Friday 13 August 2010
Daughter of the Church: The Life of Matilda of Scotland, Queen of England
"From the time England first became subject to kings, out of all the queens none was found to be comparable to her, and none will be found in time to come, whose memory will be praised and name will be blessed throughout the ages."
- The Hyde Chronicle
For seventeen years after the death of Matilda of Flanders, England had no queen. William the Conqueror followed his wife to the grave four years later, to be succeeded in England by his son, William II, who for his own reasons decided not to marry. When William died and was succeeded by his brother, Henry I, in 1100, the new King married for reasons very similar to his father’s – his chosen queen was a princess of unassailable royal ancestry and famed for her piety. The two queens even shared the same Christian name and, in fact, the new Queen Matilda had been the god-daughter of the old. Unlike her predecessor however, the new Queen was not beautiful. One of her champions rather kindly said that the Queen’s appearance was ‘not entirely to be despised.’
Beauty or no beauty, Matilda of Scotland, Queen of England, had an august lineage and, as the career of her predecessor showed, such things mattered at that time. Matilda could claim in her family one parent who was to become a character in a Shakespearean play and another who was to become a Catholic saint. Her father, Malcolm III, King of Scots, was the hero whose victory heralds the end of Macbeth, whilst Matilda’s mother, Queen Margaret, was an English princess so famed for her religious zeal that she was to be canonised in the 13th century by Pope Innocent IV. Four of Matilda’s brothers and one of her half-brothers – Duncan II, Edmund, Edgar, Alexander I and David I – were to wear the Crown of Scotland and her sister, Mary, was to become the mother of the Queen of England in the next generation.
Matilda’s mother, Margaret of Wessex, was the daughter of Prince Edward the Exile, son of King Edmund Ironside, one of the pre-Conquest Saxon kings of England. After Edmund’s death and the various vicissitudes of Anglo-Saxon politics, Prince Edward was forced to flee abroad, beginning with emigrating to Sweden. There, he is presumed to have married his wife, Lady Agatha and together they had led a peripatetic life, including exile in Sweden, Kiev and then Hungary, where their daughter Margaret had been born, along with her siblings, Edgar and Christina. Prince Edward, Agatha and their three children finally returned from exile to London in 1057 at the invitation of King Edward the Confessor, who had restored peace both to his kingdom and to the Royal House. Yet, the long years of wandering and the journey from Budapest to London had worn Prince Edward out and he died within weeks of returning to his homeland. Devastated by her husband’s death, Agatha was however happy to remain in England. Apart from anything else, her children were members of its Royal Family and as such as their future would be made here rather than on the Continent. Moreover, as a widow, she could draw substantial income and prestige from her late husband’s English estates.
This Saxon blood, however, came back to haunt the family in 1066, when the King died and England subsequently fell to the Norman invasion at Hastings. Agatha subsequently fled, ending up in neighbouring Scotland. King Malcolm, remembering the kindness of the late King Edward the Confessor during his own exile, was pleased to grant them political asylum and Agatha, Edgar, Margaret and Christina set-up their new homes in Edinburgh.
King Malcolm, strong, confident, courageous and competent, had been King of Scotland for almost a dozen years when he welcomed the last remnants of the House of Wessex to his Court. The King had recently been made a widower, following the death of his wife, Ingibjörg, a Scandinavian aristocrat. He was immediately struck by the appearance of Agatha’s eldest daughter, Margaret, who aside from being very physically attractive, also had the allure and polish of a continental princess in the relatively rough-and-ready environment of 11th-century Edinburgh.
Margaret, however, was less than keen when she began receiving the King of Scotland’s advances. For most of her life, she had wanted to become a nun, declaring that she wanted to emulate the Blessed Virgin, in taking a vow of life-long virginity. Yet, Malcolm was persistent and the young princess fell hopelessly in love with him and, since she had not yet taken any vows, she finally consented to marry him.
Malcolm was utterly smitten with his new Queen and she, for her part, loved him dearly. As far as he was concerned, Margaret was not just the perfect wife, but the ideal queen. She was bi-lingual, literate and cultured, reading the Bible every night to her husband, who would sit by her feet, holding it for her, since like so many noblemen of the time Malcolm could neither read nor write. Conscious of the need for any monarchy to project a sense of magnificence, Margaret also encouraged foreign trade in Scotland, with the import of luxury goods, which she used to decorate the royal castles. Along with being dressed elegantly, Margaret was also insistent on the introduction of strict European-style etiquette in Scotland, eradicating the more Viking-esque elements still surviving in the running of the Royal Household.
Aside from sprucing up the castles, Margaret would also frequently journey into the towns and cities of Scotland, bringing poor children to sit on her knee as she fed them mashed-up food and told them stories. Her devotion to the plight of the poor was legendary and her children could all vividly recall gathering to watch their parents wash the feet of paupers on Maundy Thursday during Lent, in imitation of Christ at the Last Supper. (Below.)
