Biography of Empress Matilda, Contender for the English Throne

The Woman Who Would Be England's Ruler

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

Empress Matilda, also known as Empress Maud (1102–1167), the daughter of Henry I of England, 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 also a strong-willed and capable ruler in her own right, wife of the Holy Roman Emperor, and mother of Henry II of England.

Fast Facts: Empress Matilda

  • Known For: Member of the British royal family whose claim to the throne sparked a civil war
  • Also Known As: Empress Maud, Holy Roman Empress; German Queen; Queen of Italy
  • Born: c. February 7, 1102, in either Winchester or Sutton Courtenay, England
  • Parents: Henry I of England, Matilda of Scotland
  • Died: September 10, 1167, in Rouen, France
  • Spouses: Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor, Geoffrey V, Count of Anjou
  • Children: Henry II of England, Geoffrey, Count of Nantes, William FitzEmpress

Early Life

Matilda was the daughter of Henry I ("Henry Longshanks" or "Henry Beauclerc"), Duke of Normandy and King of England. 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."

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 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 Gloucester, was married to a Matilda.
  • The rival of 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.

Marriage to Henry V

Matilda was betrothed to Henry V, who later became the Holy Roman Emperor, In April 1110, at the age of 8. She later married Henry V and was crowned Queen of the Romans. When Henry V died in 1125, Matilda returned to England; she was then 23 years old.

Matilda's younger brother, William, the heir to the throne of England as her father's only surviving legitimate son, had died when the White Ship capsized in 1120. Her father, Henry I, therefore named Matilda his heir and obtained the endorsement of that claim by the nobles of the realm. At the same time, however, his first wife having died, Henry I took a second wife in hopes of fathering another legitimate male heir.

Marriage to Geoffrey of Anjou

Henry next arranged a marriage between Matilda and Geoffrey le Bel, often called Geoffrey of Anjou. Geoffrey was they 14; Matilda was 25. then called upon his good relations with Count Fulk V of Anjou to negotiate the betrothal of Matilda to Fulk’s son Geoffrey le Bel. They were married in June of 1127; Matilda was 25 and Geoffrey was 14.

After a brief but tumultuous marriage, Matilda attempted to leave her husband. Geoffrey, however, wanted her to return and, after a royal council, Matilda was sent back to Anjou. At the same time, however, Henry I once again required his nobles to support Matilda as his successor. Geoffrey and Matilda had three sons: Henry II of England, Geoffrey, and William.

Death of Henry I

Matilda’s father, Henry I, died in December 1135. Quickly thereafter Stephen of Blois stepped up to claim Henry's throne. Stephen was Henry's favorite nephew and had been endowed by the deceased king with both lands and riches. Despite having pledged themselves to Matilda, many of Henry's followers reneged on their pledge and followed Stephen, preferring a British male king to a female ruler with a foreign husband. Matilda and her supporters—including Robert of Gloucester and King David I of Scotland—stood up to oppose Stephen, and so began the 19-year civil war known as "The Anarchy."

"The Anarchy"

For several years, between 1138 and 1141, skirmishes between Matilda and Stephen led to castles and lands being taken and lost. Each time one of the contenders seemed to gain the advantage, noblemen changed sides in the war. Finally, in 1141, Matilda captured and imprisoned Stephen. She then made preparations for her coronation in London.

On her arrival, however, Matilda immediately began imposing taxes and removing privileges from her soon-to-be subjects. These actions were poorly received and, before Matilda could be crowned, Stephen's wife was able to raise an army against Matilda and her supporters.

Unable to defeat Stephen's army, Matilda retreated to Oxford and released Stephen from prison. Stephen was crowned King of England in 1141, and soon thereafter lay siege to Matilda. Matilda escaped across the Thames River to Devizes Castle, where she set up headquarters for several more years of war.

Older Years

Finally admitting defeat, Matilda returned to France to her husband and son. After Geoffrey's death, she ruled Anjou; at the same time she worked to establish her son, Henry II, as the heir to the English throne. After Stephen's wife and son died, Henry was able to negotiate succession to the throne with Stephen and, in 1154, Henry was crowned King of England. His wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, became queen.

Death

Matilda died September 11, 1167, and was buried in Rouen at Fontevrault Abbey. Her tomb stated only that she had been the daughter of King Henry, wife of King Henry, and mother of King Henry.

Legacy

Matilda was an important historical figure whose battle with Stephen had a profound impact on the politics of her time. In addition, as the mother of Henry II (and the person who helped put Henry on the throne) she played an important part in the story of English succession.

Resources and Further Reading

  • “Empress Matilda, Lady of the English.” Medievalists.net, 9 Apr. 2013, www.medievalists.net/2013/04/empress-matilda-lady-of-the-english/.
  • “Queen Matilda, Empress Maud and the Civil War with King Stephen.” Historic, www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/Empress-Maud/. UK