On June 24, 1141 AD, the former Holy Roman Empress Matilda and would-be Queen of England was forced to flee from the city of London by a popular uprising during The Anarchy, a civil war fought in England and Normandy between 1135-1153.
Matilda was the daughter of King Henry I, who was the son of William the Conqueror. She had been married to the Holy Roman Emperor, widowed, and then married to Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou. When Henry’s only legitimate son died in 1120, Matilda became heir to the throne.
Henry I died in 1135, sparking a war of succession between Matilda and Stephen, a nephew of the dead King Henry. Stephen usurped the throne, and in 1139 Matilda arrived in England to take the kingdom by force.
When King Stephen was captured at the battle of Lincoln in 1141, Empress Matilda rode to London to take the throne. But Stephen’s wife, also named Matilda, raised an army of her own and Empress Matilda was forced to flee for her life.
Writing in the Peterborough Chronicle – one of Anglo-Saxon Chronicles – sometime after 1141 but before 1154, a monk whose name has been lost to history recalled Matilda’s effort to become queen:
“She came to London. But the London-folk attempted to take her, and she fled and lost many of her followers.”
This is the first known usage of the word “she” in the English language.
Empress Matilda fled to Oxford. King Stephen was released as part of a prisoner exchange, and besieged Oxford Castle in the winter of 1141. To avoid capture, Matilda rappelled out of a tower window and escaped on foot at night across the frozen River Thames.
The war dragged on, and Matilda returned to Normandy in 1148. Her eldest son succeeded to the throne as Henry II in 1154, forming the Angevin Empire. Matilda died in 1167.