Monday, 20 June 2016

Matriarch of the Plantagenets - the Empress Matilda II

Matilda of Canossa (R) Henry V (C)
The Imperial Coronation

That Matilda won the trust of her husband over the course of their marriage was made clear as he made her Regent in his absence on a number of occasions. In April 1115 Archbishop Frederick excommunicated Henry V and Henry felt the need to deal with matters in Rome and arrange for his wife’s coronation. He was aided by being made the heir of Matilda of Tuscany, Countess of Canossa, a great landowner in northern Italy. Matilda of Tuscany had been one of Pope Paschal’s greatest supporters. This legacy would now enable Henry V to pressurise on the pope.

Henry left Augsburg in February 1116, his 14 year old wife at his side. Matilda and her ladies travelled with the imperial army across the Brenner Pass. The imperial couple were welcomed to the Doge’s palace in Venice where they stayed a scant 48 hours. They then travelled to Padua and Mantua before arriving at Canossa. It took Henry V a year to impose his rule on the Emilia-Romagna and Tuscany before moving on Rome. Unable to stomach facing down the imperial troops Paschal retired to Montecassino and Henry V took control of Rome.

There were no cardinals left in the city to crown Henry and his wife and he was forced to turn to the French Archbishop of Braga, Maurice Bourdin[i]. The imperial crown was placed on Matilda’s head at Pentecost 1117. But this was no crowning of the Holy Roman Emperor; Bourdin had been excommunicated for abandoning Paschal’s cause. Henry was forced in 1118 to return to Germany uncrowned. He left his sixteen year old wife to rule his Italian territories. She did not return to Germany until autumn 1119.

The battle of Bremule
In late 1119 an event occurred off the coast of Bar fleur that was to be extremely important for Matilda’s future, and that of England. A few months earlier, at the battle of BrĂ©mule Henry I’s army had soundly defeated Louis and William Clito. And by the summer Louis was ready to accede to Henry’s demands, agreeing to accept William Adelin’s homage for Normandy, implicitly recognising Henry’s right to rule.

That barrier out of the way Henry and his nobles gathered at Bar fleur where the English fleet waited to carry the army back to England. The fleet was ready to sail by 25th November; although late in the year for cross-channel trips, the water was smooth and glassy. The decision was taken to make the crossing late in the afternoon. Henry sailed on the Seneca while William Adelin sailed on the White Ship, a brand-new ship of the latest design captained by one Thomas FitzStephen.

The sinking of the White Ship
The ship’s crew and passengers had all been drinking heavily by the time the ship cast off. FitzStephen was ordered to overtake the king’s ship which had already set sail. The White Ship was overcrowded and shortly before sailing had numbered over 300 on board[ii]. The ship hit a submerged rock and sank.

William Adelin was decanted into a small boat and would have survived had he not turned back to rescue his half-sister Matilda Fitzroy. This fraternal impulse was deadly and both William Adelin and Matilda Fitzroy died[iii] as William of Malmesbury recounts;

‘The oars, too, dashing, horribly crashed against the rock, and her battered prow hung immoveably fixed. Now, too, the water washed some of the crew overboard, and, entering the chinks, drowned others; when the boat having been launched, the young prince was received into it, and might certainly have been saved by reaching the shore, had not his illegitimate sister, the countess of Perche, now struggling with death in the larger vessel, implored her brother’s assistance; shrieking out that he should not abandon her so barbarously. Touched with pity, he ordered the boat to return to the ship, that he might rescue his sister; and thus the unhappy youth met his death through excess of affection: for the skiff, overcharged by the multitudes who leaped into her, sank, and buried all indiscriminately in the deep.’[iv]

Henry was now left with the issue of finding an heir; his eventual choice would tear England apart. In 1121 Henry remarried and had hopes that his new wife Adeliza, daughter of Godfrey Count of Louvain, would provide England with a new heir, after all Henry had proved his paternity time and again.

Coming Home
Henry V (centre)
Matilda was eighteen when her brother died, a brother she had not seen for ten years, so it is possible that she was not too upset. Matilda had hoped to visit her father’s court in 1122, but Charles I, the Count of Flanders, a vassal of the French king, failed to give a promise of safe passage. Thereafter Henry V was too busy wresting control of Utrecht from Bishop Godbald to worry about the potential rewards of closer relations with his father-in-law.

