On This Day: April 7th

On April 7th 1141 there was a disputed ruler of England, their name was Matilda. She would have been the first female ruler of England, Matilda was also the former Holy Roman Empress whilst married to the then Emperor Henry V. This time of her disputed reign was known as the Anarchy, which was a time of continuous civil wars over who would rule the country. Matilda was the daughter of King Henry I of England who was the youngest son of William the Conqueror, she was a part of the large Anglo-Norman elite that came about after William’s invasion of England.

In 1125 her husband Henry V, the Holy Roman Emperor died, with his death she was no longer the Empress, the Queen of Germany or the Queen of Italy. By this point there was a succession crisis looming over the crown of England, Matilda’s brother had died in 1120 during the ‘White Ship’ disaster. The potential successors were his nephew Stephen of Blois or his brother Theobald of Blois, there was also Henry’s illegitimate son Robert of Gloucester, although an illegitimate heir would have likely been unfavourable with the people of England. This all changed after Henry V’s death however as Matilda spent a lot of time at court with her father and became his favoured choice for heir, providing he didn’t produce a new male heir in the mean time.

Matilda married her second husband Geoffrey of Anjou in 1128, this marriage produced Henry II who would become the king of England in 1154, as well as Geoffrey and William. At the time of Henry I’s death Matilda and her husband Geoffrey were fighting in Normandy, seizing some castles that were disputed from her dowry in her marriage to Geoffrey of Anjou. Whilst this was happening Stephen of Blois took advantage and went into England and was made King of England by the end of 1135. In 1139 Matilda along with her half-brother Robert of Gloucester invaded England from Normandy, by the start of 1141 Matilda’s position became far more favourable. After a dispute between Stephen and a powerful magnate Ranulf of Chester, Stephen placed his castle in Lincoln under siege. Ranulf along with Robert advanced with a large force and the battle of Lincoln was the result. The battle occurred on the 2nd of February 1141 and Robert of Gloucester’s army was victorious, Stephen then King was also taken as a prisoner of war and held in Bristol.

After the victory at Lincoln, Matilda began making the necessary preparations to have herself made the Queen of England. She would need the agreement of the Church and a coronation to be Queen. Henry of Blois the brother of Stephen made a deal that she would give her the Church’s support if he was given control of church affairs, this was agreed to and the treasury was handed over to Matilda. After Easter the clergy gathered and this time Matilda was declared the “Lady of England and Normandy”, she was essentially the ruler of England and this was just a precursor to her actual coronation.

Events turned sour though, she had to leave London shortly before her coronation could take place in June due to the amount of hostility building against her there. It went from bad to worse though for Matilda when Henry of Blois left the alliance they had made to support his brother again and he took up residence in the royal castle in Winchester. Matilda along with Robert besieged the castle, as this occurred Stephen’s wife Matilda of Boulogne and her lieutenant William of Ypres gathered a force to attack the besiegers. The ensuing battle was won by the supporters of Stephen and in the midst of the battle Robert was captured. This was effectively the overall defeat for Matilda, she traded Robert for Stephen and Stephen was reaffirmed as the King of England.

At the beginning of November Matilda’s reign as the “Lady of England and Normandy” was over. In the later 1140’s the war was at a stalemate with Stephen still ruling, Matilda lost supporters to the Second Crusade in 1145 and in 1147 Robert of Gloucester her key ally throughout her campaigns died. From here her son Henry took up the mantle and was named Stephen’s successor after a permanent peace treaty was brokered by the Church. On Stephen’s death Henry became the King of England and his mother Matilda helped him with his governing with Henry also helping hold Normandy together for her stopping danger to her position there.

So although Matilda was never formally coronated as Queen of England, for a period of a few months before the disastrous Rout of Winchester she was the main figure in England even ahead of the captured Kings wife who was the actual Queen. Her coronation was set and she had control over the country so although it is disputed when she was named the “Lady of England” Matilda was the ruler and was the first female ruler of England.

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