Queens of the Conquest: England’s Medieval Queens by Alison Weir

  Queens consort might find their loyalties torn in different ways. They served as political and cultural links between their blood family and the dynasty into which they had married. They were dynasts in their own right. In the field of family politics, in a world in which royalty and the nobility were closely interrelated, they were influential regardless of how much political power they actually exercised. The impact of this international networking should not be underestimated. However, as the administration of government became more institutionalized in the early twelfth century, and power devolved away from family politics, the influence of queens began to decline.2 This trend would not have a great impact on English queenship until after the Norman period. For all her towering reputation, Eleanor of Aquitaine, the first Plantagenet queen, who lived from 1122 to 1204, did not enjoy the power wielded by her predecessors.

  Indeed, it could be said that, with dominions straddling the English Channel, the Norman kings could not have ruled as successfully as they did without the support of their queens, who helped to enforce their authority and administration in England and Normandy, disparate territories with their own racial and cultural differences. Naturally, this authority was reinforced by the Norman aristocracy, most of whom held, or would acquire, lands in England as well. It is worth pointing out that, for a long time to come, the English and the Normans were regarded—and regarded themselves—as two distinct peoples, and their territories were ruled and perceived as separate entities.


  Queens were allocated their own income, paid from revenues from the estates they were assigned by the King as dower; the income from these estates, in which the Queen had a life interest, would support her and her children in the event of her widowhood. There are very few records of the financial affairs of the Norman queens. Their husbands had overall control of their finances, with the Queen’s treasurer being accountable to the Exchequer, but queens consort were wealthy women in their own right, with greater landed estates than most magnates, and could choose how to bestow their patronage and which charitable ventures they pursued, which made them enormously influential. They promoted culture, art and learning. Queens were not just about family and dynasty—they were exemplars of Christianity too, and the rituals of civilized living. The presence of a queen at court generally called for higher standards in dress, manners and behavior.

  Few people in Norman times were ignorant of the story of Eve, who disobeyed God by tempting Adam, and so brought about the Fall of Man. Thanks to Eve, women were seen to be weak and foolish—but they also had power and might use it unwisely. The late eleventh and early twelfth centuries, however, saw a remarkable improvement in perceptions of women, with the spread of the cult of the Virgin Mary from the East to western Europe. This was due to various factors: returning crusaders, the preaching of great theologians like St. Bernard of Clairvaux, and the adoption of Mary by the new monastic Cistercian Order as their patron saint, although the dedication of many churches to Mary in eleventh-century Normandy shows that the mother of Jesus was already widely venerated there, as she had in fact been for centuries in the West. The cult was fostered by churchmen close to Henry I,3 who reigned from 1100 to 1135. As Mary came to be worshipped more widely for her virginal, maternal and wifely purity, and as the Queen of Heaven, so women who personified the Marian virtues were revered by society generally, and queens themselves, her earthly counterparts, began to be seen as the idealized mirror of the Virgin Mary, and to be invested with symbolic virginity. It has been suggested that queens came to be regarded as the earthly personification of the Virgin, just as kings were seen as vicars of Christ.4 Expectations of queenliness were therefore almost supernaturally high.

  It was seen as incumbent on a wife—and still more on a queen—to encourage her husband to patronize religious institutions and be charitable. In this period, every queen was a benefactress of the Church in one way or another, and most laid up treasure in Heaven for themselves or their loved ones by founding or endowing religious houses. In so doing, they not only sought the protection of the saints to whom these houses were dedicated, but also placed themselves at the forefront of the new monastic movements that dominated the age. Some queens became involved in debates about the burning spiritual issues of the day. All were expected to be the epitome of holy virtue. Wealth was deemed a privilege, and those who had it were expected to share it as alms with those less fortunate than themselves, thereby obtaining some spiritual benefit, since charity was an act of contrition that freed one from sin. Thus queens set aside money for their charities. They aided the poor and the sick, made offerings at shrines, and endowed or founded churches, religious houses and hospitals.