To some, it might seem strange that such a religious woman as Margaret could be so conscious of the materialist things like jewels, velvets and ostentation. Margaret, however, would have seen no such contradiction and neither would many of her contemporaries. It was, they felt, their duty to dazzle. As Anne Boleyn pointedly informed a group of moralising chaplains four hundred years later: ‘The royal estate of princes … doth far pass and excel all other estates and degrees of life, which doth represent and outwardly show unto us the glorious and celestial monarchy which God, the governor of all things, doth exercise in the firmament.’ Queen Margaret’s own kinswoman, Edith of Wilton, had been a Saxon princess who had decided to enter a convent later in life. Despite becoming a nun, Edith saw absolutely no reason to give up her love of jewellery and took to shimmying around the nunnery glistening from head to toe. When a visiting bishop dared reprimand her for such showiness, Edith tartly replied that spiritual purity could sit just as well under silks as it could under rags and refused to alter her flamboyant appearance one iota. Evidently, she was right, because she was subsequently canonised as one of the patron saints of learning and beauty. One can’t help but feel that Edith would have been pleased.
Moreover, far from being cursed for her decision to abandon a life of chastity, the new Queen of Scotland’s marriage seemed blessed, for she produced four sons in quick succession – Edward, Edmund, Edgar and Alexander. Matilda was the couple’s first daughter, born at Dunfermline in the autumn of 1080 and by that time, the rift between Margaret’s family and the King of England’s had apparently been resolved, at least on the surface, and as a symbol of this new rapprochement, the baby princess’s godparents were Matilda of Flanders and her eldest son, Robert, Duke of Normandy. At the time of her christening, and as was customary amongst so many of her class, the baby had two names – Edith, after the aforementioned fabulous saint, and Matilda, in honour of her royal godmother. Whilst she was known as Edith for most of her childhood, since it was the second name she chose to go by in adulthood and in history, that is how she shall be referred to here.
After Matilda’s birth in 1080 came Malcolm and Margaret’s sixth, seven and eighth children - David, the reassuringly Saxon-named Ethelred, and Mary, the future Comtesse de Boulogne. Queen Margaret was a strict mother to her large brood, but also an affectionate one. She had each of them brought to her every day for religious instruction, in deliberately simple language so they could learn to love religion and understand it from an early age. One thing the Queen could not abide, however, were bad manners and if any of her children were rude or discourteous to anyone, no matter how lowly, Margaret gave permission to her steward to beat the children, if necessary, with the result that all eight of the Scottish royal children had exceptionally good manners when they reached adulthood.
It was customary at the time for children of great families to be sent to the home of a relative or guardian at an early age to learn deportment and aristocratic duty. Matilda was sent to the far south of England, to the Abbey of Romsey, on her mother’s instructions at the age of six, in the company of her 3 year-old sister, Mary. Whilst Mary’s age was exceptionally young for this process to start, Matilda’s was not, however fragile it might seem to modern eyes – in later years, a similar process would be repeated with Matilda’s own daughter and the careers of Isabelle de Valois, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard show that the tradition was alive in subsequent centuries.
Romsey Abbey seemed the perfect place to send the two princesses, since the Abbess was their aunt, Christina, Queen Margaret’s younger sister. Alas, dear old Aunt Christina was less like one of the nuns from The Sound of Music and more like one from The Magdalene Laundries and for the next five years, Matilda lived ‘in fear of the rod of my Aunt.’ Christina constantly beat and scolded her two nieces, reminding them of their own inherent sinfulness and forcing them to wear a heavy black veil. Whether or not she intended them to become one of the oblati (someone dedicated to the Church in childhood) is difficult to tell, but, as Matilda later recalled, she loathed the veil almost as much as she hated her aunt: ‘As soon as I was able to escape her sight I tore it off and threw it in the dirt and trampled on it. This was my only way of venting my rage and the hatred of it that boiled up in me.’
The remains of Romsey Abbey today, where the young princesses Matilda and Mary lived "in fear of the rod of my Aunt."
It came as a relief, however, when her mother wrote that she wished the girls to be moved to Wilton Abbey, twenty miles away, just as Matilda embarked upon adolescence. The choice of Wilton for Matilda and Mary’s “finishing school” was a wise one, since the convent was famed for two things – its intellectual credentials and its blue-blooded sisters. Wilton, in fact, emerges as a sort of 11th century cross between a convent, a prestigious boarding school and an aristocratic retirement home-cum-sorority. It had been the retirement home of Edward the Confessor’s widow, the late Dowager Queen Edith, as well as the childhood school of the well-known holy recluse, Eva of Wilton. The ravishing beauty, Eadgyth Swan-Neck, the former mistress of the slain King Harold, was also a resident there, hiding from the wrath of the Normans and, allegedly, expiating her sins. True to Queen Margaret’s faith in them, the sister of Wilton gave Princess Matilda an excellent education, perfecting the French she had learned at Romsey and giving her a sound grasp of Latin. The princess’s curriculum consisted primarily of reading the Old and New Testaments, the letters of the Church Fathers and some of the more respectable Roman philosophers, presumably the ones who shied away from promoting bisexuality, nihilism and paganism.
1093 was the year Matilda turned thirteen and also the year her life changed forever. It began with a visit to the convent by the King himself, William II, known as “William Rufus” because of his flaming red hair. The King was an awe-inspiring figure in his prime; tall, muscular, raucous and ruthless. What the nuns made of the King’s visit to their abbey is anybody’s guess, since King William’s relationship with the organised Church in England was not a happy one. He had a particularly cancerous hatred of Anslem, the Archbishop of Canterbury, of whom he famous declared: ‘Yesterday I hated him with great hatred, today I hate him with yet greater hatred and he can be certain that tomorrow and thereafter I shall hate him continually with ever fiercer and more bitter hatred.’ The King’s refusal to marry and the comments of various of his contemporaries, including the great chronicler William of Malmesbury, lend credence to the theories put forward by historians H. Montgomery Hyde in The Love That Dared not Speak its Name and E. Mason in William II: Rufus, the Red King, that William II was homosexual.
