Empress of Holy Roman Empire, 1110-1125;
De facto queen of England, 1141
"Not quite Queen of England"
"Lady of the English" was the closest Matilda came to being formally recognized as Queen of England -- a title she would have received if the English barons had kept to their oath to recognize her as heir to her father, Henry I.
Matilda (sometimes known by the Saxon equivalent, Maude) always felt destined to reign. At eight she was betrothed to twenty-four-year-old King Henry V of Germany, who would become Holy Roman Emperor. At his court she was educated in German and gradually came to accept her new language, homeland and fiancé. She was crowned Queen of the Romans in 1110. She especially gloried in her new title, Empress, which she assumed at her marriage to Henry in 1114. Now twelve, she was poised to step onto the stage of European politics.
Her first role was as her husband's regent in Italy from 1117 to 1119. But her prospects took an intriguing new turn when in 1120 her brother William drowned. Matilda was now her father's only legitimate surviving child and next in line for the English throne. But she was a woman. England hadn't yet accepted woman rulers. Henry, aware of this, kept putting off naming her as his heir and still hoped to father a legitimate son.
But his third marriage remained childless, as did Matilda's to the Emperor.
When Emperor Henry died in 1125, King Henry called Matilda to his court. She was reluctant; by now she felt comfortably at home in Germany. Yet she realized that she'd no longer have any say in government of the empire or any future except as a relic of a bygone era. Clinging to her title of Empress, she returned to England.
Now King Henry had to face facts. Increasingly concerned about the succession, he demanded of his nobles that they swear allegiance to Matilda as his heir. They did so. Even her rival for the role, her cousin Stephen of Blois, complied.
But Henry's real plan was not to insure her right to the throne but to marry her off so she could produce a male heir. Without consulting her he chose Geoffrey of Anjou. He was fifteen, she was twenty-four and they were hopelessly incompatible. Nevertheless during their stormy marriage she bore three sons, one of whom became Henry II of England.
Years of strife ensued. After her father's death in 1135, the barons who had sworn to accept her as Queen of England deserted her. A fierce battle for the English throne erupted between Matilda and Stephen of Blois. Matilda and her husband Geoffrey, united in their ambition if in nothing else, battled Stephen's armies in Normandy and England. For fifteen years the civil war in England was so devastating that one chronicler called it "a time when Christ and his angels slept."
Briefly on the ascendancy in 1141, Matilda was called "Lady of the English" by her loyal followers and was de facto Queen of England for six months. But Stephen's superior forces prevailed and he was crowned.
Giving up her struggle for the throne she felt entitled to, Matilda spent her last years more peaceably as Duchess of Normandy. She lived long enough to have the satisfaction of seeing her son Henry crowned King of England when Stephen died in 1154.
Throughout her life she conducted herself with as much courage, drive and determination as any man, yet her epitaph could be read as acknowledgement of woman's subsidiary role:
"Great by birth, greater by marriage, greatest in her offspring: here lies Matilda, daughter, wife, and mother of Henry."
Learn more about Matilda:
Empress Matilda: Uncrowned Queen of England, by Nesta Pain. Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1978.
The Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother, and Lady of the English, by Marjorie Chibnal. Oxford, 1992.
Lady of the English, by Elizabeth Chadwick. Little-Brown, 2011. (Historical romance)
When Christ and His Saints Slept, by Sharon Penman. Henry Holt, 1995. (Historical fiction)
Empress Matilda article at About.com