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Catherine Hanley on Matilda

When Henry I died in 1135, he left the English crown to his eldest legitimate child. It should have been the easiest succession imaginable, but it wasn’t – because Henry’s heir was not a son but a daughter. In her talk at our Kings and Queens Weekend in March, medieval historian Catherine Hanley will introduce Matilda and examine her campaign to claim the throne...

Engraved portrait of Empress Matilda of Flanders, wearing a crown and holding a scepter, c1100. (Photo by Kean Collection/Archive Photos/Getty Images)
Published: January 16, 2019 at 11:32 am
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We caught up with Catherine Hanley ahead of her talk, Matilda: The Greatest King England Never Had, at our Kings and Queens Weekend in March…


Q: What can audiences look forward to in your talk?

A: A lively introduction to this extraordinary and inexplicably overlooked medieval monarch. The tale of how she struggled and fought for the rights that should have been hers, despite the patriarchy throwing every obstacle it could find in her path. Oh, and the chance to pretend to be Henry I.

That last bit will make more sense on the day…

Q: Why are you so interested in this particular monarch?

A: I’m fascinated both by what Matilda did and didn’t achieve. Of course, she never actually sat on the throne of England, so you could say her struggles were in vain. But on the other hand, it’s incredible how close she came to it, considering what she was up against it. She was a real trail-blazer – and it could be argued that she won the long game in the end, which is a satisfying bit of hindsight.

I also like Matilda because she knew her way around military strategy, a facet of her story that’s been even more overlooked than any other. As my own academic background is in medieval warfare, this is particularly interesting to explore.

Q: Tell us something that might surprise or shock us about this monarch’s life…

A: When Matilda was sent from England to Germany to marry the Holy Roman Emperor, she was just eight years old.

For more information about our Kings and Queens Weekend and Catherine Hanley's talk on Matilda, click here:

Catherine Hanley will speak on Matilda

Q: What is your favourite ‘little-known fact’ from history?

A: There was once a king of England called Louis.

Q: Which three historical figures would you invite to a dinner party, and why?

A: Well, Matilda, obviously. We can talk through her campaign for the English crown and the strategy she employed, and she can fill me in on all the bits missing from the sources. And I’d love to be able to tell her that her direct descendant – a woman – sits on the throne today.

Philip Augustus, my favourite medieval king, who ruled France from 1180 to 1223; he came to the throne aged just 15 and then managed to outwit four English kings in a row. Of course, introducing him to Matilda might be a little awkward, as the English kings in question were her son and grandsons…

And finally, Jane Austen. I’d love to know if my own theory is true: i.e. that she was not a romantic who wrote love stories about ladies in bonnets, but rather a razor-sharp and witty social commentator. And she can no doubt help me to understand better the characters of the other two guests.

Q: If you had to live in any historical time period, which would you choose and why?

A: Ha, well, if you’re female then the only realistic choice is here and now. I study the Middle Ages: it doesn’t mean that I want to live there!

Dr Catherine Hanley is a historian specialising in 12th and 13th-century warfare in western Europe. Her new book Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior will be published by Yale University Press in March 2019.


Catherine Hanley will be speaking about Matilda at our Kings and Queens Weekend on Saturday 2 March 2019.

Click here to find out more about the event and buy tickets


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