  Queens were the gentler face of monarchy, exercising a civilizing influence on their husbands, protecting their joint interests, taking compassion on the poor, the sick, widows, orphans and those in prison. They were applauded when they used their feminine influence to intercede with the King in favor of those facing a harsh fate, thus enabling him to rescind a decision without losing face. Many instances of queens using their influence probably went largely unrecorded, for a queen enjoyed a unique advantage over other petitioners due to her intimate relationship with the King. If she interceded with her husband it was usually in private, so it can be hard to assess the extent of it. The medieval ideal of queenship constrained her to a role that was essentially decorous, symbolic and dynastic. She was to be beautiful—officially, even if not in actuality—devout, fertile and kind: the traditional good queen.


  As queen, as she had been as duchess, Matilda was “munificent and liberal of her gifts. She exceeded all commendations and won the love of all hearts.”5 Many spoke of her great abilities. She heard Mass daily, was the “true friend” of piety, and gave lavishly to many religious houses. There are numerous references to her charity to the poor and the sick. Frequently she relieved them with “bounteous alms, in the name of her Redeemer.” “While the victorious arms of her illustrious spouse subdued all things before him, she was indefatigable at alleviating distress in every shape, and redoubled her alms.”6

  In England, as in Normandy, Matilda heard pleas with William and gave judgment jointly. He authorized her to hear lawsuits over land disputes in his stead. Domesday Book mentions several such cases, as when a dispossessed thane, Aeldred, proved his right to the manor of Compton “before the Queen, after the King crossed the sea,” or when Wulfstan, Bishop of Worcester, established his claim to a manor. In the early 1080s, Matilda confirmed that, at her request, the King’s friend Osbern FitzOsbern, Bishop of Exeter, had given to Giso, Bishop of Wells, the church of Wedmore, Somerset, with all its appurtenances, to which he had often laid claim, for it had originally been granted to his diocese by Edward the Confessor.7

  One unnamed English woman had such confidence in Matilda’s power that she made over her estate in Surrey to the Queen in exchange for her protection.8 Matilda witnessed numerous royal charters, mostly in Normandy, some jointly with William, in which she was designated “regina Anglorum et comitissa Normannorum et Cenomannorum” (Queen of England and Countess of Normandy and Maine); one attests to an agreement made before the Queen at Bayeux by the Abbot of Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy and William Paynel. In charters Matilda’s name appears immediately below William’s, taking precedence over their sons.9 Neither she nor William could write. “The King marked it, so did the Queen and their sons.” Matilda signed herself with a fine-calligraphy Jerusalem cross.

  In 1079, Matilda and William were holding court at the palace of Sées when Earl Roger of Montgomery complained that Robert, Bishop of Sées, had excommunicated the priory of Bellême “without cause.” The King and Queen both asked about the circumstances, and Earl Roger and the monks explained that “no archbishop or bishop had possessed any rights in the priory or any power to excommunicate in it.” William and Matilda ordered John of Avranches, Archbishop of Rouen, to censure the Bishop.10

  A thirteenth-century statue of
Matilda survives on the west front of Croyland Abbey, Lincolnshire, of which she was a patron and benefactress. She appears (with Abbot Serlo) in modern stained glass in Gloucester Cathedral and in the south transept of Selby Abbey, Yorkshire, in a window made by the firm Ward and Hughes in 1909. It has been claimed that her likeness can be seen on a stone capital in Holy Trinity, Caen, but there is no evidence to substantiate this.11

  Matilda brought Flemish artisans into England and encouraged them to teach their crafts and trades to the English. Her cultural interests were broad. She encouraged architects to come from the Continent, and gave them her patronage. She was also a great patron of painters, sculptors, poets, chroniclers and those skilled with the needle. She employed English seamstresses, among them “Aelfgyth the Maid” and Leviet, the widow of Leofgyth, who “made the gold fringe for the King and Queen.”12 From bequests of clothing in her will, it is clear that Matilda admired the famed English art of embroidery—the “opus Anglicanum.”

