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


  From around 1080 to 1086, her youngest son, Henry, appears to have lived in England in the care of the saintly Osmund, Bishop of Salisbury, a Norman nobleman who had taken holy orders and served as lord chancellor to the King, to whom he was related by marriage. It was probably under Osmund’s auspices that Henry received the excellent education that would stand him in good stead in later life. “The early years of instruction he passed in liberal arts, and thoroughly imbibed the sweets of learning.”23 Possibly, since he was the youngest son, he was intended for a career in the Church, for which education was primarily regarded as a preparation. In an age in which kings were illiterate, Henry even learned to read and write Latin, and from the fourteenth century was nicknamed “Beauclerc” because of his famed literary skills. As he grew up, he often quoted, “in his father’s hearing, the proverb, ‘An illiterate king is a crowned ass.’ ” William did not take offense. “Observing his son’s disposition, the King never omitted any means of cherishing his lively prudence; and once, when he had been ill-used by one of his brothers, and was in tears, he spirited him up by saying, ‘Weep not, my boy, you too will be a king.’ ”24

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  It was probably early in 1080 that Matilda heard of a hermit in Germany who was reputed a great prophet. So troubled was she by the rift between William and Robert that she sent messengers with gifts for the hermit, craving his prayers for her husband and son, and asking him to “send her a prediction of what would happen to them in time to come.” The hermit asked for three days in which to make his reply, during which he had a vision in which he saw a fierce horse in a grassy flower meadow, doing its best to drive off a herd of cows. But “a wanton cow” let the rest into the field to eat the grass and defile it with their ordure. The hermit concluded that the meadow was Normandy, the grass its people, and the flowers its churches, while the horse was William, protecting them from their envious enemies, represented by the cattle. The wanton cow was Robert Curthose.

  Chilled by the revelation, the hermit told the Queen’s messengers, “Return to your mistress, and tell her I have prayed to God in her behalf, and the Most High has made known to me in a dream the things she desires to learn.” He told them of his vision, and prophesied:

  When, since he is human, the King comes to die, Robert his son will succeed him in the duchy of Normandy. Whereupon his enemies from all sides will invade the honourable and wealthy land deprived of its guardian, strip it of its beauty and riches and, disregarding this foolish ruler, trample up Normandy contemptuously underfoot. He, like the wanton cow, will give himself up to lust and indolence, and will be the first to plunder the wealth of the Church and give it to base panders and other lechers. Under their rule, vice and wretchedness will abound. Towns and villages will be burned, and many thousands of men will be destroyed by fire and sword. Normandy, who once so proudly lorded it over her conquered neighbours, will now, under a foolish and idle duke, be despised, and will long and wretchedly lie at the mercy of the swords of her neighbours. The weak Duke will enjoy no more than an empty title, and a swarm of nobodies will dominate both him and the captive duchy, bringing ruin to many.

  He had a special message for Matilda: “But you, venerable lady, will not witness the calamities with which Normandy is threatened, for, after a good confession, you will die in peace, and neither behold your husband’s death, nor the misfortunes of your son, nor the desolation of your beloved country.” Orderic wrote this passage with hindsight—he knew what would befall Normandy after William’s death—yet the hermit must have predicted some dread doom of this nature, for the impact on Matilda was profound. According to Orderic Vitalis, the prophecy—and no doubt the warning of her death—preyed on her mind for the rest of her life.25

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  William remained implacable in regard to Robert. “Which of my ancestors from the time of Rollo ever had to endure such hostility from any child of his as I do?” he asked his barons. “He would not hesitate, if he could, to stir up the whole human race against me and slay me, and you as well. According to divine law, given to us through Moses, he is deserving of death.” With anguished tears, Matilda interceded with William for their son. William’s barons were also anxious to see an end to the conflict. They urged him, “Correct your child when he errs, welcome him when he returns, mercifully spare him when he repents.”26

  Others, including Pope Gregory, King Philip, Roger of Montgomery and many clergy also spoke up for Robert.27 Pope Gregory himself wrote to William and Robert individually, trying to bring about a reconciliation. He exhorted Robert to “wholly banish the counsels of wicked men and in all things agree to the will of your father.”28 Matilda was indefatigable in seeking a resolution to the quarrel. “The Queen and representatives of the King of France, with noble neighbours and friends, all combined to restore peace.”29

