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

  In the first of these letters to Anselm, written around 1102, she styled herself “Matilda, by the grace of God Queen of the English, his most humble handmaid,” and effusively expressed her indebtedness to him: “I am under great obligation to your kindness. You are such a brave athlete of God, a vanquisher of human nature, a man by whose untiring vigour the peace of the kingdom and the dignity of the priesthood have been strengthened and defended; such a faithful and prudent steward of God, by whose blessing I was sanctified in legitimate matrimony, by whose consecration I was raised to the dignity of earthly royalty, and by whose prayers I shall be crowned, God granting, in heavenly glory.” She exhorted Anselm to relax his long fasts and not to be so zealous in his ascetic habits, lest they make him ill, and to follow St. Paul’s comfortable advice to Timothy to drink wine for the stomach’s sake. “May your Holiness thrive in the Lord,” she ended, “and with your prayers do not give up helping me, your faithful handmaiden, who loves you with all the affection of her heart.”2

  Anselm’s replies to Matilda’s letters were generally reserved in tone, in contrast to her extravagant outpourings. Addressing her as “glorious Queen of the English, reverend lady, dearest daughter,” he thanked her for her generosity, and urged her, if she wished to render thanks for her marriage “in a proper, good and efficacious manner by your deeds, consider that Queen whom it pleased the Lord to choose for Himself as His bride from this world”—the Church. “Therefore, exalt, honour and defend this spouse so that with her and in her you may be pleasing to her spouse, God, and live, reigning with her, in eternal beatitude. Amen. May it be so.”3


  Between 1100 and 1107, Matilda commissioned Turgot, Prior of Durham, who had tutored her brothers and followed her to England, to write a life of her mother, Queen Margaret, who was already earning a reputation for saintliness. But it was not just the commemoration of her mother’s virtues that motivated Matilda as much as the desire to profit from her example, as Turgot perceived. He dedicated his work:

  To the honourable and excellent Matilda, Queen of the English, Turgot. The manner of life of your mother of venerable memory that pleased God, which you have heard spoken of so often with the harmonious praise of many, you ordered me to offer you in writing. You said you believed me to be especially appropriate for this since you had heard that, because of my great intimacy, with her I was aware in great part of her secrets. I willingly embrace these orders and these desires; embracing, I venerate them; venerating, I rejoice with you that you wish not only to hear but to see in writing the life of your mother, who always longed for the kingdom of the English; so that you, who knew the face of your mother too little, might have a fuller knowledge of her virtues. For the grace of the Holy Spirit, which gave her the power of virtues, will furnish me, I hope, with help to narrate them.4

  Matilda inspected the work when it was completed, and asked for it to be read to her.5 Hildebert of Lavardin acknowledged that the Queen had in her “all things of her mother,” so that, even though Margaret was in her sepulchre, she continued to illuminate the English realm with her merits.6 Certainly Matilda continued consciously to identify herself with, and emulate, her mother.

  Matilda corresponded with the great canon lawyer Ivo, Bishop of Chartres, who, confident of her liberality, sent her two canons, “who will tell you about the needs of our church and receive the favour God will inspire in your heart. I ask also that, in order to impress the memory of your excellence more sharply on my mind, you send a chausuble or some other priestly garment to my smallness, which is fitting for a queen to give and a bishop to wear in celebration of the divine sacraments.”7

  Bishop Ivo was clearly keen to have an example of the renowned embroidery known as the opus Anglicanum, probably having heard that Matilda promoted English needlework. What he got were church bells, and the promise of money for a new roof for his church, for which he wrote a warm thank-you letter. Matilda’s gift would not go unnoticed, he declared. He had placed the bells “in a special place to be heard by the people who come together there. Whenever they are sounded to announce the hours, they touch the minds of the hearers renewing your memory in the hearts of individuals.”8 We do not know whether he ever received the chasuble he asked for, but the Queen did give a golden cross to Chartres Cathedral, and money to help repair the roof.9

