The Lady of the English: Matilda’s Battle for Her Right

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Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior by Catherine Hanley
Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior by Catherine Hanley

THE LADY OF THE ENGLISH

Early Life and Heritage

Empress Matilda was likely born on February 7, 1102, in Sutton Courtenay, Berkshire, to King Henry I of England and Matilda of Scotland. Her father, Henry, was William the Conqueror’s youngest son, who established an Anglo-Norman realm after the 1066 invasion of England. This conquest forged an elite class with lands across England and Normandy, closely tied to France’s fragmented territories. Matilda’s mother, also named Matilda, hailed from Scottish royalty and the Wessex lineage, tracing back to Alfred the Great. This marriage bolstered King Henry’s rule with greater legitimacy and provided his wife with a prominent position in English society.

Family and Education

Matilda grew up alongside her younger brother, William Adelin, amid a large family that included about 22 half-siblings from her father’s extramarital relationships. Her early years were spent under her mother’s guidance, learning to read and receiving education based on religious principles. Notable figures at the court included her uncle David, who would become the King of Scotland, and other relatives and nobles aiming for influence, like her half-brother Robert of Gloucester and cousin Stephen of Blois.

In 1108, King Henry I entrusted Matilda and William’s care to Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury, a trusted advisor of their mother. While specific details of Matilda’s physical appearance are scarce, she was generally celebrated for her beauty in contemporary accounts, a likely reflection of the era’s chronicling practices rather than precise descriptions.

TIMELINE

February 7, 1102
Depiction of Matilda in the 12th-century Gospels of Henry the Lion
Matilda was born to King Henry I and Matilda of Scotland
January, 1114
Wedding banquet of Henry V. and Matilda of England. (Chronicle of Ekkehard of Aura, Corpus Christi College, Cambridge)
Matilda's marriage to Henry V of Germany
1117
Miniature of Paschal II, 14th century
Matilda crowned empress of the Holy Roman Empire
May 23, 1125
Henry V depicted in a contemporary Gospel Book
Matilda is widowed following the death of Henry V
1120
Henry I and the sinking White Ship
White Ship Disaster - Death of her brother William Adelin
1125
Miniature from Matthew Paris's Historia Anglorum, c. 1253. The portrait is generic and depicts Henry holding the Church of Reading Abbey, where he was buried.
Matilda declared rightful successor of Henry I of England
June 17, 1128
Contemporary depiction of Geoffrey of Anjou, Matilda's second husband
Matilda 's marriage to Geoffrey of Anjou
March, 1133
Contemporary miniature of Henry II from the Topographia Hibernica, c. 1186–1188
Matilda gives birth to the future Henry II
December 1, 1135
13th-century depiction of Henry
King Henry I, Matilda's father dies
December 22, 1135
Stephen of Blois
Stephen of Blois crowned King of England
1139
Political map of Wales and southern England in 1140; areas under Matilda's control (blue); Stephen's (red); Welsh (grey)
Matilda begins invasion of England
February 2, 1141
The Battle of Lincoln in the Historia Anglorum
Battle of Lincoln
1148
12th-century depiction of Matilda's eldest son Henry II and his wife Eleanor holding court
Matilda returns to Normandy
September 10, 1167
15th century portrait of Matilda in the donor list of the Abbey of St Albans
Matilda died in Rouen

MATRIMONIAL ALLIANCE

Depiction of Matilda in the 12th-century Gospels of Henry the Lion

Depiction of Matilda in the 12th-century Gospels of Henry the Lion

Proposal and Negotiations

In the years 1108–1109, Henry V of Germany proposed marriage to Matilda, seeking an alliance with the prestigious English royal family. This union promised mutual benefits: it bolstered the English king’s status and provided Henry V with the necessary dowry for his imperial coronation in Rome. The marriage terms were finalized in 1109, marking Matilda’s introduction to royal duties.

Betrothal and Coronation

Matilda and Henry V met in Liège, proceeding to Utrecht for their official betrothal in April 1110. By July 25, Matilda was crowned German queen in Mainz, despite the significant age difference between the couple. Matilda, at eight years old, was then entrusted to Archbishop Bruno of Trier for education in German culture and governance.

