She Wolves – Episode 1 – Empress Matilda and Eleanor of Aquitaine 07.03.2012

Empress Matilda
Empress Matilda

England’s queens not always liked – problem with women and power
Matilda chased from the capital by an angry mob
First woman to claim the English crown in her own right
Men fought to win power and battled to keep it – handful of women did attempt to rule England, challenged male power
Just how far we’ve come and how little we’ve changed
24 June 1141 39 year old Matilda sat down at a banquet – first woman to rule England in her own right?
Daughter of Henry I and granddaughter of William the Conqueror.
Throws the country into 20 years of civil war
Seen as domineering and destructive – challenged the assumption that only a man could wear the crown
Death of the male heir, her brother, William – returning from Normandy (Barfleur). Crossing could be treacherous
King set out first and William left after, drunk
Rock at the harbour mouth was hit and sank in minutes, no hope of rescue
William of Malmesbury – “no ship that ever sailed brought England such disaster”
Two days before someone breaks the news to the king – collapses
Norman kings had worn the crown only 50 years
Women produced the sons and heirs – no boys, only a daughter surviving, never been a female heir to the English throne, but no law to stop women succeeding
Not enough to have a right to the throne, had to fight for it
Henry I had to fight to get the throne and keep it
Royal seal – orb and sceptre on one side, and on the other side rides a war horse carrying a sword to protect and defend his kingdom
Even today power seems male
Men ruled and women obeyed – women’s authority depended on her husband
Matilda had been prepared to be the wife of a royal husband, not queen in her own right

Henry V of Germany, Holy Roman Emperor
Henry V of Germany, Holy Roman Emperor

Age 8 left England to marry Henry V of Germany, Holy Roman Emperor
Powerful sense of her own majesty
Age 23 husband died suddenly – 16 years abroad and returned to England as Henry I’s only heir
Westminster Hall = Henry I suggested that Matilda rule England in her own right as a female king
1 January 1127 nobles swore an oath to support Matilda’s right to the throne – no one tried to argue that a woman couldn’t rule
Lip service to an idea that wouldn’t happen
Alternative plan – grandson? Matilda married again
Normandy difficult to control, though under English control
Geoffrey of Anjou chosen as Matilda’s husband – his lands south of Normandy (Anjou) could protect English lands in France
Rouen – Henry knighted his future son-in-law
Matilda wasn’t impressed – only 15 years old, had no choice but to marry him
Didn’t give in easily – never called herself Countess of Anjou, always called herself Empress
Just a year after the wedding the couple were living apart – her father pushed them together 1131, 1133 Matilda gave birth to a son, Henry, 1134 Matilda had a second son
Would be years before they grew up
Matilda’s loyalties were now split with a family of her own
Caught between her husband’s ambition and her father’s hold on power age 67
Matilda stood with Geoffrey in Anjou rather than her father in England – suddenly offered power in her own right
Father taken ill 1135 on a hunting trip = lay dying and made nobles promise to honour agreement and let Matilda rule
Argentan – after her father’s death Matilda rides north to Normandy
Matilda discovers she was again pregnant – hesitates
Matilda’s cousin, Stephen, seizes the moment and rides to Winchester where his brother was bishop – has himself crowned king
Stephen had sworn allegiance when her father was alive
Male might overcame female right

