Matilda Empress Queen Warrior by Catherine Hanley

"Matilda" by Catherine Hanley

Reviewed by Rod McLary

Matilda – as implied by the subtitle to this new biography – was a remarkable woman whose story is not often found in the history books.  There are a few reasons for this.  First, there is a paucity of contemporary material on her; second, there is almost nothing of her personal correspondence or journals and therefore almost nothing to reflect her thoughts or ideas.

This paucity of material is compounded by her gender.  Matilda lived in a period when daughters were of lesser value than sons.  Consequently, they held fewer public roles and were less likely to appear in contemporary and official documents.

In 1991, Marjorie Chibnall wrote a biography of Matilda The Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the English.  Dr Catherine Hanley acknowledges this ground-breaking work and adds that her intention is not to replace it but to ‘contribute to an ongoing debate by providing a new and different interpretation of Matilda’s character and actions’ [2].  Dr Hanley seeks not to provide a work of scholarship but one which provides an accessible and engaging history.

She has succeeded admirably challenging the supposed scarcity of material by engaging in detective work which has uncovered documents of every type to shed light on one of the most important figures of the 12th century.

Matilda was of impeccable royal blood – she was the daughter of King Henry I and grand-daughter of William the Conqueror; her mother Edith-Matilda was the daughter of Malcolm III King of the Scots.  She was also ‘born in the purple’ – that is, she was born to a reigning king unlike [for example] Elizabeth II who was born before her father was crowned King George VI. Matilda’s duty as a king’s daughter was to make a matrimonial alliance which would be advantageous to her father.

In February 1110, Matilda – just eight years old – was on her way to meet the man who would be her husband, the Emperor Henry V [of an empire not yet called the Holy Roman Empire].  Henry V was in need of cash which would come with Matilda’s dowry and Henry I needed the alliance with a prestigious and well-established dynasty as an ally against the French king Louis VI.

Her first duty when arriving in Henry’s court in Liège was interceding publicly on behalf of Godfrey count of Leuven who had fallen into disgrace.  It was said that Matilda – even at eight – ‘performed her part well’ [20].  At age 16, in 1118, Matilda acted as Henry’s regent in Italy.  In keeping with the status of women in the 12th century, she was exercising authority on behalf of her husband, but nevertheless, she was able to put into practice the skills she had learned alongside her father in England.

In 1120, Matilda’s brother and the heir to the English throne William was on board the White Ship when it sank killing almost all on board.  A contemporary writer describes the tragedy – Thus the conquering sea … destroys the King’s sons [one is illegitimate] and ends wordly honour [44].  This event had long-term consequences for England and for Matilda.  Aside from the deep grief felt by Henry, he now had a major problem – there was no obvious heir to the throne of England.

In 1125, after only eleven years of marriage which produced no children, Henry V died – Matilda ‘felt a great sadness’ [33] at his death.  They had been an effective team and Henry had been the most important person in her life since she was a child.  Matilda’s father Henry I had remarried after the death of Edith-Matilda in May 1118 but the second marriage did not produce any children.  The conflation of these events led to Henry I now considering being succeeded by Matilda.

The line of succession was not as clear cut in the 12th century as it became later in the 16th century.  Henry needed to persuade his barons to accept Matilda as his heir.  In her favour was the fact that she was the only candidate who could claim ‘porphyrogeniture’ – that is, born to a reigning king.  Henry had used this argument himself to justify why he took the throne of England in 1100 rather than his older brother Robert.  However, given the potential difficulties ahead for any woman to succeed to the throne, Henry decided the best course was for Matilda to marry.  To whom she would be married would be determined by what was the most advantageous alliance to be made.  Henry wanted to form a strategic alliance with Anjou – an area which bordered Normandy to the south.  Further, he believed that, if Matilda married, her sons would be heirs.  Thus, Matilda would marry Geoffrey the elder son and heir of the count of Anjou.  Geoffrey was thirteen; Matilda was twenty-five.  The marriage would proceed after Geoffrey turned fourteen and was of an age to marry.  Matilda ‘would have to grit her teeth and bear it in the name of future ambition’ [65].

The strategies to place Matilda on the throne after Henry’s death went for naught.  Her cousin – also a grandchild of William the Conqueror – was crowned and anointed king of England on 22 December 1135.  In 1139, after she had completed her wifely duties with Geoffrey and produced three sons, Matilda could now actively plan to claim the throne for herself.

The path to the throne for Matilda was not one that had been trodden before.  There was no law preventing a woman from acceding to the throne and there were precedents but only where the woman was acting on behalf of a male.  In fact, ‘there was not even a word for what Matilda wanted to be’ [145].  The word ‘queen’ simply meant the wife of a king.  Matilda wanted to be a ‘female king’.  Matilda’s quest to become the ‘female king’ led to many years of destruction for the people of England.  The Peterborough Chronicle 1070-1154 states bleakly –

Never before was there more wretchedness in the land, nor ever did heathen men worse than they did.

Wherever men tilled, the earth bore no corn because the land was all done for by such doings; and they said openly that Christ and His saints slept. [175]

When it seemed that Matilda could actually become queen, there was such a ‘brutal reaction’ to the extent that Matilda realised that she was never going to be queen in her own right.  ‘The male-dominated, self-interested society in which she lived was simply not ready for such a thing’ [176].

In November 1153, the Treaty of Winchester was sealed.  The Treaty brought to an end eighteen years of conflict and restored the control of lands to those who owned them on 1 December 1135 – that is, the day on which Henry I died.  In the words of Henry of Huntingdon: ‘Thus the mercy of God brought to the broken realm of England a dawn of peace at the end of a night of misery’ [218].  Matilda’s eldest son Henry was now the heir to the throne of England and, just over twelve months later, on 19 December 1154, he was crowned king of England.  He was aged twenty-one.

Matilda’s legacy was the House of Plantagenet which began with her son Henry II and concluded 334 years later with the death of Richard III.  She was born at a time when the constraints on her gender were substantial and unable to be thrown over.  Matilda – in spite of those constraints – achieved much more than she could have been expected to.  She was ‘master of her fate and agent of her own destiny’ [250].

Dr Hanley in her Introduction to this marvellous book states that Matilda is ‘one of the most remarkable individuals of the Middle Ages’ [1].  The epitaph on her tomb – commissioned by Henry II – reads:

Great by birth, greater by marriage, greatest by her offspring

Here lies the daughter, wife and mother of Henry.

The epitaph references her father Henry I of England, her husband Henry V of the Holy Roman Empire and her son Henry II of England.  Typically for that era, she is defined by the men around her; but there is more to Matilda than that.  Dr Hanley brings a fresh and feminist view to the life of Matilda and re-interprets her roles and actions through access to a comprehensive range of contemporary sources. 

Dr Hanley provides an extensive history of Matilda which is enhanced by a writing style which brings an excitement which in lesser hands may have been nothing more than an historical textbook.  The text is complemented by extensive notes on the primary and secondary sources, a comprehensive bibliography and an index.  A number of illustrations supplement the written word but there is no known image of Matilda herself.

The subtitle to the book is Empress Queen Warrior.  These few words summarise Matilda’s life and could well live on as her epitaph.

Dr Hanley is a writer and researcher specialising in the Middle Ages.  She was born in Perth Australia and has written a number of books and is a contributor to the Oxford Encyclopaedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology.


Empress Queen Warrior


by Catherine Hanley

Yale University Press

ISBN 978 0 300 22725 3

277pp; $40.25

To order a copy of Matilda Empress Queen Warrior at the Footprint Books website with a 15% discount, visit

Please use discount voucher code BCLUB19 at the checkout to apply the discount.

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