Matilda of Flanders, Queen of the Conqueror

Matilda of Flanders

Matilda of Flanders was the consummate duchess and queen. Born in the early to mid-1030s, possibly around 1032, Matilda was the daughter of Baldwin V, Count of Flanders, and his wife Adela of France, a daughter of Robert the Pious, King of France. Matilda had two brothers and each of them became Count of Flanders in his turn; Baldwin of Mons and Robert the Frisian. As is often the case with medieval women, we know very little of Matilda’s early life, though it is likely she was raised alongside her aunt, Judith, her father’s sister who was of a similar age to Matilda, and who would go on to marry Tostig, Earl of Nurthumberland and brother of king Harold II.

The first time Matilda appears on the world stage is when her marriage is being discussed. There is a popular story of how Matilda refused to marry William, Duke of Normandy, stating that she was too highly born to marry a bastard. As the legend goes; on hearing this, William was so infuriated that he rode to Flanders and confronted Matilda. He is said to have thrown her to the ground, before pulling her braids and cutting her with his spurs. Matilda, unlikely as it seems, then accepted his proposal and they were married. Despite the story most likely being a later invention, William was the one to propose the marriage and, although he was a duke, his illegitimacy would have meant making a proposal to a niece of the King of France was audacious, to say the least.

The arrangements for the marriage of Matilda and William probably started in 1048, but it was a long, drawn out matter, marred by papal and political machinations. The Synod of Reims, of 3 and 4 October 1049, issued a decree instructing Count Baldwin not to allow the marriage of his daughter to Duke William. However, despite these papal objections, Matilda and William were married by 1053, at the latest. A penance was later imposed on the couple for their disobedience in marrying against papal prohibition. Each was to found an abbey; William founded the Abbaye-aux-Hommes, or St Stephen’s Abbey, in his Norman capital of Caen, while Matilda founded the Abbaye-aux-Dames, or Holy Trinity Abbey, in the same city. The two abbeys still stand to this day.

William the Conqueror from the Bayeux Tapestry

The marriage between Matilda and William proved to be a strong and trusting relationship; William is one of very few medieval kings believed to have been completely faithful to his wife, no known lovers or illegitimate children have ever been uncovered, although that did not stop the rumours. William of Malmesbury related one such story, of William having a mistress, the daughter of a priest, who Matilda ordered to be hamstrung and disinherited; in punishment, Matilda is said to have been beaten to death by a horse bridle. Malmesbury himself was sceptical of the story and, given that Matilda’s death came after a short illness in 1083, it does seem rather far-fetched.

William trusted Matilda to act as regent in Normandy during his many absences on campaign or in England. Their relationship appears to have been more of a partnership than most marriages of the time; she was witness to thirty-nine pre-conquest and sixty-one post-conquest charters. Matilda supported her husband’s proposed invasion of England; she promised a great ship for William’s personal use, called the Mora. Just before leaving for England in 1066, William accompanied Matilda to the consecration of her foundation, Holy Trinity Abbey – the Abbaye-aux-Dames – in Caen, arranging for his duchess to act as regent in his absence. The Conquest was a close-run thing and it was not until 1068 that William felt secure enough to bring his wife to England for her coronation. Matilda, six months pregnant with her son Henry, who would be born at Selby in September, was crowned Queen of England in Westminster Abbey, by Archbishop Ealdred of Canterbury, at Whitsuntide 1068.

Matilda and William had a large family, with four boys and at least four daughters. Of their sons; the eldest, Robert Curthose, would inherit Normandy, Richard was killed in a hunting accident as a youth, William, known as Rufus, became King William II, and the youngest was the future King Henry I. Of the four or five daughters; Adeliza became a nun following a series of failed marriage plans, Cecilia was given to the convent of Ste Trinité as a child, Constance married Alain Fergant, Duke of Brittany, and Adela married Stephen of Blois and was the mother of King Stephen of England. There are suggestions of two further daughters, Matilda and Agatha, though evidence for their existence is limited. Queen Matilda was very close to her family, especially her eldest son, Robert. William and Robert, father and son, however, were often at loggerheads, with Robert rebelling against his father as a young man. Matilda was constantly trying to play the peacemaker. During a period of exile imposed on Robert, Matilda still supported her son as best she could; she would send him vast amounts of silver and gold through a Breton messenger, Samson.