  At the Christmas, Easter and Whitsun courts, Matilda “dressed in queenly purple, in a prosperous condition, with sceptre and crown.”13 Female attendants—her damsels, or maidens of gentle birth—helped her to dress in the mornings or for special occasions. The duties of chamber maids were to knit or unknit silk thread, make knots of orphrys (gold lace), sew linen garments and woolen clothes, and do any mending. They were often given gloves with the fingertips removed, leather thimbles to protect their fingers, scissors, needles of various sizes and spools of thread. They were supposed to have faces that would “charm and render tranquil the chamber.”14

  From early Norman times, merchants brought to London examples of fashions and headwear from Paris, and rich silks from Italy, the Mediterranean or the Byzantine Empire.15 Surviving depictions of dress in early Norman times are often crude. Many derive from the Bayeux Tapestry, in which few women appear. Both sexes dressed similarly, wearing long-sleeved tunics, or gowns, of silk, wool or linen, which in this period hung to the knee; later, the hemlines of women’s tunics became floor-length. Tunics were sometimes adorned with bands of exquisite English embroidery, a fashion adopted early in his reign by William the Conqueror. Later, brooches called “fermails” or “agrafes” were worn to fasten the split neckline of the tunic. Throughout the Norman period, women wore girdles around the waist, knotted in front with the ends hanging down.

  Beneath the tunic, a woman would wear a sleeveless undergown of rich fabric, and beneath that a floor-length, long-sleeved chemise, or undertunic, of fine wool, fine linen (chainsil) or silk. Sometimes a surcoat, or “chlamys,” with shorter sleeves, or a sleeveless pelisse lined with fur—ermine for royalty—was worn over the tunic; the surcoat too could be embroidered around the neckline and cuffs. Hair was usually styled in the Byzantine fashion, parted in the center, then braided in one or two plaits.

  Dress was generally modest: ladies were usually clothed from neck to feet, with long sleeves to the wrist. Married women covered their hair with a couvrechef, or veil, of soft, lightweight material, such as linen or cambric. One end was often draped over the opposite shoulder.

  Outdoors, or on ceremonial occasions, queens wore semicircular mantles with rich borders, sometimes embroidered in gold and lined with a contrasting color or fur. The mantle was fastened on the shoulder, or across the collarbone, with cords attached to large gold agrafes. Mantles kept out the cold or lent status.

  Great ladies wore many jewels, including ropes of pearls, probably imported from Venice. Eleventh-century jewelry could be of highly intricate craftsmanship, as the Townley Jewel in the British Museum bears witness. The Norman queens, like their husbands, kept their jewelry in their bedchambers, not in the treasury at Winchester; it traveled with them, ready for when they wanted to wear it. Jewelry consisted mainly of brooches, agrafes, rings, girdles, circlets and crowns. They were made of gold and silver, and set with precious stones and enamels.

  An inventory of the robes and jewels of Matilda of Flanders is preserved in the library of the abbey of the Holy Trinity at Caen. The Queen owned forty-two gowns or tunics, some richly embroidered in silk, wool or thread. She had fourteen pairs of shoes; six had heels, and five were embroidered with gold thread. Her five mantles were of various colors, some lavishly bordered, and probably lined, with ermine. Her cloak, beautifully embroidered, hung from her shoulders like a long train. She had ten warm undershirts, eighteen veils and several girdles decorated with gold and beads.

  Matilda of Flanders did not own a large collection of jewelry, but the pieces she had were costly. She possessed just one crown.


  “Sword and Fire”

  After her coronation, Matilda stayed in England for some months. It was probably in 1068 that she had to say farewell to her daughter Agatha, who was sought in marriage at this time by two Spanish kings,1 the brothers Alfonso VI, King of León, and Sancho II, King of Castile.2 “A bitter quarrel arose between them on her account for, far from being unworthy, she was in every way worthy of such a parent, and shone with such virtues and such zeal.”3 Alfonso emerged victorious, and Agatha was “delivered to his proxies to be conducted to him.” Spanish historians call her Agueda and date her proxy marriage to 1068.

