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

  After forcing the submission of Edwin and Morcar, William moved south via Lincoln, Huntingdon and Cambridge, presumably with Matilda.19


  One of those who had witnessed a royal charter granted at the Westminster court at Whitsun 1068 was Brihtric Meaw.20 Hell, to paraphrase the seventeenth-century playwright William Congreve, hath no fury like a woman scorned. The story goes that Matilda had not forgotten that long-ago rejection by Brihtric, and now she was in a position to pay him back for insulting her.

  It was customary for the King of England to make financial provision for his Queen, assigning her lands from which rents and dues would provide her with an income. But the lands assigned to Queen Edith were still in her hands,21 and could not be given to Matilda.

  Brihtric’s extensive lands were in a region where King Harold’s mother, Gytha, wielded territorial influence, herself owning estates in Devon, Somerset and Cornwall. Gytha and her followers were now entrenched at Exeter,22 and a focus for those who opposed Norman rule, and William possibly feared that they would rise against him in favor of Harold’s dispossessed sons. In the autumn of 1068, incensed because the citizens of Exeter, incited by Gytha’s party, refused to acknowledge him as king or pay taxes, William took the city after a siege of eighteen days, forcing Gytha to flee.23

  In the wake of the siege, members of the old royal house scattered. Gytha sailed to Flanders with Queen Edith, while Edgar Atheling fled abroad with his sisters, Margaret and Christina, and their mother, Agatha of Hungary, a kinswoman of the Roman Emperor, and were blown by a tempest to Scotland, where King Malcolm III married Margaret and made her his Queen.24

  Given that his landholdings and interests were in the west, Brihtric Meaw may well have defected to Gytha after Matilda’s coronation. It was later said that the Queen stirred up the King’s wrath against him and persuaded William to confiscate his lands and grant them to her as her settlement, but probably William needed very little persuading, which suggests that he had evidence of Brihtric’s treason. Certainly he granted her Brihtric’s estates, making her very “wealthy and powerful”25 and enabling her to spread her patronage wide. Domesday Book confirms that Avening, Tewkesbury, Fairford, Thornbury, Whitenhurst and other possessions spread out between Cornwall and Winchester, formerly the property of Brihtric, son of Algar, had been granted to the Queen.26

  William’s vengeance did not end there. Brihtric’s city of Gloucester was stripped of its charter and liberties, and he himself was “seized by the King’s order” at his manor of Hanley, Worcestershire, and conveyed to Winchester, where he died a prisoner. The loyal William FitzOsbern, a son of William’s former guardian, Osbern the Steward (who had been murdered trying to protect the child William from assassins), was tasked with seizing and despoiling other property owned by Brihtric.27 This sounds very much like a punishment for committing treason, rather than revenge on the part of a woman whom Brihtric had rejected twenty years before.

  Matilda also owned lands in Buckinghamshire and Surrey. In all, her annual revenues amounted to at least £1,070.28 “Queen Matilda was now a powerful ruler with vast resources at her command,” Orderic observed. It was probably because she was now the wealthiest woman in England that William did not grant her Kent, as he had promised, but created his half brother Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, who had fought for him at Hastings, earl of Kent instead.

  Domesday Book records that nearly a quarter of those who inhabited the Queen’s manors in Devon were slaves, and there must have been more elsewhere. Slavery had been common in England since before the Romans came; under the Normans the custom was gradually abolished, but that took time. Of course, serfs (or villeins) under the new feudal system imposed by William were little more than slaves, tied to their manors, and obliged, in return for the protection of their overlord, to work on his lands.

  Matilda’s lands are listed in Domesday Book mostly as terra regis, or Crown property, although those in Buckinghamshire were owned privately. The dues varied, and most were forwarded by the Queen’s agents when she was in Normandy.29 The city of Norwich was required to give her £5 and “an ambling palfrey” each year, while the Sheriff of Worcester and the town of Warwick paid the same amount for the use of her property there.

  Matilda also enjoyed financial privileges as queen of England. Agnes Strickland claimed that she was the first consort to be granted the right to claim “queengold,” a tenth of every voluntary fine (such as a pardon or license) paid to the Crown, a right that was also reserved for her successors, although there is no record of when this right was established, and it may have been Matilda of Scotland, her successor as queen, who was the first to be granted it.

  Matilda was granted a soke—an area of jurisdiction—in London that encompassed Aldgate, the ward of Ethelred’s Hythe (meaning “harbor”) and the wharfs by the River Thames. Her dock lay on the Thames just south of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and she was entitled to the tolls levied on goods landed there.30 The City of London provided money to buy oil for her lamps and wood for her hearth, and ensured that she ate exceedingly well—the food served at her table each day cost the civic authorities 40s.; by contrast, 12d. each was allowed for the hundred attendants who served her. Domesday Book records the names of two of them: Aubrey, her chamberlain, and Humphrey, who collected her wool from his holding in Kingston, Surrey, and to whom she granted lands. In England, three other chamberlains served her in turn: Reginald, Gerald and John.

  From Saxon times the Queen’s household had been separate from the King’s. The Queen’s personal household was headed by her chamberlain, and her steward was in charge of the servants who looked after her every need. In the reign of Henry I, there were about 150 household servants, and it has been estimated that between 70 and 80 people served the Queen, at court and on her estates.31 Most were male. The greater part of a queen’s income was used to support her household and administrative officers. They were an extension of the King’s court, and very much a part of it, although they operated separately, enabling her to fulfill her duties in her husband’s absence. Her household and estates were her legitimate sphere of influence, and it was through them that she could exercise patronage, but no queen could function without an army of officers and servants to support her, and all were answerable ultimately to the King.

  The Queen had her own knights, esquires, chaplains and master of horse. She was attended daily by her ladies, unmarried damsels32 and female attendants who would have undertaken menial tasks for her. Her treasurer, chancellor and attorneys were responsible for administering her estates, assisted by their clerks. Men-at-arms protected her; officers and geld-collectors wrote the letters she dictated, ran her estates and collected and processed her revenues; some, like Wulfweard White, who served Matilda of Flanders, had also served her predecessor, Queen Edith. The day-to-day running of her estates was undertaken by stewards and bailiffs. All reported to the Receiver General at the Exchequer.

  The Queen’s butler looked after her wine. Cooks and pastry cooks prepared her food; Matilda’s cook, Albold, was given lands formerly owned by her in Mapledurham.33 Huntsmen, sergeants, falconers, fewterers (who looked after greyhounds), archers and horn-blowers attended her during the chase; laundresses looked after her body linen, towels and sheets; blacksmiths and stable grooms cared for her horses, which played an integral part in her daily life. Goldsmiths, grooms, carpenters, smiths, falconers, swineherds, dog handlers, clerks and jesters were all at hand to do her service.34 These servants were part of the fabric of an efficiently functioning household, and they were paid in cash, food and perquisites. Some ate at the King’s expense, or received an allowance for their own servants.


  The Norman queens lived a cosmopolitan existence. The Norman court was essentially a political and military institution, and an itinerant one, moving from one “domus Regis” (King’s house) to another, its progress dictated by the requirements of state, the need to find fresh provisions and good hunting, or the necess
ity of having the vacated accommodation cleansed, sanitation being primitive. Moving about enabled the King to be seen by his subjects, and to enforce his authority and justice in all parts of his realm.

  The royal household maintained teams of packhorses, bearers and carts for every department, including the King’s bed, the chapel and the kitchen. Nearly all the royal furnishings, plate, clothes, jewels and chamber textiles were transported with the traveling household, with smaller items packed in lockable domed oaken chests banded with iron; others were carried in waxed canvas coffers covered in leather or saddlebags laden on sumpter horses. The court traveled around the kingdom in a lumbering procession of royalty, men-at-arms, officers, clerks, kitchen staff, laundresses, horses, falconers, laden carts, sumpter mules and dogs, with merchants, jongleurs, entertainers and prostitutes straggling in its wake. The tentkeeper and his man had charge of the tents that were needed when there was no overnight accommodation available at castles or abbey guesthouses. The bearer of the King’s bed got his keep and a daily allowance for his man and one packhorse. Many demands were made on local populations for food, drink and other necessities.