Matilda had become used to living at the pinnacle of European power; she had even acted as Regent in her husband’s absences. Matilda and Henry remained childless, but neither party was considered to be infertile and contemporary chroniclers blamed their situation on the Emperor and his sins against the Church.

In early 1122, the couple travelled down the Rhine together as Henry continued to suppress the ongoing political unrest, but by now he was suffering from cancer. In September 1122, Henry and, probably, Matilda were at the Council of Worms. The council settled the long-running dispute with the Church when Henry gave up his rights to invest bishops with their episcopal regalia.

At the age of only 38 Henry V died on 23rd May 1125. He was buried at Speyer Cathedral, the last of his line and, having handed over the imperial regalia to the Archbishop of Mainz, the 24 year old Matilda returned to her father’s court in Normandy. Henry

‘Sent men of distinction and called his daughter home.’[v]

Matilda brought home many treasures including the mummified hand of the apostle St James[vi] and two solid gold coronation crowns. She left behind the lands in Germany that Henry V had endowed her with. In England Matilda was referred to by courtiers and, allegedly, her father himself as Imperatrix augusta[vii]. She was to insist on being so-called for the remainder of her life.

The Oath of Succession
Queen Adeliza

On 1st January 1127, with Roger[viii] Bishop of Salisbury acting as master of ceremonies, the leading, bishops, lords and abbots of England agreed to honour Matilda as Henry’s successor. Henry’s marriage to Adeliza had failed to produce any children and Henry was reduced to the option of making Matilda his heir. William of Malmesbury reported that Henry;

‘In the twenty-seventh year of his reign….at the ensuing Christmas, convening a great number of the clergy and nobility at London….he now at this council compelled all the nobility of England, as well as the bishops and abbats, to make oath, that, if he should die without male issue, they would, without delay or hesitation, accept his daughter Matilda, the late empress, as their sovereign.’[ix]

The most senior of the laity swearing the oath was King David of Scotland; among the other nobility was Stephen, son of Henry’s sister Adela. Many of those taking the oath were to find ways of justifying breaking this solemn vow and the wedding that took place the following year was used as justification by many that sided against Matilda in the civil strife to come.

To add to the general unsettling in Europe, March 1127 saw the brutal murder of the Count of Flanders, as he prayed before the altar in St Donatien’s cathedral in Bruges. In his place King Louis installed William Clito, Henry’s greatest enemy. Flanders was an excellent departure point for any invasion of England, raising the stakes on both sides of the split. William Clito was also allied with Fulk of Anjou who had fallen out with Henry over the return of his daughter’s dowry after the sinking of the White Ship.


The Feudal Kingdom of England 1042-1216 – Frank Barlow, Pearson Education Ltd 1999

Stephen and Matilda – Jim Bradbury, The History Press 2005

She Wolves – Helen Castor, Faber and Faber 2010

Early Medieval England – MT Clanchy, Folio Society 1997

Henry I – C Warren Hollister, Yale University Press, 2003

The Plantagenets – Dan Jones, William Collins 2013

King Stephen – Edmund King, Yale University Press 2010

Doomsday to Magna Carta – AL Poole, Oxford University Press 1987

At the Edge of the World – Simon Schama, BBC 2002

Early Medieval England – Christopher Tyerman, Stackpole Books 1996

[i] Later the antipope Gregory VIII; Paschal had sent him as an envoy to Henry V
[ii] A number of the passengers had disembarked due to the drunkenness aboard
[iii] One Guillame de Nangis claimed that all aboard the ship died as they were sodomites
[v] King Stephen - King
[vi] There are two St James who were considered apostles and there is no evidence to identify which of the two the hand ‘belonged’ to.
[vii] Although Matilda was never crowned Empress and documents referring to her in Germany style her only as Romanorum regina
[viii] Formerly Lord Chancellor and Lord Keeper

1 comment:

  1. quite a feat subduing Emilia-Romagna, the Romagnola peasantry are namely for stubborn obstreperousness