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

  Matilda was twenty-one and Henry thirty-four when their first child, a girl, was born, on 7 February 1102,20 probably at Sutton. The chronicler William FitzStephen, writing many years later, is probably incorrect in stating that she was born in London, and there is no evidence that she was born at Winchester, as some historians have suggested. She was baptized Matilda—or Maud, as she will be known here, to avoid confusion—after her mother, to please the Norman barons,21 although within the family she was called by the Saxon name Aethelice,22 which is probably the name her mother had chosen. Possibly the child was given both Saxon and Norman baptismal names.

  The assertion by Robert Wace that Matilda was in childbed in July 1101, and bore a daughter Euphemia soon afterward, must be incorrect. For Euphemia to have been born at the end of July or early in August 1101, she must have been conceived on the wedding night or soon after, but Maud would have had to be conceived in May. The earliest a woman can ovulate after giving birth is twenty-five days. Had Matilda borne a child in the summer of 1101, the first possible date on which she could have gotten pregnant again was around the end of August, in which case her child would have been expected around 7 June. Thus it is unlikely that Matilda ever bore a child called Euphemia. Probably she was suffering the discomforts of early pregnancy when Robert saw her at Winchester.

  Maud “was born of ancient lineage, most noble and royal on both sides,”23 and in her mingled the royal blood of the Saxons and the Normans. For eighteen months, while she was Henry’s sole issue, she was the heir to his dominions. She took after him greatly in character, apparently resembling her mother very little, although Matilda had great influence over her upbringing in childhood. There is no record of the child being placed in a convent to be educated, and it has been suggested that this was because of Matilda’s own unhappy experiences in youth.24 Maud almost certainly stayed with her mother until she was married, and it was under Matilda’s auspices that she was taught to read Latin and imbued with a strong sense of piety.


  “Daughter of Archbishop Anselm”

  On 25 May 1102, Matilda presided alone over the Whitsun court at Westminster, for the King was away quelling a minor baronial rebellion. Later that year she became involved in a long-running dispute between the Archbishops of Canterbury and York; Canterbury’s primacy had been established under William I, but they were still wrangling over whether York owed obedience to Canterbury.

  In September, Anselm convened an ecclesiastical council at Westminster. It began badly, as his seat was set higher than that of Archbishop Gérard of York, who threw a tantrum, kicking furniture over and refusing to sit down until his chair was level with Anselm’s.1 Ranulf Flambard, Bishop of Durham, was present. Henry had imprisoned him in the Tower of London for embezzlement, but he had escaped and later been pardoned. He now offered both the King and Queen bribes to rule in favor of Canterbury, but neither heeded him, because Henry knew “full well which side could make the better offer.”2 Later that year, the Pope censured Gérard and ordered him to swear an oath to Anselm.

  On 13 January 1103, Matilda was present when Henry settled a dispute between William, Abbot of Fécamp, and Philip de Braose. By then, relations between Archbishop Anselm and King Henry were fraught. They had quarreled over the burning issue of the day, that of who had the right to appoint and invest bishops and abbots—the Pope or the King. Kings had long enjoyed this right, and that of receiving homage from prelates for lands held by them, and some monarchs, having been hallowed by holy oil at their coronations, were reluctant to concede that they were not sufficiently sanctified to carry out investitures.

  The great dispute had arisen in 1075 during the famous contest between the Roman Emperor Heinrich IV and the Papacy. Heinrich IV had famously presented himself as a penitent at the castle of Canossa in Italy in 1077 and submitted to Pope Gregory VII, and Gregory thereafter banned investiture by laymen, but the dispute had nevertheless dragged on and become a struggle for supremacy between the Church and the monarchs of Christendom.

