Watching Tyrion and Varys argue on a recent Game of Thrones episode about whether a cock is a necessary qualification for a monarch in the universe of Westeros, I wondered how this argument had played out in medieval England, which provided much of George R.R. Martin’s source material. While the highly successful show has often been sucked into larger contemporary conversations about women and power, these storylines about would-be queens also harken back to the historical Middle Ages, when numerous women exercised power— to varying degrees of success.
Fortunately, historian Catherine Hanley has written a biography of Matilda, a woman who attempted to become the first reigning queen of England—as opposed to the wife of the king—and was willing to answer some of my questions.
Matilda is a fascinating figure. The daughter of King Henry I of England, she had been sent to Europe as a child to marry the man who’d become Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, amassing immense political, diplomatic, and governing experience. Her husband died and the pair had no children, leaving Matilda at loose ends. As it turned out, her father found himself without an heir, thanks to the White Ship disaster in 1120—which killed her older brother and lots of other aristocrats when their booze cruise unexpectedly sank. Despite Henry I taking a second, much younger wife, Matilda was his only living legitimate child and therefore his chosen heir.
All very dynastically straightforward—except, of course, for the fact that Matilda was a woman. As Hanley explains, medieval women did in fact routinely exercise power, and succession could be routed through women, but they couldn’t hold power or sovereignty in their own right. It had to be under the auspices of a man. (Hello, Sansa!) Ultimately, when Henry I died, Matilda’s cousin Stephen of Blois essentially stole the throne right out from under her. But she refused to cooperate and spend the next twenty years fighting Stephen and his allies. She never managed to get the crown for herself—but in the end, she did manage to get her son onto the throne, which isn’t too bad a result for a rebellion against a medieval king.
I asked Hanley about Matilda’s quest for her own non-Iron Throne. Maybe Game of Thrones could have used a crib sheet?
So, Matilda is the only living legitimate child of the reigning monarch after her brother dies, and she’s very qualified—she’s been the empress in Europe, she has a lot of political experience. And yet, she doesn’t end up on the English throne when her father dies. What happens that the crown does not go to her?
Not only was she the only legitimate child of the king, but he’d also officially designated her his heir, and all the lords and the barons had sworn an oath that they were going to uphold her rights. And as you say, she was very qualified. She’d been the empress of what we would now call the Holy Roman Empire since she was 8 years old. By the time she was 16, she could speak three languages and the emperor had left her in charge of ruling Italy. By the time her father died, she was in her early 30s, and if you’d offered most medieval kings the chance to leave their throne to an heir who was 30ish, experienced, multi-lingual, with all this international political experience, they would have bitten your hand off!
All these baron had sworn they were going to support her rights, and basically as soon as Henry I died they sort of went, Oh! A woman! We can’t have this! Then there was some debate over, well, if not her, then who? And her cousin Stephen basically won the race. Stephen was Henry I’s nephew, the son of his sister, and he was actually not even the oldest son in his own family. He’d been shown a lot of favor by the king, and he obviously just thought to himself, This is a great opportunity for me. I’m the old king’s nephew, I’m male. He basically rushed across the channel and secured the treasury, the money, and then rushed and got himself crowned, and then once the crown was on his head, that was it, he was the king!
Matilda could have given up. It would have been quite easy to give up, to go, Oh, hang on, I’m stuck 200 miles away--she was in Anjou, in France at the time—and somebody else has been crowned and he’s a man and nobody seems to be arguing on my behalf. Maybe I should just stay here. But quite clearly she wasn’t that kind of woman. She wasn’t just to sit by and let somebody else steal her rights. And so instead of taking this lying down, she decided to start a war about it. Good for her! She didn’t have any dragons, sorry.
You point out in the book, she’s probably three months pregnant when this happens, too. There’s a good chance she’s puking her guts up. She just literally cannot get there.
That’s correct. I mean, gee, if she was as sick as I was when I had my kids—if you’d offered me a crown, I would have gone, No, actually, just leave it a while.
It is interesting you call it a race. He literally races to Winchester, where they keep the crown, and then to do the coronation, and his brother is conveniently the bishop.
He had all these incredible coincidences in his favor. When he heard of Henry’s death, he happened to be in Boulogne, which is on the coast of the north of France. It’s where the shortest crossing is possible to get to England. He went first to Winchester, which is where the treasury was and where his brother was the bishop. Then after that, he went to Westminster, which is in London, to get himself crowned. But he’d managed to do all of that before Matilda even knew that her father was dead, because obviously news took a while to travel 200 miles back then.
