Catherine Hanley on Matilda: “Honestly, if I were her, I’d have wanted to put my fist through a wall”

Catherine Hanley talks to Ellie Cawthorne about Matilda, the legitimate daughter of Henry I who – blocked by her gender from the English throne – began a bitter civil war for the crown

Catherine Hanley talks to Ellie Cawthorne about Matilda, the legitimate daughter of Henry I. (Photographed for BBC History Magazine by Jeni Nott).

Born in 1102, Matilda was the daughter of King Henry I and the granddaughter of William the Conqueror. As Henry I’s only legitimate child at the time of his death, she had a strong claim to the English throne. However, there was opposition to the idea of a female ruler, and her cousin Stephen was crowned king. From 1135–53, the pair were embroiled in a battle for the throne often known as ‘the Anarchy’. This civil war was finally brought to an end by a negotiated peace that saw Matilda’s son appointed Stephen’s heir. He went on to become King Henry II.

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What were the most important events of Matilda’s early life?

When she was just eight, Matilda was shipped off to Europe to marry Holy Roman Emperor Henry V. She was sent away from her family and everything she knew, to a foreign country, to marry a much older man she’d never met. That’s the sort of thing we now understand could traumatise a child for life, but different rules applied in the 12th century. Rather than crumbling into a heap, the young Matilda grabbed hold of the opportunity with both hands. By age 12, she was multilingual and had a fine grasp of politics. By 14 she had been crowned empress, and by 16 she was ruling Italy as her husband’s regent. It looked like her future was going to be as a queen consort in the empire, but in 1125 everything changed when Matilda was widowed and her father, Henry I, summoned her back to England.

Matilda (c1031-1083) was Queen Consort of William the Conqueror. (Photo by The Print Collector/Getty Images)

How was Matilda’s life changed by her father’s death?

Henry’s original expectation was that his son William Adelin would follow him on the throne. But in 1120, the 17-year-old William drowned in the White Ship disaster, leaving Henry with just one legitimate child – Matilda. This presented a dilemma for Henry: he was keen that he should be succeeded on the throne by his own child, but it was unprecedented to leave the crown to a woman. Nonetheless, Henry named Matilda as his heir. England’s barons and nobles all took a public oath that they would support his daughter’s claim to the throne, and among those who took that oath was Matilda’s cousin Stephen of Blois.

In December 1135, Henry died in Normandy. Matilda was hundreds of miles away in Anjou [her second marriage was to the Count of Anjou] at the time. Stephen saw his chance and made the most of it. Before Matilda had even heard the news of her father’s death, Stephen had crossed the Channel, secured the royal treasury, ridden to London and had himself crowned as king. As far as most people were concerned, he was England’s new monarch and Matilda was written out of the story.

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At this point, it would have been very easy for Matilda to just give up. But she was not that sort of person. Initially, she didn’t have the resources to launch an attack on England. Plus she was pregnant, which made it very difficult to travel. But eventually her opportunity arose through the defection of her half-brother Robert of Gloucester. As Henry I’s illegitimate son, Robert could not have a claim to the throne himself, but he threw his considerable riches and resources behind Matilda. With Robert’s backing, Matilda was finally able to invade England.

What drove Matilda to risk everything by taking on Stephen for England’s throne?

Matilda felt entitled to the throne, and rightly so! She was the only surviving legitimate child of the previous king and had been recognised publicly as his heir. She was also a multilingual adult of vast political and governmental experience; most medieval kings would bite your hand off to be succeeded by somebody with that CV. It should have been the easiest handover of power in history, but the sole fact that Matilda was Henry’s daughter, rather than his son, meant that a whole heap of trouble was unleashed.

Many men couldn't cope with the idea that a woman might wish to wield power

Although Matilda’s position as Countess of Anjou was perfectly comfortable, it was a definite step down from what she had been used to. It certainly wasn’t on the same level as being empress, or queen of England. For 10 years, she had been recognised as the heir to England’s throne – her expectations had been raised. All the way through her battle for the crown, Matilda continued to position herself as England’s rightful monarch. She had coins minted with her face on them, and gave away royal appointments.

Why was the idea of a female monarch so difficult for people to stomach?

