Saturday 31 July 2010

"The Friend of True Piety": The Life of Matilda of Flanders, Queen of England

This is the first in a new series chartering the lives of the Queens of England.

“She was even more distinguished for the purity of her mind and manners than for her illustrious lineage… She united beauty with gentle breeding and all the graces of Christian holiness.”
- The Anglo-Norman chronicler, Orderic Vitalis (1075 – 1142)

“The story of English queenship begins with a French princess. In the centuries after the collapse of Roman imperialism, Europe experienced a perpetually fluctuating regathering of territorial power. Put simply, such power was achieved through violence, but the role of kings was increasingly delineated and formalised by religious liturgy. While their status had yet to become institutional, much less constitutional, a similar process began to arise in the case of queens… Consecration, coronation. These are the processes which set a queen apart from other women in a mystery she shared only with her husband… An unruly twinge of reverence for such beliefs might now be dismissed as embarrassing sentimentality, but there existed no sense of the irrationality of such a contention for the period in question. Just as the Church was omnipresent for every individual, from peasant to magnate, so the idea of difference, of selection by God, coloured the concept of the medieval monarch. Though there is ample, touching, funny evidence of the humanity of medieval queens, it is essential to remember that they were isolated as well as elevated by consecration. They were unique, they were sacred, they were magical.”
- Lisa Hilton, Queens Consort: England’s Medieval Queens (2008)

Matilda of Flanders was born in a violent age and married to a violent man. She was the mother of violent sons and first lady of two nations which were controlled and subjugated by violence. Indeed, her marriage itself – much like her later elevation to the position of queen – may very well have begun in violence of the most intimate kind. Hearing that her father planned to marry her to Duke William of Normandy, who was the illegitimate son of an upstart duke and his working-class concubine, the impeccably royal Matilda snobbishly refused, telling anyone who would listen that she would rather die than marry someone as uncouth and ill-bred as William. The chronicler, Orderic Vitalis, reports that Matilda was not alone in feeling this way, since because of his birth out of wedlock William was considered “a bastard, despised by the native nobility.” In the more charming phrase of the modern historian, Lisa Hilton, the ancestry of the House of Normandy was certainly “good for a giggle.” William, however, evidently didn’t see the humour and he was determined to have the well-connected Matilda for his wife. The Chronicle of Tours decorously reports that he barged into her bedroom and beat her until she agreed to marry him. Overcome by this display of masculinity, Matilda fainted and agreed. A much more believable account, however, is that William raped her – either in her bedroom or one afternoon when she was out riding. With her all-important virginity now snatched from her, it was impossible for Matilda to marry anyone else in her social class and, as a result, she had to marry William.

As with most of her contemporaries, Matilda of Flanders’ exact date of birth is unknown. It was probably in 1032 or 1033, not long after the consummation of her parents’ marriage. She was the daughter of Baldwin V, Count of Flanders and his wife, Adèle, the King of France’s youngest daughter. As a result, the baby’s grandparents included King Robert the Pious of France and his queen, Constance of Arles. Like her father, Adèle was an exceptionally religious woman, who would later be nicknamed “Adèle the Holy” and she imparted this love of Christianity to her only daughter, Matilda, along with an excellent education, which she personally oversaw. As with most fathers of the age, it is likely that Count Baldwin was more interested in his sons than in his daughter – certainly, given the way he acted over her marriage, Matilda’s feelings did not seem to particularly factor into his equations in any meaningful way. In this case, Baldwin was lucky, for Adèle had fulfilled the primary function of a royal bride in providing her husband with four sons – Baldwin, Robert, Henri and Richard. Henri died as a baby, but the others flourished. Perhaps, however, it is unfair to be too harsh on Matilda’s father, who spent most of his life attempting to increase the wealth and security of his country, whilst having to face constant opposition from the local nobility, who were disapprovingly described as figures of “atrocious cruelty” and selfishness by religious scribes at the time. Still, by the time Matilda reached her teenage years, Baldwin’s efforts on Flanders’ behalf were clearly paying dividend. The foundations had been laid for a strong infrastructure and trading network, which would continue to grow throughout the Middle Ages until Flanders had become the economic power-house of Europe in the 15th century.

Thanks to her parents’ ancestry, Matilda was one of the more well-connected of the European princesses born in the early 11th century. In her veins, ran the blood of the famous Christian emperor, Charlemagne (d. 814), the most venerated Christian monarch apart from Constantine the Great, in an era which was obsessed with them. She was also descended from King Alfred the Great (849 – 899), the famed, brilliant and pious King of Wessex, whose reputation was already becoming legendary in his native England. Matilda was also a very good-looking young woman, described by her contemporary William of Jumièges as “a very beautiful and noble girl of royal stock”. There is a story, repeated in the Guinness Book of World Records, that Matilda was to become the shortest of English queens, but the idea that she only ever reached 4’ 2” in height is based on an inaccurate measurement of her bones, undertaken in 1819, when the restored French monarchy was attempting to undo some of the damage done on the royal tombs by the Revolution. A more scientific exhumation of Matilda’s body in 1959 established that, in fact, she grew to 5’ in height by the time she reached maturity.

Maturity for Matilda of Flanders came in a fairly brutal form, as has been discussed, at best through a coerced marriage, at worse (and most probably) through rape. As she approached her sixteenth or seventeenth birthday, her father began to seriously consider a match between his only daughter and William, the 20-something Duke of Normandy. Like Flanders, Normandy was technically an independent nation, although feudal overlordship for Normandy was held by the King of France. Flanders, which roughly equates to modern-day north Belgium, was heavily under the influence of the Holy Roman Empire (roughly equating with modern-day Germany and Bohemia), but Baldwin was anxious to remove his province from the Empire's orbit. An alliance with Normandy would help pull Flanders more closely under the protection of France, a process started a generation earlier by Baldwin’s own marriage to Adèle. Normandy, moreover, had considerable diplomatic influence in England, a wealthy country which needed to be neutralised since the English King had promised to help the Emperor in subjugating Flanders if it made any further attempt to extricate itself from the Holy Roman Empire’s sphere of influence.

Having seen Baldwin marry Adèle for much the same diplomatic reasons in the time of his late father, the current Emperor, Heinrich III, was understandably nonplussed at the idea of their daughter Matilda marrying William and thus further helping in the liberation of Flanders from its position as a vassal-state of the Empire. Luckily for the Emperor, he had been instrumental in securing the election of the current Pope, Leo IX, who, despite doing many commendable things during his time as Pontiff, was also a political realist who was prepared to appease and assist his imperial backer when necessary. As Baldwin and William hashed out the details of the marriage proposal, an edict came from Rome forbidding it; William and Matilda were fifth cousins, which technically placed them within the grounds of forbidden affinity, and, in this case, unlike in so many others, the Holy Father unhelpfully refused to dispense the impediments.

Matilda, horrified at the fact that her future husband was not only the bastard son of a violent duke and his commoner-mistress but also descended from Viking raiders only five generations removed, was perhaps relieved, if not jubilant, to hear of the Pope’s decision. However, our image of the Papacy holding absolute power over European politics in the Middle Ages comes from much later in the period; in the 1050s, whilst the Vatican did indeed hold considerable influence, it had not yet expanded to the enormous (and, given the documentary forgery used to justify it, possibly illegal) proportions of the later medieval period. The Pope’s refusal to bless the marriage plans was certainly an unexpected hiccup and something of a headache (to mix and extend the bodily functions metaphor, if I may), but it was not exactly the torpedo in the side of the boat that it might have been to later rulers. Matilda’s own grandparents, King Robert and Queen Constance of France, had actually faced-down Papal excommunication about their marriage, for very similar reasons, despite their deep, deep religious piety, which Robert’s sobriquet attests to. Moreover, “Christian marriage” in the 11th century was by no means the venerated sacrament that subsequent generations of believers were to make it into. It was not until the following century, when the drive towards moral orthodoxy was finally established by the Church hierarchy, that Church teachings on marriage, illegitimacy, fornication, homosexuality and divorce were to become properly codified into what we would recognise today. Put simply, in the 11th century, there was a great deal more room for manoeuvre on the subject and William needed this marriage just as much as Baldwin did. It would stabilise his rule in Normandy by providing him with an alliance with both Flanders and the Royal House of France, thanks to Matilda’s family on her mother’s side. Matilda’s exalted ancestry would also help remove the worry many felt over the fact that they were ruled by a man known as “William the Bastard.” (“William the Conqueror” came much later!) And William’s own future children and heirs would carry the irreproachable blood of Charlemagne and Alfred the Great in their veins, thus securing the future legitimacy of the House of Normandy. William was desperate enough to have the alliance with Flanders, without Papal approval or a dowry for his wife, if needs be - Baldwin was determined to drive a hard bargain once he realised William wanted this more than him. Baldwin's enthusiasm for the match had not diminished either and so a distraught Matilda was deposited by her father at the Church of Notre Dame d’Eu in the winter of 1051, emerging from the church as Matilda, Duchess of the Normans and a married woman.

The great Emperor Charlemagne, one of Matilda's ancestors

What kind of man was it that Matilda had so reluctantly married? As she had been disgusted to find out, he had been born out of wedlock to Robert, the late Duke of Normandy and his mistress, Herleva, the daughter of a tanner from Falaise. Having led a particularly dissolute and violent life, Duke Robert attempted to make amends by going on pilgrimage to the Holy City of Jerusalem in 1035, leaving his seven year-old son behind him as heir-designate. Robert died on the long and treacherous journey to the Holy Land, with the result that the defenceless William now became duke of a region famed for its violent nobles and political instabilities. Several of his guardians were murdered by jealous lords, anxious to dominate the young duke themselves; in one particularly horrific case, William’s mentor and friend, Lord Osbern, had his throat slit one night as he slept in a château at Vaudreuil, in the same bedroom as a slumbering William. Perhaps it is therefore no surprise that William developed quickly into a ruthless, brutal leader and one of the most gifted military strategists of the age. As he reached maturity, in his determination to crush the rebel lords in Normandy and secure his own political freedom, William asked for the help of his feudal overlord, King Henri I of France, Matilda’s uncle, who, grateful for the loyalty of the House of Normandy during his own recent rebellions, came to William’s assistance at the Battle of Val-es-Dunes, fought by a victorious William, when he was aged about nineteen or twenty. It established his reputation for both brilliance and savagery and never again would William allow anyone to dominate him, mock him or take away what was rightfully his. His servants described him as “a mighty man, ready to acquire everything within his reach, and that which he acquired he would with a strong hand steadfastly maintain against all challengers.”

Physically, William was not exactly unappealing – he was ten inches taller than his new bride, with cropped hair and a clean-shaven face. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he also had a relatively high level of personal hygiene. Not long after the wedding at Notre Dame d’Eu, having escorted his wife back to his citadel at Rouen, William was off fighting again, working to suppress the perennially troublesome rebel lords of Arques, Ponthieu and the Vexin region.

With her husband frequently off to war, Matilda settled into the duties of a Duchess. What Alison Weir wrote in The Six Wives of Henry VIII (1991) about Tudor queens, was no-less true for 11th-century first ladies: “Queens of England were housewives on a grand scale, with nominal charge of vast households and far-flung estates from which they derived their huge revenues.” Matilda, of course, wasn't exactly queen of England - yet, but Normandy was a wealthy province and, as its duchess, Matilda was now an independently wealthy woman, earning a huge private income from the estates which were now hers by right of her marriage contract. Curiously, women of the First Family had far more independence from their husbands in the 11th century than their unlucky counterparts did in the 16th.

Throughout the first decade of her marriage, like Normandy itself, Matilda became richer. Thanks to the expansion of towns like Rouen, Bayeux and Caen, with the latter in particular owing its success to the industry of its Jewish settlers, and the wine-growing regions in the south of the duchy, which were now exporting to Paris and England, Normandy’s economic prosperity was increasing, which obviously meant that William and Matilda’s own private income rose as much as their subjects’. Raised in an exceptionally religious environment, thanks to the influence of her mother, Matilda chose to donate much of her excess income to the Church, despite the fact that her marriage was still technically invalid in the eyes of the Roman hierarchy. As Duchess, Matilda was also expected to act as hostess to foreign envoys and guests, adding the civilising influence to a male-dominated Court. From the little documentary evidence left to us, it seems that Matilda was a popular duchess and aside from her personal beauty, Normans were impressed and proud that their lord’s wife had such an exalted blood line, such things being a medieval obsession.