  Several bishops felt strongly about the issue. Matilda’s own chancellor, Reynelm, had been nominated bishop of Hereford by the King at Christmas 1102, but Anselm, vigorously taking the Pope’s part, refused to consecrate him, whereupon Reynelm dutifully returned his crozier and ring on the grounds that his appointment had been uncanonical.3

  Anselm had spoken to Matilda of the growing tension between him and the King, and in the autumn of 1102 he wrote urging her to use her influence with Henry to put an end to it:

  I give thanks to God and to your Highness for the good will which you have for me and for the Church of God, and I pray Almighty God in His love to increase your devotion, and so make you persevere in it that you may receive an eternal reward from Him. I also pray that he may cause your good intention to progress in such a way that through you the heart of our lord the King may turn away from “the counsel of princes,” which the Lord rejects and be made to follow God’s counsel “which stands firm for ever.” I gratefully accept your counsel and exhortation as from a lady and friend in God, for I realise that they proceed from the love of God. If it pleases your love to send me information about anything, you can safely tell it by word of mouth to the bearer of this letter as if to myself. May Almighty God guide all your actions and protect you from all evil.4

  Matilda made no secret of the fact that she sided with Anselm. In the spring of 1103, witnessing a charter at Rochester, she signed herself “Queen Matilda, daughter of Archbishop Anselm.”5 In defying her husband the King on this crucial issue, she showed that she was decidedly her own woman, capable of thinking for herself and adhering to her principles. This difference of opinion caused tensions in the marriage. In 1104, Matilda would confide to Anselm: “My lack of moderation has disturbed the peace of mind of my lord the King and his nobles, and this has prevented the good, begun by your efforts, from being brought to an end.”6

  Matilda was apparently unaware that the Archbishop was about to leave England. In April, with his position in the kingdom becoming untenable, he departed for Rome to seek advice from the Pope, with a view to restoring peace to the English Church. Matilda was greatly distressed. Five of her six surviving letters to Anselm date from the period 1103 to 1106. In them, she frequently expressed her longing for his return. Anselm’s responses were guarded. It must have been clear that she was sincere in her concerns for him, but he knew that her first loyalty must be to Henry.

  In June or July 1103, he wrote to Matilda urging her to “strive for the peace and tranquillity of the churches in England.” He prayed “that God Himself may repay you in my stead for what I am unable to do myself.”7

  In August, Anselm wrote again, in response to an inquiry from Matilda about his well-being. He assured her that God had kept him “in complete prosperity. Up to now I have been staying at Bec, waiting for a suitable time to resume my journey; but in the near future, before the Assumption of Saint Mary, I shall start out from here with the intention of completing, God willing, what I have begun.” Ever assiduous in urging the Queen to spiritual perfection, he reminded her of her priorities:

  Since it is my duty to encourage you to desire the heavenly kingdom, I exhort, beg and advise with as much affection as I can that you do not have more pleasure in rejoicing exceedingly in the passing glory of an earthly kingdom than in yearning for the eternal bliss of the celestial one. You could do this more sincerely and efficaciously if you arranged the matters subject to your authority according to the design of God rather than to the design of men. Reflect on these things, tell them to our lord the King in private and in public, and repeat them often, and as far as they concern you consider them carefully again.

  He was clearly hoping that, through Matilda’s good offices, the King might be brought to cede the investiture argument to his Archbishop.

  He also told her he had “recently learnt that God is pleased to exalt the dignity of the kingdom of my lord the King and yours, and to restore, according to your
will, those things for your honour and use which were not to his liking or yours or that of your faithful servants.” As her faithful servant, Anselm rejoiced and gave thanks for this.8 It has been suggested that he was referring to Robert’s surrender of his pension,9 but that had been two years before, and Anselm would have heard of it long since. Since nothing else happening at that time was of such moment, it may well refer to an event that had been long awaited by the royal couple, which would restore security to the realm by settling the succession.


  “Reprove, Beseech, Rebuke”

  Matilda’s second child was a “delicate”1 boy whom Henry named William after his father, the Conqueror; he was born shortly before October 1103 at Winchester, and given the Saxon title “Atheling.”2 The Prince thrived, and was hailed as the embodiment of the united royal bloodlines, the fulfillment of a vision believed to have been vouchsafed to Edward the Confessor on his deathbed: “the hopes of England, like a tree cut down, would, through this youth, again blossom and bring forth fruit.”3

  The contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle asserted that there was a second son, Richard, who died young. Herman of Tournai says that this Richard drowned in 1120. Gervase of Canterbury, writing after 1180, and Robert of Gloucester, active in the late thirteenth century, both mention Queen Matilda’s son Richard, while in the fifteenth century John Hardying says Henry begot on her William, Richard and Maud. But all probably mistakenly assumed that Henry I’s bastard, Richard of Lincoln, Lord of Breteuil, who did drown in 1120, was actually his legitimate son by Matilda. William of Malmesbury states that Matilda had one son only, William. Three hundred years later, a Scots historian, Hector Boece, asserted that she had a daughter called Clarice, and sometimes one called Elizabeth, said to have been born around 1104, is listed as the youngest of Matilda’s children, but there is no contemporary evidence for the existence of either.

  At Matilda’s request, Anselm’s close friend, the elderly Gundulf, Bishop of Rochester, builder of the Tower of London, baptized the child in the Archbishop’s absence. Gundulf had always stood in high favor with the Norman kings; Matilda enjoyed his conversation and admired his holiness and good work, and they had become friends. He was “a kind intercessor” who always “confidently approached the King or Queen and often obtained from them some work of mercy or alleviation for those coming to him for help.”4 He was also an early exponent of the cults of the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, and celebrated the Feast of the Immaculate Conception at a time when it was a relatively new concept in the West and hugely controversial, theologians being unable to agree as to whether Mary had been subject to original sin.

  News of the birth of Henry’s heir had reached Rome by 23 November, when Pope Paschal II himself wrote to congratulate the King: “We have heard that you have had the male issue you so much desired by your noble and religious consort.” He tried in vain to persuade Henry not to oppose Anselm, and to submit on the investiture question, promising absolution for him and Matilda, and undertaking to cherish the son that that “noble and exemplary lady had borne him.” It all fell on deaf ears.

  Matilda would bear Henry no more children. “Satisfied with a child of either sex, she ceased having issue or to desire them.”5 The decision to cease having marital relations was apparently mutual. It may have coincided with Henry’s affair with the beautiful Welsh Princess Nest, daughter of Rhys ap Twedwr, last King of Deheubarth (south Wales) and ancestor of the Tudor dynasty that ruled England from 1485 to 1603. Nest, whose fame was legendary, while her love affairs were notorious, bore the King a son, Henry FitzHenry, around 1103.

  Possibly Henry ceased sleeping with his wife because he was put off by her close contact with the poor and diseased, which may be one reason why he left her in England when he made his frequent sojourns in Normandy; she is known to have accompanied him there only once. There may have been a physical problem that prevented her from conceiving again, such as an injury in childbirth, which might have rendered intercourse painful or out of the question. Maybe Matilda merely objected to Henry’s “frequent snoring”6 and preferred not to share a bed with him. We have also to consider that taking opposing sides in the investiture dispute may have driven a rift between the couple.


  The year 1104 was one of conflict. When Anselm got to Rome, the Pope excommunicated those English bishops who had been invested by the King, and Henry, in retaliation, forbade Anselm to return. When Matilda heard that Henry had written to Pope Paschal II offering to reinstate the Archbishop if Paschal would cede the investiture argument, she wrote a passionate letter to the Pope, pleading with him to settle the matter:

  I visit the threshold of the most holy Roman Apostolic seat and, as far as it is lawful and I am able, clasping your paternal knees with my whole heart, my whole soul, my whole mind, praying with importune and opportune petition, I cease not, nor will I cease, to entreat, till I know that my submissive humility, or rather the persevering importunity of my application, is heard by you.

  She reminded him that England had once had a “pious father,” Anselm, but now the people had been deprived of that blessing.