Wedding and Public Role

Their marriage in January 1114 in Worms was celebrated with grandeur, introducing Matilda to her public role in Germany. This period also marked the beginning of political unrest within the empire, leading to Henry’s excommunication by Pope Paschal II.

Rebellion and Excommunication

Following their marriage, Henry’s arrest of Archbishop Adalbert of Mainz incited rebellion and ecclesiastical opposition, culminating in his formal excommunication. The couple’s journey to Italy in 1116 aimed to resolve these disputes, with Matilda actively participating in imperial governance.

Coronation Controversies

In Rome, despite Pope Paschal’s absence, the papal envoy Maurice Bourdin, later known as antipope Gregory VIII, crowned Matilda and Henry. This act was fraught with ambiguity, especially given Bourdin’s excommunication and the nature of the ceremony. Despite these challenges, Matilda claimed the title of Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, leveraging her marriage to solidify her status as Queen of the Romans.

Legitimacy and Recognition

The legitimacy of Matilda’s claim to the imperial title remained uncertain, compounded by the controversy surrounding Bourdin’s status and the nature of the coronation ceremonies. Nonetheless, from 1117 onwards, Matilda was widely recognized and honored as the empress, a title she utilized consistently until her death, supported by chanceries and chroniclers without dispute.

WIDOWHOOD

Henry V depicted in a contemporary Gospel Book

Henry V depicted in a contemporary Gospel Book

Regency in Italy

In 1118, Henry V ventured back to Germany to quell new rebellions, appointing Matilda as his regent in Italy, a role that left few historical records but likely provided her with significant governance experience. By 1119, Matilda rejoined Henry in Lotharingia as he sought a settlement with the Pope, who had excommunicated him. Their participation in the 1122 Council of Worms marked a pivotal moment, as Henry renounced his right to invest bishops, resolving a longstanding dispute with the Church. That same year, Matilda’s attempt to visit England—and possibly discuss her inheritance of the English crown—was thwarted by Charles I of Flanders, blocking her passage.

The Emperor’s Decline and Matilda’s Widowhood

Despite remaining childless, contemporary accounts did not attribute infertility to either Matilda or Henry, instead blaming the emperor’s sins against the Church. By early 1122, as they traveled along the Rhine to suppress political unrest, Henry’s health was failing due to cancer. His death in May 1125 left Matilda under the protection of their nephew Frederick, with the imperial insignia in her possession. The future of the Empire was uncertain, and Archbishop Adalbert persuaded Matilda to entrust him with the insignia for the election of Lothair of Supplinburg as king, a former adversary of Henry.

Matilda’s New Path

At 23, widowhood limited Matilda’s options. Without children, she could not serve as an imperial regent, leaving her with the choice of joining a convent or remarrying. Despite receiving marriage proposals from German princes, Matilda opted to return to Normandy, indicating a final departure from Germany by relinquishing her estates and taking her treasures, including imperial regalia and the relic of the Hand of St. James. This marked a significant transition in her life, setting the stage for her future endeavors back in Normandy.

THE WHITE SHIP TRAGEDY

Henry I and the sinking White Ship

Henry I and the sinking White Ship

The White Ship Disaster of 1120

In the year 1120, a catastrophic event known as the White Ship disaster reshaped the political landscape of England. The White Ship, carrying around three hundred passengers, including the heir to the English throne, William Adelin, and numerous nobles, embarked from Barfleur in Normandy towards England. Tragically, the ship sank just outside the harbor, likely due to overcrowding or the crew’s inebriation, resulting in the deaths of nearly all on board, including William Adelin.

Impact on Succession

William’s untimely death plunged the succession to the English throne into uncertainty. At the time, succession rules in Western Europe were not well-defined. While parts of France leaned towards male primogeniture, where the eldest son inherits all titles, England had no such clarity. The practice of a reigning king crowning his successor to ensure a clear line of succession, common in France, was absent in England. Historians like Professor Eleanor Searle describe the English system as identifying a “pool of legitimate heirs,” who would then vie for the throne after the king’s death. This ambiguity only added to the instability that had characterized Anglo-Norman successions for decades, marked by internal conflicts and contested inheritances.

