Matilda was the first woman to make a claim to the English throne in her own right: a claim which ultimately failed when it became clear that it was out of the question that a woman should rule without the authority of a man. Matilda was the only legitimate daughter of Henry I by his wife Matilda of Scotland, and her father had high hopes for her.
In 1109 he arranged a glittering marriage for her to Henry, who became Holy Roman Emperor, and she left to meet her husband and continue her education in her new country when she was just eight years old. Despite the age difference (her husband was about twenty-four), the marriage was a happy one, and Matilda proved herself to be a loyal and able wife. Moreover, her status as Empress and daughter of the King of England gave her a powerful sense of her own majesty. When her husband died in 1125
she was recalled to England, but three years later she was married again, taking as her second husband Geoffrey of Anjou. The marriage produced three sons but was unpopular and unhappy.
However, in 1135 Matilda’s world took a drastic turn. As her father, Henry I, lay dying, his thoughts turned to the future. Matilda’s brother William had been tragically killed in 1120 in the White Ship disaster.
As a result, Matilda had become her father’s thrice acknowledged heir, Henry’s barons having sworn oaths of allegiance to support her. She was never a popular choice, and when Henry died in December 1135, to her horror Matilda quickly discovered that there was a rival claimant to the English throne. Upon hearing of the King’s death, Matilda’s cousin, Stephen of Blois, hurriedly travelled to England from Boulogne and made a claim to the throne, despite the fact that he was amongst those who had sworn allegiance to Matilda.
He was supported by the English barons, including Matilda’s powerful illegitimate half-brother, Robert of Gloucester, and even the Pope. His claim seemed to be consolidated when he had himself hurriedly crowned. All hope for Matilda’s cause seemed lost, and she herself was hampered by the fact that at the time of her father’s death she was pregnant and installed in Normandy, preventing her from taking action. But she was not prepared to give up that easily. She knew her right: her mistake was that she assumed that others knew it too.
Matilda seemed to gain the upper hand when Robert of Gloucester swapped sides, and she launched a civil war in an attempt to gain possession of the English throne. Matilda landed in Sussex in 1139, where she took refuge at her stepmother Adeliza of Louvain’s stronghold at Arundel Castle.
Support for Matilda was growing, and she had some success with the support of her uncle, King David of Scotland, and more crucially Robert of Gloucester. She eventually succeeded in capturing Stephen at Lincoln. Matilda was on the brink of power, and her coronation was planned at Westminster Abbey. But before it took place her bid for power ultimately failed when she alienated the English people with her arrogant and haughty behaviour, and it soon became clear that she would never be accepted as queen. She was simply too arrogant to make a success of ruling, and it all began to unravel. As a result, she was driven away from London by a mob of angry citizens.
Stephen was re-established as King, and despite further attempts to regain control, Matilda was unsuccessful. Furthermore, she came close to capture, and was forced to undertake a daring escape from Oxford Castle which was under siege. This was one of the most dramatic events of the Civil War, and indeed in English history.
It was December 1142 and the ground was covered in thick snow. Stephen’s troops surrounded the castle, but no one noticed as Matilda, with only three attendants, slipped out of the castle, wearing a white cloak for camouflage against the snow. It must have been a tense moment, but Matilda succeeded in fleeing from Oxford and successfully managed to reach safety at Abingdon.
Matilda managed to return to France, and from then on all of her efforts were on behalf of her son, Henry. It was eventually agreed that when Stephen died, Henry would be the next king. It was a smart move, but one which cost Matilda her own political eclipse. When Stephen died in 1154, Matilda’s son was crowned Henry II in what must have been a triumphant moment for her. Following this, Matilda remained active in political life until the time of her death in 1167. She was buried initially at Bec, and later reinterred in Rouen. The lines written on her epitaph seem particularly appropriate when describing her: ‘Great by birth, greater by marriage, greatest in her offspring, here lies the daughter, wife, and mother of Henry’.
Matilda had sacrificed her own power and right to rule in England in order to ensure that her dynasty continued to rule: she had ultimately lost the battle, but won the war.