Empress Matilda

The Woman Who Would Be England's Ruler

Matilda, wife of Stephen of Blois, pleads with Matilda, Lady of the English
Matilda, wife of Stephen of Blois, pleads with Matilda, Lady of the English. Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The inscription on Matilda's tomb at Rouen, France, read: "Here lies Henry's daughter, wife and mother; great by birth, greater by marriage, but greatest in motherhood." The tomb inscription does not tell the whole story, however. The Empress Matilda (or Empress Maud) is best known in history for the civil war sparked by her fight against her cousin, Stephen, to win the throne of England for herself and her descendants.  She was among the Norman ruling class in England.

Dates: August 5, 1102 - September 10, 1167

Matilda's Titles:

Titles used by Matilda (Maud) include Queen of England (disputed), Lady of the English, Empress (Holy Roman Empire, Germany), imperatrix, Queen of the Romans, Romanorum Regina, Countess of Anjou, Matilda Augusta, Matilda the Good, Regina Anglorum, Domina Anglorum, Anglorum Domina, Angliae Normanniaeque domina.

Matilda signed her name to documents after 1141 using such titles as "Mathildis Imperatrix Henrici regis filia et Anglorum domina." A seal described as reading "Mathildis imperatrix et regina Angliae" was destroyed and does not survive as evidence that she described herself as Queen rather than Lady of the English. Her personal seal read "Mathildis dei gracia Romanorum regina" (Matilda by the grace of God Queen of the Romans).

Matilda or Maud?

Maud and Matilda are variations on the same name; Matilda is the Latin form of the Saxon name Maud, and was usually used in official documents, especially of Norman origin.

Some writers use Empress Maud as their consistent designation for the Empress Matilda. This is a useful device to distinguish this Matilda from the many other Matildas around her:

  • Henry I had at least one illegitimate daughter also named Maud or Matilda.
  • Robert, Earl of Gloucestor, was married to a Matilda.
  • The rival of the Empress Matilda for the crown of England was her cousin Stephen, whose wife, also a cousin of the Empress, was also named Maud or Matilda.  Stephen's mother, Adela of Normandy, was a sister of Henry I.
  • The Empress Matilda's mother was Matilda of Scotland.

Empress Matilda Biography

Matilda was the daughter of Henry I ("Henry Longshanks" or "Henry Beauclerc"), Duke of Normandy and King of England. She was the wife of Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor (and thus "Empress Maude"). Her eldest son by her second husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, became Henry II, Duke of Normandy and King of England. Henry II was known as Henry Fitzempress (son of empress) in recognition of his mother's title carried with her from her first marriage.

Through her father, Matilda was descended from the Norman conquerors of England, including her grandfather William I, Duke of Normandy and King of England, known as William the Conqueror. Through her mother's mother, she was descended from more kings of England: Edmund II "Ironside," Ethelred II "the Unready," Edgar "the Peaceable," Edmund I "the Magnificent," Edward I "the Elder" and Alfred "the Great."

After her younger brother, William, the heir to the throne of England as her father's only surviving legitimate son, died when the White Ship capsized in 1120, Henry I named her his heir and obtained the endorsement of that claim by the nobles of the realm.

Henry I himself had won the throne of England when his eldest brother William Rufus, died in a supposed hunting accident, and Henry quickly seized control from the named heir, another older brother, Robert, who settled for the title of Duke of Normandy. In this context, the action of Henry's nephew, Stephen, in quickly taking control as king of England after Henry's death, was not really unpredictable.

It is likely that many of these nobles who supported Stephen in violation of their oath to support Matilda did so because they did not believe a woman could or should hold the office of ruler of England. These nobles probably also assumed that Matilda's husband would be the true ruler -- the concept that a queen could rule in her own right was not well-established in England at that time -- and Geoffrey of Anjou, to whom Henry had married his daughter, was not a character whom the English nobility wanted as their ruler, nor did the barons want a ruler whose main interests were in France.

A few nobles, including Matilda's illegitimate half-brother (one of more than 20 illegitimate children of Henry I), Robert of Gloucestor, supported Matilda's claim, and for most of the long civil war, Matilda's supporters held the west of England.

The Empress Matilda, as well as another Matilda, the wife of Stephen, were active leaders in the fight over the throne of England, as power changed hands and each party seemed ready to defeat the other at various times.

Timeline for the Empress Matilda

1101 - Henry I became King of England when his brother William Rufus died, quickly seizing control to displace his other older brother, Robert "Curthose."

August 5, 1102 - Matilda, or Maude, born to Henry I, Duke of Normandy and King of England, and his wife, Matilda (also called Edith) who was a daughter of King Malcolm III of Scotland.

She was born at the Royal Palace in Sutton Courtenay (Berkshire).

1103 - William, brother of Matilda, born.

