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

  That year, 1075, Matilda again visited Holy Trinity, where she witnessed a charter.7 It was “with the praise and agreement of Queen Matilda” that William granted a charter to Le Mans Cathedral, excusing all dues and customs fees while the building was repaired following damage caused during his subjugation of Maine.8 In the autumn of 1075, he crossed to England to quell a rebellion, leaving Matilda as regent once more, assisted as usual by her son Robert, Roger de Beaumont and John of Avranches, Archbishop of Rouen.

  Matilda’s cousin on her mother’s side was the highly respected Simon de Crépy, who would become count of Amiens, the Vexin and Valois in 1074. Until 1067, when he returned to his father’s castle, he had been brought up at the court of William and Matilda,9 probably at her invitation. Late in 1075, Matilda was present with Robert in Rouen to witness Simon restoring the fief of Gisors to the cathedral.10 In time to come, Simon would prove himself a true friend to Matilda and repay her kindness.

  That December, Queen Edith died at Winchester, and at Matilda’s behest “the King had her brought to Westminster with great honour and laid her near King Edward, her lord.”11 It was his “deep feeling” for his wife that had moved him to have the late Queen buried so honorably.12


  “Ties of Blood”

  When William returned once more to Normandy in spring 1076, trouble flared between him and his eldest son.

  Matilda loved Robert above her other children. Some years earlier, William of Jumièges had described the heir as “brilliantly shining in the blossoming flower of his handsome body and his advantageous age,” and praised his “noble virtue.” But despite Robert’s undoubted cheerfulness, generosity and spirit of adventure, and his being very courageous in battle and a powerful and sure archer, he had proved a disappointment to his father. Short and “pot-bellied,” with fat legs,1 he was garrulous, licentious, extravagant, rash, imprudent, and hopeless with money—“a proud and foolish fellow”2 who was altogether too sure of himself. Part of this may have been the bravado of a young man in the face of a disapproving, critical father who made hurtful jokes at his expense. Matilda may well have acted as an intermediary between them, trying to smooth the troubled waters, but Robert was ambitious and land-hungry.

  The exact date when William invested his son with Normandy is not recorded. Evidence in charters shows that Robert was recognized as duke, and ruled the duchy, from the mid-1070s, after Matilda stepped down as regent.3 But William would not allow him full autonomy, and Robert resented his father’s intermittent resumption of power.

  Around 1076–77, William, Matilda and their family were in residence at the Norman château of l’Aigle, so-called after an eagle’s nest was discovered during its construction at the turn of the eleventh century. Robert was lodging in a house in the town, where a quarrel broke out between him and his brothers, Rufus and Henry, who threw dirty water over him. In retaliation, Robert drew his sword on them. Informed of the rumpus, King William stormed into the house “in a terrible rage” with his own sword unsheathed, and prevented Robert from obtaining satisfaction for the insult, even arresting his supporters. Furious, Robert retired from court with a group of the young lords whom he had cozened by his prodigal open-handedness, and tried ineffectually to take Rouen. But no one offered him any serious support, and any money he received in charity from friends was “recklessly squandered” on “jongleurs, parasites and courtesans.”4


  Lanfranc and other bishops were present with the King and Queen on 14 July 1077 when Bayeux Cathedral, built by William’s half brother, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, was consecrated. There is no record of the famous Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Norman Conquest of 1066 being on display in the new church for the worldly and sensual Odo to show his royal guests. However, it may have been made for the cathedral, since its dimensions match the length of the nave.5

  The Bayeux Tapestry is not a tapestry as such, but an embroidery on a linen cloth seventy-seven yards long, dating from the 1060s–70s; the last section is missing. We know nothing of its history prior to 1476, when it was certainly hanging in Bayeux Cathedral. Whether it had been there since Bishop Odo’s time is debatable, for the chronicler Robert Wace, a canon of Bayeux in the twelfth century, does not mention it,6 although he describes the fire that badly damaged the cathedral in 1106, and mentions that its treasures were carried to safety before the flames took hold.7