  Matilda continued to correspond with Hildebert of Lavardin. After her marriage he sent a long letter full of extended homilies, in which he rejoiced in her honor and good reputation and reminded her that God had shown her much favor. “You were placed over the heads of the sons of men. You implored no one for the glory of your form, and you were made beautiful to the delight of a king. The Lord God did these things.” He ended with the exhortation: “Use your delights for the Queen, not for yourself.”10

  In another letter, Bishop Hildebert expressed his concern for Matilda’s health:

  Humble minister of Le Mans, Hildebert, to Matilda, venerable Queen of the English, to stand at the right hand of one at whose right the Queen assists in gold and varied vestment. I heard from the bearer of the presents that you are well in health and deigned to greet me; I am joyful about the first, from the second my name and glory are full. For I am convicted of sin by law and the church unless my spirit can rejoice and exult in the health of one whose health preserves reverence of laws and the status of the church unimpaired. For nothing is more fitting to make a Christian soul rejoice than the health of those by whom the integrity of laws and the status of the church is preserved unimpaired. I rejoice therefore and I shall rejoice as long as the breeze announces to my ears that you are safe, as long as I hear that you live and thrive as queen, on whom the power to judge crime and the behaviour to be an exemplar of honesty is conferred.11

  When Alexius I Comnenus, the Emperor of Byzantium, sent letters and gifts to Henry I, he did not omit to send them to Matilda too.12 And when Herbert de Losinga’s foundation at Norwich received cathedral status in 1101, Henry I, Matilda and Archbishop Anselm confirmed the charter under their seals. Now Bishop of Norwich, Herbert became Matilda’s clerk of the closet, and it was at his request that “Matilda the Good,” by divine will, granted the royal manor of Thorpe to the cathedral.13 A letter of high praise he wrote to her, likening her to the Virgin Mary, survives. In it she is once again compared to Queen Esther, “who delighted more in piety than in the daintiness of the kingdom, the eastern Queen [of Sheba] who filled the earthly Jerusalem with gowns and stones, unguents and spices, whose excellence amazed Solomon, but did not have a spirit beyond yours. So you, most blessed Queen, have so enriched our west with wealth of faith and virtues, customs and acts, that we do not wish to adhere with similar love to any beyond what we have.”14

  It was Herbert who wrote a prayer for Matilda, calling her “the common mother of all England,” and signing it, “Herbert, her priest of Norwich.” He may also have composed for her his long prayer lauding the virtues of virginity and invoking the disciple John the Evangelist, to whom Matilda had a special devotion. It reads: “Before all other saints I have chosen you alone. Indeed, I have chosen as my patron the one whom I hear to have been beloved above all others.”15

  Matilda might have overspent on singers and versifiers, but she otherwise lived up to her reputation. She was “an assiduous visitor of the sick, a continual reliever of the poor, a fellow sufferer with prisoners, a minister to women with child, and one who in everything showed herself to be a most humble servant of Christ.”16 “Clothes, meat and bedding, new and undefiled, and wine and ale she gave when she saw need,” throughout the land.17 The annalist of Westminster Abbey recorded: “This Queen would, every day in Lent, walk from her palace to this church, barefoot and bare-legged, and wearing a garment of hair.” William of Malmesbury says she wore “hair cloth under her royal habit.” A chafing hair shirt worn next to the skin was a form of penance, its purpose being to mortify the flesh. Public penance had a newly special significance in Matilda’s day. From the late ele
venth century, absolution was given before penance was performed, rather than after, as hitherto, and the display of penance proclaimed to onlookers that the sinner was in a state of grace.18

  It had been the Lenten custom of her parents, Malcolm and Margaret, to wash the feet of the poor in emulation of Christ,19 and Matilda likewise “would wash and kiss the feet of the poorest people, and give them alms. Nor was she disgusted at washing the feet of the diseased, handling their ulcers dripping with corruption, and finally pressing their hands, for a long time together, to her lips, and decking their table.”20

  Matilda’s brother David later recounted to Aelred of Rievaulx an episode that had occurred at the Easter court of 1105: “When I was a youth, serving at the royal court, one night I was in my quarters with my companions. I went up to the Queen’s apartments when I was summoned by the Queen herself, and behold—the place was full of lepers, and there was the Queen standing in the middle of them. And, taking off a linen cloth she had wrapped around her waist, she put it into a water basin and began to wash and dry their feet, and kissed them most devotedly when she was bathing them, and drying them with her hands.”

