Matilda [Matilda of England] (1102–1167), empress, consort of Heinrich V
by Marjorie Chibnall

Matilda [Matilda of England] (1102–1167), empress, consort of Heinrich V, was the elder of two children and only legitimate daughter of , and his first wife , the daughter of . She was born probably at Sutton Courtenay on about 7 February 1102. A granddaughter of , marked out from birth for an illustrious marriage, she probably received some early instruction in letters and morals in her mother's circle, which was cultured and religious. When King Henry went to Normandy in the autumn of 1108 he entrusted her and her younger brother William to the spiritual care of Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury and former abbot of Bec: the special devotion to the monks of Bec that she showed to the end of her life may have originated in her childhood memories of Anselm. In 1109 King Henry arranged for her marriage to the German king, Heinrich V (1086–1125); a dowry estimated at 10,000 marks in silver was arranged, and she was betrothed to him by proxy in the Whitsun court held at Westminster on 13 June 1109. She made her first formal appearance in her father's court on 17 October 1109, when she added her cross to a royal charter establishing the see of Ely as ‘Matilda, betrothed wife of the king of the Romans’ (sponsa regis Romanorum; Reg. RAN, 2, no. 919).

Marriage and years in Germany

In February 1110 imperial envoys, including Burchard, later bishop of Cambrai, arrived to escort Matilda to her future husband. She left with a retinue of nobles and clergy, including Roger, son of Richard de Clare, and Henry, archdeacon of Winchester. Although Orderic Vitalis claimed that her husband sent them all home, it is possible that Archdeacon Henry, later bishop of Verdun, and some Norman knights remained with her. Her education, however, was to be completed in Germany, and it was in her husband's dominions of Germany and northern Italy that she was to spend the next sixteen years of her life.

Matilda landed at Boulogne and travelled to Liège, where she met her husband, a man about twenty-four years old, and performed the first of her new duties by agreeing to intercede for the disgraced Godfrey, count of Lower Lorraine (whose daughter Adeliza was later to become her stepmother). The royal cortège then moved to Utrecht, and the formal betrothal took place there at Easter (10 April). The dower she received in return for her princely dowry probably included lands in the region of Utrecht. Her coronation took place at Mainz on 25 July, the feast day of St James; she was anointed by Friedrich, archbishop of Cologne, while Bruno, archbishop of Trier, held her reverently in his arms. Bruno, one of Heinrich V's most loyal counsellors, was appointed her guardian when Heinrich himself led an expedition, partly financed by her dowry, to Italy to secure his position there, and to extort coronation as emperor from Pope Paschal II. In his absence she remained at Trier to learn the German language and German customs, so as to be ready to undertake the duties of queen when she reached the canonical age for marriage.

On 6 or 7 January 1114, shortly before her twelfth birthday, Matilda was married to the newly crowned emperor at Worms and then crowned again at Mainz. The magnificent nuptials were attended, according to one anonymous German chronicler, by five dukes, five archbishops, thirty bishops, and innumerable counts and abbots. The hopes that she would become the mother of an heir to the empire were disappointed; no children survived from this marriage, though one chronicler stated not implausibly that she gave birth to one child who did not live. She proved to be a loyal and able queen consort, who carried out the onerous duties of her office with dignity. From the first she frequently sponsored royal grants and acted as intercessor in presenting petitions to her husband. During a reign in which his realm was torn by civil war, and he himself was excommunicated as a result of quarrels with the pope over investiture, she gave him loyal support, and frequently acted as regent during his absence on campaigns. She accompanied him on his second Italian expedition in 1116, when he went to seek reconciliation with Paschal II and to establish his position in Tuscany by taking up his contested rights under the will of Matilda, countess of Tuscany. The expedition crossed the Alps by the St Bernard Pass in March 1116, and proceeded through Lombardy to the Tuscan castle of Canossa. There feudal vassals of the old Matilda welcomed the royal pair in the hope that the new young Matilda might, with her husband, take the place of the old. Unfortunately it proved impossible to make peace with Paschal II, who withdrew in panic to Monte Cassino when the German army approached Rome in March 1117. Since a formal crown-wearing was customary when an emperor visited Rome at Easter, and neither the pope nor any of the cardinals was willing to participate, the papal envoy Maurice Bourdin, archbishop of Braga (later the antipope Gregory VIII), consented to act; he probably crowned Heinrich and Matilda in the basilica of St Peter at Easter, and certainly did so at Pentecost (13 May), by which time he had been excommunicated. Matilda later claimed to have been twice crowned in Rome with papal approval; a hundred years later her right to the imperial title would certainly have been questioned. But the title was then used more loosely by many chroniclers and in many chanceries: Heinrich V, who had unquestionably been crowned emperor in 1111, sometimes continued to call himself simply king of the Romans. Matilda, his betrothed and crowned wife at that date, assumed the title queen of the Romans and used it on her seal. Whatever the legality of the events in Rome in 1117 she consistently called herself empress in her charters to the end of her life, and the title seems never to have been questioned.

