Thursday, 22 January 2015

52 Ancestors 2015 - Week 3 - Tough woman - Empress Matilda

The theme for the Ancestry Challenge 2015 for Week 3 is Tough Woman. Looking through my family tree there are many women who would classify for this title including my convict women who made a new home for themselves and their families in a strange land. However I decided to write about the Empress Matilda who should have been Queen of England.

Several years ago when we used to watch Time Team each week night on the History Channel, a number of the programs made reference to Matilda, Stephen and the Anarchy - the Civil War in England from 1135 to 1154. At the time I did not know anything about these people and the events except for the part of the story that the archaeologists uncovered. Later, when I discovered that Matilda was on our family tree I decided to find out more about this woman who was prepared to fight for so long for the role she believed was hers.

Matilda, also known as Maud, was the daughter of King Henry I (1069-1135) and his wife, Editha of Scotland (1079-1118). Matilda was therefore the grand-daughter of William the Conqueror and his wife Matilda of Flanders plus King Malcolm III of Scotland and his wife Margaret (later St. Margaret). She was born in 1102 - some sources give 7 February as her birth date - probably at Sutton Courtenay.

Initially Matilda would have been educated in subjects such as reading and morals by the women who supported her mother. Later she and her brother, William, had a religious upbringing supervised by Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury. In the Middle Ages rulers of European countries arranged marriages for their children for political gain so in 1109 Henry arranged for Matilda to be betrothed to Heinrich V (1086-1125) of Germany. A dowry of 10,000 marks of silver was paid to Heinrich. A betrothal by proxy was held at Westminster Abbey on 13 June 1109 and the formal betrothal occurred at Utrecht on 10 April 1110. Matilda was now 8 years old while Heinrich was 24. Matilda spent the next sixteen years living in Germany and northern Italy. As part of the marriage arrangements she received land in the Utrecht area. Bruno, Archbishop of Trier, was appointed her guardian until she was old enough to be married. While Heinrich was in Italy securing his position in that country, Matilda remained in Utrecht learning the German language and customs.

Twelve was considered the age that Matilda was old enough to marry Heinrich so on 6 or 7 of January 1114 she and Heinrich were married at Worms. By this time Heinrich had been crowned Emperor so Matilda was crowned Empress at Mainz.

Matilda supported her husband by sponsoring royal grants and sometimes acting as intercessor when petitions were made to him. In 1116 she accompanied Heinrich on his second expedition to Italy. The aim of the expedition was for Heinrich to establish his position in Tuscany after the death of the Countess of Tuscany, also a Matilda, as well as seek reconciliation with Pope Paschal II. However the Pope and his followers fled from Rome when the German army, led by Heinrich, approached in March 1117. Heinrich and Matilda were to be crowned by the Pope in Rome but instead the Archbishop of Braga crowned them in the Basilica of St Peter. Another ceremony followed on 13 May 1117. As well as the titles Emperor and Empress, Heinrich and Matilda also called themselves King and Queen of the Romans.

Meanwhile there was a rebellion in Germany and when Heinrich returned to Germany Matilda remained with the army in Italy until 1119 when she rejoined her husband in Leige. In November 1122 Heinrich was again accepted by the church hierarchy. Matilda was expected to produce a male heir for the continuation of the family but she and Heinrich had no children, certainly no children who survived the birth. Heinrich was 38 when he died on 23 May 1125. Matilda, now 23, was well experienced in the political and ecclesiastical power struggles of Europe, an education which help her in future challenges.

Matilda could have stayed in Germany and perhaps married another German prince but instead returned to England in 1126. Her father wanted Matilda to be recognised as his successor as she was his only remaining legitimate child after her brother, William, had died in 1120 when his ship sank in the English Channel.

In January 1127 Henry insisted that the bishops and lords, including her cousin Stephen of Blois, who had attended the Christmas court should swear allegiance to Matilda. In 8 September 1131 the lords once again swore to recognise Matilda as the heir of Henry I.

