Detail from a medieval manuscript depicting a banquet.
A brief introduction to Archaeology

Empress Matilda and ‘The Anarchy’

There were a number of medieval women leaders whose careers break the stereotypical mould.

If your image of a medieval noblewoman is someone in a tall pointed hat passively swooning at her knight’s jousting abilities, we forgive you: this is indeed a theme in medieval art and literature. But there were a number of medieval women leaders whose careers clearly break this stereotypical mould.

Here we look at the career of Empress Matilda, the 12th-century contender for the English throne, and her struggle against her rival King Stephen… or is that against his wife, also called Matilda? Powerful women, battling knights and sieges of doughty fortresses characterise this fascinating story.

This piece is part of a series on women leaders, alongside Aethelflaed and Margaret of Anjou.

Artists impression of a Medieval noblewoman reading as she walks with a dog
Artists impression of a Medieval noblewoman by Judith Dobie. Not all were content to keep within the roles expected of them. © Historic England Archive. IC313-015.

Since we left off from our exploration of Aethelflaed in Anglo-Saxon England, a lot has changed in the country.

England has been conquered by the Normans and ruled by French speaking nobles since the battle of Hastings in 1066. The Kings of England and the upper tier of nobility have interests in lands in France as well as England. The Channel is not so much a barrier as a throughfare between these areas.

Earthwork and stone castles have sprung up across England and armoured knightly cavalry rules the battlefield.

Aerial view reconstruction of a Norman castle
Aerial view reconstruction of a Norman castle, drawn by Ivan Lapper. © Historic England Archive. PLB J910408.

What makes Matilda an Empress?

Matilda is the daughter of King Henry I of England, youngest son of William the Conqueror. Her father marries off his daughter Matilda to the future ‘Holy Roman’ Emperor Henry V- essentially the ruler of Germany- when she is still a child. Hence her title of ‘Empress’. Matilda grows up and is educated in Germany, proud of her imperial title and status.

Her brother William, who would normally have become King after Henry I is drowned in a tragic shipwreck in 1120, leaving Henry I with no male heir.

Detail from a medieval manuscript depicting a banquet.
A contemporary illustration of the wedding feast of Matilda and the Holy Roman Emperor Henry/ Heinrich V. (Note what appears to be a tasty pretzel on the table). © Brian Harris / Alamy Stock Photo.

A rebellious daughter?

When the Emperor dies in 1125 she returns to England and then is married to Geoffrey Count of Anjou (an area in Western France). Henry persuades a group of nobles to support Matilda’s claim as the next monarch.

In 1135, Matilda and Geoffrey become embroiled in a rebellion in Normandy against Henry I, partly because her father has been tardy in handing over some castles there to Matilda as previously promised. This makes him think twice about doubling down on forcing the nobles in England to accept Matilda as their next rule.

‘The Anarchy’ begins

When her father King Henry I of England dies later that year Matilda’s claim is contested by her cousin, Stephen of Blois. This ignites a civil war which historians have referred to as ‘The Anarchy’.

As she was potentially seen as a rebel, the nobles in England claim Henry has released them from their previous oath to support Matilda.

In a coup, Stephen of Blois becomes King in December 1135, but the pugnacious Matilda enlists the support of her Uncle King David of Scotland to invade the northern borders of England. The struggle there included the Battle of the Standard at Northallerton (now protected as a registered battlefield).

She herself takes the fight back to England in 1139, with Arundel Castle in Sussex as her main base. She is aided by her half-brother Robert of Gloucester, who becomes her main military adviser, along with Miles her father’s Sheriff of Gloucestershire and the experienced soldier Brien Fitzcount.

Arundel Castle, Sussex
Arundel Castle in West Sussex was one of Matilda’s main bases. © Historic England Archive. BB95_05791.

So nearly ‘Queen’ Matilda

In 1141, Ranulph, Earl of Chester and Robert of Gloucester seize Lincoln Castle for Matilda, but are besieged by Stephen. Matilda’s forces go to raise the siege and they win the Battle of Lincoln, capturing Stephen in the process.

Matilda imprisons Stephen in Bristol Castle and his support appears to collapse. Surely she has won?

Matilda travels to London to establish herself as Queen. At first things go well for the Empress, but while preparing for her coronation she doesn’t go along with the traditional format of being petitioned for tax remittance and granting other favours to the locals.

At the same time Stephen’s forces ravage London’s rural hinterland, further enraging the citizens.

In alliance with Stephen’s wife -confusingly also called Matilda (of Boulogne)- and every bit as pugnacious as the Empress, the Londoners force the Empress to leave London.

Stephen’s wife Matilda of Boulogne carries on the fight; her forces capture Robert of Gloucester at Winchester Castle, forcing Stephen’s release in a prisoner exchange.

Robert of Gloucester dies in 1147 and with the loss of her main military supporter in England, Matilda heads over to Normandy, passing on the claim to the throne to her son, Henry.

Drawing of The Great Seal of the Empress Matilda
Drawing of The Great Seal of the Empress Matilda. Seals were used to ratify documents and were symbols of authority and power. © Timewatch Images / Alamy Stock Photo.

A compromise is reached

A slogging war of sieges and skirmishes carries on until 1153 when Matilda’s son Henry fights a successful campaign and a compromise peace is reached. The rivals agree that Stephen is to rule until his death then is to be succeeded by Henry (as Henry II).

Matilda’s legacy

Whilst Matilda does not reach her aim of becoming unchallenged ruling Queen of England, her dogged determination does secure the throne for her son. When Henry II becomes King, the Empress Matilda governs Normandy for him.

Seemingly not content with just one strong woman ruler in his life, Henry marries Eleanor of Aquitaine, who is later suspected of supporting their own sons against him.

Among these descendants of Matilda are two Kings of England: the great warrior Richard the Lionheart, and John, who will be forced to grant the freedoms to his barons enshrined in the Magna Carta.

Protecting castles and battlefields
Historic England helps to protect the remains of monuments such as castles. You can find more details of them by searching the National Heritage List for England.

This List also contains records of Registered Battlefields. Not all the battles mentioned in this blog are included in the Register, as this requires their topography to be securely located on the ground.

Further reading

I work in Historic England’s Content Team. I originally come from a corner of Essex rich in history. My previous background was as an archaeologist, having worked around England, Central Europe and the Near East.

2 comments on “Empress Matilda and ‘The Anarchy’

  1. artculturetourism

    This is a great story, after your last Anglo Saxon one, thank you for sharing! I will share on my Art Culture Tourism social network – local and international. If you wish more English stories from us, we publish blogs on our website and then share to social media. ‘Based Nottingham. ‘We tell the stories you experience’. Art, culture & tourism is all about the Storytelling as you know. Cheers, Marysia

  2. Jak Schenke

    If I have my genealogy right I am a descendant of Matilda.

Leave a Reply to Jak SchenkeCancel reply

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