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England’s empress did not do well

 Empress Matilda appears in a 15th century illustration.

Empress Matilda appears in a 15th century illustration.

Those who collect the coins of British India are well aware that English kings and queens, such as Victoria, were given the titles of Empress or Emperor in keeping with tradition in that country. The title ended in 1947 when the British left India.

What is not commonly known, except by specialists in history and numismatics, is that there was an earlier empress in England, named Matilda. It all began in 1066, when William of Normandy invaded England and overthrew the last of the Anglo-Saxon rulers, Harold II. William claimed that he had been promised the throne by Edward the Confessor (1042-1066), but few accepted that statement.

Once the fighting was over, William of Normandy became known to history as William I, the Conqueror. He had several children, some of whom would reappear in dynastic disputes, usually at the worst possible time.

William I died in 1087, the result of an riding accident. His eldest son, Robert, inherited the possessions in France, while the third son (William) became William II of England; this king is more often called William Rufus after a supposed redness in his facial features. (The second son, Richard, had died prior to 1087.)

King William II was killed by a “stray” arrow in August 1100 while hunting in the New Forest. The arrow was fired by Walter Tirel, who was accused by many persons of murdering the king. Whether true or not, Tirel soon decided that it was safer to be far away in France rather than stay in England.

 Map of England

Map of England

The new king, Henry I, faced several challenges almost immediately, including one by his brother Robert, who decided that he ought to have both Normandy and England rather than just Normandy. In 1101, Robert invaded but was defeated and forced to acknowledge Henry as the English king.

Henry then decided he ought to have both England and Normandy so he invaded Robert’s territory in 1105. By 1106, Robert had been defeated and captured, spending the rest of his life in English prisons and not dying until February 1134. At this point, Henry’s hold on the throne was absolute, and there were no serious claimants to contend with.

In November 1100, Henry I married Matilda, the daughter of Scottish King Malcolm III, a brilliant political move that secured the northern border from attacks. There were two legitimate children from this union, Matilda born in 1102 and William Adelin born in 1103. (Henry I had at least 22 illegitimate children but, with one exception – Robert of Gloucester – these were not involved in the dynastic struggles.)

At the age of 8, Henry I’s daughter Matilda was betrothed to Henry V of Germany, soon to be Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. They remained happily married until Henry’s untimely death in 1125, but there were no children; the imperial throne was then seized by Lothair II, who had little use for Matilda.

In the meantime, William Adelin died in a freak accident. The vessel White Ship was supposed to take William and other notables across the English Channel but was manned by drunken seamen who managed to sink the ship in 1120, with a heavy loss of life, including William Adelin. The only legitimate heir to Henry I’s throne was now his daughter Matilda. The king later arranged for Matilda to marry Geoffrey of Anjou, not only to protect his southern French border but to give Matilda a power base.

Matilda and Geoffrey had a son, Henry, in March 1133, as well as other children. This eldest son later became King Henry II of England.

After the death of William Adelin, the king assembled family members as well as powerful nobility and forced them to swear fealty to Matilda as the heir to the English throne, which included the French possessions. The stage was now set for one of the most difficult times in English history.

 Penny of the Empress Matilda struck by the moneyer William at Bristol. (Photo courtesy of Spink)

Penny of the Empress Matilda struck by the moneyer William at Bristol. (Photo courtesy of Spink)

Henry I died on Dec. 1, 1135, and Matilda heard the news within a few days. Unfortunately, her cousin Stephen of Blois heard the news a bit earlier and rushed to London, where he seized the treasury and the throne. Stephen was a grandson of William the Conqueror through his daughter Adela; the claim was, at best, shaky, but Stephen bribed some of the barons while others simply did not want a woman on the throne.

Matilda and Geoffrey were dismayed at the turn of events and plotted revenge. Her half brother, Robert of Gloucester, was enlisted to help, and an appeal was made to King David of Scotland, Matilda’s uncle. With the promised aid from Scotland, as well as raising a troop of well-armed knights, Matilda invaded England, landing at Arundel on the southern coast in late September 1139. Civil war was now a reality.