  There were four great highways: the former Roman roads known as Ermine Street (London to York) and the Fosse Way (Exeter to Lincoln), and the more ancient Watling Street (Dover to Wroxeter in Shropshire) and the Icknield Way (Norfolk to Wiltshire). In Norman times, travelers on these highways enjoyed, by law, the protection of the King’s peace, while Henry I decreed that these main routes should be wide enough for two wagons to pass.35 Other roads, where they existed, were largely unpaved and could be muddy or poorly maintained. Some were not even proper roads, but merely rights-of-way. Possibly there were milestones, but in remote areas travelers had to hire local guides. Always there was the risk of being waylaid by robbers or outlaws, so a military escort would invariably accompany the Queen on her journeys.

  Crossing the English Channel between England and Normandy was an occupational hazard that was very much a part of royal lives. Sea travel was fraught with dangers, as medieval ships were not always built to withstand violent storms, and their passage was always at the mercy of the weather, which could cause long delays. Ships could be lost en route, or blown way off course. We hear of travelers’ hearts failing at the sight of a ship, and of journeys being a test of faith, while seasickness must have been a common problem. These factors may account for why Matilda visited England only five times. She spent fewer than four years in her husband’s kingdom; the rest of the time she was based largely in Rouen, the Norman capital.


  The King and Queen went to Normandy for the winter of 1168. Early the next year, William received news that Edgar Atheling had returned to England and was leading another rebellion in the still-festering north, so they returned to England with Richard, leaving Robert as regent once more.36 William marched to deal with his rebels, sacking York, which they had occupied, defeating them and driving Edgar Atheling overseas. It may have been on this campaign that Matilda accompanied him, bearing her son at the safe distance of Selby, early in 1069.

  William returned south before Easter, which fell on 13 April. Matilda and Richard kept the festival with him at Winchester Castle, a strong motte-and-bailey fortress that he had begun building two years previously as the official seat of government. Here Matilda was witness to a charter he granted to the abbey of Saint-Denis near Paris.37 The castle, which occupied several acres to the south of the west gate of the city, was long to remain a favorite royal residence. “The King’s house” in the castle keep boasted halls, private chambers and chapels, but its plan cannot now be traced since the site has never been excavated. Only the later great hall survives, dating from the thirteenth century. Winchester Castle remained a popular residence with Norman royalty, and William kept Easter there five times.38

  That spring Matilda was with William at Wells, Somerset, for the Whitsun council, and attested a charter to Wells Cathedral. It may have been during this visit to the West Country that she established thirteen burgesses and a market at Tewkesbury,39 which had been laid waste during the Norman Conquest. This was the beginning of the town’s prosperity.


  Edgar Atheling returned with a Danish fleet in the autumn of 1069, raiding the north and retaking York. Again William marched against him, intent this time on crushing resistance once and for all. As the rebels fled before him, Edgar escaped to Scotland.

  His patience at an end, William now ordered the widespread devastation that became known as the “harrying of the north,” a savage, merciless campaign that lasted well into 1070. “By sword and fire” his soldiers “massacred almost the entire population from the very young to the old and grey.”40 A horrified Orderic recorded: “The King stopped at nothing to hunt his enemies. He cut down many people and destroyed homes and land. Nowhere else had he shown such cruelty. To his shame, William made no effort to control his fury, punishing the innocent with the guilty. He ordered that crops and herds, tools and food be burned to ashes. More than a hundred thousand people perished of starvation. I have often praised William in this book, but I can say nothing good about this brutal slaughter. God will punish him.”41

  Villages were burned, and the starving survivors ate dogs and cats or resorted to cannibalism.42 “It was horrible to observe, in houses, streets and roads, human corpses rotting. For no one survived to cover them with earth, all having perished by the sword and starvation, or left the land of their fathers because of hunger.”43

  On his deathbed, William would confess, “In mad fury I descended on the English of the north like a raging lion, and ordered that their homes and crops should be burnt at once, and their great flocks and herds of sheep and cattle slaughtered everywhere. So I chastised a great multitude of men and women with the lash of starvation and, alas! was the cruel murderer of many thousands, both young and old, of this fair people. I am stained with the rivers of blood that I have shed.”44 Sixteen years later, many northern estates recorded in Domesday Book were described simply as “Waste.” The north would not recover until the middle of the next century.

