The woman who's fight for the throne of England began today 893 years ago. The Empress Matilda, daughter of Henry I, found her life had changed in many ways when she woke up on
November 26th 1120
In the cold, dark hours of the evening of November 25th 1120 one of the most modern ships in northern Europe set sail from Normandy. The White Ship was an amazing feat of engineering and, as befits such a remarkable vessel, its passengers were VIPs. The great and the good of England were on board for its voyage to England. Among them, the most famous young man in the kingdom - William Adelin, the dashing and much feted heir to the throne.
William, son of Henry I, and his only legitimate son
It was captained by the man who had helped sail William's grandfather, the Conqueror with whom he shared his name, to England for his battle to seize the throne. That man, Thomas FitzStephen, had offered the ship to William Adelin's father, Henry I himself, but he'd' already sorted out his trip home and instead passed on the opportunity to his heir and a whole retinue of nobles. The king left Barfleur harbor on the evening of November 25th with rumours that the drink was already flowing on the White Ship. But he, like everyone else, expected to see his heir back in England on November 26th. And then disaster struck.
Henry I had just one legitimate male heir but lost his successor in the White Ship disaster
There are several theories as to why the ship went down but most seem to involve drink. One has it that the crew were more than tipsy and that's what caused the disaster. Another involves the young king in waiting and his chums encouraging the crew to try and overtake the ship carrying Henry I back to England. What is certain is that the boat slammed into rocks just outside Barfleur and it began to sink. William made it onto a smaller boat and was safe but ordered his craft to go back to save his half sister - Matilda, Countess of Perche - who he could hear screaming for help. And when they reached her, so many people tried to board the boat that it sank and England's heir died.
The White Ship sinks, taking with it the only legitimate heir to England's king, Henry I. The ambitious younger brother who had scrambled his way to a crown and made the throne his own was now without anyone to pass it on to - and anarchy beckoned as a result
The drama and devastation of the loss of the White Ship is hard to comprehend now. Almost 900 years on, it is impossible to realize the shocking nature of the loss and how it rocked the throne and England to its very core. For the first time since that all conquering king, William of Normandy, had snatched the throne and ended the decades of confusion that marked the years of late Anglo-Saxon England, there was no clear successor to the crown. Henry I was a strong king who commanded huge respect but now he was an ageing man, weakened by the loss of his only heir. The Norman monarchy had gone from rock solid to feather light overnight.
A heartbroken father, a broken king. Henry I of England, seen in a later representation of the king was grieving, was devastated by the death of his heir, William Adelin
England woke up that November 26th to a king with no heir and no way of getting one as his wife, Edith Matilda, had died in 1118. A girl in her late teens called Adeliza woke up that morning in Louvain little knowing that within two months she would be queen of England as a consequecen of the events that had taken place off the Normandy coast just hours earlier. Although Henry had considered taking another wife as early as 1119, negotiations to get this king a queen consort speeded up with his son's death and he said 'I do' again less than two months after William's death.
Adeliza of Louvain married Henry I on January 21st 1121, less than two months after the death of his only legitimate son, William Adelin
But Adeliza didn't become the mother of a king of England. The couple had no children in their fourteen years of marriage and on Henry's death his crown became the subject of a civil war, led by cousins, that divided families and left his stable kingdom rocking in the turbulence. Because on November 26th 1120, another woman woke up to a very different world from the one she had known before. Matilda of England, wife of the Holy Roman Emperor, was in her husband's German lands when she heard the news of her little brother's death. But alongside the devastating grief, the loss of William changed Matilda's life forever. Any son she had would be his grandfather's heir. And in the absence of a son, Matilda herself considered claiming the throne.
The Empress Matilda was the first woman to try and rule post Conquest England in her own right
Much would happen before Matilda tried to claim her father's crown. On the day that news of William's death was sending shock waves acros Europe, she was an Empress who believed she had many more years of ruling alongside - and sometimes for - her husband. But within five years, the Emperor Henry was dead as well and Matilda became first a marriage tool for her heir hungry father. But the fact that she was an empress on the day her brother died made all the difference. Henry I may have married her to a lowly count but Matilda remained imperial and as she watched the men around her flounder, a slow burning flame of ambition took hold of her. On this day, in 1120, devastation reigned but it was also the beginning of the story of the first woman who tried to rule England in her own right. Matilda, the Empress and England's missing queen.