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

  The bearer of this letter brought me your seal with a letter from you. This indicated to me that you wish his disgrace to be driven from him by the testimony of my letter because of a certain act of expiation he had made, and that through my intercession he might regain from my lord the King what he had lost on the King’s order.

  I ought not, nor do I wish to disregard your will, but I am certain about the benevolence of your Highness, that you do not wish me to act otherwise than is fitting for me. Your prudence knows that it is not for me to give testimony about matters I have neither seen nor heard, but that it is for those who have seen. Nor is it for me to intercede for someone whose life and character I know nothing about, so that he may recover what he had lost by royal command. Therefore I pray that the benevolence of your Highness may not be displeased that I hesitate to do anything which I perceive not mine to do.

  May almighty God always protect and guide you with his blessing. Amen.3


  In January 1107, Matilda’s brother Edgar, King of Scots, died, and was succeeded by another brother, Alexander the Fierce. Henry and Matilda were still in Normandy, and from there the Queen wrote to Ivo, Bishop of Chartres, soliciting his prayers for Edgar’s soul. He responded:

  The reputation of your pious devotion has inspired the minds of many religious and sweetened them with a certain delight of holy love. Wherefore for the grace divinely conferred on us we give thanks to the Bestower of all goods who placed a man’s strength in a woman’s breast, not only to avoid shame and crime but also to give necessary aid to those in need. We pour out devoted prayers to God for the soul of your brother, the religious King, which, given our sins, are of little value though we are confident that his soul reposes in Abraham’s bosom.4

  In March, Matilda and Henry were together at Rouen.5 It may have been during her visit that the philosopher and scientist Adelard of Bath, who had studied at the cathedral schools in France, played the cithara—an early form of guitar—for her and some French students.6

  Henry returned to England during Lent, and spent Easter, which fell on 21 April, at Old Windsor.7 But Matilda must have remained for a time in Normandy, for that same Easter she issued a charter at Lillebonne.8 She probably returned to England in time to keep Whitsun with Henry at Westminster.9

  In 1107, for the weal of her father’s soul, Matilda gifted Old Bewick, Northumberland, the manor of his assassin, Archil Morel, to Tynemouth Priory, where Malcolm had been interred in 1093 after his death at Alnwick.10 Soon his body would be returned to Scotland for reburial at Dunfermline Abbey.11

  On 11 August, the King and Queen were at Canterbury to witness Anselm consecrating those bishops who had been elected during his absence, among them Reynelm, Matilda’s former chancellor.12

  Now that Normandy was his, Henry was to spend about two-thirds of his time there, while Matilda invariably stayed in England. This was probably an arrangement that suited them both; the signs are that they were growing even further apart.

  Henry left Anselm as regent when he crossed to Normandy in July 1108. However, the Archbishop’s health was failing, and by 1109, Matilda was again acting as regent in concert with the Chancellor, Roger “the Great,” Bishop of Salisbury, whose power was now “second only to the King.” The Queen and the Bishop appear to have worked harmoniously together, and he was no doubt grateful for her gifts to his cathedral. Bishop Roger established the Exchequer and laid the foundations of an enduring centralized administrative system of government,13 independent of the itinerant court, and as this evolved, Matilda’s executive powers as regent gradually declined. Nevertheless, for the rest of her life she would attend council meetings and issue charters.

  Around 1109, Herbert de Losinga, Bishop of Norwich, wrote to the Queen and Bishop Robert asking if they would restore an exemption from geld due from his manor of Thorpe. He was not sure if he was appealing to the right persons; should he approach the King on his return? In his letter to Matilda he wrote:

  I have said little though I desire to say much; but I feared to add burdens to the royal business which you administer with praiseworthy solicitude. I seek high things, but the accustomed favours of your munificence have strengthened my presumption to seek high things. May your greatness greet the lord Bishop of Salisbury on my part, telling him not to find occasion to forsake my love, scornful of my poverty, nor to believe enemies about his friends. Further about my sickness, which your excellency deigned to ask about, your brother and our son Starnard, who bore the present letters to you, will answer.