Despite his rather fearsome reputation and the inaccurate rumours that this terrifying man wished to marry her, Matilda actually found her audience with King William curiously un-traumatic. Apparently, when he wanted to be, William II could be charm itself and he informed her that her father, King Malcolm, would be visiting England for the dedication of the new Cathedral in Durham, followed by diplomatic negotiations in Gloucester. He was also delighted to inform young Matilda that, of course, her father would be visiting her here in the convent during her visit. William was, however, terribly amused to see that the princess was still dressed like a nun and, mischievously, he did not trouble to alert her father of this, correctly guessing what the King of Scotland’s reaction to this would be when he actually clapped eyes on it in person – because William knew that Malcolm planned to marry Matilda to Alan the Red, a French-born aristocrat whose services to the Norman kings had made him one of the wealthiest men in Europe. By modern standards, he would have been a billionaire several times over and, in 1093, Alan was the sixth richest man in England, a favourite of the King’s and Count of Richmond.
King Malcolm’s visit to England was in every which way imaginable a disaster. It began well enough with his attendance, along with King William, at the solemn dedication of the magnificent Durham Cathedral (above), which was consecrated to the patronage of 'Christ, Blessed Mary the Virgin and St Cuthbert of Durham.' But, the talks at Gloucester had been an unmitigated failure, with diplomatic relations between England and Scotland reaching a nadir, the likes of which they had not seen since Agatha’s flight to Edinburgh in the previous reign. Arriving at Wilton in a foul mood and confronted by the unexpected sight of his eldest daughter, Matilda, dressed like a nun, Malcolm flew into a terrible rage, grabbing Matilda and ripping the veil off her head. He then proceed to shred it with his dagger in front of her, threw it on the ground, stamped on it and then spat in contemptuous fury at what she had done. Even suggesting that she might want to take religious vows meant that the Church could create all kinds of difficulties when she decided to marry later in life.
Incandescent at what he felt was the unpardonable stupidity of his daughter’s actions in wearing the veil, Malcolm brusquely informed her that this was the last thing the family needed right now, especially considering that her beloved mother was currently in poor health back in Edinburgh. In future, Matilda was to remember her obedience to her father and prepare to marry Alan the Red. Sufficiently chastened by her father’s uncharacteristic rage, Matilda bid him farewell for what was, tragically, to be the last time. A few weeks later, she received news that he had died – cut down in the battle field when he attempted to invade England. Dead at his side was Matilda’s eldest brother, Edward. When the news was brought to Edinburgh that her husband and her eldest son had been slain, Queen Margaret’s health took a turn for the worse and she died three days later. Margaret’s surviving children were cheated of their birth right too, as her duplicitous brother-in-law, Donald, seized the Scottish throne for himself.
Faced with this devastating catalogue of personal blows, Matilda abruptly fled the convent in the dead of night. For seven years, she disappears from the records in any meaningful way. We have absolutely no idea where she went and neither, so it seemed, did many of her contemporaries. As her father had warned her, the Church was not likely to let go of someone who, they felt, had promised herself to them. When news of the princess’s flight reached the Archbishop of Canterbury, currently living in exile in Italy thanks to King William’s constant haranguing of him, he wrote back in a towering temper, charging the Bishop of Salisbury to hunt down ‘the prodigal daughter of the King of Scots whom the devil made to cast off the veil’ and return her to the convent. Wilton was in the bishop’s diocese and for the next half a dozen years, the poor prelate was forced to go looking for a princess who absolutely did not want to be found.
Matilda’s escape from Wilton has always been held up as proof that she had never seriously entertained the notion of becoming a nun, a version of events which she herself was rigorously to stick to in the years to come. By and large, history has accepted Matilda’s defence of her actions, but it is my belief that she was actually lying. The fact that Matilda was not by nature a deceitful person only made her lie all the more convincing; we are so used to equating glamour with deception and its antithesis with virtue that we have lost sight of the fact that worthy characters like Matilda are just as capable of lying as their glamorous counterparts, if not more so. Within the context of the history of the queens of England, we would be more inclined to be suspicious of the unashamedly glamorous consorts like Elizabeth Woodville, Anne Boleyn or Henrietta-Maria than we would of conspicuously virtuous ones like Matilda of Scotland.
The reasons why I believe Matilda was not entirely honest about her actions at either Romsey or Wilton will be discussed later and it is suffice to say that from 1093 until 1100, the princess showed a spirited defiance of the Church’s hierarchy and evaded being “caught” by them for the best part of a decade. Curiously, however, given that the quickest way to secure her liberation from the Church would have been to marry, Matilda also showed an equal reluctance to go anywhere near the fiancé her parents had picked out for her in the shape of the fabulously wealthy Alan the Red. When Alan turned up to Wilton Abbey in search of his royal fiancée, he was flabbergasted to be told that she had absconded and nobody had any idea where she was, not even her sister, Mary. Apparently not a man to cry over spilt milk, Alan became enamoured with another Saxon princess living there, Gunhildr. She too had once professed a faint desire to be a nun and now threw that to the wind with even more shocking abandon than Matilda and ran off with Alan. Unable to understand exactly what was going on at Wilton, the exiled Archbishop Anselm decided enough was enough and threatened Gunhildr with excommunication if she didn’t go back to the convent and take the veil, immediately. When her fiancé died before their wedding, the Archbishop pointed out that this was clearly God’s judgement on Gunhildr for abandoning the nunnery. Deciding to test this theory, however, the temporarily bereaved Gunhildr went on to marry her dead fiancé’s brother, the imaginatively named Alan the Black.
