Matilda: 12th Century Feminist

One night last October, night Drunk Me did Future Me a favor and spontaneously booked an overdue trip to Oxford for the following morning. (There are worse drunk decisions to make, I’m sure.) The forecast said light rain from 10am through the evening; the reality was a luminous fall day that alternated between broken clouds, bright sunlight, and scattered downpours. In short, your ideal wandering-through-a-thousand-year-old-city fall weather.

Oxford formed the completion of, shall we call it, the Empress Matilda list. The Empress Matilda list started to form when I first visited the Tower of London and the reality of how close I was to the history I’ve admired from afar for years truly sank in.

Arundel was the first stop, where Matilda took up the invitation of her friend Adeliza, her step-mother and the former Queen Consort of England, to “come visit” (read: to kick off her bid for the throne in a period of English history that would come to be known as the Anarchy). It was a drizzly, wet spring day, and I narrowly avoided a solid soaking on my way back to the train station that evening. Standing in Arundel Castle was my first experience of sharing steps with one of my historical idols. It dun fucked me up and I LOVED IT. So the Empress Matilda list grew, and Wallingford was next.

Wallingford Castle was the stronghold of Brian Fitz Count, one of Matilda’s most fast supporters, who ruined himself for no apparent reason other than his passion for her cause (insert courtly romance projections here). Wallingford oversaw the whole of the Thames Valley, bolstered by its vital river crossing, and throughout the Anarchy it remained, through Brian’s zeal, a pro-Empress battlefront. All that’s left today (I’m looking at you, Civil War) is a few scraps of wall and the rolling earthworks upon which the Norman castle originally sat. When I visited Wallingford, it was a high summer day – zero clouds, a thousand rays of sun, and market stalls and ice cream trucks spread from the town square to the riverfront. I stood on a small bridge between the castle meadows and the remnants of the motte and took a 360-degree video, sweating in my shorts and t-shirt and surrounded by the buzz of summer fauna, wondering at the sensation of breathing in the same space as Matilda, as Brian.

Winchester was next.

Matilda came close – SO close – to being England’s first ruling queen. Winchester was her moment. It was before she made it to London and the mob chased her out – and it was after her cousin Stephen, the king, had been captured at the epic Battle of Lincoln. Welcomed by Stephen’s own brother, the exceptionally oily Bishop Henry of Winchester, she processed down Winchester Cathedral and was named Lady of the English. She didn’t know that within six months Stephen would be back on the throne and the war would have returned to a bloody stalemate, so I imagine it felt like the first step in finally winning. At least, that’s what I imagined when I was sitting in the same cathedral.

After Matilda was driven from London, Winchester became the scene of one of her many narrow escapes. Surrounded by the enemy (Bishop Henry’s men – see, oily!), her half-brother Robert of Gloucester held off attack and was captured so she could escape alone with none other than Brian of Wallingford, alone on horseback, riding astride like a man to the point of exhaustion until they reached the safety of Devizes Castle. And after seeing what she had escaped in Winchester, I had to see what she escaped in Oxford.

That brings us to today – or, last night, when I decided I’d left off the last trip in my journey of major Matilda destinations for long enough. So I caught a train from Marylebone Station at 9:00am this morning and made my way to Oxford Castle. I arrived just in time for the 10:30am castle tour and walked up the same stairs Matilda did, while under siege, wondering how she could possibly escape what seemed in every way to be a full-proof trap. Most people would have given up, surrounded by an enemy army with no hope of reprieve (Stephen had famously let Matilda leave Arundel Castle unmolested back in 1139 under the excuse that she was simply going to go visit her brother Robert, a decision that historians still wonder at and I’m sure Stephen himself largely regretted for the rest of his life). But not Matilda. A freezing night in December, three months into the siege, she and three of her knights wore white cloaks and were lowered out of the castle onto the frozen Thames with knotted bed sheets, where they escaped by walking directly through Stephen’s encamped army under cover of snow, darkness, and luck.

All of these adventures, all of these moments, are true stories taken from the exceptional life of an exceptional woman – and they are only a handful in the grand scheme of what she endured. Prior to the Anarchy she had already been sent to Germany to marry the Holy Roman Emperor – twenty years her senior – where she then traveled much of Europe with her husband and was by all accounts an appropriately involved and loved imperial consort. When her husband died she was pulled back to Normandy and forced to remarry, only this time to a cocky little shit (the fourteen year old son of an Angevin count) who, upon their marriage, hated her as avidly as she hated him. Their tumultuous marriage eventually produced the first Plantagenet King, Henry II, but not before she attempted to leave Geoffrey and her father forced a reconciliation while she hid in Rouen for over a year.

Matilda should have been remembered as England’s first ruling queen, but instead she’s unknown to most, and in the ultimate irony, was honored even in death by an epitaph that couched her importance entirely in her relationship with men: “Here lies the daughter, wife, and mother of Henry. Great by birth, greater by marriage, greatest in her offspring.”

So if you’ve ever wondered why I wax poetic about this woman, or why I’m so fascinated by her story, or why I got an enormous portrait tattoo of her, that is why. Every person that asks me is one more person that gets to find out she was so much more than a daughter, wife, and mother. She was a passionate woman desperate to be accorded the respect that men and kings had purely by virtue of their sex. And I can’t get over the fact that not only are women still facing those problems 900 years later, but that her story is so little known to them.

The struggle isn’t new – but we can sure as hell be inspired by those who fought it before us. Matilda was certainly one of them.

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