Empress Matilda: Treacherous Teen and Warrior Woman

 

Ah those Medieval queens! They really had it rough — often serving as pawns in games of marriage, forced to breed like cattle, and fighting endless battles in their quests for a bit of recognition.

Consider Empress Matilda of England. Born on this day, February 7, 1102, Matilda led a chaotic life. But no one could call her irresponsible.

Matilda was part of a powerful blood line, daughter of Henry I of England and granddaughter of William of Normandy — aka “William the Conqueror”.

Almost as soon as she was out of the cradle, Matilda became a vehicle for marriage. She was betrothed at age 8 to Henry V, King of the Romans. Her father considered this an advantageous marriage, as Matilda would be uniting with a prestigious family line. She traveled to Germany where she was put under the custody of Bruno, Archbishop of Trier. Matilda was then educated in German language and customs, and declared Queen of the Romans. At the tender age of 12 she was married.

To make matters even more shocking, Henry was sixteen years older than her. So yes, we are talking about a 12 year old girl married to a  28 year old man.

Apparently, that sort of thing was normal in those days.

By age 14, Matilda was already running her own royal household, dealing with political conflict in Europe, sponsoring royal grants, conducting ceremonies and staking her claim as Empress of the Holy Roman Empire.

Things did not go well for Henry and Matilda. It seems Henry was a bit of a tyrant, constantly jailing his chancellors and subjects. This led to rebellions. Eventually, Pope Paschal II excommunicated Henry from the church of Rome. Henry and Matilda, however, were not so willing to take their punishment. They countered Paschal by marching over the Alps and arriving in Italy with their armies. Paschal ran away.  His envoy, Antipope Gregory VIII, now under military pressure, agreed to crown Henry and Matilda at Saint Peter’s Basilica.

Weirdly, although Henry and Matilda were married for eleven years until he died in 1125, they never produced any children.  This barren status was bad for Matilda. She was now a widow at age 23. With no offspring, she could never exercise a role as an imperial regent. This left her with two choices; either marry again or become a nun.

Meanwhile, back in England, trouble was brewing.

Matilda’s father Henry I, King of England, had only two legitimate children; Matilda and her brother William. (Ironically, Henry actually fathered 22 illegitimate children! But only William and Matilda had a claim to the throne.)

In 1120, William died in a shipwreck. This left Matilda as the only heir to the crown.

King Henry I still had hopes of bearing another legitimate son. His first wife had died, but he remarried. His plan failed and he sired no more children. Of course, the big dilemma now was finding another husband for Matilda.

Her father decided the best match for her would be Geoffrey of Anjou. This alliance would strengthen relations between England and Normandy. However, there were a few problems. Geoffrey was only 13 years old. Perhaps Matilda, having been exploited herself, was not keen on taking a child husband.

She had little choice in the matter. The couple were married on June 17, 1128.  The newlyweds reportedly did not like each other very much. Matilda tried to get out of the union, leaving Normandy a several times. But Geoffrey always managed to force her back. Eventually, despite the fact that they were mismatched, they did have children. Their first son, Henry (yes another Henry!)  was born in 1133.

King Henry I reportedly was delighted with his grandson Henry. King Henry I died in 1135. This brought about the precarious question of who would take the throne. Although Matilda should have been the legitimate heir, a man known as Stephen of Blois, Matilda’s cousin, and one of old Henry’s favorite nephews, staked his claim.  Henry’s subjects had previously pledged themselves to Matilda, but many reneged on their pledge and followed Stephen. A woman had never ruled England before, and people did not take kindly to the idea.  They apparently preferred a British male king to a female ruler with a foreign husband.

Matilda, however, was not willing to give up. She had supporters — including Robert of Gloucester and King David I of Scotland. They attempted to overthrow Stephen with armies from Normandy.  So began the 19-year civil war known as The Anarchy.

Between 1138 and 1141, feuds between Matilda and Stephen put the country in chaos. In 1141, Matilda captured and imprisoned her cousin. She then began to make arrangements for her own coronation. However, it seems she still was unpopular with the people. Reportedly, Matilda imposed several taxes and placed sanctions upon her would-be subjects.  The people revolted. Growing animosity weakened Matilda’s claims. Then, Stephen’s wife (ironically, also named Matilda!) counter attacked with her own army.

Side note: Yes, I am wondering why they insisted upon naming everyone Matilda and Henry.

  • Henry I had at least one illegitimate daughter named Matilda.
  •  Stephen’s wife was named Matilda.
  • The Empress Matilda’s mother was also Matilda, aka Matilda of Scotland.
  • Eight rulers of England were named Henry.
  • Five rulers of France were named Henry.
  • Four rulers of Castile were named Henry.
  • Six Holy Roman Emperors were named Henry.
  • Seventeen Dukes of Bavaria were named Henry.

