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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Adela of Normandy – Daughter of the Conqueror

Adela
Adela of Normandy, Countess of Blois and Chartres

Adela of Normandy was the daughter of William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy and King of England,  and his wife, Matilda of Flanders.

Although most sources give her date of birth around 1061/2, the Oxford Database of National Biography argues that her birth was after the Norman Conquest, as contemporary poetry suggests she was born the daughter of a king.

Adela was one of 9 or 10 children born to William and Matilda, with at least 4 sisters and 4 brothers. Given her high level of literacy, and her patronage of poets in adulthood, it is likely that Adela was very well-educated as a child; either through tutors or possibly through residence in a convent, as happened with many daughters of the nobility at that time.

As a child, it seems, a marriage was arranged between Adela and Simon Crispin, count of Amiens; however, the groom chose to take monastic vows. As part of an alliance directed against the aggressive counts of Anjou, Adela was then  betrothed to Stephen of Blois, son of Count Theobald III, count of Blois and Champagne. Stephen was about 20 years her senior. The formal betrothal  took place at Bourgueil and was later followed by a lavish wedding ceremony in Chartres Cathedral in about 1081.

StepanBlois_1089
Stephen, Count of Blois and Chartres

Adela and Stephen would have about 11 children in all, with at least 2 sons born before Stephen succeeded his father as Count of Blois and Champagne in 1090.

Of their 5 daughters, Matilda married Richard d’Avranches, 2nd Earl of Chester. The couple drowned in the White Ship disaster which deprived Henry I of his son and heir, William. Another daughter, Eleanor, married Raoul, Count of Vermandois and brother of Isabelle de Vermandois, Countess of Leicester and Surrey.

Adela’s eldest surviving son seems to have been disinherited at an early age. However, while he is described as an ‘idiot’ by some, William   married Agnes, the daughter of Giles, Lord of Sulli, and was given the titles Count of Chartres and Lord of Sulli, but was not allowed to inherit the richer county of Blois; which went to his younger brother, Theobald.

Poetry from the time of her wedding describes Adela as valorous, learned and generous. Indeed, she seems to have been a great asset to her husband, who included her in charitable donations and even in his early judicial rulings. Adela developed a cordial relationship with Bishop Ivo of Chartres, which worked well to maintain the peace between the laity and the clergy in the county.

In 1095 Stephen of Blois joined the First Crusade, leaving Adela as head of the family and regent of his domains.  Letters that the count sent to his wife indicate a great level of affection and trust; Adela was given charge of the family’s finances. However, Stephen’s return from crusade appears of have been less than happy. Adela  believed that he had not fulfilled his crusader’s vow and her criticism may have been a contributing factor in his return to the Holy Land in 1101 – she certainly approved of it.

Theobald
Theobald IV, Count of Blois and Champagne

Stephen was killed in combat in the Holy Land, during the siege of Ramallah in May 1102. He was succeeded as Count of Blois by his 2nd surviving son, Theobald. Theobald was knighted in 1107, by which point his older brother, William, had already been removed from the succession to Blois. William inherited the lesser title of Count of Chartres.

Following Stephen’s death Adela continued to act as regent until Theobald attained his majority. Even after Theobald came of age, mother and son ruled jointly until Adela retired from public life in 1120.

Adela was particularly close to her younger brother, Henry, who would later become King Henry I of England. She even supported him against their oldest brother, Robert, when Henry claimed the English crown.

An able administrator and negotiator, Adela settled many disputes among monasteries, and even between monasteries and laymen, in her own domains and beyond. Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of William II and Henry I, praised her skills as negotiator and peacemaker following her success at achieving a temporary truce between Anselm and her brother in 1105.

HenryBlois
Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester

Anselm described her as an ardent supporter of papal reform, and enjoyed her hospitality during his exile from England. Adela hosted many other church dignitaries, including archbishop Thurstan of York and Pope Paschal II. Her family’s prestige and power was bolstered by her friendships with the leading ecclesiastic figures in both France and England.

An avid  patroness of the arts, Adela corresponded with such dignitaries as Hildebert, bishop of Le Mans and Abbot Baudri of Bourgeuil – later bishop of Dol – who both wrote poems dedicated to the countess. The book Ecclesiastical History Together with the Deeds of the Romans and the Franks, written by Hugh of Fleury, was dedicated to Adela.

One of Adela’s youngest sons, Henry of Winchester, was dedicated to the church at an early age, and was raised at the Priory of Cluny in France. He was nominated as Bishop of Winchester in 1129 and was a great support to his older brother, Stephen, when he claimed the throne of England on his uncle Henry’s death in 1135, at the expense of Henry’s daughter, Matilda

An active ruler Adela regularly toured the family’s domains, both as regent and mother of the reigning count. She also maintained links with the Anglo-Norman and Capetian kings. In 1101 Adela sent knights to help Philip I of France’s son, Louis, battling against rebels north of Paris.

Stepan_Blois
King Stephen

However, by 1107 her son Theobald had joined the revolt and relations with France were to deteriorate further in 1113 when the allied forces of Theobald, Henry I and Adela defeated a Capetian-Angevin army. After further conflict in 1118 Adela used her wealth and diplomatic skills to benefit her family.

In 1120 Adela stopped using the title of countess and retired to the Clunaic Priory of Marcigny;  the same year that her daughter Matilda died in the White Ship disaster off Barfleur in Normandy. She continued to be active in political affairs and lived to see her son, Stephen, claim the throne of England, though not the 20 years of conflict that ensued.

Aged almost 70, and having been a widow for half of her life, this most remarkable woman, Adela of Normandy, former Countess of Blois and Chartres, died in 1137, possibly on 8th March. Although later tradition has her buried with her mother at Holy Trinity in Caen, contemporary sources say she was buried at Marcigny.

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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Sources: England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings  by Robert Bartlett; Heroines of the Medieval World by Sharon Bennett Connolly; 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; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; oxforddnb.com;  epistolae.ccnmtl.columbia.edu; womenshistory.about.com.

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Coming 31st May! 

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. 

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available for pre-order from Pen & Sword Books.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

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©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly.