The woman who would be king
When King Henry I of England died in 1135, he had only one legitimate heir – a daughter called Matilda. Henry was in favour of Matilda succeeding and becoming the first female King of England. At that time, the word ‘queen’ referred to the wife of a king – and a ‘king’ was the one who ruled. Matilda was to be crowned king.
Before his death, Henry made the nobles swear loyalty to Matilda twice as his successor, although doing so showed that he might have suspected there would be trouble – and indeed there was.
When Henry died, Matilda was in France. Upon news of her Father’s death she made her way to England. Matilda was detained however, as she was heavily pregnant and could not take the voyage. The King’s nephew, Stephen of Blois, rushed to England and usurped the throne in her absence.
Matilda was having none of it. She built up her power base in France over the next four years and in 1139, aided by her illegitimate half-brother Robert of Gloucester, invaded England to take the throne that was rightfully hers. Fortunes wavered to and fro in the following years, a period sometimes referred to as ‘the Anarchy’, and in 1141 Stephen was captured in battle. Matilda was set to rule.
As she arrived in London for her coronation, the population, who at first supported her, turned against her as she ruled in a what was described as a haughty fashion. This alienated both the nobles and the public and she was forced to leave. While history books tend to look at her status more dubiously and recognise only Stephen’s reign, there is no argument that at least for a few months in 1141, Matilda ruled the kingdom.
Fortune shifted again however and the conflict between Matilda and Stephen continued for years. Once during that period, Matilda was trapped in the besieged Oxford Castle. Fate at least let her get out alive, with the Thames freezing over and allowing her to cross to safety.
Matilda eventually turned again to political manoeuvring. Finally, while she herself would not rule again, she forced Stephen to name her son as the heir to the throne. Her wish was fulfilled when on Stephen’s death, her son Henry ascended to the throne as King Henry II, also known as Henry Plantagenet. Henry went on to marry an equally strong female, Eleanor of Aquitaine. But that’s another story.
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