Henry’s Search for an Heir

In the wake of the disaster, King Henry I sought to secure his lineage by remarrying Adeliza of Louvain after the death of William and Matilda’s mother, Matilda of Scotland, in 1118. However, this union produced no offspring, jeopardizing the dynasty’s future. Henry began considering various relatives as potential heirs, including his nephew Stephen of Blois, for whom he arranged a strategic marriage, and other nephews like Theobald IV of Blois. Yet, the king’s options were limited by political alliances, rebellions, and the unsuitability of candidates like his rebellious nephew, William Clito. The possibility of appointing his illegitimate son, Robert of Gloucester, was also dismissed due to prevailing English customs. The situation took a turn when Empress Matilda’s husband, Emperor Henry V, died in 1125, prompting Henry to reassess his succession plans.

SECOND MARRIAGE

Contemporary depiction of Geoffrey of Anjou, Matilda's second husband

Contemporary depiction of Geoffrey of Anjou, Matilda’s second husband

Maltida Declared Successor

After returning to Normandy in 1125, Matilda spent around a year at her father’s court. King Henry I, lacking a male heir from his second marriage, declared Matilda as his successor, making her the primary candidate for the throne. By Christmas 1126, the Anglo-Norman barons had convened at Westminster, swearing allegiance to Matilda and her future offspring in January.

Negotiating Matilda’s Future

In early 1127, King Henry initiated the search for Matilda’s next husband, considering various European princes. His choice fell on Geoffrey of Anjou, aiming to fortify Normandy’s southern border. This decision was strategic, especially considering the threat from William Clito, supported by the French king, which jeopardized Henry’s control over Normandy.

Matilda’s Reluctance and Acceptance

Matilda was initially hesitant to marry Geoffrey, feeling that such a union would undermine her imperial stature. Geoffrey’s young age, being only 13 compared to her 25, also contributed to her reluctance. However, Archbishop Hildebert of Tours managed to convince her to proceed with the marriage. Matilda consented and was formally betrothed to Geoffrey in Rouen in May 1127, marking the beginning of a strategic alliance.

The Marriage and Its Aftermath

The union was solidified in June 1128 in Le Mans, officiated by the bishops of Le Mans and Séez, shortly before Fulk V of Anjou departed for Jerusalem, leaving Geoffrey in charge of Anjou and Maine. This marriage not only reinstated the alliance between Henry I and Anjou but also positioned Geoffrey and Matilda as significant figures in the region, with Geoffrey being declared the Count of Anjou and Maine following his father’s departure.

MARITAL CHALLENGES

Disputes

The union between Matilda and Geoffrey was marked by mutual dislike and complex disputes. A significant contention was Matilda’s dowry, with unclear terms regarding when the couple would gain control over various Norman castles. The ambiguity of Geoffrey’s potential claims to England and Normandy further strained their relationship, as Henry I maintained Geoffrey’s status in a state of deliberate uncertainty. Shortly after their marriage, Matilda left Geoffrey, returning to Normandy. Despite initial blame placed on Geoffrey by Henry, the couple reconciled in 1131 following a summons for Matilda to return to England, where a decision for her to rejoin Geoffrey was made at the King’s great council.

Births and Succession

In March 1133, Matilda gave birth to her first son, the future Henry II, in Le Mans, bringing joy to Henry I. The following year, she endured a difficult childbirth with their second son, Geoffrey, in Rouen. During this critical time, Matilda clashed with her father over her burial preferences. She survived, and Henry celebrated the birth of his second grandson, possibly securing further oaths of allegiance from his nobility.

