Empress Matilda: What Happened to England’s First Female Heir?

Written by Megan Crutchley

As we all get used to the idea of a king sitting on the throne for the first time in more than seventy years, it is fitting to think back to a time when only men sat there. But how did it come about that only men could rule? Tracing the royal line back to William the Conqueror, there have been but a handful of female rulers, and none until nearly five hundred years after the Battle of Hastings. Yet who said that it wasn’t the thing done to have a woman rule in the first place? That question leads us back to the early 1100s, a time when England was being ravaged by a civil war, with two sides split over who should inherit the throne: the Empress Matilda or her cousin Stephen.  

Matilda was the granddaughter of William the Conqueror and daughter to Henry I. She had one brother who passed away when his ship sank, leaving Matilda the only legitimate child of the reigning king. At the age of eight she was sent to Germany to marry the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, and that is where she stayed for the next sixteen years. The Holy Roman Empire had one of the most prestigious courts in the world–Matilda developed a strong sense of self at the head of such a great power. After her husband’s passing, she was made to return to England, and that is when she was named heir to the throne by Henry I and his court swore allegiance to her.  

Here is the first point of contention when it comes to determining why Matilda never came to be Queen of England. Why was it that members of the court not only did not object to her being named heir but in fact swore allegiance to her, if they did not think it was right for a woman to rule? It could be argued that they were only doing it to save face, not believing that there would really come a point where Matilda would be the only option as heir: she was still quite young and capable of bearing children, possibly male children, who would become next in line instead. Evidence to support this is the fact that shortly after she became her father’s heir, she was sent to marry Geoffrey Anjou, a French nobleman and a far cry from a Holy Roman Emperor.  

After being demoted in her marriage, Matilda still insisted on people addressing her using the title ‘Empress Matilda’ and included in her titles ‘daughter of the King’. This shows a clear determination from Matilda to create her own identity, and she further solidified her succession to the throne by getting court members to renew their vows declaring her the rightful heir to the English throne after her wedding. While in Normandy, she developed into a praiseworthy woman in one of the only ways she could as a female–through religious devotion. She made sure she was seen as devout to God and acted charitably.   

It was during her time in France that Henry I passed away. For unknown reasons, Matilda did not go to the English court straight away; instead, she stayed at a fortress in Normandy, giving Stephen, her cousin and one of the men who swore to support her as heir, the chance to take the throne without competition. Although contemporaries do not explicitly say why Matilda was delayed in France, it is believed that she was struggling with her third pregnancy and gave birth there. No matter the reason, Stephen betrayed her and quickly organised his own coronation. Here is another key moment that affected Matilda’s journey to succession – if she had been in London soon after her father’s passing, the throne would not have been left open for someone to take. Therefore, it is possible that no one would have questioned her accession at the time. But at the same time, that does not mean that people would not have betrayed her even after she had been coronated.  

However, Stephen’s position as a usurper king was not secure: he made enemies in the Church by arresting members he suspected were giving their castles over to Matilda as potential strongholds. The Church demanded reparations be paid to them by Stephen, and this set the stage for a more virtuous alternative to present themselves as ruler. Matilda took the opportunity and found support with her half-brother Robert, Earl of Gloucester. Thus, for the first time she was on equal standing with Stephen in the war for the throne. For the next two years, the country was torn up in a series of battles, until finally Matilda captured Stephen. She also won the support of Henry of Winchester, Stephen’s brother and the man who had coronated him. He advocated for Matilda at a meeting with the heads of the Church, defending his coronation of Stephen as being done in haste as there seemed to be no alternative and criticising him for only bringing war to England. Matilda offered an alternate solution: peace. She was recognised by the Church as the Lady of the English, and she only had to wait to be crowned Queen regnant, which was a title created for Matilda – her right to rule was her own, and not connected to a king. All she had to do now was have her coronation.  

It is here where public opinion of Matilda took a turn for the worse. Contemporaries wrote scathing reviews of her, and she was critiqued for behaving in an authoritative and arrogant manner – for acting like male rulers before her. She copied the models of the only rulers she had experience with, which were solely men. She began minting coins and granting charters, behaving as a ruler should. When she received negative feedback after she decreed she wanted to tax the public quite harshly, one chronicler, known for supporting Stephen, wrote about her reaction that, ‘every trace of woman’s gentleness removed from her face [and] blazed into unbearable fury’ and spoke of her ‘arrogant demeanour’. People who had supposed that Matilda would only act as a queen regent until her children came of age were realising that this was not what she was fighting for and this strong-willed queen did not fit in with their idea of a ruler.  

On the feast night before her coronation, the public swarmed the city gates and Matilda was forced to flee London, having never been crowned queen. Her political allies, like Henry of Winchester, switched sides again after this embarrassment, and her other biggest supporter, the Earl of Gloucester, was captured. She was forced to release Stephen in exchange for Robert; however, this did not determine who had won the war, as both sides had their weaknesses. Stephen had a reputation for ruining the country with war, and Matilda was guilty of the crime of arrogance. As a result, Stephen conceded to naming Matilda’s children his heirs, therefore creating the precedent that it should always be the first-born son who should rule. When Henry II was crowned, he acknowledged his mother’s important relation to the throne by always titling himself ‘son of the Empress’. 

When people look at Matilda through a modern lens, she is often painted as a feminist, a typical ‘strong woman’, however it is important to remember that Matilda herself probably did not see her struggle in that way. In fact, society at the time was not seen to be divided by gender, but rather by class. To Matilda, the crown was her birth right, and the fact that she was a woman was not really a reason in itself as to why she could not achieve the throne. At this point in time, there was no precedent as to how lineage should work in England – William the Conqueror’s sons had fought wars over who was to rule after his death, and it was his second-born, Henry I, who was successful. There was no law to say that a woman could not rule. Matilda was not trying to improve the lot of women in general, her pursuit of the throne was only unusual because no woman had happened to do it before. A lot of writings about her are quite misogynistic, but the Church at this period was highly patriarchal, and this does not necessarily mean that the rest of society was hostile to Matilda or her cause, although it is worth acknowledging that the Church and its writings had a lot of sway within society and over public opinion.  


Bibliography

​Beem, C. (2015). The Virtuous Virago: The Empress Matilda and the Politics of Womanhood in Twelfth-Century England . In C. Levin, Queenship and Power (pp. 85-99). New York: St Martins Press LLC. 

Castor, D. H. (Director). (2012). She Wolves: Englands Early Queens, Episode 1 [Motion Picture]. 

Lys, L. (2021, July 19). Empress Matilda: Lady of the English. Retrieved from Museum of Oxford: https://museumofoxford.org/empress-matilda-lady-of-the-english 

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