While some 12th-century women did wield a lot of power, they always did so on behalf of male relatives. For example, nobody made a fuss about Matilda ruling Italy because she was acting as a regent for her husband. Her authority was contained within male power structures. But many men simply couldn’t cope with the idea that a woman might wish to wield power on her own behalf – or might be capable of doing so. Matilda’s claim to the throne was not that she wanted to be a regent or a consort, it was that she was the legitimate heir in her own right. Interestingly, the meaning of the word ‘queen’ at the time didn’t even apply to ruling monarchs – it meant the wife of the king. So, in the eyes of many, Matilda wasn’t trying to become England’s queen, but its female king.

How did this impact on Matilda’s chances of taking the English throne?

Very significantly. As her campaign went on, she was criticised more and more in explicitly gendered ways. In 1141, just as Matilda was about to be crowned monarch of England, she was condemned for arranging things according to her own will, for not listening to her advisors and for beginning to walk and talk with authority. If she were a man, all of these criticisms would have sounded more like compliments.

The way to be an effective king in the 12th century was to be an authority figure. Being all wishy-washy was a sure path to disaster. This meant that Matilda was faced with an almost impossible dilemma: as soon as she acted like an authoritarian, she was criticised for not being womanly enough. But if she passively sat around with her embroidery being guided by her advisors, that would have been used as evidence that she was not tough enough to rule.

In a great feat of self-awareness, Matilda eventually realised she was never going to sit on the throne of England herself – in the mid-12th century, the concept of a woman wielding authority on her own behalf was just too bizarre. So she changed tack, and declared that she was fighting on behalf of her son Henry, an ambition that was deemed much more palatable.

The civil war ended with a settlement that named Henry as Stephen’s heir. Was that a victory, or a concession?

A bit of both. On the one hand, ensuring that the person who would succeed Stephen was her son, and not Stephen’s, was a triumph. But the actual treaty was essentially a legal fudge in which Stephen adopted Henry as his son. This was a slap in the face for Matilda. After all her years of fighting to put her son on the throne, when Henry finally became king it was because he was ‘Stephen’s son’. Honestly, if I were her, I’d have wanted to put my fist through a wall.

How politically influential was Matilda as queen mother?

Of all the roles Matilda took on throughout her life, I would say that it was as queen mother that she was able to wield power most effectively. At the time the 21-year-old Henry was crowned as king of England, he was already Duke of Normandy, Count of Anjou and Duke of Aquitaine. That was a vast geographical area to be in charge of, and he couldn’t possibly be in all of it at once. And so, Matilda acted as Duchess of Normandy. This was probably quite galling in some respects: she spent years trying to be recognised as queen of England and Duchess of Normandy in her own right, and now she was ruling it, but only on behalf of her son. But she was very, very good at it. Twelfth-century Normandy could be a difficult place, with barons starting private wars and the threat of France encroaching at the borders. But Matilda kept everything in hand.

She had a great deal of influence on her son and was a very sound advisor. For example, she persuaded Henry not to invade Ireland, because she believed he would be spreading himself far too thinly. That was definitely a good move. She also advised him against appointing his friend Thomas Becket as the archbishop of Canterbury. Considering how things turned out, he really should have listened to his mother.

How should history remember Matilda?

Over the years, the narrative has developed that Matilda came very close to taking the throne before she was revealed to be haughty, arrogant and unsuitable for the task, and that England was saved from the prospect of having a terrible woman in charge. But that doesn’t sound right to me – crucially, I think that a lot of the descriptions of Matilda have got it wrong, specifically because she was a woman. Medieval chroniclers were generally clerical men who didn’t come into contact with many women. They were up in arms about the idea of a woman demanding power in her own right.

But although Matilda may not have achieved all her aims – and never managed to wear the English crown herself – she was able to hold on to her authority. Her legacy as a matriarch clearly inspired later generations, most notably her daughter-in-law Eleanor of Aquitaine. She also set a precedent that the crown could be passed through a female line, which would have significant consequences later on.

There aren’t many unsuccessful claimants to the throne of England who have died peacefully in their beds in old age, while still being recognised as a senior stateswoman of Europe. That’s one hell of an achievement.

Catherine Hanley is a medieval historian, and author of fiction and non-fiction books, including Louis: The French Prince Who Invaded England (Yale, 2016), Give Up the Dead (The History Press, 2018) and Whited Sepulchres (The History Press, 2014).

Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior by Catherine Hanley (Yale University Press, 296 pages, £20) is available now.

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This article was first published in the March 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine