Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Matilda of Flanders - wife of William the Conqueror

Who was she?
   Matilda was high-born compared to William the Bastard and initially refused to marry him for that reason. The niece and granddaughter of Kings of France and descended from the Anglo-Saxon royal House of Wessex, she probably considered herself much superior to the illegitimate son of a lowly woman, Herleva, even though his father was a duke. The marriage also breached the rules of consanguinity, which were quite strict at the time, and required a dispensation from the Pope, Leo IX. She may also have previously been in love with Brictric, a great and charming thegn from England, who snubbed her offer of marriage.

   Stories of how William overcame her resistance vary and may be fictitious. Yet a common element is that he rode to where she was, (possibly to Bruges or to her father's house in Lille) pulled her about by her braids and battered her. Her father, Count Baldwin V, wanted to fight for her honour but she declared she would marry no-one but this ardent and violent pursuer. He was about 23 and she 20ish at the most.
  Much has been made of her short stature (because he was tall by contrast) as certain estimates put her height at about 4ft 2" but others at nearer 5ft. These measurement were taken when her skeleton was examined on different occasions and it may not have been complete. Certainly she was seen as diminutive, beautiful - and funky!

Her successes
   She bore William 9 or 10 children of whom 2 became kings: William II and Henry I. There is no record of illegitimate offspring born to William and amateur psychology suggests that the stain of bastardy and love for her kept him faithful. Certainly he had delivered terrible revenge on the town of Alencon for a jibe at his unmarried mother's family trade as skinners and tanners: he cut off the hands and feet of 32 men in public.
   Matilda contributed to the success of the Norman invasion by kitting out a ship, the Mora, mentioned at the end of the Ship List, and embellishing the prow with a figure of a small gilded boy holding a horn to his lips with one hand and pointing with the other towards England. (A similar image appears on the Bayeux Tapestry, once believed to be her project but now thought to be that of Bishop Odo of Bayeux.) This speedy vessel raced ahead of the others and caused panic on board but William calmly sat down to a huge breakfast washed down with spiced wine whilst waiting for the rest of his navy to come into view.
   They spent much of their marriage apart (but the number of children suggests they made good use of their time together!) and he showed his faith in her acumen and judgement by appointing her regent in Normandy, assisted by Roger of Montgomery, when he had to be absent in England to conquer us (and impose the French subjunctive) and to keep order once he had won at Hastings. This was a a role of considerable legal significance and she carried it out with aplomb: all ran smoothly under her control of what her husband had termed "a turbulent people, always ready to cause disturbances."

   A triumphal feasting was held at Fécamp's old monastery to celebrate William's victory at which the couple wore "splendid garments, interwoven and encrusted with gold" but the greatest ceremony for Matilda was her coronation as Queen of England on May 11th 1068. William's had been marred by a misunderstanding of the shouts from within Westminster Abbey and the consequent burning of nearby properties but hers was a success despite her lukewarm welcome in the kingdom. She was led into the Abbey, prostrated herself as a symbolic start of a new life, was anointed with holy oil, received a ring as emblem of her "marriage" to the state and was crowned. (Charters issued at the time reveal English and Norman names but, by 1086, a similar list is entirely French.) Three new phrases were incorporated to emphasise the importance of consorts. After that there were frequent grand occasions of "crown-wearings", propaganda for the new monarchy with Matilda styled as "regina."
  The education of her children, including the daughters, must be counted as one of her major successes. This task was undertaken thoroughly and with great seriousness. She and William ensured that the boys received the upbringing suitable for aristocratic males with riding, hunting, political theory and military training but both sexes were taught the "liberal arts" of reading and some Latin along with religious instruction: writing was sometimes neglected and Matilda herself signed with a flourished mark. Cecilia, who became a nun, was instructed by Arnulf of Chocques to extend her learning to understand rhetoric and logic. Adela also was a noted learned lady and contemporary references to the girls are few but all complimentary. The boys were tutored by Lanfranc who became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1070.

The downside
   Perhaps the most notable difficulty of her marriage was their difference of opinion over their eldest son, Robert Curthose (Short-Arse) which developed into deep trouble. According to Orderic Vitalis he was "talkative and extravagant, reckless, very courageous in battle, a powerful and sure archer with a clear, cheerful voice and a fluent tongue. Round-faced, short and stout, he was commonly nick-named 'fat-legs' and 'shorty-pants.'" Lovable to a mother! He may have formed part of the council to help Matilda as regent but he later became rivalrous: he led a rebellion and Matilda supplied him secretly with large sums of silver and gold to pursue this hostility. Her support for her son against her husband was shocking behaviour at that time and William was furious when he found out: she was never appointed regent again. A contemporary chronicler recorded her words of love and "tender affection" for her first-born which may have caused friction with William Rufus and Henry. Yet she refused William's instructions to stop sending him money and was not punished for her defiance: he must have loved her truly.
   As regent, she used her power to gain revenge over the man who had spurned her twenty years earlier. She ordered the seizure of Brictric's manor of Tewkesbury and deprived his town of Gloucester of its charter. Finally she had him imprisoned at Winchester where he died 2 years later.
  Although her endowments of religious institutions seem in her favour, some of her generosity towards them is somewhat suspect. She gave abundantly to La Trinité, which she had founded after the Pope had agreed to her marriage, but many of the foodstuffs came from England: in all her gifts were worth £650,000 in modern terms. Also she demanded treasure from Abingdon and then complained it was inadequate.
   There was a superstitious side to her character: there were rumours that she sent gifts to a hermit in Germany who then had a dream presaging ill fortune for Normandy. A happier forecast was that for the baby daughter of Queen Margaret of Scotland, who pulled Matilda's veil down over herself at her christening, an omen later interpreted as a royal future for the child.
Death and legacy
    Her health must have deteriorated after July 1083 as, after a life of travelling, she never left Caen where she had helped a superficial reconciliation between her husband and eldest son. She died on 2nd November 1083. Opinions differ as to the date and cause of her illness but she probably drew up her Will in 1082: it is a rather impersonal document with bequests to La Trinité but includes, oddly amongst the expected finery, all a horse's accoutrements. These may have helped the Abbess on her travels but may have symbolised Matilda's peripatetic life. William organised a "most splendid funeral" at the abbey (contrasted again with the grotesque happening at his own when his corpse burst) and a beautiful monument with epitaph was erected which can still be seen at Caen. Later the "marriage" ring was found on her finger.
    After her death William mourned but became more tyrannical which suggests that, overall, she had been a softening influence. She established a model for female rule which made it easier for women to be appointed regent and use their power generally. Her bloodline extends to the present day in our monarchical family tree.

   Wherever you ride on buses in Monmouthshire, you see through the window territory that William controlled - with some difficulty, appointing Marcher lords to subdue the hostile inhabitants. Behind him was Matilda, supporting him throughout, apart from the quarrel with Robert. Perhaps Chepstow Castle is the most obvious site, built by William fitzOsbern and added to by the Conqueror. Cherchez la femme!

My post on Chepstow Castle has links to many other castles in the area and you can read the story of William fitzOsbern by clicking here. There are many excellent CAKE opportunities in Chepstow, including by the River Wye.

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