Empress almost unanimously that it was entirely the

Empress Matilda’s failure to gain the English throne could be attributed to many different factors, but the historical view that it was her own fault is the one that emerges most often. But is this view fair, or even completely justified? The opinions of many modern historians seem to be almost unanimously that it was entirely the fault of Matilda – or Maud, as she is sometimes known – due to her fiery nature, her unwillingness to back down in the face of her adversaries or even her allies, and her overall lack of popular support. But these all seem to completely overlook the other problems she faced, as both a woman and political leader in the 12th Century, an age that had never seen a woman hold complete dynastic control. Indeed, it’s remarkable that she managed to do as much as she did, especially in securing the position of her son, who would later become Henry II, as heir after Stephen. Even though she did gain at least a slight victory for her descendants, why did Matilda herself fail to gain the throne of England? For such a formidable woman, it seems unlikely that she would have willingly allowed power to slip away from her.How did Matilda even find herself in the position of being heir to the throne? The issues surrounding the succession to the English throne can be dated back to 1120. In this year, the White Ship sank in the English Channel, killing William the Aetheling, Henry I’s first, male heir, along with two of his illegitimate children, Richard and Matilda. This left his one remaining legitimate child as heir to the throne: his daughter, the Empress Matilda. Matilda had been married to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V until 1125, and the Emperor’s death, so, she already had a good idea of how to rule a country. For example, she had ruled Venice for a period of time, whilst her husband had been away, and she was coming from the position of a King’s daughter, who would have grown up in a court, and knew of what would be expected of her as Queen of England.Indeed, several other women had also been in power around this time, such as the Empress Matilda’s own grandmother Matilda, who had wielded power during William I’s absence from court, and Queen Melisende of Jerusalem, who ruled as regent for her son Baldwin III after the death of King Fulk. However, the key difference between these women and the Empress was that, although these women held power, none of them had direct dynastic control, which is what Matilda’s ultimate goal was. Her desire for complete control could easily be seen as an overwhelmingly presumptuous decision on Matilda’s part – going from a woman ruling as regent for a male heir in his minority to a woman in direct political power was too much of a difference for many people to be comfortable with. Therefore, the idea of a female official head of state was a critical issue in early Medieval England. Sarah Gristwood says that women “were considered subject to their husbands” and “powerful religious authorities ruled that women were completely inferior to men”. To Matilda’s part, she’d had her father’s backing at least in one part of her life, as the nobles had to swear fealty to him, along with his wish to have Matilda succeed him on the event of his death in his Christmas Court of 1126. However, this was more likely down to convenience rather than personal preference, as after the sinking of the White Ship, Henry I simply had no legitimate male heirs to place in succession. There is no historical evidence to suggest that Henry I truly wanted his daughter to claim succession, indeed, several of his actions claim the opposite.Matilda proclaiming herself to be the Queen outright was a bold move, and one that angered many of the noblemen that had supported her cause. However, the modern historian Helen Castor looks at Matilda more favourably, commenting on how there “was nothing explicitly to say that a woman couldn’t inherit the crown”. Although, this didn’t mean that there would be no opposition to a woman inheriting power. England’s succession had been purely male up until this point, and it was only a terrible accident that allowed Matilda to make her claim. She had also lived in a foreign country for most of her life, in addition to this, and there would be many that would distrust her due to this. Arguably the main reason for Matilda’s failure were her own actions, and it has been ascertained that she most likely lost the throne due to her political errors. One of the most important factors in her lack of popularity was her insistence that she be referred to as the Queen of England, during the short time that she held power in England. Marjorie Chibnall commented that “there was almost no place for reigning queens in the twelfth century”, which is clear, as up until now no woman had pursued direct power over England, or any other country. At that time, it was the eldest born male son that was the heir to the throne, which is known as ‘male preference primogeniture’. Matilda’s succession to the throne, although completely legal in the eyes of both parliament and royal doctrine, was a considerable break from tradition, and something that many of her contemporaries were unwilling to contend with. As well as this, it seems likely that having someone who was seen as typically ‘weak’ next in line for the throne would enable many nobles to try and gain more political power by either choosing to support her, and hopefully