• A London Student

Matilda of Flanders

Following last weeks post on William the Conqueror, this one is on the life of his wife and Queen Consort, Matilda of Flanders.

Like many women (and men!) of this period, Matilda's date of birth is a bit of a mystery, even working out the year is difficult, but it was most likely in or after 1032. She was the daughter of Count Baldwin V of Flanders, a ruler known for his wisdom and fair hand in ruling and Adela of France, daughter of King Robert II of France. Adela was known to have been strong-willed and deeply pious, qualities that would be seen in her three children with Baldwin. Through her mother, Matilda was a valuable marriage prize, being descended from the Royal house of France, and through that, the Houses of Germany and Gaul. Matilda grew up at her father's court in Flanders and was tutored in needlework, running a great household and probably, like her brothers, reading in Latin.

This is where the rumours about Matilda of Flanders start. In the late 1040's, Edward the Confessor sent an envoy, Brihtric Meaw, to Baldwin's court in Flanders, and apparently Matilda was smitten with him. He was a rich English Noble, whose wealth was reportedly only surpassed by the King, and in theory a good match for Matilda. Matilda supposedly sent a message to summon him, and stated her feelings, proposing marriage, however he refused her. Whether this happened is unknown, but there is probably some truth in it, as in most legends and stories. Fortunately for Matilda, there was already another suitor wanting her hand in marriage.

In 1049, a new rumour emerges, when William, Duke of Normandy asks for Matilda's hand in marriage. Matilda, fully aware of her rank and status supposedly refused his offer, on the grounds of his bastardy, and her royal connections. The marriage would be much more advantageous initially and important to William, who wanted to rebuild an old alliance between Flanders and Normandy, while increasing his prestige, but would also give Flanders a powerful ally against the Holy Roman Empire, and was a very good match. So William's envoys returned to Normandy with the news that the marriage was a no-go based on Matilda's preferences, which enraged William. According to legend, after Mass on a Sunday, he seized her by her hair and beat her in the mud in the street (accounts differ on where), leaving her in a state where she had to take to her bed. Understandably, Count Baldwin was horrified, and started to plan another marriage to the Duke of Saxony (although the Duke of Saxony was already married so it was probably his son instead), and prepared for war. However strong-willed Matilda then declared from her sickbed that she would marry no-one else but William. Negotiations restarted with Normandy, and preparations for marriage began to be made in earnest.

The next issue was that the Pope banned the marriage, probably on grounds of contingency, although it was probably for political reasons, as an alliance between Normandy and Flanders would create a threat to the Holy Roman Empire. However, William married Matilda regardless, probably in 1050, although it was only sanctioned by a new Pope in 1059. Matilda joyfully returned to Normandy and began life as the new Duchess.

Matilda soon proved herself to be the ideal medieval wife and Duchess, providing William with a son and heir, Robert in probably 1051. Documents at his birth state him as heir to William and Matilda (not just William) showing that Matilda already wielded a fair share of power in Normandy. Robert was the first of probably ten children who were:

  • Robert (born about 1051,died 1134) to become Duke of Normandy

  • Adeliza (born around 1053, died before 1094) who was probably a nun of St Léger at Préaux

  • Constance (born 1053-55 died 1190) who married the Duke of Brittany

  • Cecilia (born 1054-56 died 1127) who was Abbess of Holy Trinity in Caen

  • Richard (born before 1056 died in about 1075)

  • Agatha (born 1056 latest) who was betrothed probably three times including to Harold II of England but died unmarried... Very little is known about her

  • William Rufus (born between 1056 and 1160, died 1100) who would become William II of England

  • Matilda (born around 1061, died about 1086)

  • Adela (born about 1067, died 1137) who married Stephen of Blois. For more info, view my post about her

  • Henry (born 1068, died 1135) who would succeed his brother as Henry I of England

Matilda was known to have been very tender to her children, and had them with her in their early infancy, and had Robert with her for much of his childhood and youth. William was said to have been proud of his family, and as a result put Matilda in his tenderest regard, trusting her in matters of state as well as personally. In 1066, she witnessed a hundred charters (far more than any other Queen), and was trusted as his regent many times even when their eldest son, Robert was old enough. William was a loyal husband, and the couple seem to have been devoted to each other; when William's life was feared after he became ill in 1066, Matilda was reported to have been distraught.

