England's Queen who never was: A Review of Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior by Catherine Hanley

By: Jake Weatherill

Fri 31/Mar/23

What if I told you the first woman to be heir to the throne of England was not Mary I (the infamous Bloody Mary of History)?. What if I said it wasn’t even the nine day queen Lady Jane Grey? Before the Tudors, before The Wars of The Roses, and before The Plantagenet Dynasty would wage The Hundred Years War (actually it was 116 years in duration but I don’t think it quite has the same ring to it so that’s probably why they went with something snappier) there was another. Someone who every person to sit upon the throne of England since 1154 is descended from. Please allow me to introduce you to The Empress Matilda, England’s Queen that never was. 



Back when The Norman Conquest wasn’t even a century old Matilda had been selected by her Father Henry I, King of England, as his heir to the throne. In the days where women were still very much seen and treated as second class citizens this was a truly momentous decision by Henry I that would go on to have ramifications throughout the contemporary period and beyond. 

Catherine Hanley starts the tale of Matilda’s life with her early betrothment to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V (just to add a tad of confusion to proceedings because there’s a fair few Henry’s in this). Standing on the bow of a ship taking her to the continent, Hanley breaks down the 8 Year Old Matilda’s heritage while giving us an overview of diplomatic processes and the geo-political situation at the time. The first section focuses on her growing up within The Holy Roman Empire, away from her family, and Matilda’s adaptation to life as a rulers consort with the expectations that came with this. 

When her marriage to Henry V is cut short via his untimely death in 1125 Matilda gets a brief reprieve from being a diplomatic bargaining chip before remarrying to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou in 1128. This had been arranged by her father to secure the southern borders of the Duchy of Normandy from outside threats. 

Hanley then takes us away from Matilda for a time, and back to 1120. This date is significant as it is the year that unforeseen events will lead to a succession crisis within The Norman dynasty. The death of Henry I’s son William Adelin in the channel during The White Ship disaster that year would leave England in a precarious position. Hanley uses this part of the book to lay the foundations for the future conflict that will engulf England. In this phase of the book we look at Henry I’s reasoning and deliberations that will see Matilda be recognised as the heir to the English Crown.

The final part of Hanley’s work can be divided into two sections, both focusing on different phases of the same thing. After the death of her Father the expectation is that Matilda should ascend to the throne. This is partially because of her fathers ruling that she was his designated heir, partly because of the oaths of loyalty sworn by the Anglo-Norman nobility. Yet such things are not assurances as we now understand them, and the path of succession in the medieval world was far from a set thing. No Norman succession had been peaceful, and Matilda’s would be no different. Her cousin Stephen of Blois would move against Matilda. Taking advantage of her being on the opposite side of The English Channel Stephen would have himself crowned the King of England and anarchy would ensue.


Hanley uses the final half of her history of Matilda to document the events of The Anarchy, a decade and a half Civil War over the succession of Henry I by Matilda and Stephen that would ravage late Norman England from 1138-1153. Covering the key moments of the conflict under the two claimants to the throne such as The Battle of Lincoln, The Rout of Winchester and the 1142 Siege of Oxford, before moving on to the scions of the two conflicting rulers as a new generation takes the lead in the war.


I first remember stumbling across Matilda as a child. My grandparents, eager to nurture my interest in history, had given me two small books on the Kings & Queens of England and Britain. Her entry in the book can’t have been more than a few lines, given that it was primarily aimed at children I suspect the concepts of wars of succession were seen as something beyond our infantile understanding. So when I was browsing a rival audiobook provider and stumbled across Hanley’s work I though I would try and improve my base of historical knowledge and I was not disappointed. 


Hanley’s work on The Empress starts with a forward about why she decided to look into this particular character from English History, and it largely comes from a lack of writing on someone who has actually had notable ramifications for the path of the nation. Drawing on Marjorie Chibnall’ eponymous biography of Matilda and She-Wolves by Helen Castor, as well as more contemporaneous works such as the Gesta Stephani (otherwise known as The Deeds of King Stephen) by Robert of Bath, and William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regnum Anglorum (The History of The Kings of England), as well as relying on Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of The English People to provide context to the times before the ‘Norman Yolk’ had gained a grip on England. 

What is striking to the author and myself is given the clear significance, both at the time and of her legacy, Matilda seems to actually have relatively little purchase in English history. Whether that’s sources and works from her time, later works, or even modern historical literature, it feels like The Empress is, if not a completely forgotten figure from English history, certainly an understudied, and dare I say it, overlooked personality in the story of this country. While the lack of works at the time you can arguably chalk this up to contemporary perceptions of woman, attitudes to their place in the world, and a general male centric nature of medieval society. 

It’s interesting that as time has gone on while these attitudes have changed there still seems to be a general ignorance to England’s almost Queen. It’s hard to see the ascension of England’s first Queen (Mary I) having had an impact on this, and even through the reigns of both Elizabeth’s, Mary II and Anne, right up to Victoria (where we start to see shifting attitudes towards other historical events such as The English Civil Wars), Matilda is still overlooked. But each of those monarchs have the blood of The Empress Matilda running through their veins, as does Charles III. Without the precedent of Matilda being named Heir to The Throne almost 900 years ago there would have been no path to the throne for any of England/Britain’s Queens. Hanley deservedly shed light on this obscured figure of English History, and I hope as time goes on Matilda becomes as common to conversations of Anglo-Britannic history as The Wars of The Roses, Henry VIII, Victoria and her own grandfather William the Conqueror. If so, a fair amount of credit has to go to those authors like Hanley who refuse to let Matilda fade away.