Empress Matilda – Lady of the English

8th Mar, 2017

Matilda – Lady of the English
Queen of Ice and Snow


In 1120, in a move usually portrayed in a Sword and Sorcery TV show, King Henry I of England, declared his only daughter, the intelligent and resilient Matilda, his rightful successor to the English throne.

Furthermore, to ensure his succession plans were carried out after his death, Henry asked his royal courtiers to swear an oath. The purpose? To support and crown Matilda the first ever Queen of England.

Of course, things did not go to plan…

While crowning a woman as Queen was unusual in Europe in the middle ages, Matilda was the perfect candidate to change this. Matilda had a previous marriage to the future Holy Roman Emperor. Her coronation as Empress was at St Peter’s Basilica, and she acted as an imperial regent in Italy. After this marriage ended with the death of her husband, Henry I summoned her back to Normandy. He married her off to the powerful Geoffrey of Anjou, Duke of Normandy.

In 1135 Henry died suddenly, and Matilda looked set to inherit the throne. Henry I had made great efforts to build support for his daughter, but with the charismatic king now dead, the political alliance he had held together began to fracture. Matilda still needed a formal coronation. It was at this crucial time, her male cousin Stephen of Blois, contested her right to the throne. He named himself successor and rode off to Winchester to be crowned first.

Matilda was furious and rallied her loyal troops. In an attempt to take the crown, she strategically targeted Stephen’s strongholds and the battles began. To retain the crown, Stephen pursued Matilda and she found herself besieged at Oxford Castle during the winter of 1142. Faced with capture, Matilda knew she needed to escape the growing clutches of Stephen, and what comes next is one of the greatest escape stories in English History.

It happened one freezing, snowy night in December. Wrapped in a heavy white cloak, Matilda was lowered from the walls of Oxford Castle. Camouflaged by the thick snowfall, she snuck past enemy lines.
Attaching a form of crude ice skates to her feet, she then delicately fled across the frozen River Thames. From there, to the safety and warmth of Wallingford Castle. It wasn’t the first time she’d escaped either. Earlier in the conflict she had escaped from Devizes castle disguised as a corpse!

Matilda and Stephen’s war, known as ‘The Anarchy’, ended in 1153. This was when Matilda, Lady of the English, agreed that Stephen could be King by signing the Treaty of Wallingford. On one condition – when he died, Stephen was to leave the throne to Matilda’s son, Henry. Conveniently, Stephen did not enjoy a long reign as King of England. He died just a short year after the signing of the treaty. King Henry II came to the throne in 1154.

While Matilda did not win every battle, she undoubtedly won the war. She lived until 1167, thereby outliving Stephen and enjoying over 10 years of her son’s reign before she died. Her son Henry II would become Henry Plantaganet, ruler of the vast Angevin empire. This stretched from Scotland all the way to southern France.

If you would like to learn more about Matilda book your visit to Oxford Castle & Prison now. Also, see her room in the tower for yourself:

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