Once upon a time (specifically, on or around February 7, 1102) a pretty little princess was born to Henry I of England and his wife, Matilda of Scotland. The girl was named after her mother, and it seemed, for some time, that she would have a fairly average life for a girl of her class and time. She was married twice, to the Holy Roman Emperor (when she was 12 years old), and then to Geoffrey of Anjou, when she was 26. With Geoffrey, she had three sons, Henry, Geoffrey, and William.

In 1120, Princess Matilda’s younger brother, William Adelin, heir to their father, drowned in the White Ship disaster, and suddenly Matilda’s life changed drastically. Her father named her heir to the throne over her cousin, Stephen of Blois. Although Stephen pledged to uphold Matilda’s claim to the throne, when her father died in 1135, he ditched that promise and seized the throne for himself, backed by most of the country’s powerful barons. Matilda and her husband were not going to take that lying down, so they invaded Normandy and started asserting her right to the English throne. By 1139, Matilda had gained enough military support to invade England.

For the next several years, England was plunged into chaos as the civil war dragged on. Aided by her illegitimate half-brother, Robert, Earl of Gloucester, Matilda took Lincoln and also captured Stephen. She moved on to London, where the people were prepared to see her crowned, until she managed to piss them off so badly they slammed the gates on her. Stephen was freed in a prisoner exchange in November 1141, and Matilda soon found herself besieged at Oxford. She escaped capture twice, using clever ruses (once disguising herself as a corpse) and returned to Normandy after the death of Robert of Gloucester in 1148.

Matilda’s oldest son, Henry, took up the fight next. He accompanied his mother on an invasion in 1147, when he was just 14, and returned between 1149 and 1150. He was knighted in Carlisle by his great uncle, King David I of Scotland, in 1149. In 1153, the exhausted King Stephen named Henry his heir, following the death of his own son, Eustace. Matilda lived to see her son become King of England in 1154. She died in 1167, near Rouen, and was buried in Normandy. Her struggles for the crown, however, lived on in history and in such historical fiction stories as The Pillars of the Earth and the Brother Cadfael Mysteries.

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