October 2016 saw the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, the event in history during which England gained a new King and a new Royal family. English Heritage led the way with a series of Twitter accounts set up to reveal the thoughts and actions of a collection of people affected by the invasion. One of those accounts was for Matilda of Flanders, the wife of William the Conqueror. I was incredibly relieved that English Heritage included her from the start, not just because history should show the perspectives of women as well as men, but because without Matilda, William’s reign as King of England probably wouldn’t have lasted very long.
The Duchess and The Bastard
Matilda’s childhood could not have been any different from that of her husband. While William was frequently in fear of his life, several of his guardians and protectors were murdered by his enemies, Matilda grew up in the wealthy duchy of Flanders. Her grandfather had promoted trade, while her father Baldwin invested in good roads and canals, and the Ducal family became the richest it had ever been. While William was forced to travel around Normandy, pursued by those who wanted him dead, Matilda lived in the ducal palace at Bruges. Her mother Adela was a Princess of France, and was frequently mentioned in Baldwin’s legal documents, suggesting a level of equality that was rare for women at the time.
It was Adela who ensured that Matilda was well educated; she was fluent in Latin, was able to read (but probably couldn’t write, wealthy women hired clerks), and was taught how to run a household. Since men were often away fighting for months at a time, women were expected to be able to run their estates, ensuring that rents were collected, land was farmed, and disputes resolved. In later years it would become clear that Matilda had taken these lessons to heart.
As a granddaughter of a King of France and the only daughter of a wealthy Duke, Matilda was a prime catch for any medieval man. There were rumours that she had offered herself in marriage to the wealthy Anglo-Saxon thegn Brictric, who was sent to Flanders by Edward the Confessor and came to Matilda’s attention during this visit. The rumour that she offered herself in marriage may have been confused, it was unusual that an upper-class woman would offer herself to a man without her father’s permission. The loss of reputation would have been devastating, especially since Brictric appears to have rejected the offer. It might be that Baldwin offered Matilda’s hand to Brictric, who declined, or Brictric’s visit may have coincided with another offer from elsewhere. Matilda reportedly had Brictric thrown in prison many years later, in revenge for him spurning her. It may be that a smaller incident (a lovesick teenage girl mooning around her father’s court after a handsome foreigner) was blown out of proportion by chroniclers who disliked both Matilda and William in later years, and wanted to damage her reputation.
Whatever Matilda’s experience with Brictric, she was still unmarried at the age of eighteen, when Duke William of Normandy proposed himself as a husband for the unmarried daughter of his neighbour and potential ally, Baldwin of Flanders. As with Brictric, this point in Matilda’s life is shrouded in rumour. One chronicle reported that Matilda dismissed William’s proposal as she felt it was demeaning to marry a “bastard”. William promptly hopped on his horse, and rose furiously from Normandy to Flanders. On finding Matilda returning home from church, he threw her off her horse in to the road, and beat her soundly for daring to reject his advances. The other story says that he forced his way in to her bedroom, before beating her and then storming out.
Both these stories were recorded long after both parties were dead, which makes the truth of them highly doubtful. Historians have also pointed out that had William really assaulted Matilda, war probably would have broken out between Flanders and Normandy, and the ferocity implied in the first “attack” might even have killed Matilda. At the very least, William may have done something to persuade Matilda that he was the man for her, but it’s more likely that if she had reservations about the match then her parents may have talked her around, or simply forced her down the aisle if she’d continued to refuse.
Wife and Mother
If the medieval wife really was expected to do nothing more than provide sons and support her husband in the background, then Matilda succeeded in spades. She had four sons with William, named Robert, William, Richard and Henry. She also had several daughters by him, with five being the number accepted by most historians (unfortunately unlike the boys, the girls weren’t properly recorded by the chronicles).
Surviving at least nine childbirths was impressive enough, but Matilda also proved herself to be William’s best supporter. Normandy was a violent duchy, it took William years to make his mark, and there were frequent border raids from neighbours and insurrections from within that often meant he was roaming around the Duchy, putting down rebellions and shoring up his defences. This left Matilda to look after the more peaceful areas, a job that she appears to have relished at.