But, where was Matilda in all this? Where had she gone? At the distance of nine centuries, it is, of course, impossible to say with any degree of exactitude. It seems clear that she did not return to Scotland, since between 1093 and 1097, it was ruled by her usurper-uncle, Donald. Equally, when her family’s fortunes improved in 1097 and her brother, Edgar, came to the throne as the wonderfully-named King Edgar the Valiant, there is no sign that his 17 year-old sister returned to Edinburgh. Nor is there any record of the luckless Bishop of Salisbury managing to track her down and bring her back to Wilton.
It is my own personal theory that Matilda actually received help from the English Royal Family, as incredible as that may seem given that her late father had fallen in battle against them. When she emerged from the “silent period” of her life seven years later, she had gone from fugitive, orphaned princess to the fiancée of the new King of England and it is clear that in that time she had come to know her future husband, Henry, well. William of Malmesbury goes even further in stating quite clearly that Henry was in love with Matilda by the time they married in 1100, which would suggest that between the time she left the convent in 1093 and the time their betrothal was announced in 1100, Matilda was exposed to Henry’s company on a fairly regular basis. It is also clear to me that in order to evade the thundering fury of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Matilda must have had friends powerful enough to hide her both successfully and in the state to which her birth entitled her. Finally, to my mind, it is more than probable that Matilda could have been certain of the friendship of King William II in all this, given his own bitter relationship with the Church.
This self-imposed hiding came to an end when she was nineteen and William II was killed in a hunting accident in the New Forest. Without any children of his own, the Crown of England passed to his brother, Henry, with Normandy still technically remaining as the property of their eldest brother, Robert, Matilda’s godfather. Despite the old conspiracy theory that William’s death was no accident and that Henry had somehow colluded in an assassination, it seems unlikely. Hunting accidents were common in the 12th century and there is no firm evidence for Henry’s involvement, apart from the fact that he acted decisively on the day of his brother’s death, in securing the treasury and immediately proclaiming himself the new King. Such decisiveness and a lack of polite sentiment is more than in keeping with Henry’s character and it is in no way proof that he had anything to do with his brother’s death.
One of the first acts of the new King Henry I was to issue a Charter of Liberties, promising just government, primarily in relation to the Church, and in his determination to restore Church-State relations, the King recalled the Archbishop of Canterbury from exile, promising him a warm welcome upon his return to England. With the Charter promulgated and the Archbishop on his way back, the King also announced his engagement to Princess Matilda of Scotland, who now re-emerged from wherever it was she had been for the last seven years.
That Henry was in love with his 19 year-old fiancée has already been stated, but even if he hadn’t been, there were sound reasons for him to choose Matilda as his bride. Just as his mother’s blood, inherited from Charlemagne, Alfred the Great and the Kings of France, had helped remove the stain of illegitimacy from the House of Normandy, so too would Matilda of Scotland’s descent from the deposed Saxon kings help add a necessary native touch to the invading House of Normandy. It would be no bad thing if Henry’s heirs carried in their veins not only the blood of the victorious Norman invaders, but also that of the ancient Anglo-Saxon monarchy and thus the threat from Matilda’s uncle, Edgar, and the last sprigs of the Wessex clan, could finally be neutralised. The fact that she was also the King of Scotland’s sister was an added bonus, since it helped increase the chances of peace along England’s northern borders.
Like his parents, Henry was not having an easy time of it with the Church about his impending nuptials, unlike them, however, he was determined to confront the issue at the first available opportunity. Archbishop Anselm’s return from exile was, to Henry’s mind, the perfect opportunity for the Church to demonstrate that it was not a natural aggressor in the polity, by facilitating the King’s marriage to Matilda. His Grace the Archbishop, on the other hand, had very different ideas,. For seven years, he had been itching to get his hands on Matilda and he bluntly informed the King that he would ‘not be induced by any pleading to take from God His bride and join her to any earthly husband.’
Surprisingly, upon the Archbishop’s return, it was Matilda who begged for an audience with him, rather than Henry. They met at Salisbury, near Wilton Abbey, where the whole saga had begun in the first place. During their interview, Matilda was firm in stating that she had never had any intention of becoming a nun. The veil she had worn had never been of her own volition, but rather had been forced upon her by her Aunt Christina. Initially, the Archbishop was unmoved - as far as he was concerned, Matilda’s wearing of the veil, whether voluntary or not, was all that mattered. She now belonged to the Church or, as the Archbishop would have seen it, to God. However, eventually moved by the strength of Matilda’s passion on the issue, Anselm agreed to call a council of churchmen to Canterbury to decide whether or not Matilda had taken the equivalent of vows and, if so, could she be released from them. It is my hunch, given what happened next, that Anselm rather shrewdly realised that if he gave Matilda what she wanted – namely a dispensation to enable her to marry the King and also the opportunity to be reconciled with the religion she adored – then the Church would have gained an invaluable (and indebted) ally close to the new King.
