Historians have often bypassed her to instead focus upon Empress Matilda, the ruler who came so close to being the first Queen of England in her own right. However, it was in large part due to Matilda III that Empress Matilda never became Queen. Her narrative is extraordinary and needs swiftly revisiting.
Matilda III was born in around 1103 and little is known about her until her husband, Stephan of Blois, seized the crown on the death of King Henry in 1135. Henry had planned for his daughter, Empress Matilda, to claim the throne and even made nobles swear an oath of allegiance to her before he died. However, the Empress was abroad and pregnant when her father died, so Stephan saw his opportunity. Stephan and Matilda III were crowned King and Queen of England in 1136.
Matilda’s main role was in the anarchy that erupted in 1138 which plunged England into war until 1148. Empress Matilda’s half-brother, Robert of Gloucester, had been fighting for his sister against Stephan in Robert’s lands in the west when news came that an army under Empress Matilda was invading Dover from Normandy. Matilda III was immediately sent with her men to retake Dover. There she took command and laid siege to the castle and won Dover in 1138.
Matilda III was an astute leader and the first Queen to have been directly involved in battle since the conquest in 1066. For some this may come as a surprise as myths have been perpetuated that Queens in history held background roles as mere mothers or wives. However, both Empress Matilda and Matilda III show this as simply untrue.
When the Empress landed at Arundel, Stephan laid siege before agreeing to allow the Empress to go to Robert in Bristol. This was a huge error. Another blunder came in 1141 when Stephan was captured at Carlisle Castle and subsequently kept under guard. William Malmesbury, an English historian of the time, describes Stephan as ‘a man of energy but lacking in judgments, … lenient to his enemies and easily appeased.’
Upon Stephan’s capture the Empress Matilda began to act as though she had won, and the crown was hers. She made her way to London to be crowned Queen of England. The Gesta Stephani writes that the Empress ‘put on an extremely arrogant demeanour’ which angered the people of London. The author writes that she demanded huge sums of money from the Londoners and when they refused, she blazed into a furious rage.