One of the most interesting women in English history is also one of the least known. Matilda, also known as Maude, was the granddaughter of William the Conqueror. Her father, Henry I, married her off to the Holy Roman Emperor, despite her being only 8 years old at the time. She was 24 years old when her husband died of cancer, and then she returned to England, where her younger brother’s accidental death left a void in the royal succession. Henry married Matilda off to Geoffrey of Anjou (and now she was the older party being married to a pre-teen spouse — ah, the fun of early medieval aristocratic marriages!) and had his nobles swear allegiance to Matilda as his successor on the English throne.
Unfortunately for Matilda, things didn’t work out that way and her cousin, Stephen of Blois, who had also been suggested as an heir to Henry, took the throne instead. Matilda wasn’t the sort to sit back tamely and let someone else take away what she felt to be rightfully hers, so after a little time spent building up her power in Normandy, she enlisted her half brother to rebel against King Stephen in England. A period of civil war ensued, with Matilda controlling parts of England and Stephen controlling other parts, and the areas between the two changing hands frequently (if you’ve ever read any of the Brother Cadfael books by Ellis Peters, you will be familiar with some of this turmoil). Loyalties shifted frequently, and battles raged, ending only with the deaths of some of the major players and the Second Crusade, which pulled many nobles out of England for a few years. Ultimately Matilda withdrew her claims in favor of those of her son, who later became Henry II, and there were rumors Henry might have been her son and Stephen’s as well.
If you want to know more about Matilda (and believe me, I’ve only just scratched the surface of her wild life here), you’re in luck. There’s a new historical novel, Matilda Empress, by Lise Arin, which is coming shortly to the Field Library, focusing on Matilda’s refusal to give up what she believed was hers by right, and her refusal to follow the role set out for women, even royal women, in the middle ages. If you’re a fan of Sharon Kay Penman’s or Philippa Gregory’s books, set aside some time and dive into the world of Matilda and Stephen when the Norman Conquest of England was still a fairly new thing and the question of who was going to rule the country was an open question.