When exactly the marriage between William and Matilda became a happy one is unclear, but it is certain that it did so. Perhaps Matilda developed a strong sense of Stockholm Syndrome or, more likely, it was just one of the many strange and illogical aberrations of the human psychology which meant that, as time went by, Matilda fell genuinely in love with her husband and attacker, as he did with her. In any case, she quickly fulfilled the chief role expected of her by producing two sons – Robert and Richard – within three years of the marriage. This was followed by another four children, on an average of one per year, including the couple’s first two daughters – Cecilia, Adeliza, a red-haired son, William and another daughter, Constance, named in honour of Matilda’s grandmother, the late Queen of France.

The election of the pro-Norman Pope Nicholas II to the Holy See in 1058 was good news for the couple. The new Pope retrospectively legitimised their marriage and their children, declaring that it had always been true and lawful. In gratitude for the Pope’s decision, William and Matilda founded religious houses in Normandy from their own private income, taking a great interest in their upkeep and internal politics. William paid for the creation of the enormous monastery of St.-Étienne, dedicated to the patronage of the first Christian martyr; Matilda, with considerable enthusiasm, financed the foundation of the beautiful convent of the Holy Trinity in Caen. Sometimes known as the “Abbaye aux Dames,” the funding and building of Holy Trinity was one of Matilda’s greatest passions in life and, in time, her eldest daughter was to enter the institution as a nun. As a member of the royal family, Cecilia would eventually, of course, become Abbess of Holy Trinity, since, as the Oxford historian Henrietta Leyser has noted in her book Medieval Women: A Social History of Women in England (1995), many prestigious or ‘flagship’ religious houses considered royal blood in their abbots or abbesses to be an “essential prerequisite” for the sanctity and welfare of the monastery or nunnery in question. By the end of the period, fifty houses in England and France had drawn their abbots or abbesses from the ranks of either the immediate or extended royal families.

As was the case in her own childhood, Matilda was determined that her daughters were to receive an education equal, or superior to, that of their brothers. Cecilia, Adeliza and Constance were all educated by the nuns at Holy Trinity, as were their sisters – Adela, Agatha and Matilda, who were to follow later. All of them, particularly Cecilia and Adela, were shown to be highly intelligent girls and, to their mother’s joy, deeply religious. At a young age, Adela developed a great devotion to the cult of Saint Helena (d. A.D. 330), a long-dead Roman Empress credited with becoming the first member of the Imperial Family to convert to Christianity and who had helped uncover some of Christianity’s holiest relics from Palestine. It was felt that Helena’s conversion to Christianity had been so instrumental in securing the future of Europe as a Christian continent that both she and her son, Emperor Constantine the Great, were venerated as “Equal to the Apostles” by the Church.

William and Matilda’s three sons – Robert, Richard and William – were rough boys, not necessarily unintelligent, but wild, boisterous and aggressive, certainly. The boys had their father’s ruthlessness and violent temper; the girls, their mother’s grace and elegance. Despite that, Matilda did not play favourites with the children and there is ample evidence that she loved them all dearly.

After the birth of Constance, there was a period of a few years (we have no idea of knowing how many), in which Matilda was not pregnant. It was during one of these unencumbered summers that she was to entertain a guest who would radically alter both her life and her family’s – Harold, Earl of Wessex. Along with also being Earl of Hereford and Earl of East Anglia, Harold happened to be the King of England’s brother-in-law and one of his mightiest, wealthiest and most respected subjects. Sadly, Harold did not come to Normandy in happy circumstances. He had been shipwrecked and captured by the Count of Ponthieu, only being liberated from his captivity at William’s insistence. Coming to Normandy to spend the summer with his liberator, Harold was under no illusion that William had only helped him in order to extract political advantage for himself. Despite all the manners and fulsome declarations of welcome, Harold’s summer stay in Normandy was really nothing more than captivity in a pretty cage. Thanks to Matilda's hosting, of course, it was a very pretty cage indeed, with the finest silver and food available for supper and feasts, the best rooms made available for their guest and entertainments, excursions and hunting trips regularly organised to show Harold the best of William’s province.

As the summer wore to a close, William made it quite clear that what he wanted from Harold was his support when the time came for William to claim the English throne. The current King, the aged Edward the Confessor, was a deeply religious man, who may very well have taken a life-long vow of celibacy in honour of Christ and the Blessèd Virgin. Even if he hadn’t, he was certainly childless and in poor health. King Edward, himself half-Norman, had made it known that he wanted his second cousin, William, to inherit the throne, when the time came for Edward to meet his Maker, although like Elizabeth I half a millennium later, he was being frustratingly vague about putting it in writing. Moreover, many in England would have preferred to see Prince Edgar, a minor prince of the royal family but one with a much better blood-claim to the Crown than William, inherit and there as an even larger body of opinion which wanted to see Harold himself come to the throne once the saintly Edward was dead. Equally, given the closeness there had been between the English and Scandinavian monarchies in days gone-by, King Harald of Norway was also more than likely to make a violent play for the crown himself.

