Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Matilda Empress Queen Warrior by Catherine Hanley

Oh, I do I love a good scholarly biography.  By good, I mean a well-researched, well-documented and eminently readable biography by a biographer who has immersed herself into her subject matter.

Catherine Hanley's Matilda Empress Queen Warrier is a superb book.  I could not put it down.  Matilda (1102-1167) was the daughter of King Henry I of England.  As a young child, she married the future Henry V, Holy Roman emperor.  The emperor died in 1125.  The young childless widow returned to Normandy where her father arranged for her to marry Count Geoffrey of Anjou.

Five years before Matilda's only legitimate brother, William was among three hundred passengers, who died in the White Ship disaster.  Henry wanted Matilda to succeed him.   There were no laws that would prevent female succession, but the situation was far more complicated.   There were other candidates.  Henry I's eldest brother, Robert Curthose, had a son William, who was a possible candidate, as was another first cousin, Stephen, the daughter of Henry I's sister, Adela and her husband Stephen of Blois.

On two separate occasions, Stephen swore to uphold Matilda's claim to the throne, but when Henry died in 1135, Stephen broke his promise and with the support of the English church claimed the throne.

During the next few decades, Stephen's reign suffered through challenges from church, the French and family members including Matilda and her husband and her half brother, Robert of Gloucester, who led a rebellion against Stephen.

The skirmishes and rebellions led to a civil war with Stephen and Matilda jockeying for power.

But Stephen was a "natural follower rather than a leader," and this lack of true leadership would lead to his downfall.  Matilda was far more successful in compromise and seen as the "voice of reason."    When Stephen died in 1154, he was succeeded by Matilda's son, Henry, who reigned as Henry II.

She was a formidable woman and took an active role "in the military aspects" if the campaign to win the throne.    Hanley writes that is Matilda "had not doggedly pursued and fought for her rights," the succession of the English throne might have looked very different. Without Matilda's determination, there would not have been a Plantagenet dynasty.  Or Tudors. Or Stuarts. Or. Hanovers. Or Windsors.

Matilda was also a "politically active queen mother," a role that was enthusiastically shared by her daughter-in-law, Eleanor of Aquitaine.   She also provided that precedent proving that female inheritance was legitimate.

As "the master of her fate and the agent of her own destiny,"  Catherine Hanley's final statement notes that Matilda "deserves to be remembered.

I will say the same thing about Hanley's book.   Matilda Empress Queen Warrior deserves to be read.  This is a consummate study of a woman whose right to the throne was usurped by others, yet she remained determined to be a warrior for her family, especially, her son, Henry.   She may not have won her rightful crown, but she lived long enough to see her son succeed to the English throne.

Matilda Empress Queen Warrior was published by Yale University Press.

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