Much has been written of Matilda’s parents, Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Her four surviving brothers, Henry, Richard, Geoffrey, and John, are also rather famous- Richard and John were Kings of England, and Henry was a “junior king” of England. The three older brothers, along with their mother, famously led a rebellion against their father in 1173. Matilda also had two younger sisters – Eleanor and Joan, who both were married to kings. Eleanor’s marriage made her Queen of Castile, and Joan’s made her Queen of Sicily. Matilda, however, was not a queen, but this doesn’t mean she was any less important. Even though her husband was not a king, he was one of the most powerful rulers of his time.
Matilda was born in June 1156, either in London or Windsor Castle. Her parents were two of the twelfth century’s most famous: King Henry II of England and Eleanor of Aquitaine. She was named after her paternal grandmother, the Empress Matilda. At the time of Matilda’s birth, she had one older brother, Henry, the firstborn child, William died about two months prior to her birth. Interestingly, some details of Matilda’s birth survive: she was baptised by the Archbishop of Canterbury at the church of the Holy Trinity at Aldgate, and a baby carriage was purchased for her.
England was not the only land Henry II ruled; he actually ruled much of Western France. Eleanor’s domains were also in Western France, so the royal couple was often absent from England. Their children would often accompany them between England and France. Just two months after her birth, Matilda travelled with her mother and brother to Anjou. They were back in England in February 1157. Within the next two years, Matilda gained two more brothers: Richard and Geoffrey. In September 1160, Henry called his four-year-old daughter to Normandy to make plans for her. The queen of Louis VII of France was expecting a child, and to make peace, Henry wanted to betroth Matilda to the baby, if it were a boy. Nothing came of this because the French queen gave birth to a daughter in October. The baby, Alys survived the birth, but the queen did not.
For a while, Matilda was the only girl in her family. In 1161 or 1162, she was joined by another sister, Eleanor. In 1165, Henry made plans to cement an alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor. His two daughters were important in this. It was planed that Matilda would marry Henry the Lion, Duke of Saxony and Bavaria, the most powerful vassal of the emperor. Arrangements were also made for the younger daughter, Eleanor, to marry the emperor’s infant son, but these plans fell through.
In July 1167, eleven-year-old Matilda left for her new life in Germany. She brought with her a large trousseau, provided by her parents. She was married to Henry the Lion on 1 February 1168. Henry was about twenty-seven years older than Matilda and even older than her father. He had previously been married to Clementia of Zahringen, who he divorced in 1162. By Clementia, Henry had one surviving daughter, Gertrude, who was about a year older than Matilda. Gertrude would later marry the King of Denmark.
Despite the age difference, the marriage seems to have turned out to be happy. When Henry was away, he had Matilda administer his estates. The marriage was definitely successful. In 1172, Matilda gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Richenza. Three more sons followed in quick succession: Henry, Otto, and Lothar. Matilda may have had as many as ten children, but the five who survived infancy (Richenza, Henry, Otto, Lothar, and William) are the only ones whose existence is certain.
When Matilda married Henry in 1168, he was one of the emperor’s most powerful allies. However, Henry and the emperor were in a feud in 1180. The emperor deprived Henry of his domains and exiled him. By 1182, Matilda was back at her father’s court, this time with her husband and children. She spent the next year in her father’s French domains. In 1184, Matilda and her family moved to England, where she gave birth to a son, William that same year. During this time, Matilda seems to have spent much of her time with her mother, who was imprisoned by her father at the time. Around this time, some of the restrictions of Eleanor’s imprisonment were eased, and Matilda seems to have taken part in this. It appears that Eleanor and Matilda were close.
In 1185, Matilda and her family were allowed to return to Germany. That October, Matilda and Henry returned with their eldest son, Henry. The rest of their children remained at the Angevin court. The daughter, Richezna would later marry the Count of Perche, one of King Henry’s Norman vassals. Henry the Lion was still not restored as Duke of Saxony and Bavaria. Matilda seems to have supported her husband in his quest to get his titles restored, but he would never get them back. In 1189, Henry was once again exiled to England, but Matilda remained in Germany to defend his interests.
Unfortunately, Matilda died unexpectedly in Brunswick, on 28 June 1189, at the age of thirty-three. Her father died just eight days later, so was probably never informed of her death. Her husband died six years later, and they were buried at Brunswick Cathedral where their tomb can still be seen.
Although overshadowed by her parents and brothers, Matilda still led an interesting life. She seems to have been deeply trusted by her much-older husband. She is believed to have been responsible for bringing the cult of St. Thomas Beckett to Germany. Through her sons Henry and William, Matilda became the ancestress of many German princely dynasties.
Intriguing History: “Matilda of England, Duchess of Saxony”
Bennett Connolly, Sharon; Heroines of the Medieval World
Weir, Alison; Eleanor of Aquitaine