  One who championed Robert was Matilda’s cousin, the saintly Simon de Crépy. On the fourth Sunday in Lent 1079, he was present at the abbey of Saint-Corneille in Compiègne when a length of fabric venerated as the Holy Shroud of Christ30 was translated into a gold reliquary ornamented with precious stones given by Queen Matilda, who may herself have been present, or had sent a representative. It was probably at this gathering of notables that Simon heard of what had happened at Gerberoi and resolved to help bring about a reconciliation between William and Robert, setting off the very next day. Matilda herself may have urged her cousin’s intervention, for she was present at the “sweet talks” between Simon and William.31

  At Easter 1080 (12 April), after protracted intercessions, “the stern King yielded to the pressure of these great persons and, surrendering to paternal duty, became reconciled with his son.” Robert came to Rouen and was forgiven, in a carefully orchestrated assembly attended by Papal nuncios and French envoys, and William again recognized him as the heir to Normandy. Robert had long been associated with the rule of the duchy, and William almost certainly had other plans for the succession of the throne of England, where Robert was barely known. Thus the “fiendish dispute” was brought to an end.32

  In the presence of his parents and brothers, Robert witnessed a charter to the abbey of La Trinité-du-Mont in Rouen.33 Orderic asserts that William “continually poured abuse and reproach on him in public for his failing,” but other sources show that relations between the King and his eldest son were generally cordial from then on.

  On 8 May 1080, not knowing that William and Robert had been reconciled, Pope Gregory wrote to his “dearest daughter” the Queen, praising the love she had for God and her neighbor, urging, “With these and similar weapons, arm your husband when God gives you the opportunity, and do not cease to do so.”34

  On 14 July, attended by Robert and Rufus, William and Matilda held court at Holy Trinity, Caen, to hear lawsuits. Soon afterward, they and their children gathered at Breteuil for the betrothal of Adela to Stephen, Count of Blois, which would seal a peace with a troublesome adversary. The date of the marriage is not recorded, but it perhaps took place between 1080 and 1083.35 Adela had grown into a strong-minded, devout, intelligent girl with “beauty, dignity, grace and the brilliance of a goddess”;36 two of her thirteen children were named for Matilda and William, and another was the future King Stephen, born around 1096–97. Adela took after her mother; like her, she would become “a powerful woman with a reputation for her worldly influence.”37

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  “The Noblest Gem of a Royal Race”

  In the late summer of 1080, William took Robert to England for the first time, and Matilda came too. That autumn the King even trusted Robert with leading an army to Scotland. King Malcolm III—Malcolm Canmore, or “Greathead”—had recognized William as his overlord in 1072, but that had not precluded him from harrying Northumbria. William sent Robert north with a show of strength, and Malcolm made peace.

  Afterward, Robert visited the Scottish court and met the pious and influential Queen Margaret. Margaret, “the very image of virtues,”1 was the daughter of Edward Atheling
, nephew of Edward the Confessor, and sister of the troublesome Edgar Atheling. She had introduced many English customs at the Scottish court, and even given her first six children Anglo-Saxon royal names. Her family would eventually number six sons and two daughters, although the three oldest sons died in youth.

  Around this time, Margaret presented Malcolm with their fifth child and first daughter, born probably in the autumn of 1080 at Malcolm’s Tower,2 the King’s palace, where he and Margaret had married, and where all their children were born. Built around 1060, it stood on a seventy-foot-high hill at Dunfermline, which Malcolm had designated the Scottish capital. Nearby stood the abbey of Dunfermline, founded by Queen Margaret, who had asked Archbishop Lanfranc to send her monks from Canterbury. Not far off was the cave the devout Queen liked to use for her private devotions.3