Strained Relations and Political Maneuvering

Relations between Matilda and Henry I grew increasingly tense. Matilda and Geoffrey, doubting their support in England, proposed that Henry should transfer control of the Norman royal castles to them and secure immediate Norman allegiance to Matilda. This move, aimed at strengthening their position post-Henry’s death, was met with refusal, likely due to Henry’s concerns over Geoffrey’s ambitions in Normandy. Their proposition led to a rebellion in southern Normandy, with Geoffrey and Matilda supporting the insurgents.

Henry’s Death and the Uncertain Succession

Henry I’s unexpected illness and death in Lyons-la-Forêt left the succession in doubt. Reports on his final stance towards Matilda’s inheritance vary, influenced by the chroniclers’ biases. Some sources claim Henry reaffirmed Matilda as his heir, while others suggest a renouncement of his previous intentions, reflecting the contentious and uncertain nature of Matilda’s claim to her father’s legacy.

PRELUDE TO CONFLICT

The Spark in Northern France
Northern France around the time of Henry's death; red circles mark major urban centres

Northern France around the time of Henry’s death; red circles mark major urban centres

Upon Henry I’s demise, Matilda and Geoffrey found themselves in Anjou, rallying rebels against the royal forces among supporters like Robert of Gloucester. Despite an oath binding many barons to Normandy until Henry’s burial, the couple advanced into southern Normandy, capturing strategic castles around Argentan, part of Matilda’s contested dowry. Their progress stalled amid fierce resistance from Norman nobles and a rebellion in Anjou. During this period, Matilda, pregnant with her third son William, faced limitations in her military endeavors.

Stephen’s Swift Move for the Crown

Simultaneously, Stephen of Blois, stationed in Boulogne, hastened to England, navigating past garrisons at Dover and Canterbury, reportedly denied entry initially. By early December, he reached London’s outskirts, quickly gaining public and ecclesiastical support, notably from his brother, Bishop Henry of Blois. Despite previously swearing allegiance to Matilda, Stephen’s coronation was expedited by December 22, following a narrative shift about the late king’s dying wishes.

Norman Nobility’s Dilemma

The Norman elite, convening at Le Neubourg, initially considered crowning Theobald, William the Conqueror’s eldest grandson, over Matilda. However, news of Stephen’s imminent coronation shifted their allegiance, averting a potential split between England and Normandy.

Matilda’s Strategic Positioning

Following the birth of her son William in July 1136, Matilda spent three years along the border, consolidating her power base. Despite attempts to secure papal support, Geoffrey’s focus remained on Normandy, launching raids that prompted a defensive alliance between Stephen, Louis VI, and Theobald. Tensions within Stephen’s forces led to a failed campaign to reclaim Argentan, culminating in a truce that saw Stephen conceding annual payments to Geoffrey for peace.

Stephen’s Initial Success and Ensuing Challenges

In England, Stephen’s reign began promisingly, with generous land grants securing loyalty. However, the stability was short-lived; David I of Scotland capitalized on the power vacuum, seizing strategic locations. Stephen’s efforts to quell rebellions in Wales and suppress dissent in the southwest met with mixed success, highlighting the fragility of his rule amidst growing opposition, including from erstwhile allies.

THE OUTBREAK OF WAR

The Spark of Rebellion

In 1138, a significant shift occurred in the power dynamics of Anglo-Norman England when Robert of Gloucester, Matilda’s half-brother and a formidable Anglo-Norman baron with vast estates in both England and Normandy, openly defied King Stephen. By renouncing his allegiance and throwing his support behind Matilda, Robert ignited widespread insurrection, notably in Kent and the southwest, despite remaining in Normandy himself. This period marked a turning point, as Matilda had been relatively passive in her claim to the throne since 1135, leaving Robert to spearhead the rebellion.

Regional Uprisings and Strategic Moves

The revolt, led by Robert, catalyzed a series of strategic maneuvers across England and Normandy. Geoffrey of Anjou seized the opportunity to invade Normandy, while David of Scotland advanced into northern England, declaring his support for Matilda and pushing into Yorkshire. Stephen’s response was swift, focusing his efforts on quelling the uprisings within England. He dispatched his wife, also named Matilda, to Kent with reinforcements aimed at recapturing Dover from Robert’s control.

