Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior
By Catherine Hanley
Yale University Press, 2019
It’s been nearly 30 years since the appearance of Marjorie Chibnall’s seminal book The Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the English, but it’s more to the point in many ways to note that it’s been nearly ten years since Edmund King’s King Stephen entered the roster of the revered Yale English Monarchs series. This remarkable figure, daughter and designated heir to England’s King Henry I, wife and then widow of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, and mother of England’s King Henry II, was many things in her life, but ultimately, controversially, bitterly, she was never quite Queen of England. She defeated and briefly captured her usurping cousin Stephen of Blois, but she failed to consolidate her power and had to retreat to Normandy and the territories of her husband Count Geoffrey of Anjou, there to exercise whatever effect she had on the world through the rule of her son. She never had an English coronation. She’ll never be in the Yale English Monarchs series.
And she’s polarized her biographers, as the latest of those biographers, Catherine Hanley, makes clear in her exceptionally good new book Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior. Part of this derives from the nature of the sources we have for Matilda’s life, which tend to fall into distinctly pro-Empress and anti-Empress camps, and throughout her own book, Hanley does an excellent job tightwalking between these extremes. She’s read enormously in all the secondary sources about her subject, and her use of the primary sources is adroit - and sharp when it comes to what she seems as the fundamental thwarting issue of Matilda’s life:
The conclusion we must come to is this: Matilda could have done better, but whatever she did she was never going to win, because of the simple fact that she was a woman … Medieval England countenanced the reign of several underage boys and at least one lunatic - to say nothing of various men who were alleged to have been murderers, rapists, or both - but never a woman.
Hanley’s assessment of the various roles Matilda filled in her life is uniformly thought-provoking, and her portrayal of Matilda’s abilities as a military commander is convincing. The fact that she was mother to the greatest of the Plantagenet kings has tended to overshadow Matilda in the eyes of posterity, but Hanley makes it clear that the shadow of influence (and influence-peddling) was cast in both directions:
His birth wiped out the humiliation of her having been considered barren, of not having borne the emperor a son; and it strengthened her position as her father’s heir. She wept for joy at his baptism (the only time she is ever reported as shedding tears in public), and Henry would be her favourite child all her life. And he would take his sobriquet from either father nor grandfather but from his mother: by his own choice he was known later throughout all his lands as Henry fitzEmpress.
Hanley’s Matilda is a fleeter reading experience than Chibnall’s masterly book, and yet it achieves this effect without sacrificing depth or scholarship. This account of Matilda’s frenetic and unfulfilled life puts the DNA of her world’s sexism front and center, which makes this thousand-year-old story feel disconcertingly modern.
—Steve Donoghue is a founding editor of Open Letters Monthly. His book criticism has appeared in The Boston Globe, The Wall Street Journal, The Spectator, The Washington Post, and The American Conservative. He writes regularly for The Vineyard Gazette, and The Christian Science Monitor. His website is http://www.stevedonoghue.com.