“Good, good Louis; if I’d managed sons for him instead of all those little girls, I’d still be stuck with being Queen of France and we should not have known each other. Such, my angels, is the role of sex in history.”
– Queen Eleanor in James Goldman’s drama The Lion in Winter.
It is a matter of speculation whether the real Eleanor of Aquitaine ever uttered these words – if she did, they would have been in French – but they succinctly state a historical truth.
In this year of Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee, it seems a fitting exercise to look at the other reigning Queens of England and Great Britain. I say reigning queens, because, as a matter of form the wife of every king is a queen, called “queen consort,” which is a title entirely derivative. So these essays concern those women who were queen in their own right. There have been six, seven, or eight, depending on whether the listing historian chooses to recognize one two of them.
The first and most questionable Queen regnant was Matilda (or Maud, in the old English form) in the 12th Century. Matilda was the granddaughter of William the Conqueror and the only surviving legitimate child of the first King Henry, whose son William died when the White Ship sank in the English Channel in 1120. Matilda had been married at an early age to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, thus receiving the appellation of Empress. After the emperor’s death, she married to Geoffrey of Anjou in an effort to form a political alliance between England and the French Angevin county. King Henry intended Matilda to succeed him on the English throne, but when he died in 1135, the barons refused to accept her as queen and caused her cousin Stephen of Blois to be crowned.
In those days, it was not surprising that the English barons, who were mostly Normans rather than Anglo-Saxons, would refuse to accept a woman. Our essayist of the American Revolution Thomas Paine disdained King George III, and all hereditary monarchs, as no more than descendants of the chief ruffian of a restless gang. In the 12th Century, and for some time after that, kings were primarily military leaders, whose most desired attribute in the days of hand-to-hand combat was physical strength. As cunning and able as a woman might be, as Matilda and at least one of her successor queens turned out to be, she could stand little chance in battle with men. Thus, the barons had no confidence in her ability to lead an army and be an effective monarch. Nevertheless, Matilda, supported by her illegitimate half-brother Robert of Gloucester, and others sought for the next 18 years to overthrow Stephen by military force. This period is known to historians as the Anarchy, because it was not often clear who was in charge throughout England. In fact, in 1141, Matilda succeed in capturing Stephen and entered London hoping to be crowned. The Londoners, however, managed to expel her, and, Stephen’s supporters, having captured Robert, agreed to exchange him for the King. Stephen then gained the upper hand and besieged Matilda at Oxford, where, according to some accounts she managed to escape by fleeing across the snow wearing a white cape.
Even though he prevented Matilda from being crowned and achieving any semblance of power in England, Stephen was never able to consolidate his own. His only son Eustace was killed in one of the battles, and he finally was persuaded to make peace with Matilda with the Treaty of Wallingford in 1153. This treaty allowed Stephen to remain king until his death at which time her son Henry Plantagenet would have the crown, making her daughter-in-law, Eleanor of Aquitaine queen consort. That occurred the next year. After Henry II took the throne, Matilda returned to Rouen in Normandy to preside over the duchy there. She died in 1164 and her remains today lie in Rouen Cathedral on the River Seine in Normandy.
The significance for us in America nearly 900 years later might not be readily apparent, but it is there. The English colonies in North American were established nearly a century after those of Spain in Central and South America. The character of those colonies was probably quite different than it would have been if founded earlier. For one thing, they were all colonized by private persons, and generally left alone by the English, and later British, government, unlike the government sponsored and controlled colonies of Spain. Many historians believe that delay was because of the religious turmoil in Britain that Spain did not experience. That sectarian strife was in turn the result of King Henry VIII’s break with Rome over his wish to divorce his consort Catherine of Aragon because he had been unsuccessful in fathering a male heir with her. The succession to the throne had been through the senior male line, but it remained unclear if that line failed. Henry’s anxiety over not having a male heir was due to his knowledge that succession crises always had brought about civil war, the most destructive of which had been the Anarchy of Matilda’s time – well remembered, even after four centuries. One of the curious connections history is so full of.
Moreover, once the war of the American Revolution was won, it was not clear what would replace the British. Few nations in the world were republics, and democracy, in the sense of the general populace choosing their leaders, was almost universally scorned. Hereditary monarchy was the rule, even if some of those in Europe at the time had limitations on regal power. George Washington was seriously proposed to be the new king of the former colonies. The Founders, fortunately, knew their history. They certainly concurred with Thomas Paine, who pointed out that, far from achieving stability, a hereditary monarchy fostered it when the uncertainty of succession arose, which it was bound to. The Anarchy of Matilda’s time is Exhibit A to Paine’s thesis.
For more on Matilda, see:
Chibnall, Marjorie, The Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother, and Lady of the English (1992); ISBN 0631157379; Library of Congress Call No. DA198.6 .C48 1992
2 replies on “The First Queen – Sex in History”
Good story. The Anarchy was the background story for Robert Ludlum's “The Pillars of the Earth”, wasn't it? How true to history was that?
It was Ken Follett's book, and yes, the Anarchy was indeed the historical background. The story was generally true to the major recorded events, though much dramatic license was taken. There is no evidence that the sinking of the White Ship was anything but an accident – it's a wonder more ships crossing La Manche didn't sink. No conspiracy, I'm afraid. It makes a great story, though.