Battles and Resistance

Stephen’s military campaigns saw mixed results. In the north, his forces achieved a victory against the Scots at the Battle of the Standard, yet failed to reclaim the north entirely. In the west, Stephen aimed to regain Gloucestershire, conducting raids but ultimately finding Bristol impregnable. The rebels anticipated intervention from Robert, who remained in Normandy, attempting to convince Empress Matilda to launch an invasion of England.

Mobilizing for War

By 1139, the stage was set for Robert and Matilda’s invasion of England. With Normandy under their control, the duo, along with Geoffrey, began the year by preparing their forces for a cross-channel assault. Matilda sought to strengthen her position by appealing to the papacy, with Bishop Ulger presenting her legal claim to the English throne based on hereditary rights and baronial oaths. Despite the Pope’s refusal to withdraw support from Stephen, this move highlighted the contested nature of Stephen’s claim to the throne.

The Legal and Papal Angle

The legal battle over the throne reached the papacy, where Arnulf of Lisieux represented Stephen, challenging Matilda’s claim on the grounds of her mother’s supposed status as a nun. Though the Pope maintained his support for Stephen, the dispute underscored the legitimacy issues at the heart of the conflict, setting the stage for the impending invasion and the ongoing struggle for control of England.

THE ANARCHY

Political map of Wales and southern England in 1140; areas under Matilda's control (blue); Stephen's (red); Welsh (grey)

Political map of Wales and southern England in 1140; areas under Matilda’s control (blue); Stephen’s (red); Welsh (grey)

Initial Strategies and Engagements

Empress Matilda’s campaign to claim the English throne commenced in the late summer of 1139. Baldwin de Redvers attempted an initial foray from Normandy to Wareham in August, aiming to secure a port for Matilda’s forces. However, he was pushed back by King Stephen’s troops into the southwest. In September, upon invitation from her stepmother, Queen Adeliza, Matilda, alongside Robert of Gloucester, landed at Arundel with 140 knights. While Matilda took refuge in Arundel Castle, Robert advanced northwest to rally support in Wallingford and Bristol, joining forces with Miles of Gloucester, who had just declared allegiance to Matilda.

Stephen’s Siege and the Truce

King Stephen swiftly countered, besieging Arundel to capture Matilda. A truce, mediated by Stephen’s brother, Henry of Blois, surprisingly ended the siege, allowing Matilda and her entourage safe passage to the southwest to regroup with Robert. The motivations behind Matilda’s release are debated; some suggest Stephen aimed to focus on Robert, perceived as the greater threat, or possibly out of chivalry, as targeting women was against the norms of Anglo-Norman warfare.

Establishing a Power Base

Matilda then established a court in Gloucester, strategically positioned yet independent from her half-brother Robert’s Bristol stronghold. Despite limited new support, she controlled a significant territory across Gloucester, Bristol, and into the Thames Valley, threatening Stephen’s position in London. Her influence extended, albeit weakly, into Devon, Cornwall, and Herefordshire.

Counterattacks and Territorial Skirmishes

Stephen’s retaliatory strikes began with Wallingford Castle but were stymied by its strong defenses. His campaign through Wiltshire and attacks on Trowbridge and other castles were met with resistance from Miles of Gloucester, forcing Stephen to retreat eastward to protect London. Early 1140 saw Bishop Nigel of Ely joining Matilda, attempting to seize East Anglia from his fortified position in the Isle of Ely, only to be outmaneuvered by Stephen.

Diplomatic Efforts and Stalemates

A peace conference in Bath, led by Henry of Blois, sought to negotiate a truce. Represented by Robert, Matilda’s stance was firm, but the conference dissolved due to disagreements over the terms, illustrating the deep divisions and ongoing struggle for control between Matilda’s and Stephen’s factions.

