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

  Nevertheless, Matilda’s

  kindness prays me not to take my love away from my lord the King, but to intercede for him, for yourself, for your offspring and for your realm. I have always done this up to now. But as to the future I commit myself to the providence of God, with whom the son does not bear the iniquity of the father nor the wife that of her husband. I hope in God that I may not harbour any rancour against anybody in my heart which could separate me from God. May almighty God guard you and your offspring forever in His grace.13

  Later that year, probably in the summer, Matilda wrote her third surviving letter to Anselm, begging him to return to England. Once again, it is full of biblical quotations. She begged her “tender father” to

  bend this severity a little and soften—let me say it, with your leave—your heart of iron. Come and visit your people, and among them your handmaid who yearns for you from the depths of her heart. Find a way by which neither you, the shepherd who leads the way, may give offence, nor the rights of royal majesty be diminished. If these cannot be reconciled, at least let the father come to his daughter, the lord to his handmaid, and let him teach her what she should do. Let him come to her before she departs from this world. Indeed, if I should die before being able to see you again—I speak shamelessly—I fear that, even in the land of the living, every joyful occasion of exulting would be cut off. You are my joy, my hope, my refuge.14

  The next surviving letter written by Anselm to the Queen was sent in August 1104 in response to one of hers, in which she gently complained that one of his missives had offended the King and his barons unnecessarily by its “lack of moderation,” and impeded hopes of the reconciliation for which she was working so diligently. It had driven King Henry himself to write to Anselm to express his indignation. She added that the King and his advisers had also accused her of a lack of moderation in her last letter to Anselm, but she was adamant that “nothing indiscriminate, nothing unreasonable (although this was imputed to me in the King’s letter) can be found in what is written there.”

  In referring in his response to “the bitterness, sadness and solicitude” that Matilda was suffering on account of his absence, Anselm felt bound to remind her that it had “not been extended for so long through any fault of mine.” All he had done was tell Henry

  that I was not going to disobey the law of God. That distorted interpretation of my utterances, according to which I am said to have spoken unreasonably, I do not ascribe to the King’s mind or yours. The King received our letter kindly at first, according to what I heard, but later someone with a spiteful and insincere intention, I know not who, incited him against me by a distorted interpretation through no fault of mine. Who that may be I do not know; but I do not doubt that either he does not love, or does not know how to love, his lord. May Almighty God so favour you and your children with prosperity in this life that he may lead you to the happiness of the life to come.15


  “Incessant Greetings”

  Henry had grown up seeing his mother, Matilda of Flanders, acting as regent in Normandy, and doubtless been impressed by her abilities. She had proved to him that a woman could rule effectively, and he had seen how his father relied on her. He recognized similar qualities in his wife, and was confident that she would exercise similar jurisdiction with the same kind of statesmanship and efficiency. On 4 August 1104, he departed for Normandy, leaving Matilda ruling as regent in England, presiding over the Great Council in his absence, as she was to do several times in the future, and wielding informal but wide-ranging authority in his name.1 No chronicler thought it unusual that a woman should enjoy such autonomy in government.2 In fact, it would be observed, “Many were the good laws that were made in England through Matilda, the good Queen.”3

  Henry had conferred on her “the power to judge crime.”4 Riding around the kingdom, the Queen issued charters, heard lawsuits and criminal cases, and in so doing became the patroness of many royal justices, with whom she developed good working relationships. She carried on exercising patronage in her own right, making gifts of land and granting—for example—liberties to the canons of St. Mary of Huntingdon and a charter, sealed at Rockingham, to Lincoln Cathedral.5 In her autonomous position, she was able to influence the King’s patronage as well.6

  In August, Matilda was at Abingdon, lodging with a local worthy, Robert FitzHervey. She persuaded him to grant to her the knight service he owed his friend Robert Gernon, with Gernon’s consent, and gave it to Abingdon Abbey, along with valuable lead (used in construction, plumbing, pottery and food) from the royal hunting lodge on St. Andrew’s Isle on the Trent at Burton, Staffordshire.7 Between 1101 and 1113, she gifted St. Andrew’s Isle itself and land at Colnbrook and the manor of Langley Marish, both then in Buckinghamshire, to Abingdon Abbey.8 She was present in the abbey on 15 August when Abbot Faricius celebrated the feast of the Assumption.

  Thus was established the future pattern of Matilda’s life. Henry’s frequent absences in Normandy left her much to her own devices. “Enduring with complacency when the King was elsewhere employed the absence of the court, she continued many years at Westminster; yet was no part of royal magnificence wanting to her, but at all times crowds of visitors and news-bearers were, in endless multitudes, entering and departing from her superb dwelling. For this the King’s liberality demanded, this her own kindness and affability attracted.”9 She did not spend all her time at Westminster, but traveled widely around the country. We find her overseeing building works at the Tower of London and Windsor Castle. At the Tower, Henry I had probably begun the construction of the Wardrobe Tower, to house new royal lodgings.

