Miniature of Matilda (1188) at the crowning of her granddaughter, Matilda of England, as duchess of Saxony. Image Credit: WikiCommons.

By Gabby Storey

Matilda (1102-67) was the daughter of Henry I, king of England, and his first wife Matilda of Scotland. More famously known as the Empress Matilda and for her role in the civil war as she sought to claim the English throne, her early life as queen and empress is often overlooked.

Matilda was sought for an alliance from a young age, with the king of Germany, Henry V seeking a marriage in 1108/09. In 1100 Matilda travelled to Germany and was betrothed to Henry on 10 April in Utrecht. She was crowned queen of Germany on 25 July at Mainz.

Matilda and Henry were married in January 1114, and she played an active role in the governance of the domains, acting as intercessor and diplomat. Her coronation as Holy Roman Empress is dubious owing to her crowning by the archbishop of Braga in Rome in May 1117.

Henry had been crowned earlier by Pope Paschal II in 1111, and therefore it has been argued that Matilda’s legitimacy as empress stemmed from virtue of being his queen and wife at the time of this earlier coronation.

The death of Matilda’s brother William Aetheling in December 1120 changed the situation for Matilda. Though Henry I may have hoped to bear another heir with his second wife Adeliza of Louvain, this was not realised.

Henry V died in 1125, leaving Matilda as an imperial widow, albeit one who may have been expected to play a role in the designation of the next emperor. Matilda faced the choices of being dependent on her husband’s kin or entering a nunnery. She chose to return to England.

Matilda’s second marriage to Geoffrey of Anjou in 1128 was viewed with suspicion by some of the English court, according to contemporary chroniclers, although it was a suitable match with regards to political power balances in France.

The marriage was largely successful: Matilda and Geoffrey had three sons, Henry, Geoffrey, and William. After the death of Henry I in 1135, Matilda and Geoffrey worked together to regain her inheritance of the Anglo-Norman realms.

Matilda’s determination to secure her inheritance saw her transmit her claims to her eldest son, Henry, who successfully negotiated with Stephen to succeed to the Anglo-Norman realms, which he did in 1154.

In her later years, Matilda predominantly resided in Normandy where she acted as regent for Henry on several occasions and as patron.

Upon her death in 1167, Matilda was buried at Bec. Her epitaph  “Great by birth, greater by marriage, greatest in her offspring: here lies Matilda, the daughter, wife, and mother of Henry” has become her hallmark.

Recommended Reading

Charles Beem, The Lioness Roared: The Problems of Female Rule in English History (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006)

Charles Beem, “The Virtuous Virago: The Empress Matilda and the Politics of Womanhood in Twelfth-century England,” in Scholars and Poets Talk About Queens, eds. Carole Levin and Caroline Stewart-Nuñez, 85–98 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015)

Charles Beem “‘Greatest in Her Offspring’: Motherhood and the Empress Matilda,” in Virtuous or Villainess? The Image of the Royal Mother from the Early Medieval to the Early Modern Era, eds. Carey Fleiner and Elena Woodacre, 85–100 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016)

Marjorie Chibnall, The Empress Matilda, Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the English (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1991).

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