  The Bayeux Tapestry is still sometimes called La Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde, a name given to it before the nineteenth century in the belief that it was the work of Matilda and her ladies. That tradition was well established in Bayeux before 1729,8 and still has some currency there today. However, the first recorded reference to the tapestry, in the 1476 inventory of Bayeux Cathedral, does not mention Matilda. Surprisingly, as William’s Queen, she does not appear in the tapestry. There are several Romantic-era paintings of her at work on it, notably one by Alfred Guillard, painted in 1848 and now in the Baron-Gérard Museum in Bayeux. The modern stained-glass window in Selby Abbey also shows Matilda working with her ladies on the Bayeux Tapestry.

  In 1107, Baudri, Abbot of Bourgeuil, described tapestry hangings depicting the Norman Conquest that adorned the bedchamber of Matilda’s daughter, Adela, Countess of Blois. “The walls are covered with tapestries, woven according to her design, and all seem alive. Around her bed the conquest of England, William’s claims to the throne as Edward’s chosen successor, the comet, the Norman council and preparations, the fleet, the battle of Hastings with the feigned flight of the Normans and the real one of the English, and the death of Harold.” There has been speculation that, when Adela became a nun at Marcigny Abbey in 1120, she donated her hangings to Bayeux Cathedral. However, Baudri describes only seven scenes, when there are about twice that number in the tapestry as we know it, and he speaks of Adela’s hangings as being woven, not embroidered.

  In 1430, an inventory of Philip the Good, Duke of Burgundy, listed “A large tapestry of the type woven on a high warp [loom], without gold, of the history of Duke William of Normandy, telling of his conquest of England.”9 It has been suggested that this was the Bayeux Tapestry, but again the latter was not woven on a loom.

  After 1476, the Bayeux Tapestry disappears from the historical record until its rediscovery by Bernard de Montfaucon in 1729. In the early nineteenth century, Matilda’s association with it was challenged, amid concerns that it was an insult to attribute a work with such explicit sexual details to a woman of renowned virtue.

  In 1824, the theory that the tapestry was commissioned by Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, William’s half brother, was first put forward. Odo appears twice in it; he is shown playing an active role in the Battle of Hastings, wielding a mace or club and rallying William’s troops. In 1025, the Council of Arras had decreed that churches should be hung with tapestries to enlighten unlettered congregations, so Odo would have been adhering to this new tradition in hanging it in his cathedral. The Bayeux Tapestry is almost certainly English work, perhaps made in St. Augustine’s Abbey in Canterbury, Kent, of which county Odo was earl. Some Latin words in the embroidery have a Saxon affinity, and some of the designs match manuscript decoration produced in Canterbury.10 The attribution to Odo has been challenged, but so far not successfully.


  The year in which William probably reached fifty, 1077, was a year of dedications. On 13 September, Matilda and William, accompanied by their sons Robert and Rufus, attended the consecration of his abbey dedicated to Saint-Étienne in Caen, in the presence of Archbishop Lanfranc, a host of bishops and barons, and “an immense multitude of people,” which made William “puffed up with worldly pride.”11

  He and the Queen also attended the dedication of the restored abbey of Saint-Evroult, of which Matilda was patron, and where Orderic Vitalis was a monk. Then, on 23 October, the new abbey church at Bec-Hellouin was consecrated by Lanfranc. Bec-Hellouin was a monastery long favored by the dukes of Normandy, and regarded as being under their special prote
ction. It gave England its first two post-Conquest archbishops of Canterbury, Lanfranc and Anselm of Aosta, who both enjoyed the friendship of William and Matilda. The King and Queen were unable to attend the dedication ceremony. “Queen Matilda would willingly have been present had not other royal affairs detained her; she was, however, present through the generosity of her gifts.”12

  In 1077, hearing that Simon de Crépy’s betrothal to Judith of Auvergne had fallen through, William proposed to him a marriage with his daughter Adela. While they were discussing it, Simon realized that he and Adela were too nearly related, and told William, “My lady the Queen, your wife, and I, as they say, are bound by ties of blood and close kinship in such a way that we have to ask wise men their advice if this marriage is at all possible and why.”

  William’s response was pragmatic. He said he would have his clergy “look round and search whether a gift of alms or the building of a monastery or anything of that kind deals with this problem legally.” Simon preferred to travel to Rome to ask the Pope himself for a dispensation, but was apparently turned down, for soon afterward he became betrothed to another “young girl of high rank,” and subsequently both of them renounced the world and entered the religious life, with Simon becoming a hermit renowned for his sanctity.13


  Around 1077–78, William ordered the building of the Tower of London, the greatest of three fortresses that commanded the City’s defenses. The others, at its western end, were Baynard’s Castle and Mountfitchet Castle. He chose as his architect Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester. The great stone keep that Gundulf built, the largest of its kind in England after that of Colchester, arose in the southeastern corner of the old Roman city wall, next to an existing “little castle” that had been built by a Norman called Ravenger and was incorporated into the precincts of the new keep.14 Completed around 1097–1100, the Norman Tower of London and the new wall or rampart that enclosed it on its north and west sides occupied a much smaller area than it does today.

  Built of Caen stone as an impregnable defense, with walls between eleven and fifteen feet thick, the keep also contained royal apartments.15 Informed guesses have been made about the interior, which is divided into two sections by a stout stone wall. Above the vaulted undercroft, which housed a well and was used as storerooms, the first story was accessed by an external staircase and probably consisted of the constable’s lodging, a refectory and dormitory for the garrison, and the crypt of the beautiful Romanesque chapel on the second floor, which was dedicated to St. John the Evangelist. The royal apartments, galleried hall and great chamber were located on the upper floor.16 The keep was equipped with garderobes and, in most of the rooms, probably the earliest fireplaces ever seen in England. Four of the original Norman arched windows remain today. Yet there is no record of any king or queen staying in these apartments until King Stephen held court there in 1140.


  “A Mother’s Tenderness”

  When, late in 1077, Robert Curthose demanded autonomous rule in the duchy of Normandy, his father was furious. “It is not my custom to strip until I go to bed!” he exploded. “As long as I live, I will not relax my grip on it, neither will I divide it with another; for it is written: every kingdom that is divided against itself shall become desolate. It is not to be borne that he who owes his existence to me should aspire to be my rival in my own dominions.”1

  It was unwise to argue with William when his mind was set, but Robert was stubborn. He was now twenty-four and still chafing bitterly at his father’s refusal to delegate full power to him. This impasse led to a bitter conflict between them.2 “The cause of their disagreement was that King William did not allow his son to act according to his own free will in matters concerning the duchy, even though he had appointed him as his heir.”3

  Toward the end of 1077,4 Robert threatened to leave Normandy and seek justice from strangers. An angry William ordered him to go at once, and he “ran from his father,” sought refuge with his uncle, Count Robert the Frisian, in Flanders,5 and allied himself to him, a move guaranteed to rile William further.6 Philip I of France, ever ready to discountenance his Anglo-Norman rival, granted Robert Curthose the castle of Gerberoi, to use as a base of operations against his father, and toward the end of 1078, he himself prepared to join Robert in rebellion against William, although William managed to dissuade him early the next year. Robert, however, had the support of his friends, who were young lords “of noble birth and knightly prowess, men of diabolical pride and ferocity terrible to their neighbours, always far too ready to plunge into acts of lawlessness.”7 Backed by them, he again besieged Rouen, “ravaged in Normandy far and often, burnt townships, killed people, and caused his father much trouble and worry.”8

  At Christmas, hostilities broke out. By now William was becoming so fat that King Philip jeeringly likened him to a pregnant woman, but that did not deter him from mounting a three-week siege against Robert at Gerberoi. During a skirmish, Robert—who himself was overweight—“became personally engaged with his father, wounded him and killed his horse.”9 William, who was only hurt in the hand, would have been killed had not Robert recognized his voice. Chastened, Robert gave him his own mount and bade him ride away,10 and a humiliated William was forced to retreat to Rouen.

  The feud between William and Robert caused Matilda much distress, which must have been exacerbated by news from Messines of the death of her mother on 8 January 1079.11 Distress moved her to deceit. “Queen Matilda, compassionating her son’s distress with a mother’s tenderness, often sent him, without the knowledge of her husband, large sums of silver and gold, and other things of value. The King, discovering this, forbade her with terrible threats from continuing to do so.”12 But she “recklessly renewed her offence,”13 using her substantial revenues to provide Robert with an army, and pawning her jewels and rich garments in order to raise money for him, which the evidence suggests was smuggled to him by one of the Queen’s messengers, a Breton called Samson, who was “shrewd and eloquent and chaste.”14 Matilda also sent Samson to William to plead Robert’s case—in vain.15

  Someone16 found out what she was doing behind her husband’s back, and informed the King that she was “contumaciously repeating the offence.” It was nowhere near as heinous as that of Henry II’s Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, who in 1173 incited her sons to rebel against their father and spent sixteen years in prison as punishment. All the same, William was “in great wrath.” He confronted Matilda and berated her publicly, in front of his court.

  “A wise man remarked truly, as I myself have reason to find, that a faithless woman is her husband’s bane!”17 he declared and, turning to his courtiers, asked, “Who in the world can henceforth reckon on finding a companion who will be faithful and devoted to him? Behold my own wife, whom I love as my very soul, and who is entrusted by me with my treasures and jurisdictions through my whole dominions. She succours my enemies who are plotting against my life, enriches them with my wealth, carefully supplies them with arms to attack me, abets and strengthens them in every way.”

  Matilda knelt humbly at his feet, but stood her ground. “Do not wonder, I pray you, my lord, that I feel a mother’s tenderness for my first-born son. By the power of the Most High, I protest that, if my son Robert was dead and buried seven feet in the earth, out of the sight of the living, and I could bring him to life at the expense of my own blood, I would freely shed it for him, and I would undergo sufferings greater than can be expected from female weakness. How can you suppose that I can take any delight in the abundance of wealth, while I suffer my son to be crushed by the extremity of want and distress? Far from me be such hardness of heart, nor should you, in the fullness of your power, lay such an injunction upon me.” She may have hoped that her defense of maternal devotion—which was held as sacred by contemporaries—would touch William deeply, but “the stern prince turned pale with anger and, bursting with rage, he commanded Samson to be arrested and blinded.”18

  Matilda had gotten off
lightly, but she again risked William’s wrath, for Samson learned of the King’s animosity “by intelligence from those the Queen trusted,” who advised him to seek refuge at the abbey of Saint-Evroult, of which she was patron, “to save at the same time his body and his soul.” At her request, he was received as a monk by Abbot Mainier, and so escaped the King’s vengeance. It was he who related to Orderic what had happened.19

  William forgave Matilda,20 and we hear no more of her succoring Robert. William of Malmesbury dismisses this episode as “a slight disagreement” between the couple, and says that William proved afterward that “his conjugal affection was not in the least diminished by this circumstance.” In the meantime, marital relations were probably a little fraught. As the chronicler observed, “Kingship and love make sorry bedfellows and sort but ill together.”21

  This sad episode probably left Matilda feeling drained. Between 1077 and 1081, when Adelelm of Loudun (later St. Adelelm, Bishop of Burgos) was abbot of the abbey of La Chaise-Dieu in the Auvergne, an English queen sent to ask him for a cure for lethargy. It must have been Matilda. He sent her bread he had blessed, which reportedly cured her—or maybe it was the strength of her belief in it that did that. Adelelm refused to accept money as a reward, so she sent him “a precious priestly vestment” and £100 to fund a new dorter for his monks.22


  In January 1080, William, Matilda and their younger sons witnessed several Norman charters, and gave gifts to the abbey of Saint-Georges at Boscherville; after Matilda’s death, it would be rebuilt in a style identical to her abbey church at Caen.

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