The Anarchy, or what happens when everyone’s named Matilda

The Empress Matilda–or Maud, if you like; she’s called both–was born in 1102. She was the granddaughter of William the Conqueror and formed one half of Henry I’s small clutch of legitimate children. That matters, so keep track of it. Henry had 22 illegitimate kids, so a busy boy was he, and that also matters, but in the spirit of the times, not as much.

If you ever wanted to be a princess, scrub that thought from your head. It wouldn’t have been all floofy little dresses and as many desserts as  you wanted. Matty was betrothed at 8 and married off at 12 (give or take a few months) to the Holy Roman Emperor, who just to confuse things was also named Henry. 

Did I mention that Matilda’s mother was also named Matilda? It’s beyond me how anybody know who anybody was talking about, or even who anybody was. 

We’ll skip over the marriage: the dispute with the pope, the excommunication, the arrests of people you’ll never keep track of anyway. Aren’t most marriages like that? He –that’s Henry-the-husband; her Henry–died, they had no kids, someone else became the Holy Smoke Emperor, and Matilda was shipped back to her father’s court in a UPS van. 

Irrelevant photo: apple blossoms–a photo I stole from last spring. I’d tell you it was to remind us all that spring is coming, but really it’s because I’m low on photos and who’ll notice?

What were the choices for a rich widow then? She could remarry or she could become a nun. During some part of the medieval period, a rich widow was pretty much the only woman who could own land and have a bit of power in her own right, but this may not have been that time. Or it may not have held true if you were a king’s daughter, which is to say a useful piece in dad’s game of checkers. One source I read claims those were her choices. We can trust it or we can treat it with caution. I’m short on reliable sources about Matilda. The solid ones–the BBC, Britannica, things like that–get to the point but don’t have much fun along the way. I’m not sure how far to trust the ones that are willing to dish the dirt.

Anyway, home Matty went. She was now in her early twenties and her brother–the legitimate one, the one who was Henry-the-father’s heir–had died in a drunken shipwreck (that’s the crew and passengers who were drunk, not the ship), leaving Henry-the-father with one official daughter, scores of illegitimate kids, and no heir who matched the qualifications listed in the job description. There was no precedent for either a woman or an illegitimate son to inherit the throne.

Except of course for William the Conqueror, a.k.a. William the Bastard, but he didn’t inherit his father’s throne–dad was a duke, not a king–he snatched one for himself, which is a whole ‘nother undertaking.

Henry chose his daughter as his heir (keeping open the possibility that he might yet have a legitimate son) and had his barons swear (more than once) that they’d support her. Then he married her off to a French count, who at least brought a new name to the story: Geoffrey.

The marriage didn’t sit well with either of them. Geoff was fifteen (or fourteen, or possibly thirteen; dating either events or people doesn’t seem to have been an exact science at the time) and a mere count. And after an emperor, who has time for a count?

But Geoff’s father’s lands–which were soon his–bordered Normandy, which belonged to Henry. So jump into bed, kids, and think of England (or Normandy, or Anjou), because that’s what matters here. The marriage, from Henry’s side, was all about protecting Normandy’s borders.

I’m not sure what Geoffrey’s objections to the marriage were, but he and Matty seem to have hated each other on sight. Matilda was said to be arrogant and hard to like, but I’m not sure how much to credit that. It’s often said about women in power when it wouldn’t be said about men who behaved the same way. On the other hand, a woman–especially in that period–who hoped to wield power would have had to come on much stronger than any man if she hoped to get heard. So she could easily have overshot the target.

On the third hand, she could also have been a nasty human being. It happens.

Whatever was behind it, she pissed people off. 

Matty’s new sister-in-law had been married to Matty’s brother–the brother who died. Her name was also Matilda, so we’ve got two Matildas who are sisters-in-law twice over. That has nothing to do with the story, but I thought that was worth mentioning.

But I’m taking too much time with this. Mattie and Geoff had kids, in spite of not liking each other. Henry-the-father died (a surfeit of lampreys, which his doctor had warned him not to eat; bad king; see what you’ve gone and done?). And now we get a second person with a new name: Stephen, cousin of Matty, who popped up with the claim that on his deathbed Henry had changed his mind and named him (Stephen) his (Henry’s) heir.

Are you with me?

All this happened in France, so everyone who hoped to claim the English throne had to rush back to England. Except Henry. Being dead excused him from that. 

Stephen, not being pregnant, got there first. Matty, being (a) pregnant and/or (b) along with her husband caught up in some fighting in Anjou, didn’t. Different sources cite different reasons for the delay. One mentions (c) Henry’s entourage having to take time to bury Henry. Take your pick. Or choose several. Stephen got there first and had himself crowned while Matty was still stuck in Normandy. 

