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

  Matilda involved herself in ecclesiastical affairs, and her letters to Archbishop Anselm reveal that she had some say in the bestowal of benefices and abbacies. Like her mother, she supported reform of the Church, and she was at the forefront of religious innovation, encouraging the new monastic orders that were beginning to flourish at that time.

  It was thanks to her influence that the King sought regular absolution for his sins.8 She was “a woman of exceptional holiness, in piety her mother’s rival, and in her own character exempt from all evil influence,”9 “the very mirror of piety, humility and princely bounty.”10 She founded many religious houses and set up gilded crosses on highways throughout the land, at her own expense.11

  She gave two jeweled brass candlesticks to Le Mans Cathedral, prompting Bishop Hildebert to write a letter to the “venerable Queen of the English, most worthy in glory and honour,” extolling her munificence and praising the carving: “Its value is increased by the majesty of the sender; art and nature add less to it than that it comes from the Queen. It is manifest from this how devoted you are to the Lord’s sacraments for which you provide the instruments since, as a woman, you cannot administer them, imitating as far as possible the holy women who first came to the Cross with tears and then to the tomb with spices.”12

  On learning that the seventh-century church of St. Mary at Southampton was falling into ruin, and that congregations had to be crammed into a side chapel dedicated to St. Nicholas, Matilda founded “the great church of Our Lady,” which has since been rebuilt several times.13 When Henry granted the nuns of Malling the right to hold a lucrative weekly market, it was “for the love of, and at the request of, my wife, Queen Matilda.”14

  In 1103, Matilda persuaded Henry to repeal the hated curfew law, introduced by his father in 1068 to prevent not only fires, but also confederacies of Saxons plotting against Norman rule under cover of darkness. Every night since then, the curfew bell had been rung at eight o’clock, obliging everyone to damp down their fires.

  Matilda’s marriage drew England and Scotland closer together, and she probably played no small role in helping to accomplish this. Her brothers sought brides at the English court. Around 1107, Alexander I, King of Scots, would marry Sybilla, one of Henry I’s bastard daughters, and before Christmas 1113, “the arguments and petitions of the Queen” persuaded the King to allow her younger brother, the future David I of Scots, who probably lived at Henry I’s court as a dependent from around 1100, to wed Henry’s cousin and ward, Maud, daughter and heiress of Waltheof, Earl of Huntingdon and Northumbria, and widow of Simon de St. Liz (or Senlis), Earl of Huntingdon, through whom the earldom of Huntingdon became attached to the Scottish Crown.15

  Matilda’s innate qualities made her a queen contemporaries could respect. “Successes did not make her happy, nor did troubles make her sad. Troubles brought a smile to her, successes fear. Beauty did not produce weakness in her, nor power pride; she alone was both powerful and humble, both beautiful and chaste.”16


  Matilda resided often at Westminster. In her day it boasted a magnificent new hall—at 240 feet by 67 the largest then seen in England (if not Europe), with walls 6 feet thick—built by William Rufus probably around the shell of the Confessor’s hall.17 It soared to a height of forty feet, and halfway up, a clerestory gallery ran all the way around the walls; fragments of the Norman windows could still be seen in the nineteenth century. The original wooden roof18 was supported by a row of posts along either side. At one end stood the King’s marble throne, which would have resembled a classical-style stool, perhaps decorated with lions’ heads or feet.19

  Westminster Hall, which still stands today and continues to be used for important state occasions, such as the lying-in-state of monarchs, was a bold statement of the king’s power and splendor, and its magnificence probably accounted for Westminster becoming the premier royal residence and—later in the twelfth century—the center of the royal administration. The hall was often used for state ceremonies and feasting. Then as now, it played an important role in government; in 1102 Henry I held his first meeting of the Great Council there. To the south of it lay a yard that remained from the Confessor’s palace, which is still called Old Palace Yard. Queen Matilda issued at least eight charters at Westminster.20

  There was a chapel in the palace, possibly the one dedicated to St. Stephen, which is first mentioned in 1184. It may have been founded by King Stephen,21 or even by William the Conqueror, whose abbey in Caen was dedicated to St. Étienne. The chapel was rebuilt in the thirteenth century by Henry III and Edward I to rival the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris.