And it is a race, because the most important thing in making a king or a queen was the actual coronation, because once you had been crowned—it was not just that you had a crown on your head, it was that you had been approved by God. You were also anointed with holy oil. Once that had happened, it doesn’t matter who you were before. You were now the king. Nobody could take that away from you. But unfortunately, he proved quite adept at getting the crown put on his head, and not quite so good at trying to keep it there.
It’s so interesting that you can kind of fudge the claims, but once the crown is on your head, it’s like possession is nine-tenths of the law. The ship has sailed. But Matilda took issue with that.
This is why, when she eventually did make it to England, she had to be very careful about how she presented herself. Because if she presented herself as rebelling against the king because I don’t like him, that was never going to work. The way she had to present herself was, I am actually the rightful monarch and I have been all along. Which is why she did things like she had coins minted with her image on, because obviously normally having coins minted is the prerogative of the monarch. She appointed people to earldoms and gave out lands and things like that. Effectively, there were two monarchs in the same country, which is why everything got so confusing. People could say, Well, this king’s told me to do something, and somebody could say, Yeah, well, the other king, the queen, is telling you to do something else.
And of course many of the barons just had their eye on the main chance. Some of them were very loyal to one side or the other, but some of them were just waiting to jump depending on what it looked like they were going to be able to get out of it. There’s always self interest. Again, I think you can link that to Game of Thrones—all these different houses, watching to see which way to jump, because they want to make sure that in the end, they’re supporting the winning side, because that means they’ll get to keep all their own lands. If they end up supporting the losing side, it’s quite possible that their lands and titles will get taken away from them and given to somebody else.
Also their heads, right?
Well, yeah. You’ve got to keep your head on your shoulders! That’s the name of the game.
Like you said, on paper she’s very qualified. What is the problem with having a queen? Is it a technical problem, or just sort of a knee-jerk type of response: “what? A woman? We can’t!” What’s the issue with the idea of her being on the throne?
It’s a bit of both, really.
Partly, these men that were in power just couldn’t cope with the concept of a woman who could do all these things, and they sort of freaked out. Partly, there was a practical problem, because at this time, the king is not just the head of the government. He is physically expected to lead his troops into battle if need be. This is one of the reasons why they were going, This can’t be a woman, because a woman can’t ride into battle. And in fact there’s not really even a word for what she wanted to be, because at this time, the world “queen” didn’t actually imply that you might be ruling. The word “queen” just means “the wife of the king.” She wasn’t really even trying to be a queen—she was trying to be a female king. And people just couldn’t cope with “king” and “female” in the same sentence, if you like.
But there were plenty of other examples of male kings in the Middle Ages who also didn’t lead their troops into battle, either because they were too old or they were too young or because they were ill. They used it as an excuse. And if you look carefully at what people were writing about her at the time, you can see that most of what they’re criticizing her for is very gendered. They’re saying, oh, well, when she was named that she should be on the throne, she became arrogant and she wanted to arrange things the way she wanted them and she started to walk confidently and talk confidently. You wouldn’t criticize a man who’d just been named as the king for walking confidently or talking confidently.
It’s this key problem that women who are in the public eye have to be not just capable, they have to be “likeable” as well. And this is actually still a problem that many women in the public eye face now. They’re judged by different standards. You’ll read a newspaper article about a woman politician and instead of talking about her policies, they’ll be talking about what she’s wearing or does she smile enough. This is exactly what people were writing about Matilda eight hundred years ago! Instead of talking about how capable she would be at governing, they’re all just going: Well, yeah, don’t like her, cause she didn’t speak to me nicely enough. She was being judged by completely different standards. What on earth was she supposed to do? If she did behave in the way that they expected a woman to behave, sitting quietly and letting the men make all the decisions for her, she would equally have been criticized: She can’t rule because she’s too soft. You see what I mean? She’s never going to win. She’s acting like a king because that’s what the situation demands, but everyone around her just couldn’t stick her acting like a king because she was a woman and it freaked them out.
She was never going to win, really. If she had been crowned, every time she made a slip, people would have gone—Oh, see? I told you women weren’t very good at this, in a way that they wouldn’t do for a man. If Stephen did something wrong, they might say, oh, Stephen’s a bit rubbish. But they’d never say, This means that men are temperamentally unsuited to rule, would they?