  Matilda’s closest companions were perhaps the ladies and damsels who attended her daily. One of her maidens, Helisend, was widely celebrated for her skill in embroidery. Three others—Emma, Gunhilda and Christina—shared their mistress’s piety, and later retired to a hermitage at Kilburn, north of London; when it became a Benedictine priory in 1128, they were received as its first nuns.


  Henry returned to England in December 1104, kept Christmas at Kingsbury, Old Windsor, and spent the rest of the winter with Matilda at Northampton. Relations were fast deteriorating between the King and his brother Robert. In 1104, Robert, still clearly simmering about being tricked out of his annuity, had reproached Henry “with having cheated and despoiled him by employing the Queen to beguile him with fair words out of his pension when he was under the influence of wine.”10 The brothers were now on the brink of hostilities.

  The Norman barons’ patience with Robert’s misgovernment was at an end; the duchy was descending into chaos. They erupted in a timely rebellion, and appealed to Henry for aid to address their Duke’s incompetence. This gave him a pretext to invade Normandy in 1105. It has been suggested that Matilda went with him, although one source states that she stayed behind as regent in England.

  Henry took western Normandy, and pushed eastward. Fighting and negotiations between the brothers continued for months with no conclusive victory or peace.

  During this campaign, Serlo, Bishop of Sées, preached before the King, thundering that men wearing long hair “in women’s fashion” was only for those “bristling with sin,” while men with long beards were like “he-goats whose filthy vices are shamefully imitated by the degradation of fornicators and sodomites.” Henry, who himself had long hair and a beard, was suitably chastened, and allowed the Bishop personally to shear them off, whereupon his courtiers hurriedly followed his example.11

  It was around this time that Anselm rebuked Matilda for her treatment of the churches she held in dower. He was probably referring to the high rents of which William of Malmesbury complained. The Archbishop was not one to mince words, even when addressing the Queen:

  Let me speak briefly, but from the heart, as to that person whom I desire to advance from an earthly kingdom to a heavenly one. When I hear anything about you which is not pleasing to God or advantageous for you, and if I then neglected to admon
ish you, I would neither fear God nor would I love you as I should. After I left England I heard that you were dealing with the churches in your hands otherwise than is expedient for them or for your own soul. I do not wish to say here how you are acting—according to what I have been told—because to no one is it better known than to yourself. Therefore, I beseech you as my lady, advise you as my Queen and admonish you as my daughter—as I have done before—that the churches of God which are in your power should know you as mother, as nurse, as kind lady and queen. Again I beg, advise and admonish you, my dearest lady and daughter, not to consider these things heedlessly in your mind, but, if your conscience testifies that you have anything to correct in this matter, hasten to correct it so that in future you will not offend God, as far as this is possible for you through His grace. Concerning the past, if you see that you have failed in your duty, you should make Him favourable towards you.12

  This stinging admonishment from the Archbishop she so revered prompted Matilda to relax her demands on her tenants.13 Anselm was pleased to hear of it. He wrote:

  Your Highness gave me great joy with your letter, insofar as you have given me good hope about yourself. For the humble acceptance of disapproval and admonition is usually followed by hope of improvement. Therefore I give thanks to God who gives you the good will you indicated in your reply to me, and I give thanks to you that you maintain it with sweet affection.

  He referred to the seeming impossibility of his being able to return to England, as Matilda hoped. In her letter she had

  demonstrated sufficiently with holy and sweet affection that you desire my return to England. But I do not see that he in whose power my return chiefly rests—as far as it depends on a man—agrees in this matter with the will of God, and it would not be good for my soul to disagree with God’s will. I fear that he may realise too late that he has gone astray from the right path, having despised God’s counsel and having followed the advice of princes, which the Lord brings to nothing. I am certain, however, that he will realise this one day.14


  In August, Henry was back in England, determined to take Normandy from Robert and rule it himself. To finance the continuance of the war, he imposed a crippling tax on married clergy. Anselm had imposed celibacy on the English clergy and excommunicated all who refused to relinquish their wives, and Henry was enforcing it rigorously. In 1105, during a royal procession held “when the blast of this campaign of extortion was raging, two hundred priests, walking barefoot, went to the Queen and implored her to intervene” and ask the King to remit the taxes. But it is clear that Matilda stood in fear of her husband. “She was so touched with sympathy that she dissolved into tears, but was too frightened to intervene.”15 Possibly her influence was waning. Matilda’s support of Anselm may have undermined it, while the cessation of sexual relations between the royal couple may also have been a factor. Perhaps, too, Matilda did not support Henry’s offensive against her godfather Robert.16

  Henry and Matilda celebrated the Easter of 1106 at Bath, and in the early summer went on a progress that took them through Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire, where the King owned a house, the King’s Burgh, next to the church.17 He returned to Normandy in July, leaving Matilda as regent once more, advised by Robert Bloet, Bishop of Lincoln, and Roger, Bishop-elect of Salisbury, among others.


  In August 1106, to Matilda’s joy, Henry’s quarrel with Anselm was resolved. He had agreed to cede his authority over investitures in return for an assurance that the clergy would do homage to him for their temporal possessions, a solution suggested by the King’s sister, Adela, Countess of Blois.