When her husband returned to Germany in 1117, to deal with rebellion there, Matilda remained with the army in Italy, presided at courts held at Roca Carpineta and Castrocaro, and pronounced judgments. By November 1119 she had rejoined him at Liège. His reconciliation with the church took place, after years of turmoil, at Worms in November 1122; during the negotiations Matilda could have made the acquaintance of the papal legates and made her first contacts with the papal curia. When the emperor died at Utrecht on 23 May 1125 he entrusted the imperial insignia to her, and placed her in the care of his nephew Friedrich, duke of Swabia, who inherited the family lands. She was persuaded to hand over the insignia to Adalbert, archbishop of Mainz, who presided over an imperial election at which not Friedrich, but his rival Lothar, duke of Saxony, was chosen. As a childless widow she had no further duties in Germany, though Friedrich could have arranged a second marriage for her with one of the German princes who, according to William of Malmesbury, sought her hand. However, her father, King Henry, whose only legitimate son, William, had been drowned in the White Ship in 1120, wished to make her his heir and persuaded her to return to Normandy. She appears to have surrendered her lands in Germany; but she was allowed to bring away her magnificent jewels and personal regalia, and one precious relic from the imperial chapel, the hand of St James. Her years as empress had given her valuable experience of European diplomacy; she had also seen the political dangers involved in a quarrel with the church, and had witnessed the change in her husband's formerly devoted chancellor, Adalbert, who after he was rewarded with the archbishopric of Mainz became a leader in the ecclesiastical opposition to his former master. She had been trained in a hard school, where enemies were ruthlessly punished; but she had learned that it was unwise to bear resentment, and that former opponents could become useful allies.

Heir to England and Normandy

Matilda's mother had died in 1118, and although her father quickly married Adeliza of Louvain there were no children of the marriage. Henry I wished to secure the succession to England and Normandy in his own line by recognizing her as his heir. She crossed the channel to England in 1126, and in January 1127 he obtained oaths of allegiance to her from all the bishops and magnates present at his Christmas court. Among the latter was his nephew, Stephen of Blois, count of Mortain, who had been brought up at the English court and given the hand of Matilda, the heir of Boulogne. Although Stephen had a hereditary claim to the throne through his mother, Adela, daughter of William I, and his wife was Matilda's first cousin, the claim of the empress was stronger, and he appears to have taken the oath willingly. Shortly afterwards Matilda was betrothed to Geoffrey Plantagenet (1113–1151), son of Foulques, count of Anjou, a youth more than eleven years her junior. Some of the Norman magnates later complained that they had not been consulted about the betrothal. King Henry was anxious to secure the southern frontier of Normandy by an alliance with Anjou; and with that object he had arranged a marriage between his son William and Count Foulques's daughter Matilda in 1119, only a few weeks before William's death put an end to the union. When young Geoffrey of Anjou married Matilda at Le Mans on 17 June 1128, Count Foulques surrendered the county of Anjou to him and left for Jerusalem to marry Queen Melisende.

Matilda's second marriage, like the first, was purely political; its purpose was to provide a male heir to her father's throne. Unfortunately Geoffrey's position was never made clear, and no oaths were ever taken to him. Matilda herself, as an empress, may have felt disparaged by marriage to a mere count. There was an open rift between her and her husband within a year, and she returned to her father at Rouen. In 1131 he took her to England, though Geoffrey had demanded her return and promised to receive her with the honour due to her station. But at a council held at Northampton on 8 September 1131, after the magnates had renewed their homage to her and recognized her as Henry's heir, she agreed to return to her husband. Her eldest son, who was to become , was born at Le Mans on 5 March 1133; thereafter the marriage survived as a partnership for the benefit of the couple's joint inheritance. A second son, Geoffrey, was born at Rouen at Pentecost 1134; his birth nearly cost Matilda her life, but she recovered and the inheritance seemed secure. However, Geoffrey of Anjou quarrelled with King Henry over the castles in southern Normandy which were Matilda's dowry, but which Henry continued to occupy. When the king died on 1 December 1135, Matilda was in Anjou and Henry's nephew Stephen of Blois was in his wife's county of Boulogne. He immediately crossed to England, hurried to London, and laid claim to the English throne. He was crowned at Winchester on 22 December by the archbishop of Canterbury, with the encouragement of his brother, Henry de Blois, bishop of Winchester. Shortly afterwards the Norman barons decided not to divide the inheritance, and accepted him as duke of Normandy also. Stephen further secured his position by a successful appeal to Pope Innocent II, whose support was essential if he were not to be charged with violating his oath to Matilda, and by Easter he had won the support of almost all the Anglo-Norman bishops and magnates.

Beginnings of civil war

Meanwhile Matilda, caught at a disadvantage, was asserting her rights. She made straight for the castles of her dowry, and the castellan, Wigan the Marshal, handed over to her as his liege lady the castles of Argentan, Exmes, and Domfront. She established herself in the impregnable fortress at Argentan, where her third son, , was born on 22 July 1136. Geoffrey led annual raids into Normandy for the next three years; in October 1136 Matilda brought a troop of men to support him during an unsuccessful siege of Le Sap. There was some support for her in the Cotentin. But not until her half-brother, , renounced his allegiance to Stephen in 1138 were Matilda's forces strong enough to make further inroads into Normandy. She then began a new initiative and directly challenged Stephen's position.