Those were the first steps toward civil war. Scotland invaded, since the Scottish king just happened to be Matty’s cousin. Matty’s half-brother Robert rebelled, backing his sister’s claim to the throne. The Welsh rebelled. Parts of the southwest rebelled. 

This might be a good time to mention that Stephen’s wife was also Matilda–Queen Matilda, not to be confused with Empress Matilda or the empress’s mother Queen Matilda. 

Stephen sent Queen M.–that’s his Queen M., not the previous Queen M.–to face down the rebels in Kent. I mention this because a lot is made of women during the period not being able to lead armies, leaving Empress Matilda having to work through proxies. I don’t know that Queen M. she rode with the army, but she was in charge of it.

From here on, we’ll simplify things. Matty and Geoffrey held most of Normandy (which was in English hands, in case you’re not confused enough yet) and in 1139 they invaded England itself–only Geoff stayed home to keep Normandy safe and warm. It was Matty and brother Robert and whatever troops they had who invaded. 

Stephen besieged Matty in Arundel castle. Then, mysteriously, he let her go and had her and her knights escorted to  the southwest so she could join up with Robert. They built a power base across the southwest. 

Matilda captured Stephen and was on the verge of being crowned queen. Stephen released his subjects from their oath to him. But she demanded taxes and refused to negotiate and London rebelled.  Or maybe that’s not what happened at all. “Sources are vague,” one somewhat vague source says. And here we have a second long-delayed link. I should’ve put a few in earlier, but this paragraph’ll do. Just to prove I don’t make this stuff up.

Whatever happened, a rebellion broke out and Matty and her supporters barely got out of London in one piece.

Matilda was besieged twice more. Once she escaped across the frozen Thames, camouflaged in white. The second time, according to one source, she escaped disguised as a corpse. (“She was dressed in grave clothes and tied with ropes onto a bier, and carried thus as a corpse to the safety of Gloucester.”) I haven’t found another source to confirm that, so I’d recommend a grain of salt to go with it. 

In spite of the setbacks, barons defected to her side. They held land in both England and Normandy, and backing Matilda meant Geoffrey wouldn’t seize them. But don’t get excited about it. Lords changed sides multiple times as the war went on. 

Queen Matilda (that’s Stephen’s Matilda) led the forces against Empress Matilda, eventually capturing Robert-the-brother and trading him for Stephen-the-king and three baseball cards. 

Robert died. Matty’s son Henry (yes, really) got old enough to join the fighting and the war swung back and forth at varying levels of intensity, with lords used it to settle feuds of their own, just in case it wasn’t chaotic enough.

Eventually, Stephen recognized Matty’s son Henry as his successor, edging out his own son William. (Matty’s brother–the one who died–had also been a William.) 

Stephen died before anything could upset the arrangement.

The period’s known as the Anarchy. It lasted almost twenty years, from 1135 to 1154.

Let’s give the last word to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, whose description is more or less contemporary. It takes a minute to drop into the style, but it’s worth the bother, because gives a flavor of what it was like to live then.

“When King Stephen came to England he held his council at Oxford, and there he took Roger, bishop of Salisbury, and Alexander, bishop of Lincoln, and the chancellor Roger, his nephews, and put them all in prison till they surrendered their castles. When the traitors understood that he was a mild man, and gentle and good, and did not exact the full penalties of the law, they perpetrated every enormity. They had done him homage, and sworn oaths, but they kept no pledge; all of them were perjured and their pledges nullified, for every powerful man built his castles and held them against him and they filled the country full of castles.

“They oppressed the wretched people of the country severely with castle-building. When the castles were built, they filled them with devils and wicked men. Then, both by night and day they took those people that they thought had any goods – men and women – and put them in prison and tortured them with indescribable torture to extort gold and silver – for no martyrs were ever so tortured as they were. They were hung by the thumbs or by the head, and corselets were hung on their feet. Knotted ropes were put round their heads and twisted till they penetrated to the brains.

“They put them in prisons where there were adders and snakes and toads, and killed them like that. Some they put in a ‘torture-chamber’ – that is in a chest that was short, narrow and shallow, and they put sharp stones in it and pressed the man in it so that he had all his limbs broken. In many of the castles was a ‘noose-and-trap’ – consisting of chains of such a kind that two or three men had enough to do to carry one. It was so made that it was fastened to a beam, and they used to put a sharp iron around the man’s throat and his neck, so that he could not in any direction either sit or lie or sleep, but had to carry all that iron. Many thousands they killed by starvation.

