Royal of the day: Empress Mathilda

02:05, Apr 09 2014
ROYAL PAIN: Empress Mathilda's arrogance didn't win her a lot of fans.

In the lead up to the Royal Tour of New Zealand, we look back at the salacious, noble and sometimes tragic lives of Britain's lesser-known royals. Today, we explore the life of Mathilda, Lady of the English...

The chances are you have never heard of Mathilda, Lady of the English, but she was one tough Medieval cookie.

In fact, she was the first woman to rule England, in 1141, and should have become its first ruling Queen.

Mathilda was born in 1103, daughter of King Henry I of England.

At the tender age of eight, she was packed off to Germany to marry the Emperor Henry (there were a lot of Henrys around then), who paid a dowry of 10,000 marks for the privilege.

There were no children and when Henry died suddenly in 1125, as medieval people tended to, Mathilda was only 23.


She was given the choice of becoming a nun or remarrying, but chose to return to her father's court, taking her jewels, two crowns and the Hand of St James, a holy relic.

Her brother, William Adelin, had died in a drunken shipwreck off France in 1123, and Henry I had no other legitimate sons.

Henry, a notorious lecher who fathered at least 22 bastard children, was still trying for a son, but acknowledged her as his heir. 

In the meantime he decided to marry Mathilda off to Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou. This was a controversial move.

Mathilda and Geoffrey did not like each other, which was not unusual, but his family were also sworn enemies of hers.

The idea of Plantagenet becoming King - of course Mathilda was not man enough to rule in her own right, they thought - disgusted the average Norman.

When she gave birth to a healthy son, also called Henry, in 1133, it was expected he would become King. However, when the King died in 1135, he was only two.

Reluctant to give the throne to a woman married to their hated foe, the English barons turned to her cousin, Stephen of Blois.

Stephen had a couple of advantages over Mathilda, namely he was male and extremely rich.

But he was not smart and soon began to lose support in England, where some still wanted to fight for Mathilda's rights.

Most prominent among her supporters was her half-brother, Robert of Gloucester. Robert was a strong military leader and controlled vast lands. 

In 1138, he rebelled against King Stephen and declared support for his sister, who came over the Channel to join him.

In 1141, outside the town of Lincoln, Robert and his allies destroyed Stephen's army and captured the king, imprisoning him at Bristol Castle.

Mathilda, now called ''Lady of the English'', moved to London, but soon ran into trouble.

While in a tough position as a woman in an uber-masculine world, Mathilda's personality did not help her cause.

She was arrogant, rude and condescending, not least the common townsfolk of the capital, from whom she demanded more and more money.

Mathilda and Robert alienated London so badly that within a few weeks the citizens rose up and forced them to flee the city.

Things went from bad to worse when Robert was captured by Stephen's men at Winchester and Mathilda was forced to exchange him for the King.

It was not until 1153 that the Church was able to broker a compromise between the two sides, who had ravaged England.

Stephen ruled until he died the next year, but it was Mathilda and Geoffrey's son, Henry, who became King.

While Mathilda had not achieved her own ambition, she had secured the throne for her son. He went on to become one of the greatest of all English kings.