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.
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.”