History of Europe

The Empress Matilda and the flight from Oxford Castle (1142)

Last updated:2022-07-25

Entry taken from the book The Plantagenets

After the accession to the throne of the first Norman king of England William the Conqueror in the year 1066, he was succeeded by his two sons, first William II and then Henry I. He had two offspring, William and Matilda. The succession seemed assured with his son, but then something happened that altered all the plans of the king and the history of the country. As the kings of England held sovereignty over the French lands of Normandy, the royal family traveled by boat between the two shores of the English Channel. In one of them, on board the White Ship, the heir William was shipwrecked and perished on November 25, 1120.
William's death caused Henry I an enormous succession problem; he had only one other legitimate descendant (although she fathered more than twenty children) and besides being a woman she was a widow and childless. Nothing had been regulated in the recent Anglo-Norman monarchy about the possibility of a woman inheriting the crown, but for the mentality of the time, in which the kings were the first in the line of battle, it seemed unlikely that Matilda would be accepted. like a queen. The fact that he had the ceremony repeated up to three times (1128, 1131 and 1133) shows that Henry was also not at all clear that the oath was going to be respected.
As expected, Matilda's initial role was the to be offered as a betrothal to a monarch with whom his kingdom was interested in establishing close relations; in this case with the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry. Hence the title of empress which, despite the early death of her husband, she always insisted on keeping.
When the emperor died, she returned to England with an undefined role until the death of her brother William. At that time Henry I, despite her aforementioned oath, decided that it was necessary to remarry her. If she didn't have a male heir, she might have a grandson before she died. And the choice of a husband for her daughter was a masterpiece of political strategy:Godfrey of Anjou, a dukedom located on the southern border of Henry's Norman domains, which could buffer the tension with France.
The couple married on June 17, 1128 in Le Mans and from that moment Geoffrey became Duke of Anjou, for the resignation that his father made in his favor. The Anjou were known for their origin as Angevins and Godofredo, according to legend, used to wear a plant that in Latin is known as planta genista as an ornament on his hat. . Although there is no certainty in this regard, and despite the fact that it was not used by his descendants until Richard of York did so in 1460, the truth is that, over time, the name Plantagenet became generalized to denominate the English kings descended from Godfrey and Matilda. On March 5, 1133, the couple's first son was born, whom they baptized with the name of Enrique, in honor of his maternal grandfather.
As expected, when Enrique I died on December 1, 1135, the The main nobles of the kingdom reneged on the oath of loyalty that, up to three times, they lent at the request of the king to his daughter Matilda. Some alleged that he made the oath under the condition that Matilda not marry a foreign prince and that, having married Godfrey of Anjou, he considered himself released from the promise made.
The most important of the country's nobles he was the first to not fulfill the oath taken; it was the nephew of the deceased king and cousin of the empress, Stephen of Blois (who escaped the White Ship sinking by changing ships shortly before setting sail, claiming to suffer from diarrhoea, although he possibly did so when he saw the state of drunkenness in which were both crew and passengers). As soon as he received news of Henry I's death, Stephen traveled from Boulogne-sur-Mer to London, proclaimed himself king, seized the royal treasury, and had himself crowned by the Archbishop of Canterbury in London. He then secured the support of the barons and bishops of England and Normandy, both on one side of the Channel and the other.
Stephen was a more than reasonable candidate for a merit appointment:wealthy, courteous in manner, well associated with the nobility and the clergy (his brother Henry was Bishop of Winchester), in his early forties, his marriage to Matilda de Boulogne was economically important to the English wool trade. And, above all, he was very adept at reacting quickly to the power vacuum created by the death of Henry I; he knew how to be in the right place at the right time.
But Esteban found in Matilda a formidable enemy. Although she couldn't react as quickly as her cousin (she was in Anjou and pregnant), she wasn't about to give up easily. Accustomed to exercising power (on several occasions she held the regency of the Empire in the absence of her first husband), the empress was also supported by her bellicose second husband, the short but robust red-haired Geoffrey of Anjou, from a family known for its tempestuous character, which will also be a distinctive trait of the Plantagenet kings.
Matilda began a slow but sure task of reconquering her father's possessions. In Normandy through the military attack from Anjou led by Godofredo. And in England, taking advantage of the difficulties that Stephen encountered in the government of the country to unite around him the dissatisfied:Robert of Gloucester (natural son of Henry I and therefore Matilda's half-brother) who was the most powerful and ascendant nobleman among the notables of the country; Henry, Bishop of Winchester and brother of King Stephen, offended at being left behind in the election of the Archbishop of Canterbury; and Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, who watched Stephen arrest his son and his followers for showing his discontent with the king's rule; finally, the nobles harmed by Esteban's policy of favors and the network of competent officials created by Enrique I to administer the country, which was dismantled by the new king.
In 1139 Matilda made a move:she made her case to the pope in Rome asking to be recognized as heir to her father, invaded England with the support of Robert of Gloucester and other disaffected English and Welsh barons and installed his court in Bristol. A period of bloody civil war began with an uncertain outcome, since none of the contenders had sufficient strength to definitively defeat her rival. Matilda became strong in the west, while Esteban dominated the southeast of the country. In the central part and in the north none managed to settle their domains, so it remained in the hands of various feudal lords. And throughout the kingdom the situation was used to settle private disputes between lords and cities, and bands of thugs attacked churches, monasteries and farms to seize their wealth and food.
In 1141 the balance seemed to tip in the direction of Matilda when her army, led by Robert of Gloucester, attacked Lincoln and took King Stephen prisoner. The coronation was being prepared in London, but between the resistance of the forces loyal to Stephen (led by her wife Matilda de Boulogne) and the rapid loss of support among nobles and clergy, Matilda lost her chance. The citizens of London, supporters of Stephen, reluctantly opened the gates of the city to him, but when the empress haughtily demanded her financial support an excited crowd marched on Westminster and forced Matilda to flee headlong to Oxford. To add insult to injury, the expedition she sent to bring the Bishop of Winchester to heel ended disastrously when Robert of Gloucester was taken prisoner. Matilda had no choice but to exchange him for King Stephen and the situation returned to square one.
In 1142 the state of the conflict underwent a radical change and it was Stephen who besieged Matilda in Oxford. In a desperate position, the empress took a no less desperate measure:on a cold, snowy winter night she donned a white cloak and, accompanied by only three or four knights, slipped out of Oxford unnoticed by the oncoming army. After a trek of nearly ten miles through the countryside she reached Abingdon, where she was met by several loyal to her cause who took her to safety to continue the fight. William of Malmesbury calls this Matilda maneuver a "divine miracle."