  Matilda loved Westminster Abbey, and would often lie for whole days and nights in prayer and penance before the shrine of Edward the Confessor, who had been revered as a saint since his death in 1066, but not yet been formally canonized. She gave to the abbey relics of the cell and garments of her favorite saint, St. John the Evangelist, which were kept in the chapel specially dedicated in his honor, and Henry I’s charter and other grants to the abbey were bestowed “at the prayer of Queen Matilda.” She herself gave to Westminster land along the Thames shore in London.22 A fifteenth-century inventory of the abbey lists the gifts she donated, among them a black woven girdle embroidered in gold with the words of the hymn Nesciens Mater and the prayer “Deus qui salutis.” She also gave a relic of St. Mary Magdalene and a bone of St. Christine, who was said to have been tortured to death for her faith in the third century.23

  Waltham Abbey, Essex, part of the Queen’s dower, yielded an annual income of £100. There had been a church on the site in the seventh century, and the abbey had been founded and rebuilt by King Harold, who was buried there after his defeat at Hastings.24 In the last decade of the eleventh century, work had begun on a new Norman church, although in Matilda’s time this was as yet unfinished—it was not completed until 1150. A massive cruciform building, in appearance similar to Durham Cathedral, Waltham was famous for its miraculous black cross or rood; around 1016, instructed in a dream, a blacksmith at Montacute had climbed a hill and unearthed this cross. When it was placed on a cart, the oxen refused to go in any other direction than Waltham, and dragged it all the way there. Pilgrims from far and wide came to venerate it, making the abbey very rich.

  The Queen employed servants from Waltham Abbey. She held court there, according to the King’s charter granting her the property, gave gifts, and interested herself in the community’s affairs. Geoffrey, one of her chaplains, was a canon of the abbey, and later its dean. Around 1108–15, Matilda authorized the canons to hold an annual fair, which would boost the abbey’s revenue.25

  Malmesbury Abbey was another of Matilda’s dower properties, a “place where she herself ruled,” and which was “closely associated with her household.”26 The monks would later testify that she “helped in almost all our affairs and gave solace for the most part in all things and endowed our church with a royal dowry. We were cherished richly by her mercy. Indeed, religion shone abundantly in that government, where the fullness of all charity excelled.”27

  Other religious institutions that benefited from Matilda’s largesse were Durham Cathedral and the abbeys of Abingdon, Barking, Wilton, St. Albans, Selby, St. Peter’s in Gloucester, St. Mary’s in Tavistock, St. Mary’s in York, St. Mary’s in Northampton, St. Mary’s in Huntingdon, and Merton Priory. Outside England she issued many charters confirming gifts to monasteries, among them the abbeys of Troarn near Bayeux, Saint-Vincent at Le Mans, Bec-Hellouin and Cluny.28 Her gift of a huge candelabrum prompted Bernard of Clairvaux to rant against the worldliness of Cluny, with its “great trees of brass fashioned with wondrous skill, glittering with jewels.”29


  It was important that kings and queens looked the part, dressing magnificently to proclaim their majesty. Fashions were slow to change in the Middle Ages, but by the 1090s, the sleeves of the tunic, or robe, had become wider and more flowing, and women’s gowns were now “as long behind as they were before,
” trailing all around them on the floor, while the bodice was closer-fitting. Sleeves grew so long that they had to be knotted to keep them from sweeping the ground. Yet Matilda seems not to have been interested in fashion or personal adornment. It has been said that her seal shows her in the costume of fifty years earlier,30 but the seal may be based on that of Matilda of Flanders, which does not survive.31 The second Matilda wears almost the same costume in which her daughter and her grandson’s Queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, would later be portrayed on their seals. Yet other evidence suggests that she did not make the most of her attributes, and spurned artifice, preferring to be her natural self, according to a poem dedicated to her by Marbodius, Bishop of Rennes:

  It is the value of this work to have seen a queen to whom none

  can be compared in beauty of body and face.

