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

  An alliance between Alan and King Malcolm, cemented by marriage, might have had ominous consequences for Rufus, as the King and his barons feared when they learned what was afoot. Malcolm was summoned to the court at Gloucester to do homage to Rufus for his lands in England, and perhaps to discuss a marriage alliance between the King and Edith.

  In August 1093, on their way to Gloucester for the meeting with King Malcolm, William Rufus and a party of knights arrived unheralded at Wilton. They dismounted at the gates and demanded to be allowed into the church to pray. The Abbess was flustered at the presence of armed men in her house of women. She had heard of the King’s reputation and that he often acted determinedly on impulse, and feared that, if he saw the pretty young Edith, he might behave inappropriately, even violently. Hurriedly she bade Edith don a nun’s habit and go to Vespers. Then she admitted the King to the cloister, where he asked to see her rose garden before going into the church, but after he spied Edith, veiled, amid the other nuns, he made an abrupt departure from the abbey. The fact that Rufus recognized Edith suggests that he had visited her at Wilton before.23 The Abbess concluded that he had come only to see the Princess, and suspected that this boded no good to her.24 But his purpose may have been to speak of marriage, and he was perhaps angered by the sight of her in nun’s garb, especially if he thought that she was deliberately avoiding him.

  Both kings were at Gloucester on 24 August, but their meeting never went ahead, as Malcolm refused to pay homage and Rufus refused to receive him.25 The reason for this is not known. Malcolm may have heard of Rufus’s visit to Wilton and concluded that its purpose was less than honorable. Possibly Rufus was angered that Malcolm had dedicated to God the daughter he himself wanted to wed, or he was angered at being snubbed by Malcolm’s daughter—or that Malcolm had contemplated marrying her to Alan. He may have forbidden the match.

  Within a week, King Malcolm turned up at Wilton, and “when by chance he saw me veiled,” Edith later recalled, “my father snatched the veil off in rage, and, tearing it to pieces” and trampling on it,26 “invoked the hatred of God upon the person who had put it on me, observing27 that it was his intention to give me in marriage, not to devote me to the Church.” He told Edith he would “rather have chosen to marry me to Earl [sic] Alan than consign me to a house of nuns.”28 He doubtless said this scathingly, having found out about Alan’s abduction of Gunhilda.29 Furious, Malcolm bore his daughters off to Scotland without further ado.

  Any possibility of a marriage between Edith and Alan Rufus had been extinguished when Alan died on 4 August, before the meeting at Gloucester.30 Afterward, Archbishop Anselm wrote witheringly to Gunhilda, the lapsed nun: “Go now to where Count Alan lies. Kiss the bare teeth from which his flesh has fallen.” He warned that she would be damned if she did not return to her convent. Instead, she sought refuge in the arms of Alan’s brother, whom she soon married.31


  Edith and Mary returned home to Scotland to find their mother ill. But Malcolm did not stay by his wife’s side. Seething at having been unpardonably snubbed by Rufus, he raised an army and led a raid across the border—“with greater folly than behoved him,”32 for on 13 November 1093, he was killed with his oldest son, Edward, by his kinsman and steward Archil Morel of Bamburgh, in an ambush near Alnwick, Northumberland.33 Three days later, when the news reached Edinburgh Castle, his devoted wife Margaret, who was already “wasted away with the fire of a long illness” and suffering agonies, died of grief, enjoining Turgot, Prior of Durham: “To you I commit the charge of my children. Teach them, above all things, to love and fear God, and above all see that you expend them love.”34 Edith and Mary were perhaps with their mother when she died.35

  At a stroke, Malcolm and Margaret’s surviving children were orphaned. Edith was then thirteen, Edmund, Ethelred, Edgar and Alexander all older, Mary was eleven and David nine. In Scotland, the eldest son of a monarch did not necessarily succeed to the throne. The custom of tanistry was observed, whereby a successor was elected by the nobles or clan chiefs. They chose Donald, the son of King Duncan I (d.1040), who was famously murdered by Macbeth in Shakespeare’s play (in fact, he was killed in battle). Donald succeeded Malcolm as King Donald III.

