Empress Matilda (c. February 7, 1102 – September 10, 1167), also known as the Empress Maude, was one of the claimants to the English throne during the civil war known as the Anarchy. Empress Matilda was the daughter of King Henry I of England by first wife Matilda of Scotland, daughter of Malcolm III, King of Scots.
Henry I’s two eldest surviving children were William Ætheling and Matilda. William Ætheling (1103 – 1120), commonly called Adelin, sometimes Adelinus, or Adelingus or other Latinised Norman-French variants of Ætheling. William was married to Matilda of Anjou the eldest daughter of Count Fulk V of Anjou. The couple were married when William Ætheling was 16 and Matilda of Anjou was only 8. Needless to say, that when William drowned in the English channel in 1120, a year after their marriage, when his ship, The White Ship, sank, there were no children from the union. Henry I did remarry the next year. His new bride was Adeliza of Louvain, who was 18 while Henry was 53, but no children were born of this union.
The other legitimate child of Henry to survive was Matilda who had married Holy Roman Emperor Hienrich V. That union gave Matilda the title of Empress and it is as Empress Matilda she is most known by. There were no children of this union and the Emperor died in 1125. Matilda remarried in 1128, Geoffery, Count of Anjou (who had the nickname Plantaganet) a prince which the powerful barons did not trust. This union provided Matilda with three healthy sons, Henry, Geoffery & William.
With William Ætheling dead, the succession to the English throne was thrown into doubt. Rules of succession were uncertain in western Europe at the time; in some parts of France, male primogeniture was becoming more popular, in which the eldest son would inherit a title. It was also traditional for the king of France to crown his successor while he was still alive, making the intended line of succession relatively clear.
This was not the case in England, where the best a noble could do was to identify what Professor Eleanor Searle has termed a pool of legitimate heirs, leaving them to challenge and dispute the inheritance after his death. The problem was further complicated by the sequence of unstable Anglo-Norman successions over the previous sixty years.
William the Conqueror had invaded England, his sons William Rufus and Robert Curthose had fought a war between them to establish their inheritance, and Henry had only acquired control of Normandy by force. There had been no peaceful, uncontested successions.
Initially, Henry put his hopes in fathering another son. William and Matilda’s mother—Matilda of Scotland—had died in 1118, and so Henry took a new wife, Adeliza of Louvain. Henry and Adeliza did not conceive any children, and the future of the dynasty appeared at risk. Henry may have begun to look among his nephews for a possible heir.
Henry may have considered his sister Adela’s son Stephen of Blois as a possible option and, perhaps in preparation for this, he arranged a beneficial marriage for Stephen to Empress Matilda’s wealthy maternal cousin Countess Matilda I of Boulogne. Count Theobald IV of Blois, another nephew and close ally, possibly also felt that he was in favour with Henry.
William Clito, the only son of Robert Curthose, was King Louis VI of France’s preferred choice, but William was in open rebellion against Henry and was therefore unsuitable. Henry might have also considered his own illegitimate son, Robert of Gloucester, as a possible candidate, but English tradition and custom would have looked unfavourably on this. Henry’s plans shifted when Empress Matilda’s husband, Emperor Henry, died in 1125
Henry I desired that his daughter would succeed him and had the Barons of the relm swear and oath to that aim. When Henry died on December 1, 1135 Matilda was in Normandy pregnant with her third child and her cousin, Stephen of Blois usurped the throne from her. Stephen had support from the Barons and was swiftly crowned King of England.
Although Stephen held the crown Matilda did not just sit quietly. For almost the entierty of the reign of king Stephen there was civil war, which some historians call “the Anarchy,” which was settled shortly before his death in 1154.
In part II I will examine how the Empress Matilda almost became England’s first Queen Regnant on April 7, 1141.