Born in 1102 to Henry I of England and his first wife Matilda, the Empress Matilda has gone down in history as one of Medieval England's most badass female rulers. She was married off at the age of seven to Henry V, The Holy Roman Emperor and began a new life in a foreign country. When her brother died in the White Ship disaster of 1120, Henry I indicated that he wanted Matilda to succeed him after his death. Her cousin Stephen though, had other plans, and he quickly acceded the throne while Matilda was in Anjou. She launched her own campaign to win back the crown however and challenged Stephen.
Let's have a look at some of her bravest and notable moments.
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1. She walked six miles in the snow - in the middle of the night - to escape from a castle that was under siege.
By 1142 Matilda was essentially a wanted woman, with Stephen's army following her and besieging each castle she stopped at, to try to flush her out and surrender. But surrendering wasn't for Matilda. On a freezing cold, snowy December night, while Stephen's army were settling in and expecting to see Matilda give up at any minute, she and four of her knights crept out through a tunnel in the castle that opened up outside the city walls. They wore white sheets over their clothing, to camouflage them from the freshly fallen snow and snuck past their enemies over the frozen river Thames. They trudged, crunching through the wet snow, for six miles to Abingdon where they collected horses and further supplies (and hopefully warmed up a little bit) and then went on to Wallingford.
2. She claimed the throne in her own name
Much is often made of the fact that Matilda secured the throne of England for her son, Henry. And she did. But despite there never having been a Queen regnant before and Medieval attitudes to female rule, Matilda's early campaign was fought in her name only. She was already an Empress: and so the leap over to Queen of England can't have seemed unobtainable to her. Up to 1142, she styled herself as 'Lady of England and Normandy', 'Queen of the English' and referred in documents to 'my crown' and 'my kingdom' and, most importantly, 'femme sole' (a woman acting alone).
3. She wasn't officially queen but had her own coins minted in England, issued charters and stayed in a royal palace under Stephen's nose
Yep, all this. She had coins minted at Oxford, Wareham, Gloucester, Cardiff and Bristol, despite never being crowned Queen of England. She also issued grants and charters under the title of 'Regina Anglorum' and she lodged in Stephen's royal castle of Winchester in the summer of 1141.
4. As a teenager, she ruled Italy as regent, with command of the Emperor's army
When her first husband Henry, the Roman Emperor, had to return to Germany in 1118 he left Matilda, as regent, in charge of Italy with command of the army. She was sixteen years old.
5. She escaped FOUR TIMES from Stephen and his army
When Matilda first turned up on the south coast of England to assert her claim to the throne, she stayed at Arundel Castle with her stepmother, Adeliza. When Stephen found out, Adeliza maintained that Matilda was only there on a social visit as her guest, and Stephen let Matilda go. Her threat became more real, however in subsequent months, and he and his army tried to defeat and capture her and her forces on three other occasions - at the Siege of Lincoln in 1141, the Rout of Winchester (also in 1141) and Oxford Castle in 1142. She escaped them all.
6. She ran, like an action movie star, from a burning castle and flame-filled town
In the Rout of Winchester in September 1141, Stephen's forces set fire to the city, so that Matilda's supplies would struggle to get in and also to force her army to come out of the siege. An escape plan was hatched, and Matilda left the castle without being seen by the royal troops, with just a few of her knights.
7. She told the Archbishop of Canterbury a thing or two
During a breakdown in the relationship with her son Henry II and the Archbishop, Thomas Beckett, Matilda intervened. But she ended up treating the Archbishop a little like a naughty toddler. In a letter to him, she says that his behaviour was 'very grave to the king and his barons', and 'though he loved and honoured you and made you lord of his whole kingdom and all his lands, and raised you to greater honour than anyone in his own land,' Beckett had 'disturbed his whole kingdom against him'. She finishes the letter by saying: 'one more thing I tell you truly, that you cannot recover the grace of the king except by great humility and most evident moderation.' So that was the Archbishop told.
8. She never gave up her personal claim to the throne
After being besieged, slated for her strong attitude and driven out of London just before her coronation, Matilda realised she would never be Queen Regnant of England. The Middle Ages were just not ready for a female ruler. So she changed her focus and turned her efforts to advancing the claim of her son, Henry. But she didn't completely relinquish her title. Henry's claim to the throne was through her, as he gave himself the name Henry FitzEmpress - meaning he was from the Empress - and based his right through his mother, as Henry I's daughter.
9. She set a precedent for claiming rule through the female line... along with blazing a trail for more badass women rulers to follow
As Henry had asserted his right to rule through his mother, this set a precedent in Norman Britain for women to be counted in the succession. Without this, the Tudor Dynasty would never have been able to set its roots. The first Queen Regnant in England was Mary I, in 1553, four hundred years after Matilda. Matilda might have failed in getting herself crowned as rightful ruler, but she paved the way for others to take the female line more seriously. And her strength, attitude and courage would have rubbed off on others, including her daughter-in-law, the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine.
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A Letter from Empress Matilda, Queen of the Romans to Archbishop Thomas Beckett, accessed 9 June 2020
Catherine Hanley, Matilda: Queen, Empress, Warrior, 2019.
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