  To Bishop Roger he wrote: “You will not find our lady the Queen to be difficult in this matter, for out of her kindness she has been a very mother to me. It is well known that she takes advantage of your advice in all matters.” In the end, it was the King who granted the exemption.14


  As her political influence declined, Matilda had other projects to occupy her. Henry had granted her the same soke of Ethelred’s Hythe in London that his mother had held. By 1152, it had been renamed Queenhithe after Matilda, who was entitled to duty on goods that were landed there. This was a privilege that would be enjoyed by succeeding queens of England. Matilda built a “necessary house,” or latrine, with piped water, near the shore to accommodate sailors and officials.15

  Soon after 1106,16 she built a leper hospital at St. Giles in the Fields, outside the City of London, for the afflicted were not allowed inside its walls. In this she was following the example of her mother, Queen Margaret, who had founded a leper hospital in Edinburgh. Matilda funded this project with 60s. a year out of her revenues from Queenhithe.17 She appointed her chaplain John as its head.18 The thirteenth-century chronicler Matthew Paris called St. Giles “a memorial for Queen Matilda.”

  Nearly five hundred years later, John Stow, the Elizabethan antiquarian, recorded that, when the hospital was dissolved at the Reformation and its chapel became a parish church, the guardians still cared for “fourteen persons leprous, according to the foundation of Matilda the Queen, which was for leprous persons in the City of London and the shire of Middlesex.”19

  Matilda was responsible for other beneficial building projects, which would have been regarded as “practical works of mercy.”20 Having been almost drowned—or at least “well washed”—riding across the River Lea at Stratford, east of London, she erected a “beautiful bridge” there, with stone arches and a chapel, “for the benefit of travellers,” and had the approach well paved with gravel. “Before that time the like had never been seen in England.”21 Thereafter the town was known as Stratford-le-Bow.22 Her bridge was still standing in 1839. She built another bridge over the Channelsea brook, a tributary of the Lea, and linked the two by a causeway—now Stratford High Street. She built a third bridge, of timber, over the River Mole at Cobham, Surrey; in the thirteenth century, it was stated that she did so for the repose of the soul of one of her maidens, who had drowned when crossing the ford.23 It lasted until 1782, when it was replaced by a stone bridge. Matilda bought Stratford Abbey’s mill and land in West Ham, and assigned with them manors in Cobham and a mill called Wiggin Mill for the maintenance of both bridges, entrusting that task to the nuns of Barking, the nearest abbey, which already paid her rents and tithes.24 She also had new highways laid and caused several old Roman roads to be repaired.

  She was a patroness not only of the abbeys of Barking and Malmesbury, but also of Romsey, where she had received her early education. In 1105, the King granted the right to hold a fair to her and Romsey Abbey, to boost the convent’s income.25

  In 1107–08, the second Augustinian priory in England26 was founded “at the prayer of Queen Matilda,” on the advice of Archbishop Anselm and Richard Belmeis, Bishop of London.27 The Augustinian Order provided for groups of canons to live together under the rule of St. Augustine. In the eleventh century, groups of regular canons had formed communities and evolved into the first religious Order of ordained priests to join together in a common monastic life. From the early twelfth cen
tury, they followed the rule of St. Augustine and wore white habits. Matilda supported this Order, and the King himself followed her lead in appointing an Augustinian canon as his chaplain, rather than a Benedictine. In founding a priory for Augustinian canons, the Queen was at the forefront of the monastic reforms that characterized the twelfth century, for this was a time when the Benedictine order was perceived to have become lax, and new, stricter orders were coming into being. Others, including the King and the nobility, would follow the Queen’s example and found Augustinian monasteries in England and Normandy.28

  In order to make way for her new foundation, Matilda acquired the old church of St. Mary Magdalene and the Holy Cross, which stood on land in Aldgate, London, from which the canons of Waltham received substantial revenues. She bought them out, purchasing a lucrative mill in compensation, demolished the church and built her new priory on a grand scale in the Romanesque style. On 5 April 1108, she appointed her austere French confessor, Norman, a native of Thanet, Kent, and a canon of Colchester, to be the first Prior of Holy Trinity, and granted him and the canons who came to London with him the plot of Aldgate with three churches and all its attached franchises, as well as a mill and a two-thirds share in her rents from the city of Exeter.29

