Matilda of Anjou was one of the first almost Queens of England. The death of her husband, William Aetheling, led to a succession crisis for her father-in-law and a personal crisis for her.
Like many women from this period, Matilda’s exact date of birth is unknown. Her parents were Fulk, Count of Anjou and future King of Jerusalem, while her mother was Ermengarde was the Countess of Maine. She had at least three siblings, two brothers name Geoffrey and Elias, and a sister named Sibylla. The exact order of when they were born is difficult to ascertain. Matilda’s parents are believed to have married some time between May 1106 and April 1109, with Matilda’s birth coming some time between those dates. 1107 would probably be the preferable year of birth as it would make her twelve years old when she married. Her brother Geoffrey was born in 1113, and as he was the heir his brother Elias was certainly born after, and Sibylla may have been born around 1111 or 1112, fitting the gap in age between Matilda and Geoffrey.
Matilda’s father Fulk was famously antagonistic towards his neighbour, the Duke of Normandy. The Duke also happened to be King Henry I of England. To help protect Normandy, and draw Fulk away from his alliance with the King of France, King Henry betrothed his only son and heir William Aetheling (also known as William Adelin) to Fulk’s daughter Matilda. The fact that it was Matilda, rather than Sibylla, who was the preferred candidate suggests that Matilda was at least the eldest of Fulk’s two daughters.
Six years after their betrothal, in June 1119, Matilda and William were married in Lisieux in her father-in-law’s Duchy of Normandy. Assuming Matilda was indeed twelve at the time of her marriage, William was four years older than her. His mother, Matilda of Scotland, had died the year before which effectively made the new Princess Matilda the first woman in the English court. However given her age she wouldn’t have had much influence, or been given much responsibility.
Her age also calls in to question how much time she and William spent together. William spent the year after their marriage following his father around Normandy, but we don’t know if Matilda went with them, or if she was left in her mother’s care.
However the new Royal couple were certainly planning to spend their second Christmas together. In November 1120 the court, including William and Matilda, gathered at the harbour of Barfleur in Normandy to travel to England. The entourage required several ships for such a journey. King Henry went on one, and William went on another. Whether Matilda travelled with her father-in-law, or whether there was a third ship for the party, we don’t know. But we do know that it’s a good thing she didn’t get on the same ship as William.
William’s ship stayed in the harbour late while the crew and their passengers had a little party, drinking long after sunset. When they eventually set off the crew were too drunk to do their job properly. William’s boat hit a large rock outside Barfleur harbour, and quickly sank. Only one man, a butcher from Rouen, survived. William was drowned after he tried to use his lifeboat to save his half-sister. Henry and Matilda both arrived safely in England, where news of their loss was delivered.
Matilda was now a fourteen year old widow. She was also a political pawn. Her father had gifted the county of Maine as her dowry. However Fulk was off on a crusade by this point, so Henry kept Matilda at court and ensured that he had control of the county. He reportedly treated her like a daughter, and wanted her to be married to an English nobleman. But it’s hard not to be cynical and see this as the virtual imprisonment of a girl whose husband had suddenly died. Whether or not she was in love with William it was still a shock, and she wouldn’t have been at court long enough to develop connections and alliances with key players. She should have been returned to her mother, Ermengarde appears to have remained in Anjou to manage it while Fulk as in the Holy Land.
It was easy for Henry to ignore any pleas that Ermengarde may have made for her daughter’s return. It was much, much harder to ignore her father. When Fulk arrived back from the Middle East in 1121 he promptly demanded the return of both his daughter and her dowry. Henry refused, which suggests that Matilda was less an honoured guest and more a hostage to use against her father.
In the end Fulk pulled a diplomatic move that made things even more awkward for Henry. He married Matilda’s sister Sibylla to a young man named William Clito. William was Henry’s nephew, the only son of Henry’s older brother Robert Curthose. By marrying his daughter to Clito he reminded Henry that he was perfectly capable of causing serious time-consuming problems in Normandy.
Henry managed to get the marriage between Sibylla and Clito annulled, but the move was enough to persuade him that his daughter-in-law might be more trouble than he needed. Matilda was finally returned to her parents.
She never remarried. Maybe she had genuinely loved William and decided that she never wanted to marry again. Maybe being kept a virtual hostage by her father-in-law had made her decide she would never again be sent away to a hostile court. Her mother died in 1126, and her father prepared to return to Jerusalem in 1127. He took Sibylla with him, perhaps Matilda hated the idea of leaving her homeland for an unfamiliar country again. In 1128 she took holy vows and joined the prestigious convent of Fontevrault Abbey. In 1150 she became the second ever abbess, and is believed to have been buried at the abbey when she died in either 1154 or 1155.
Her brother Geoffrey married her sister in law, the Empress Matilda, in 1128. As a result Matilda of Anjou’s nephew, Henry Plantagenet, became King of England, and the county of Anjou fell in to English possession until it was lost by King John.