That Matilda had not been entirely truthful about the whole issue of her wearing the veil and that the Archbishop, for all his posturing, decided to accept what he knew to be morally dubious, seems clear to me from what happened at the council in Canterbury. It was one thing for Matilda to claim she had been forced to wear the veil as a young child, at the insistence of her terrifying Aunt Christina - that explains why she wore it at Romsey, but it doesn’t explain why she was still wearing it as a teenager at Wilton, when she was visited by the late kings of England and Scotland, both of whom had seen her in it, along with their extensive entourages, half of whom had seen King Malcolm physically tear it from his daughter’s head. Wilton was by no means as strict an establishment as Romsey had been; there was no looming threat of Aunt Christina with her stick to compel Matilda to wear the nun’s habit there and yet, she continued to do so, an action tellingly not emulated by her younger sister, Mary.
To my mind, it would hardly be surprising that, given the exceptionally pious example set to her by her mother or the love of learning and religion which the young Matilda felt so deeply in her heart, she would not have been half-in-love with the idea of becoming a Bride of Christ when she was a girl. Moreover, despite the fact that her flight from the convent in 1093 seemed to lend credence to the idea that she had never wanted to embrace a religious vocation, the timing of her escape simply doesn’t add up with Matilda’s version of events – and, again, this is only my personal interpretation of it. Matilda left upon hearing news of her parents’ death. She disappeared between the news of her parents’ funeral and the arrival of her intended fiancé, Count Alan. It is my belief that she left Wilton, initially, because she did not want to marry Alan and that, at some point not very long after, she changed her mind about ever having wanted to be a nun and that decision became even more entrenched once it became clear that she had a chance of becoming Queen of England. It could, of course, be argued that Matilda left because, without her parents’ protection, she was now going to be forced into the habit by the Church, but given the fact that Alan was on his way to claim her that seems unlikely.
At the Council, Matilda’s defenders invoked an old Church ruling from the time of the Conquest of 1066, when so many Saxon heiresses had hurtled into the convents rather than fall prey to the invaders. The ruling stated that if a girl was forced to hide in a convent for her own well-being, then she need not be considered a professed nun when she emerged from hiding. All well and good, except for the fact that Matilda had not gone into Romsey or Wilton to hide, in fact, she had only gone into hiding when she left them. And there is no evidence, whatsoever, that anyone had forced her to wear the veil at Wilton.
And yet, for some reason, the Archbishop accepted this dubious interpretation of the 1066 ruling and declared that ‘under the circumstances of the matter, the girl could not rightly be bound by any decision to prevent her from being free to dispose of her person in whatever way she legally wished’. Anselm, whose grasp of canon law was exceeded in its shrewdness only by his tenacity in upholding it, must have had a reason for making such a decision and the only logical one is that he knew that what Henry I wanted from the Church was not a political partnership, but submission. Now, there would be a Queen next to this potentially troublesome Sovereign who would always have the Church’s best interests at heart. After all, without the Church's good grace, she would never have become queen in the first place. To cement his newfound friendship with Matilda, Anselm himself performed the marriage ceremony on the steps of Westminster Abbey, before an enormous crowd which ‘cried out with one voice’ in proclaiming Matilda their rightful queen. Within a month, the deeply grateful Queen was pregnant.
Henry I, who was twelve years his wife’s senior, was hardly a particularly handsome man. William of Malmesbury described him as, ‘of middle stature, greater than the small, but exceeded by the very tall; his hair was black and set back upon the forehead; his eyes mildly bright; his chest brawny; his body fleshy.’ He was shrewd, manipulative, ruthless and profoundly clever. In his time, because of his devotion to strict and proper government, he was flatteringly nicknamed “the Lion of Justice.” Yet, in war and in rebellion, he was utterly without mercy. Once, coming upon the teenage son of a rebel lord in Rouen, Henry pushed the adolescent rebel off the tower he was standing upon, onto the rocks below. Brutal effectiveness hardly came in a more vivid form.
In contrast to his late brother, who had given no sign of loving women at all, the new King seemed to love them rather too much. Along with numerous one night stands and short-term flings, there had also been a fairly lengthy affair with a wealthy Oxfordshire widow, Ansfrida, who had produced three illegitimate children – 10 year-old Juliana, 8 year-old Fulk and 6 year-old Richard. Apparently during the time Ansfrida had been pregnant with Juliana, Henry had embarked upon a liaison with a commoner called Edith, who also fell pregnant and gave birth to a bastard daughter, Matilda. So along with becoming unofficial stepmother to Juliana, Matilda, Fulk and Richard, the new Queen would also have to put up with the presence of her husband’s current long-term mistress, Lady Sybilla Corbet. Sybilla, who was a very attractive woman, had already born the King a 5 year-old son, Robert, and over the years would continue to produce more bastards for her royal lover – Reginald, William, and their three sisters, Sybilla, Gundrada and Rohese. Nor did Sybilla’s sexual hold over the King mean that he was faithful to her, anymore than his love for his Queen meant he was faithful to her. Three years after his marriage, when both the Queen and Sybilla were pregnant, the King seduced the spectacularly beautiful Nesta of Debeubarth, a Welsh princess visiting London. Princess Nesta’s beauty was exceeded only by her wildness and the King of England was not her only extra-marital lover; she did, however, bear him another bastard son, whom she named Henry in his honour. Henry, however, kept most of his mistresses in his country palace at Woodstock, rather than in any of the London homes the Queen frequented. For her part, although she was well aware of her husband’s compulsive womanising, Matilda ‘endured with complacency’ her husband’s infidelities and never reprimanded him for them.