  In the foundation charter, she named the priory Christ Church, and enriched it with lands in the City30 and holy relics, including a piece of the True Cross that Alexius I Comnenus, Emperor of Byzantium, had sent her. Almost certainly its dedication to the Holy Trinity was no accident, for her mother had also dedicated her foundation at Dunfermline to the Holy Trinity, and Matilda of Flanders had founded the abbey of Holy Trinity in Caen.31 The canons’ role was more social than spiritual, for they provided much-needed support for the needy.32 Through these important foundations, Matilda’s role in reconciling a resentful and not wholly subdued London to Norman rule should not be underestimated.33 They may well have been brought into being in concert with a plan by Henry to win over the city that had supported Edgar Atheling.34

  One of Matilda’s first chaplains was Ersinius, who soon tired of court intrigues and “their manifold false subtleties.” He joined an eremitical, or reclusive, community founded by Walter de Lacy, son of a Norman lord, in the Vale of Ewyas, north of Abergavenny, in the Black Mountains of Wales. Archbishop Anselm persuaded the founders to convert the priory into an Augustinian house, in which the influence of the King and Queen might be perceived, and in 1108, Llanthony Priory was consecrated. As its fame grew, the King and Queen offered to take the priory under their patronage and endow it richly, but Walter de Lacy refused, for he wanted his community to observe an ascetic life of prayer and study.35 When Matilda met him, she noticed the mail shirt he had vowed always to wear next to his skin so that he would be armed to fight the Devil; being “not sufficiently acquainted with the sanctity of this gentle man,” she asked if she might touch the mail. He blushed as she reached inside his gown, but then he realized that she had placed a purse of gold in his bosom.36


  “A Girl of Noble Character”

  Henry remained in Normandy until shortly before Whitsuntide 1109. Earlier that year, or late in 1108, Heinrich V, King of Germany, had asked for the hand of his daughter, the Lady Maud.1 Heinrich was the son of Heinrich IV, the Roman Emperor who had clashed with Pope Gregory VII over investitures. The younger Heinrich had forced his father to abdicate in 1105,2 and bore the title “King of the Romans,” having been elected as his father’s Imperial successor; although he had not yet been crowned emperor, he was sometimes styled as such. In accordance with a custom going back to the coronation in 800 of Charlemagne, the Pope himself placed the Imperial crown on the heads of the medieval Roman emperors.

  The Salian dynasty to which Heinrich belonged had established itself as a major European power, but it was impoverished, and the Emperor was looking for a bride who could bring a great dowry. Henry I saw the advantages of a prestigious alliance with Imperial Germany, which offered solidarity against French designs on Normandy. In the spring of 1109, the King, then in Rouen, wrote to inform Archbishop Anselm that, “in the matter being discussed between me and the Emperor of the Romans, we brought it to a good end, by the grace of God.”3

  On 21 April, during Lent, Anselm died. Matilda must have felt his loss keenly, for he had been her spiritual mentor, and she had adored him, but she busied herself by becoming involved in the marriage negotiations. King Heinrich, her future son-in-law, would write to commend her zeal on his behalf:

  Heinrich, by the grace of God King of the Romans, to Matilda, Queen of the English, greetings and every good.

  As we have learned from many, we owe great thanks to your goodness and great proof of friendship, because our honour and love is very precious in your mouth and heart, and you have spoken well of us often, publicly and privately, to your lord and to all who listen to you. For which, with God willing and granting life, we will not be unmindful. And we will respond worthily to your benevolence in all things, as our honour demands. If, therefore, there is anything in the kingdom or in our power that is worthy for you to desire, you may believe that we neither wish nor are we able to deny it to you. Wherefore, now persevere attentively in that benevolence which you have always had towards us, so that in all things with which we charge your lord, we may know by experience your zeal.4

  Medieval queens were expected to interest themselves in the marriages of their children, especially their daughters, and this may be the first recorded instance of an English queen doing so, although it is possible that the custom had existed before, yet gone unrecorded. As has been noted, Matilda of Flanders may have pressed for the marriage of one of her daughters to the future King Harold. Henry passed on some of Heinrich’s gifts to Matilda for Holy Trinity, Aldgate.5

