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Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior

By Catherine Hanley
Review by Emma (History)

Reading academic books can be really daunting – it’s not something you have to do much at GCSE and A Level — and, quite frankly, they can be really long. However, it is a huge part of a history degree at Oxford (although don’t worry — we rarely read them cover to cover). Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior by Catherine Hanley was one of the first academic books I read when I was in year 12, and I found that I was gripped — and I did read this one cover to cover. It’s a great starting place because it’s not too long but also because it’s nice and accessible; Catherine Hanley weaves a captivating narrative as well as providing commentary on the main source for Matilda, The Deeds of Stephen. Studying history at Oxford, especially medieval history, places a heavy emphasis on primary sources, and therefore I think this is a pretty accurate reflection of the kinds of things you will be reading here.

The earliest period of history I studied at GCSE and A Level was the 17th century, but I have always been intrigued by medieval history and, on the recommendation of my grandma, decided to dip into the 12th century. If like me you had never studied medieval history, I’d really recommend giving it a go — the intrigue, plot and rivals are really entertaining and with hindsight, pretty funny.

Empress Matilda was a contested queen in the twelfth century, styling herself as the “female king” of England and minting coins in her own image in the territories that she controlled. She got the title “Empress” from her first husband, the Holy Roman Emperor, but she is much better known for the civil war she undertook against Stephen, which was known as “The Anarchy”. In a world where the rules of kingship were still being formulated, Matilda challenged gender assumptions by assuming kingship in her own right in opposition to Stephen’s claim to the throne, tracing her descent to William the Conqueror as the daughter of Henry I. Catherine Hanley brings Matilda, who does not have her own chronicle (unlike her rival Stephen), to life. Using sources often hostile to Matilda, such as The Deeds of Stephen, she breathes humanity into a woman who has been written out of history to justify a later male imagination of kingship. Matilda comes across as particularly human, especially when she escapes from Oxford Castle during a siege. Under the cover of night, Matilda crept out of the castle with a few guards and escaped on foot, reportedly wearing white to camouflage her in the December snow. Matilda, in short, is a lively character who provides a perfect introduction to the intrigues and battles of medieval Britain — even if she has been left out of the Horrible Histories monarch song!

Matilda: Empress, Queen, Warrior by Catherine Hanley
ISBN-10: 0300251475
ISBN-13: 978-0300251470

Try checking the availability of this book at your school or local library or explore second hand bookshops and websites. You may also wish to purchase from either Amazon or Blackwell’s.

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Published: 23 January 2024

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