As an extremely tenuous link to it being Mother’s Day I thought I’d discuss England’s first queen. Nope, not Elizabeth I. Her name was Matilda. She was also England’s only empress, although that title was mainly self-proclaimed. Never heard of her? That’s not surprising. She’s been largely forgotten. Partly because she was never crowned, but she was still technically queen.
During my UK travels I visited Dunster Castle, Somerset. While there I visited the crypt, supposedly the most haunted part of the castle. There was an exhibition about the supposed ghostly goings on there. One of the displays posed the question that perhaps it was slightly colder in that part of the building than elsewhere. And indeed it was! I really did feel the presence of a definite chill in the area. Clearly there was a ghostly presence using its supernatural powers to reduce the ambient temperature for some reason. Maybe it prefers the cold? I don’t know. But it was definitely noticeable. Admittedly, I also noticed that it was the only part of the building with an open window and just behind it was an open door through which a draught was conveniently blowing, but I’m sure that was just coincidence. ;-)
The castle may well have detailed its ghoulish claims, but it didn’t detail the rather interesting story of a siege that took place in 1138. The siege was undertaken by King Steven in the hope of conquering one of Matilda’s strongholds. Its failure resulted in the castle’s owner becoming the first Earl of Somerset (although the title was soon dissolved, partly due to the new earl’s poor treatment of the locals). Johnny Rotten and his Sex Pistol band mates may have been calling for anarchy in the UK during the 1970s, but it seems they were actually about nine centuries too late. The siege took place during a turbulent part of England’s history that has since been dubbed The Anarchy.
The Anarchy was a war that raged across England and Normandy between 1135 and 1153 (at that time Normandy was under the rule of the English Crown). The period is noted for the complete breakdown in law and order that resulted. The conflict was ignited by Henry I who, rather irresponsibly, died without leaving a definite heir.
Henry had two children, Matilda and William. But a maritime disaster (which some claim to have been caused by drunkenness) resulted in William drowning in 1120. Matilda had been married to the German Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V, until his death. She was then recalled to Normandy and instructed to marry Geoffrey of Anjou, despite Geoffrey being eleven years her junior and the couple despising each other. Henry I attempted to ensure his legacy by making his court swear an oath of loyalty to Matilda, but his choice of son-in-law wasn’t only unpopular with his daughter.
Geoffrey hailed from Anjou, part of modern day France. The region’s rulers had previously attempted to invade Normandy, causing the English barons to distrust George. This uneasiness was only fuelled by concerns that George would end up ruling instead of Matilda. And even if this didn’t occur, they were uncomfortable about being ruled by a queen anyway. As such, after Henry died, they decided to ignore the oath made to him.
Matilda was in Anjou at the time of her father’s death allowing her quick-moving cousin, Stephen of Blois, to capitalise upon his popularity with the Church of England and the English nobility’s reluctance to accept a queen. He claimed the throne and was crowned King Stephen.
But Stephen’s reign soon encountered problems. Power struggles between him and the barons caused them to switch allegiance and invite Matilda to invade. Matilda was only too happy to help with the baron’s difficulties so, in 1139, she and her half-brother, Robert of Gloucester, invaded following a major rebellion in the southwest. Geoffrey, meanwhile, focused on conquering Normandy. Her uncle, King David of Scotland, then crossed the border to invade northern England in support.
After much fighting and conflict things finally began to look promising for Matilda when, in 1141, Stephen was captured following the battle of Lincoln. This caused his authority to collapse allowing Matilda’s supporters to hail her queen and “Lady of the English”. She triumphantly headed to London for her official crowning ceremony, but there was one last obstacle in her path: herself.
Matilda was an unpopular, disagreeable and bad-tempered woman. While in Winchester she refused to speak kindly to the locals and was prone to flying into angry rages. It’s been claimed that she even punched her uncle. This is despite her uncle not only being the King of Scotland, but having helped secure her defeat over Stephen. Upon arrival in the capital her arrogance and irascible nature proved too much for the Londoners. She angered the city’s citizens so much that they rejected her and forced her to retreat before the coronation took place, meaning she wasn’t officially queen. Her next mistake was to refuse Stephen’s wife’s pleas for his release. These pleas were accompanied by promises that Stephen would flea the country and abandon his claim to the throne. This would have extinguished any competition for the throne and allowed time to arrange another coronation, but her refusal to release Stephen rendered him a continuing threat.
The angry Londoners joined a reinvigorated push from Stephen’s wife (who, along with his friends, couldn’t leave him languishing in prison) forcing Matilda to retreat back into her stronghold of the west. The conflict took a decisive turn when Matilda’s half-brother, Robert of Gloucester, was captured. Matilda was left no choice but to obtain Robert’s release. But there was, of course, only one price his captors were willing to accept. She had to release Stephen in exchange for her brother. Stephen reclaimed the throne and her battle continued. It involved several daring escapes, such as climbing over the walls of Oxford Castle late one wintry night dressed all in white for camouflage and crossing the frozen River Thames. On another occasion she pretended to be a corpse and was hidden in a casket. But she never achieved her goal. In 1148, after the death of Robert, she returned to Normandy, leaving her son to continue the campaign. Her fight for the throne was over. Stephen continued his rein and Matilda never achieved her dream. Well…except vicariously…
In 1153 Stephen’s son, Eustace, died, leaving him heirless. Matilda’s son, Henry, negotiated to end the warring if Stephen named him as heir. Stephen agreed and The Anarchy came to an end. Stephen died, in 1154, allowing Henry to become Henry II.
There is an ironic twist of fate to all this, though. The turmoil was caused by the death of Henry I’s son, William. But the future King Stephen had originally planned to travel on the same voyage, only he disembarked before the ship set sail.
Matilda died at Rouen on 10th September 1169. The inscription on her tomb reads: “Here lies Henry’s daughter, wife and mother; great by birth, greater by marriage, but greatest in motherhood.” Just like all mums, Happy Mother’s Day!