Recently a friend asked the question why Empress Matilda was called “Lady of the English” and not Queen. After all, her cousin Stephen was called King! Like many questions of this type, there is a history behind why and there are several reasons. To examine the answer, we have to go back to Anglo-Saxon times in English history, before the Norman Conquest. Some of the terms used in describing the king’s wife were the Old English cwen and hlæfdige and the Latin word regina.
The Anglo-Saxons had no tradition of a Queen Regnant, only the king’s wife. Pauline Stafford has a discussion about the terms used to describe the king’s wife in her book “Queen Emma & Queen Edith: Queenship and Women’s Power in Eleventh-Century England”. When Emma of Normandy arrived in England to marry King Aethelred the Unready in 1002, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle called her “the Lady” or in Old English seo hlæfdige. This was the title given most commonly to the king’s wife at the time in the vernacular of documents in the tenth and eleventh centuries. It was so common it could almost be translated as “queen” to cover all the roles these women played as the king’s wife, mother and consecrated Queen.
The term hlæfdige may have been left over from ninth century Wessex. In Asser’s biography of Alfred the Great, he tells the story of the eighth century Eadburh, Queen of the West Saxons. Alfred’s ancestors found Eadburh to be so evil and abhorrent, they refused to call their own wives queen. We don’t know for sure if Alfred’s wife Ealhswith was called queen but she certainly was called the “true (or dear) Lady of the English” either during her husband’s reign or during that of her son King Edward the Elder. She was the first king’s wife to whom the term hlæfdige was applied.
In the time of the reign of Edgar the Peaceable (959-975), great-grandson of Alfred the Great, we have the record of the first consecrated queen in England with the crowning of his wife Aelfthryth at Bath in 973. This event may have necessitated a new term for the king’s wife and we begin to have the use of the Old English cwen in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle during the eleventh century. However, the term hlæfdige continued to be used to describe the king’s wife, consecrated or not so this does not indicate it meant anything less than a Queen. By the time of Emma’s arrival in England, “the Lady” could be applied to a king’s wife, his mother or a consecrated Queen.
Unlike France, the English had no Salic Law of Succession. The Salic Law essentially excluded women from succeeding to the throne. Legally there was no such exclusion in England although some would argue women were excluded. When Matilda’s brother William Adelin died in the White Ship wreck in November of 1120, this left her as her father’s heir. King Henry I made his noblemen swear in public twice that they would support his daughter as Queen upon his death. At the same time, he was promoting his favorite nephew Stephen of Blois in prominence.
When Stephen was young, he was sent to England and placed at the court of King Henry I, his mother Adela’s brother. Henry gave Stephen titles and lands. He was well liked and had many friends. Even though Henry had made the nobles swear to support Matilda, many of them didn’t like the idea of a woman queen and they especially didn’t like that she was married to Geoffrey of Anjou whom they considered a “foreigner”. And Henry may have waivered upon his deathbed as to which person should inherit the throne. So when he died on December 1, 1135, it was an open question.
Matilda was in Anjou when her father died and made no immediate move to claim the throne of England. But Stephen felt he had a good claim and moved swiftly, making his way to England and his home near London. The Londoners declared him King. It wasn’t until 1139 that Matilda started to fight for the throne. Thus began “the Anarchy” in England, a period of civil war and unrest that didn’t end until the death of Stephen in October of 1154.
The high point of Matilda’s campaign was in 1141 when she captured Stephen and imprisoned him in Bristol. At this point, Matilda took the title of “Lady of the English”. She gained access to the royal coffers and made her way to London for a coronation and anointing. While there she began raising taxes and taking away privileges, her arrogant ways and fiery temper alienating the Londoners. She eventually was forced to leave London, never being crowned.
Majorie Chibnall, in her biography of Matilda says we cannot be sure Matilda ever used the designation “Queen” although some chroniclers did use this title. It may be she took the “Lady” title as a preliminary step until Stephen renounced his kingship and she could be crowned. She also may have used it in the sense that she was only a regent until her son Henry became King of England. Chibnall says she ceased using the title “Lady of the English” after 1148 when she turned over the campaign for the throne to her son Henry Plantagenet, the future King Henry II.
So in answer to the original question, “Lady of the English” was a title chosen by Matilda, following Anglo-Saxon tradition and was most likely a temporary title. It wasn’t until the accession of Mary Tudor in July of 1553 that England had a true Queen Regnant. And thanks to Jane B. for asking this excellent question!
Further reading: “Queen Emma & Queen Edith: Queenship and Women’s Power in Eleventh-Century England” by Pauline Stafford, “The Empress Matilda: Queen Consort, Queen Mother and Lady of the English” by Majorie Chibnall