Early in 1139 Matilda appealed to the papal court. Her case, based on her claim as her father's heir and the oaths sworn to her, was heard at the Second Lateran Council, which opened on 4 April 1139. Stephen's delegation was led by Arnulf, archdeacon of Sées and later bishop of Lisieux, who countered her claim with technicalities, arguing that she could not be Henry's heir because her mother had been a nun and she was therefore illegitimate. This was never proved; and indeed her mother, though educated in a nunnery, was not known to have taken any vows, and Anselm of Canterbury himself had celebrated her marriage. Innocent refused either to pronounce sentence or to adjourn the case, and it was never finally settled by his successors, who preferred to await the outcome of events and hope for a compromise. For the time being, however, Stephen's coronation was not invalidated, and this led to his continued acceptance by most of the English bishops, until his authoritarian treatment of church rights led some to desert his cause.

Matilda's next step was to carry her challenge to England. Sporadic rebellions in support of her claim had already broken out in the west country, and her uncle, David, king of Scots, had invaded the north; but both initiatives had been halted. On 30 September 1139 she and her half-brother, Earl Robert, landed in Sussex; he immediately slipped away to Bristol with a small bodyguard, and she took refuge in Arundel Castle. Here she was under the protection of her stepmother, the dowager queen Adeliza, who had become the wife of William d'Aubigny, earl of Arundel. Although William was a staunch supporter of Stephen, Adeliza's protection could not be disregarded, and Stephen agreed to grant Matilda a safe conduct to proceed to Bristol, under the escort of Henry, bishop of Winchester, and Waleran, count of Meulan. Miles, castellan of Gloucester, immediately hurried to Bristol to recognize her as his liege lady. As even the hostile Gesta Stephani recorded:
he was so unquestioning in his loyalty to King Henry's children as not only to have helped them, but likewise to have received the countess of Anjou herself with her men and always behaved to her like a father in deed and counsel. (Gesta Stephani, 96–7)
Another of King Henry's circle to be equally loyal and fatherly in his conduct towards her was lord of Wallingford, one of her most steadfast and eloquent supporters. Matilda joined Miles at Gloucester, a royal castle held by him under Earl Robert, where she probably felt more at home than as a poor relation with Robert in Bristol. When her power increased she rewarded Miles with the earldom of Hereford, and he was one of her chief military commanders until he was killed in a hunting accident at Christmas 1143.

Lady of England

Although Matilda's position was now strong enough for attempts at mediation to be made, they came to nothing. The situation changed only when King Stephen's army met the combined forces of Robert of Gloucester and Robert's son-in-law Ranulf (II), earl of Chester, in the battle of Lincoln on 2 February 1141, when the king was defeated and captured. With Stephen held a prisoner at Bristol, and with even Stephen's brother, Henry of Winchester, now papal legate, ready to abandon his cause, many of Stephen's vassals began to turn to her. Since her husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, took advantage of her victory to press further into Normandy, those with extensive estates across the channel began to look for reconciliation. On 2 March Bishop Henry met the empress at Wherwell; and after she had given security to consult him on all major business, particularly on the gift of bishoprics and abbeys as long as he preserved his fealty to her, he agreed to receive her as ‘lady of England’. On the following day he received her ceremoniously in his cathedral at Winchester, where she walked in procession with six other bishops and a number of abbots. At a legatine council, celebrated on 7 April, she was formally accepted as ‘lady of England and Normandy’, and arrangements were put in hand for her coronation at Westminster. At this stage she seems to have hoped to rule in her own right until her son came of age.