So she was basically never going to win, and I think eventually she had the self-awareness to realize that, which is why she then switched her tactics from claiming the throne in her own right to claiming it for her son. Which suddenly was a lot more palatable because medieval women, it’s fine for them to be active if they’re doing it on behalf of their son or their husband. It’s just not fine if they’re doing it because they want power for themselves.
You talk about this in the book, about how her first husband left her in charge of Italy. And there’s a lot of instances where, say if you’re married to a great landowner and he goes to the Crusades or whatever, you’re in charge.
Women were routinely expected to be both active and capable. They had to run estates, they had to defend estates sometimes, and they got involved in politics. But crucially, their agency had to be confined in male power structures. So it was absolutely fine for them to be active and capable, as long as they were doing it on behalf of a man, their husband or their brother or their husband. For example, King Stephen’s wife, who rather unhelpfully is also called Matilda, when he was in prison, took up arms on his behalf, and everyone talks about how great she is. They’re like, Oh, this wonderful woman, taking this action on behalf of her husband! She’s not doing anything particularly different from what Matilda is doing, it’s just that because she’s doing it for her husband and not for herself, it’s fine.
So the power has to be routed through a man. It can’t be routed through a woman.
Exactly. Power was male. The women at the time who wielded power most effectively were ones who realized this. They might have been the power behind the throne, like for example Eleanor of Acquitaine or somebody like that. You know, she was never claiming to rule England or France in her own right, but she was married to the king and therefore had a great deal of influence. And why Matilda just didn’t get anywhere was because she was trying to do it for herself. As soon as she switched and said, Oh, now I’m fighting on behalf of my son, everything was fine! Everyone was like, Oh yes, the boy has rights that we should uphold. Which is grossly unfair to her, really, but there wasn’t a lot to do about it.
I have every sympathy for the position that she’s in, but if there is a criticism to be made, it’s that she could probably have realized better and quicker that she was having to play a game that had different rules to the men around her. She was just as capable of acting like any of the men around her, but she could have probably realized maybe a bit earlier that that just wasn’t going to work. If she said right from the beginning, I’m claiming these rights because I want to be a regent while my son grows up, but actually I’m claiming the rights for him, she might have been a lot more successful a lot more quickly. Looking at it now, you think, well why should she have to do that? It’s her crown. It’s her throne. She should have it for herself. But by the rules of the game that were in play in the 12th century, that just wasn’t going to work.
Would she have given up what did she win for her son for the chance to have the throne herself? I don’t know, it’s difficult to say. But I like to frame it in terms of she had this ultimate success, because it was her son that succeeded and not Stephen’s son. But on the other hand, you’ve got to feel sorry for her. You know? All that fighting, all that effort, and she never actually got the crown on her own head.
It is interesting that her son has rights and when she transfers the claim to him, there’s this path to victory, but the only reason—
I mean, for heaven’s sake, he’s a 9 year old boy! He can’t lead armies into battle either! But somehow they saw round that, I suppose because he was male and he would grow up into a man. The double standards just make me want to punch something.
But also the only reason her son has a claim is the claim is through her!
Exactly. His claim was nothing to do with his father, who’s basically got nothing to do with it. Henry II’s claim to the throne is that he’s the grandson of Henry I via his mother Matilda, which is why he actually chose to be called Henry FitzEmpress. Surnames weren’t quite a thing yet, and people would say they were the son of somebody, because fitz means “son of.” Many men would choose to take the name of their father, but he wasn’t called Henry FitzGeoffrey or Henry FitzCount or any of those things. He chose to be called Henry FitzEmpress after his mother to emphasize his claim to the throne through her. And if she hadn’t done all these years of fighting, he wouldn’t have sat on the throne. It’s all very well theoretically saying he had the right. But he wouldn’t have been in a position to claim them if she hadn’t done all this stuff on his behalf.
The whole thing about the claims is like—that and 50 cents gets you a candy bar. Unless you have somebody with actual army in the field…
Yeah, you can jump up and down as much as you like that the throne ought to be yours, but unless you’ve got the money and the army and the backing and the commanders and everything, you’re not going to get very far, and Henry would not have had any of those things if it hadn’t been for his mother. We should all appreciate our mothers more!