When William declared his intention to invade England and claim the crown following the death of Edward the Confessor, Matilda was at his side helping with the preparations. Along with donating money from her own purse, she paid for the creation of a ship named the Mora, which proved to be the invasion fleet’s largest and fastest ship. This became William’s flagship, carrying the Conqueror and a selection of his knights across the Channel. As he prepared to embark on a campaign that could have seen his death, William showed how much he appreciated his wife. Matilda was named as guardian of Duchy in his absence, and designated as the regent for their young son Robert, in the event of William’s death.
Queen of England
Managing Normandy was a full time job, but if anyone thought that a woman wouldn’t be able to handle the belligerent and violent Normans, they were wrong. Matilda travelled around the Duchy, listening to grievances and ensuring that justice and peace were adhered to in William’s absence. Despite the absence of their (rather brutal) Duke, the people of Normandy enjoyed a period of peace and stability. Matilda was assisted by some of William’s key supporters and advisors, as a woman she certainly wouldn’t have been able to ride out in to battle should the Duchy have been invaded by Anjou or France. But while William’s comrades may have been angry at having to be led by a woman, there doesn’t appear to be the chronic clash of male egos that you might have expected.
Matilda’s expert handling of Normandy allowed William to not just invade England, but deal with repercussions of his conquest. Normandy didn’t collapse in to civil war, and so he wasn’t summoned home to deal with a political crisis. Instead he could take his time hammering the Anglo Saxons in to submission, and arrange for his own coronation on Christmas day 1066, and then plan for an equally grand coronation ceremony for his wife.
By crowning Matilda as Queen of England, William was distancing himself from the old Anglo Saxon system. Anglo Saxon Queens were rarely awarded their own coronation ceremony, and were referred to as “wife of the King”. Not only was William showing that things were now going to be done the Norman way, but Matilda’s coronation was also a key public relations exercise. England was much larger than Normandy, and since William would need to travel around the country dealing with rebellions, he needed a figurehead who could travel separately, helping restore peace by showing the gentler side of the conquest. Matilda already had family connections to the Anglo-Saxon royal family, her ancestor Judith was the first woman to receive a coronation ceremony when she married King Aethelwulf of the West Saxons. Flanders had also frequently harboured Anglo-Saxon refugees, including the late Queen Emma.
Matilda’s coronation was a grand ceremony that was pulled off without a hitch in May 1068. It was good timing, Matilda was pregnant with her last child, reminding the locals that their new King and Queen already had plenty of heirs to follow them, reinforcing the idea that they were there to stay. The laudes or chants that were used as part of the ceremony were written specially for Matilda and stated that the Queen was was chosen by God, that she shared Royal power, and that her people were blessed by her virtue and the power she now held. The emphasis on power showed that the people of England were to see Matilda as second only to William, and they should obey her as they did him.
After the coronation, William rode north to York to suppress another rebellion. Matilda stayed in the south, but slowly began to move north, where she may have hoped to give birth in York itself, symbolically giving the population a connection to the new Royal family. She never made it to York, instead her last child (a baby boy named Henry, after the late French king) was born at Selby. Henry’s birth on English soil would later add an air of legitimacy to his claim to the throne after the death of his brother, William II.
At the end of 1068 the Royal family returned to Normandy for Christmas. This was the start of multiple trips across the channel for Matilda, depending on where William needed her most. Sometimes she was best placed in Normandy, reminding her people that justice came from her and her husband, even when he was absent. At other times she was needed in England, participating in court ceremonial, and travelling around the south while William put down further rebellions in the north.
Matilda would eventually become far more popular in England than her violent husband. She is believed to have been able to speak English, when Normans only spoke French or Latin, and was seen as a more civilising influence on the court when she was in the country. When the former queen Edith, wife of Edward the Confessor, died in 1075 William had her body escorted to Westminster, interred next to her husband, and then had a magnificent tomb built for them. Given that this was hardly the kind of thing William would normally pay attention to, at least one chronicler suggested that this was done at Matilda’s instigation, aware that the English would be grateful at the honourable treatment of the widowed queen.
