Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Wife to the Conqueror: Matilda of Flanders, Queen of England

Matilda of Flanders
Queen of England and Duchess of Normandy
Matilda of Flanders, the wife of William the Conqueror, and the first woman to be crowned and titled Queen of England after the Norman Conquest, was born sometime in 1031. She was of illustrious descent: her father, Baldwin V, was the Count of Flanders, and her mother Adela, was a daughter of the King of France. On one side or the other, Matilda was related to most of the royal families of Europe.

She was extremely well-educated, and said to be very beautiful - though modern research shows that she never exceeded 5 feet in height. According to old chroniclers, she had a refined, delicate features, a well-set head, and a graceful figure. And when she was in her state dress, she would have compared favorably with a Greek statue. Matilda spent her early years in Lille, a town that was built by her own father in Northern France. She inherited his talent for architecture which she would later turned to such good account. It was also in Lille that Matilda met an English ambassador named Brihtric, the Earl of Gloucester. The youthful Matilda fell in love with him, but Brihtric never returned her affections. He returned to England, perhaps even forgot about her, but her pride was wounded, and she was said to take her revenge years later.

Although Matilda's father Baldwin V possessed no higher title than Count, he ruled over a realm which was one of the wealthiest and most powerful in Europe. So it is no wonder that his daughter was a much sought-after bride. One of her numerous suitors was her own cousin, William of Normandy, the illegitimate and only son of Robert, Duke of Normandy and a woman named Herleva, a daughter of a tanner. William was called by his enemies as "William the Bastard", but he had no problem with it. Even though he was illegitimate, his father made him heir, and when Robert died, William succeeded as Duke of Normandy at the tender age of seven.

William grew up to be a handsome and athletic man, according to all accounts. By the age of nineteen, he was already a toughen man and a reputable warrior who had successfully defended his title. But the Count of Flanders had misgivings regarding William's position, and this view was shared by Matilda. She didn't want him as her husband. She considered herself too high-born to be considered marrying a bastard even though he was a Duke. But William was not the sort of man to easily give up.

Matilda was the smallest Queen of England.
Her height never exceeded beyond five feet.
He had fallen in love with Matilda when he saw her for the first time at the French court. He was said to be so passionately enamored of her that he would do anything to obtain her, whether it means by using force. Nevertheless, her words reached him and he felt slighted. And so one day, while Matilda and her ladies were on their way home from church, she was met by William. Her ladies were alarmed by his wild demeanor, but Matilda remained calm. She remained adamant that she would not marry a bastard, and upon hearing this, William dragged her off her horse by her long braids, and threw her down in the mud-covered street in front of her flabbergasted attendants. He did not abduct her; he rode away.

The Count of Flanders took offense at this, and prepared to attack William's dominions, but Matilda intervened. She may had found William's violent behavior "macho" and likable because she finally agreed to marry him, to the astonishment of all. "His request pleases me well," she said. When her father laughingly asked her how she consented to the marriage after her scornful refusal, she was said to reply: "Because I did not know the Duke then so well as I do now; for he must be a man of great courage and high daring who could venture to come and beat me in my father's place."

William and Matilda were married at the Angi Castle in Normandy, when they were 25 and 21, respectively. Soon after their marriage, the Pope expressed his displeasure at this marriage between cousins and excommunicated them. William indignantly appealed to the Pope, and finally relented but with conditions. They must build two abbeys. And so William founded St. Stephen's Abbey for monks, and Matilda, the Abbaye-aux-Dames for nuns.

Despite the rather violent nature of their meeting, William and Matilda went on to have a successful and happy marriage. William was especially proud of his wife. He made sure that he would take her with him on royal tours of his dominions, showing her off to his subjects. They settled in Rouen, and Matilda became popular with the people. The couple was devoted to each other, and both were noted to possess commanding tempers. She was faithful and affectionate to William, as he was to her, and was able to win and retain his affection, respect and esteem. She supported and sympathized with all his projects, whether they were social or political. They went on to have ten children.

Meanwhile, Edward the Confessor, King of England, died without issue, and the throne was fiercely disputed by three claimants. William, now 28 years-old and a hardened man of battle, press his claim through descent to Emma (mother of Edward). He also contended that Edward, when in exile in Normandy, had promised William the throne. But it was Harold who was crowned King of England, in accordance to Edward's last will.

And so William finally set out on his greatest enterprise: the conquest of England. He was helped in his preparations by Matilda, convincing the barons to overcome to reluctance and follow William "beyond the sea". King Philip I of France treated William's idea of annexing England as absurd, and asked him who would be left in charge of Normandy while he was running a kingdom. To this William confidently replied that he had Matilda and his subjects, who were capable of securing the duchy during his absence.

