The Empress and the Tower: A Daring Escape from Oxford Castle in 1142

Empress Matilda

The Oxford Castle and Prison complex drips with history. Tracing its roots back to Anglo-Saxon England and the world of Viking raids and fortified burghs when towns like Oxford faced waves of violence and destruction; the castle has endured sieges, held political prisoners and undergone numerous adaptations as the technology of warfare and defence evolved over the course of a thousand years. It has provided defence and succour to inhabitants, justice and punishment for transgressors, stood with the crown and against it and was a functioning prison until 1996.

There is one particular incident though that will always capture the imagination of the visitor and which provides a direct connection with an individual and their struggle for power in a time of lawless confusion and deep uncertainty – the story of the Empress Matilda and her escape from Oxford Castle, cloaked in white and hidden in a snowstorm across the frozen mill stream in the dead of winter which changed the course of English history.

St George’s Tower, Oxford Castle

In order to understand the context of what has become almost a legend, we need to unravel the political events of the preceding period and what led to this episode and to delve into the psychology of the main players during the period which we now call ‘The Anarchy’.

Matilda was the eldest legitimate daughter of King Henry I (know as Beauclerc) and his queen Edith Matilda of Scotland. Matilda was raised for greatness and trained in the skills required of a medieval princess in order to make a spectacular marriage, advance her family’s interests, administer huge estates and breed future princes. She carried the blood of her Norman forebears; being a grand-daughter of William the Conqueror but also, through her mother, the bloodline of the ancient Anglo-Saxon kings which was to prove an important factor in her destiny.

Matilda was married at the age of eight to Henry Vth, the Holy Roman Emperor and set out to travel across Europe and learn the finer points of statecraft, religious patronage and how to rule as an imperial consort to one of the most powerful secular rulers in Christendom. She wouldn’t have expected to ever see her homeland again but the fates would create a stony path for Matilda to tread in life.

Henry I was a ruthless and effective medieval king. He had inherited his father’s political acumen and ability to seize control of a situation to his own advantage. He managed to engineer his coronation despite being the youngest son of the conqueror by outmanoeuvring his older brother and incarcerating him for life. There continue to be rumours that Henry may have had a hand in the accidental fatal shooting of William Rufus in the New Forest too though nothing has been proven.

Henry’s weakness lay in the succession. Whilst he had managed to produce numerous illegitimate children with various mistresses who he used to build useful marriage alliances among the Norman lords, he had two legitimate children – Matilda and her younger brother William ‘the Atheling’ (of the royal blood). Henry’s own rise to power proved that being the natural heir alone wasn’t enough to ensure success and the price for failure could be very high when there were other ‘interested’ parties vying for power.

Tragedy struck and changed the course of English history when William the Atheling was drowned in the infamous ‘White Ship’ disaster of 1120 which wrecked his father’s plans, stunned the Anglo-Norman court and sent the country into deep mourning – not only for William but many other victims among the ruling class. Was it a divine judgement on Henry’s rule? Who would the grieving king choose as his successor and was there any possibility of raising another son in time to succeed him or would he look elsewhere to a fit, young adult male of the royal line who could replace his heir?

The White Ship disaster of 1120

Many eyes slid sideways to Stephen of Blois, the son of Henry’s sister Adela and her husband, Stephen Count of Blois. Stephen had miraculously avoided the White Ship disaster by a last minute decision to disembark due to stomach pains and had witnessed the unfolding disaster that would claim the life of his cousin. Some might question this lucky turn of events yet Stephen was held in high regard by many at court and Henry I seemed to turn to him as a trusted member of his extended family. Stephen would build a reputation for mercy and charming benevolence which perhaps suggests that he was an innocent bystander to events beyond anyone’s control yet it does seem convenient that he was saved at that particular flashpoint which would alter so many other destinies. Henry re-married, the young and beautiful Adeliza of Louvain and tried desperately to produce another son but the royal couple remained childless and Henry was aging.

