Monday 24 March 2014

EMPRESS MATILDA - Having the right to be cranky by Elizabeth Chadwick

Before I embarked on my trilogy about Eleanor of Aquitaine, I wrote a stand alone novel titled LADY OF THE ENGLISH about Eleanor's illustrious mother in law the indomitable Empress Matilda whom history has frequently labelled as one of the crankiest, ill-tempered and 'bossy' women in the Medieval world. Indeed, she does seem to have been her own worst enemy at times but was she really the overblown termagant that some have mad her out to be, or is it just branding?
 Matilda was the daughter of King Henry I of England and his Anglo-Scottish Queen Edith who changed her name to Matilda when she became the royal consort.
Little Matilda, the future Empress was their first child, born near Abingdon in February 1102.  When she was just over eight years old her parents sent her to Germany as the future bride of Emperor Heinrich V, together with her dowry of ten thousand marks of silver.
Matilda and Heinrich married when she was twelve to his twenty eight,  It seems to have been a stable match despite the age gap and Matilda appears to have had a rapport with the German people and they with her. She fulfilled her role as consort to the hilt, interceding on behalf of supplicants as a peacemaker and sponsor of royal grants.  She was often at her husband's side and travelled extensively with him, even to Italy.  During the time between her betrothal and marriage she had become fluent in German.  The overview is of a lively, cooperative young woman, riding the waves of her situation rather than making heavy weather of them - doing her duty and enjoying it.
Sadly, Heinrich died in 1125, leaving the childless Matilda in limbo.  Without heirs there was no role for her in Germany, except perhaps the Church, and for a young royal woman of 23, that was not an option. Matilda's father had a use for her in his realm.  His only other legitimate child, the heir to his throne, William, had drowned during a drunken evening crossing from Normandy to England. Most people will know the story of The White Ship.( The White Ship disaster ) Being widowed, Henry had recently married a nubile young woman, Adeliza of Louvain, but despite him having more than 20 illegitimate sons and daughters, Adeliza showed no sign of providing him with a replacement heir.
Matilda was summoned home and a marriage arranged for her with the son of Henry's troublesome neighbour,  Count Fulke of Anjou. The latter was about to set out to be crowned King of Jerusalem, leaving behind his adolescent son Geoffrey to rule Anjou.  Henry decided to pair up his daughter with the lad. There Matilda was, a grieving empress, returning from the courtly, formal atmosphere of German imperial circles to find herself betrothed at her father's behest to the stripling son of a count. When they married he was not yet 15 years old to her 26. She had gone from being the consort of a mature and dignified emperor to the marriage bed of a green boy. There is some muted evidence that she was not happy with this state of affairs and protested, but Henry I, an alpha male accustomed to exercising his will, pushed the match through anyway.
Geoffrey of Anjou from
his funeral plaque
While all this was going on, Henry was debating the succession. Since it was fairly clear his new wife was not going to provide an heir, he needed to look to other avenues.  He had been grooming his nephew Stephen to take the crown, but with Matilda home, he had two for the price of one so to speak.  Matilda being closest to him in legitimate blood, he made her his heir and had all of his barons swear allegiance to her at Northampton.  It was never going to work and many of those who did so were only paying lip service and wondering how they could get out of it.  Henry very possibly had his eye on his daughter as a brood mare.  If young Geoffrey of Anjou could get a son on her, then in the fullness of time the child could inherit.
The notion of being governed by a woman flew in the face of the way a warrior society operated. Women were equipped to be peace-makers and child-bearers; they were the grease that turned the cartwheels.  They weren't expected to direct the cart.
There was a popular theory that women's wombs had a tendency to go wandering about their bodies - a condition known as hysteria.  When that happened, the only thing to do was burn a feather under the afflicted woman's nose so that the womb would smell it, be disgusted and hasten back to its rightful place.  You just couldn't have creatures like that deciding your policies and governing a country. If a woman was hard and incisive and dealt with matters in a 'manly' way then the fear was that she was unnatural - a woman with balls, and you certainly didn't want one of them either.  Indeed women who spoke their mind were parodied in the kind of tales that appear in  The Fabliaux (scurrilous poems of ribald social comment). The Gelded Lady is one such story which ends on the comment that good women were deserving of affection but heinous shrews deserved only ruthless treatment and abuse...God curse the wife who disrespects!

'Les bones devez molt amer et chier tenir et hennorer, et il otroit mal & contraire a ramposneuse de put aire:...Dahet femme qui despit homme!