“I have neither the ability nor the power to tell all the horrors nor all the torments they inflicted upon wretched people in this country; and that lasted the nineteen years while Stephen was king, and it was always going from bad to worse. They levied taxes on the villages every so often, and called it’ ‘protection money’. When the wretched people had no more to give, they robbed and burned the villages, so that you could easily go a whole day’s journey and never find anyone occupying a village, nor land tilled. Then corn was dear, and meat and butter and cheese, because there was none in the country. Wretched people died of starvation; some lived by begging for alms, who had once been rich men; some fled the country.

“There had never been till then greater misery in the country, nor had heathens ever done worse than they did. For contrary to custom, they respected neither church nor churchyard, but took all the property that was inside, and then burnt the church and everything together. Neither did they respect bishops’ land nor abbots’ nor priests’, but robbed monks and clerics, and everyone robbed somebody else if he had the greater power. If two or three men came riding to a village, all the villagers fled from them; they expected they would be robbers.

“The bishops and learned men were always excommunicating them, but they thought nothing of it, because they were all utterly accursed and perjured and doomed to perdition.

“Wherever cultivation was done, the ground produced no corn, because the land was all ruined by such doings, and they said openly that Christ and his saints were asleep. Such things too much for us to describe, we suffered nineteen years for our sins.”

81 thoughts on “The Anarchy, or what happens when everyone’s named Matilda

    • Historians have stopped talking about the Dark Ages because it’s misleading, but I haven’t been able to make myself stop using it. I just checked with Lord Google about what period it covers and he tells me it’s from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Italian Renaissance, so yes, by that definition it was. I have a hunch that other definitions would end it earlier, but don’t trust me on that.

      I was in junior high school when I first read a reference to the Dark Ages. The name was intriguing and I asked our teacher what happened during them. “Nothing,” she said.

      I can never say I wasn’t taught any history.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Anarchy doesn’t seem too strong a name for it. It must have been a dreadful time to live through and Henry II ended up king anyway.

    On the subject of Henrys, I recently read Millennium which is mostly about the Holy Roman Empire. If the emperor wasn’t called Henry, he was called Otto. I lost track quite early on.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m glad to know it’s not just me. Not that I’ve read Millennium, just that all those people running around with the same names–. How did they trade gossip? It must’ve taken forever just to establish which Maud / Matilda / Henry / Otto you were talking trash about.

      Liked by 1 person

      • You could have mentioned that her paternal grandmother was also Matilda (of Flanders). That was how they distinguished between them. Edward II was Edward of Caernarvon, Edward III was Edward of Windsor, the Black Prince was Edward of Woodstock and his oldest son was Edward of Angouleme.

        Liked by 2 people

        • When I read one of Shakespeare’s plays in high school–and I wish I could remember which it was, but I don’t–all the important plotters had at least three names: a given name, a geographic name, and–okay, I might be making up the third one. But it meant that I was permanently lost. When I got a little older and started reading Russian novels, with no idea yet how Russian handles diminutives and patronymics, it was the same experience all over again.

          Liked by 1 person

  2. I could never understand where the “Maud” came from? I am pretty sure she was known as Matilda in the C12th. And plenty happened in the “Dark Ages” it’s just that you have to look harder for the information!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I spent years circling back to my teacher’s comment, trying to figure out how it was possible for nothing to happen. The more I think about that exchange, though, the funnier it strikes me and the more (sympathetic) ways I find to understand her side of the conversation.

      Any chance Maud was the French version of the name?

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, you are right, “Matilda” is the Latin form of Maud (I used to look at latin charters a million years ago when I was a post-doc Medievalist). It seems there were a lot Matilda’s around back then, her mother had the same name but was also known as “Edith”. very confusing.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Why of course. Hi, my name’s Matilda. Call me Edith. (And I’m half right: My guess was that we were dealing with one name in two languages, but I had the wrong languages. I was thinking England and France, but of course the Normans at that point would have spoken French, so I lose an extra point there.)


  3. That is crazy :) Thank you for telling the story – I would get on with history much better if more people told it like you do..

    On a semi-related note, I think it’s currently as bad in Greece with the names.. Something like 50% of the population has 10 names between them..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Ack! I hope they’re good at giving people nicknames. When I drove cab, there were two Als in one of the garages. They were Al and Big Al. In the village, people deal with the same problem by talking about, say, Mary’s Joe.


