Matilda, Queen of England?

On the night of 25 November 1120, the so-called White Ship carrying William the Atheling, King Henry I’s only legitimate son, his two children, and his half-sister along with some 300 others left the port of Harfleur bound for England.

It was a bitterly cold but clear night and with the sea calm the prospects for a swift and incident free journey looked good but many aboard were boisterous young men who in the hours preceding had been drinking heavily and few aboard were sober.

In an act of bravado Captain Thomas FitzStephen now vowed to make haste and overtake the King’s ship which had sailed earlier but just minutes after leaving port the White Ship hit a well known hazard often visible but hidden at high tide and in no time at all the wooden vessel was ripped asunder as the rock tore and slashed at its timbers and the water rushed in.

the white ship x

Panic ensued as the White Ship quickly capsized throwing hundreds of people into the sea many of whom could not swim. William the Atheling had escaped on one of the few small boats aboard but had returned to the scene upon hearing the screams of his half-sister only to drown when the boat was swamped by those still struggling in the water.

Only one man survived the tragedy of the White Ship’s sinking, a lowly butcher from Rouen named Berold plucked from the sea the following day and who would dine on the story for the rest of his life.

Upon hearing the news of the tragedy a devastated Henry I went into weeks of mourning but now with no prospect of a male heir he felt obliged to promise the throne to his only daughter, Matilda.

No woman had ever ruled England but desperate to maintain the line of succession he forced the nobility to accede to the demand that his daughter Matilda be made Queen upon his death but they did so only reluctantly.

Matilda, also often known as Maude, was born on 7 February 1102 and at the age of 8 had been married to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, and in what would become a characteristic of hers she would insist upon being referred to as Empress, even though she had never been crowned as such.

In 1125, Henry V died whilst on Crusade to the Holy Land, a passing not much mourned by his wife who had refused to travel with him and had taken to remaining silent in his presence. Not long after Henry’s death Matilda was to enjoy a happier union with Geoffrey of Anjou by whom she was to have three children.

The aged King Henry I died on 1 December 1135, and almost immediately the nobility reneged on their earlier agreement and refused to endorse Matilda as his successor instead supporting the claim of her cousin, Stephen of Bloise.

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Stephen was not only an ambitious man he had been a lucky one missing the sailing of the White Ship due to a severe bout of diarrhoea.

Upon hearing the news of Stephen’s Coronation as King, Matilda became incandescent with rage vowing vengeance upon those who had betrayed her and in what would soon become known as the ‘Time of Anarchy’ she determined to regain what she believed was her rightful inheritance.

But Matilda, described as being proud, haughty, bad-tempered, and disagreeable in almost every way was widely disliked. Few had a good word to say for her and over time she was to offend almost everyone who met her yet despite her personal unpopularity Matilda would always have her supporters among those who recognised her as Henry I’s legitimate heir and who disliked the way Stephen had usurped the throne. As such, she was able to raise an army substantial enough to wage war.

After two years of intermittent warfare Matilda’s moment came when on 1 April 1141, her army defeated and captured Stephen at the Battle of Lincoln. Imprisoned and threatened with death Stephen abdicated the throne.

Matilda had regained her inheritance but no sooner was the prize in her hands than she proceeded to throw it away.

Declaring herself First Lady of the English she set off to London for her formal Coronation as Queen but as was traditional the worthy representatives of the good people of London had made a number of requests upon the largesse of their new Monarch, in particular the desire that she halve their taxes. Matilda dismissed their demands out-of-hand, ordered them from her presence, and refused to meet with them again.

On 24 June the people of London proceeded to lock the gates and bar her entry to the city.

A furious Matilda, who was in no mood for reconciliation, accused them of being traitors and threatened dire consequences but still they refused to admit her. Unable to force entry there was little she could do.

In a state of high dudgeon Matilda, declaring her subjects to be being unworthy of her travelled to Winchester where she had herself proclaimed Queen of England, though it was not a formal Coronation.

matilda court x

Matilda would not make the concessions required to secure the throne nor would she delegate power or listen to wise counsel. When her cousin the King of Scotland journeyed south to persuade her to soften her ways she raged against him, threatened violence, and had to be physically restrained. Likewise, when Stephen’s wife begged for his release on the promise that he would renounce his claim to the throne Matilda refused to countenance any such thing and after a harsh exchange of words had her removed from her presence.

Indeed, so unpopular did Matilda become that Stephen’s army continued to fight for him even though he remained in captivity.

Indeed, so unpopular did Matilda become that Stephen’s army continued to fight for him even though he remained in captivity.

In November 1141, Earl Robert of Gloucester, Matilda’s half-brother and the key to her military success was captured and to secure his release Matilda agreed in turn to release Stephen.

It was to prove a mistake.

Stephen with his army still intact very quickly regained the initiative and with her support diminishing all the time by the late winter of 1141, she was to find herself besieged in Oxford Castle where she was to prove herself to be nothing if not resourceful escaping by having herself lowered over the walls and fleeing across the frozen moat into the snow covered countryside dressed all in white to hide her from prying eyes.

Moving from village to village sometimes hidden in a makeshift coffin Matilda made her way to the West Country where her support remained strong once escaping capture in Devizes by having, herself disguised as a plague victim.
Her tribulations had in no way diminished her sense of self and she would fight on but she would never again come so close to the throne as she had in the spring of 1141 when she had been Queen in all but name.

By 1148, she had returned to Normandy leaving the campaign in the safe hands of her son Henry. When Stephen’s only son Eustace was killed in battle the already ailing King’s spirit was finally broken and in 1153 he signed the Treaty of Wallingford agreeing that Henry should succeed him upon his death.

Just over a year later in October 1154, Stephen died and Matilda’s son was crowned King Henry II ushering in the reign of the Plantagenets and the woman who could have been England’s first reigning Queen 400 years before Mary Tudor had at least secured the throne for her family and created a dynasty.

The Empress Matilda, as she demanded to be known, died at Notre Dame du Pre near Rouen on 10 September 1167, aged 65. Her tombstone reads:

“Here lies Henry’s daughter, great by birth, greater by marriage, greatest in her offspring.”

One can’t help but think she would have been disappointed.

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