  Matilda’s reaction to its harrying is not recorded.


  “Much Trouble”

  William was tightening his grip on England. He retained the laws of Edward the Confessor and showed “great wisdom” in government, and “although stern beyond measure to those who opposed his will, he was kind to those good men who loved God.”1

  He exemplified the Norman passion for building and encouraged the raising of castles all over the land, for they were essential in strengthening the power of the new ruling class and subduing the resentful Saxons. Five hundred were raised between 1066 and 1100. Built on the motte-and-bailey model, most were wooden towers, or keeps, towering on man-made mounds surrounded by palisades. They served as military bases, administrative centers and places of refuge in times of trouble. Above all, they were dominant symbols of the new order. In granting them lands and titles, and empowering them to build castles, William rewarded the Norman barons who had supported his conquest of England. They, in turn, would hold their land for him, and were required to swear fealty for it and provide military service and troops when required.

  The situation in England was volatile, so William decided that it was safer for Matilda to leave. She was needed in Rouen. In the early summer of 1069, he “sent his beloved wife back into Normandy, so that she might give up her time to religious devotions in peace, away from the English tumults, and, together with the boy Robert, could keep the duchy secure.” On parting, William asked her to pray “for the speedy termination of the English troubles, to encourage the arts of peace in Normandy, and to take care of the interests of their youthful heir.”2

  Matilda almost certainly took her infant son Henry to Normandy, and he probably spent his childhood there with her.3 Back in the duchy, she was received with great honor. Henceforth, she would reside there for much of her time,4 bringing up her children, attending councils of
state with her sons, issuing charters and ruling during William’s absences. They remained devoted, and their children all showed great promise.5

  Again Matilda took up the reins as regent, ably supported by Robert Curthose, Roger de Beaumont and John of Avranches, Archbishop of Rouen. The trust William continued to repose in her is evident. One Gauslin, a monk of the abbey of Saint-Martin of Marmoutier, near Tours, of which William and Matilda were benefactors, had journeyed all the way to England to complain to the King that a Norman viscount, Robert Bertran, had plundered the abbey. A “wrathful” William, too busy to deal with the matter, sent Gauslin with his own chaplain, Bernard, to Matilda, who was then at Cherbourg, “directing her to do St Martin’s justice and restore the plunder. The Queen, obeying him, compelled Bertran to restore all he had taken.”6

  The only surviving letter written by William to Matilda relates to the problem with the abbey of Saint-Martin:

  William, by the grace of God King of the English, to Queen Matilda, his dear spouse, perpetual health. I want you to know that I grant to Saint-Martin at Marmoutier the church of Sainte-Marie des Pieux and the lands that depend on it, free of all rents, as priest Hugh held them on the day of his death. Furthermore, I charge you to render, as is just, all the land in Normandy belonging to Saint-Martin, free and secure from all those who would wish to burden it, as well as from the demands of the foresters; above all forbid Hugolin de Cherbourg to meddle further with the affairs of this house.7

  Documents like these give insights into the working relationship between William and Matilda. Though often apart, they clearly worked in unison for the general benefit of their realms, and trusted each other.

  Sometime between 1069 and 1078, at Bonneville-sur-Touques, a favored ducal château commanding a magnificent view of the port of Touques and the sea beyond,8 Matilda witnessed a trial by ordeal. The case was a sad one. The heir to a property in Bayeux had died in infancy, and, to secure the inheritance, his mother had “rented” a changeling from a woman called Ulberga. When Ulberga tried in vain to reclaim her son, John of Avranches, Archbishop of Rouen, and Roger de Beaumont advised that she should undergo ordeal by hot iron, so that God could judge the case.

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