  Though she alone hides it under a loose dress,

  desiring to disguise it with unusual modesty,

  she cannot hide it because it shines with its own light

  and the sun piercing the clouds sets the rays in motion.

  Outstanding customs and words flowing with honey:

  it is better to be silent than to speak too little of it.

  Other women affect what nature denied them,

  paint their purple cheeks with snowy milk.

  The embalmed face draws together painted colours,

  distinguishing signs by the adultery of art.

  In some, bands compress the projecting breasts

  and a draped dress suggests a long flank.

  They partly uncover their hair with an extended [shaved] forehead

  and wish to please with iron-wrought curls.

  You, O Queen, fear to seem beautiful, because you are,

  having gifts freely which others purchase.

  It is better to have openly what nature blessed you with;

  you would be ungrateful to God if you denied His gifts.

  You wish to hide your lighted lantern under a bushel:

  it is not yours, but the gifts of a giving Lord that you have.

  A virgin, though modest, may yet look beautiful

  and a lovely form suit a chaste mind.

  O royal spouse born from royal forebears!

  Great things cannot be covered, small usually lie hidden.

  Your fame will live as long as my songs live,

  and he who reads my writings will sing of you.32


  “Lust for Glory”

  The English court was the seat of government and a major administrative center, and the royal household that moved about with the King and Queen was the greatest establishment in the kingdom. We know something about how Henry I’s court functioned from the “Constitutio Domus Regis” (“The Establishment of the King’s Household”), drawn up around 1136.1

  Two officers of state shared responsibility for the court. The Master Chamberlain ruled over the King’s house or hall, and was responsible for guarding the jewels and treasure he carried with him. From this office evolved another, that of Treasurer. The Seneschal, or Steward, with his white staff of office, was in charge of the domestic services that supported the King’s house, including the kitchens. He enjoyed the status of a baron, and under him came the Master Butler—who took care of the wine, varieties of both red and white being imported and enjoyed in this period—and the Sewer, who arranged the seating at table. The royal household was also a military concern. The Constable was in command of the household knights and archers, and his subordinate, the Marshal, kept order in the royal residences and arranged tournaments.2 Matilda of Scotland’s household was headed by her chamberlain, who was called Alwin,3 and she had her own chancellor and chaplains.

  The court encompassed most of the government departments, which, apart from the treasury at Winchester, traveled around with the King. It was only in the latter half of the twelfth century that these departments began to be established at Westminster.

  They were run by officers of state. The Chancellor kept the King’s Great Seal and was responsible for the clerks of the writing chamber, who scribed documents and writs and kept records. He presided over the Court of Exchequer—literally a table with a checked cloth—that administered the royal revenues. The role of his subordinate clerk was to evolve into that of Chancellor of the Exchequer. The Chancellor also had responsibility for the royal chapels, which he delegated to the King’s chaplains.4 The chief officers all received a wage of 5s. a day, and had the privilege of dining at the King’s table. They also enjoyed lavish daily perquisites of fine and ordinary bread, a large wax candle, forty candle ends and eight gallons of wine.


  The court was a hub of patronage and culture, in which Matilda was highly influential. Her literary and musical interests were famous. It was almost certainly she who asked a poet called Benedeit to translate his Latin poem “The Voyage of St. Brendan” into French:

  Lady Mahaut, who Queen

  By the grace of Heaven hath been

  Y-crowned, who this land hath blest

  With peace and wholesome laws and rest,

  Both by King Henry’s stalwart might

  And by thy counsels, mild and bright.

  For this, their holy benisons,

  May the Apostles shed, each one,

  A thousand thousandfold on thee!