On 17 June 1128 at Le Mans Matilda entered into another political marriage this time with Geoffrey of Anjou (1113-1151). Her new husband was eleven years younger than Matilda - being 15 when they married. Initially the union was not a great success and Matilda left her husband and eventually returned to England with her father. However in 1131 she agreed to return to her husband and had a son who was to become Henry II (b. March 1133) and a second son Geoffrey born the following year. A third son, William, was born in 1136.

Matilda was in Anjou when her father died on 1 December 1135. Before she could travel to England her cousin, Stephen of Blois, crossed the English Channel to claim the throne. Encouraged by Stephen's brother who was bishop of Winchester, the Archbishop of Canterbury crowned Stephen at Winchester on 22 December. Stephen then applied to the Pope for his support and in the following months gained the support of many of the other bishops and barons in England and Normandy.

Matilda was not prepared to allow Stephen to just take the position that had been promised to her. Initially she established herself at Argentan and gradually began to challenge the support for Stephen in Normandy. She also appealed to the Papal Court in 1139 arguing that she was the true heir of her father and that oaths of allegiance had been sworn to that effect. Stephen made a counter claim that her mother, who had been educated in a nunnery, had been a nun and Matilda must therefore be illegitimate and could not therefore be Henry's heir. As the Archbishop of Canterbury had performed the marriage ceremony for Henry and Editha, the Pope refused to rule one way or the other. Stephen, consequently, remained King for the time being.

While her husband and his army continued to gather support in Anjou and Normandy, Matilda and her half-brother, Earl Robert, landed in Sussex on 30 September 1139 and thus began her campaign in England. She did have support from some of the barons and her uncle, King David of Scotland, had invaded the north of the country. A number of supporters of her father joined her campaign. Attempts at mediation between Stephen and Matilda failed and 2 February 1141 Stephen was defeated and captured at the Battle of Lincoln.

On 7 April Matilda was accepted by the bishops as 'Lady of England' and plans were put in place for her coronation. It was assumed that she would rule until her son would be old enough to be king. However her support was only from sections of the country including the north, under the control of her uncle, the west of England, part of Wales, parts of the Thames Valley and Wiltshire. There was some nominal support in other areas but as Stephen refused to surrender the crown many of the barons and bishops were hedging their bets. Another complication was that Stephen's Queen, also Matilda, had an army moved to London and was prepared to confront the army of the Empress on behalf of Stephen.

The people of London refused Matilda entry to the city and she retreated to Oxford. Stephen was released on 3 November but Matilda was to keep the castles and land that she had captured. However Stephen laid siege to the castle where Matilda was staying in Oxford until she and some of her knights escaped to Devizes in December 1142. She remained at this castle for the next six years before returning to Normandy. During this time she appears to have given up the idea of ruling England but instead put her energies into securing the crown for her son, Henry.

For the next 19 years Matilda remained politically active in support of her son. On 25 October 1134 Stephen died and Matilda's son, Henry became king. For many years she remained in the background advising him, including in 1157 when he was in negotiations with the Holy Roman Emperor re the fate of the mummified hand of St James. At times she acted as his deputy.

Matilda spent her final years in Rouen. She died on 10 September 1167 and was buried at Fontevrault Abbey. Many of her possessions were left to the church.

Matilda must have been a formidable woman to have achieved what she did in a political world dominated by men. Although the bishops and barons agreed to make her her father's heir they objected, in principle, to the idea of a woman as ruler. Many of the chroniclers referred to her as being haughty but it is difficult to ascertain what she was really like as so many of the original records have been lost and often the reports that still exist were written by supporters of Stephen. Matilda may not have been queen in her own right, however she did ensure that her son and his descendants were king until the late 1400s. It is unfortunate that it took a Civil War and the deaths of many people to achieve this.

Further information about Matilda:

Marjorie Chibnall has written a detailed article in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. [This resource is available online via major library websites including State library of Victoria]

She-wolves by Helen Castor contains several chapters on Matilda

Life of Empress Matilda - Scandalous Women

Matilda also appears in fiction including the novel by Ken Follett, Pillars of the Earth. In this work she is referred to as Maud.

Matilda was my 26 x great grandmother

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