The first woman considered to be Queen-Regnant of England, though her reign is disputed, was Matilda, formerly Empress of Germany. Her mother was Matilda of Scotland. Matilda was born in 1080 as the daughter of Saint Margaret of Wessex and King Malcolm III of Scotland. She was christened “Edith”, but later took the name Matilda. Her mother was a very pious woman and wanted to raise her daughters to be just like her. When Matilda was six, she and her younger sister were sent to be educated at an abbey in Southern England, where her aunt had the position of abbess.

Throughout her life, Matilda was a much sought-after bride, especially to the Normans, who had recently taken the throne of England from the Anglo-Saxon House of Wessex. They weren’t seen by some as the legitimate English monarchs, so some added legitimacy from a bride descended from the House of Wessex would help them. Matilda was that woman. Her aunt Christina wanted to protect her “from the lust of the Normans”, so she tried to convince Matilda to take the veil. But her father didn’t want her to take holy vows, and judging from her future actions, it wasn’t exactly her wish either.

Matilda was considered as a wife for King William II of England, but he was killed in a hunting accident—an accident so convenient for his brother’s rise to power that it is widely believed that William’s brother killed him. His brother, Henry, took the English throne, and after a tiny succession conflict in Scotland, Matilda was the sister of the King of Scotland. She was still an attractive bride, so she was married off to Henry in 1100.

Matilda had gone by the name Edith until then, but the Normans preferred the name Matilda, so she was crowned under that name, and is mostly referred to as Matilda of Scotland now. It was still unclear if Queen Matilda had taken holy vows and become a nun, but she testified that while she had been forced to wear a veil, it had been ripped off and torn to shreds. It was ruled that she had never become a nun.

As Queen, Matilda was a patron of the arts, and gave money to hospitals. She supported the building of public lavatories and was known for washing the feet and kissing the hands of the sick. She even had the first arched bridge in England built. She and Henry had two children. The elder was a daughter, Matilda, who became Holy Roman Empress, and the younger was a son, William Adelin. Henry also had many illegitimate children with his many mistresses. Matilda died in 1118, aged thirty-seven, and was buried in Westminster Abbey. The inscription on her tomb reads: “Here lies the renowned queen Matilda the second, excelling both young and old of her day. She was for everyone the benchmark of morals and the ornament of life.”

Queen Matilda’s son, William Adelin, died after the famous White Ship sunk, leaving her daughter, Empress Matilda, as Henry’s only legitimate child. He had the barons swear loyalty to her, but once he died, most went back on their word. It would be the first time a woman ruled England in her own right, and the barons weren’t exactly keen on the idea. She was in France at the time of Henry’s death, and rushed back to London, but her cousin Stephen beat her there, and as he was a man, the barons were much more eager to crown him King. Stephen said that Queen Matilda had indeed taken holy vows, making her marriage sinful and her children illegitimate. Empress Matilda spent the next few decades fighting for her birthright. When Stephen’s son and heir, Eustace, died, he gave up fighting and named Empress Matilda’s son as his heir. So it was Queen Matilda of Scotland’s grandson, Henry II, who founded the famous House of Plantagenet.

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