King Stephen
King Stephen

Deeds of Stephen = no one else at hand to take the king’s place – biased
Stephen had a quickly arranged coronation – no one could undo it
Seeds of civil war = two different forms of royal legitimacy – Matilda only legitimate child of previous king, Stephen crowned and anointed as successor
Victory for one meant defeat for the other
Stephen needed support of powerful nobles to rule
Robert of Gloucester pledged support and his triumph seemed complete
Matilda’s cause seemed lost – now had three sons with little prospect of gaining inheritance
Normandy came to Matilda’s rescue
Stephen needed to control Normandy as well – took him a year to cross the Channel, Normandy in anarchy and Stephen’s soldiers argued with each other
Stephen’s campaign was chaotic and alliance with Robert of Gloucester broke down
June 1138 Robert of Gloucester declared support for Matilda over Stephen
Matilda could reach the coast with support of Gloucester – cracks appearing in Stephen’s regime, how far would Matilda go?
Matilda was the only hope of challenging Stephen – 1139 Matilda returns to England and Arundel Castle
Stephen marches an army to castle gates
Declaring war on Matilda would be very risky – Matilda was allowed to leave Arundel and moved to Bristol to join Gloucester
Support for Matilda was growing – men who had wavered declared for Matilda
Began to wear Stephen down, keeping him on the back foot
2 years, civil war raged in England = countryside plundered, Malmesbury “wretchedness”
Matilda’s greatest triumph
February 1141 fighting at Lincoln, Matilda defeated Stephen’s army and imprisoned Stephen – 5 years since her father’s death
Needed the church and the people to recognise her as queen – Bishop Henry of Winchester who crowned Stephen went to Matilda’s side
Church rallied to Matilda’s side
William of Malmesbury = political spin – waiting for Matilda so allowed Stephen to reign, Stephen hadn’t brought peace and justice and was now a prisoner
Winchester Matilda recognised as England’s lady – dominion, power and lordship, still needed to be anointed and crowned, prepared for coronation
England’s first female king
Still had a battle to fight = when men were confronted with reality of female rule they didn’t like what they saw
Alienated people and became arrogant and haughty
No convention for female king – kings were commanding and authoritative and queens were supposed to be gentle and kind
Discontent became more obvious and widespread
Stephen still a prisoner but troops loyal to him ravaged the land just south of London
Matilda pressed on with coronation plans but at the last moment things began to unravel
Gates of London opened and people swarmed in to drive Matilda away from London – hopes of being crowned queen were trampled
Bishop Henry swapped sides again and supported Stephen
Matilda caught in an ambush, but smuggled to safety
Richard of Gloucester caught in battle – Matilda knew she couldn’t win without him so bought his freedom – had to release Stephen
Decided to risk everything in order to escape Oxford
Left Oxford Castle by a side gate, camouflaged against the snow and crossed the frozen lake before finding horses to carry them to safety

William of Malmesbury
William of Malmesbury

William of Malmesbury “extraordinary tenacity”
England in military deadlock = new game plan
Matilda was the mother of a son and so had to win the crown for her son, not to wear it herself
Son Henry had grown up in France while Matilda was fighting – all the promise of a future king, time had come for him to fight for his inheritance
Anarchy of civil war undid Stephen’s good work
England’s people felt abandoned by God
Stephen had to agree to a compromise – Stephen would remain as king but recognised Matilda’s son, Henry, as his heir
Matilda not even mentioned in the treaty which ended the war
October 1154 Stephen died, son crowned December as Henry II
Matilda returned to Normandy, just outside Rouen – acted as Henry’s councillor and, occasionally, as his deputy
Sacrificed her claim to put her son on the throne
Henry never forgot the importance of his mother and called himself the son of the empress – nothing in the world dearer to him than his mother
Died in Normandy age 65 December 1167
Tough political pragmatism made her son king
Would a woman wanting power always face so much outrage?
Daughter-in-law (Eleanor of Aquitaine) – fame endured less of a she-wolf but more of romantic chivalry and courtly love
Know little of her looks and emotional capacity – atypical
Dynamic force in her own right – believed in her ability to determine her own fate
Childhood spent in Poitiers – duchy of Aquitaine, place of poetry, romance and wit, flamboyant and sophisticated court
Early life very conventional – asset to be traded in marriage

Eleanor of Aquitaine from the Hulton Archive
Eleanor of Aquitaine from the Hulton Archive