  “My lady! What are you doing?” David cried. “Surely if the King knew about this, he would never deign to kiss you with his lips after you had been polluted by the putrefied feet of lepers!”

  Matilda smiled. “Who does not know that the feet of the Eternal King are to be preferred over the lips of a king who is going to die? Surely for that reason I called you, dearest brother, so that you might learn such works from my example. Take some cloths and do in the same way what you see me doing.” David was “greatly terrified,” and “unable to say anything in return to her.” Leprosy was then incurable, and it was one of the most feared contagious diseases of medieval times. Those who contracted it had the funeral rite said over them and were cast out of their communities to live as social pariahs; when approaching human habitations they had to wear prescribed attire and carry a clapper to warn of their coming. But, David recalled, Matilda “began vehemently insisting, and I, to my shame, laughingly returned to my companions.”21 The Queen’s courageous ministrations demonstrated her invincible faith in divine protection, which must have been bolstered by the fact that she did not become a leper herself. The episode gained wide currency and persisted for centuries as evidence of Matilda’s saintliness.


  “Most Noble and Royal on Both Sides”

  Queen Matilda’s eldest child was a short-lived girl, born on 31 July 11011 in Winchester, and given the Scots name Euphemia. But according to William of Malmesbury, writing in 1125, and better informed, as he knew her personally, Matilda had just two children with Henry I, and neither was called Euphemia.

  The early weeks of her first pregnancy were overshadowed by an invasion of England led by Robert Curthose, who had returned from the crusade and was determined to secure the restitution of the lands of his great ally, William de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, which Henry I had confiscated as punishment for Warenne’s support of Robert. In the summer of 1101, Robert landed an army at Portsmouth and marched north through Hampshire. His goddaughter, Queen Matilda, was said to have been in confinement at Winchester, and when Robert was informed, he “showed her great kindness” in refraining from mounting an assault on the city, declaring, “it should never be said he commenced the war by an assault on a woman in childbed, for that would be a base action.”2 In fact Matilda was not in confinement or childbed at this time, as will become clear, although she was expecting a child. Possibly she was suffering from morning sickness or a threatened miscarriage.

  Robert was aware that Henry had raised an army and was lurking at Arundel, determined to be avenged on his brother for coming to England uninvited if he did not return to Southampton immediately and sail for home. Fortunately for him, Robert, Count of Meulan, the son of Roger de Beaumont, came to see him.

  “Sire,” he advised, “the Queen is apprised of the news, and you know that you showed her great kindness when you gave up the assault on Winchester because she lay in childbed there. Hasten to her and commit yourself and your people to her care, and I am sure she will guard you from all harm.”

  Robert hastened to see Matilda, who received him in friendship and assured him of her protection. She and Anselm worked together to bring about a good accord between Henry and Robert, but still the brothers quarreled, and Henry had Robert arraigned on various charges; it was Robert who backed down and asked for terms. That July, the two protagonists and their armies met at Alton and agreed a treaty, with Robert renouncing his claim to England, Henry renouncing his to Normandy and both undertaking to make the other his successor. At Matilda’s behest, Henry agreed to pay Robert a substantial annual pension of three thousand marks.

  The Queen entertained Robert well afterward, and when he was drunk, she brought her considerable diplomatic skills to bear on him, and asked if, in return for the restoration of Warenne’s lands, he would assign to her the pension Henry had awarded him, implying that she needed the money to supplement her revenues. Henry had probably put her up to it.