Matilda supported the Norman Conquest wholeheartedly, and helped William prepare throughout 1066, and even had him a flag ship built out of her own funds - The Mora, which had been planned with meticulous care. When William eventually left Normandy at the head of his invasion force in September 1066, he left Robert as regent in name, but in reality it was Matilda who he trusted to look after Normandy in his absence. Normandy, like Aquitaine was a hard Duchy to rule. The lords were constantly vying for power and it needed a firm but kind hand to keep it under control. This Matilda did. She ruled with wisdom and fairness, with no revolts, mainly out of the fear of what William would do on his return, but it was also down to Matilda and her statesmanship. She was already close to her son, Robert, but this period may have strengthened the bond between them further.

After William's victory at Hastings Matilda did two things:

a. She gave birth to a daughter, Adela (according to some sources, one of the reasons that William was granted victory at Hastings was so that the child could have fully royal blood!)

b. She rode around many of the Abbeys of Normandy, expressing her gratitude with a selection of generous gifts.

By December, Matilda was styling herself Queen of England although she would not be crowned until Easter 1068. Matilda met William on his return to Normandy in 1067, and made a progress to Rouen together, in celebration of William's English victory. Later that year, Matilda suffered the death of her father, and then lost her mother to a nunnery near Ypres. Baldwin V had been replaced by his son, Baldwin VI, but his death had political consequences for William: Baldwin had been acting as regent to the young French King since 1060, but at his death, relations between the two kingdoms deteriorated again. At the end of the year, William returned to England, this time leaving Robert as regent, although with his mother's guidance, perhaps not making her regent as he already had in mind a plan to bring her to England after Easter; it was time for her coronation.

Although England had had Queens before, Matilda marked a new "type" of Queen who from another Kingdom or state, as part of an alliance- previously Queens had been high-ranking Saxon Noblewomen. Matilda was taken to Westminster (and was stared at by a lot of Londoners on her way through the streets). Since William's coronation was done in a hurry, he spared no expense at Matilda's, and gave her a high ranking and privileged role as England's first Norman Queen (hopefully in the Future I will publish Posts on Anglo-Saxon Monarchs and Queens). The Norman Queens were to wield a huge amount of power, and Matilda was no exception, having proved her ability on many occasions as regent (ironically, Alienor of Aquitaine had far less power than her predecessors, yet far more publicity!)

In the following years, Matilda acted as regent on a number of occasions, as William was often absent, putting down rebellions (see last weeks post on William the Conqueror for more on that).

Matilda continued to have a large amount of influence until 1077, when she was caught in the middle of a rebellion of her favourite son Robert and her husband. It is a position that many women have been in over the centuries, and like Alienor of Aquitaine would do later, Matilda backed her son. Matilda's support wasn't quite as obvious as Alienor's, and she quietly sent money to Robert when he was exiled in Flanders. The situation between father and son and husband and wife was not improved when William discovered this. At Easter 1080, Robert and William were reunited due to Matilda's efforts and were involved in a truce until Matilda's death three years later.

In the late Summer of 1180, William, Robert and Matilda went to England, where Robert was trusted to lead an army against Scotland, and, once peace had been reached, Matilda visited the Scottish Court. It was here that she met Saint Margret, Queen of Scotland and King Malcom III and their new baby daughter, Edith who would succeed her as Queen of England as wife to Henry I (although on her arrival in England, her name was changed from Saxon Edith to the more Norman Matilda). Edith was reported to have pulled Matilda's veil off, a sign which many believed meant she would be England's Queen. In 1081, Matilda returned to Normandy, and perhaps knowing that she was ailing, began a steady and generous donation of gifts to many Abbeys. She died in November 1083, aged at most fifty-two. At this time, that was a long life. One third of children died as infants, and most women died in childbirth when they were still very young, men were considered old at fifty... After about thirty-three years of marriage William was devastated, as were her sons, and people across Normandy and England, to whom she had shown kindness and patronage. She was buried in Holy Trinity in Caen, an Abbey that she had founded.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

By Tosca - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2104003