Speaking of English queens, 910 years ago today, Empress Matilda was born.
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.Her life starts out in the typical way for royal daughters: she has royal parents (in her case, her father was Henry I of England), who want to secure allegiances with other royals, and so marry their children (particularly their daughters) off to the best candidate to ensure peace and prosperity. Or just prosperity.
In her case, she was betrothed by the age of 7, married by the age of 12, and widowed by the age of 23. She and her husband, Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor, had no children, so she was then married off again, only this time to a lowly count.
She was her father's sole surviving legitimate child. (Her brother, William Adelin died in November 1120, when he was 17 years old, when the White Ship sank. This is the story alluded to in Ken Follett's novel, The Pillars of the Earth.)
Before his death, her father proclaimed Matilda to be his heir, and had all his barons swear fealty. But after his death, her cousin Stephen of Blois rushed around England, building support to usurp her, rallying various forces, and quickly had himself crowned king. He even got the blessing of the Pope. Likely, those barons who swore their fealty did not relish the idea of a woman ruler, and were more than happy to go back on their promises. Especially once the pope absolved them of their oaths to the dead king.
Matilda rallied her own forces and fought Stephen for many years, taking back all of Normandy, and eventually returning to England to fight there. After another several years of war, and reclaiming several castles, defeats, retreats, victories and the standard chess game that was war in the 12th century, she found herself surrounded, and it looked grim.
In December 1142, Matilda was trapped in Oxford Castle, and besieged. She made a daring and renowned escape across ice and snow at night, and evaded Stephen’s army. A year later, she also had to escape from Devizes Castle, this time disguised as a body being taken for burial.In 1147, she finally quit the warring and returned to Normandy. But she wasn't done fighting. Her son, Henry II, now Duke of Normandy, was her new hope, and she instilled in him his claim to the throne.
In the interest of peace, Stephen finally brokered a treaty with Matilda, and agreed to name Henry II as his heir, thus ensuring the progression of her line, even if she never quite sat on the throne herself.
In addition to a brief appearance in Follett's book, there are several good works historical fiction about Matilda. I've heard good things about Lady of the English, by Elizabeth Chadwick. I'm intrigued, and since I absolutely adore historical fiction, I may have to check it out.
Have you read it? What did you think?