Geoffrey and Matilda didn't settle down well to married life immediately.  Indeed, within a year they split up.  Circumstances are unknown; we can't say for sure that differences of personality were the root cause, but a betting person would probably not be too much out of pocket if they took a punt on that reason.  However, the marriage was not for dissolving. After a sojourn at her father's court, Matilda was packed off back to her teenage husband. It was to be another 18 months before their first child, the future Henry II put in an appearance, but that must have taken the pressure off Henry I in terms of the succession dilemma.  Only let the little chap grow to maturity and he could have the job.
Meanwhile, Matilda, the new mother had very little time to draw breath before she was pregnant again and little Henry was only 15 months old when she gave birth to his little brother Geoffrey. The effort almost killed her and at one point her life was despaired of. Fearing the end was nigh, Matilda requested to be buried at the Abbey of Bec of which she was particularly fond.  Her father, however, had his own ideas and told her it would be Rouen Cathedral because he said so.  As it happened Matilda recovered but she wasn't permitted to choose her own resting place.
Just over a year later, Matilda was in Anjou, pregnant for the third time when Henry I died of the infamous 'surfeit of Lampreys.'  There's a whole other story attached to that, but that's for another occasion. By the time she had absorbed the news, any chance of being crowned queen had been snatched from her by her cousin Stephen, who claimed the crown, saying that Henry I had named him his heir on his deathbed.  There was some doubt about the veracity of such a claim but in any event Matilda could do little about it.  She was far away with a child to bear - another son, this time christened William.  However, once she was safely delivered of her third son, she set about the fight for the throne and the duchy that had been snatched from under her nose,
She had allies including two of her own illegitimate half-brothers Robert and Reginald, who became her mainstays.  A proportion of the barons who had sworn for Stephen were not entirely happy to have done so, and when she showed her willingness to fight for her crown, they prepared to rally to her banner.  Leaving her sons with their father, she crossed to England and ;prepared to take Stephen on.  It was another woman who gave her safe-landing in England.  Her stepmother, Adeliza of Louvain was lady of Arundel, and she opened her gates to Matilda and her entourage when they arrived.  Adeliza was not so much a lady with cojones, but more of a steel magnolia. She was pious, tender, beautiful, and determined in a quiet, understated way to obtain what she wanted.  You can read Adeliza's story here on my Living the History blog. : Biography of Adeliza of Louvain
Even though Matilda had landed to try and win her crown, her efforts were still conducted under the auspices of her brother Robert of Gloucester. The barons felt much safer dealing with him than with Matilda. Treating with a woman of firm political views acting in her own power was just too big a notion for them to swallow. They complained that she treated them haughtily. A pro-Stephen chronicle of the time says that she refused to listen to the advice of men

'What was a sign of extreme haughtiness and insolence when the King of Scotland and Bishop of Winchester and her brother the Earl of Gloucester, the chief men of the whole kingdom, whom she was then taking round with her as a permanent retinue, came before her with bended knee to make some request, she did not rise respectfully, as she should have, or agree to what they asked, but repeatedly sent them away with contumely, rebuffing them by an arrogant answer and refusing to hearken to their words...she no longer relied on their advice as she should have and had promised them, but arranged everything as she herself thought fit and according to her own arbitrary will.'

From this I read that she had her own ideas and that the barons thought she ought to be listening to theirs instead.  Matilda's attitude, acceptable in a man, was not to be tolerated in a woman.
One might think from some of the writings about her that Matilda was an abrasive, cold, unpleasant sort, but there seems, amid the hostility, to have been a thread of genuine loyalty and affection for her. She seems to have had a warm understanding with her stepmother Adeliza of Louvain who was prepared to risk the wrath of King Stephen and work her way around her Stephen-supporting husband to offer Matilda a safe landing at Arundel.  Her half brothers Robert and Reginald were fiercely loyal to her; so was Brian FitzCount lord of Wallingford who wrote a treatise extolling her right to rule. Matilda was mostly on excellent terms with the Church. The monk Stephen of Rouen praised her greatly and said she was much loved by the poor. She was,  according to him:
 'wise and pious, merciful to the poor, generous to monks, the refuge of the wretched, and a lover of peace.'
(but obviously prepared to forego that peace to fight for what had been stolen from her).  Another clergyman remembered her as a woman of 'intelligence and sense.'
  In later life, once her son Henry was sufficiently grown to take over where she left off and comfort the male courtiers with his masculinity, Matilda acted as his deputy in Normandy, her power now that of advisor and deputy and no longer viewed as a threat.
Matilda's story is a thousand years old now, but I have to say that at the same time it's still relevant today. They say the past is another country. They also say that nothing changes.


Theresa Breslin said...

This is a fascinating post Elizabeth and very revealing attitudes to women. 'Brood mare' is so the right term as to how royal women were treated. Those were dangerous days for a princess who could not produce. Pressures on royal females were enormous, and, as you have suggested, perhaps things have not changed very much...

Leslie Wilson said...

Well, yes: a male is strong, a woman is headstrong, or strident. Sigh... I have always felt Matilda probably got a raw deal. So interesting to read about her, anyway! Thanks!

Marg said...

Such an interesting post. Thanks EC!

Meredith said...

Having read Sharon K. Penman's "Here Be Dragons" trilogy and love it, this sounds right up my alley. Just added it to my Wish List!