Archive for July, 2021

Book Review: Matilda: Empress. Queen. Warrior by Catherine Hanley

July 6, 2021
Front cover image

Catherine Hanley has written an interesting and highly readable re-evaluation of Matilda’s life which does much to tackle to inherent double-standards and unduly critical scholarship which has accumulated over the centuries since she fought for her place in the English royal succession.

Matilda was born into a turbulent age; daughter of an autocratic and ruthlessly determined king who displaced and imprisoned his older brother to seize the throne and during a period of English history where being at the right place at the right time seemed more likely to win you a crown than the laws of primogeniture.

Much of her life was decided for her by others – her father sent her across the sea to be married to the Holy Roman Emperor at just eight years of age; ensuring that she would very see her mother or brother again and having spent her whole adult life in Germany, had her recalled to England after her husband’s death and uprooted from her adopted culture, language and significant personal authority only to bend her to his will once more in the form of another arranged marriage to a teenager of lesser status. Matilda was expected to yield to his wishes and she complied under pressure but in the hope of becoming his elected heir and successor to the throne.

The loss of Matilda’s younger brother, William Aethling in the White Ship disaster had propelled Matilda forward from Countess of Anjou to prospective royal heir as all King Henry’s other sons were illegitimate. Although William the Conqueror had also been famously illegitimate, this seems to have become more of a bar to succession than being female at this point. Robert of Gloucester proved to be exceptionally loyal to his half-sister and her claim and there never seemed to be any serious consideration that he might become king anymore than his other illegitimate siblings.

Although the succession was fluid during this period and there was room for an opportunistic candidate to slip past the front-runner, Henry I did compel the barons to swear an oath of loyalty to Matilda, as his chosen heir. He might have been better placed if he had had her crowned during his life time as the French Capetian kings preferred to do as oath swearing didn’t seem to count for much when it came to honouring those obligations and before Matilda had even heard of her father’s death, she was supplanted in much the same way as Robert Curthose had been in the previous generation by her cousin Stephen of Blois.

King Stephen of Blois

Much has been made of her pregnancy and gender; of her lack of authority and slow reaction to events when Stephen rushed to be crowned, yet Robert Curthose had been returning from crusade and on honeymoon when he was usurped by her father. The divide of the English Channel had played a highly significant part in the course of events in the preceding period of English history and it did so again in this case; slowing the dissemination of news and hampering response times and further, despite the poor timing of the pregnancy and birth, Matilda was in the process of creating another male heir who would, if anything, strengthen her hand in the long-term.

Her father’s choice of husband has been used as another criticism of Matilda’s candidacy and yet she made the best of the situation that was handed to her. Geoffrey of Anjou was certainly not her preferred choice of spouse. He was almost a generation younger than her, immediately alienated her father and put her in an invidious position, caught between loyalty to her father and her husband and was of far less exalted status than her first husband. Their marriage floundered and she tried to break away from his control but was forced to return to her wifely duties and get male heirs, which she accomplished far more easily than her own father had managed. Matilda has been criticised for the rift that Geoffrey created with her father in his final years, yet it was none of her making and she tried to act in the traditional and accepted female role of intercessor between them. Henry made his own problems here by compelling her to join with Geoffrey and failing to see that he would flex his muscles once elevated by the marriage.

Henry also seems to have over-looked how the Anglo-Norman barons would view Matilda’s husband and the role he might play as consort to her once she was Queen of England thus creating another impediment to the smooth transition of the succession which seems at odds with his usually considered and cunning approach to statecraft. Other than providing Matilda with male heirs, Geoffrey seems to have been more of a hindrance to her ambitions than a helpmate and showed little interest in her campaign to assert her claim to the English throne; preferring to carve out an expanded role for himself in Anjou and Normandy where he achieved much military success and proved himself to be a very competent political operator.

So, Matilda reached the crisis moment of her life impeded by the male relatives around her who should have assisted her, except for her half-brother, Robert of Gloucester who rallied to her cause and was to be a loyal and steadfast supporter for the rest of his life.

When Matilda finally sailed for England, she had most of the cards stacked against her. Stephen was a newly anointed king. He held the treasury and the ports. Although he was not ‘born in the purple’ like Matilda had been, he had enough of the Conqueror’s blood in his veins to be a plausible Norman monarch and he was a proven warrior who could fight in the field. In comparison, Matilda was a Countess, she was lacking in funds and soldiers, dependent on a few relatives for support to gain a toehold on English soil and female.

However, Matilda used gender to her advantage from the off-set. Claiming that she was merely visiting her step-mother, she was able to land at Arundel and stay initially with the Queen Dowager, Adeliza of Louvain and her husband and use her gender to prevent Stephen from forcibly seizing her into his custody. He made the decision to allow her to join her half-brother, granting her safe passage through his lands. It is hard to imagine a similar encounter if William Clito, the son of Robert Curthose, had claimed to be ‘just a house guest’ returning to England in the hopes of claiming his place in the royal succession.

