Monday, May 2, 2011
Consort Profile: Empress Mathilde, Lady of the English
Matilda, who had been married to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V of Germany, was made heiress and the King ordered the powerful barons of England to swear before God their allegiance to her as his successor on four different occasions hoping to ensure a peaceful succession. However, the nobility of England did not take an oath before God, even four of them, as seriously as Henry hoped and once he died, in 1135, there was to be trouble indeed. The barons were also rather hypocritical. They claimed that a woman was not capable of ruling a country but the fact of the matter was that Matilda was only too capable of ruling her country and the barons as well and they knew she would have been more than a match for them.
Empress Matilda (or Maud as she was often called in England) was now Queen though she only ever styled herself Lady of the English. She was a strong woman, bright, well educated, very independent and perfectly familiar with the politics of her day. She had in fact ruled as regent in Germany during the absence of her husband the Emperor. The nobles knew that, like her father, she could never be dominated by them and so they decided to back as king someone they thought they could dominate: her cousin Stephen de Blois. Stephen, though, was no fool and he was not about to pass up the chance to be King of England. Going along with the crowd that disregarded the wishes of the late king and the oaths of allegiance, he set out for England at once and began securing the loyalty of the nobles, government officials and churchmen he needed to seize the throne. After only three weeks he had enough support, aided a great deal by his seizure of the Treasury, to crown himself King of England on December 22, 1135.
This situation was intolerable for both Stephen and Matilda as neither of them had the resources to prevail in what had become a war of attrition. The Church was deluged by refugees and some unscrupulous barons took advantage of the lack of a single government to pillage the countryside for their own benefit. Famine spread and disease, hunger and raids took a horrible toll on the public. Things began turn in the direction of the Lady of the English though in 1141. Her forces defeated Stephen in April and took the would be king prisoner. For a short time she was in control of the country and held power unopposed, but it was not to last given how much the state of the country had already deteriorated. The situation became so bad that when Matilda decided to have her own coronation in June the funds could scarcely be found. Stephen escaped from his captivity and a rebellious mob stormed her pre-coronation banquet at Westminster, forcing Matilda to flee London. By the end of the following year it was Matilda who was stuck; besieged at OxfordCastle by the forces of King Stephen. She had to escape with four of her knights draped in white robes to blend in with the surrounding snow. Such a harrowing event was not uncommon for the Empress as she had earlier escaped the clutches of her enemy disguised as a corpse!