Age 13 Eleanor married heir to the French throne, king then died and she became Queen of France as wife to Louis VII – eight years before she gave birth for the first time
Daughter not the longed-for son = still only age 21
Louis and Eleanor had decided to go on crusade
June 1147 knelt to receive the pope’s blessing
Christian west vs. Muslim east to win control of the holy land = first sign Eleanor wouldn’t be a conventional wife or queen
Treacherous journey to face war
Personal scandal loomed = spring 1148 refuge in Antioch ruled by Raymond of Poitiers (Eleanor’s uncle) – intimacy between them sparked scandalous gossip, suspected of incestuous affair
Adultery was also treason for a queen
Eleanor undaunted – refused to go with her husband when he left Antioch
Claimed that her marriage was invalid – in theory church banned marriages where there was a common ancestor in the last 7 generations, as Eleanor and Louis did
King’s power greater than hers = forced to leave Antioch with him
1149 failed crusade went home and Eleanor didn’t struggle but stayed in Paris
1150 gave birth to another daughter
1151 Henry of England came to Paris and must have met Eleanor, 9 years younger than her
7 months later Eleanor’s marriage difficulties erupted again = Louis gave up and the marriage was dissolved, Eleanor left for Poitier
8 weeks and 2 days later Eleanor married King Henry of England
Henry had England, Normandy and Anjou and Eleanor had Aquitaine
Not the strongest female influence in her husband’s life – that was Matilda
Eleanor had 8 children in 15 years
1167 Matilda died = Eleanor age 43 political career about to begin
Aquitaine alien to Henry, but was Eleanor’s homeland = 1168 Eleanor went to govern Aquitaine in her husband’s name
Independent power where she gathered lords around her
Women’s power acceptable if ruling in place of an absent husband
Tales of romance and chivalry = home of the troubadours – deeds of valour, poetry, etc
Could true love exist in marriage?
Power very important to her
Chignon on the banks of the Loire was a centre of Henry’s rule – centre of Eleanor’s most assertive bid for power, never had a claim to be a monarch in her own right
Fought for her son’s rights for the rest of her life
Heirs were a monarch’s greatest asset – sons not always prepared to wait for their father to die
Henry promised them a role but wouldn’t delegate real power
Eldest son rode away from Chignon and defected to the king of France
Henry sent for his wife and younger sons but discovered they had also set off for Paris
Rosamund Clifford “fair Rosamund” – Henry had an affair
Emotion used to fill a gap left by an absence of evidence
Formidable political brain = power Eleanor had been given in Aquitaine wasn’t everything she wanted – never been held back by fear
Second husband also stood in way of royal ambition
Wife rebelling against husband profound and unknown
Plenty of case of sons taking arms against their fathers, but the first case of a woman rebelling against her husband = threatened the fabric of society
Set out mustering support in Aquitaine
Rode north to join her sons, but never arrived – captured by her husband’s soldiers
Sons had no chance without their mother and forgave his sons
Eleanor returned to England as a prisoner and locked away for 15 years, little evidence of her in the historical record, blamed for dissent in the family
Sons kept on fighting – eldest son died

Henry II
Henry II

1189 age 56 Henry II died at Chignon
Fontevraud Abbey burial place and succeeded by Richard the Lionheart
First action was to free his mother from captivity age 65
Richard gave power in England to his mother Eleanor – Richard on crusade – power didn’t provoke critical comment as queen mother ruling in place of her son was fine
Travelled around England “queenly court”
Had to rule for longer than anyone anticipated – Richard captured on crusade for a year
Eleanor bought his freedom
Richard died 1199 struck by a stray arrow on a siege
Youngest son John then succeeded = Eleanor travelled through France to promote his reign
Eleanor returned to Fontevraud died 1204 age 80 and buried beside her husband at Fontevraud
Fear of the she-wolves

2 thoughts on “She Wolves – Episode 1 – Empress Matilda and Eleanor of Aquitaine 07.03.2012

  1. First of all I would like to say wonderful blog! I had a quick question that I’d liketo ask if you do not mind. I was curious to find out how you center yourselfand clear your thoughts prior to writing. I’ve had difficulty clearing mymind in getting my ideas out there. I do take pleasure in writing however it just seems like the first 10 to 15minutes are usually wasted just trying to figure out how tobegin. Any ideas or tips? Cheers!


    1. Hi Craig,
      Thanks for your wonderful comments, they are much appreciated.
      When it comes to writing I write when I’m feeling inspired generally. I find I cannot force myself to write, though I probably should! I usually start by writing down what I know I want to include and anything where I need to do a bit more research, then I start to write, not always in order – it can be moved around after I get the ideas down!


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