Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
19.12.11 Hanley, Matilda

19.12.11 Hanley, Matilda

Catherine Hanley's Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior is an engaging popular history of the life and times of Empress Matilda (1102-67). Daughter and only legitimate heir to Henry I of England, Matilda unsuccessfully fought her cousin, King Stephen, for the throne for nineteen years before finally seeing her own son, Henry II, become king in 1154. Hanley's book, intended for broad audiences not familiar with the Anglo-Norman period, is a well-written and thoughtful contribution to the growing field of popular medieval women's history, along the lines of works by Helen Castor and Alison Weir. Indeed, Hanley deliberately styles Empress Matilda as a model for her descendants, the late medieval and early modern English queens who have proven so popular in books and television. In the introduction, Hanley demonstrates her own expertise with the academic historiography of the early Anglo-Norman dynasty, citing the work of Marjorie Chibnall, M.T. Clanchy, Chris Given-Wilson, Antonia Gransden, Michael Staunton, and others, as inspiration. The author displays a strong familiarity with the primary sources of the period, especially the chronicles of William of Malmesbury, Orderic Vitalis, and the anonymous Gesta Stephani. Hanley clearly lays out her goals for this book, seeing it not as a replacement or corrective to Chibnall's 1991 academic monograph on Matilda, but instead as a work intended for a "new and different type of audience" (3).

The first chapter, "The Child Empress," seeks to offer a corrective to the scholarly trend of overlooking Matilda's career as the wife and empress of Henry V of Germany (d. 1125). The chapter serves as a good introduction to the politics of the German empire and its neighbors in the early twelfth century. Hanley also teases out the sparse chronicle and charter evidence for Matilda's actions as empress, pointing out key moments in her imperial reign such as her sole regency in Italy in 1118. The chapter attempts to draw a stronger connection between Matilda's early career and her later experiences in the Anglo-Norman kingdom, a commendable but difficult task due to the relative scarcity of German sources focusing on Matilda. Chapter 2 sets the scene for Matilda's return to England by providing an overview of English politics leading up to the 1120 White Ship disaster and continuing through Henry I's attempts to gain a new male heir.

The bulk of the book focuses on the civil war itself, the period when, according to Hanley, Matilda was "almost free" of male control (107). The third through ninth chapters take a chronological approach to Matilda's rise as heir apparent, Stephen's usurpation, the resulting civil war, and the eventual coronation of Matilda's son, Henry II. Two of these chapters (6 and 7) examine in great detail the crucial year of 1161, in which Matilda first seemed about to succeed following Stephen's capture at Lincoln, only to find herself ousted from London and forced to free Stephen. The tenth and final chapter briefly explores Matilda's role as queen-mother following her son's coronation in 1154, claiming that in this role Matilda finally had free rein to shape her own position, as she was the first queen-mother in the Anglo-Norman dynasty. The narrative of the civil war is well written throughout the central chapters and will prove useful to new audiences. Anyone familiar with the events of the civil war and is looking for a new approach to Matilda's career is likely to gain the most out of the first and last chapters, brief as they are in comparison to the coverage of the civil war material.

Hanley's conclusion centers on three main arguments: first, Hanley rejects the common scholarly belief that Matilda was dependent upon her half-brother, ally, and commander Robert of Gloucester, claiming instead that he, as an illegitimate son of a dead king, depended on his sister's claim to the throne to protect his own position in society. Secondly, Hanley states that Matilda's main mistake was attempting to fight for the throne in her own name, rather than in the name of a male heir, such as her son and future king Henry II, which would have been more acceptable to her male contemporaries. Hanley's final argument serves as a summary of the book as a whole: "The conclusion we must come to is this: Matilda could have done better, but whatever she did she was never going to win, because of the simple fact that she was a woman" (248).

The book has several strengths overall. Hanley does a masterful job sketching out the complex familial and political relationships that helped determine what caused individual lords to choose between Matilda and Stephen, as well as why some turned their coats. The book is also truly a "life and times" study, providing explanations throughout about various aspects of medieval life for new audiences, including run-throughs on title and naming traditions, coinage, the religious significance of coronation ceremonies, and many other topics that would seem alien to a modern reader. Hanley also includes enough material on the other leading figures of Matilda's day to provide a solid overview of political events across much of Europe in the first half of the twelfth century.

The book also has its weaknesses. The focus on political and military events is so complete that other aspects of medieval life--and Matilda's career--are neglected, such as the role of the Church (except as a political player), or the patronage relationships between several of the main monastic chroniclers and Matilda herself or her relatives. This latter seems like a missed opportunity to introduce readers new to medieval history to the manner in which medieval histories were commissioned and composed. Some sections, particularly in the early chapters, seem to struggle with the uneven nature of surviving sources, particularly with Matilda's absence in the sources. The first chapter, for example, invites readers to fill in the lacunae of surviving sources by imagining how a young Matilda would have felt at age 8, shipped off to Germany to marry a stranger, or at age 16, left alone as regent in Italy. While this imaginative technique certainly encourages the reader to engage more directly with Matilda's experiences, it also has the unfortunate tendency to impose modern emotional and social expectations of children onto a young woman of the twelfth century, as well as blurring the line between history and historical fiction.

The book also seems to isolate Matilda too greatly as a powerful ruling woman in an otherwise male sea of political activity. Ironically, while the book gives a fair amount of attention to Matilda's male contemporaries, it downplays the roles of other Anglo-Norman women who were involved in the civil war, such as Stephen's queen, Matilda of Boulogne, or who would have influenced her, such as the empress's own mother, Matilda of Scotland. It is certainly a smart and useful move to tap into the broad popular and academic interest in historical women challenging expectations, and the Empress Matilda is the perfect topic for such a study. Yet the book vacillates between emphasizing the male-enforced limits placed on Matilda as an explanation for her failure to win the throne and a desire to want to display Matilda as a feminist figure fighting her way free of male control.

Moreover, after the carefully detailed explanations of political machinations, conflicting familial and social ties, and insightful political and military maneuvering that marks the majority of the book's narrative, Hanley's final overall argument that Matilda was doomed to failure because England was simply too misogynistic to accept a female king feels unsatisfactory. Hanley herself points out to readers two of Matilda's contemporaries, Urraca of León-Castile and Melisende of Jerusalem, as examples of women who were recognized as queens regnant. Did the Anglo-Norman magnates hate or distrust women more than men elsewhere in Europe? Empress Matilda's gender was certainly a mark against her, but the events of the civil war as Hanley describes them seem too complex to be relegated to a single negative motivating factor.

In today's society, concerned as it is with issues of female empowerment, it's clear why popular histories such as Hanley's Empress Matilda, like Castor's She-Wolves, will attract a growing audience interested in stories of women challenging the male-dominated medieval European past. This is a welcome phenomenon, yet it seems to be creating a popular conception that only rebellious women with armies at their disposal can make history. It is to be hoped that soon this trend in popular history writing will better reflect the complexity of medieval life, in that women in medieval Europe had far more ways to rebel against social, political, cultural, or religious limitations than taking up arms; and that they were, instead, far more integral to the workings of medieval society than they have been given credit for.