Great by birth, greater by marriage, greatest in her offspring
Here lies the daughter, wife and mother of Henry.
So reads the epitaph inscribed on the tomb of Matilda: queen, empress and one of the most remarkable individuals of the Middle Ages. These words were commissioned by her son, Henry II, king of England, and they reflect his desire to honour her memory while making sure that his own importance was foregrounded. But the rather patronising description of Matilda as a daughter, wife and mother commits the all-too-common error of defining a woman only by the men around her: Matilda was indeed all of these things, but she was also a leader, a ruler, a strategist and an able military general in her own right.
Despite the odds being stacked against any woman assuming the throne, England and Great Britain have been subject to a number of illustrious queens regnant over the centuries. All of them owe a great debt to the woman who came first, who fought for her rights, and who proved that royal power could be both held and transmitted in the female line. The kings, too, should be grateful: since Matilda fought to put her son on the throne, every subsequent monarch of England or Britain has been directly descended from her. Were it not for her efforts to overturn the status quo, the mighty Plantagenet dynasty would never have occupied the throne of England, and neither would the Tudors, the Stuarts or any of the later houses.
Matilda’s story is therefore an important one, but it has rarely been told. There are a number of reasons for this. The first is that, compared with a modern subject, the available contemporary evidence on her life is meagre. We do not really know what she looked like, for example, which is a considerable disadvantage when attempting to envisage or depict her. There are very few contemporary images or even descriptions of Matilda’s physical appearance, apart from the occasional conventional epithet noting that she was ‘noble’ or ‘beautiful’. Nor do we have much insight into her private thoughts or views; one of the greatest frustrations for the biographer of a twelfth-century individual is the lack of personal correspondence or diaries. Only a very few of Matilda’s letters have survived – dating from the later stages of her life (although these do give a flavour of her character and style, as we shall see) – which means that her own voice is noticeably almost absent from the story.
All of the above might well apply to any twelfth-century figure, but in Matilda’s case the situation is compounded by her being a woman. She lived at a time when daughters were thought to be of lesser value than sons, and many noble (even royal) families did not bother to record their births with any care. Indeed, in some cases noble women or girls of this period are simply known to us as ‘the daughter of’ a male magnate, without even a reference to their own names. This, of course, is not the case with Matilda, but it is a reflection of the fact that women were deemed to be of lesser importance, that they held fewer public roles and are therefore vastly less likely than men to appear in official documents such as charters and grants. Women also feature less frequently in the chronicles of the period, and when they do they are seen through the invariably male (and often clerical) eye of the writer.
Matilda was, as her epitaph stated, a daughter, wife and mother. But she was much more than that. She was a twice-crowned queen, an empress, and ‘lady of the English’; she was a well-travelled, politically astute woman of the world; she was an able strategist who could understand and take advantage of complex military situations; she was someone who had a cause to believe in and who never gave up on it. Given the gendered constraints within which she was forced to operate, she achieved much more than might feasibly have been expected. She did not meet with unalloyed success or appreciation during her lifetime, but her great achievement was her legacy – and also that both her triumphs and her failures were her own. In a world that expected her to be an accessory, an adjunct, a cipher, Matilda was the master of her fate and the agent of her own destiny, and it is thus that she deserves to be remembered.
From Matilda by Catherine Hanley. Published by Yale University Press in 2020. Reproduced with permission.
Catherine Hanley is a writer and researcher specializing in the Middle Ages. She is the author of Louis and War and Combat, 1150–1270 and a contributor to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Medieval Warfare and Military Technology.