Empress Matilda: Claimant to the English Throne During the Anarchy

Empress Matilda, also known as Empress Maude, was a prominent figure during the civil war known as the Anarchy, where she staked her claim to the English throne. Born around February 7, 1102, to King Henry I of England, she spent her childhood in Germany after marrying the future Holy Roman Emperor Henry V.

Empress Matilda and Henry V embarked on a journey to Italy in 1116, where she controversially received a coronation in St Peter’s Basilica and acted as the imperial regent. However, their marriage remained childless, and upon Henry V’s death in 1125, his rival Lothair of Supplinburg claimed the imperial crown.

Empress Matildas younger brother, William Adelin, died in the White Ship disaster of 1120, leaving the question of succession open. Her father, King Henry I, recalled her to Normandy, arranging a marriage with Geoffrey of Anjou to establish an alliance safeguarding the southern borders.

Despite being nominated as Henry I’s heir, Empress Matilda faced opposition from Anglo-Norman barons upon her father’s death in 1135. The throne was instead seized by her cousin, Stephen of Blois, who gained support from the English Church. Stephen faced challenges both from neighbouring powers and internal adversaries.

In 1139, Empress Matilda crossed over to England, supported by her half-brother Robert of Gloucester and her uncle David I of Scotland, while her husband Geoffrey focused on conquering Normandy. Empress Matilda‘s forces captured Stephen at the Battle of Lincoln in 1141, but her attempt to be crowned at Westminster failed due to strong opposition from the London crowds.

Consequently, Empress Matilda was never officially declared Queen of England and was referred to as “Lady of the English.” Empress Matilda‘s brother Robert was captured after the Rout of Winchester in 1141, and Matilda agreed to exchange him for Stephen. Matilda found herself trapped in Oxford Castle during the winter, but she managed to escape by crossing the frozen River Isis to Abingdon, allegedly wearing white as camouflage in the snow.

The war reached a stalemate, with Empress Matilda controlling the southwest of England while Stephen held the southeast and Midlands. The rest of the country was under the control of local independent barons.

Empress Matilda returned to Normandy, now under the rule of her husband, in 1148. Her eldest son, Henry, continued the campaign in England and eventually ascended to the throne as Henry II in 1154, establishing the Angevin Empire. Matilda resided near Rouen and focused on administering Normandy, acting as a representative for her son when necessary.

Particularly during the early years of Henry II’s reign, she provided political advice and attempted to mediate during the Becket controversy. Empress Matilda also worked closely with the Church, founding Cistercian monasteries and earning a reputation for her piety. Following her death in 1167, she was buried at Bec Abbey under the high altar.

Early Life

Empress Matilda was born to King Henry I of England and his first wife, Matilda of Scotland, possibly on February 7, 1102, in Sutton Courtenay, Berkshire. Her father, Henry I, was the youngest son of William the Conqueror, who had conquered England in 1066 and established an empire stretching into Wales.

Matilda’s mother, Matilda of Scotland, was the daughter of King Malcolm III and a descendant of Alfred the Great. Matilda’s upbringing included staying with her mother, receiving education in reading and religious morals, and being surrounded by influential nobles such as her uncle David and her half-brother Robert of Gloucester.

Marriage and Coronation in the Holy Roman Empire

In 1108 or 1109, Henry V of Germany proposed a marriage alliance with Matilda, which was seen as advantageous by Henry I. The marriage would solidify Henry’s status as the youngest son of a new royal house and provide an ally against France. The marriage negotiations concluded in 1109, and Empress Matilda departed for Germany in February 1110.

The official betrothal took place on April 10, and Matilda was crowned German queen on July 25 at Mainz. Despite the significant age difference—Matilda was eight years old and Henry was 24—the marriage proceeded, and Matilda was educated in German culture and government under the guidance of Archbishop Bruno of Trier. In January 1114, Matilda and Henry’s wedding was held in Worms. Matilda’s public life in Germany began, and she established her own household.

Matilda’s marriage coincided with political conflicts in the Holy Roman Empire, which led to her active involvement in imperial affairs. In 1116, she and Henry marched to Italy to resolve disputes with the Pope, facing opposition from rebellions and the Church.

