Greetings from Paris! Did you think Thursday Book Club was gone forever? Au contraire, mes freres! I haven’t been slacking; I’ve been working like a chien to bring you a good post.
I previously mentioned the English Civil War of the 1600s. If you search online for English Civil War, all the top results will be references to the series of conflicts between Royalists and Parliamentarians that comprised that Civil War. You know what you won’t find? Information about the FIRST English Civil War — one that was fought over a woman’s right to rule. Typical. Not only does the woman get screwed over, but she gets written out of history too. We’ve seen that happen before.
In 1135, the Empress Matilda (so-called because she was the widow of Henry V, the Holy Roman Emperor) was the rightful heir to her father, Henry I of England. (Brace yourselves: this is only the beginning of many repeated names. Apparently there were only about five names in the 12th century. Seriously, if you stood up in a crowded throne room and yelled, “Henry! Stephen! Matilda!”, 99% of the peeps in the palace would be like, “WHAT?!”) Henry I had the English barons swear allegiance to Matilda before his death. Unfortunately, English barons of ye olden days weren’t renowned for their loyalty. When Henry died, Matilda’s cousin Stephen was able to steal the throne aided by a dude named Hugh Bigod, who falsely claimed that Henry changed his mind about his seven-year-old succession plan on his deathbed. The barons were happy to go along with this because they thought a woman would be a lousy ruler.
Matilda wasn’t Henry’s original heir. That was her younger brother, William, who died in the 1120 sinking of the White Ship, the 12th century equivalent of the Titanic. Henry had had least 20 illegitimate kids — making him the top bastard-producing English king — but only Matilda and William were legitimate and therefore preferred successors to the throne. Interestingly, the future usurper Stephen was meant to be on the White Ship too, but he missed the boat due to a bad case of diarrhea. Stephen’s tummy troubles ultimately led to even shittier times for the inhabitants of England: the 19 years that he and Matilda battled for the throne were known as “The Anarchy.”
Even if he hadn’t been a lying throne-stealer facing the wrath of Matilda, Stephen would have been a shitty king. He was in some ways a nice guy, but nice guys make lousy kings in feudal societies. There were no national armies in those days. A feudal king had to rely on the nobles, who received enormous amounts of land (as well as the people who worked the land) in exchange for providing military service when required. The problem was that once the barons had lots of land, money and men, they could take on the king himself unless he put the fear of God into them. Henry I did that. He never made a threat that he didn’t keep, even allowing his own young granddaughters to be blinded after their father, his son-in-law, blinded a hostage he’d been holding.
Stephen, in contrast, was a “soft and good” man who “no justice did,” as a chronicler of the time put it. My favorite example is Stephen’s encounter with Matilda’s ally John Marshal, one of the baddest badasses around. Stephen besieged a castle Marshal was holding; Marshal promised to surrender the castle and gave Stephen his five- or six-year-old son as a hostage — a living guarantee that Marshal would keep his word. But Marshal didn’t keep his word and Stephen threatened to hang the boy unless Marshal surrendered immediately. Marshal coolly told Stephen to go ahead and hang the child because “I still have the hammer and the anvil with which to forge still more and better sons.” Oh no he di’int!!!! Stephen couldn’t go through with it and the child grew up to be the great knight William Marshal.
Stephen’s poorly timed displays of mercy and chivalry led to the death of untold thousands in war, famine and civil unrest. One chronicler summed it up thusly: “In the days of this King there was nothing but strife, evil, and robbery, for quickly the great men who were traitors rose against him. When the traitors saw that Stephen was a good-humoured, kindly, and easy-going man who inflicted no punishment, then they committed all manner of horrible crimes . . . And so it lasted for nineteen years while Stephen was King, till the land was all undone and darkened with such deeds, and men said openly that Christ and his angels slept.”
Compare the description of Stephen to this description of Matilda written years later during the reign of her son Henry (of course!) II: “I have heard that his mother’s teaching was to this effect, that he should spin out the affairs of everyone, hold long in his own hand all posts that fell in, take the revenues of them, and keep the aspirants to them hanging on in hope; and she supported this advice by an unkind analogy: an unruly hawk, if meat is often offered to it and then snatched away or hid, becomes keener and more inclinably obedient and attentive.” Mmkay? Bitch knew how to rule! And the only reason she couldn’t hold onto the throne of England herself was the nobles’ attitude towards women with backbone. But I’ll get into that part of the story next week; I’ll also present my kickass Matilda necklace in that post.
In the meantime, I recommend The Empress Matilda by Marjorie Chibnall, a nonfiction book that is the source of the above description of Matilda.
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