April 10, 1110 - betrothed to Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V (1081-1125)

July 25, 1110 - crowned Queen of the Germans at Mainz

January 6 or 7, 1114 - married to Henry V

1117 - Matilda visited Rome where she and her husband were crowned in a ceremony led by Archbishop Bourdin (May 13). This coronation, which was not by the Pope though she possibly encouraged that misunderstanding, was the basis for Matilda's courtesy title of Empress ("imperatrix") which she used in documents all of her life.

1118 - Matilda's mother died

1120 - William, Henry I's sole surviving legitimate male heir, died when the White Ship was wrecked while crossing from France to England. Henry fathered at least 20 illegitimate children, but was eventually left with just one male legitimate heir and, at the death of William, only with Matilda as legitimate heir

1121 - Henry I married a second time, to Adela of Louvain, apparently still hoping to father a male heir

1125 - Henry V died and Matilda, childless, returned to England

January 1127 - Henry I of England named Matilda his heir, and the barons of England accepted Matilda as the heir to the throne

April 1127 - Henry I arranged that Matilda, age 25, marry Geoffrey V, Count of Anjou, age 15

May 22, 1128 - The Empress Matilda married Geoffrey V the Fair, heir to Anjou, Touraine and Maine, at Le Mans Cathedral, Anjou (date is also found as June 8, 1139) - the future Count of Anjou

March 25, 1133 - birth of Henry, eldest son of Matilda and Geoffrey (first of three sons born in four years)

June 1, 1134 - birth of Geoffrey, son of Matilda and her husband. This son was later known as Geoffrey VI of Anjou, Count of Nantes and Anjou.

December 1, 1135 - King Henry I died, probably from eating spoiled eels. Matilda, pregnant and in Anjou, was unable to travel, and Henry I's nephew Stephen of Blois seized the throne. Stephen had himself crowned at Westminster Abbey on December 22, with the support of many of the barons who had sworn their support for Matilda at her father's request

1136 - birth of William, third son of Geoffrey of Anjou and the Empress Matilda. William was later Count of Poitou.

1136 - some nobles supported Matilda's claim and fighting broke out in a few locations

1138 - Robert, Earl of Gloucester, a half-brother of Matilda, joined with Matilda to unseat Stephen from the throne and install Matilda, sparking a full-fledged civil war

1138 - Matilda's maternal uncle, David I of Scotland, invaded England in support of her claim. Stephen's forces defeated David's forces at the Battle of the Standard

1139 - Matilda landed in England

February 2, 1141 - Matilda's forces captured Stephen during the battle of Lincoln and held him captive at Bristol Castle

March 2, 1141 - Matilda welcomed to London by the Bishop of Winchester, Henry of Blois, Stephen's brother, who had recently switched sides to support Matilda

March 3, 1141 - Matilda was ceremonially proclaimed Lady of the English ("domina anglorum" or "Anglorum Domina") at Winchester Cathedral

April 8, 1141 - Matilda proclaimed Lady of the English ("domina anglorum" or "Anglorum Domina" or " Angliae Normanniaeque domina") by a clergy council at Winchester, supported by the Bishop of Winchester, Henry of Blois, brother of Stephen

1141 - Matilda's demands on the City of London so insulted the populace that they threw her out before her formal coronation could happen

1141 - Stephen's brother Henry changed sides again and joined with Stephen

1141 - In Stephen's absence, his wife (and maternal cousin of the Empress Matilda), Matilda of Boulogne, raised forces and led them to attack those of the Empress Matilda

1141 - Matilda escaped dramatically from Stephen's forces, disguised as a corpse on a funeral bier

1141 - Stephen's forces took Robert of Gloucestor prisoner, and on November 1, Matilda exchanged Stephen for Robert

1142 - Matilda, at Oxford, was under seige by Stephen's forces, and escaped at night dressed in white to blend in with the snowy landscape. She made her way to safety, with only four companions, in a picturesque incident which has become a favorite image in British history

1144 - Geoffrey of Anjou won possession of Normandy from Stephen

1147 - death of Robert, Earl of Gloucester, and Matilda's forces ended their active campaign to make her Queen of England

1148 - Matilda retired to Normandy, living near Rouen

1140 - Henry Fitzempress, eldest son of Matilda and Geoffrey, named duke of Normandy

1151 - Geoffrey of Anjou died, and Henry, who becomes known as Henry Plantagenet, inherited his title as Count of Anjou

1152 - Henry of Anjou, in another dramatic episode, married Eleanor of Aquitaine, a few months after her marriage to Louis VII, King of France, was ended.

1152? - Eustace, son of Stephen by Matilda of Boulogne, and Stephen's heir, died

1153 - Treaty of Winchester (or the Treaty Wallingford) named Matilda's son Henry heir to Stephen, bypassing Stephen's younger son, William, and agreeing that Stephen should remain king for the duration of his own lifetime and that his son William would keep his father's lands in France

1154 - Stephen died unexpectedly of a heart attack (October 25), and Henry Fitzempress became king of England, Henry II, the first Plantagenet king

September 10, 1167 - Matilda died and was buried in Rouen at Fontevrault Abbey