Throughout 1140, Matilda and Robert of Gloucester attacked Stephen’s forces but with little real success. In February 1141, however, the two opposing sides met at the Battle of Lincoln, and Stephen was not only defeated but taken prisoner. Matilda was now ruler of the entire country, though forces loyal to Stephen still controlled considerable areas.

Matilda forced Stephen to hand over what was left of the Treasury funds and made arrangements for her coronation as Empress and Queen at Winchester. There is some uncertainty regarding what happened at Winchester, and it is not clear if Matilda was actually crowned.

At this point, Matilda’s fortunes took a turn for the worse. The City of London rose against her, and she was forced to retreat to her power base at Oxford. Forces loyal to Stephen then unexpectedly captured Robert of Gloucester, another major blow to her campaign. While Stephen was a prisoner, his wife, also named Matilda, kept the cause alive in the south and east of England and was instrumental in keeping the army under King David of Scotland at bay in the north.

 Empress Matilda penny struck at London by the moneyer Alfred. (St. James Auctions photo)

Empress Matilda penny struck at London by the moneyer Alfred. (St. James Auctions photo)

In November 1141, there was an exchange of prisoners, Stephen for Robert of Gloucester. The civil war then resumed in full force. Stephen was nearly captured in 1143 but managed to escape. The fighting dragged on for several years but, in 1148, the Empress Matilda finally returned to Normandy, having given up the struggle.

In the meantime, Matilda’s eldest son, Henry, took up the cause with an eye towards seizing the throne for himself. In 1153, at the age of 20, Henry invaded England, but all sides were tired of war. Stephen’s son and heir, Eustace, also died about this time. King Stephen and Henry then agreed to a truce, and Henry was named as Stephen’s successor. (Stephen had a second son, William, but he was ignored in the settlement.)

In October 1154, Stephen died and Henry II became king of England. Matilda stayed in Normandy and played no further role in English affairs until her death in September 1167. She had lost her personal battle but, in the end, was able to put her son on the throne.

Matilda issued her own silver pennies as part of her campaign. It is likely that she began coining at cities under her control not long after landing in England in September 1139. She probably continued striking coins carrying her name and title until at least 1147, but she also had a shortage of funds most of the time, which meant that not all that many coins were struck.

Some of her coins are signed as empress of England. Such inscriptions read, for example, IMPERATR MATILDI, MATILDI IMP, or MATILDI COM. The last named legend referred to her role as Countess of Anjou. All of her coins are very rare, and finding one with a fully readable legend is even more difficult. The quality of English coinage in the 1130s and 1140s was very bad for both Stephen and Matilda.

 Once thought to show King Stephen and the Empress Matilda, this penny is now believed to represent King Stephen and his wife, Queen Matilda. (Classic Numismatic Group photo)

Once thought to show King Stephen and the Empress Matilda, this penny is now believed to represent King Stephen and his wife, Queen Matilda. (Classic Numismatic Group photo)

The 1130s and 1140s are normally called the Time of the Anarchy by historians, and for good reason. Both Stephen and Matilda had only nominal control over large areas of the country, allowing local nobility to strike coins in their names rather the empress or king.

Some of the coins struck during these years still baffle scholars. Not only are the legends hard to read, but some of the coins have nonsense inscriptions; these latter pieces were probably meant to avoid retaliation once the final winner was declared in the battle for control of the country. An especially enigmatic coin from this period has the ruler’s name as PERERIC, which cannot be tied to anyone from that time.

One of the more interesting pennies has two standing figures. Some numismatists see this coin as showing both King Stephen and the Empress Matilda, while others think it shows King Stephen and Queen Matilda (Stephen’s wife). This question may never be settled, though the balance of opinion seems to be against Empress Matilda.

The Time of the Anarchy was an interesting period in England, and it produced coins that are studied by historians and collectors even today.

This article was originally printed in World Coin News. >> Subscribe today.

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