Although the problems with Robert, their eldest son, caused considerable tensions within the marriage, Matilda and William’s relationship is one of the most successful of the medieval period. Their partnership as rulers, and as husband and wife, was strong and appeared to be one built on mutual respect. One contemporary remarked that ‘The Queen adored the King and the King the Queen.’ [1]

Matilda’s son Henry I, King of England

Matilda’s piety was renowned. Although founding the Abbaye aux Dames in Caen was a penance for her irregular marriage to William, her constant and repeated donations to religious houses demonstrated her dedication to her faith. The nuns of her abbey at Ste Trinité, Caen, received a substantial bequest from Matilda’s will, written the year before her death; as well as her crown and sceptre, they were given a chalice, a chasuble, a mantle of brocade, two golden chains with a cross, a chain decorated with emblems for hanging a lamp in front of the altar, several large candelabras, the draperies for her horse and all the vases ‘which she had not yet handed out during her life’. [2]

Having drawn up her will in 1082, it is possible that Matilda was aware of her illness long before her last summer. The continuing worry over the rift between her husband and beloved son cannot have helped her health, and the arrival of winter saw her gravely ill. Matilda died on 2 November 1083, having ‘confessed her sins with bitter tears and, after fully accomplishing all that Christian custom requires and being fortified by the saving sacrament’. [3] Her husband was with her throughout the final moments of her illness, and he ‘… showed many days of the deepest mourning how much he missed the love of her whom he had lost’. [4] She was buried at Ste Trinité, Caen, following a funeral that lasted two days and that was attended by a host of monks, abbots, bishops and nuns and a host of people came to pay homage. There is no record of which of her children attended the funeral, although her daughter Cecilia was most likely in attendance, being a nun of the abbey. The original tombstone still survives; it has an inscription carved around the edge, emphasising her royal descent on her mother’s side.

Queen Matilda’s Grave, Ste Trinité, Caen

Matilda’s height has been discussed frequently by historians, with some claiming that she was a dwarf. The casket, containing her bones, was opened in 1961 and misreported as revealing a woman of about 4ft 2in tall. However, Professor Dastague, from the Institut D’Anthropologie at Caen, who was present at the original dig confirmed that it had been calculated that Matilda was in fact 152cm, about 5ft, in height. [5] Matilda’s actual height cannot be said with certainty, however, as the skeleton which was examined was incomplete. The queen’s grave had been destroyed in the sixteenth century, during the French Wars of Religion, and much of her remains never recovered.

William the Conqueror followed his wife to the grave four years later, in 1087. In many aspects of her life, Matilda is clearly seen as the ideal medieval wife and mother. Ever supportive of her husband, he relied heavily on her to administer Normandy in his frequent absences. Even when disobeying William, in her support of their eldest son Robert, she was still trying to be the embodiment of the good medieval woman, playing the peacemaker between warring members of her family. Her piety and steadfast support of her husband provided an example for future queens, and noble ladies, to follow.

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This article, first appeared in March 2019, as Matilda of Flanders: The Ideal Medieval Queen, on Mary Anne Yarde’s wonderful blog Myths, Legends, Book and Coffee Pots.

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Footnotes:

[1] Les Oeuvres Poétiques de Baudri de Bourgueil edited by P. Abrahams; [2] Musset, La Reine Mathilde, quoted by Elizabeth van Houts in oxforddnb.com. [3] Matilda by Tracy Borman, [4] Chronicles of the Kings of England, From the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen by William of Malmesbury; [5] A Historical Obstetric Enigma: How Tall was Matilda? (article) by J Dewhurst Journal of Obstetriccs and Gynaecology.

Pictures:

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources:

England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings by Robert Bartlett; Heroines of the Medieval World by Sharon Bennett Connolly; Chronicles of the Kings of England, From the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen by William of Malmesbury; Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest by Sharon Bennett Connolly; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; Matilda by Tracy Borman; The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles by Michael Swanton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle by James Ingram; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; oxforddnb.comQueen Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror, was NOT a Dwarf (article) by Marc Morris, marcmorris.org.uk; epistolae.ccnmtl.columbia.edu; womenshistory.about.com; Les Oeuvres Poétiques de Baudri de Bourgueil edited by P. Abrahams

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My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

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Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly

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