  4. I love this period in history, the barons in the North are also an interesting study at the same time, if you want to read a bit about it, there is a set of fiction books cadfael, its set in the same time, and the author adds bits of what actually was going on at the time into it, fairly historic although at times is flexiable

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I’m now waiting for Harry and Meghan to raise an army and march on Buck House. Queen Liz 2 has it so easy compared with Matilda, and the other Matildas, and Maud, and all those Henry chaps. Harry’s real name is Henry, I think – that could be a sign…

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I read The Pillars of the Earth a few years ago. That book took about nine hundred pages to cover that period of time. Your coverage saved a lot if time.

    Megan and Harry and Archie are reported to be having a lovely time in their new home. Harry is in constant touch by phone with William and his ither friends in England. Sounds homesick to me. Not sure he can settle down to a boring life in western Canada where like the Dark Ages, nothing happens.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I read the Pillars of the Earth too. I thought it was a lot longer than 900 pages. My copy seemed to run to thousands–many of them.

      I’ve been to Vancouver Island, even though I wasn’t fleeing the predatory edge of the press and I’m reasonably sure I’m not related to any royals. Or married to them. If you’re going to live someplace where nothing happens, you could do a hell of a lot worse. It has the only bit of old growth forest I’ve ever seen, and it was absolutely breathtaking–like being in a cathedral.

      Thanks for a good laugh.


  7. First, I wondered how Guantanamo Bay came up with their evil tortures, but clearly someone running that military prison must have spent way too much time reading the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle while he should have been reading a nice novel about a sweet dog.
    Second, I’m assuming these Matildas have nothing to do with the waltzing ones in Australia?
    Third, thank you for another informative post. I am so thrilled my granddaughter wasn’t named Matilda.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Some names drop out of use–and should. My grandmother was named Bertha. When they named a great-granddaughter after her, she said, “Why did they have to give that horrid name to that beautiful child?” Or something along those lines. The words have been jiggled out of place over the years.

      The ability of humans to cause each other pain and to degrade each other, I’m afraid, isn’t dependent on books. We seem to have that bit built in and entirely too close to the surface. I can remember when I thought we–or at least a good part of the world–had left it in the past, fool that I was.

      Liked by 1 person

      • My grandmother’s name was Betha – I always wondered if they had misspelled Bertha, but everyone denied it. No one ever named anyone after her as far as I know.
        Alas, you are a wise woman in many ways, not the least of which is your assessment of our capability to cause others to suffer, books notwithstanding.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you for sharing your post at B.O.S.S.
    Being a princess does not always turn out to be what it appears on the surface. I wish them all well, as I am very happy to be just me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Deb. I’m trying to picture it as a mini-series and–. Well, I struggle to recognize faces, so I usually end up with three or four characters I can’t tell apart. I asked my partner, when we were watching a recent one, which of the seedy brown-haired men we were looking at. So add to that all the female leads have the same name. Ack!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Ellen,
    What a story?
    Does this remind me of Romeo and Juliet, ‘What’s in a name?’ It is very easy to lose track of the “Matildas”
    I know that when explaining to current generations of these old days, its such a daze. Oh, the princess lived such a tough life!
    Enjoyed reading it.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Have you by any chance been watching the TV series of Ken Follett’s Pillars of Fire, currently re-running on one of the channels well down the EPG? That’s set in this period, though (having heavily hinted that Stephen might have had something to do with the ship-wreck and possibly poisoning those lampreys as well) it’s mostly concerned with fictional minor nobles and churchmen scheming, cheating and generally oppressing in more or less the way the Chronicle outlines. With lots of sword-fights and a bit of witchery as well.

    Of course surviving history tended to have been written by those favourable to Henry II (who is traditionally considered to have been considered A Good Thing, since he delegated justice to permanent judges). Favourable, because that’s how they survived.

    And Henry II married a woman with a track record not unlike his mother, which may be no surprise.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I haven’t been watching it. I read either all or part of Pillars of the Something or Other and got too weary to face his characters being dragged through yet another disaster. I think I did finish it, but I can’t swear to that. So watch it? I just can’t, no matter how well done it is.

      You’re certainly right about the way histories of the time got written–or at least the way they survived. It must’ve been a tightrope walk, living in any proximity to power.


  11. You make history almost comprehensible! I got a bit confused by all the Mathildas and Henrys. But, even so, I loved the idea of trading my brother for a husband and a pack of baseball cards. (I may be interpreting this to my own ends.) I’m also very glad I did not live during the age known as The Anarchy. (I’ll try to remember this as we go through the election year–at least there are no actual torture chambers with a box full of rocks to break a man’s bones!)

    Liked by 1 person

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