  And since thy mild command hath won me

  To turn this goodly history

  Into romance, and carefully

  To write it out and soothly [truthfully] tell

  What to St. Brendan erst befell,

  At thy counsel I undertake the task right gladly.5

  In the sixth century, the Irish saint had made missionary voyages to Iona and other parts of Scotland, which would have been of more interest to Matilda. The poetic cycle of St. Brendan’s voyage may have been recited at the Easter court of 1107 or 1108.6

  Some thought Matilda extravagant in her patronage of singers and scholars. William of Malmesbury complained:

  She had a singular pleasure in hearing the service of God, and on this account was thoughtlessly prodigal towards clerks of melodious voice. She addressed them kindly, gave to them liberally, and promised still more abundantly. Her generosity becoming universally known, crowds of scholars, equally famed for verse and for singing, came over [to England], and happy did he account himself who could soothe the ears of the Queen by the novelty of his song. Nor on these only did she lavish money, but on all sorts of men, especially foreigners, that, through her presents, they might proclaim her celebrity abroad. For the desire for fame is so rooted in the human mind that hardly anybody is satisfied with the reward of a good conscience, but is fondly anxious. Hence it was justly observed that the disposition crept upon the Queen to reward all the foreigners she could, while others were kept in suspense, sometimes with effectual, but oftener with empty promises. Hence too it arose that she fell into the error of prodigal givers: bringing many claims on her tenantry, exposing them to injuries, and taking away their property, by which, obtaining the credit of a liberal benefactress, she little regarded the sarcasms of her own people.

  Naturally the scholars were not among the grumblers. “The English poets of those days made full notable verse” lauding her “courtesy, humility, silence and other good manners.”7 William of Malmesbury, himself one of her tenants, frowned on Matilda’s “lust for glory” and lack of consideration for her people, yet defended her in part, asserting that her servants had designs of their own. “Harpy-like, they conveyed everything they could gripe into their purses, or wasted it in riotous living. Her ears being infected with the base insinuations of these people induced this stain on her noble mind, holy and meritorious in every other respect.” Lingering concerns about Matilda’s indiscriminate liberality would dog her to the end of her life,8 and there is evidence that for a time she did impose harsh taxes on her tenants.

  Yet it was at her request, expressed during a visit she made to Malmesbury shortly before her death,9 that Will
iam of Malmesbury wrote his Gesta Regum Anglorum, a history of the deeds of the kings of England, which was dedicated to her, and is such a rich source for the period. She had earlier spoken to him and his fellow monks about the blessed St. Aldhelm,10 in whose kinship she took well-deserved pride, having investigated his genealogy and found that she was related to him. William recounted: “She asked that we set forth his whole family in a little book, asserting that it was not unworthy to be honoured as in the old way with a volume of the deeds of the English kings. Nor could our humility deny what such royal authority willed. We therefore had the required document prepared with the list and names and years of the kings of the English. Then, indeed, allured by the desire for a larger narration with easy sweetness, she prevailed on us to do a full history of her ancestors.”11 Matilda may also have helped to fund the journeys that William made in order to do his research.12

  William of Malmesbury may have criticized Matilda’s actions during her early years as queen, but his work—which was not finished in her lifetime—reveals great admiration for her. He patently admired her kindness, amiability, piety and literary patronage. Later he made it clear that he thought her a candidate for sainthood.13


  “The Common Mother of All England”

  For several years Matilda kept up a correspondence with Archbishop Anselm. Her learning is evident in her many quotations from the Bible and the Church Fathers—Saints Paul, Jerome, Gregory and Augustine—and the Greek and Roman philosophers, notably Quintilian and Cicero’s moving essay on old age, Cato Maior de Senectute.1 Six of her letters to Anselm survive. Letters from queens are rare in this period, and while they are characterized by the sometimes startling stilted formal and rhetorical style of the age, Matilda’s give insights into her emotional character and her piety. They would have been dictated to a clerk, not written in her own hand. No holograph letters of English queens survive from before the fifteenth century.

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