  The new princess was christened Edith,4 probably after Edward the Confessor’s Queen, or possibly after the tenth-century saint, Edith of Wilton, the bastard daughter of King Edgar. Royal Saxon, Imperial and Scots blood flowed in Edith’s veins. Robert was probably invited to be her godfather,5 and Queen Matilda consented to be godmother, and traveled north to Scotland for the baptism. At the christening the infant Edith took firm hold of the Queen’s veil, pulling it toward her own head, which was later construed as a sign that she was destined for queenship.6

  In time, Edith was indeed to prove a worthy successor to Matilda as queen consort. She grew up under the governance of an intelligent mother who was interested in fostering closer cultural and trading links between Scotland and Europe, and raised living standards in her adopted land. “The Queen, herself the noblest gem of a royal race, made the splendour of her husband’s royal magnificence much more splendid, and contributed much glory and honour to all the nobility of the kingdom.”7 Malcolm’s halls now sported hangings and gold and silver plate, while dress and manners at the Scottish court improved considerably.8 And yet, while the Queen “walked in state clad in splendid apparel, she in her heart trod all these trappings beneath her feet, and bore in mind that, under the gems and gold, there was nothing but dust and ashes.”9 Hildebert of Lavardin, Bishop of Le Mans and a future correspondent of her daughter, remembered her thus: “Chaste she was, modest, beautiful, elegant, prudent, cautious, generous, religious, pious. A rose from the root of a rose; from religion, piety flowed from piety, splendour from a star.”10

  Edith and her older brothers, Edward, Edmund, Edgar and Ethelred, were soon joined in the nursery by Mary, Alexander and David. Their mother Margaret loved books and religion, and her charitable works embracing the poor and the sick, and her patronage of art and education, were an outstanding example to her children. They grew up seeing their illiterate father devotedly holding the book their mother was reading. Books were costly, precious objects, produced entirely by hand, with the script, illustrations, borders and illuminations carefully copied, using natural dyes, onto prepared animal skins, which were themselves expensive. Books took a long time to produce, and were high-status possessions; some were exquisite works of art. The children learned that they were to be greatly prized.

  They also saw their mother take poor children on her knee and feed them mashed food.11 Margaret’s biographer, Turgot, Prior of Durham, has left a vivid account of the upbringing of the Scottish royal offspring, which was probably based on the reminiscences of Edith herself, who commissioned him to write her mother’s life. He described how devoted a mother Queen Margaret had been.

  She poured out care to her children, seeing that they were nurtured with all diligence, and that they were introduced to honest matters as much as possible. And because she knew the Scripture, “Who spares the rod hates the child,” she had ordered her household steward that, whenever the children committed some childish mischief, as young children will, they should be punished by him with threats and beatings. And because of the religious zeal of their mother, the children’s manners were far better than those of other children older than they. And they never fought amongst themselves, and the younger children always displayed respect to the elder ones. For this reason, during solemn Mass, when they followed their parents up to the altar, the younger never tried to outdo the elder, but went up by age, oldest first.

  Margaret had her children brought to her often. “She taught them about Christ and faith in Christ, using words suitable to their age and understanding. She admonished them diligently: ‘Fear the Lord,’ she said, ‘O my children, because those that fear Him will not be in need, and if you delight in Him, O my flesh, He returns goodness to you through prosperity in the present life, and by giving you a happy afterlife with all the saints.’ This was the desire of the mother, these were the admonishments, this was the prayer that she prayed day and night, with tears on behalf of her offspring, so that they might come to know their Creator in faith that works through love, and knowing that they might worship, worshipping, that they might love Him in everything and above all things, loving, that they might arrive at the glory of the heavenly kingdom.”12

  20

  “Twofold Light of November”

  In the winter of 1080, William nominated William de Saint-Calais to the see of Durham. Wanting to build a new cathedral to house the relics of St. Cuthbert, the Bishop consulted the King and Queen, who advised him to consult the Pope, which he did. Consent was obtained, and work began on the great Romanesque cathedral that can still be seen today. In 1082, Matilda would assist Bishop William in promulgating his plan to replace canons with monks in his cathedral.