THE TURNING TIDE: BATTLE OF LINCOLN

Overview of the Battle

The Battle of Lincoln, a pivotal clash in 1141, saw Empress Matilda’s fortunes rise significantly. The conflict erupted when Ranulf of Chester, a key northern lord, defied King Stephen, leading to Stephen’s siege on Lincoln Castle. In retaliation, Matilda’s allies, Robert of Gloucester and Ranulf, mobilized a larger force against Stephen. 

The Battle Unfolds

Stephen’s army, positioned in the heart of the battlefield, faced off against Matilda’s superior cavalry. Despite initial success, Matilda’s forces encircled and overwhelmed Stephen, leading to his capture. This victory marked a significant shift in the power dynamics of the period.

Capturing and Holding Stephen

Post-battle, Stephen was taken into custody, first held in Gloucester, and then transferred to Bristol Castle, a high-security prison. Matilda seized this opportunity to initiate her claim to the throne, requiring both ecclesiastical endorsement and a coronation at Westminster.

Negotiating Church Support

A crucial meeting at Winchester, led by Stephen’s brother Henry as the papal legate, resulted in the church’s backing for Matilda, facilitated by a private agreement granting Henry control over church matters. Despite some resistance, including from Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury, Matilda secured the treasury and Stephen’s crown, moving closer to her goal.

The Path to Coronation

In April 1141, Matilda was declared “Lady of England and Normandy,” setting the stage for her coronation. However, her ascent faced hurdles, including lukewarm noble support and opposition from London’s citizens and Stephen’s wife, Queen Matilda.

London’s Opposition and Retreat

As Matilda approached London for her coronation, she encountered significant resistance, culminating in a forced withdrawal to Oxford. This setback illustrated the complex loyalties and fears within the kingdom.

Geoffrey of Anjou’s Campaign

While England was embroiled in conflict, Geoffrey of Anjou capitalized on the situation to strengthen his position in Normandy, taking control of significant territories and influencing the allegiance of Anglo-Norman barons.

Shifts in Loyalty

The ongoing conflict and Geoffrey’s advances led to a reevaluation of allegiances, with notable figures like Waleran defecting to Matilda’s side. This period also saw a breakdown in royal control over coin minting, reflecting the broader chaos of the era.

THE WINCHESTER ROUT AND OXFORD SIEGE

The Winchester Confrontation

Empress Matilda’s stance was critically altered following her defeat at the Rout of Winchester. Initially allied with Henry of Blois, the partnership soon deteriorated over disagreements on political and ecclesiastical matters, leading Henry to shift his allegiance back to Stephen. In retaliation, Matilda, alongside Robert of Gloucester, laid siege to Henry’s stronghold in Winchester during July, utilizing the city’s royal castle as their operational base. Meanwhile, Queen Matilda, Stephen’s wife, kept the royal cause alive in southeastern England. With reinforcements from London and under the command of William of Ypres, she advanced on Winchester, encircling Matilda’s forces. Facing overwhelming odds, Matilda orchestrated a strategic retreat from the city, alongside Fitz Count and Reginald of Cornwall, while her forces engaged the enemy to cover their escape. This battle saw the capture of Robert of Gloucester, although Empress Matilda managed to elude capture, retreating to her fortress at Devizes.

The Exchange and Continued Struggle

In a dramatic turn of events, both Stephen and Robert found themselves captured, leading to negotiations for a peace settlement. However, Queen Matilda’s refusal to compromise and Robert’s loyalty to the Empress hindered any progress, culminating in a simple exchange between the two leaders. Subsequently, Henry convened a church council that reaffirmed Stephen’s rule, celebrated by another coronation for Stephen and his queen at Christmas 1141. Stephen then focused on consolidating his position, convincing Ranulf of Chester to rejoin his cause, and launching assaults on new Angevin fortifications.

Siege of Oxford

By the summer of 1142, the conflict intensified around Oxford, where Empress Matilda found herself under siege. Oxford, with its robust defenses, presented a formidable challenge to Stephen’s forces. Opting for a direct assault, Stephen led a daring attack across the River Isis, successfully besieging the town and trapping Matilda within the castle. However, instead of storming the castle, Stephen prepared for a prolonged siege. In a daring escape just before Christmas, Matilda, along with a few knights, managed to slip past the besieging forces, crossing the icy river to reach safety in Wallingford, effectively leaving the castle to surrender the following day. This escape, facilitated by their white attire blending with the snow, marked a significant episode in the ongoing conflict.