Matilda returned this gesture of confidence by building and fitting out a secret ship to be added to William's navy. It was called the Mora. Upon seeing it, William was surprised. The ship's gold figure-head was an effigy of their youngest son holding a trumpet with one hand and with the other a bow, with its arrow pointed towards England. William took this as his flagship.

Before leaving Normandy, William appointed Matilda as the regent of his dominions. She was helped in this by her eldest son, Robert, who was only 13-years-old. She proved to be a capable and wise regent that when William had successfully landed in England and crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey, he arranged for her coming and had her crowned Queen of England at Winchester Cathedral in 1068.

Matilda remained in Normandy most of the time, looking after her husband's interests while he was detained in England by recurring revolts caused by the Saxons. Her revenue as Queen of England was considerable, this include money to provide oil for her lamp and wood for her hearth. She received tolls on goods landed at Queenhithe, and part of every fine voluntary paid to the crown.

William and Matilda enjoyed a happy marriage life throughout their lives, but the one cause of tension between husband and wife was their eldest son, Robert. He was his mother's favorite child, but he also inherited too much of his father's masterful spirit. He grew up to be arrogant and self-centered. He challenged his father and demanded to be the regent of Normandy. William acquiesced, and Robert acted as regent, while his father was in England busy subduing the rebellions. Then he demanded complete control of Normandy and broke into open rebellion. William was much surprised at his son's capacity as a leader, but he was still no match to him. William successfully suppressed the rebellion, and Robert sought pardon. But William was not to be easily propitiated; he refused to completely forgive his son. Throughout the quarrel between father and son, Matilda gave all her efforts at reconciliation, but to no avail. She was torn between husband and child. She supported Robert during the rebellion, secretly supplying him with money and jewels. William discovered her secret aid for Robert, but this did not seem to have made any difference in his affection for her.
Statue of Matilda of Flanders in the
gardens of the Luxembourg Palace in Paris

William and his son never had a full reconciliation, and this trouble seemed to have already preyed on Matilda's mind. She became ill and grew weaker. When William received the news that she was seriously ill, he hastened to Normandy to be at her bedside. He wrote a letter to Robert, who was by that time staying at Gerberol Castle because of his recent rebellion, and asked him to immediately travel to Rouen. Robert arrived, and William grant him full pardon. For a time, Matilda's health improved. But in 1098, her daughter Constance died, and there were troubles once again between William and Robert. She was deeply affected by these sad events, and died in November after a lingering illness. She was buried at the Abbey of Holy Trinity in Caen.

Matilda's death plunged William into deep depression. It was said that after her death, he became tyrannical, and people blamed it on his having lost her. He no longer went hunting, which was his favorite sport. After four years, William died, and was buried at St. Stephen's Abbey.


Read about other Queens-Consort of England:

Berengaria of Navarre
Isabella of Angouleme
Mary of Modena


7 comments:

Lucy said...

Interesting article! Thanks for posting. Matilda is one of my favorite English queens-consort. :)

Lisa said...

What a great lady! William is so devoted to her.

Anonymous said...

You have won over 6th grade daughter needed a female from this time period to write about. She wanted a positive inspiring person. We are glad she found Matilda and she found your blog! She will be doing a school presentation dressed up as Matilda! We will recommend your site and share it with many! Thanks for writing about her. We only found 3 sources at our local library so your blog has been helpful. Have a great day!

Gem said...

Dear Anonymous,

I'm glad that your daughter likes Matilda. She is indeed an inspiring person. Good luck on your daughter's presentation. I think she'll look good as Matilda. :-)

Gem

Anonymous said...

Interesting page -- it would be really useful to know something about the images used,also. For example some are obviously Victorian and so indicate the 19th century 'take' on her. Please post the credits as they add to the discussion. Thanks.

Bobbie Bremerkamp said...

As a newish genealogist I have stumbled across your blog. I have found a wonderful picture and bibliography of one of my ancestors. The lady is question is Matilda Maude Countess of Flanders who was William the Conqueror's wife. He is also in my family tree. No doubt I will find other women as I spend time going through this blog and
will let you know

Normandy Thenandnow said...

A very interesting article, thanks for sharing! You may like to see some pictures we have of the castle at Bonneville sur Touques were Matilda lived while acting as Regent before joining William in England. Have a look here - http://www.normandythenandnow.com/the-very-private-castle-of-william-the-conqueror-at-touques Delighted to have found your blog.

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