In spite of her apparent victory, Matilda's position was more precarious than her adherents were willing to admit. Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury, though a former abbot of Bec who knew her personally and respected her, was a man of principle, who refused to renounce the allegiance he had sworn to Stephen unless Stephen surrendered the crown, which he refused to do. The writs and charters issued by the empress in the summer of 1141 show that her support was mostly in the west of England, the Welsh marches, parts of the Thames valley, and Wiltshire. In the north King David remained loyal and gave her such help as his own Scottish interests allowed, but he had no influence in Yorkshire, and his attempt to force his chancellor, William Cumin, into the bishopric of Durham poisoned Matilda's relations with the church. In East Anglia, Hugh Bigod (d. 1176/7) gave nominal support and was rewarded with the earldom of Norfolk. Although Geoffrey de Mandeville, the powerful earl of Essex, came over to her side for a few weeks, he turned back to Stephen in the hour of Matilda's greatest need. William de Mohun, another waverer, supported her just long enough to be made earl of Somerset. Ranulf, earl of Chester, was clearly hesitant; and Ranulf's half-brother, William de Roumare, earl of Lincoln, was still unwilling to offer substantial help to her cause. She alienated the Londoners by refusing to grant the concessions they demanded. Although she succeeded in securing the election of Robert de Sigillo, the former head of her father's writing office and now a monk of Reading, as bishop of London, her support for William Cumin at Durham angered the legate. Hostile chroniclers, in particular the author of the Gesta Stephani, attacked her as haughty and intractable; it is likely that she wished to keep up the state she had experienced in Germany, but when she met opposition peremptorily, with all the firmness that had been accepted, however reluctantly, from her father, it was regarded as unwomanly, arrogant, and obstinate in her. The legate, Henry of Winchester, in spite of having accepted her, remained sufficiently hesitant to seek papal approval for his change of allegiance; and Innocent II's reply, when it came, reiterated support for Stephen and ordered Henry to recognize him. Moreover the empress had to contend with a woman as resolute as herself. Stephen's queen, Matilda, never gave up the fight. With all the wealth of her own county of Boulogne and the honour of Boulogne in England behind her, and the support of William of Ypres at the head of a formidable band of Flemish mercenaries, she was in a position to win waverers back to Stephen's side. When the empress reached Westminster at midsummer, hoping to be crowned queen, the rival Matilda was encamped with her army on the south bank of the Thames, threatening the city of London. At the last minute the Londoners poured out of their city to attack the empress, and she was forced to beat a hasty and somewhat ignominious retreat. She reached Oxford, where she rewarded those magnates still loyal to her and reconsidered her position.

Matilda rallied her supporters, who included King David, Robert, earl of Gloucester, and another half-brother Reginald, earl of Cornwall, Baldwin de Revières, earl of Devon, William de Mohun, Hugh Bigod, and Geoffrey de Mandeville, to whom she promised concessions similar to those previously made by Stephen. However, since the lands and castles offered to Geoffrey were in Essex, London, Middlesex, and Hertfordshire, which she did not control, Geoffrey decided within a few weeks that his interests would be better served by returning to the side of the queen. Since Henry of Winchester did not come to Oxford, and was already in communication with the queen, Matilda decided at the end of July 1141 to march on Winchester. While her army besieged the bishop's palace, the queen's forces under William of Ypres, supported by the Londoners and Mandeville, advanced to encircle the besiegers and cut off their supplies. In the rout that followed Matilda escaped with Brian fitz Count and Reginald of Cornwall, while Robert of Gloucester, who was protecting her rear, was himself captured on 14 September. Matilda reached first Ludgershall, then Devizes; for part of the way she rode astride like a man for greater speed. Finally exhaustion compelled her to be carried on a litter between two horses, so giving rise to a legend that she escaped hidden in a coffin. Earl Robert was able to negotiate his release in exchange for the release of King Stephen by 3 November; the only lasting advantage he could secure was that the castles and lands seized by the empress after the king's capture should not be restored. These included the castles of Oxford and Devizes, and for the next twelve months she kept her court at Oxford, meeting her adherents on at least two occasions at the more convenient centre of Devizes.

Last years in England

Matilda's next step was to appeal to her husband, Geoffrey, for military aid. Geoffrey, however, was fully occupied in attempting to establish his authority firmly in Normandy; he replied that he would negotiate only with Earl Robert, whom he knew personally. Leaving his sister in Oxford, where she seemed relatively safe, Robert crossed to Normandy at the end of June 1142, and spent some weeks helping to complete the conquest of the region between Falaise, Caen, and Avranches. He returned bringing some 300 men and Matilda's son Henry, now a boy of nine. But during his absence Stephen's army laid siege to Oxford; and before Robert could arrive with a relieving force the garrison was on the brink of surrender. Matilda was obliged to make the most dramatic escape of her perilous career. Early in December 1142, with only three or four knights, she slipped out of the castle, probably by a postern gate, and crossed the frozen Thames. She and her escort, wearing white cloaks as camouflage, walked through the snow to Abingdon. From there she rode to Wallingford, to reach the protection of Brian fitz Count, and was taken by him to Devizes. There she established her base in the almost impregnable castle which King Stephen had taken from Roger, bishop of Salisbury. She remained there for the next six years, during which time neither side could gain a decisive advantage in England. In Normandy, however, Geoffrey completed his conquest by 1144, and was recognized as duke of Normandy. Young Henry's time was divided between his uncle and mother in England, and his father in Normandy. From 1142 Matilda definitely recognized that her struggle was rather to secure Henry's inheritance than to win the crown for herself.