Now Matilda was in England, re-united with her greatest supporter and safe in the heartland of his powerbase and in a position to strike out at Stephen who was already torn in several directions trying to put down small scale rebellions.

The problem for both Matilda and Stephen and even more so for the people of England who were about to become embroiled in the long-drawn out agony of the Anarchy was that they were so evenly matched. Neither side could strike the killer blow and establish their authority to rule. Both suffered defeats and sudden reversals of fortune. Matilda managed to win over enough support to raise an army but Stephen countered her with his own supporting barons and their forces. Matilda captured Stephen and appeared to be in the ascendant then had to release him in a exchange for Robert of Gloucester who she could not continue to fight without. Matilda issued charters and minted coins, held councils and demanded fealty; Stephen did the same and all the while England bled with lawlessness and famine and the people suffered with no end in sight.

Matilda was very nearly almost crowned at Westminster but was driven out by a force of Londoners who remained loyal to Stephen, she suffered defeat and rout and was in turn cornered at Oxford but managed a daring escape over the frozen river with a few supporters and got away to safety yet again.

Matilda’s escape from Oxford Castle

Both were worn down by their long battle for control and ultimately time decided the issue where force of arms and oaths and military manoeuvring had not. Despite having an adult male heir to succeed him, Stephen lost his son Eustace which opened up the possibility of a compromise deal whereby Matilda’s son, Henry FitzEmpress would become king after Stephen’s death.

Matilda had to face the bitter reality that she would never be recognised as Queen but could still exercise authority through her young son and Henry FitzEmpress relied on her advice and experience and her diplomatic skills during the early phase of his adulthood. She was to become a model for his own consort, Eleanor of Aquitaine of how a royal woman could administer huge tracts of land and act as a regent for a male relative, which medieval scholars and historians seemed to have no issue with; rather than appearing to rule her territories in her own right.

This is the crux of the issue concerning how Matilda was viewed in her own times and how, in turn, she has been evaluated ever since. Medieval men simply could not accept that a woman could rule in her own right. If she raised armies, laid sieges and defended against them, instructed scorched earth campaigns or instigated high-level diplomacy in the name of a male relative, they generally approved and praised her actions but as soon as she acted in her own name and sought to rule, then the same qualities they praised in a regent were condemned as unnatural and arrogant.

The ‘Gesta Stephani’ praises Stephen’s consort, Matilda of Boulogne for her rigorous actions in defence of her husband but castigated Matilda for exactly the same response to defending her own claims. There is a glaringly substantial double-standard at work here.

Queen Melisande of Jerusalem

The two contemporary female rulers in Christendom, Urracca of Leon and Melisande of Jerusalem were both compelled to marry so that their husbands could take nominal control as figureheads for their rule. They were urged to ‘act like men’ yet hampered from exercising full command and their personal achievements were veiled or actively subsumed in their husband’s actions.

Queen Urracca

Matilda’s training in Germany gave her vast experience of diplomacy and the exercise of power. Her first husband had been keen to train her for governance and entrusted her with huge authority when she was in her teenage years, acting as his regent in Italy. She had lived as an Empress and active consort to the most powerful man in Europe. She had travelled very widely and experienced the papal court in Rome; she had administered lands, governed and issued charters and been a patron and benefactor of the church. She had passed through the rigours of childbirth to ensure three healthy male heirs and achieved military victories which any contemporary male would have been praised for, yet she has been presented to posterity as an arrogant woman who was unsuited to rule England and failed in her attempts to oust the elected king.

I feel that Hanley is correct in her assessment that Matilda has been unfairly criticised and judged in away that her male contemporaries were not and that she is still suffering from those biased sources in the C21st. Whilst she was not without fault and clearly made errors of judgement, she did retain the loyal support of several key figures and ultimately she ensured that her direct bloodline would rule England for the next three centuries. England would have been far better off under her governance than it was under Stephen, despite being a very likeable personality. He would have made a very good lord under Matilda’s Queenship if he had not made the grab for power without having the necessary qualities to make a good king.

There could have been a more in-depth discussion about Matilda’s decision not to withdraw from Winchester when her forces came under attack from Stephen’s and also of why she refused to grant Eustace his estates which has been argued to have weakened her support from some of the barons.

In conclusion, I enjoyed reading this reassessment and would recommend Hanley’s biography which is well-researched and accessible. There is certainly room for more biographies of medieval women and I would like to read more about Stephen’s queen, Matilda of Boulogne, and think a dual assessment of both Matilda’s would be an interesting idea.