In a nutshell, William wanted Harold’s assurance that he would not pander to populism and pursue the throne after King Edward's death, but that he would instead lend his support to William. With not much chance of ever getting home again if he didn’t, Harold swore on holy relics to support William’s claim to the throne of England and to cement this alliance by one day marrying William and Matilda’s second daughter, Adeliza. (Cecilia’s intention to embrace a religious vocation was apparently already clear to her parents, who, unlike Matilda’s own parents, had no intention of forcing her into matrimony.) With the promises made and Adeliza now betrothed, Harold returned to London and William waited to see if he would keep his word.

Edward the Confessor died in London on January 5th 1066 and he was buried in the magnificent new institution he had founded - Westminster Abbey. On the same day, Harold was proclaimed King and an infuriated William began to prepare for the invasion of England. From her own coffers, Matilda paid for a state-of-the-art warship, the Mora, to assist the invasion and carry her husband across the Channel to claim what she, and every other loyal Norman, felt was rightfully his. Before departing for England, William called together his lords and barons and forced them to swear an oath of loyalty to his eldest son, Robert, who was to inherit Normandy if his father fell in battle. In the meantime, Matilda was to be left in charge as Regent of Normandy, until William was able to return.

The legend that Matilda spent her time sewing the epic Bayeux Tapestry, commemorating her husband's victory in England, is sadly nothing more than a 19th century romantic addition to her life story. It gained modern fame when it was included in Tony Kushner's epic play Angels in America, the story of a gay love affair at the height of the AIDS epidemic in 1980s America, in which Matilda's fortitude in sewing and waiting for William to return to her is bitterly compared to those who will not stay with their loved ones through the much more trivial concerns of modern times.

The Bayeux Tapestry

Worthy and moving sentiments, but alas unrelated to the real Matilda, who had an entire duchy to run whilst William was off to the wars. He had left behind to help her three of his most trusted political advisers, Hugh d’Auranchin, Roger de Montmorency and Roger de Beaumont. She was also pregnant once again and in such a condition, whilst ruling Normandy and worrying about her husband, she had to bury one of her children; Adeliza, Harold's jilted ex-fiancée, died at the age of eleven to one of the many childhood illnesses common and unpreventable in the 11th century.

Before William could land in England, another rival invaded in the north, equally anxious to depose Harold from his new throne. Harald, King of Norway swept down with a sizeable Viking army to the outskirts of York, where King Harold of England defeated and killed him in a devastatingly brilliant battle at Stamford Bridge. Then, in the midst of the celebrations, Harold heard that William and his army had landed on the southern coast and were encamped at Hastings. He made a mad dash with his already exhausted army, engaging the Normans in battle on October 14th. And, as every British school child knows - or should know - Harold lost. As legend has it, he lay dead upon the field with a Norman arrow piercing throw his eye and into his brain. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, bitterly hostile to the Norman invasion, put it thus: -

“The King fought very hard against him with those men who wanted to support him, and there was great slaughter on either side. There was killed King Harold and Earl Leofwine his brother, and Earl Gyrth his brother and many good men. And the French had possession of the place of slaughter.”

A "place of slaughter" was right, for with much the same delicate finesse as he had once shown in wooing Matilda, William now set about subjugating his new kingdom with unparalleled ferocity. He was crowned King in Edward's splendid Abbey at Westminster on Christmas Day, taking as his title, “The Most Serene William, the great and peace-giving King, crowned by God, life and victory”. When a rebellion erupted in the north, aiming at putting Prince Edgar on the throne instead of the new Conqueror, William swept to Yorkshire, implenting the so-called 'Harrying of the North,' the sole aim of which was to accomplish the utter annihilation of the northern economy, resistance and culture of defiance. The local aristocracy was obliterated and the new Norman aristocracy were one of the most hateful, brutal and selfish invading forces in European history - at least until the uunequalled horrors of the 20th century.