Matilda's charters and the coins issued in her name show that she and her party were able to control a limited area, with its solid core in the great lordship of Gloucester, including also parts of Somerset, Wiltshire, and Dorset. Her channel port was at Wareham; she controlled mints at Bristol, Cardiff, and Wareham after Oxford was lost. In Wiltshire her principal military commander, John FitzGilbert, the marshal, held firmly to his castle of Marlborough, though he could never succeed in capturing Malmesbury. Matilda rewarded her knights with gifts of lands from the royal demesne, and provided for adequate castle guard. She made use of royal demesne and forest lands for gifts to churches, so consolidating her power in disputed border lands. Some gifts were purely tokens of thanks, not politically motivated; she gave her laundress, probably when she left England, a substantial hereditary estate in Somerset. During these years there were changes in allegiance among the magnates. Those like Waleran of Meulan and William de Roumare, whose principal estates lay in Normandy, finally abandoned Stephen and became her vassals to preserve their patrimonies. Ranulf, earl of Chester, had, like Geoffrey de Mandeville, supported Stephen for a time; but Stephen did not trust them and both returned to her party when they found themselves threatened by him. A war of sieges followed, in which neither side could achieve a decisive victory.

Matilda and Geoffrey fared better by diplomacy. Matilda had contacts in Rome, and Stephen's relations with the church deteriorated. Innocent II's successors withheld final judgment on the rights of the claimants, and refused to recognize Stephen's son Eustace as heir to the throne. In Normandy, on the other hand, after Geoffrey's victories in 1144, all the bishops including Arnulf of Lisieux, once a bitter enemy, recognized Geoffrey as duke and Henry as his heir.

Retirement to Normandy

In March 1148 the empress decided to leave England and return to Normandy. Her brother Robert had died the previous year; Brian fitz Count was no longer active and had possibly taken religious vows before his death. Moreover her position in Devizes was becoming difficult. Legally Devizes belonged to the bishop of Salisbury, and Pope Eugenius III was demanding its restoration to the church. Threatened with excommunication if she did not surrender it, she prevaricated as long as possible; after leaving England she instructed her son in somewhat general terms to comply with the pope's mandate. Young Henry adroitly succeeded in evading it. By June 1148 she was at Falaise; within a few months she had moved to Rouen. There on 11 October, together with her husband and her three sons, she made a grant to the abbey of Mortemer. Probably at this time plans were agreed for her future. In March 1149 Geoffrey of Anjou made a grant possibly intended for her support; he gave three prebends in the church of St Étienne at Bures-en-Bray to the priory of Notre Dame du Pré, a cell of Bec at Quevilly, just across the river from Rouen, and it was here that Matilda spent the last nineteen years of her life, either in the royal residence that Henry I had built in his park at Quevilly, near to the priory, or in quarters attached to the priory itself. Her charters were dated either at Rouen or at Le Pré. Her way of life recalls that of her mother at Westminster, where the royal palace stood beside the abbey church. Like her mother she was equally active in the work of government, helping her son in much the same way as her mother had helped Henry I.

After Matilda's return to Normandy she never used the title ‘lady of England’ or ‘of the English’ in her charters, but she retained the title of empress and never called herself countess of Anjou. In April 1149 her son went to England to take control of the struggle for the throne. He was knighted by his great-uncle King David at Carlisle. In the autumn he returned and his father Geoffrey invested him with the duchy of Normandy. In September 1151 Geoffrey took him to Paris and persuaded Louis VII to recognize his claim to the duchy in preference to that of Stephen's son Eustace. There is no indication that Matilda accompanied them; she may have been busy maintaining order in Normandy. Henry did homage to King Louis. On the way home Geoffrey unexpectedly fell ill and died, leaving Henry as count of Anjou and duke of Normandy. England, however, was less than half conquered; and the situation was further complicated in May 1152 when Henry married the former wife of King Louis, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and added her vast inheritance to his own, while at the same time reawakening the hostility of Louis himself. Matilda was to have an important role in Normandy while Henry was forced to campaign elsewhere.

Although Matilda must have met Eleanor, there is no record of her views on the marriage, or of her relations with her new daughter-in-law. Eleanor came to Normandy only very rarely, whereas Matilda was actively involved there, sometimes acting as Henry's regent and trying to ensure the loyalty of the Norman magnates, in particular the volatile Waleran of Meulan, who had considerable property in France. Her worst moments came during Henry's absence in England in 1153. She had to admit that she was unable to protect the monks of Mortemer who were attempting to settle in her new foundation at Le Valasse, and her second son, Geoffrey, who may have had some responsibility in Anjou, was captured and imprisoned by the lord of Amboise. On Henry's return after a successful campaign in England, during which Eustace of Blois had died and Henry was recognized as Stephen's heir, she persuaded him to secure Geoffrey's release from a harsh imprisonment by dismantling the fortifications of the castle of Chaumont. The years of greatest peril ended when Stephen died on 25 October 1154, and Henry came into the inheritance his mother had helped to preserve for him.

