Tuesday, July 21, 2009
Empress Matilda of England
Empress Matilda of England was born in February 1102. Daughter of Henry I and Matilda of Scotland, granddaughter of William the Conqueror. Matilda, also referred to as Maud, was actually England's first queen, although she was never officially crowned.
When Matilda was seven years old an arranged marriage was made between her and the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V (this is where her title "Empress" comes from, although she was never officially crowned Empress despite the fact that she claimed she had been). In 1111 she was sent to Germany to train to be the wife of the emperor. Henry V and Matilda were married January 7, 1114. In 1125 Henry died. Matilda was now a widow at 23. She and Henry had no children.
Matilda's brother William also died (1120, drowned in the sinking of the White Ship) leaving Matilda her father's only legitimate heir. When her father officially made her his heir she returned to England. Another marriage was arranged for her. This time it was to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. He was nicknamed "Plantagenet" after the bloom flower (planta genista) which he took as his emblem.
Henry was eleven years younger than Matilda and they had a difficult relationship.There were frequent separations, often for long periods.
Henry I, Matilda's father died in 1135. Matilda was in Anjou with her husband so her cousin, Stephen of Blois (also a grandchild of William the Conqueror) immediately made a claim for the throne, breaking the oath he taken swearing allegiance to Matilda. He usurped the crown of England and was planning to do the same in Normandy. Matilda was too far away from England to stop him but she and Geoffrey immediately went to Normandy and began military campaigns to hold onto her claim. By 1139, Matilda felt secure enough in Normandy and turned her attention to England. She had every intention of reclaiming her inheritance.
The civil war that followed was long and bitter. In 1141, Matilda achieved some success when her forces defeated and capture Stephen at the Battle of Lincoln. Stephen was deposed and made prisoner. But her triumph lasted only a few months. As she approached London, the populace were eagerly awaiting her arrival. But then came word the Matilda would not halve the citizens' taxes. When she arrived at the gates of London on June 24, 1141, she found the them closed and the civil war flared up again.
Matilda's most loyal supporter was her half-brother, Robert of Gloucester. He had been captured as well. In November a deal was struck - Stephen was released in exchange for Gloucester. A year later Matilda was besieged at Oxford, supposedly escaping by being lowered from the castle in a basket and then fleeing across the snow-covered land in a white cape. In 1148, Matilda and Geoffrey returned to Normandy, following the death of Robert of Gloucester. Geoffrey then turned Normandy over to his son Henry (later Henry II of England.)
Young Henry showed signs of leadership. Though Stehen held on to the crown of England, his reign was troubled and his heir, Eustace, preceded him in death. In 1153 Stephen acknowledged young Henry as his heir. Matilda retired to Rouen and maintained a court there. She died on September 10, 1167. Her body was transferred to the Rouen Cathedral in 1847; her epitaph reads: "Great by Birth, Greater by Marriage, Greatest in her Offspring: Here lies Matilda, the daughter, wife, and mother of Henry."
The Plantagenets were to become the longest ruling line of kings in England's history, beginning with Matilda's and Geoffrey's son, Henry II (1133-1189) and ending with the much maligned Richard III (1452-1485). Among the Plantagenet kings are Richard the Lionheart (Henry II's son), John (another son of Henry II, who was forced to sign the Magna Carta),and Henry IV, hero of the Hundred's Year War.
Henry II made several important changes in the legal system of England. He established Magistrate courts and an early version of trial by jury. He was the first king to use the title "King of England." He established a lordship over Ireland, beginning centuries of war and rebellion in that country. He also took control of Scotland. Henry II was married to Eleanor of Aquitaine, as feisty as his mother. Then there was that disagreement with his old friend Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury ("will no one rid me of this troublesome priest")
The civil war between Matilda and Stephen has shown up in modern day literature, most especially as the backdrop in the "Brother Cadfael" mysteries by Ellis Peters. Other novels that feature Matilda are Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth, Jean Plaidy's Passionate Enemies, and Sharon Penman's When Christ and His Saints Slept.
Plantagenet kings abound in literature and plays. Henry II was played by Peter O'Toole in 2 films - Becket and A Lion in Winter. Two of Henry II's sons, Richard I (Lionheart) and John, have important parts in Robin Hood. And Richard I makes an appearance in Ivanhoe. Several of the Plantagenets are title characters of Shakespearean plays.
By the way, Stephen's wife was also named Matilda.