  But when illness prevented Anselm’s return to England, Matilda wrote expressing her consternation, in her fourth surviving letter to him:

  To her dearest Lord and Father, Archbishop Anselm: Matilda, Queen of the English, wishing him the strength of good health.

  The sweetness of expected joy recently promised me the arrival of your Holiness. As great as was the joy and consolation you were about to grant me, so much greater was the disappointment of lonely sadness brought to me when that arrival was prevented by sickness. Knowing the affection of your Paternity for me, I come with pitiable weeping, begging that if your care for me has not completely melted away, you should put an end to the anxiety of my concern about your health by some messenger as soon as possible. I shall immediately rejoice either over your health and mine, or—which God in His mercy forbid—I shall suffer the blow of our mutual fate with indifference. May the most holy omnipotence of God make you healthy. Amen.18

  This was followed by another anxious letter:

  To her most beloved lord and father, Anselm, archbishop of Canterbury: Matilda, Queen of the English, sending incessant greetings with love and faithful service. The consoling love of your Holiness may not be unaware, dearly beloved father, that my soul will be seriously disturbed by your very long and wearisome absence. Indeed, the sooner and the closer the date of your desired return is promised to me by many people, the more it is desired by me, since I long to enjoy your presence and conversation. My soul, most reverend father, will therefore not be delighted by any perfect joy or brightened by any true affection until I am able to rejoice at seeing again your presence for which I long with all the strength of my soul. In the meantime, separated from you, I implore the mellifluous sweetness of your kindness to deign to console and gladden me by the charm of your correction and the charm of your letter. May the almighty and holy Lord protect you everywhere and make me happy by your return into my presence. Amen.19

  Matilda’s last extant letter to Anselm was probably written in the late summer of 1106, before his return, and refers to his kindness in writing to her informing her that he was restored to health. “You brighten the nebulous gloom of my soul through the light of renewed happiness. Holding your letter and the pleasing, oft-repeated reading of it, is, as it were, like seeing you again, although you are absent.” She gushed with praise over his erudite style of writing letters that were

  replete with meaning. They do not lack the seriousness of Fronto, the fluency of Cicero or the wit of Quintilian; the doctrine of Paul, the precision of Jerome, the learning of Gregory and the interpretation of Augustine are indeed overflowing in them. And what is even greater than all this: from them pours the sweetness of evangelical eloquence. Through this grace pouring over me from your lips, my heart, and my flesh thrill with joy at the affection of your love and the effect of your paternal admonition.

  She informed him that, relying on his favor, she had

  committed the abbey of Malmesbury, in those things which are under my jurisdiction, to Dom Eadwulf, a monk and once sacristan of Winchester, who I believe is known to you. You retain completely whatever pertains to that monastery for your own donation and disposition, so that the bestowal of the crozier and pastoral care is delivered wholly to the judgement of your discretion.20

  In leaving the decision on the election of Eadwulf open for Anselm’s approval, Matilda was effectively siding with the Archbishop on the issue of investiture.21

  Anselm replied that he “would gladly confirm your will if I could,” but for the fact that Eadwulf had sent him a bribe.

  In what pertains to you, you have acted well and according to the will of God, in what you did there; but he himself did something very foolish in this matter which he should not have done. For, by the same messengers who brought me the letters from you and from others about this case, he sent me a goblet. This goblet I did not wish to keep under any circumstances, but I was very sorry because I do not see how he can be excused from guilt in this matter.22

  Eadwulf was nevertheless elected abbot of Malmesbury in 1106. Possibly Matilda had interceded for him with Anselm.

  Matilda was overjoyed to welcome the Archbishop back at Dover in September. At his arrival there was “rejoicing of men of every age and rank.” As for the Queen, “no earthly concerns, no pageantry of this world’s glory, could keep her from going o
n before to the different places to which Anselm was coming. And as the monks and canons went out to meet the Archbishop, she went on ahead, and by her careful forethought saw to it that his various lodgings were richly supplied with suitable furnishings.”23


  “Pious Devotion”

  Henry’s ambition came to fruition on 28 September 1106, when, aged thirty-eight, he defeated Robert at the Battle of Tinchebrai, took Normandy and the title of duke for himself, and imprisoned his brother in England, keeping him in comfortable captivity for twenty-eight years in the Tower of London and later in the castles of Devizes, Bristol and Cardiff—until Robert’s death in 1134. Matilda’s aging uncle, Edgar Atheling, was also taken prisoner at Tinchebrai and brought to England, but, at her intercession, Henry pardoned him, for love of his Queen, who persuaded Henry to grant Edgar a pension.

  Thereafter Henry was master of Normandy, although Robert’s son, William Clito,1 Count of Flanders, would in years to come ineffectually press his claim to be the rightful King of England and Duke of Normandy, and in so doing become a constant thorn in Henry’s side.

  After the victory, Matilda joined Henry in Normandy and stayed for some months. This may have been her only visit to the duchy.2


  The last of Anselm’s letters to the Queen, written around 1106–07, relates to a man whom she used as an intermediary between her and the Archbishop, but who was now in trouble of some kind. She wanted Anselm to intercede with the King on the man’s behalf, but Anselm did not know enough about him to vouch for him. He wrote:

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