Matilda of England: Empress, Countess and Queen

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Portrait of Empress Mathilda, from "History of England" by St. Albans monks (15th century); Cotton Nero D. VII, f.7, British Library

Matilda I of England (1102-1167) is deemed so hazardous to the idea of male rule in England that she is listed in genealogies as Henry II’s mother and as both Empress of the Holy Roman Empire–a title that she held through marriage to her first husband Henry V–and Countess of Anjou through her marriage to her second husband Geoffrey (Plantagenet) of Anjou. But not as Queen of England. Geoffrey was the father of her son and ultimate heir, Henry II.

But Matilda was, in fact, a ruling queen of England. She became heir to the throne after her brother William drowned and her father, Henry I, died in 1135. To ensure an uncontested succession, he demanded that his barons swear fealty to Matilda as their ruler. Having married, reached adulthood and borne a male heir, Matilda was in a much better position than the young Eleanor to defend her newly inherited realm.

She would need it: shortly after her father’s death, a cousin, Stephen of Blois (c1097-1154), turned usurper and raised a rebellion among the barons. Stephen’s excuse was that Matilda, as a woman, was unfit to rule. Baronial support of Stephen’s rule may have been influenced by a fear that Matilda’s husband would rule England in her stead. Either way, none of them reckoned with Matilda. She may have been an empress and countess by marriage, but she was a queen by birthright and she wasn’t about to give that up.

Call it courage, fortitude or sheer pigheadedness, but Matilda fought Stephen to a standstill in a bloody and divisive civil war for the next 18 years. Supported by her husband, Matilda rode into battle herself, even capturing her rival at one point. They eventually agreed to a compromise in 1153. In exchange for ruling until his death, Stephen accepted Henry, Matilda’s son, as his heir.

By this agreement, Stephen and the other rebellious barons were able to sidestep the question of whether or not a woman had a right to rule (and therefore, whether they had been traitors to their feudal lord by oath). But in the end, Matilda’s dynasty won out over Stephen’s. And one of her distant descendants, Elizabeth I, would be rated possibly the greatest English ruler of all.