Matilda gave birth to her first child, a daughter called Euphemia, at Winchester in the summer after her wedding. Sadly, Euphemia only survived long enough to be baptised. Such things, alas, were common in the 12th century and in February of the following year, the Queen gave birth to a daughter who lived, at Sutton Courtenay Manor, one of the Royal Family’s more country lovely homes. The following year, to great national joy, Matilda gave birth to a son, named William, in honour of the late Conqueror. Not long after, his brother, Richard, entered the royal nursery and Matilda could congratulate herself on having produced both the heir and the spare.
As the celebrations outside the Abbey had shown, Matilda’s marriage had been popular with the people of London, many of whom nostalgically remembered the rule of her mother’s family in the days before the Conquest. Yet, Queen Matilda was not such a big hit within the walls of her husband’s palace. The courtiers may have been prepared to put up with the probable homosexuality of William II, given that under him Court life had at the very least been riotously entertaining, what they were absolutely not prepared to put up with was so much as a moment’s boredom and, as they were to discover, that was exactly what they were to endure under Matilda.
What seemed particularly unforgivable to the palace courtiers was the new Queen’s horrific fashion sense. The years of growing up in a convent and then the rest of her adolescence spent quietly in some rural exile had taken their toll and in the delicious phrase of the historian, Lisa Hilton, Matilda had subsequently become something of ‘a failure in the glamour stakes.’ The English nobility were known for being ‘fantastically appointed’ in their sartorial splendour, with ladies already beginning to bind their bodies to achieve a trim physique and men investing in the elaborately pointed shoes that were to become so much a part of the Middle Age’s iconography. Yet, amidst this obsession with appearance, Matilda happily wandered around in clothes that were already a generation out of fashion. The courtiers despised her and ridiculed her endlessly behind her back.
If she was incapable of emulating her mother’s flair for magnificence, Matilda was however truly her mother’s daughter when it came to charity. With the enormous private incomes of the Queens of England now hers to command, Matilda threw herself into donating to the causes which touched her heart the most – the poor and the Church. For, despite her run-in with the Church following her flight from Wilton, Matilda’s personal piety had never diminished and her utter devotion to Christianity was a life-long constant, something only heightened following what she perceived as the Archbishop of Canterbury’s kindness to her in the face of her marriage. As Queen, she personally financed the building of the Abbey of the Holy Trinity Aldgate, for the Augustinian Order in England, installing her personal confessor as its first Prior. After that, she channelled her funds into building a hospital for lepers at St Giles, as well as becoming the patroness of other leprosy hospitals at Chichester and Westminster. Alleviating the agony of leprosy sufferers was something very dear to the Queen and when her favourite brother, David, came to visit her in London during Lent, he found her surrounded by these poor creatures in her royal apartments at Westminster: -
The place was full of lepers and there was the Queen standing in the middle of them. And taking off a linen cloth she had wrapped around her waist, she put it into a water basin and began to wash and dry their feet and kiss them most devotedly while she was bathing them and drying them with her hands. And I said to her, ‘My lady! What are you doing? Surely if the King knew about this he would never deign to kiss you with his lips after you had been polluted by the putrefied feet of lepers!’ Then she, under a smile, said, ‘Who does not know that the feet of the Eternal King are to be preferred to the lips of a King who is going to die?...’
However, Matilda’s devotion to the Church and charity came at a cost. For not only was she generous to the cause of the Church in England, but also of the Church Universal. She made a gift of a pair of magnificent bells to the Cathedral of Our Lady of Chartres outside Paris and when she befriended the Bishop of Le Mans, she sent him a present of bejewelled candlesticks for the Cathedral of Saint Julien in his diocese. The candlesticks she dispatched were described as being ‘fashioned with wondrous skill, glittering with jewels as much as with candlelight.’ She was also wildly generous to musicians and writers, particularly loving any musician who could ‘soothe her ears.’ Yet, Matilda’s generosity to artists and to the Church abroad may have had a slightly ulterior motive, namely because they might be able to help her reputation. William of Malmesbury, who knew and admired her, was quite clear the reason why she was so generous both to the Church abroad and to writers and musicians was not only because she loved their causes, but also because ‘through their presents they might proclaim her dignity abroad.’ If that was Matilda’s intention, it certainly worked, for the piety of the Queen of England and her virtuous living was being discussed as far afield as Budapest within a few years of her marriage and the Bishop of Le Mans gushed that her gifts to the Church made her the modern day inheritor of the holy female saints who had attended to Christ’s grave on the Day of The Resurrection.
