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


  In April 1116, having had the Witan pay homage to William as the heir to England, Henry went back to Normandy, leaving Matilda as co-regent with her son, just as Matilda of Flanders had ruled in association with her eldest son. We find the Queen presiding over a lawsuit and commanding Ansfrid, Lord of Allington Castle, “that you should justly take action to return to Hugh de Floriac, the Abbot of St Augustine, his ship and all his things which were captured. And all those men who took them should be put under pledge that they should be at the King’s justice when he should wish to have them. And I order that all his things should be at peace just as they were on the day the King crossed the sea, until he himself should return to England.” Three writs related to this matter were issued jointly by the Queen and William.10

  That spring, Matilda received the excited guards of a prisoner, a former pawnbroker called Bricstan of Chatteris. Having desired to become a monk and been accepted as a novice at Ely Abbey, this “honest man” had been falsely accused of usury and imprisoned in chains in London for five months. His guards told the Queen how, one night, they had heard his chains being flung forcefully against the wall of his prison, and had gone to see what was happening. They found Bricstan unfettered, and he told them he had dreamed that the Saxon royal saint Etheldreda, the first Abbess of Ely, had appeared to him along with St. Benedict and struck off his chains.

  Matilda sent the Justiciar, Ralph Bassett, the man who had falsely accused Bricstan, to investigate. Bassett had to concede that the prisoner was sincere and telling the truth; he and the Queen were convinced that a miracle had taken place. Matilda, “being a good Christian,” pardoned Bricstan and had him paraded through London, ordering that the bells of the City be rung, and Masses said, in celebration of his miraculous deliverance. She also had the unfortunate Ralph Bassett consigned to prison. She asked Bricstan if she might keep his chains, but he chose to take them back to his abbey. Matilda is said to have gone to Ely with him and witnessed his offering them up at the high altar.11

  At the end of August 1116, Matilda headed a council of bishops set up to discuss the terms on which Papal legates might be allowed to visit England. The King was informed that the council was in favor of upholding the ancient liberties of the realm, and that the Queen and the bishops were ready to “annihilate” the Pope’s demand that legates be allowed to visit England without royal permission.12 Hearing this, Henry made a lightning visit to England to prevent the Papal legate from entering the realm.


  By Christmas 1117, Matilda’s health was failing. We do not know what ailed her, but it was serious enough for Henry to return briefly from Normandy and spend Christmas with her.13 She must have rallied, for he evidently felt able to leave her to go back to the duchy.

  Matilda spent most of her last months at Westminster.14 It was probably in 1118 that she founded the leper hospital of St. James and St. Mary Magdalene just outside the east gate of Chichester, for eight men.15 In Oxford she performed her last public act in favor of a chapter of eremitical monks, who had established a hermitage in the royal forest at Luffield, Northamptonshire, but been driven out by the foresters of Roger de Beaumont’s son Robert, now earl of Leicester. Once they had shown that they were living there with the King’s permission, Matilda issued a writ ensuring their protection from all injury.16

  Her brother David apparently visited her in 1118, for she appears as a witness, with her son William, to two charters he issued to Durham Cathedral, one of which was witnessed by John, Archbishop of Glasgow, who had been consecrated in January 1118.17 Possibly David was concerned about a deterioration in his sister’s health.

  Henry was still in Normandy when Matilda, aged only thirty-seven, was “snatched away from her country, to the great loss of her people.”18 She was at Westminster when “the first day of May” 1118, the feast of St. Philip, “at night time, took her away, to enter into endless day.”19 “Cut off from the light of day,” she “entered into rest. She died willingly, leaving the throne after a reign of seventeen years and six months, experiencing the fate of her family, who almost all departed in the flower of their age.”20 It was recorded that, that year, “nothing happened to trouble the King save the death of his Queen.”21 Most chroniclers testify to Henry’s suffering great “heaviness” at Matilda’s passing. His grief was manifested in the numerous gifts he gave to churches in her memory and the forty-seven thousand Masses he funded for the salvation of her soul.22 But he did not immediately return to England, being much preoccupied with affairs in Normandy.23