A civil war began again without a clear dominator, in which the biggest loser was the English people, who were shaken by violent skirmishes between the two armies, in addition to being pillaged by criminal gangs who took advantage of the lack of of law and order to rob, rape and murder with impunity. To finish fixing the disastrous English panorama, King David I of Scotland decided that it was the best time to invade the north of the country.
Very graphically, the Anglo-Saxon chronicle described this period of war as follows:When Christ and His Saints Slept (“When Christ and the saints rested”), referring to the fact that the country was abandoned by the hand of God due to the violence that spread throughout the entire kingdom during the conflict.
The situation remained stagnant until in 1148 Matilda decided to leave England and settle in Normandy (which had been conquered for the cause by her husband Godofredo). That did not mean that he was throwing in the towel in the fight for the crown of England, but that he was "giving up the junk" to his young and impetuous son Henry, who was close to his sixteenth birthday and ready to burst into English history with a bang. …but that's another story, told in the blog post about the birth of the Plantagenet dynasty.

To the usual recommendations for entries relating to medieval England (Peter Ackroyd "The History of England. Volume I:Foundation"; Roy Strong "The Story of Britain" "A History of Britain" by Simon Schama, with the typical neat workmanship from a BBC production, and David Starkey's "Monarchy"), I add another BBC DVD series about English queens called "She Wolves" and in fiction the famous novel "The Pillars of the Earth" by Ken Follett in in which the shipwreck of the "White Boat" and Matilda have a leading role.