  On 24 May, the King “received from the Emperor’s legates the oaths he required concerning his daughter’s marriage,”6 and the contracts were completed. Henry returned to England at the end of May, and on 13 June presided with Matilda over a great Whitsun court at Westminster, which was remembered as the most splendid court of his reign. There he welcomed an embassy sent by his son-in-law. The noble German envoys were “remarkable for their massive physique, magnificent apparel”7 and “polished manners.”8 The betrothal ceremony took place, with one of them standing proxy for the bridegroom.9

  To raise the huge sum of ten thousand marks in silver for Maud’s dowry, Henry imposed on his subjects a hefty “aid for the King’s daughter” of 3s. per hide (120 acres) of land, the usual rate being 2s. To do this, he had to reform the Exchequer. Predictably the marriage was not very popular in England. “This was a disastrous year here in this country on account of the aid which the King levied for the marriage of his daughter.”10

  On 17 October 1109, at Nottingham, in the presence of her parents, Maud undertook her first formal court duty, witnessing—as “promised bride of the King of the Romans”—her father’s charter establishing the see of Ely.11 Growing up under the auspices of her mother, this child, who was to become one of the most important and controversial women of the twelfth century, had been imbued with the culture and learning of the English court.12 “She was a girl of noble character, distinguished and beautiful, and gave promise of abundant future virtue in everything she said and did.”13

  It had been agreed that, for the time being, the child Maud—she was only eight—would remain with her mother. But not for long. The King of the Romans wanted his bride, and he wrote appealing to Matilda to ensure that the arrangements for her daughter’s journey to Germany went well. “We have from experience come to know of your zeal in all those things that we ask of your lord,” he told her. She would not fail him.

  At the beginning of Lent 1110, Matilda had to say farewell to her eight-year-old daughter—as it turned out, for the last time—and Maud left England in the care of a German cleric, Burchard, later bishop of Cambrai, and was “given to the Emperor in a manner that was fitting,”14 sailing to Boulogne handsomely provided with
a magnificent train of German envoys, “famous men, bishops, counts acting as envoys, laden with innumerable presents from both her parents,” and lords, ladies and clergy.15 The Norman barons who had the responsibility of conveying that fabulous dowry had ambitions to rise high in the Empire, but in the event the King of the Romans just gave them gifts and sent most of them home.16 Henry, Archdeacon of Winchester, was perhaps allowed to remain, for he was made bishop of Verdun in 1117;17 another who stayed with Maud was a knight, Sir Drogo.18

  “In accordance with her father’s wishes, she crossed the sea, passed over mountains, penetrated into unknown regions, to be married at her father’s command.”19 Toward the end of February, Heinrich received her at Liège. At twenty-three, he must have seemed old to a child of eight as he “welcomed her to his realm.”20

  Immediately Maud was thrust into the turbulent world of Imperial politics. Heinrich’s dominions encompassed Germany, Burgundy, Austria, northern Italy, Bohemia, Hungary and part of Poland, stretching south across Europe from the Baltic to the Adriatic, and east to west from Lyons to Vienna. Through treachery, he had imprisoned and deposed his father. He was a ruthless man, often at violent odds with his subjects, or with Pope Paschal II over the thorny matter of investiture—and while Heinrich was wrangling with the Pope, his vassals had taken advantage. One, Godfrey of Louvain, Duke of Lower Lorraine, had recently led a serious uprising in Germany, and Maud, young as she was, and newly arrived, was asked to intercede for him with the King of the Romans;21 it cannot have had much effect, as Godfrey and Heinrich did not make peace until 1118. Godfrey’s daughter Adeliza would later become Maud’s stepmother.

  When Maud was formally betrothed to Heinrich22 at Easter (10 April) at Utrecht,23 he gave her costly gifts and dowered her with substantial estates, which apparently comprised lands around Utrecht, where in 1122 she gave land for the founding of a church by four eremitical knights at Oostbroek.24

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