Stephen of Blois

Meanwhile, Matilda’s destiny was about to be altered too. Having been a successful and respected co-ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, acting as regent for her husband in Italy and establishing herself as a competent ruler, Matilda found herself cast adrift when the emperor died in 1125. As Matilda had not had children and the new Holy Roman Emperor was a former enemy of her husband, she faced the choices of a nunnery or re-marriage to a lesser German prince or return to Normandy and her father’s court. Matilda choose this option and left the glory of her imperial past behind to put her future into her father’s hands.

Henry I expected unquestioning obedience from his now adult and experienced daughter and decided to re-marry her to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou for strategic reasons concerning his lands in Normandy but Matilda was less than delighted at this demotion in status and marriage to a much younger man with a reputation for rashness and even diabolical associations due to the legend of his family’s connections to Melusine, a shape-shifting sorceress! Geoffrey would prove to be a thorn in her side in more ways than one but she had little choice but to submit to the marriage, whatever her personal reservations were.

Geoffrey, Count of Anjou

Despite the marital difficulties and brief separation of Matilda and Geoffrey, she gave birth to a son called Henry after his royal grandfather and King Henry decided to finally concede defeat in the quest for a male heir. In a desperate attempt to secure the succession he compelled his Anglo-Norman barons to swear an oath to uphold Matilda’s claim to be his heir. Medieval oaths were serious and binding, especially when sworn by a feudal vassal to their overlord and Henry hoped that this would be sufficient to ensure that Matilda and her heirs would rule after him but again fate would intervene, for when Henry suddenly took ill and died a few days later at Lyons-la-Forêt in 1135, it was Stephen of Blois who was placed to sail immediately for England and seize the treasury while Matilda was heavily pregnant and unable to make a dash for the coast.

Possession being nine tenth of the law in this case, Stephen managed to pressure or persuade the Archbishop of Canterbury to crown him at lightening speed and garnered sufficient support amongst the barons to take the throne; no doubt arguing that as an adult male of the royal house he was the much better choice over a woman who was about to face the dangers of childbirth and was far enough away to be considered ‘out of the running’. Moreover, Geoffrey’s reputation was enough to caste doubt over his suitability to act as co-regent and many feared he would become the dominant partner, as a wife owed obedience to her husband in all things. Matilda was bound and gagged by the mores of her age, the implied ‘weakness of her sex’ and by the need for a warrior king who could lead his forces into battle despite her many skills, experience and attributes, her doubly royal blood and her strength of character.

Some of the barons who had sworn the oath to uphold Matilda’s claim also suggested that they had been compelled against their will by King Henry or that her marriage to Geoffrey had invalidated their oaths as they had never agreed to accepting him as part of the deal.

It is a testament to Matilda that she fought back, after a very difficult and dangerous birth and Stephen’s seizure of the throne. Matilda may have been at a disadvantage but she still retained the loyalty and support of several key figures including her uncle, King David I of Scotland, her half-brother, Robert of Gloucester and Henry’s widow, Adeliza who offered her a safe landing place on English soil at Arundel in 1139. Matilda was determined to re-claim the throne and secure her position and prepared to risk her own personal safety to achieve it but it was a struggle that would also claim many innocent lives, de-stabilise the country and unleash a culture of violent lawlessness and breakdown in the law which enabled many unscrupulous barons to settle personal grudges, take what they could by force and ride roughshod over the people in the process.

Initial success at the battle of Lincoln in 1141 saw Stephen fall into Matilda’s hands and her victory looked secure but Stephen’s queen, Matilda of Boulogne, was a powerful opponent and roused a force of Londoners to block Matilda, forcing her to flee the capital on the eve of her coronation; throwing the situation into a desperate race for cover once more. Following the ignominious Rout of Winchester in the same year when Matilda’s brother Robert was captured, she had no choice but to exchange him for Stephen and then in a further reversal of fortune she found herself encircled and under siege at Oxford in the winter of 1142.