With his position as King now firmly secured, William could return to Normandy and to Matilda, presenting her with some of the crown jewels of England when they were re-united at Fécamp. The new Queen, now about 34 years of age, was soon pregnant again, with her daughter Adela, who was always treated with far greater respect by some of her contemporaries because, unlike her sisters, she had been born when her parents were a king and queen, rather than 'merely' a duke and duchess. Ignoring the perils of travelling as a pregnant woman during the Middle Ages, Matilda crossed over to London for her own coronation and the birth of Adela. By the time the Queen's coronation was actually organised in the summer of 1068, to coincide with the Feast of Pentecost, Matilda was pregnant again, this time with a son, who was to be named Henry. With William and Matilda both in England, Normandy was left in the care of their eldest son, 15 year-old Robert.

Now that she was a queen, Matilda’s life was certainly grander, but not much different in essence to her life as duchess and her focus continued to be primarily on Normandy, rather than England, where presumably she always felt herself to be an outsider. She did however come to enjoy the phenomenal wealth and veneration that English people accorded to their queens, idolising them as both the mother of the heir and also the mediatrix of mercy, interceding between the King's justice and his people, in much the same was as the Holy Virgin threw her cloak of mercy between God's righteous anger and a sinful humanity. So intense was the medieval English mindset's respect for the office of the Queen-consort, that Dr. David Starkey has gone so far as to call one of Matilda's predecessors “the axis around which English politics turned”.

As queen, Matilda used her newfound wealth to continue financing and expanding the Holy Trinity Abbey back in Caen, although with her customary dedication to Christianity she enthusiastically supported the reforms of the English Church which her husband and Archbishop Lanfranc were introducing, including forbidding priestly marriage and the corrupt selling of church offices. Under his wife's influence, William became more and more religious as he grew older and the Queen's household was noted for its regular attendance of Mass and its exemplary morality. The Queen was certainly not above throwing a tantrum when her husband took a mistress and faced with his dimunitive wife's rages, William eventually ceased his adulteries altogether.

The years passed for Matilda in luxury, security and, indeed, popularity, which says something for her personal appearance and charm given the intensity of loathing that her husband and his invading knights evoked in the native English. A decade after the Conquest, however, things began to take a turn for the worse. To her parents' joy, Cecilia finally took the veil and became Abbess of Holy Trinity, and her younger sister, Agatha, was married to Alfonso VI, King of Galicia-y-León, kingdoms on the Spanish peninsula. Young Queen Agatha, however, was dead before she could join her husband in Spain and her death was the first that Matilda was to endure in the space of only a few months. Not long after Agatha's death, her elder brother - William and Matilda's second son - Richard, was killed in a horrible hunting accident in the New Forest, when he was gored to death by a stag. With Robert in line to inherit Normandy, Richard had been the heir-designate for England and that position now went to his tall, muscular, ginger brother, William, destined one day to become King William II.

Two years later, there was a terrible family quarrel, which as with so many of the Royal Family's squabbles had the unfortunate characteristics of a minor civil war. Having essentially been acting as de facto reigning Duke of Normandy, with full care for the province for the last decade, Robert was incensed when his father announced his intention to start splitting his time more evenly between his two domains, thus curtailing his son’s power. Furious at this, Robert stropped off to Paris, to enlist the help of his mother’s cousin, the King of France, and despite courtiers’ opinion that Robert was a “proud and foolish fellow,” Queen Matilda was indulgent towards her eldest son's grossly irresponsible and selfish behaviour. Like many mothers whose husbands are the more strict disciplinarians, Matilda continued to secretly send Robert money, even after his enraged father cut him off. Of course, it does become a rather different kettle of fish when Matilda's money was being used to support Robert's rag-tag rebel army at Gerberoy, the new castle given to him by the King of France, who was always anxious to make mischief for the English. William, curiously, seemed amused by his wife's indulgence, despite its war-like implications and eventually, eighteen months later, the King agreed to Matilda's tearful entreaties that he should give Robert more permanent authority in Normandy. When asked by her husband to explain how on earth she could have continued supporting, and even funding, Robert's treason, Matilda gave a heartbreaking answer which perhaps indicates just how devastated she had been by his brother Richard's death four years earlier: -

“O, my lord, do not wonder that I love my first-born with such tender affection. By the power of the Most High, if my son Robert were dead and buried seven feet in the earth and I could bring him back to life with my own blood, I would shed by lifeblood for him!”