Matilda appears to have always had a soft spot for her eldest son Robert. He was her favourite, reinforced by the time they spent together ruling in Normandy. William on the other hand appears to have seen his son as a spoiled child. As a man who had spent his formative years being persecuted and fighting for his rights, he may have resented the easier life that his sons had. While both Matilda and William agreed that their children should get the best education possible, their relationships with their children were vastly different.
Due to the nature of the English conquest, Matilda was left to her own devices. William clearly trusted her implicitly. She was allowed to dispense justice in legal cases as she saw fit; a monk once travelled to England to appeal to William and was promptly sent packing with an order to appeal to Matilda, since she was the one effectively ruling Normandy. She carried out the same duties in England, while also performing the more “acceptable” womanly tasks of running the court and ensuring that she and William were well dressed, their homes were comfortable and well decorated, and their food was prepared by the finest cooks in the country.
Peace in Normandy couldn’t last forever though, and in 1072 William returned to deal with the sparks of rebellion that were beginning to become more than a nuisance, especially the province of Maine. Although England often required his attention, he began to spend more and more time in Normandy. When he had to go abroad he made Matilda his regent, but this caused conflict with young Robert. Now a young man in his early 20’s, he could have expected to be made regent in his father’s absence, especially since he was the heir to the Duchy.
Robert was eventually pushed in to rebellion. The story at the time was that he was furious when his brothers William and Henry played a prank on him, and their father refused to punish them. In reality he was probably feeling bored, resentful, and fed up with being sidelined with no power. Matilda clearly worried about her favourite son, and when he rebelled she reportedly sent him secret messages of support. At a time like this, a woman was meant to side with her husband, even against her own children. The real scandal came when Matilda sent money to Robert. She should have been trying to restore family unity, appealing publicly for both sides to meet and come to terms. Instead she was funding one side of the fight, shocking behaviour to the 11th century population!
Matilda had to ask her husband for forgiveness in a public ceremony where she knelt before him and the whole court. William was furious, but eventually showed some kind of forgiveness. He never forgot her betrayal though, and the trust he had in her was broken. She was never given the same power, she had to rule Normandy in William’s absence with the “help” of their sons and other men of the court. Robert was the victor in one battle against his father, but it was William who won the war. Matilda worked hard to reunite father and son with the help of Pope Gregory VII and representatives from the French king. Robert was finally brought back under control and forgiven.
Matilda’s health began to take a turn shortly after Robert’s rebellion came to an end. The stress of facing her furious husband can’t have helped, but she was also a woman who had given birth to at least nine children and who travelled frequently, the demands on her had been endless. It was bound to take a toll sooner or later. She reportedly bounced back quite quickly, with the help of some blessed bread, but it was the start of a long decline.
For the moment though Matilda still travelled. She went to Scotland around 1081 to stand as godmother to the newborn Scottish princess, Edith. The baby would eventually marry Matilda’s youngest son Henry and change her name to become Queen Matilda. By 1082 though Matilda was making bequests to a series of churches and abbeys, and also drew up her will, which suggests that she was ill and concerned that she might not be able to get over it.
The final blow came in 1083, when the unified image was starting to fracture again. William and Robert were clashing once more, Robert especially was frustrated at being constantly watched and monitored by his father and his men, and in the end he appears to have gone in to a self-imposed exile. By October that year Matilda was seriously ill. On 2nd November she confessed her sins with William at her side, and died shortly after.
The chronicles record the scale of the mourning that took place when Matilda’s death was announced. Mass was held across Normandy in every church, with monastic communities holding special services for her soul. Memorial poems were composed, in which Matilda’s grace, devotion and sense of justice were highly praised. Perhaps the greatest testimony to her skill comes from the number of her descendants who were given her name. She was the first Queen Matilda of England, and without her William would never have held on to both England and Normady, but she certainly wasn’t the last.
Written for Sheroes of History by Katie Collins. Katie has written two ebooks about some amazing Sheroes of history! 30 Women of History Volume 1 & Volume 2 are great resources available at a very reasonable price for your Kindle! You can follow Katie on Twitter @CreateHistorian
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