  On the day she died, Matilda’s body was laid on a bier and carried to Westminster Abbey. There was a reason for the hasty burial. When the King returned to England in 1120, the monks of Holy Trinity, Aldgate, formally complained that they had not been permitted to bury the Queen in their priory, as had been her wish, because the monks of Westminster had immediately claimed her body. Henry would not sanction a reburial, but he confirmed all Matilda’s grants to Holy Trinity, and gave them holy relics he had been given by Alexius I Comnenus, Emperor of Byzantium.24

  Matilda’s funeral was “splendidly celebrated at Westminster.”25 On that day, nearly sixty-eight thousand poor people were fed at the King’s expense to mark her obsequies, and alms were distributed in abundance.26 Bishop Roger of Salisbury officiated at the service, and gave a sermon praising the late Queen’s virtues. The leading clergy, “whom she had loved greatly while living,” kept vigil for thirty days by her resting place,27 among them her friend Herbert de Losinga, Bishop of Norwich, who himself would die the following year.

  “Fittingly,” the Queen’s body “was buried at Westminster, and is now at peace.”28 She was laid to rest “in the revestry” (the sacristry) of the Confessor’s church;29 excavations have shown that Henry III’s sacristy, which probably stood on the same site, was beyond the north door of the nave.30

  In 1562, Matilda’s resting place was located to the south of the shrine of St. Edward the Confessor, not far from where his Queen, Edith of Wessex, was buried before the high altar. (Possibly her remains had been moved to this position when the abbey was rebuilt in the thirteenth century, or they had been buried here in the first place.) Her grave was opened and her skeleton was found to be wearing robes of estate and a royal ring on one finger.

  There is no record of a monument ever being raised above the Queen’s remains, although an inscription was placed on the grave: “Here lies the renowned Queen Matilda, the second, excelling both young and old of her day, she was for everyone the benchmark of morals and the ornament of life.”31 A Latin epitaph written by the chronicler Henry of Huntingdon and placed above Matilda’s resting place in the reign of her grandson Henry II read: “Here lies Matilda II, the good Queen of the English, formerly the wife of King Henry I, mother of the Empress Maud, and daughter to Lord Malcolm, the former King of Scots, and his consort, Saint Margaret. If we wished to speak of her goodness and probity of character, the day would be too short. May her spirit be greatly soothed. Amen.”32

  In 1631, John Weever recorded that Matilda lay in Westminster Abbey “without any tomb,” and that only four verses (couplets) remained of the epitaph. He translated the surviving lines thus:

  No prosperous state did make her glad,

  Nor adverse chances made her sad.

  If Fortune frowned, she then did smile,

  If Fortune smiled, she feared the while.

  If beauty tempted, she said nay,

  No pride she took in sceptre’s sway.

  She only high her self debased,

  A lady only fair and chaste.

  Today, Matilda’s resting place is unmarked and the epitaph has disappeared.33


  Matilda was widely mourned. The counsel of this “kind woman and true,” “Matilda of blessed memory,” had been immeasurably beneficial to England. “The goodness that King Henry and Queen Matilda did to this land cannot all be written, and may never be told, nor by any man understood.”34 Her
death, wrote William of Malmesbury, was “to her own advantage, for she entered into rest and her spirit manifested, by no trivial implications, that she was a resident in Heaven.”35 It was not to Henry’s advantage, certainly: his future misfortunes were attributed to Matilda not being alive to pray for the weal of his realm.36

  Matilda’s brother David granted Westminster Abbey 30s. annually for candles to be lit on her tomb, two by day and two by night, on the anniversary of her death, with provision for food and wine for the monks celebrating her obits.37 He also gave money for Mass to be celebrated annually in the abbey in her memory. From 1120, Henry I paid a halfpenny every day for a lamp of remembrance to be kept burning perpetually above the high altar,38 where one for Queen Edith was already hanging. In 1130, the sheriffs of London were ordered to ensure that its flame was never extinguished.39