  By the end of 1093, King Donald had driven the children of Malcolm and Margaret out of Scotland. Turgot and perhaps their uncle, Edgar Atheling, may have assisted with the escape of Edith and Mary to England.36 They took very little with them. Orphaned, and deprived of the support of their brothers, they looked to God to aid them.37

  Anselm of Aosta, a worthy successor to Lanfranc as archbishop of Canterbury, had not approved of Edith leaving Wilton Abbey. His understanding was that she was a nun, and in February 1094, in some outrage, he wrote to Osmund, Bishop of Salisbury (the former tutor of Rufus’s brother Henry), in whose diocese Wilton lay, reminding him of the importance of spiritual marriage, and informing him that the “prodigal daughter of the King of Scots, whom the Devil made to cast off the veil of religion, and causes to persist shamelessly in wearing secular clothing,” had returned to the world. However, he had hesitated to condemn her sin openly, lest King William had been the cause of her fleeing north, or had condoned it. Fortunately he had since met with the King, who, to Anselm’s relief, had said he would like to see Edith back in her cloister, “as a good king should,” and was only concerned about her having enough to eat. Anselm instructed Bishop Osmund to compel her to “return to the Order which she arrogantly despised.”38 It no doubt suited William Rufus to have Edith shut up in a cloister, out of reach of ambitious men who might scheme to marry her and claim the throne in her name.

  Probably Edith and Mary returned to Wilton. They had nowhere else to go, and were possibly relieved to avail themselves of the good offices of Bishop Osmund, especially as King William had offered to pay for their keep. But they would have stayed there as lay boarders; certainly they did not resume wearing the veil. Edith’s upbringing had made her “a rival of her mother’s piety,”39 but not to the point where she wanted to forsake marriage and motherhood.

  For now, she “learned and practised the literary art” and “gave her attention to literature.”40 She even mastered the reading of Latin, and perhaps French. The surviving letters she wrote reveal a good knowledge of the Scriptures, the Church Fathers and the Greek and Roman philosophers, which she probably acquired at Wilton. In an age in which even kings were illiterate, it was extraordinary for a woman to acquire such skills, which would stand Edith in good stead in the years to come. She never lost her love of learning. In later years, William of Malmesbury would write to her brother David: “For certain your family is known to love the study of letters. Our lady, your sister, never ceased to support literature and to advance those who were devoted to it.”

  “These devoted maidens, as they approached the age of womanhood, waited for the consolation of God. They were orphans, deprived of both their parents, separated from their brothers, and far from the protecting care of kindred and friends. They had no home or hope but the cloister, and yet, by the mercy of God, they were not professed as nuns. They were destined by the Disposer of all earthly events for better things. Edith was, by the grace of God, reserved for a higher destiny.”41

  In 1097, with the support of William Rufus and Edgar Atheling, Edith’s oldest surviving brother, another Edgar, overthrew Donald III and took the crown of Scotland himself. As the sister of a king, Edith’s status in the world was restored.


  “Her Whom He so Ardently Desired”

  On 2 August 1100, while hunting in the New Forest, King William Rufus was shot dead by a stray arrow from the bow of one of his men, later named as Walter Tyrell. It could have been an accident, and probably was, but the finger of suspicion has long pointed at the childless King’s heir, his brother Henry, who stood to gain the throne. Henry was aware that Rufus and Robert Curthose had long ago agreed that each would be the other’s heir. But Robert was away on the First Crusade, having ruled Normandy with
an inefficiency that exasperated his barons.

  It is possible that the death, while hunting, of Robert’s bastard son in May, in that same New Forest, had suggested to Henry a means of getting rid of the hated Rufus, whom few would mourn. Rufus’s reputation in battle was so formidable that any other method of removing him would probably have been doomed to failure. But this, and the fact that Henry did not punish Tyrell, but was generous to him and his family, amounts only to circumstantial evidence, and there is no proof of a regicidal plot. The chroniclers were in fact unanimous in declaring Rufus’s death an accident.

