I was first introduced to the Empress Maud and her battles to regain the throne of England by mystery writer Ellis Peters.(1) The war between Maud and her cousin Stephen is the immediate background against which her Brother Cadfael mysteries are set. (One step behind that stand the Crusades–a deft way to place her stories within their larger historical context and to give her main character a broader view of the world than many of the people around him.) Both Maud and Stephen are distant figures in the book and Peter’s main characters are Stephen supporters, so for years I never thought about why a medieval noblewoman would feel she had a right to the crown.
Since then I’ve spent a fair amount of time thinking about Maud within the context of women warriors.(2) It turns out she had a good reason to claim the crown. Here’s the short version.
Born in 1102 CE, Maud was the daughter of Henry I of England and Normandy.(3) When she was twelve, she was married to the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V, who was almost twenty years her senior.(4) By all accounts, she was a hardworking empress and well-regarded by her people: her German subjects called her “the good Matilda”. She may have even been happy.
In 1125, the Emperor Henry died. If he had left an underaged son as heir to the throne, Maud would no doubt have served as the child’s regent.(5) Since they were childless, she was left as a dowager empress at the relatively young age of 23. The options for a surplus empress were limited, though Maud clung to the title, calling herself “Matilda the Empress, daughter of King Henry”.
In fact, the death of her brother some years previously meant that Maud was once again a factor in Henry I’s dynastic calculations. Henry could have named one of his twenty-some illegitimate sons as his successor or one of his numerous nephews, Instead he called his now-marriageable daughter home, named her as his successor, and forced his council of nobles and bishops to swear fealty to her as “lady of England and Normandy”. He then made the mistake of arranging another political marriage for her, this time to the teenaged son of the Count of Anjou, whose lands lay next to Normandy.
When Henry died in 1135, Maud was in Normandy. Her cousin Stephen of Blois had himself crowned in Westminster Abbey before a very pregnant Maud could hurry across the Channel and claim her throne, plunging England into nineteen years of civil war, known as the Anarchy. (6) The English nobility took sides, and sometimes changed sides depending on who seemed to be winning.
Finally the war ended with a compromise. Stephen kept the crown accepted Maud’s young son, the future Henry II, as his heir. (Which, if truth be told, was probably Henry’s intention in naming Maud his heir–women who inherited thrones or titles were often seen as the conduit between two generations of men.) The Empress Maud settled for the title Lady of the English.
As for me, I’m now squarely on team Maud.
(1) I realize not all hard-core history buffs agree, but I find that well done historical fiction is an excellent doorway to history itself. If you want to see my full opinion on the subject, you can find it here. No need to repeat myself.
(2) She was the first woman that I had to cut from the book because she didn’t fit even my broadest definition of woman warrior. Just about broke my heart.
(3) Just to help you keep track: He was the son of William the Conqueror. Hard to tell the players without a program.
(4) That sounds horrible enough to a modern reader. Consider this: she was betrothed to him at the age of eight and sent immediately to Germany. Once there, her future husband sent away her English attendants and did his best to turn her into a good German. Now picture yourself at eight.
(5) Mothers were often preferred over uncles or grandfathers as regents, under the (usually correct) assumption that they were less likely to get ambitious and/or greedy and seize the throne for themselves.
(6) He claimed that Henry had changed his mind and named Stephen his heir on his deathbed. It may even have been true–primogeniture was not yet a settled theory of inheritance and thrones tended to go to the man most able to seize them. (There are echoes here of the rival claims to the English throne that led to the Norman Conquest. Or is that just me?)