THE STALEMATE AND STRATEGIC MOVES

Geoffrey of Anjou's invasion of Normandy, 1142–43

Geoffrey of Anjou’s invasion of Normandy, 1142–43

Rebuilding and Strategy in Devizes

After the retreat from Winchester, Matilda strategically reestablished her court at Devizes Castle in Wiltshire. This castle, a confiscated asset from the Bishop of Salisbury, became her new base. She organized her household knights and enlisted the support of Flemish mercenaries, asserting her rule through a network of sheriffs and officials. Displaced nobles from areas controlled by Stephen sought refuge and support under Matilda, bolstered by the shrewd Robert of Gloucester. This period marked the beginning of a protracted stalemate in the conflict.

Shifts in Power

The tide of power initially seemed to tilt in Matilda’s favor. In 1143, Robert of Gloucester laid siege to Stephen at Wilton Castle, a crucial military hub in Herefordshire. Stephen’s attempt at a breakout led to the Battle of Wilton, where the Angevin forces showcased their superiority. Stephen narrowly escaped capture, maintaining the delicate balance of power. That same year, Geoffrey de Mandeville of Essex openly rebelled against Stephen, establishing a base on the Isle of Ely and initiating a campaign towards Cambridge, aiming for London. Additionally, Ranulf of Chester resumed his rebellion in 1144. Concurrently, Geoffrey of Anjou solidified his control over southern Normandy, and by January 1144, he had taken Rouen, being acknowledged as Duke of Normandy by Louis VII.

Challenges and Setbacks

Despite these advancements, Matilda faced significant obstacles to solidifying her power. The loss of Miles of Gloucester, a key military leader, over the Christmas period was a major blow. Geoffrey de Mandeville’s insurrection ended with his death during an assault on Burwell Castle in September 1144. Stephen capitalized on these events, making gains in the west and recapturing Faringdon Castle in Oxfordshire by 1145. Efforts by Reginald, Earl of Cornwall, to broker peace faltered as neither party was willing to yield ground, prolonging the stalemate.

END OF THE WAR

The War Winds Down

As the 1140s drew to a close, the nature of the conflict in England began to change. The fierce battles of earlier years subsided into a deadlock, punctuated by occasional skirmishes. This period saw the loss of several key figures in Matilda’s camp; notably, Robert of Gloucester passed away in 1147, and Brian Fitz Count faded from the public eye, likely retreating to monastic life until his death in 1151. The announcement of the Second Crusade in 1145 drew away many of Matilda’s followers, leaving the region devoid of her staunchest supporters. Amidst this shifting landscape, some Anglo-Norman barons sought peace independently, securing their lands and wartime acquisitions without further appetite for conflict.

Henry II Rises

During this time, Matilda’s eldest son, Henry, began to emerge as a prominent figure in the ongoing struggle. Despite staying in France initially, Henry made several forays into England, starting in 1142. His father, Geoffrey of Anjou, groomed him for leadership, expecting him to ascend to the English throne. However, Henry’s military efforts in 1147 faltered due to financial constraints, leading to an unexpected bailout by Stephen, the reasons for which remain speculative.

Matilda’s Return to Normandy

In 1148, Matilda made the strategic decision to return to Normandy, partly due to escalating tensions with the Church. The contention over Devizes Castle, a key stronghold legally owned by Bishop Josceline de Bohon but occupied by Matilda, reached a climax with Pope Eugene III threatening her with excommunication. Eventually, Matilda conceded, leaving the castle to Henry and resettling in Rouen. Here, she focused on the administration of Normandy, coordinating with her family, and preparing for Henry’s future endeavors.

