One of the side-effects of Having an Aspergers and mainlining every single one of the Cadfael books by Ellis Peters has been an increased interest in the period of history they’re set in, The Anarchy. It’s a bit of a misleading name, since there’s no uprising and the chaotic nature of life within the struggle for power seems to be ascribed to them long after by Victorian historians.
Ellis Peters goes into some (whimsical) depth about the personality and characteristics of the battling monarchs, casting Stephen of Blois as a good man but indecisive king prone to abandoning his projects if they did not give up fruit almost immediately (in which Stephen and I have an embarrassing amount in common), and the Empress Maud/Matilda as a great general but too given to arrogance and alienating her allies by not knowing when to forgive them. Stephen gets the accolade of being “extremely wealthy, well-mannered, modest and liked by his peers” on Wikipedia, which is probably about as reliable as the novels: Maud receives “less popular with contemporary chroniclers than Stephen; in many ways she took after her father, being prepared to loudly demand compliance of her court, when necessary issuing threats and generally appearing arrogant”. The third party in this scuffle – after Stephen was taken captive in Lincoln in 1141 – was Stephen’s wife, Queen Matilda also known as Maud. So far little has been said of her in the books, beyond an aside of the effect that the Queen is a more ruthless leader or at least better general than her imprisoned husband. Obviously this is Ellis Peters’ character’s opinion, and the actual character of monarchs from nearly 900 years ago must remain to some extent a mystery, but it was enough to pique my interest in the two Mauds.
Women characters in Ellis Peters’ Cadfael books tend to hold a surprisingly good position: constrained by a lack of legally recognised social power, they still manage to assert themselves in every other area of their lives, often possessing as much drive, deviousness, or physical stamina as their male counterparts. They come in a full and fruitful variety of personalities, each of them with their own motive, however venal or misguided, and even the meekest and most withdrawn of them can be roused to action. The question of why Brother Cadfael was not Sister Magdalen (who has a certain amount of influence in the books even as it is) can only be answered with “because she wouldn’t have been able to range as freely”: I feel sure that Ellis Peters could just as well have had a detective heroine.
The Empress was betrothed to the Holy Roman Emperor before she turned ten, and was crowned Queen of the Romans while only eight or nine: continuing her eventful early life, she was married at twelve, and had already done a measure of her growing up in a foreign court with none of her father’s family in attendance. One could perhaps forgive her from developing a somewhat abrasive personality in order to protect herself, and perhaps parallels can be drawn with the equally ambitious and married-in-early-life Margaret Beaufort (Countess of Richmond and Derby), who gave the world Henry Tudor (and later acted as regent for Henry VIII). Certainly the Empress was determined to win as much as humanly possible for both herself and her son, who succeeded from Stephen under the terms of the Treaty of Winchester. Unfortunately while this tendency to behave in a haughty and imperious manner may have been a useful survival tactic at first, it seems to have become entrenched and later proved detrimental, driving away potential allies: this attitude may have gone down better during her time as regent to her first husband, Henry V (the Holy Roman Emperor) in Italy, or she may just have been growing impatient with being denied the throne she perceived as rightfully hers, having been named as her father’s successor.
It should be noted here that Stephen was not exactly an exemplar of biddability, and both seized the crown from an absent woman to whom he had previously sworn allegiance, and imprisoned Archbishop Theobald towards the end of the civil war, for refusing to anoint his son Eustace as king while Stephen was still living (this was the practice in France, where Eustace already held land, but Pope Celestine II had banned its adoption in England).
The Queen, on the other hand, seems to have had a better turn at diplomacy (negotiating the exchange of prisoners Robert of Gloucester – the Empress’s half-brother and supposedly her most effective military figure – and the King), and a less enormously turbulent early life. The two Mauds were of roughly the same age, but while the Empress excelled in gathering the power-hungry under her banner, the Queen managed to rally the turncoat friends of Stephen – the war produced an unflattering number of about-faces from many, including Stephen’s own brother Henry – and with William of Ypres turned the tide of the war while Stephen was still imprisoned. One gets the impression that while the Empress was the more imposing figure, she was too unyielding to be able to manage the progression of her campaign as effectively as the Queen might.
Although history and the demands of power struggles in Europe pitted these women briefly against each other, I do not mean to hold them up as adversaries and play a puerile game of “who was better”. Far from it: I have something entirely more puerile in mind. Having read a little about both of these capable, ambitious, interesting, and clearly very intelligent women (although the Empress clearly needs to work on her humility), I’m quite keen on the idea of, as the title of this post even more puerilely suggests, some kind of historical romance alternate universe story in which the vagrancies of the civil war bring them into contact first as opponents and then as lovers. It could be quite a moving and plausible invention in the hands of anyone who does slightly more research than, say, Terry Deary.