The life story of Matilda (1102–67), empress of Germany and almost-but-not-quite queen of England, contains more dramatic plot twists than a season or three of Game of Thrones. In 1110, her father, King Henry I, last of the sons of William the Conqueror, dispatched her to Liège to become the bride (on reaching twelve) of Emperor Henry V. The marriage ended childlessly with Henry’s death in 1125, but not before Matilda had been politically tutored to serve as her husband’s regent in Italy. Meanwhile, Henry I suffered personal and political catastrophe in 1120 when the White Ship, a state-of-the-art vessel carrying his son and heir William across the Channel, went down after striking hidden rocks.
There had never been a queen regnant as opposed to a queen consort in England – and, as Catherine Hanley points out in this lively and illuminating biography, in English, ‘queen’, unlike ‘king’, usually requires a qualifier to make its meaning plain. But Henry was determined that Matilda, rather than any of his illegitimate sons, would succeed him. He required his barons to swear fealty to her and sought to provide her with political ballast by arranging her marriage to Geoffrey of Anjou. He was twelve years Matilda’s junior and the couple seemingly detested each other, but the marriage served its dynastic purpose in producing a trio of sons. When Henry himself died in December 1135, Matilda should have ascended to the throne, but the news was slow to reach her, and the old king’s nephew Stephen of Blois raced across the Channel to have himself crowned in Westminster Abbey, to the acclaim of supporters who, in the words of a later chronicler, thought it ‘a shame for so many nobles to submit themselves to a woman’.
The barons of England and Normandy divided, and for the best part of twenty years the realm was plunged into civil war. Ordinary people suffered predictably and horribly; it was a time when, according to another chronicler, ‘Christ and His saints slept’. Whether this qualifies as an ‘anarchy’, as the period is known, is a scholarly disputation Hanley perhaps wisely steers around, but she supplies a vivid account of violent events and effective pen portraits of a colourful cast of supporting characters: Matilda’s stolidly loyal half-sibling Robert of Gloucester; the wily politician-bishop Henry of Blois (Stephen’s brother); the surprisingly feckless Stephen himself; and his decisive and resourceful wife, another Matilda (one of a veritable multitude bearing the name among Anglo-Norman aristocratic families).
All seemed gained in 1141, when Matilda’s forces captured Stephen in battle. But the pro-Stephen population of London balked at Matilda’s coronation and drove her from the city. Further misfortune followed: Robert of Gloucester was captured during an inglorious retreat from Winchester, and Stephen had to be released in exchange. By December 1142, Matilda was encircled and besieged in Oxford, facing certain defeat. Yet, ever bold and determined, she engineered a dramatic night-time escape across the frozen Thames. The war seesawed its way to an exhausted equilibrium: in 1153 it was agreed that Stephen would remain on the throne, but would be succeeded by Matilda’s son Henry of Anjou. She herself would enjoy influence as queen mother, but never rule as queen regnant.
Strangely enough, these events have never really caught the British historical imagination. Hanley’s book, wearing its considerable learning lightly, is confessedly an attempt at popularisation, and properly pays tribute to academic studies such as Marjorie Chibnall’s biography of 1991, The Empress Matilda. Among a wider public, the period itself is probably best known from Ellis Peters’s Brother Cadfael mystery novels and their 1990s television adaptations starring Derek Jacobi. Those gave rise among historians of my generation to a cynical coinage with respect to historical fiction and film: ‘Cadfael syndrome’. Our protagonist is a 12th-century monk, but he evinces all the liberal attitudes and values of the Clinton–Blair era. Hanley’s account of Matilda understandably seeks to engage the sympathies of a 21st-century readership for a woman attempting to assert her perceived rights in an inflexibly male world. But the approach overall is mercifully uncontaminated by Cadfaelism. Hanley accepts the brutal politics of the early 12th century on its own terms: this was a world in which Stephen’s generosity to defeated foes was a failing rather than a virtue. The misogynistic attitudes of the era are analysed rather than merely condemned.
Whether Hanley is correct to say that, in the end, Matilda ‘was never going to win, for the simple fact that she was a woman’ is perhaps a moot point. English society in the mid-16th century was scarcely less patriarchal than it had been four centuries earlier, yet two successive queens regnant, Mary and Elizabeth, were then able to impose themselves with a fair degree of success. Even in the 12th century, as Hanley points out, there were instances elsewhere in Europe of women ruling in their own right. Yet the Tudor queens used gender stereotypes to their own advantage in a way that Matilda, it would seem, was unwilling or unable to do. Hanley is eager to acquit Matilda of contemporary (and highly gendered) charges of haughtiness and arrogance. Yet while she was capable and resolute, she does not always seem to have been politically astute.
Biographies of any premodern subject represent an evidential challenge that increases the further back in time one goes. In the case of Matilda, there are very few letters and no likenesses or detailed personal descriptions. Both chronology and character have to be inferred from the dry administrative record of grants and charters, and the often lapidary entries in partial (in both senses of the term) monastic chronicles. A certain amount of ‘must have been feeling’ is forgivable, and indeed necessary, if the result is to be readably persuasive. Cadfael notwithstanding, the imagination is as much an important historical tool as it is a dangerous temptation to anachronism. Catherine Hanley has written, in the best sense, an imaginative biography of a remarkable medieval woman.