On May 23, 1125 the only daughter of King Henry I of England was widowed by the death of Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor. Matilda of England had left her home 15 years earlier and in the subsequent years both her mother, Matilda of Scotland, and her brother, William Adelin, had died. Though Henry I married a second time to Adeliza of Louvain, by 1125 the union hadn’t produced any children and Matilda remained her father’s sole legitimate offspring.
Thus, her next steps, including the urgent need for her to marry again, were not only of personal concern, but of national importance. If one considers the amount of sexism that female monarchs like Mary I, Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots encountered in the 16th century, then it should be easy to imagine the disbelief with which many viewed the idea of Matilda ruling England as queen regnant in the 12th. However, rather surprisingly, that’s exactly the plan Henry I put in place.
After her husband’s death, Matilda traveled to Normandy to meet her father and stepmother and returned with them to England the following year. At Christmas 1126, Henry ordered the great magnates of his realm to swear loyalty to his daughter, pledging that they would support her as queen should he die without a legitimate son. And I keep saying legitimate because Henry had some 20+ bastards, nine of whom were sons. Indeed, had Henry V not died when he did, thus freeing up Matilda, it’s entirely possible he would have put forth the eldest of his bastards, Robert, Earl of Gloucester, as the next king.
Among the men that swore that oath was Stephen of Blois, Henry’s nephew via his sister, Adela.
The following year, Henry began sifting through possible husbands for his daughter in earnest. The matter was delicate, as it always is in the case of a royal consort, for elevating an Englishman meant starting rivalries among the nobility, while a foreign-born man meant the risk of interference from abroad. Henry landed on the 14-year-old son of Fulk of Anjou, Geoffrey. Geoffrey, 11 years younger than his potential bride and only a future count, was immediately deemed unworthy by Matilda, who was extremely cognizant of her rank and that of her late husband. Nevertheless, Henry ordered that the marriage go forward and the couple were duly wed in Le Mans in June 1128.
Up until that point, Matilda had been living in her stepmother’s household (they were roughly the same age) and it’s worth noting that Adeliza could hardly have been happier than the bride given that the marriage’s necessity ultimately solidified the failure of her own.
In 1129, Geoffrey’s father left for Jerusalem in the hopes of naming himself king, making his son Count of Anjou and Maine. Matilda, unsurprisingly, continued to go by “Empress.” The marriage was a disaster from the start and the couple took an near-instant dislike to one another. Within a few months their quarrelling had grown so bad that Matilda left, traveling back to her stepmother, with whom she remained until September 1131.
That August, Henry summoned Matilda to England from Normandy and bade his magnates to once again swear their allegiance to her. Per an agreement of the Council, it was then that Matilda was duly sent back to Geoffrey, this time with even more political support behind her.
By June 1132 she was pregnant with her first child and in March 1133 she gave birth to a son, Henry, at Le Mans. Her father was delighted to have a male successor, even if a grandchild, and immediately traveled to Rouen to see the baby. Within six months she was pregnant again and in June 1134 she gave birth to a second son, Geoffrey, the delivery for whom was precarious. Matilda was believed so near death that she wrote her will, arguing with her father about where she should be buried. Despite recovering shortly thereafter, relations between father and daughter remained permanently strained and on December 1, 1135, Henry died in Normandy.
What came next was 19 years of civil war, now better-known as the Anarchy and it pit Matilda against her cousin, Stephen of Blois, who successfully challenged her status as monarch. It is worth, however, examining how it was that after numerous oaths of loyalty, her cousin and the lords behind him, quickly switched gears the moment the King was dead.
Part of it comes from the five years between the death of Matilda’s brother, William Adelin, and the death of her first husband, during which time it was unclear to everyone, including Henry, how he would handle the succession. Certainly the viability of Robert of Gloucester was considered, but so too was the claim of his nephew Stephen of Blois, who, in 1125, married Matilda of Boulogne, who had royal Anglo-Saxon blood of her own. That marriage, also arranged by Henry, could arguably be seen not only as investing his favorite nephew with lands and a title, but with a wife whose own claim to the English throne could help bolster his.
The marriage was made months before Matilda’s first husband died, at which point Henry pivoted from his nephew to his daughter, whose future had to be sorted out regardless. It is entirely possible that in the last year of his life, Henry, annoyed with Matilda and exhausted by the continued domestic drama of her unhappy second marriage, took another look at Stephen and the “other” Matilda as a potential king and queen.
The other problem was that the very match that had given Henry the grandsons he so desperately wanted wasn’t popular with the English. Henry had landed on Anjou in large part because it helped him protect the southern border of Normandy, not because he thought Geoffrey was a great sell back home. And Matilda, who had left England as a child and spent her adult life in Germany and Normandy, was largely unknown beyond her name. Stephen and Matilda of Boulogne, on the other hand, were known entities and by far more popular with the magnates.
It was on these grounds that Stephen claimed the English throne and was duly crowned king on December 22, 1135.
Unfortunately for Matilda, she was pregnant at the time. She gave birth to her third son, William, in July 1136 and then spent the next three years living on the Norman border planning her next move. She finally entered England in 1139, however despite briefly capturing Stephen and naming herself queen, he was released and promptly re-crowned in 1141. From that point onward, while the civil war was by no means over, Matilda’s chances of successfully ousting Stephen were slim to none.
Geoffrey, meanwhile, had better success in Normandy, which he had essentially conquered by 1144 when he reached Rouen and named himself Duke of Normandy. He and Matilda jointly held the territory until 1149 when they ceded it to their eldest son, Henry of Anjou, then 16 years old.
There is little evidence of outright acrimony between Geoffrey and Matilda after Henry’s death, and fewer signs of discord once they were reconciled in 1131, albeit out of political necessity. That is not to say that they grew to love one another, but the birth of their sons appears to have put their marriage in perspective, and the need to fight together as a joint force was solidified by the death of Matilda’s father. If there was a silver lining to the war, it was that it usually kept them apart from one another – certainly after William’s birth in 1136, they spent much of their time in different locations.
Geoffrey died on September 7, 1151 before the conflict was resolved and was buried in Le Mans, the same location at which he married Matilda 26 years before. By this time Matilda was wholly devoted to the administration of Normandy and the war effort in England had been passed on to Henry.
Henry first entered England in 1142, again in 1147 and a third time in 1153, at which point he founded some success. By then, however, everyone was weary of the fighting. The Church brokered a peace between Stephen and Henry, which included Henry recognizing Stephen as king so long as Stephen named Henry his heir. When Stephen died in 1154, Henry succeeded him as King Henry II alongside his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, as his queen consort.
Matilda lived another 13 years in Normandy, presiding over the duchy as Henry’s representative. She died on September 10, 1167 in Rouen and chose to be buried apart from Geoffrey. Her tomb read, “Great by birth, greater by marriage, greatest in her offspring: here lies Matilda, the daughter, wife, and mother of Henry,” in reference to her first marriage. It was damaged and restored in the 13th century, and then destroyed once again by an English army (how ironic) in 1421 when Henry V was holding Normandy. What is left of her remains were re-buried in Rouen Cathedral in 1846.