gaining favour with the hopeful new Queen, or going against her in the hopes that she would lose power. Looking from a 21st Century feminist perspective, Matilda’s succession was overwhelmingly blocked by the majority of England, mainly due to her gender. However, this more positive outlook on Matilda is one that not many other modern historians seem to share, Alison Weir comments on Matilda’s character as being “arrogant or dictatorial”, despite such domineering traits being eagerly sought after for her male contemporaries. This served to prove the widely held idea that women were just not strong or clever enough to hold dynastic power, that doubtlessly negatively affected Matilda’s pursuit of power. The fact that a modern, female historian comments on Matilda so negatively is certainly interesting, if not the only significant aspect to the argument. Either she was truly as arrogant as her contemporaries paint her to be, or she was just covered almost exclusively by negative press.However, the evidence for Matilda’s presumed harshness is undeniable when you consider her own actions. One notable example is how she chose to confining Stephen in chains after the Battle of Lincoln in 1141. Having already captured the King, this could easily be interpreted as a clear overreaction, or, on the other hand, it could be seen as an assertion of her power over someone she viewed as a rival. Whichever way it is interpreted, it does present clear evidence for how she would act if she did get the throne, and the image of a dictatorial, stubborn ruler is one that would have been popular. Matilda is described as having possessed a “fiery character” by Norton, who views Matilda in a more positive light than Weir, who also goes on to describe how Matilda requested her most influential supporters, powerful men such as the King of Scotland, to kneel before her whilst she remained seated.  Again, this action could be interpreted in a few different ways. Firstly, that, once again, Matilda was asserting her power, and proving that these influential nobles were truly alligned to her cause. However, once again, it could be interpreted that Matilda was being unnecessarily harsh in the face of people that supported her. Whichever way it is interpreted, it still provides more reasons for the people and nobility to protest her ascention to the throne, as a ruler who did not respect their closest supporters would be unlikely to respect their people, either. Many saw her as being unwomanly, most likely in response to her actions toward Stephen after Lincoln, and her lack of judgement and impartiality, according to Purser. Her traits, although they would be positive when applied to a male ruler, were overwhelmingly negative when attributed to a woman. She has been described as “a woman of fierce and harsh temperament”, in contrast to other female power figures of her time, such as Queen Matilda, wife of Stephen. Overall, women ruling twelfth century Europe has been described as “a not-altogether-successful experiment”, with modern day historians “ignoring Matilda unless absolutely unavoidable and then mainly to criticize her”. Henry of Huntingdon in his 1141 ‘History of the English” describes her as “swollen by insufferable pride by her success in war”. Huntingdon also describes the Battle of Lincoln’s outcome, a decisive victory for the Angevin army, explaining how “after the king’s capture the royal force, unable to escape through the encirclement, continued fighting untilthey were all either captured or slain”. Obviously, if the Angevins managed to both capture the King and completely decimate his force, it was a battle worth insufferable pride over, so can we truly criticise her for that? Even if we, as a modern audience, see the value in such a victory, it is inevitable that many from her time would not. Many of her contemporaries actually admired her for her prowess in battle and in politics. For example, she was described by Arnulf of Lisieux as “a woman who has nothing of the woman in her”, and several modern historians have commented on her pursuit for power favourably, especially in the context of what it did to English history. Matilda was the first woman to attempt to assert power over the English crown, and she was criticised highly as a result. However, again, when you consider the context of the time frame, it seems that it was most likely Matilda’s pursuit for absolute power over the country that led to the eventual defeat of her pursuit, coupled with her temperament, and “expectations based upon her sex”. Was it her actions after the decisive Battle of Lincoln that caused her downfall? Indeed, the “haughty Empress” was eventually forced out of London after she forced them to pay a tax. The city began “secret negotiations with the royalists” and eventually began a rebellion against her. Queen Matilda, the wife of Stephen, also managed to capture Earl Robert, a key supporter of the Empress, after the Rout of Winchester, a battle which had arguably the most disastrous impact on Matilda’s pursuit of the throne.The Rout of Winchester occurred in September 1141, a battle that seems to have caused the most dramatic reversal of fortune for Matilda and her supporters. Sidney Painter describes how “the events of September 14, 1141, were of capital importance in the struggle between Stephen of Blois, King of England, and… Matilda, Countess of Anjou”. Stephen had been interred in Bristol Castle, which was held by Robert of Gloucester, which