Anglo-Saxon commentators generally accept that women could participate in war and government, betraying ‘not the slightest surprise… when a woman is learned, devout, an able administrator or a brave fighter.’ Matilda of Boulogne was all of these things. However, post-Conquest attitudes to gender shift to a point at which any sign of such capabilities was remarked upon with astonishment and viewed as exceptional. ‘Masculinity,’ in terms of categorising the characteristics of women, becomes amorphous. In one sense it can be positive, in that if a woman does anything so unusual as to suggest she might have a brain it must be because she possesses ‘manlike’ qualities, but in another it can be negative, disturbing, unqueenly. The Empress Matilda found herself damned in the chronicles on both counts.
One of the frequent complaints I’ve read of Lisa Hilton’s book Queens Consort: England’s Medieval Queens from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Elizabeth of York (which actually starts with Matilda of Flanders, not Eleanor of Aquitaine) is that it’s simply a recitation of biographical information with little analysis. And if you already know a good deal about these women, then I can see why that might be frustrating.
But I don’t know much about them. A few I’ve never heard of before. A few I know by name with a detail or two about their origins or the circumstances of their time as Queen of England. Even for the ones I known a little more about, my knowledge is based in the popular, often semi-apocryphal, version of their stories. Eleanor of Aquitaine was feisty and sexy, and then cruelly imprisoned. Isabella of France was the “she-wolf” who lived openly with her lover and violently deposed her husband. Elizabeth Woodville seduced Edward IV into marriage and then clogged the government’s offices with her numerous, greedy relatives.
As my history professors would say, things were more complicated. Lisa Hilton often points out what is the popular conception now and in the queen’s own time, what is impossible to prove, and how the available evidence may be interpreted.
One of the stories that particularly caught my attention is that of Matilda of Boulogne, mentioned in the starting quote to this post. This Matilda was married to King Stephen, who claimed the crown on the death of his uncle, Henry I. Both of the main women in this story are named Matilda, so bear with me here.
In spite of having some 20 illegitimate children, Henry I died with only one surviving legitimate child, a daughter named Matilda. Her first husband was the Holy Roman Emperor, which is why she is known to history as the Empress Matilda. After that first husband died, she married Geoffrey of Anjou, and from this marriage comes the Plantagenet line to the throne of England.
At this point, England had no provision for a daughter inheriting the crown. Henry appears to have made some attempts to secure his daughter’s rights with the barons and nobles, but he also appears to have made some indications towards his nephew Stephen’s inheriting the crown. Unsurprisingly, when Henry died, both claimed the throne and this led to years of armed conflict.
The two Matildas are roughly contemporaries in age and position. Many of their activities and responsibilities in this civil war were similar – both served as administrators and military commanders. Both portrayed their activities as stemming from maternal concern for their sons’ rights. And yet Matilda of Boulogne was praised by her contemporaries, while Empress Matilda was condemned as unfeminine.
Hilton doesn’t go into extended analysis on this point, but it’s an interesting one to consider. Perhaps it’s got to do with who was on the more powerful side – Empress Matilda’s efforts never got very far, in spite of her persistence. Perhaps it’s as simple as Matilda of Boulogne was fighting for husband and son, while Empress Matilda was fighting for herself and her son.
Perhaps it’s a simple matter of personality. It could be that the contemporary and immediately-after-the-fact chroniclers found a formalized way of expressing a more personal dislike of Empress Matilda as a person.
It also could be hindsight, medieval-style. Again and again, relatively contemporary accounts of people and events in the Middle Ages find explanations for success or failure that the modern mind might find irrelevant. Empress Matilda was “unwomanly,” so her efforts to claim her inheritance failed.
It’s like the infamous trial by combat. If you lose the fight, then obviously you are in the wrong. Modern logic says the two are unconnected, but 900 years ago, people thought differently. And consequently, we still recount their interpretations of events as fact. Empress Matilda was unwomanly, therefore she failed.
It’s hard to avoid what one history teacher called “presentitis” but when you can set modern values and ideas aside as much as you can, the glimpses we can get of the medieval mindset are fascinating.