Of course, it was the Queen’s lands which she had received at the time of her marriage which was paying for all this. At first, Matilda took a great interest in the well-being of those who lived on her properties. She improved the roads near the Convent of Barking, one of her estates, and amidst her properties in the capital, she oversaw the expansion of the Queenshithe docks, which remain even today, and from which her successors were to draw a substantial amount of their cash income thanks to the lucrative trade the Queen and her legal advisers helped stimulate there. Concerned about reports of the stench coming from the docks, she ordered plumbed lavatories to be installed there, at her expense. Then, moved by stories of some of her tenants having to ford a dangerous ravine on the River Lea, the Queen financed the building of the first arched stone bridge in England, which survived into the reign of King William IV, eight centuries later. However, as the financial toll of the Queen’s lavish patronage of the Church and the arts mounted, her advisers decided that the only way to meet costs was for the Queen to hike-up the rent on her lands, with the result that her relationship with her tenants began to suffer. The chronicler Malmesbury records that she began ‘exposing them to injuries and taking away their properties’ through her exorbitant rent hikes, but so intoxicated was Matilda with the fact that she had become ‘known as a liberal benefactress, [that] she scarcely regarded their outrage.’ Matilda’s uncharacteristic inability to sympathise about the plight of her tenants was a low-point in her queenship, but the public perception of her was saved by the role she played in resolving the great political crisis of her husband’s reign.
The clash of Church and State had been the key feature of William II’s reign, but if Henry I thought that his strategy of honey would triumph where his brother’s policy of vinegar had failed, he was hopelessly mistaken. Within the history of the Christian Church, the 12th century was characterised by an attempt to codify both canon law and Christian morality. Heterodoxy was out, orthodoxy was in. Apart from the drive to define morality and, finally, to pin down the tricky issue of what marriage’s role was in terms of it being either a religious matter or a semi-secular one, the Church was also determined to stop the interference of secular governments in religious politics, at all costs. European monarchs, who had traditionally had the right to appoint and invest their own bishops, and then to receive homage from them as they might from a secular aristocrat, were nonplussed to hear that this right was now being proclaimed a Vatican prerogative. Henry I, in particular, was livid and tried his best to bribe, flatter, entice and then bully Archbishop Anslem into agreeing with him. The Archbishop, however, knew better than anyone how seriously this matter was taken by the Vatican, for he had lived in Rome during his exile under William II and he wholeheartedly support Pope Paschal II’s determination to assert the Papacy’s rights. Relations between the Archbishop and the King reached a low-point when, in the spring of 1103, Anselm voluntarily went back in to exile, travelling to Rome to ask the Pontiff’s thoughts on the matter. The journey back to Italy and the lengthy consultations with Rome would take the Archbishop over two and a half years and throughout that time, he would remain in constant (and secret correspondence) with Queen Matilda.
Anselm and Matilda were convinced that the key to reconciling the Throne and the Altar lay in the Queen’s access to her husband and the affection he bore for her. Henry had always admired his wife’s intelligence, for the King despised stupidity and once proclaimed that if a royal was ill-educated, no matter how exalted they were, they were really worth nothing more than a donkey with a crown on its head. With his respect for intellect, it was difficult for Henry not take Matilda’s views on this matter seriously for, as the historian Anne Crawford has so rightly said, Matilda’s grasp of the complex theological and legal issues at stake in the quarrel were ‘rare among laymen and quite exceptional amongst laywomen’ in the early 12th century.
Matilda’s role, if not exactly honest, was nonetheless vital in achieving a peaceful resolution. When the Pope, infuriated by the King of England’s continued obstinacy, threatened to excommunicate Henry in the summer of 1104, Matilda wrote personally to the Holy Father, describing her ‘opprobrious grief’ at such an idea. Faced with losing a faithful and obedient ally like the Queen of England, the Pope delayed the excommunication, but Anselm wrote to Matilda reminding her that if she wanted the threat removed permanently she must ‘beg, plead and chide’ with the King to give into Rome’s demands. Nor was the Archbishop above advising Matilda to use the intimacy of married life to achieve their shared goal: ‘Counsel these things,’ he wrote to her, ‘intimate these things publicly and privately to our Lord the King and repeat them often.’ In response, Matilda told Anselm that she was ‘secretly investigating’ her husband’s heart and, once she knew what he was really thinking, she would pass on that information to Rome. Finally, after five years of fraught negotiations and Matilda’s constant, brilliant lobbying for the Church, the investiture crisis was resolved with a compromise. The King gave-up the right to pick and invest his own bishops, but the Church agreed that he might continue to receive homage from the bishops for the temporal lands the Church held in his domains.
Throughout the half-decade long ecclesiastical crisis, Matilda had remained constant in her loyalty to the Church and indeed, at its lowest point, without her at Henry’s side there would have been no discussion between the two parties, for only the Queen knew what both sides were thinking. Henry, for his part, was eternally grateful to his wife for her assistance, although it is doubtful he ever knew just how much she had been listening to Anselm’s advice. Both the Church hierarchy and the people of England were equally devoted to Matilda for having prevented the nightmare scenario of a schism between England and Rome. To Matilda, there had never been any doubt that she was doing God’s work.
With the Church now pacified, Henry felt free to consolidate his hold over Normandy, which he had managed wrest from his incompetent brother Robert’s hands. For much of the rest of his reign, Henry spent long spells of time in Normandy and when he was away, his faith in Matilda’s wisdom and political acumen was shown by leaving her behind in London, as his Regent.
Most of Matilda’s ruling was done from her favourite home, the Palace of Westminster, and her spells as Regent were successes, showing that her reputation for intelligence was well-deserved. The increase in her revenue also meant that she was able to lower the rents on her properties, helping to remove the temporary blip in her popularity caused earlier in the reign by her over-spending. Matilda was now widely and deeply loved outside the palace for her devotion to the Church, her kindness to the poor and also her efficiency as a politician.