The king's mother

Thereafter Matilda remained at Quevilly. Rouen was a thriving commercial, judicial, and administrative centre, and Matilda was able to combine active involvement in the business of the duchy with a semi-religious retreat. The monks of Bec in the priory of Le Pré were her friends and spiritual counsellors, and she was warmly praised both by Robert de Torigni, who left Bec to become abbot of Mont-St Michel in 1148, and by the monk Étienne of Rouen, author of the long historical poem Draco normannicus. She helped to finance the building of a new stone bridge over the Seine, linking Rouen with the royal park at Quevilly and the priory of Le Pré. From time to time when Henry II was in Rouen she heard cases with him in his court, particularly if a religious house in her patronage was involved. He always treated her with great respect, putting her name before his in any joint charters. In his absence she sometimes acted on his behalf, confirming the election of a prelate, or issuing a writ to protect monastic property. He was prepared to listen to her advice on matters of policy; when in 1155 he was considering the possibility of attempting to conquer Ireland and give it to his brother William, she made her opposition to the project known. Her motives are conjectural, but she must have realized that Henry's resources were already overstretched. William, who received very extensive estates in England instead of in Ireland, was able to give practical support to his brother in the early years of the reign, up to his premature death in 1164. Her intimate knowledge of Germany may have been useful during the negotiations with the emperor, Frederick Barbarossa (r. 1152–90), who wrote to Henry II asking for the return of the hand of St James that she had brought with her from Germany. The precious relic was retained for the abbey of Reading, and Frederick was pacified with magnificent gifts. They included a tent said to have been large enough for a coronation ceremony, which he took on his campaigns in Italy—a gift probably suggested by Matilda's practical experience of the Roman expedition she had undertaken with her first husband. Only after the death of Archbishop Theobald in 1162, when she advised against the election of Henry's chancellor and close friend, Thomas Becket, as his successor and was overruled, did her influence over her son visibly weaken.

Matilda may have feared that Becket would act like the emperor Heinrich V's chancellor Adalbert after his election as archbishop of Mainz almost fifty years previously. But she did not raise any objection when in 1163 Becket banned the marriage of her youngest son, William, to Isabel de Warenne, the widow of William de Blois, on the grounds of consanguinity. William's death shortly afterwards was attributed by his friends to his disappointment. But if Matilda resented Becket's action she did not harbour a grudge against him, and when disagreement with King Henry over the constitutions of Clarendon forced Becket into exile in 1164 she was cautiously prepared to attempt mediation. Her views were written down by Nicholas, prior of the hospital of Mont-St Jacques at Rouen, in a remarkable letter describing a private interview, which she had reluctantly agreed to give him when he interceded with her on Becket's behalf. At her request he read the constitutions to her in Latin and explained them in French. Her views were practical and pragmatic. She thought it had been a great mistake on her son's part to write down the constitutions and require the bishops to swear to uphold them; she preferred the more flexible customs that had guided conduct in her father's and grandfather's time. She was less concerned with the legal principles determining the procedure for judging criminous clerks than with the measures needed to prevent the crimes; she blamed the bishops for ordaining too many clerks without benefices, so that poverty drove them to robbery and violence, while on the other hand some wealthy clerks held as many as four or even seven churches or prebends, contrary to the canon law that forbade more than two. Although she claimed that her son did not consult her about his relations with the church because he knew that she rated the freedom of the church more highly than the royal will, she refused to allow any diminution of the royal dignity, and censured Thomas Becket for his rigid opposition and lack of humility. Many thought that she might have been able to bring about a reconciliation, but the task was beyond her. Her genuine respect for ecclesiastical authority appears at this time in her refusal to receive the envoys of Frederick Barbarossa after his excommunication by Alexander III, though the business that brought them to Rouen included negotiating the marriage of her granddaughter Matilda to Henry the Lion, duke of Saxony. Her son had no scruples about receiving them. But if she failed to find a solution for the Becket controversy, she had more success in negotiations with the king of France, when a minor quarrel that nearly led to war broke out about the transmission of money collected at Tours for the Holy Land. And in 1164 King Louis wrote to her, as the person exercising authority in Rouen, on behalf of one of his merchants who had become involved in a lawsuit there. She was known to have some authority in government, and was respected as a peacemaker.

Death and benefactions

In 1160 Matilda suffered a serious illness, but after her recovery she remained active in government until she died on 10 September 1167. The statement of Geoffroi de Vigeois that she took the veil as a nun of Fontevrault is unsupported and unreliable; he probably confused her with her sister-in-law, Matilda, who had retired to Fontevrault in her widowhood. The monk Étienne of Rouen describes in detail in the Draco normannicus her solemn funeral rites, conducted by Rotrou, archbishop of Rouen, in the presence of Arnulf of Lisieux and many monks and clergy. She was buried in accordance with her own wishes before the high altar in the abbey of Bec. Two lines of her epitaph became particularly famous:
Ortu magna, viro major, sed maxima partu,
Hic jacet Henrici filia, sponsa, parens.
(Great by birth, greater by marriage, greatest in her offspring, here lies the daughter, wife, and mother of Henry.)
She gave her treasures and regalia to various religious houses; Bec received the richest vestments and church ornaments as well as two crowns, one of which was so heavy that it had to be supported on two silver rods when worn for a royal coronation. Some treasures had already gone to St Denis; and a dalmatic given to the austere hermit monks of Grandmont is still preserved at Ambazac. A beautiful reliquary given to the monks of Le Valasse is preserved at Rouen. Her tomb was damaged by fire in 1263; during the restoration in 1282 her body was found sewn into an ox-skin. When the church was pillaged by the English in 1421 the tomb was again seriously damaged; in 1684 it was restored by the Maurists, who then wrapped her bones in an embroidered silk cloth and enclosed them in a coffin of wood and lead. The abbey church was destroyed by Napoleon, and Matilda's remains were not discovered until 1846, when they were taken to Rouen and reinterred in the cathedral. Ironically the final resting place of the empress was not the one she herself desired, but that chosen by her father.