Matilda assumed a significant role in the imperial government, granting royal favours, handling petitions, and participating in ceremonial events. During their stay in Rome, Empress Matilda and Henry were crowned at St Peter’s Basilica, further elevating Matilda’s status. While the precise title of empress remained ambiguous, Matilda asserted her claim to the title. Matilda and Henry faced numerous challenges, including ex-communication by the Pope, but Matilda continued to exercise her authority in the Empire.

Widowhood and Succession Crisis

In 1118, Henry left Matilda as his regent in Italy and returned to Germany to suppress rebellions. There is limited information about Matilda’s rule during this period, but she likely gained practical experience in governance. She joined Henry in Lotharingia in 1119, where he negotiated with the Pope to settle disputes. In 1122, Henry relinquished his rights to invest bishops with their regalia, resolving a long-standing conflict with the Church. Empress Matilda intended to visit her father in England in 1122, but Count Charles I of Flanders blocked her journey.

Matilda and Henry remained without children, and it was believed their childlessness was due to the Emperor’s sins against the Church. In early 1122, the couple travelled together, but Henry’s health began to decline. He passed away on May 23, 1125, in Utrecht, leaving Matilda under the protection of their nephew Frederick and in possession of the imperial insignia. The future of the Empire was uncertain, and it is unclear what instructions Henry gave Matilda regarding the succession. Archbishop Adalbert convinced Matilda to hand over the insignia, and Lothair of Supplinburg was elected as the new king.

Matilda’s options were limited, and she chose to return to Normandy, abandoning her estates within the Empire. She did not expect to return to Germany and took with her her personal collection of jewels, imperial regalia, crowns, and the valuable relic of the Hand of St James the Apostle. Meanwhile, the succession crisis in England intensified following the death of Matilda’s brother William in the White Ship disaster of 1120. The absence of a clear heir to the English throne led to political instability, and various contenders emerged.

Marriage to Geoffrey of Anjou and Return to Normandy

Matilda returned to Normandy in 1125 and spent a year at the royal court, where her father still hoped for a male heir from his second marriage. In case of his failure to have another legitimate son, Henry declared Matilda as his rightful successor and secured the nobles’ recognition of her claim. Seeking a suitable husband for Matilda, Henry received offers from German princes but favoured an alliance with Anjou to protect the southern borders of Normandy.

Matilda was initially reluctant to marry Geoffrey of Anjou, considering it a step down from her imperial status and due to the significant age difference. However, she eventually agreed, and the couple was betrothed in May 1127 and married on June 17, 1128. Their marriage faced challenges, and Matilda briefly separated from Geoffrey before reconciling in 1131. Matilda gave birth to two sons, Henry and Geoffrey, securing the succession.

Disputes and the Civil War

After Henry I’s death in 1135, a succession crisis erupted in England. Matilda and Geoffrey asserted their claim to the throne but faced opposition from Stephen of Blois, Matilda’s cousin, who had the support of the English Church. Matilda’s forces, led by her half-brother Robert of Gloucester, captured Stephen in 1141, but Matilda’s attempt to be crowned at Westminster was met with fierce opposition. The war reached a stalemate, with Matilda controlling the southwest and Stephen holding the southeast and the Midlands. Large portions of the country were under the control of independent barons.

In 1148, Matilda returned to Normandy, leaving her eldest son Henry to continue the campaign in England. Henry eventually succeeded to the throne as Henry II in 1154, establishing the Angevin Empire. Matilda focused on administering Normandy on her son’s behalf and played a political role, providing advice and mediating during conflicts. She also contributed to religious matters, founding Cistercian monasteries and displaying piety throughout her life. Matilda passed away on September 10, 1167, in Rouen and was buried at Bec Abbey.

Legacy and Impact

Empress Matilda: Claimant to the English Throne During the Anarchy
Image: Artist unknown; the Gospels of Henry the Lion, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Empress Matilda’s life was marked by political turmoil, power struggles, and the determined pursuit of her claim to the English throne. Despite not officially becoming Queen of England, Matilda played a significant role in shaping the political landscape of her time. Her marriage to Geoffrey of Anjou laid the foundation for the Angevin Empire, which brought England and vast territories in France under the rule of her descendants.

Matilda’s assertiveness and resilience in the face of adversity left a lasting impact on the history of England and the role of women in politics. Her legacy continues to be remembered as that of a strong and influential figure who challenged traditional gender roles and fought for her rightful place on the throne.

*Feature Image: Artist unknown; the Gospels of Henry the Lion, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons