Matilda - an Empress in the Thames Valley

Lindsay Mullaney, local historian

Empress Matilda, one of the most fascinating personalities of the Middle Ages, was probably born at Sutton Courtenay, near Abingdon, where the abbot, Faritius, was physician to Henry I and his wife, Queen Matilda. When she was only 6, in 1108, negotiations began for her betrothal to Heinrich V, the Holy Roman Emperor.  Matilda travelled to Germany, aged 8, to be prepared for her marriage, which took place when she was not quite 12. She was crowned Empress in Rome in 1117.

A contemporary illustration of Matilda’s marriage to Emperor Heinrich

As Empress, Matilda was loved and respected, but difficult times lay ahead. In 1120 her brother, William, Henry I’s only legitimate son, died at sea in the White Ship disaster. In 1125 Matilda’s husband Heinrich died of cancer.  Matilda returned to England, bringing with her part of the imperial treasury, including the relic known as the Hand of Saint James, which her father presented to Reading Abbey. The hand was encased in a beautiful gold reliquary, encrusted with jewels.

The St James’ reliquary may have been similar to this medieval example

Henry I, whose first wife, Matilda’s mother, had died in 1118, married Adeliza of Louvain, hoping for a male heir, but the marriage was childless. In 1127 the king ordered his barons to swear allegiance to Matilda as his heir. She would be the first Queen of England. Without their knowledge, and to make a strategic alliance, he arranged a marriage between Matilda and Geoffrey of Anjou, ten years her junior. The only barons consulted were Matilda’s half-brother, the illegitimate Robert of Gloucester, and Brian Fitz Count of Wallingford. They accompanied Matilda to Le Mans for the wedding. Though the marriage was unhappy, and at one point Matilda left Geoffrey for two years, they did have three sons, one of whom became Henry II.

Enamel funeral effigy of Geoffrey of Anjou

However, when Henry I died, of a ‘surfeit of lampreys’, in December 1135, it was Matilda’s cousin Stephen, son of Henry’s sister Adela of Blois, who seized the throne, aided by his brilliant but untrustworthy brother Henry, Bishop of Winchester. Stephen was also helped by his highly capable and resourceful wife, Matilda of Boulogne.

At first Empress Matilda remained in Anjou while Geoffrey campaigned in Normandy. Meanwhile Stephen faced rebellions in England. Then, in 1139, Matilda and her brother Robert crossed the Channel and began their campaign to win back the throne. A civil war known as ‘the Anarchy’ ensued.

For two years Matilda and Robert campaigned in large parts of England, particularly in the western counties. Brian Fitz Count’s castle of Wallingford was besieged by Stephen, but it was so strongly fortified that it never fell. In February 1141 the situation changed dramatically with the battle of Lincoln, in which Robert of Gloucester’s forces faced those of the king, led by the Flemish mercenary William of Ypres. The Angevin forces were victorious. Stephen was captured and taken to Matilda, who had him imprisoned at Bristol.

The Battle of Lincoln, from Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum

To take the throne Matilda needed the support of the Church and in March she met Bishop Henry and other clerics, including Abbot Edward of Reading, at Winchester. She promised to give the Church concessions and to be guided by Bishop Henry. The Empress, with her court, the Bishop and the clerics, went in procession to Winchester cathedral, where Matilda was acclaimed as ‘Lady of the English. ’ Stephen, in prison, let it be known that he was willing to allow the bishops and nobles who had sworn fealty to him to renounce their oaths.

Matilda now made her way to London. On the way she stayed at Reading where she was greeted enthusiastically by many of the townspeople and visited her father Henry’s tomb in the Abbey. She appointed one of the monks, Robert de Sigillo, who had been her chancellor, as Bishop of London. She issued charters, made grants to the Abbey, and received the surrender of Oxford castle.

Reaching London, and preparing for her coronation, Matilda met with the burghers, who were prepared to support her. But she lost their allegiance by forcefully demanding taxes and refusing to negotiate. She also rejected Queen Matilda’s pleas that her husband be released. The Londoners changed their allegiance to support the Queen. The Empress was driven out of London as the city bells were rung and her apartments were plundered.

The tide had turned and Matilda retreated to Winchester, where she attacked Bishop Henry’s castle but was besieged in her turn by the Queen and William of Ypres’ army. Matilda escaped and reached Devizes. From there she made grants to Reading Abbey, including the manor of Blewbury, for the loyal service of Brian Fitz Count. In 1142 Matilda was again besieged, in Oxford, but managed to escape, crossing the frozen Thames in white camouflage and reaching Wallingford.

Empress Matilda’s escape across the frozen Thames. From the banqueting hall at Cardiff Castle.

In 1148 Matilda left England and returned to Normandy, where Geoffrey was now duke. She settled at the priory of Saint Severat, near Rouen, and continued to work towards her son’s claim to the throne. Robert of Gloucester had died in 1147, and in 1149 her great ally, Brian Fitz Count, also died. Some sources indicate that he became a monk at Reading Abbey in his final days.

At last, in 1153, a peace settlement was reached. King Stephen had been devastated, in 1153, by the deaths both of his beloved wife Matilda and his heir Eustace. When young Henry FitzEmpress, now married to Eleanor of Aquitaine, met him at Wallingford they agreed the treaty of Winchester by which Stephen adopted Henry as his heir. When Stephen died in 1154 Henry was crowned as Henry II.

Henry II in Matthew Paris' Chronica Majora

When Matilda died in 1167, aged 65, she was buried in her favourite abbey of Bec. The abbey was destroyed by the English in the 100 Years War and her bones were lost, but they were rediscovered in the 19th century and she now lies in Rouen cathedral.

Empress Matilda may have lost the war of the Anarchy but in dynastic terms she triumphed as her descendants still rule today. She continued to act as regent in Normandy and to advise her son, though increasingly he came to ignore her counsel.

Matilda’s imperial seal - the inscription reads Matilda Queen of the Romans