Matilda's church benefactions were numerous, and often directed towards the newer religious orders, though she made some gifts to Cluny and was commemorated throughout the Cluniac order. In Germany she granted land at Oostbroek near Utrecht for the foundation of a very strict Benedictine house by a group of knights who wished to retire to the monastic life. During her years in England her gifts were partly politically motivated; she refused to acknowledge Stephen's right to give away royal demesne lands, and took over any lands he had given to religious houses as her own donations. After Waleran of Meulan founded the abbey of Bordesley out of royal demesne received from Stephen, she appropriated the foundation and brought Bordesley into the royal patronage. Her gifts to the Shropshire abbeys of Shrewsbury and Haughmond were partly intended to assert her rights and neutralize Stephen's gifts; but she also regarded Shropshire as territory that could be recovered after 1142. When she took the newly founded house of Arrouaisian canons at Lilleshall under her protection, territorial interest may have been to the fore. The same is true of her work, with her son Henry, in replacing the hermitage of Radmore in Staffordshire with a Cistercian house, which was moved shortly afterwards to Stoneleigh. Wiltshire too was contended territory, and there she and her son established another Cistercian abbey (Drownfront, later Stanley) as a daughter house of Quarr.

In Normandy, Matilda used part of her wealth and the dower lands she held to favour the Cistercians. At Le Valasse she took over the foundation of a house begun by Waleran of Meulan, whose motives she did not trust, and after a stormy beginning during the disorders of 1152–3 she secured the establishment there of Cistercian monks from the royal abbey of Mortemer, with the assistance of one of her illegitimate half-sisters, Matilda, abbess of Montivilliers. At the end of her life, in 1166, she began the foundation of another Cistercian house at La Noë. She refounded the house of secular canons, Notre Dame du Voeu, which her grandfather had established at Cherbourg, and placed there a community of regular canons from the reformed house of St Victor in Paris. She also completed the foundation of a house of Premonstratensian canons at Silly-en-Gouffern, which, according to the chronicle of the abbey, she had begun after the birth of her son William in 1136, partly out of a regard for St Norbert, whom she had known at the court of the emperor, her first husband. Drogo, one of her knights who had returned to Normandy with her, became in time the first abbot. The establishment of full religious life there seems to have been interrupted by wars and disorders; the foundation proper was apparently delayed until some years after her return to Normandy in 1148, for her charters date from 1157–8. She made gifts to Mortemer for the building of two guest houses large enough to accommodate four different categories of pilgrims: rich and poor, monks and knights. Lannoy Abbey also received gifts from her. After recovering from a serious illness in 1161 she gave her silk mattress to be sold for the benefit of the leper hospital of Mont-St Jacques at Rouen. She was a generous benefactor of Bec and its priory of Notre Dame du Pré. Apparently she had a special devotion to the Virgin Mary; although the foundation of the chapel of St Julien at Petit-Quevilly about 1160 was attributed to her son Henry, she may have had a voice in the decoration of the building: the beautiful paintings on the vaults of the choir and apse show scenes from the life of the Virgin.

Character, historical significance, and posthumous reputation

Matilda's royal status ensured that writers would seek her patronage. When she was still a young bride in Germany, Hugh of Fleury dedicated his chronicle of the recent Frankish kings (Liber qui modernorum regum Francorum continet actus) to her, praising her high birth and lofty status. Shortly after her return to England in 1126 the monks of Malmesbury sought her patronage. William of Malmesbury had undertaken to write his Gesta regum Anglorum at the request of Queen Matilda, but her death in 1118 deprived him of a patron. A dedicatory letter was addressed to the empress through her uncle King David; the monks stressed the distinction of her birth, and the value history had always had for kings and queens in the past. When, later, she seemed to have the crown within her grasp, Philip de Thaon dedicated his Livre de sybille to her. If the subject chosen was not merely conventional, it may imply that she shared the fashionable interest of court circles in the prophecies of Merlin and the sibyls. These works all spoke respectfully of her lineage; there is a more personal touch in a poem addressed to her by Hildebert de Lavardin, archbishop of Tours, who implied that learning was one of her virtues.