When Henry was in England, it seems that his marriage to Matilda had become sexless. It was fairly common at the time for deeply religious people to abstain from sexual intercourse once a sufficient number of children had been produced, for no amount of modern re-writing of the idea can address just how loathsome the issue of sex was for the 12th century, with procreation being the only thing that made it anything less than abhorrent. Henry’s adulterous affair with Sybilla Corbet was now over and she had retired to Warwick to marry a wealthy knight, since no aristocrat, of course, could consider marrying soiled goods, even if they had been soiled by royalty. A succession of short-term mistresses took Sybilla’s place in the King’s home at Woodstock, but Matilda, as before, did not seem to object, but neither did she go anywhere near Woodstock. The couple remained close, however, on an emotional level and Henry trusted Matilda implicitly. Nor could he refuse her anything, within reason – she persuaded him, for instance, to grant her favourite brother, David, the title of Earl of Huntingdon and to arrange David’s marriage to a wealthy heiress in the King’s care.
In 1110, in an emulation of her own mother’s actions, Matilda sent her 8 year-old daughter, another Matilda, away to a foreign country to be educated. The reason for this was that little Matilda had been guaranteed a glittering matrimonial career thanks to her betrothal to the Holy Roman Emperor, Heinrich V. Hoping to ensure that Matilda would be brought up as the perfect German empress, Heinrich asked that she be sent to Germany to complete her upbringing. From across the sea, Matilda continued to take an interest in her imperial daughter’s well-being and her concern that all of her children should be as devoted to Christianity as she herself had been was strong. In 1114, she took her eldest son, 11 year-old William, on religious retreat to Priory of Merton.
After Merton, however, the Queen fell ill. She was still acting as Regent, with Henry carrying out business in Normandy, and so there was precious little time for her to feel poorly. Things became serious however and her friend the Bishop of Le Mans wrote to her in concern, having heard rumours as far afield as France that the Queen of England was unwell. In his letter, he enclosed a prayer to Saint John the Evangelist, asking for the Queen’s recovery. The bishop’s prayers were answered, for the time being, and by the time King Henry returned to London in the following year, the Queen’s spirits had recovered.
A year after that, Henry was forced to return to Normandy again and this time, he would be gone for almost eighteen months. As usual, Matilda was left as Regent, since she had managed to do such an excellent job in overseeing legislation and maintaining peace in Henry’s previous absences. This time, conscious of the fact that William would one day become King William III, Matilda encouraged her son to attend Council meetings with her and witness the day-to-day business of government. The old illness, however, had returned and the Queen’s energy was flagging. Her last act as Queen-Regent took place during a royal visit to Oxford, when she issued a charter protecting the right of a local group of religious recluses. Had she known that it was to be her last piece of public service, I imagine Matilda would have been pleased to know that it was carried out in the service of the Church.
From Oxford, the Queen returned to her beloved Westminster, where she rapidly went into decline, despite the warm spring air. It was on the great public festival which marked the beginning of summer – Mayday – that Matilda of Scotland departed this life, surrounded by the priests and rituals of the Catholic Church, which she loved so much and who, despite a distinctly unsteady start, had spent her political career endeavouring to serve. Shortly after the Last Rites were administered, with the sounds of London celebrating summer outside her windows, Matilda of Scotland died at the age of thirty-seven.
Mayday came to an immediate end as soon as the church bells began to toll. The public’s grief at the Queen’s death was widespread and intense; there were calls amongst the hysterically-mourning crowd of thousands to make her into a saint. The popular Saxon nickname for Matilda was “Maud” and the Queen’s reputation was such that she was still being called “Good Queen Maud” well into the time of the Tudors. Yet, if it has been shown here that the legend of Matilda’s goodness is not quite as clean-cut as it first seems, her probable deception over the reasons for her flight from Wilton Abbey, her insensitive rent-hikes early in her career as queen and her undoubtedly duplicitous correspondence with Rome during the great crisis over the investitures can surely be weighed in the balance against her undeniable care for the plight of London’s poor, her rather touching (and all too human) desire to be liked and, above all, in considering just how much worse things would have been if Matilda had not managed to blend the principles and the pragmatism that both her husband and Archbishop Anselm seemed singularly incapable of merging. She was one of the Middle Ages’ most important and effective queens and Henry I was never truly to recover from her loss.
Matilda’s sons and her devastated husband oversaw her magnificent funeral in Westminster Abbey, where she was interred with Holy Relics sent by the Emperor of Byzantium, the great Christian empire in the East, where reports of the Queen of England’s devotion to the poor was so well-known that they transcended Byzantium’s loathing of the Church in the West. On Henry’s orders, a perpetual light was left to burn next to his wife’s grave, in much the same way as today the United States has installed a similar one over the grave of President J.F. Kennedy.
And yet, like the perpetual light Henry had placed above her tomb, Matilda’s bloodline was not destined to burn forever. Although today, by a quirk of political chance, her descendants do sit on the British throne, her beloved sons never would and William would never wear the crown as King William III. Two years after their mother’s death, they would both drown in a terrible shipwreck off the Norman coast and the stage would be set for one of the great crises of the monarchy and one of the worst civil wars in British history.