How Empress Matilda’s Treatment Showed Medieval Succession Was Anything But Straightforward | History Hit

How Empress Matilda’s Treatment Showed Medieval Succession Was Anything But Straightforward

James Carson

10 Aug 2021
Image Credit: Public Domain

Matt Lewis was joined by Dr Catherine Hanley in this episode of Gone Medieval, to talk about one of the most fascinating medieval English royals. Daughter of Henry I, Matilda would become Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, heir to the throne of England and a warrior queen.

Packed off in an alliance forming relationship, later to be marriage, with the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V at just the age of 8, Matilda lived in Germany through her formative years before ruling parts of the Empire as a Consort. Through this, she gained the title ‘Empress Matilda’ and was later known within the Germanic speaking lands as ‘The Good Matilda.’ Good for her, given some of the other epithets used for royalty during the period.

The White Ship Disaster

Tragedy struck the Norman nobility on 25 November 1120 in the ‘White Ship Disaster.’ A drunken party ended with a boat containing many Norman English nobles striking a rock and capsizing. Matilda’s brother, William Adelin, was amongst the nearly 300 people that drowned. William was Henry I’s heir – and with no brothers eligible for the throne, this was bad news for the Norman dynasty.

The White Ship disaster cost the lives of nearly 300 English and Norman nobles.

Image Credit: British Library / Public Domain

Matilda’s marriage was also met with tragedy, when her husband Emperor Henry V died in 1125, probably from cancer. Matilda by this point was a stateswoman of good stature – she had ruled part of the Holy Roman Emperor and spoke at least four European languages. She would be a well qualified candidate for the English throne.

Heir to the English throne

Henry I then summoned Matilda back to England. She had become a widow aged just 23,  and Henry was looking to sure up his dynasty. Firstly, he named Matilda as his heir, which was approved by English nobles. Second, he betrothed her to Geoffrey Plantagenet, heir to the County of Anjou. You’ll hear that Plantagenet name again if you like medieval England.

But these arrangements were not quite as solid as Henry had thought. While the barons were in approval to Henry’s face, scheming nobles might well have other ideas once he died. They may well have been unhappy that their future monarch was a woman. Secondly, Empress Matilda, who had once been the wife of the Holy Roman Emperor, was now betrothed to an heir to just a county of northern France. He was also 11 years her junior.

The Anarchy

When Henry I died in 1135, Matilda was in Normandy to claim her inheritance. Sensing an opportunity, her cousin Stephen of Blois, sailed from Boulogne and had himself crowned King of England in London with baronial support on 22 December of that year.

What had happened so far was somewhat complicated, but what happened next is best described as complete chaos. Indeed, it brought so much turmoil to England that historians refer to the period as ‘The Anarchy‘ and the country was embroiled in civil war.

Spoiler alert, Matilda didn’t exactly win, but you might say she got a good compromise.

Empress Matilda podcast

In this episode of Gone Medieval, Matt Lewis was joined by Dr Catherine Hanley, who gives the insight into Matilda’s tumultuous early life, and the chaos that followed after her father died. Listen in, and you’ll be nodding your head in agreement that Empress Matilda was one of English history’s most influential women. You can listen ad-free on History Hit below.

In many ways, Empress Matilda can be seen as a pawn of the men in her world. Sent away aged eight to match with the Holy Roman Emperor, she represented status for her father and money for her intended. However, Matilda was independent, intelligent, educated and authoritative. Join Dr Catherine Hanley as she takes Matt through the early life of Matilda, her ascension to Empress and her changing position in the succession to the English throne. Catherine is a medieval historian, author and writer of Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior.
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James Carson