Matilda - Feb - Nov 1141
After The White Ship disaster, Matilda had been promised the throne. Imagine, therefore, her fury and frustration when her cousin Stephen moved in smartly and had himself crowned instead. For virtually all of Stephen's reign Matilda struggled to assert her rights and for eight months or so in the year 1141 she was to all intents and purposes the Queen of England, being given the title 'Domina' or 'Lady of the English'. However, she was never crowned, and was so domineering and arrogant that she lost much of the goodwill she might have otherwise had. Eventually, after a lengthy, hectic and unsuccessful campaign, she left England for good, presumably in despair and disgust.
Winchester, in particular, suffered badly from Matilda's actions. Its powerful bishop, Henry of Blois, was Stephen's younger brother, and generally supported him. However, after a while he switched allegiance to
Matilda and it was Bishop Henry who proclaimed her to be 'Domina'. But when Matilda showed herself to be so unpopular, demanding huge taxes, Bishop Henry switched his allegiance back to Stephen, and when Matilda returned to Winchester and set up quarters there he systematically set fire to the town from his Wolvesey Castle, on the outskirts, hoping to drive her out. For six weeks the whole of the city of Winchester was in flames. Dwellings, churches, monasteries, and even the royal palaces were utterly destroyed.
Eventually, when a relief army from London arrived to support the Bishop, all Matilda's barons and knights fled in panic, stripping themselves of armour and even giving false names to the local peasants who challenged them. Matilda managed to escape, but her faithful half-brother Robert was captured at Stockbridge, about 10 miles away. As if part of some game, Stephen and Robert, both now prisoners, were exchanged one for another, and on 1 November 1141 King Stephen regained his kingdom after being held captive since 2 February. These were the effective dates when Matilda could claim to have 'ruled' England.
One of the most dramatic incidents of the war took place in the bitterly cold December of the following year. By that time Stephen had besieged Matilda for three months in Oxford Castle. She must have been getting desperate, so one night she lowered herself by rope from St George's Tower, which still exists, crossed the icy river wearing white clothes as camouflage in the snow, and made her way across country to Wallingford Castle, 13 miles away. This was not her only dramatic escape, for in the previous year she had managed to escape from Devizes, disguised as a corpse, dressed in a shroud, and bound fast to a bier.
All in all Matilda had an astonishingly eventful life. She had been born in London and when she was only twelve she was married to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V. She learned German and went to live in Germany. Because of this marriage she is often referred to as 'the Empress Matilda'. Her Emperor husband had died in 1125, and she married again, this time to Geoffrey IV ('The Handsome'), Count of Anjou, by whom she had three sons, the most important of whom was to become Henry II of England.
The final thing to say about Matilda is that although she was unpopular herself, and never managed to become queen as her father had intended, nevertheless she was the mother of the Plantagenets, a dynasty that remained in power for 350 years, ending only with the Tudor victory at the Battle of Bosworth. Matilda is buried in Fontevrault Abbey in France, having lived to see the first thirteen years of the reign of her Plantagenet son, King Henry II.
Key Events during the Reign of Matilda
1135 - Henry I dies near Rouen. Coronation of King Stephen, followed by civil war between supporters of Stephen and supporters of Matilda.
1136 - The first baronial revolts against Stephen begin in Norfolk and Devon.
1138 - David I of Scotland invades England to support the cause of Matilda, but he is defeated at the Battle of the Standard in Yorkshire.
1139 - Theobold of Bee becomes Archbishop of Canterbury. Matilda leaves France and lands in England.
1141 - Matilda's forces defeat and capture Stephen at Lincoln. Matilda is made Queen.
1147 - Earl Robert of Gloucester dies. The Second Crusade begins.
1148 - Matilda abandons the fight and leaves England.
1151 - King Stephens wife Matilda dies.
1152 - Henry of Anjou, later Henry II, marries Eleanor of Aquitaine.
1154 - Stephen dies and is given an 'iron age' river bural at Faversham, Kent.