After so many tragedies and triumphs, so many broken oaths and fractured relationships, what must Matilda have felt at this crucial moment in her life? She was the daughter of kings and conquerors, the widow of an emperor who had taken on the mantle of queenship and governed from her early years. Her father had been a forceful, astute, utterly focused monarch who had bent his subjects to his will and her mother had been a saintly figure, revered for her grace and piety. Matilda was an unhappy wife, far from any aid that her husband might offer her and separated from her young sons, who’s future depended on her success. She had almost achieved everything that she had longed for to see it snatched away within months and now she was encircled by her enemies in a war-torn country with only a few loyal knights to defend her against what looked like almost certain capture and capitulation. Stephen may not have been the ruthless ruler that her father had been and perhaps she didn’t fear for her actual life yet her mental state must have been desperately low at this moment. The castle couldn’t withstand a siege forever; supplies were running low and in the bitter cold of mid-winter and a ravaged landscape, how could Matilda alter the odds to fight on when she was cut off from relief by Stephen’s forces?

She made a daring plan to escape, making use of the recent snowfall and the castle’s location next to a mill stream which had frozen over. The traditional account and the most dramatic claims that Matilda was lowered down the side of St George’s Tower on knotted bed sheets and cloaked in white where she crossed the frozen stream on ice skates made from animal bones and accompanied by only a couple of her most trusted knights, slipped between the watch fires of Stephen’s forces while they drank the night away. Alternative versions suggest that she may have slipped through a postern gate at the rear of the castle but however she managed to evade capture, she fled to Abingdon and then Wallingford and broke Stephen’s hold once more.

Even hostile chroniclers like the Gesta Stephani praised her audacity and pluck at this pivotal moment which enabled her to fight on against Stephen’s kingship and ultimately changed the course of English history.

Later artist’s impression of Matilda’s escape over the snow in the winter of 1142

Some historians claim that this final effort against all the odds cost Matilda dear and her spirit was broken. There was certainly a stalemate between the two opposing sides that seemed impossible to break. Matilda’s forces were strong in the South-West, Stephen held the South-East and midlands. Neither figurehead could gain control over enough of the barons to secure a decisive victory and both figures had drawbacks attached to their claim. Stephen was considered to be weak and vacillating whereas contemporary chroniclers stressed Matilda’s imperious character and failure to show a proper ‘womanly’ submissiveness to her male advisors thought these were hardly qualities that would have fitted her for queenship but therein lay the problem – could a woman rule in her own right in C12th England?

Either way, Matilda returned to Normandy and concentrated on establishing her son’s claim and, working in conjunction with Geoffrey, to strengthen their holdings in Anjou and build a power base for the future. After all the struggles and bloodshed, economic impact and societal calamities of the Anarchy, when ‘God and his saints slept’, the country wanted a lasting peace settlement and so finally, after the death of Stephen’s son Eustace, Stephen agreed that Matilda’s son, Henry FitzEmpress would succeed him and thus end the cousin’s feud.

Had it not been for Matilda’s spirit and courage, her son would never have ushered in the Angevin Empire and English history would have followed a very different course. Henry FitzEmpress would do much to establish the English legal system as we know it. His spectacular marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine extended the gains made by his great-grandfather from the borders of Scotland to the Pyrenees and his sons would carve out their own niches in history, for good or ill and change the relationship between the barons and the king forever.

So Matilda was, in some respects, the ‘might-have-been’ queen that England never knew. She never became more than ‘Lady of the English’ but she acted as a bridge to a new era and through her tortuous pursuit of her birthright, the country was set on a new course.

If the stones of Oxford Castle could speak to us they would tell a complex and dramatic tale of human history. There has been great suffering within those walls, moments of crisis and conflict, fear and uncertainty and many lives lived on the brink but none more dramatic in the telling than that of Matilda.

Oxford Castle today – St George’s Tower overlooking the prison block

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One Response to “The Empress and the Tower: A Daring Escape from Oxford Castle in 1142”

  1. super blue Says:

    Reblogged this on murreyandblue.


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