  Agatha was a reluctant bride. Her heart had been given to Harold. “But she, she who had not enjoyed union with her first betrothed, shrank with loathing from a second marriage. The Englishman she had seen and loved, but the Spaniard she was more averse to because she had never set eyes on him. She therefore fervently prayed to the Almighty that she might never be carried into Spain, but that He would rather take her to Himself. Her prayers were heard, and she died a virgin while she was en route. Her corpse was brought back by her attendants to her native country, and interred in Bayeux Cathedral. Mercifully God released her from this odious contract.”4 She must have died before 1069, when Alfonso married Agnes of Aquitaine, but she is not listed in Bayeux Cathedral’s mortuary roll of 1113.5 Possibly the account above is incorrect and she had been buried elsewhere.

  Agatha’s grieving mother and father may well have shared the sentiments of a contemporary Byzantine historian, Michael Psellus, whose oration on the death of his daughter proves that, even in an age of high infant mortality, the death of a child was mourned no less than it is now: “O my child, formerly so beautiful and now a frightful sight to see! Go then on that good eternal journey and rest in those heavenly places. Reveal yourself in our dreams as you were prior to your illness, bringing solace to our hearts. You will thus bring joy to your parents, and they may recover a little from this heavy sorrow. Nothing is stronger than Nature; nor is there anything more calamitous than the loss of a child.”6


  The turbulent year of 1068 saw William battling to consolidate his rule. The Saxon earls, Edwin and Morcar, and the people of the north were gathering, determined to make a stand against his governance. One of their grievances was William’s failure to marry his daughter to Edwin, Earl of Mercia. Having heeded “the dishonest counsels of his envious and greedy Norman followers,” the King had “withheld the maiden from the noble youth”7—who was in fact about forty. Not long after the coronation, Edwin rebelled against him. In the summer of 1068, the King rode north to Nottingham, where he built a castle, and then to York, where he built two.8 Others followed. “The King surveyed the less fortified places of his realm, and to meet the danger he had powerful strongholds built at strategic sites, which he entrusted to excellent military garrisons and large numbers of mercenaries.”9

  Despite the risks to her safety, the pregnant Matilda is said by a late source to have traveled two hundred miles to the unsubdued and resistant north, “to enjoy her husband’s company.”10 Tradition has it that their fourth son, probably their last child, was born at Selby, fourteen miles south of York, in September 1068,11 although he was perhaps born in early December.12 He was named after Matilda’s uncle, Henry I, King of France, suggesting that the name was her choice, for she was proud of her royal Capetian blood, where
as William hated King Henry.13

  There is no contemporary evidence for Henry being born in Selby, although it may be significant that his first wife gave gifts to the abbey. It seems strange that William permitted Matilda to venture into the unsettled north in an advanced state of pregnancy, although he may have felt that the birth of a prince there might inspire loyalty.14 Probably he had kept Matilda in England so that their child could be born there, perhaps in York itself, but Matilda’s labor may have begun too soon for that, and they had to divert.

  It is highly unlikely that Henry was born in Selby Abbey, as is sometimes asserted, for the abbey’s foundation charter was not granted by William and Matilda until 1069.15 The only monastery they co-founded, it was built by a French monk, Benedict of Auxerre, the founder of Battle Abbey, who had been inspired by a vision to establish a monastery at Selby, on which work began in 1069. In the eighteenth century, a painted chamber in the abbey, hitherto pointed out to visitors as Henry’s birthplace, was shown to be no older than the sixteenth century. One local tradition has it that Henry was born in a wooden church by the river at Church Hill, Selby. A modern stained-glass window in Selby Abbey shows the infant Henry lying in his cradle at the feet of Matilda; another depicts William, Matilda and Abbot Benedict.

  Certainly Matilda gave birth to Henry in England;16 and he was “the only one of William’s sons born in royalty.”17 Many considered that Henry was the true heir to England by right of being born in the kingdom. For all that, he was a younger son who would need to be provided for, so Matilda made a settlement whereby all her lands in England and Normandy would pass to him on her death. Thus he had “his father’s blessing and his mother’s inheritance.”18

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