  In such lugubrious mourning, in such opprobrious grief, in such deformity and loss of our kingdom, nothing remains to me, stunned as I am, but, shaking off my stupor, to fly to the blessed Apostle Peter and his vicar, the Apostolic man. Let your paternal bowels be moved towards us, that we may both rejoice at the return of our dearest father, Archbishop Anselm.7

  In response, Paschal wrote to both Matilda and Henry. His letter to the King was uncompromising. He reminded him that he had twice before admonished him, but that the situation had since deteriorated. Henry had set himself up against God by assuming the right of investiture, which belonged only to Christ. Paschal warned that, unless the King rectified his errors, received Anselm back in his rightful place, and recognized the freedoms of the Church, he would have no choice but to excommunicate him.8

  To Matilda, “his dearest daughter,” the Pope wrote in a gentler vein, saying he was

  greatly saddened about your husband because, although he started well at the beginning of his reign, he is now trying to spoil what follows. Now, having been placed in the fullness of power, he does not fear to provoke to fury the Almighty Lord. We do not believe that you are unaware of what this husband of yours promised the Almighty Lord in faithful devotion when he first accepted the royal crown. Now he has taken over the churches through investitures, and he has expelled the holy man, Bishop Anselm, from the kingdom because he opposed his wicked deeds. Therefore we fear greatly for his salvation.

  Paschal laid upon Matilda an onerous duty:

  Beloved daughter, we beg you to watch more carefully over his keeping and to turn his heart away from wrong counsel so that he will not continue provoking God’s fury so greatly against himself. Remember what the Apostle says: “The unbelieving husband will be saved by the believing wife.” Reprove, beseech, rebuke, so that he may reinstate the Archbishop in his See and permit him to act and preach as his office demands.

  If Henry did not heed her, or the Pope, he would face “perpetual anathema.”9

  Anselm, aware of the influence Matilda enjoyed with Henry, also spurred her to “beg, plead with and chide” her lord to make him back down. “Counsel these things, intimate these things publicly and privately to our lord the King, and repeat them often.”10 Matilda rose to the occasion, and succeeeded in retrieving for the archbishopric of Canterbury half the revenues of the see, which Henry had sequestered on Anselm’s departure.11

  Matilda’s letters reveal her understanding of the complex investiture controversy, and her fears for the English Church. It was at this time that she wrote her second letter to Anselm, calling herself his “lowliest handmaid.” When he wrote to her, she was ecstatic:

  The clouds of sadness in which I was wrapped were driven away, the stream of your words broke through to me like a ray of new light. I embrace the parchment sent by you in place of a father, I
press it to my breast, I move it as near to my heart as I can, I reread with my mouth the words flowing from the sweet fountain of your goodness, I go over them in my mind, I ponder them again in my heart and when I have pondered over them I place them in the sanctuary of my heart.

  She asked after Anselm’s nephew and namesake, who had entered an Italian monastery at a young age; the Archbishop took a paternal interest in his career. In the lines that follow, it is clear that Matilda was using all her sweet tact and diplomatic skills to smooth the path for a reconciliation:

  The confidence which I have in the prayers of good men and the benevolence which, after careful investigation, I consider comes from the heart of my lord, gives me assurance. For he is more kindly disposed towards you than most people might think. With God’s help and my suggestions, as far as I am able, he may become more welcoming and compromising towards you. What he now permits to be done concerning your revenues, he will permit to be done better and more abundantly in future when you ask for it in the right way and at the right time.12

  Anselm sent Matilda “boundless thanks” for “trying to soften the heart of my lord the King towards me. If he has any bitterness of heart towards me, I am not aware of ever having deserved it in any way at all.” Yet in this letter Anselm betrayed his anger toward Henry, and his determination to stand on principle:

  You promise me that the King will in future grant me better and more abundant access to our revenues, of which at present he allows me a small amount. I should not be ungrateful to your benevolence because you are doing this, as far as you are able, through your goodwill. But it should not be necessary to make me such a promise because no confiscation or decrease of them should take place against my will. Whoever advised him to appropriate any of these revenues advised him to commit a sin which is no slight one, nor one that should ever be tolerated.

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