  Henry had been among those hunting with the King on that fateful day. As soon as he heard that his brother was dead, he raced to Winchester to secure the royal treasury, then galloped the sixty miles to London, where he was crowned just two days later. Then he settled down to rule firmly and efficiently, enforcing law and order and maintaining peace, as his oppressed subjects groaned under the burden of the taxes he imposed and complained that they were in misery and want.

  The new King’s friends, foremost among them the bishops, urged him to marry.1 In the interests of uniting Normans and Saxons, boosting his hold on the throne and cementing an alliance with Scotland established by William Rufus in 1097, Henry set his sights on the “high-born maiden”2 Edith of Scotland, a princess of the royal Saxon blood of the Confessor, illustriously descended on both sides from the ancient kings of Scotland and the old royal House of England.3 She could trace her ancestry “for many centuries through fourteen kings,” including Alfred, and—it was believed—from Adam, through a son of Noah born in the Ark and not recorded in the Bible.4 Some still considered Edgar Atheling and the issue of his sister, Queen Margaret, to have a better right to the English throne than the Norman kings.

  Many had spoken favorably of Edith, saying how good and fair she was. At twelve, she had been called beautiful, but that was a word indiscriminately used to describe royal and noble ladies. William of Malmesbury thought her “by no means despicable in beauty,” which sounds like a tactful way of saying that she wasn’t anything special to look at. Nevertheless, other chroniclers remarked on her beauty, equanimity and chastity, her excellent manners and “fluent, honeyed speech.” They thought her “very fair and elegant in person, as well as learned, holy and wise.” She was skilled at music and loved literature.5

  There is no certain contemporary image of Edith. Manuscript depictions of her date from after her lifetime and are in no sense portraits. Twelfth-century statues on either side of the Romanesque West Door of Rochester Cathedral, dating from c.1125–37 and therefore among the oldest sculpted figures in England, have been identified as Edith and Henry, although it has also been suggested that they represent Solomon and the Queen of Sheba. They bear a similarity to the elongated stone figures that adorn the slightly later Royal Portal of Chartres Cathedral in France, but at Rochester the faces are irretrievably weathered. The statue of the Queen is attired as Edith might have been. She has two plaits hanging to her knees and holds a scroll. She wears a crown and veil, a heavily pleated robe edged with bands of elaborate embroidery, and a mantle.

  King Malcolm had decreed that Gaelic be replaced by Anglo-Saxon at his court, so English was probably Edith’s first language, which would be an advantage. Marriage to Edith would, above all, help Henry to unite Normans and Saxons, and preserve good relations with Scotland. Thus the King, “appreciating the high birth of the maiden whose perfection of character he had long adored, chose her as his bride.”6 William of Malmesbury says Henry had “long been greatly attached to her,” and “long after she discarded the veil, the King fell in love with her,” which places the start of their courtship “long after” 1094. The attraction was mutual.7 Wace states that Henry was jealous of Edith’s former suitor, William de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, and hated him “to the death.”

  We do not know when Henry had first seen Edith, or when these feelings were fostered. They could not have met at the English court, for Rufus had no queen, so it would not have been fitting for Edith to visit or stay at court; and her uncle, Edgar Atheling, was now abroad, also taking part in the First Crusade. Possibly Henry knew Edith through his old tutor, Bishop Osmund, and had visited her at Wilton.8 He “little regarded the marriage portion, provided he could possess her whom he so ardently desired, for though she was of noble descent, being great-niece of King Edward, yet she possessed but little fortune, being an orphan, destitute of either parent.”9 There is evidence that her brother, King Edgar, had perhaps granted her rights in some northern lordships,10 but that did not amount to much. Love aside, what was most important to Henry was Edith’s lineage—and the fact that she was “a truly incomparable woman.”11

  Thus a “special love” flowered between Henry and Edith, “so that he willed her to wife,” and asked her brother, King Edgar, for her hand. In this he was supported by his bishops and the barons.

