries. Why is that, if she did play such a defining role? Simple. At the apex of her power, she had been poised to take the throne: heir to her father, declared Domina Anglorum, and mother to the male descendant that Henry I had so coveted – and yet, she was still a woman in a time when women in power aroused suspicion and unease. Also, her second husband was the Count of Anjou, a member of a family that was loathed by many of the Norman barons – their unease was as much due to him as it was to her. Because of these things, it was relatively easy and acceptable f0r another male relative – Henry I’s nephew, Stephen of Blois, to claim the throne.
No medieval woman was ever raised to rule in her own right. Matilda had been born in 1102, and her birth had been followed some eighteen months later by that of a son and heir, William Adelin – which meant that as a daughter in a world of male inheritance, she was now little more than a bargaining chip to cement an alliance. That alliance turned out to be with Heinrich V, king of Germany, to whom she was sent in 1110. By the time that Matilda was considered old enough to complete the marriage, in 1114, her husband had also been crowned as the Holy Roman Emperor.
Though she was sixteen years his junior and unable to provide him with an heir, the union was apparently a happy one for both of them. As ruler of a large territory, her husband could not possibly be everywhere at once, and (at least for a few years) allowed Matilda to act as his regent in Italy (a women ruling as regent for a husband, unlike one ruing in her own right, was not frowned upon). Curiously (for the times), she was not blamed for the lack of an heir, and she eventually came to regard Germany, not England, as her homeland. Thus, it was with reluctance that she obeyed her father’s summons to return to England after the death of the emperor in 1125.
Matilda had been called back because her father was facing a dilemma. Though he had many children (two dozen, if not more), only two of them were (known to be) legitimate: William Adelin and Matilda. Thus when the White Ship sank in the bay of Barfleur, Normandy in 1120, killing William and all others aboard, the king was left without a direct heir. He had quickly remarried, yet had no children by his second wife. Thus it was in January 1127 that Henry had the barons of England and Normandy (including the Count of Mortain, Stephen of Blois) swear an oath of allegiance to Matilda as his heir. In an attempt to provide himself with male descendants, he also married Matilda to the Geoffrey le Bel, the young son of Count Fulk V of Anjou. Fulk’s daughter (another Matilda) had been married to William Adelin, but the prince’s death had caused that brief alliance to falter.
It was a mismatch by many standards: Geoffrey was eleven years younger than her. He was (at that point) far below her perceived station: the son of a mere count, betrothed to a dowager empress and royal heir. Regardless of reasoning, it’s known that the marriage started badly and got worse from there. Regardless of their personal chemistry, they did exactly what was expected of them: Henry, his grandfather’s namesake, was born in 1133, with a second son, Geoffrey, born the next year. A third son, William, would be born in 1136, but Henry I would not live to meet him.
The king died on 1 December 1135, and from there it became a race. Word traveled slowly to Anjou, and Matilda was pregnant. Because of this, Stephen was able to rush to England, where with the help of his younger brother, Bishop Henry of Winchester, was crowned a mere three weeks after his uncle’s death. As mentioned earlier, he had sworn an oath of loyalty to the empress – how could he possibly discard that and claim the throne? Quite easily, as it turned out:
“When, therefore, as already said, king Henry died, Stephen, violating the oath, which he had sworn to king Henry’s daughter, of preserving his fidelity, seized upon the kingdom; and in this he was aided by the prelates and nobles who were bound by the same oath: William, archbishop of Canterbury, who had sworn first, then consecrated him king, with the help and assistance of Roger, bishop of Salisbury, who was the second who had sworn, and had, moreover, administered the oath to every other individual. The archbishop, however, died in the very year of his apostasy, as a just punishment for his perjury, as it is believed. The bishop, too, ended his life, some years after, by a miserable death, the king himself becoming the minister of God’s vengeance against him, as will be more fully detailed in its place.”
– William of Newburgh
Bishop Henry and his Church compatriots decreed that the oaths given to Matilda had been given under duress, rendering them invalid. Stephen had the support of the Church, many of the barons, and the people of London, and was readily accepted as King of England and Duke of Normandy by almost everyone – save for Matilda and Geoffrey of Anjou. They contested Stephen’s claim by arms, and through a series of invasions (aided in part by William X, Duke of Aquitaine) slowly made inroads in Normandy – by 1144, Geoffrey held Rouen and was de facto Duke of Normandy, effectively splitting many of the barons who held lands on both sides of the Channel.
