Matilda was born during 1102 in London, England. The first of King Henry I‘s two legitimate children, the young princess served as an important diplomatic tool for her father. Concerned with Normandy’s security, Henry arranged Matilda’s marriage to Holy Roman Emperor Henry V as an alliance against France. In 1114, the 12-year-old married the emperor and began her new life in Germany.
As Matilda fulfilled her duties as empress, her younger brother, William, was being groomed as Henry I’s heir. However, this situation changed unexpectedly in November 1120. While sailing back to England at night, the ship’s drunken crew recklessly crashed into a rock at the harbor’s mouth. The boat sank within minutes and caused many deaths. Unfortunately for Henry, Prince William drowned. Once the king learned of his heir’s death, Henry deeply mourned.
Although his succession plans had been ruined, Henry I tried to have another male heir. However, after marrying for a second time, the royal couple remained childless. Despite these setbacks, Henry still had one remaining legitimate child: Matilda. In May 1125, Henry V died, leaving the empress a childless widow. Seeing an opportunity to secure the succession, Henry recalled his daughter to England.
During Christmas 1126, Henry I gathered his nobles. At court, the king presented Matilda and proclaimed her as his heir. In return, Henry demanded that his nobles swear their loyalty to her. Although uncertain of a female ruler, the nobles swore to uphold Matilda’s claim. To further strengthen her position, the king arranged for his daughter to marry Geoffrey, heir to Anjou, in 1128.
Death of Henry I
On December 1, 1135, King Henry I died in Normandy. At the time of his death, Matilda and Geoffrey had two sons: Henry and Geoffrey. Despite securing her position by furthering the royal bloodline, Matilda’s claim to the English throne remained uncertain. Since she resided in France, English nobles began to debate on who Henry’s successor should really be.
Taking advantage of the uncertainty, Matilda’s cousin, Stephen, swiftly crossed the English Channel. After taking control of the royal treasury, Stephen was crowned king on December 22. With the support of the nobility and church behind him, Matilda’s claim had been ignored. Enraged at her cousin’s treachery and the nobility’s betrayal, Matilda vowed to take back the throne.
Despite her claim being denied, Matilda still had support. Honoring his oath, King David I of Scotland invaded England on his niece’s behalf. As the Scottish army fought against the English in the north, Matilda’s half-brother, Robert of Gloucester, also fought against Stephen. Although illegitimate, Robert had widespread respect, and his backing gave Matilda’s cause credibility. A civil war had begun in England and would become known as the Anarchy.
In September 1139, Matilda arrived in Arundel. Leaving Normandy’s capture to Geoffrey, Matilda decided to fight with Robert in England. After learning of his cousin’s location, Stephen besieged Arundel’s castle. Using her royal status as a bargaining chip, Matilda convinced Stephen to let her escape. Realizing that he risked open rebellion if he imprisoned her, the king reluctantly let Matilda go.
From Arundel, Matilda traveled west to Bristol to join Robert. During February 1141, Robert captured the king. In June, Matilda arrived in London and gained the title of “Lady of the English.” However, her demands for funds and her unpleasant personality quickly made Matilda unpopular. In response, angry Londoners expelled her and re-instated Stephen.
After retreating to Oxford, Matilda continued to resist Stephen. Realizing that her support was dwindling, Matilda decided to abandon England. Once landing in France, Matilda retired to Normandy in 1148. Although defeated, she supported her son, Henry, in his quest to overthrow Stephen. In 1154, Henry succeeded and became King Henry II of England. On behalf of Henry, Matilda oversaw his continental territories until her death on September 10, 1167.
Matilda spent the majority of her life fighting for the English throne. Although a legitimate heir, her claim was ignored based on her gender. Despite being discriminated against, the fiery Matilda refused to let someone else have her birthright. With the support of her uncle and half-brother, she almost became the Queen of England. However, her arrogant personality proved to be her undoing. Despite Matilda’s failure, the Lady of the English lived to see her son become king and establish the Plantagenet dynasty in 1154.
Castor, H. (2011). She-Wolves: The Women Who Ruled England Before Elizabeth. London: Folio Society.
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. (2020, January 01). Matilda. Retrieved April 19, 2020, from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Matilda-daughter-of-Henry-I