To be fair, I assume it had something to do with beliefs in the influence of names. The name Henry actually means “power” or “ruler”.  Matilda means “mighty in battle.” Appropriate! 🙂

Queen Matilda (Stephen’s wife) eventually defeated Empress Matilda. Empress Matilda was forced to release her cousin from prison. Stephen was officially crowned King of England in 1141.

Although Empress Matilda attempted more war strategies, setting up forces at Devizes Castle and attempting to oust Stephen for several more years, she was ultimately unsuccessful. She returned to Normandy in 1148. Her husband Geoffrey died in 1151. After Geoffrey’s death, Matilda ruled Anjou. She also set about trying to establish her son Henry as King of England.

Young Henry brought his armies to England with the intention of overthrowing Stephen.

Ironically, Henry somehow became Stephen’s “adopted son” and successor! When Stephen died in 1154, Henry took the throne as King Henry II. Henry married Eleanor of Aquitaine, another powerful Medieval Queen.

Empress Matilda lived to the ripe old age of 65, probably a record for women of her day. She died on September 11, 1167. In yet another sad, ironic twist, her tomb stone only identifies her as “Daughter of King Henry, wife of King Henry and mother of King Henry.”  (I guess they leave us to figure it out — Henry I of England, Henry V of Rome and Henry II of England, respectively.)

At any rate, Matilda remains a significant historical figure. Her battle with Stephen had a profound effect on politics of the time. Perhaps Matilda even paved the way for the many powerful queens that were eventually to rule England — Mary, Elizabeth I, Victoria and Elizabeth II.

Happy Birthday Empress Matilda! You put up a good fight.

 

 

 

The Execution of Lady Jane Grey

 

In all the bloody legacies of the Tudor family, perhaps there is none quite so tragic as the death of sixteen year old Lady Jane Grey. Also known as the “Nine Days Queen” the shy reluctant Jane ruled England for exactly nine days before she was jailed and eventually executed.

Jane Grey was born on this day, October 13, 1537 in Bradgate Park, England. It was her great misfortune to have been born into a faction of the Tudor dynasty. Jane was the great-granddaughter of Henry VII through his younger daughter Mary. This made her  first cousin once removed to King Edward VI, son of Henry VIII.

 

Sins of the Father

Those of you that know Tudor history might remember Henry VIII’s nearly impossible quest to bear a son. After blowing through two marriages, Henry finally wed queen’s maid Jane Seymour who bore him their son Edward. (Jane died in childbirth, and Henry blew through three more wives after her, but that is another story for another day.)

Little Prince Edward was a treasure to Henry, who treated him like a delicate doll, constantly in fear that his only son might fall ill and not continue the Tudor dynasty. Upon Henry’s death, the nine year old Edward took the throne. But alas. Henry’s darkest fear actually did come true. Edward only ruled a few years until he passed away at the tender age of  fifteen.

Before he died, young Edward made some rather unconventional arrangements about his own succession. He chose his cousin Lady Jane Grey as the next queen.

Edward had two half sisters, Henry VIII’s daughters Mary and Elizabeth. Henry VIII had actually written a will that eldest daughter Mary should succeed Edward in the event he had no sons (which, at age fifteen he did NOT.) However, Mary was a Roman Catholic, and this did not sit well with young Edward, a strict Protestant.

On his deathbed, Edward wrote a new will. This will removed his half-sisters, Mary and Elizabeth, from the line of succession on account of their “illegitimacy”. It was probably pretty easy for Edward to declare his sisters illegitimate. They were the daughters of Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn, respectively. Henry VIII had managed to annul, disintegrate and destroy those marriages, banishing Catherine and beheading Anne, in his frantic attempt to marry someone who could give him a son.

 

Overburdened

Young Jane was somewhat of a little pawn in a big game. When she was called to become queen, Jane was a timid, bookish teenager. She, like the rest of England, had no idea about the new will.

She had been given an excellent education and had a reputation as one of the most learned young women of her day. She was also married. In May 1553, Jane had been married off to Lord Guildford Dudley. He was a younger son of Edward’s chief minister John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. The marriage had, no doubt, been arranged by John Dudley in his own hopes of advancement, knowing his new daughter in law had some chance of becoming queen.

Edward VI died on July 6, 1553. On July 9 Jane was informed that she was now queen. Still unsure of herself and her shaky claim to the throne, Jane accepted the crown with reluctance.  She was moved to residence in the Tower of London, and on 10 July, she was officially proclaimed Queen of England, France and Ireland.

 

Cliques and Coups

Meanwhile, Mary Tudor got busy. As soon as Mary was sure of King Edward’s demise, she traveled to East Anglia, where she began to rally her Catholic supporters. In turn, John Dudley got some troops together to capture Mary. He was unsuccessful.