  The King and Queen kept Christmas at Gloucester.1 In February 1081 they were at Salisbury with Robert, celebrating the Feast of the Purification. At this time, William granted a charter to Malmesbury Abbey “at the request of Queen Matilda.”2 Soon afterward they were together in Cambridgeshire when William took Ramsey Abbey under his protection and confirmed all grants made by his predecessors.3 At Easter and Whitsun (24 May), they wore their crowns at Winchester.4

  Sometime after May 1081, Matilda returned to Normandy. That year, “hearing a good report of the life of the monks, she came to Saint-Evroult to pay her devotions; and being received by the brethren with due honours, offered a mark of gold on the altar, and commended herself with her daughter Constance to the prayers of the brethren. She also ordered that a refectory of stone, for their common use, should be built at her expense. She further gave to Saint-Evroult a chasuble enriched with gold and jewels, and an elegant cope for the chanter, with a promise to make further offerings if she lived; but she was prevented by death from fulfilling it.” With her came Adelina of Meulan, the wife of Roger de Beaumont, who donated an alb. Afterward Matilda dined with the monks in their existing refectory, displaying great humility.5 Constance may have been unwell, hence her mother’s intercession for her, but clearly she recovered; she was said to be the most gifted of Matilda’s daughters, and in 1086–87 would marry Alan IV “Fergant,” Duke of Brittany.

  That year, Simon de Crépy undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and then to Rome, where he died in September, having been given the last rites by Pope Gregory himself. When, in 1082, Matilda heard of his death, she sent gold and silver to pay for a fine marble tomb in St. Peter’s Basilica, and gifts to adorn it.6

  William, Matilda and Robert were together in Normandy in the summer and autumn of 1082.7 Matilda had always been lavish in her gifts to religious houses, but at this time her benefactions increased, probably because she was unwell and thinking of the salvation of her soul. That year, for example, she granted manors formerly owned by Brihtric Meaw in Essex, Gloucestershire and Dorset to Holy Trinity at Caen, for wardrobes and firewood. Holy Trinity had also received properties in Rouen and Barfleur, and some lands in England.8 She gave the manor of Longbridge Deverill, Wiltshire, to Lanfranc’s abbey of Bec-Hellouin,9 and gifts to Cluny and Saint-Evroult.

  In 1082, she traveled with William to Saint-Grestain to meet his half brother, Odo, Bishop of Bayeux. William bestowed endowments and privileges on the abbey where their mother la
y buried, but Odo, a born intriguer with great wealth at his disposal, made it clear at their meeting that he was intent on going to Rome to take advantage of a schism in the Church that had weakened the position of Pope Gregory. Odo’s aim was probably to secure the Papacy for himself. William forbade it absolutely. He was already angered by the ostentation on which Odo was squandering his riches.

  But Odo was determined to go anyway. He crossed to England, aiming to reach Rome by a roundabout route, but just as he was about to set sail from the Isle of Wight, William and Matilda appeared from Normandy with their sons, and William personally arrested him, as the King’s soldiers would not lay hands on a man of God. William had his brother tried for corruption, not in an ecclesiastical court, which would have dealt with him leniently, but in the royal court, which refused to convict him. Declaring that he was not trying the Bishop of Bayeux, but the Earl of Kent, the King grabbed Odo by the collar and ordered his guards to take him off to prison in Rouen. Odo would not be released until after William’s death.10

  Matilda was a witness to Odo’s fall. Orderic says that, at this time, she fell sick with an illness that was “prolonged and serious.” She had perhaps been ailing since 1081. Medical knowledge was rudimentary, and treatment often consisted of a mixture of herbal remedies and folklore. In Matilda’s case, whatever was tried proved ineffective.

  She returned to Normandy with William at Easter 1083, when they kept the festival at Fécamp. Robert was with them then, and at Caen on 18 July.11

  The flow of Matilda’s gifts continued. That year, she gave plowland, three gardens and other estates to the abbey of Saint-Amand at Rouen. Her son Henry would later endow this abbey in her memory.12 She even, “in her last illness,” granted the village of Northam, Devon, to Saint-Étienne in Caen,13 and manors in Essex and Dorset to provide the nuns of Holy Trinity with clothing and firewood. She also endowed three churches in Falaise, her husband’s birthplace—Saint-Laurent, Saint-Gervais and Holy Trinity.14

 
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