Empress Mathilda (or Maude, both names are used) isn´t the most well-known of the English regents, at least not outside England. But as granddaughter of William I – better known as William the Conqueror and victor at the Battle of Hastings 1066 – and grandmother of both Richard the Lionheart and the reluctant signer of Magna Carta, King John, as well as a participant in the civil war known as The Anarchy, she´s an interesting acquaintance.
She was born on this day, February 7th, 913 years ago, 1102.
While still a child she moved to Germany to be wed to the future emperor of the Great Roman Empire in 1114, Henry V. Matilda participated in the ruling of the empire and also acted as regent in Italy in her husband´s name. He was almost 20 years older than her, and the marriage was to be childless. Henry V died in 1125, five years after the White Ship disaster in which Mathilda´s brother William Adelin, heir to the throne, had died and left England in a vulnerable situation.
Matilda hurried to her father Henry I in Normandy where he made his court swear fealty to Matilda and her future children. She also entered a second marriage, this time with Geoffrey of Anjou, count of Anjou, Toulouse and Maine, to defend the southern borders of the empire. The marriage was reputedly unhappy, both due to age difference and cultural barriers. The realm of the English regent at this time consisted of large lands in France as well. Together with Geoffrey she had the son Henry Curtmantle, later Henry II.
Geoffrey of Anjou deserve a special mentioning, not least due to his habit of wearing a broom flower in his hat, a Planta Genista in Latin, from which the house he helped found, The Plantagenet’s, derive its name. The first monarch to actually use the name was his son by Matilda, Henry, and the last one was Richard III
But back to Matilda; a female heir to the throne was nothing that was relished in 12th century Europe and the resistance among the barons, whose support was needed, was strong and Matilda was prevented from being crowned after the death of Henry I. Instead she called herself the Lady of the English (the empress title came from her position as empress in the Holy Roman Empire 1114 – 1125). Instead Mathilda’s cousin, Stephen of Blois, assumed the throne with the backing of the church
Together with her half-brother Robert of Gloucester and the backing of her maternal uncle, the Scottish king, David I, Matilda invaded England from Normandy in 1139, and action that initiated the civil war known as the Anarchy. This period will at a later point get a post of its own.
Matilda never won the war against Stephen, instead it would be her son, who at the time of the invasion had stayed behind in France. Henry Curtmantle, however, never defeated Stephen in battle, but instead made a peace agreement with him after Stephen´s son and heir Eustace had died, which meant that Henry would take the English throne after the death of Stephen which occurred in October 1154. Henry Curtmantle began his reign as Henry II in December that same year.
Henry would become a sometimes ruthless king that spent a great deal of his reign in the saddle, riding back and forth through his vast realm on both sides of “the narrow sea” (the English channel) in an effort to keep it together. I have written briefly about him in my previous post about the murder of Thomas Becket (yet to be translated). He was the first to use the name Plantagenet and would later become dad to the latter day legend Richard the Lionheart.
Matilda herself withdraw to Normandy in 1148 but to a high extent functioned as a political advisor for her son, not least did she try to mediate in the conflict between Henry and Becket
She died in 1167, 65 years old and was put to her final rest in Bec Abbey in Normandy.
Sources: The Plantagentes; the warrior kings and queens who made England – Dan Jones
A History of Britain 3000 BC-AD 1603 – Simon Schama
For a fictional account of Mathilda, I recommend the book Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet, or for that matter the tv-series with the same name based on said book.