Mary had a lot of support from the English people. There were still many Catholic strongholds in the country and even Protestants backed Mary because they believed she was the rightful heir to the throne. In addition, another nobleman, one Henry Fitz -Alan, 19th Earl of Arundel, engineered a coup d’etat in Mary’s favor.  Under pressure from the English people and other forces, the Privy Council  switched their allegiance and proclaimed Mary as queen on July 19, 1553.

And that was the end of Jane. On that same day, she was imprisoned in the Tower’s Gentleman Gaoler’s apartments.

Her husband went to Beauchamp Tower. John Dudley, for his part, was executed on August 22, 1553. Jane — henceforth referred to as “Jane Dudley, wife of Guildford”, was charged with high treason. Her husband and two of his brothers were also charged. Their trial took place on November 13, 1553.   All defendants were found guilty and sentenced to death. Jane’s guilt was evidenced by a number of documents she had signed as “Jane the Quene”.

Jane’s fate was to “be burned alive on Tower Hill or beheaded as the Queen pleases.” Burning was the traditional English punishment for treason committed by women.

 

To Burn or Not To Burn?

The decision seemed a bit harsh. Jane was so young. She was still beloved by many. She even seemed to have little to do with her own fate. The Imperial Ambassador began a petition in her favor, pleading to Charles V,  the Holy Roman Emperor, that Jane’s life be spared.  Even Queen Mary herself was reluctant to sign the death warrant. Some historians believe that if Jane would have agreed to accept Catholicism, she could have saved her own life and gained favor with Mary. However, during her imprisonment Jane remained a dedicated Protestant. She even wrote letters condemning the Catholic Mass, going so far as to call it a “Satanic and cannibalistic ritual.”

As she awaited her sentence, Jane’s family were busy scheming again.

In January, 1554, the “Wyatt Rebellion” began. This was a plan instigated by Thomas Wyatt the Younger to destroy Queen Mary’s reign. Jane’s father, Henry Grey, and two of her uncles joined the rebellion. Upon hearing this news, the government assumed they could never trust Jane. Mary then signed the death warrant for both Jane and her husband Guildford.

Her beheading was first scheduled for February 9 1554, but was then postponed for three days to give Jane another chance to convert to the Catholic faith. Mary sent her chaplain John Feckenham to Jane. Although Jane would not convert, she became friends with Feckenham and requested he accompany her to the scaffold.

 

Blindfolded and Bewildered

Jane’s execution, with Feckenham by her side, is depicted in this famous painting by Paul Delaroche, 1833. No one knows for sure what Jane looked like, as she was the only Tudor monarch who never had a portrait done.

On the morning of February 12, the authorities took Guildford from his rooms at the Tower of London to the Tower Hill. Instead of a simple beheading, Guildford suffered the sadistic punishment of being drawn and quartered — a process in which the victim was kept alive while his entrails were cut out. A horse and cart brought his remains past the rooms where Jane was staying. Seeing her husband’s corpse return, Jane cried out: “Oh, Guildford, Guildford!”

She was then taken out to Tower Green for her own beheading. Jane gave this speech from the scaffold:

“Good People, I am come hither to die, and by a law I am condemned to the same. The fact, indeed, against the Queen’s highness was unlawful, and the consenting thereunto by me: but touching the procurement and desire thereof by me or on my behalf, I do wash my hands thereof in innocency, before God, and the face of you, good Christian people, this day.”

Jane’s wording should be noted. “… touching the procurement and desire thereof by me… I do wash my hands thereof in innocency…” It is a fancy, 16th century way of saying she never wanted the crown in the first place.

The executioner asked her forgiveness, which she granted him, pleading: “I pray you dispatch me quickly.” Interestingly, Jane then pointed to her own head and asked, “Will you take it off before I lay me down?” The axeman answered: “No, madam.” (Anne Boleyn’s executioner, a skilled swordsman, snuck up on Anne, behind her back, theoretically to soften the blow.  So maybe Jane was just checking.)

She then blindfolded herself.  But once blindfolded, Jane could not find the block with her hands, and cried, “What shall I do? Where is it?”  Sir Thomas Brydges, the Deputy Lieutenant, helped her. With her head on the block, Jane spoke the last words: “Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit!”

Jane and Guildford are buried in the Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula on the north side of Tower Green. No memorial stone was erected at their grave.

 

Lingering Legacy

Jane is gone but not forgotten. Her youth, the unfairness of her death and the sheer romanticism of her story have elevated her to an icon.  Known as the “traitor-heroine” of the Protestant Reformation, she became viewed as a martyr. Jane was featured in the Book of Martyrs (Actes and Monuments of these Latter and Perillous Dayes) by John Foxe.

Jane’s story grew to legendary proportions in popular culture. She has been the subject of many novels, plays, operas, paintings, and films. One of the most popular was Trevor Nunn’s 1986 film “Lady Jane”. Helena Bonham Carter played the lead role.

Happy Birthday Jane. We hardly knew you.