provides another clear reason as to why Robert had been targeted by Matilda, wife of Stephen. It was the Queen of England that led the “formidable army” against the Empress,This decisive moment could be seen as the point where her fortunes changed – as although Earl Robert was a key supporter, her capture of Stephen had prevented the other side from advancing too far in their campaign. After the Rout, Stephen surrounded Matilda at Oxford, eventually forcing the Empress to flee the city completely, after a long siege that occured over a harsh winter.However, her failure could also be seen as the fault of her father, Henry I. Even though she was initially placed as next in line for succession, when Henry died in 1135, Matilda was in the midst of a quarrel with him over her lands in Normandy. Matilda had no control of a single castle, which meant she had no power base. His actions meant that she was placed at a prominent disadvantage. As she had no power base, it would be impossible for her to effectively defend against any attack on her lands, or launch any attack off her own. It’s likely that this is the one of the main reasons why Matilda was not able to take up the throne of England before Stephen did, as when Henry I’s death was initially announced, she had no way to assemble her followers and make the move to England.Matilda and Henry’s relationship had been strained throughout most of his life due to consistent issues that arose between the pair. For example, after the death of Matilda’s first husband, Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor, Henry arranged for her to marry the much younger Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. Norton believes that “she probably felt humiliated by the news that… was she to marry a child”, as Matilda had the title of Holy Roman Empress due to her previous marriage, a title that she would use until her death. Despite these points, there are several other important factors that have their place within this argument, such as the role of women at the time and how Matilda subverted normal feminine expectation. Anderson suggests that there was “apparent anxiety over Matilda’s gender” and “Matilda was a feminine threat to order”. The barons at the time may have ultimately decided the fate of the civil war, as both parties had key nobles supporting their causes. Stephen had Waleran of Meulan; and Matilda, Earl Robert of Gloucester. Robert of Gloucester joined the Empress’ side after Stephen left him behind in Normandy, when he took up the throne of England in 1135. A key point to consider in this argument is whether Stephen actually had a rightful claim to the throne. After all, Henry I had made his barons swear that “in case Henry died without male heir they would immediately recognise Matilda as his heir to England and Normandy”. However, sources differ on what Henry said of his daughter’s succession as he lay dying. Norton argues that “Henry confirmed to those present on his deathbed that he wished his daughter to succeed him”, whereas Barlow said that”Geoffrey and Matilda’s breach with Henry exacerbated the inherent difficulties”. Of course, Matilda was a woman, and had married an Angevin, Geoffrey Count of Anjou, “the hereditary enemy of the Normans”, making her probably the most unpopular candidate for the throne at the time of Henry’s death. Even if Henry had made her successor, either on his deathbed or beforehand, she certainly did not have the vote of popular support.Matilda’s noble support was limited to those that saw her as the better candidate for power, and those that were abandoned or disliked by Stephen, or vice versa. This included her illegitimate half-brother Robert of Gloucester, who had “a quarrel with Stephen in Normandy in 1137 and… his English and Welsh estates seized”. She also had the support of Reginald of Cornwall, another illegitimate son of Henry I. This was unlikely to instill confidence in the British people that Matilda had the popularity and power needed to be a successful ruler for England. If her noble power base only extended to that of illegitimate children of Henry I, then she was devoid of the support from people that had closer links to the main lineage. However, her supporters did hold the west of England for the majority of the duration of her pursuit of the throne, which suggests that she did have at least some common support, even if it wasn’t from the ruling classes themselves. The support of Robert and Reginald did undoubtedly help her cause, however. Even support from illegitimate members of the royal family was more powerful than support from only the common populace.Stephen’s support base was considerably larger than that of Matilda. For one, he had the support of leading lord and bishops of the era, such as Roger of Salisbury, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, and Henry of Blois; Bishop of Winchester. Having such critically important noblemen on his side was a clear help in gaining the support of both the government and much of the commons – as, after all, a King is nothing without his advisors. With such a massive contrast between the support bases of Matilda and those of Stephen, the difference between the strength of their respective claims to the throne was massive. However, we can barely blame this on the Empress herself. In the ‘man’s world’ that the medieval period so clearly was, it was inevitable that the male heir to the throne would receive a lot more notable noble support.