They weren’t resting in England either, though. Robert Fitz Roy, Earl of Gloucester (the half-brother of Matilda, he was eldest of all of Henry I’s children), had defected to the empress’s cause in 1138, and by 1141, she had gathered many disgruntled nobles to her cause. Battle was forced at Lincoln on 2 February 1141, and by the end of the day Stephen was a prisoner of Earl Robert. Now, more than six years after the death of her father, Matilda finally stood on the cusp of her inheritance. A council of clergy met in Winchester after Easter and named Matilda Domina Anglorum – Lady of the English (at the time, the word “queen”, regina, had no connotation other than the wife of a king).
At this point, she had it all ready for the taking. And yet, it was squandered. Her handling of the citizens of London was rather heavy-handed – they had been fervent supporters of her rival, and because of this, she wasn’t too interested in being particularly forgiving, and the people of London closed the city gates to her, effectively preventing her coronation. The other Matilda, Stephen’s wife, had been biding her time, and thereafter quickly turned the empress’s siege of the wavering bishop of Winchester’s castle into a siege of the city of Winchester.
It had all reversed so fast. Blocked from London, from her crown, and trapped in a besieged city, she might’ve thought it couldn’t get worse. And yet, it did: her forces broke out of Winchester, but Earl Robert was captured in the rout. Her best chance at claiming her inheritance was now gone: Robert was exchanged for Stephen around Christmas, and Matilda never again came close to the crown of England.
Though she lost supporters over the next few years – most notably with the death of Earl Robert in 1147 – the situation had deteriorated into a stalemate, with the civil war between Matilda and Stephen eclipsed by the barons rising against the king (not necessarily in support of the empress) and each other. With the death of her half brother, Matilda retired to Normandy. She had apparently conceded her own claim to the throne, but she would keep on fighting for the sake of her son, Henry. In a stunning turn of events, Geoffrey relinquished the duchy of Normandy to his seventeen year old son in 1150, and his death the next year meant that Henry now held both Anjou and Normandy.
The civil war between Stephen and Matilda had morphed from one over a crown to one over successors. Stephen’s eldest son, Eustace, had been given the county of Bolougne in 1147, and while his father might have been increasingly unwilling to continue such a costly civil war, he was ready to protect what he saw as his full inheritance. Six years the elder of Henry, he had been groomed for the throne from a young age, and strongly resisted any attempts at peace, going as far as to rampage through the English countryside during a supposed truce – his subsequent death was seen by many to be the wrath of God.
He had won the war against Matilda, but it was looking grim for Stephen. Henry’s hand, already holding Anjou and Normandy, was strengthened by his marriage to the recently divorced Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152, which brought Aquitaine and Poitou under his control. Clearly the rising power of the two, he had invaded England, intent on pressing his claim – only to be checked when the barons, tired of civil war, forced Stephen and Henry to come to a truce. The subsequent Treaty of Winchester finally brought an end to years of civil war. Matilda had lost the battle, but won the war: Stephen was finally the undisputed King of England – but it would be her son Henry, not Stephen’s son William, who would succeed him.
As it so happened, Stephen lived for less than a year after the treaty, dying in October of 1154. A longer life for the king might have caused the peace to fracture once more, but as it was, Henry moved quickly to consolidate power. He had finally achieved what his mother had set out to do nearly twenty years before. Matilda herself outlived her rival by thirteen years, dying in Rouen in 1167. For a woman who had played so large a part in the politics of Europe for more than five decades, her epitaph was simple enough:
“Great by Birth, Greater by Marriage, Greatest in her Offspring: Here lies Matilda, the daughter, wife, and mother of Henry.”
Because she was never officially coronated, she is excluded from many lists of English monarchs (though such a practice would also exclude Lady Jane Grey, whose name is present in almost any list of English monarchs), a practice which I for one do not agree with. Coronated or not, she was acknowledged as the ruler of England – if not as the heir of Henry I, then at least for the duration of Stephen’s captivity in 1141. That is universally accepted – and in my eyes, enough to make her eligible for inclusion on the regnal lists of England. She was the last of the Norman rulers of England, and it was through her that the next dynasty was connected to the Conqueror. Stephen has his place among the kings and queens of England, and Matilda should, too.