  Robert thought about her request, “as if contending with Fortune whether she should give or he squander most,” and, “discovering the mere wish of the Queen, who silently desired it, kindly forgave the payment of this immense sum for ever, thinking it a very great matter that female pride should condescend to ask a favour, though he was her godfather.”3 “Cheerfully,” without a word of protest, he granted an acquittance of the pension and “surrendered to the Queen’s pleasure an immense sum of money, because she desired it,”4 telling Henry afterward, “I have quitted to the Queen all you owe me for this kingdom. Enter we now together into perfect amity.”

  Peace had been bought—for a time—but Robert had made the fatal mistake of trusting his brother.

  In August, he was at Henry’s court in London, and on 3 September, he was present at a meeting of the Great Council at Windsor, which was attended by the Queen, Archbishop Anselm and many nobles, including Matilda’s former suitor, William de Warenne.5 Soon afterward, Robert returned to Normandy, where his first act was to visit the tomb of his mother, Queen Matilda, at Holy Trinity, Caen, and present gifts to his sister Cecilia.


  Matilda’s younger sister Mary had probably left Romsey and come to the English court. In 1102,6 having tried unsuccessfully to wed the penniless Mary to his cousin, William, Count of Mortain, who had turned her down, Henry I arranged a marriage for her with one of the wealthiest landowners in England: Eustace III, Count of Boulogne, who was the son of Eustace II and Godgifu, daughter of King Cnut and Emma of Normandy, and “renowned for his prudence and valour.”7 It is likely that Mary was often at court in the early years of her marriage, for Eustace witnessed many of Henry I’s charters up to 1108. After that, defending his patrimony against the French kept him largely in Boulogne,8 where the couple resided in the comital castle, of which only the twelfth-century foundations of the keep—now the belfry, and the oldest building in the city—survive today. Mary was described as barren,9 for the marriage produced only one surviving child, Matilda (or Maud), who was most likely named for her aunt, the Queen. A son, known only from a charter of Queen Matilda of Boulogne to Durham Cathedral, given for the soul of, among others, “my brother,” must have died young.10 Mary was a staunch patroness of Bermondsey Priory, on the Surrey shore of the Thames opposite the Tower of London, near London Bridge.11 Founded in 1082 on the site of an ancient Saxon monastery in Southwark, and built on land granted by William the Conqueror, Bermondsey had a “new and handsome church” by the time of the Domesday survey, enjoyed the patronage of the Norman kings and the counts of Boulogne, and housed royal lodgings within its precincts.


  Naturally, it was important to Henry that his Queen bear him an heir. Matilda may have suffered complications—or even a threatened miscarriage12—early in pregnancy, for in the summer of 1101, the King summoned Faricius, the Italian Abbot of Abingdon,
13 a Benedictine who was so renowned as a physician that he earned sufficient remuneration from his fees to rebuild the abbey’s nave and conventual buildings and commission many books for its library.14 “Skilled in all laws which medicine teaches, he won favour from kings for his healing gifts.”15 As Matilda’s pregnancy advanced, Henry sent her to stay near Abingdon Abbey, then in Berkshire, so that Faricius could attend her regularly. The Abbot was assisted in his care of Matilda by another Italian doctor, Grimbald, an interpreter of dreams, who slept in the King’s own bedchamber.16

  In the autumn of 1101, Faricius and Grimbald received several royal gifts dated at London or Abingdon, probably rewards for their services to the Queen.17 Later it would become customary for queens to be attended only by women during their confinements, setting a trend that would see men banished from birthing chambers for centuries, but in this period it was acceptable for male physicians to be in attendance, although it was recommended that they avoided looking the mother in the face, as women “were accustomed to be shamed by that during and after birth.”18

  Matilda was probably lodging three miles from the abbey at the Saxon royal palace at Sutton (known after c.1177 as Sutton Courtenay). Between September 1101 and February 1102, Henry issued three royal writs from there. Only a vaulted undercroft remains from this period, beneath Norman Hall (which dates from 1192) and the manor house, which was built on the site of the palace and dates from the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries. While the Queen was at Sutton, the Abbot brought to her attention the state of disrepair into which a royal residence at nearby Andersey had fallen, and she used her influence with the King to have it demolished and the lead, stone and timber conveyed to Abingdon for the building of the abbey.19

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