Empress Matilda and the anarchy: the problem of royal succession in medieval England
By Lynsey Wood
History Studies: University of Limerick History Society Journal, Volume 11 (2010)
Introduction: A visitor to the Empress Matilda’s tomb at Rouen might be mistaken in believing that its occupant had never sought the English throne in her own right. Yet in the long struggle which engulfed the kingdom after her father’s death in 1135 this is exactly what she did. Matilda may indeed have been the greatest English heiress of the twelfth century to fail to secure her inheritance. Charles Beem remarks that Matilda’s epitaph ‘described the summit of earthly achievement to which a twelfth-century aristocratic woman could aspire, according to the dictate of a male-dominated feudal society’. Matilda’s rule lasted less than seven months before she was unceremoniously driven out of London in the spring of 1141. Even so, her lordship bore many of the typical characteristics of royal administration, and with King Stephen imprisoned by her supporters Matilda for a time was recognised as the sole source of royal authority in the kingdom.
As the only legitimate offspring and sworn successor of her father, Henry I, she also possessed a strong claim to the crown to which she aspired. So why is it that Matilda was unable to secure the throne in her own right? And why do historians continue to debate the legitimacy of her brief lordship? It is interesting to note that the British monarchy’s website includes another disputed royal heiress, Jane Grey, and since its relaunch in February 2009 now includes Matilda alongside Stephen in its list of monarchs. Perhaps this can be seen as an acknowledgement that the so-called ‘anarchy’ of the twelfth century was not simply the tale of a defeated king and a female pretender who seized power in his absence.
Certainly Matilda represents an incomplete precedent for female rule before the advent of ruling queens in England in the sixteenth century. She was never crowned and did not adopt the title of ‘queen’, but her actions marked Matilda as an extraordinary woman who sought to claim whal she saw as her rightful inheritance at a time when the idea of a female sovereign was still an extremely rare occurrencc in Western Europe. During her campaign for the throne Matilda faced exceptional difficulties attempting to overcome the social norms of her day whilst simultaneously satisfying contemporary expectations of a woman’s role in royal affairs. Chronicles of the period are inevitably coloured by such tensions, but they also serve to question the very idea of what it meant to be a monarch in the twelfth century. A study of Matilda’s dynastic career can illuminate not only notions of sovereignty in medieval England but also help us to gain a better understanding of the reality of female royal inheritance at a time when there were no clear-cut rules governing the English succession. It is therefore only through the study of such considerations that the failure of Matilda’s campaign to be recognised as England’s first queen regnant can be properly understood.