People's perception of queens' power in history is greatly narrowed by the limited documentations and the male gaze. For a long time, queens have been possessed as signs of women's power and portrayed as "tough women just like men" in history. What's behind the crown are the power struggles with male family members, judgments from the chroniclers, and limitations from sex.
"Great by birth, greater by marriage, greatest in her offspring,
Here lies the daughter, wife, and mother of a King."1
The empress Matilda, the daughter of King Henry I of England, was crowned in 1141 as the "Lady" of England. As a daughter, wife, and mother, Matilda's ambition and pursuit toward the crown didn't succeed in the first half of her life. Even though she became a powerful ruler later, she was never formally crowned the queen of the country. For someone like Matilda, who should be the hereditary ruler, her identity as a female heir greatly limited her chance to seize the crown. At the same time, there are existing male family members. Matilda's first husband, Henry V, who died later, is the future Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire and her second husband, Geoffrey of Anjou, is the count of Anjou, who holds great power. She also has a brother who was considered the hereditary heir of the country. Unfortunately, Matilda's brother Wiliam died at a young age, messing up the succession plan. After Wiliam's death, Matilda's father, Henry I, recognizes her ability and intelligence to be the heir to the crown, but he has difficulty with such recognition because of Matilda's identity as a woman.2 At the same time, these powerful male heirs surrounding Matilda all keep their eyes on the crown. Once Henry I was dead, Matilda's cousin Stephen quickly took the crown and became the new king even though Henry I never recognized him as the successor.
Matilda gains both political power and reputation during Stephen's reign. She created her own coins and passed a new Charter in Southern England.3 She was officially "crowned" in March 1141 as the "Lady of England" since people have no idea how to refer to a female king. The coronation brings Matilda negative judgments from the male chroniclers while it brings her honor. Under the male chroniclers' gaze, queens are seen as tough, cold-hearted, and Manish, which are very different from normal women who are weak and dependent. Some chroniclers at the time described Matilda as Manish and arrogant. At the same time of being taxed on acting Manish, Matilda are also accused by some of being feminine: "The empress, seeing that for so long a time none of her friends came to her assistance, played off a woman's trick upon King Stephen…"4 From this moment, we could learn Matilda's naughty and girlish side in daily life. However, some chroniclers believe that she should act like a cruel and brutal king and need to stop being feminine and girly.
As an intelligent woman, Matilda's power struggles are mostly based on her sexual identity and outside pressure. Her identity as a daughter of King Henry I, cousin of Stephen, and mother of William prevented her from crown though she is one of the hereditary heirs. She is brave and more intelligent than her brother and cousin, but being a woman reduces her chance to be the direct successor of the crown in Henry I's mind. This triggered thoughts about inequality from sex toward female heirs in the royal family during the time.
As a powerful queen, Matilda's political strategies and even behaviors in daily life are being judged and discussed. Women don't have their own history, and the ones (heroines and empresses) who are documented are always being described as mannish. Since they are too great to act like men and be as tough as men, they are documented and somehow "appreciated" by the chroniclers, who were all males at the time. Matilda is one of such documented female figures who also faced different voices and judgments from the outside world and chroniclers. She can be taxed on both being Manish and feminine. Because of her gender, she was criticized for her arrogance and toughness while seizing the crown and leading the battles. Meanwhile, she was also criticized when she acted like a woman since a leader of the country shouldn't be girlish and weak in chroniclers' minds.
To be the empress of the country needs to tolerate tons of pressure from the outside world as Matilda did. Being criticized as feminine and Manish greatly limits Matilda's actions and creates a dilemma. She surely has her patience and gentleness toward family members as a mother and wife. As a ruler, she lives under the male gaze and critiques and needs to be Manish, brutal and cruel even if she is nothing like that.
Ruby Wu is a freshman from Wake Forest University who majors in Political Science.