  Saxon chroniclers claim that Edith initially showed some reluctance to encourage Henry’s proposal of marriage, which probably gave rise to the thirteenth-century chronicler Matthew Paris’s unsubstantiated assertion that she would have preferred to remain in the cloister, but emerged only so that she could be a second Esther and mitigate the sufferings of the Saxons whose blood she shared. Her reluctance was evidently a matter of public knowledge, for there survives a heartfelt plea to her in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: “O, most noble and most gracious of women! If thou wouldst, thou couldst raise up the ancient honour of England; thou wouldst be a sign of alliance, a pledge of reconciliation. But if thou persist in thy refusal, the enmity between the Saxon and Norman races will be eternal; human blood will never cease to flow.” That brought home to Edith, if she was not already aware, that marrying Henry was a sacred obligation, for through her it would restore the ancient royal blood of Wessex to the royal line. Their children would be the living embodiment of the union between the Saxon and Norman monarchies.

  Edith consented to marry Henry on one condition: that he grant a new charter to his English subjects, promising to govern them according to the laws of Edward the Confessor—which he did that very year. An anonymous poet praised her for persuading him to change the law, and lauded him as a Caesar who listened to his wife, answered her prayers and abolished the unjust laws of the kingdom.12 Thus the betrothal was sealed.


  Henry was then thirty-two, of medium height and very like his father, the Conqueror. He was “a young man of extreme beauty.”13 “His hair was black, but scanty near the forehead; his eyes were mildly bright, his chest brawny, his body well fleshed.” His “thunderous” voice only added to his intimidating presence. “He was inferior in wisdom to no king in modern time.” He enjoyed plain food, eaten in moderation, and was temperate, drinking only to allay thirst.14

  In public he wore “a supercilious look, darting his threatening eye on the bystander, and with assumed severity and ferocious voice, assailing such as conversed with him.” His temper was fearsome, and there is evidence to suggest that Edith found him intimidating, but she would also have seen more of the private Henry, the one who appeared amiable and was “jocular in proper season.” When relaxing at table with his friends, he was a convivial and amusing companion, making facetious jests about his own failings in order to deflect criticism.15

  Henry had the Norman love of order. As a ruler, “he clearly surpassed all his predecessors in England, and preferred contending by counsel, rather than by the sword. If he could, he conquered without bloodshed.”16 Astute and able, he had three brilliant advantages: great wisdom, success in war and wealth.17 His counsels were profound, his foresight keen, his eloquence commanding. He was a wise ruler and an accomplished diplomat. “His learning assisted him in the science of government.”18

  He also had “three gross vices”: avarice, wantonness and cruelty.19 He could be calculating, suspicious, devious, deceitful and faithless. He taxed his subjects mercilessly and had a heavy-handed approach to lawbreaking, for which he was widely feared
. He had once violently pushed a rebel called Conan from the high Tower of Rouen, swearing on the soul of his mother, Matilda, that traitors must not be allowed to live.20 On another occasion, he had put out the eyes of one of his kinsmen with his own hands. When his chamberlain tried unsuccessfully to assassinate him, Henry had him blinded and castrated—a lenient punishment, some thought, for a man who should have been hanged. He once had all the moneyers (or coiners) in the kingdom mutilated, just in case they were counterfeiting coin. Under his rule, men were chained in dungeons and left to starve. Certainly such rough justice acted as a deterrent, but it was Henry who established the practice of sending judges on circuit to ensure that justice was dispensed fairly, and later he replaced the penalty of mutilation with fines. By the end of his reign a Saxon chronicler had bestowed on him the nickname “The Lion of Justice.”

  His court was to be described as a “Babylonish furnace”21 and he “constantly accustomed himself to concubinage,”22 for he was a man of voracious sexual appetite who was “perpetually enslaved by female seductions.”23 He fathered about twenty-five bastards, most of them before his marriage. Yet William of Malmesbury, far from condemning his “chasing after whores,” rather naïvely insisted that the King only gratified his lusts because he wanted children. He “was free, during his whole life, from impure desires. He was led by feminine blandishments, not for the gratification of incontinency, but for the sake of issue. Nor did he condescend to casual intercourse, unless where it might produce that effect. In this respect he was the master of his natural inclinations, rather than the passive slave of lust.”24 Henry apparently did feel that political strength lay in having many sons and daughters—certainly they played an important role in his life, for he married off several to his advantage and employed others effectively in his service—but it’s hard to believe that lust didn’t play a part in it, or in his feelings for Edith.

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