A life of the empress said to have been written by Arnulf of Lisieux, a former adversary who became a devoted supporter, has not survived. Arnulf wrote two laudatory epitaphs, praising Matilda's royal lineage and imperial marriage, but claiming that her virtues were even greater than her noble blood, and that though a woman she was without feminine weakness. She was said, whether conventionally or truly is not known, to have been extremely beautiful, and she was remembered in Germany as ‘the good Matilda’. Her greatest successes came during three periods: the first during the time when she was consort in Germany before 1125; the second when, from 1142, she helped to secure the claim of her son Henry as heir to the throne of England; and the last when she supported him in the governance of Normandy. She then showed that she had inherited many of her father's talents for government. As herself a claimant to the throne of England in 1139–41 she was less successful; partly, perhaps, through lack of experience in leadership and the inherent weakness of any opposition to a crowned king, or through the handicap of her sex, and the impression she sometimes gave of pride and harshness. Years later Prior Nicholas of Mont-St Jacques, even after the interview in which she said much that pleased him, noted that she was ‘of the stock of tyrants’, determined to uphold her son's rights. But there were at all times elements of grandeur in her character that attracted and held the loyalty of such men as Miles, earl of Hereford, and Brian fitz Count. The loyalty and affection of the monks of Bec, with whom she spent the last years of her life, never wavered. Her piety was more than conventional; the chronicler of Le Valasse wrote that her devotion to the Lord God came from the heart. Ralph de Diceto considered that her nobility of character and her masculine courage set an example of fortitude and patience to sustain her three granddaughters—Matilda, duchess of Saxony, Joanna, queen of Sicily, and Eleanor, queen of Castile—through all the trials and hardships of their lives.

Although Matilda failed to overcome the difficulties in the way of female succession in early twelfth-century England and Normandy, and never became a reigning queen, she was able to learn from some mistakes made during the early years of her struggle with Stephen. Her lasting achievement in the long run was to secure—by courage, determination, and shrewd political judgement—the succession of her son Henry II, and so the establishment of the Angevins in preference to the house of Blois–Flanders as rulers of England. This achievement was recognized by most Angevin historians in the century after her death, and by many others later. Her reputation in later centuries, however, fluctuated according to the sources studied by writers and the conditions governing succession to the throne. The succession question during the Tudor period made writers alive to the problems she had faced, not least the question of the rights of a queen's husband. As long as historians consulted mainly narrative sources their assessments depended on their selection of authorities; the vivid and hostile picture of her failures in 1141–2 given by the author of the Gesta Stephani was responsible for many unfavourable interpretations of her character, including that of Sir James Ramsay. She fared better with those familiar with continental chronicles, notably Kate Norgate, whose balanced narrative has stood the test of time. The publication of charters and financial documents made possible an appreciation of her political skills in government; Léopold Delisle was the first to recognize her positive and important work in the government of Normandy. Her turbulent career shows how much could, and could not, be achieved by a female heir to the English throne in the twelfth century.

The epitaph on Matilda's first tomb is lost, but possibly the description of her preserved in the chronicle of Bec was taken from it:
the most noble lady Matilda, empress of the Romans, daughter of the first Henry king of the English, wife first of Henry emperor of the Romans, and then countess of Anjou, queen of England and mother of Henry II king of the English. (Chibnall, Empress Matilda, 191)
In 1684 a new inscription for her tomb, composed by Jean Mabillon and printed in A. A. Porée's Histoire de l'abbaye du Bec (2.615), more correctly avoided describing her as queen of England .

There are two formal representations of Matilda. One on coins struck in her mints shows her in profile. The other is on the only seal she is known to have used all her life; she is depicted sitting majestically with her feet resting on a footstool, wearing a crown of three points and a long garment with full sleeves, and holding in her right hand a long sceptre terminating in a fleur-de-lis. The legend is ‘St Mathildis Dei gratia Romanorum regina’.



Reg. RAN · L. Delisle and others, eds., Recueil des actes de Henri II, roi d'Angleterre et duc de Normandie, concernant les provinces françaises et les affaires de France, 4 vols. (Paris, 1909–27) · William of Malmesbury, The Historia novella, ed. and trans. K. R. Potter (1955) · K. R. Potter and R. H. C. Davis, eds., Gesta Stephani, OMT (1976) · M. Chibnall, The Empress Matilda (1991) · R. H. C. Davis, King Stephen, 3rd edn (1990) · Ordericus Vitalis, Eccl. hist. · R. Howlett, ed., Chronicles of the reigns of Stephen, Henry II, and Richard I, 4, Rolls Series, 82 (1889) · J. C. Robertson and J. B. Sheppard, eds., Materials for the history of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, 7 vols., Rolls Series, 67 (1875–85) · A. A. Porée, Histoire de l'abbaye du Bec, 2 vols. (1901) · G. Meyer von Knonau, Jahrbücher des deutschen Reiches unter Heinrich IV und Heinrich V, 6, 7 (1890–1909) · M. Chibnall, ‘The charters of the Empress Matilda’, Law and Government in Medieval England and Normandy, ed. G. Garnett and J. Hudson (1994), 276–96


impression of her great seal, c.1142 (affixed to charter granting lands to Cluniac priory of St James), King's Cam. · coin, NMW · manuscript drawing, CCC Cam., MS 373, fol. 95v [see illus.] · seal, BL, Add. Ch. 75724

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Matilda (1102–1167): doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/18338