The Royal Family were all re-united in Breteuil, in northern France, for the celebrations to mark the betrothal of William and Matilda's brilliant 14 year-old daughter, Adela, to Stephen, Count of Blois. Evidently, fired up by her peace-making abilities, Matilda then frog-marched William to visit his estranged half-brother, Odo, the Bishop of Bayeux, who as “enormously rich, a father and a mace-wielding warrior” made for a somewhat unconventional priest. Odo and William had been comrades in arms during the Conquest, but had subsequently fallen out, but under Matilda's mediating influence, they were at last re-united.

There was no sign that the Queen was unwell as she made arrangements for the marriage of her daughter Constance to Alan IV, Duke of Brittany, a fantastic match with a family equal in power on the French mainland to the Norman dukes and the counts of Flanders. She seemed in equally fine spirits when she and William attended Adela's sumptuous wedding, but in the autumn of 1083, while in Normandy, the Queen of England fell suddenly and fatally ill. A devastated William stayed with her throughout the illness, helping her to dictate her will, in which she left enormous amounts of money to the poor and her royal sceptre and crown to Holy Trinity Abbey, where she hoped her daughter Cecilia would lead the nuns in prayers for her soul until Christ came again.

Matilda of Flanders, Queen of England and Duchess of Normandy, the acceptable and pleasing public face of one of the most brutal regimes in English history, the wife of one King of England and the mother of two more, died in Caen, Normandy on November 2nd, 1083, in her early fifties. It was the Feast of All Souls, the great Catholic Day of the Dead, and as per her final wishes, her body was escorted in the presence of her grief-stricken husband to the Abbey of the Holy Trinity, which she herself had founded in gratitude to the Pope for having been allowed to marry such a man as William the Conqueror.


  1. Great post! I have always thought Matilda was a woman for all ages to admire - not only for her successes as a duchess and later as Queen of England, but for her kind and generous behavior, political acumen and her achievements as wife to who must, at the very least, have been a difficult man. Whatever their beginnings, it's amazing to look back on their marriage and see that it was a happy and successful one, especially in an age where not many could be described as such. Thanks!

  2. I'm not exactly sure how to comment on this post. You talk about her sons, but do not mention the future Henry I, who could be violent at times, but it was a kind of "controlled" violence, but in England was mostly rather peaceable. I didn't know about the possible rape, but it would seem characteristic of William, who reminds me more and more of some gang leaders today. It didn't help him, psychologically, that one of his guardians was killed right in front of him while he was still fairly young. Again, it kind of reminds me of drive-by shootings in some gang-ridden places today. To me, it isn't any wonder that Matilda didn't want to marry him; he had to make her do it. Whether she was ever truly "in love" with William, is hard to say, but perhaps the two of them came to admire each other.I don't know. It can be rather hard to interpret 11th century writings on such matters. So each reader of this long and interesting post will just have to decide for themselves on this matter.

  3. Anne, thank you for your post. As you say, deciding what 11th century people thought or felt is notoriously difficult and we have to rely on the comments of chroniclers and our own insights. I hope that, like you, any readers will be able to make up their own minds - certainly, the idea of William's psychology being similar to a gang leader's is a fascinating one.

    Henry I is briefly mentioned in the paragraph describing Matilda's move to England, but since the next two weeks will be focusing on him in-depth through profiles of his wives, Matilda of Scotland and Adeliza of Louvain, I thought it better to leave him out of this one, to avoid repitition.

    On the point of his violence, and that of his brothers, I would say that, like their father, all their violence was controlled, as you say, but also by its nature brutal. On a political level and a personal level, their violence was quite different. Henry calmly - almost sociopathically - hurled the teenage son of a rebel lord off the roof of a tower in Rouen during a rebellion, which suggests that his reputation as being "the Lion of Justice" needs to be tempered with personal acts of uncontrolled cruelty.

    I hope you enjoy the posts on Henry's queens next week, which, as with that on his mother, are necessarily open to interpretation!

  4. The Chronicle of Tours was the origin of the story that Matilda refused to marry William and it should be taken with a hefty grain of salt. No other medieval sources mention it, not even ones that were hostile to the Normans. If William actually had assaulted the daughter of the count of Flanders, there probably would have been an uproar similar to the one that happened a few years later when Bertrade de Montfort ditched her husband for the king of France.


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