Book Review: The Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the English

By Catherine Capel

Twice a month we’ll be recommending some of our favourite fiction and non-fiction historical works focussing on queenship, and reviewing other cornerstone works for you. This month, Cathy Capel is picking out two works which have been integral to her studies!

Marjorie Chibnall, The Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the English, Chichester 1991.

Marjorie Chibnall’s biography on the Empress Matilda is one which remains a go to text for students of the Anglo-Angevin civil war, medieval female rulership, gender and politics, and female biography two decades after it was first published. The previous scholarship which studied the tumultuous events of Stephen’s reign presented well-researched arguments  and a compelling analysis of the events during the civil war period but they were largely missing one key element – the women.

The Empress Matilda was one of the key players during this period, she was the other claimant to the throne, but her contributions and importance to the conflict have been majoritively overlooked until Chibnall’s biography was released. The work is divided into chronological chapters which are characterised by important events in her life – from her first marriage to Emperor Henry V through to her retirement in Normandy and her death. The order of the bibliography is synonymous to the empress’s famous epitaph – ‘great by birth, greater by marriage, greatest by her offspring: here lies Matilda, the daughter, wife and mother of Henry’ – even using elements of the inscription as chapter titles. This creates an easy-to-read account of her life whilst sign posting the key themes of the study. The three chapters which stand out most to this reviewer are ‘Political Inheritance’ (chapter 3), ‘Disputed Succession’ (chapter 4) and ‘Lady of the English’ (chapter 5). They cover the years of Matilda’s life where her status as an heiress and her position in the line of succession in England had their most prominence and impact on events. Chibnall engages successfully with the aspects that affected Matilda and her ability to succeed her father, and the role she played on the early stages of the civil war. In particular, during chapter 5 Chibnall covers the aftermath of the Battle of Lincoln and the almost victory of the empress over Stephen. In previous historiography, the emphasis has been on the impact this had on the men during the period –  Stephen in prison, Robert of Gloucester leading the empress’s forces and William of Ypres forming the counterattack. The Empress Matilda, and her counterpart Queen Matilda, are only given a passing mention in terms of the Route of Winchester and their contributions to the wider period are not taken into context.

This biography is also the first which seriously covers the empress’s impressive political career in Germany, England and Normandy. Chibnall’s in depth examination of her charters and her representation in contemporary chronicles recognises the importance she played as an individual without focusing primarily on her gendered failings. Through her charters, Chibnall establishes Matilda as the political player she is, plotting her movements during the civil war, highlighting the supporters she won and lost and the strategic moves she made. As charters are perhaps the best way to show elite women’s involvement in government, administration and political matters, Chibnall is arguably the first scholar to sincerely consider the empress as someone who was able to exist in all of these realms. As to her consideration of Matilda in charters, Chibnall does not rely on tropes such as gendered criticism to further her narrative nor criticise the empress’s actions and criticise she does. Instead she presents a more modern analysis of how her identity is shaped in contemporary chronicle sources.  

This biography covers many a topic and discusses the relationship between Matilda and other central players of the period but for this reviewer there is one topic and individual missing. There is discussion by Chibnall of the empress in relation to warfare, however it is not an in-depth analysis and does not consider the effects this had on her identity as a female ruler. Whilst Chibnall does not present an in-depth analysis of the empress’s military leadership, her biography remains a widely studied work which fully explores the political implications of the empress as an heiress. As to the presence of the queen, she is included in key points of Chibnall’s narrative, such as the events of 1141, but her wider impact on the civil war is not considered in depth.

It bears repeating that Chibnall has written a biography on the empress that shall remain on the reading list for studying female rulership and women in the political realm. The well framed biography clearly establishes Matilda as a female heiress and considers the wider role she had to play in the politics of England in the twelfth century.    

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