No waltz for Matilda

Posted by on May 8, 2023 in Blog, Dame designate, Europe, feminism, History, Women's equality issues | 2 comments

Recently and unsurprisingly, much of the nation’s attention has focused on the monarchy. Now that the coronation is over I expect that more pressing issues like the cost of living and sewage in our rivers and seas are coming back into focus.  However before leaving the topic entirely I decided to find out more about queens of England prior to Elizabeth I. I feel that too often she is presented almost as the first queen we need to know about.

Empress Matilda/Wikimedia Commons

There were of course many female monarchs before the 1500s, and I particularly like what I have learned about Empress Matilda. She lived from 1102-1167, and her attempts to become Queen of England became the focus of some serious gaslighting.

Matilda was the daughter of Henry I of England and in 1114 married the future Holy Roman Emperor Henry V thus earning the title of Empress.  Yes gals, at the ripe old age of 12. However, this marriage meant that by her early teens Matilda was already one of the most powerful women in Europe. After the death of her brother Prince William, the line of succession passed to Matilda. This is where things started to get sticky; Henry did not wish the throne of England to pass to a woman, so remarried, but had no further children and was forced to acknowledge Matilda as his successor, with the supposed support of the nobility.

This went out the window when Henry died in 1135.  The country was not prepared to accept a woman as their ruler, and a coup, supported by the Church, resulted in Matilda’s cousin Stephen of Blois being crowned instead.  Quite rightly, Matilda refused to accept this and started a campaign with her half-brother Robert of Gloucester and her uncle David I of Scotland to take her rightful place on the English throne. This was the beginning of a period of civil war and lawlessness across England that has become known as ‘The Anarchy’.

Matilda and her forces captured Stephen at the Battle of Lincoln in 1141 and she entered London the same year to claim the throne.  However, public opinion had been influenced by tales of Stephen’s charm and charisma as opposed to her ‘arrogance’ and ‘aggression’.  Now just where have we heard this sort of narrative before about women?

The people of London turned against Matilda and she was chased to Oxford before she could be crowned. She took refuge in Oxford Castle and was besieged, although she managed to escape in the winter of 1142 by crossing the frozen river Isis to Abingdon on foot.  There followed an uneasy stalemate during which time many of Matilda’s supporters died in the conflict. Her son Henry took over from her to continue the fight, but in 1148 Matilda left England for her court in Rouen, from where she governed Normandy.

In 1153 a truce was finally brokered, so that Henry recognised Stephen as king and was acknowledged as his successor, becoming Henry II of England in 1154.  Matilda remained in France for the rest of her life.  Matilda was thus never formally declared Queen of England; instead, she was given the somewhat unusual title of ‘Lady of the English’.  Once Henry was crowned king Matilda acted as Henry’s advisor and representative on the Continent.  Let’s face it, not quite the same as being Queen, but at least she will never be accused of being a wimp. 


  1. Fascinating. Such an interesting period of history we know little about. I hope there are many more characters like Matilda researched by you Barbara!
    Isabel, Princess Imperial of Brazil was not a person I had heard of but her achievements in abolishing slavery deserve wider recognition.

    • Thanks Joyce – how many other queens of England do you think would have crossed a frozen river on foot?!

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