The Man Behind The King of the Conquest
Updated: Nov 15, 2020
This post was inspired by Alison Weir's book 'Queens of the Conquest', exploring the Norman Queens of England, but what really got me thinking was the introduction to Matilda of Flanders, and talking about who she was as a girl in Flanders, marrying the Duke of Normandy. It really opened my eyes about the mere Duke who would found his own dynasty and conquer a nation that no-one has succeeded in doing since.
William of Normandy became duke aged seven or eight in 1035, when his father, Duke Robert the Magnificent Died on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem leaving his son and only heir in charge. However, as many people know William was in fact the Dukes illegitimate son, which caused a large amount of friction between Norman Lords and resulted in several murder attempts on Williams life and successful murders of his tutors and guardians throughout his childhood.
The match of William of Normandy and Matilda of Flanders was a very good match for both sides, but would increase both of their status' in medieval Europe, something that the Holy Roman Emperor was very against. Whilst William's mother had been the daughter of a mere tanner, Matilda's was a French Princess, Adela of France (and her father was Count Baldwin V of Flanders). The Holy Roman emperor, seeing that the marriage would diminish his position further, persuaded Pope Leo IX to forbid the marriage which he complied, due to the fact that he owned the Holy Roman emperor his position. Although marriage plans have been laid in 1049, Matilda and William got married after 1050, (however, there are many dates given of when this actually was so if anyone has more information, then please comment!) Matilda was no older than nineteen at the time of the wedding, whereas William would’ve been in his twenties.
The marriage was however still done without the dispensation of the Pope, and was a small, private ceremony in Eu. After the marriage, Count Baldwin V of Flanders and Adela returned to Flanders, and the young Duke and Duchess went on a tour of Normandy where they were joyfully greeted; Matilda was the first Duchess of Normandy for about 50 years.
Dates of the births of the couples children are a bit of a mystery, and even how many children the couple actually had as well, but there seems to have been about ten in total. Their sons were Robert (to become Duke of Normandy), Richard (died in about 1075, so very little is known), William Rufus (to become William II of England) and Henry (who would succeed his brother as Henry I of England). The birth order of these sons is pretty clear, however, the order of their daughters is more elusive. These daughters were Adeliza (who was probably a nun of St Léger at Préaux) , Agatha (who was betrothed probably three times including to Harold II of England but died unmarried), Cecilia (who Abbess of Holy Trinity in Caen), Matilda (about whom very little is known), Constance (who married the Duke of Brittany) and Adela (who married Stephen of Blois, and was the mother to King Stephen of England).
William seems to have been a caring character towards his wife and children, and was tender to Matilda, however, he was also a ruthless soldier who was very touchy about the conditions of his birth and therefore was as far as can be seen faithful to Matilda. He was thought to have very strict views about faithfulness and didn't sire any illegitimate children throughout his life.
It was in 1051 that William claimed he was called to England by Edward the Confessor, who might have known him as a child and was aware of his military prowess. Edward the Confessor was known to be Pro-Norman, having styled his court on the Norman model, and did have Norman sympathies. However, this was not the only significant event of the 1050's, as problems erupted in the nearby Anjou and Kingdom of France as well as religiously. Anjou and France had created an alliance, which had the potential to cause problems for William, and making his alliance with Flanders essential and Normandy's position unstable. Geoffrey Martel Count of Anjou had recently over taken the County of Maine and was in a position to do the same to Normandy with the help of the French crown.
In the eyes of the church, it was about 1059 before Pope Nicholas II formally recognised the marriage of Matilda and William, after William had sent him some soldiers to help overthrow Pope Benedict X, the successor to Leo IX who had died in 1054. This was a large relief to William, who had suffered interdict in 1054 or 1055 but had been defying bishops and higher level clergy to prevent war with Flanders, so that he could keep his wife and so that his children could remain legitimate. As a result of the decision, in their gratitude, both Matilda and William vowed to construct an Abbey, a promise that they both kept.
During this time, in England, Harold Godwinson was rapidly rising in favour and there was much speculation that he would be named as the Confessor's successor...
In 1063, William further established his name by annexing Maine and betrothing the heiress Margaret to his son Robert, before setting his sights on England, as one of the most esteemed rulers of Europe. However, in 1064, Harold was shipwrecked on his way to see William, and was welcomed as a guest to William's court according to the Bayeux Tapestry, where, at the end of his visit, Harold was betrothed to probably Agatha, who was too young to get married at the time. However, this plan was abandoned in early 1066 when Harold instead married Edith of Mercia, the widow of Gruffudd ap Llewellyn shocking William, and apparently breaking the heart of his young daughter who'd been very taken by Harold .
On Edward the Confessor's death on 5th January 1066, Harold, claiming that on his deathbed, the Confessor had elected him as his successor, and the Witan elected him as the new king and the rest is, as they say, is history.
Queens of the Conquest by Alison Weir, Queen Consorts by Lisa Hilton
Image courtesy of Wikipedia