Power was inherently and inescapably male in the Middle Ages. The images displayed on the Great Seal of England encapsulated expectations of a medieval monarch: on one side the king sat in state to administer justice to his people, a sceptre in his hand; on the other he rode a towering warhorse with his sword unsheathed, ready to defend his kingdom. But a woman couldn’t sit as a judge or lead an army into battle. A woman, therefore, could not rule.
That, at least, was the unspoken assumption. However, England in the early 12th century had few hard-and-fast principles of government that could dictate the course of political events. After all, the kingdom had just experienced the greatest upheaval imaginable, the conquest of 1066, which left a new Norman aristocracy surveying an unfamiliar political landscape full of possibility and uncertainty, and one with lands on both sides of the Channel.
One unresolved question was how England’s Norman crown was to be passed on. The conqueror himself had been bastard-born, and he was succeeded as king by his second son, William Rufus, followed by his youngest, Henry I, even though their eldest brother Robert Curthose was still alive. It seemed as though England’s Norman monarchs would be chosen through some combination of designation and realpolitik from among the members of a particular dynastic bloodline, which might become a bloodbath if competition got out of hand.
But the ad hoc, shallow-rooted precedents of the last 50 years precipitated crisis when Henry I died in 1135. His own accession to the throne had been achieved by means of a coup: Henry was with his brother William Rufus when the king was killed by a stray arrow in the New Forest in 1100, and he wasted no time in riding headlong for Winchester and Westminster to secure the royal treasury and his own coronation. Henry, however, was the archetypal poacher-turned-gamekeeper. He had seized the throne by force, but his own bloodline, he was determined, would inherit by royal right. All his hopes were, therefore, pinned on his only legitimate son, William – but, to Henry’s horror and prostrating grief, the young man drowned in the wreck of the White Ship in 1120.
Henry’s son was gone, but he still had a daughter, Matilda. She, Henry insisted, would be his heir. Nor, under pressure from this frighteningly authoritative king, did his nobles demur – the only argument that erupted when they were summoned to swear that they would support Matilda as Henry’s successor concerned the question of who should have the honour of taking the oath first. No one spoke out to declare that a woman could not rule in her own right. After all, if there is no precedent to say that she could, there was equally none to say that she couldn’t.
All that stood in the way of Matilda’s path to the throne, it transpired, was another coup exactly like the one that had made her father king. When Henry died in 1135, his nephew Stephen raced from Boulougne to Winchester where he was crowned before Matilda (who was immobilised by pregnancy in her second husband’s county of Anjou) knew what was happening. Two distinct forms of royal legitimacy now stood in opposition to one another: the sacred anointing of a man with royal blood in his veins who could offer leadership of a familiar and decisive kind; and the designated succession of a woman who was the only legitimate child of a previous king.
The result was civil war. Despite her sex, Matilda’s claim was not dismissed out of hand by nobles she sought to rule. In fact, she proved able to command enough support that by the summer of 1141 her army, led by her illegitimate half-brother Robert, Earl of Gloucester, had defeated and captured Stephen at the battle of Lincoln, while Matilda advanced to Westminster, just outside London’s city gates, to prepare for her own coronation.
Still no one tried to make the theoretical argument that a woman was incapable of ruling. But in practice it was here, on the very brink of power, that the ways in which Matilda did not ‘fit’ the crown she claimed began to be articulated for the first time. “All chroniclers agree that in her hour of victory she displayed an intolerable pride and wilfulness”, one historian of the period remarks, and support for that suggestion is not hard to find. “She at once put on an extremely arrogant demeanour instead of the modest gait and bearing proper to the gentle sex”, the anonymous author of the Gesta Stephani (the ‘Deeds of Stephen’) complained, while Henry of Huntingdon declared censoriously that “she was lifted up into an insufferable arrogance… and alienated the hearts of almost everyone. “This has become the defining account of the difficulties Matilda faced at the crucial moment when the kingdom lay within her hands. However, closer scrutiny suggests that the situation was more complex than simply that (as another historian suggests) “an aspect of her character which had not so far been apparent… let her down.”
Matilda was trying to become Queen of England, not in the conventional sense of a king’s wife, but in the unprecedented form of a female king. Kings were – and were required to be – supremely commanding and authoritative. But when Matilda tried to command her subjects with her new royal authority, she found herself condemned as unfemininely wilful and unnaturally domineering. “… she did not rise respectfully, as she should have, when [the chief men of the whole kingdom] bowed before her,” the Gesta Stephani went on, “or agree to what they asked, but repeatedly sent them away with contumely, rebuffing them by an arrogant answer and refusing to hearken to their words; and by this time she no longer relied on their advice, as she should have, and had promised them, but arranged everything as she herself thought fit and according to her own arbitrary will.”
What this boils down to, when issues of style and substance are disentangled, is that Matilda did not do exactly what her advisers told her. It is hard to imagine quite what her father would have said to the suggestion that his counsellors should have the last word in his government – or indeed what he would have had to do to be accused of ‘insufferable arrogance’. The expectation of unquestioning obedience, and the punishment of those who did not comply with his commands, had been indissoluble elements of Henry’s kingship. How, then, could Matilda achieve an authority to match her father’s if she could employ only the ‘modest gait and bearing proper to the gentle sex’ to command her kingdom? It wasn’t, in other words, that her fledgling regime was crippled by the sudden revelation of previously undetected personal flaws. Instead, she was taking her first steps in the new persona of a female monarch, and found herself stumbling over the implicit contradictions between being a woman and being a king.
Matilda never got her coronation. The Londoners – whose overwhelming economic interest in the trade route through Stephen’s lands on the continent predisposed them to support her imprisoned rival – drove her from Westminster, before the crown could be placed on her head. And her ‘intolerable pride and wilfulness’ disappeared as rapidly as they had come. So far was she, in fact, from being intractably arrogant that what turned out to be 19 year long of civil war were finally ended by Matilda’s acutely pragmatic realisation that she could achieve victory for her cause only by retiring from the fray, leaving the country in 1148. She gave up her claim to her son, who took the throne after Stephen’s death in 1154 as King Henry II, reuniting the legitimacy of his mother’s claim with his own ability to embody the functions of kingship in uncomplicatedly male form.
Matilda’s story left a complex and ambiguous precedent in English politics. Women could pass on the throne to their male heirs, that much was clear, and no principle had been explicitly established to exclude them from the succession. But there was no neutral political ground on which a woman could stand to exercise power that contemporaries (and historians since) assumed was ‘naturally’ male. This is a conclusion that remains as thought provoking now, amid the supposedly ‘new politics’ of 2010, as it was 900 years ago.
Written by Helen Castor for BBC History Magazine