Normandy and the Path to Peace

Matilda’s latter years were characterized by a shift in focus towards governing Normandy and supporting Henry’s claim to the English throne. Efforts to secure Henry’s rights, including diplomatic missions to Rome and peace agreements with King Louis VII of France, marked this period. The unexpected death of Geoffrey in 1151 accelerated Henry’s assumption of the family lands. His return to England in 1153, bolstered by alliances with key barons and facilitated by the Church’s mediation, led to a peace agreement with Stephen. This treaty recognized Stephen as king but named Henry as his heir and successor.

The Legacy Secured

The death of Stephen in 1154 paved the way for Henry’s ascension to the throne, utilizing the imperial regalia Matilda had preserved from her time in Germany. With Henry’s coronation, the discord that had plagued Matilda’s efforts in Normandy began to dissipate, marking the end of her turbulent quest for power and the beginning of a new era under her son’s reign.

FINAL YEARS IN NORMANDY

15th century portrait of Matilda in the donor list of the Abbey of St Albans

15th century portrait of Matilda in the donor list of the Abbey of St Albans

Governance and Influence

In her later years, Matilda dedicated herself to Normandy, often serving as a representative for her son, Henry II, and overseeing the governance of the Duchy. Together, Matilda and Henry issued charters in both England and Normandy, addressing the land disputes that emerged from the wars. During the early phase of Henry’s reign, he frequently sought his mother’s counsel on policy issues. Matilda played a crucial role in mediating between Henry and his Chancellor, Thomas Becket, during their infamous disagreements in the 1160s. Despite her initial reservations about Becket’s appointment, Matilda offered a balanced viewpoint, criticizing both Henry’s efforts to formalize English customs and Becket’s stubbornness.

Diplomatic Endeavors

Matilda’s expertise extended to handling diplomatic crises. One notable instance involved the Hand of St. James, a relic Matilda had brought from Germany, which Frederick I, the Holy Roman Emperor, claimed. Despite Frederick’s demands for its return, Matilda and Henry insisted it remain at Reading Abbey, a decision settled by compensating Frederick with lavish gifts, likely selected by Matilda.

In 1164, Matilda skillfully mitigated a potential diplomatic conflict with Louis VII of France concerning Crusading funds, showcasing her adeptness in international diplomacy.

Focus on Faith and the Church

As Matilda aged, she devoted more attention to the church and her faith, though she never ceased her involvement in Normandy’s governance. She showed a particular affection for her youngest son, William, and opposed Henry’s 1155 plan to invade Ireland for William, arguing it was impractical. Instead, William was granted extensive lands in England. Despite mellowing with age, a chronicler described her as having the demeanor of a tyrant, reflecting the formidable nature that characterized her entire life.

MATILDA'S FINAL DAYS AND LEGACY

Passing and Burial

Empress Matilda breathed her last on September 10, 1167, in Rouen. By her wishes, her wealth was bestowed upon the church. Her final resting place was beneath the high altar at Bec-Hellouin Abbey, in a ceremony presided over by Rotrou, the Archbishop of Rouen.

Epitaph and Remembrance

Matilda’s tomb was inscribed with an epitaph that eloquently captured her significance: “Great by birth, greater by marriage, greatest in her offspring: here lies Matilda, the daughter, wife, and mother of Henry.” This tribute resonated deeply, echoing her remarkable life and legacy among those who knew her.

Tomb’s Vicissitudes

Initially established at Bec-Hellouin, her tomb suffered damage in a 1263 fire, underwent restoration in 1282, and was ultimately destroyed by an English army in 1421. The Congregation of St. Maur, in 1684, managed to identify and reinter some of her bones in a new coffin at the same site.

Final Resting Place

Following the upheaval of the Napoleonic era, which led to the loss and later rediscovery of her remains in 1846, Matilda’s remains were finally moved to Rouen Cathedral. It is here that they rest today, marking a permanent memorial to her enduring legacy.

PODCAST

SOURCES

  • Jones, D. (2022). The Plantagenets. William Collins

  • Wikipedia Contributors. (2024, January 20). Empress Matilda. Wikipedia; Wikimedia Foundation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empress_Matilda

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