Today’s Royal Family is descended from William I, a man alternately known as William the Conqueror or William the Bastard. Born illegitimate, he succeeded his father as Duke of Normandy and made a fortuitous marriage to Matilda of Flanders. Of their sons, two would become kings of England – William II (William Rufus) and Henry I. Understandably, much less is known about their daughters. Indeed, we don’t know for sure their birth order, lifespans, or even how many of them there were.
The White Ship, ladies and gentlemen. Or, as I like to call, the Titantic of the 12th century. There are some similarities, actually, though this one had a by far more marked impact on the English succession. The ship sank on November 25, 1120 and it carried many members of the Royal Family, not least of whom was William Adelin, Duke of Normandy and only son of King Henry I.
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.
There once was a woman who married the King of France and the King of England, and her name was Eleanor of Aquitaine. You might have heard of her. Not only did she marry her way into two of the most prestigious European dynasties, she also divorced a king on her way to doing so. Consider the outrage and disdain with which Wallis Simpson was met in the 1930s and compare that with the fact that Eleanor went through a divorce and came out on top back in the 12th century. Let’s just say there’s a reason she’s famous.
The Anarchy is best remembered (assuming it’s known to you at all) as a civil war between the unfortunate King Stephen and Empress Matilda. There was, however, another Matilda in the mix which does very little to keep things straightforward. There were also two Henrys, but isn’t there always?
Anyway, the second Matilda wasn’t Stephen’s rival, but his wife, and she went a long way in positioning him as able to claim the throne when the Empress Matilda’s father, Henry I, died in 1135.