  Neither of Matilda’s children was with their mother when she died. William was in Normandy, and the Empress Maud in Italy. In 1115, Matilda of Canossa, Countess of Tuscany, had died, leaving her considerable landed property to Heinrich V, after having promised it to the Papacy, whose ally she had been in the investiture controversy. This led to another quarrel with the Pope, and the Emperor’s excommunication, whereupon, in February 1116, after keeping Christmas with Maud at Speyer, Heinrich marched from Augsburg, invaded Italy and seized his inheritance. He took Maud with him on this campaign, crossing the Brenner Pass in March in the snow. On the way to Tuscany they stayed at Treviso, and then for the nights of 11 and 12 March in the Doge’s Palace in Venice, before journeying south to Padua, Mantua and Governolo, finally taking up residence in the impregnable castle of Canossa,40 which stood on a rocky summit overlooking Reggio Emilia. Here, in the place where Heinrich IV had stood bareheaded in the snow for three days, waiting for the Pope to lift his excommunication, they received a warm welcome from a reception committee of vassals, and laudatory verses were composed “On the coming of the Emperor and Queen,” which hailed the fourteen-year-old Empress as a fitting replacement for Matilda of Tuscany.

  They stayed at Canossa for a year, while the Emperor consolidated his position with the Tuscan people and Maud supported him. By Easter 1117, he had driven the Pope out of Rome and seized control of the Eternal City. There, possibly on Easter Sunday, 25 March, and certainly at Pentecost (13 May), Maud was ceremonially crowned with Heinrich in the chapel of St. Gregory the Great in St. Peter’s Basilica by Maurice Bourdin, Archbishop of Braga, in defiance of the Pope.41 These were ceremonial crown-wearings, not coronations.

  Late in May, Heinrich took Maud back to Canossa, where he continued the task of consolidating his rule. Needing to suppress an insurrection in Germany, he returned there the following year, having left Maud to act as regent in northern Italy, under the protection of his army,42 and with the support of the Imperial chancellor of Italy, Filippo, Bishop of Ravenna (from 1118), and her chaplains, Altmann and Burchard. Young as she was, she presided over courts, dispensing justice and gathering experience that would serve her well in the future. On 11 September 1117, at Rocca Carpineto, she adjudicated in favor of Hugh, provost of the church at Reggio Emilia; and on 14 November 1118, at Castrocaro near Forli, she and her chancellor gave judgment in a dispute between a bishop and the convent of Santa Maria at Faenza. With Burchard the chaplain keeping a record, Maud decided in favor of the latter, and threatened an Imperial prohibition on anyone who challenged her judgment.43

  It would have taken about a month to six weeks for her to receive the sad news from England that the mother she had not seen for over eight years was dead. It was a grief she had to bear alone, for not until the autumn of 1119 would she rejoin her husband in Lotharingia (Lorraine), where, in November, she witnessed his charter to a church.44 Later that month they traveled on to Liège and Goslar.45

  Robert of Torigni refers to a lost “Life of Queen Matilda,” and historians have speculated that it may have been commissioned by her daughter Maud.46


  Memories of Queen Matilda’s oppressive taxation, her extravagance and her lust for glory soon receded. She was remembered as “the good Queen,”47 with great affection and reverence. “From the time England first became subject to kings, out of all the queens, none was found to be comparable to her, and none will be found in time to come, whose memory will be praised and name will be blessed throughout the ages.”48

  Her reputation for holiness long outlived her. There were reports of miracles taking place at her tomb, and soon it had become an object of veneration.49 In the ten years after her death, as many pilgrims received Papal indulgences for visiting it on St. Peter’s Day as did those who did reverence at the shrine of Edward the Confessor,50 who would be canonized in 1161. King David may have tried to promote the late Queen’s cult of sanctity. But Matilda never officially achieved sainthood. The movement for her canonization foundered for several reasons: rivalry between Westminster Abbey and St. Paul’s Cathedral, Henry I’s failure to promote his wife’s cult after her male line died out, and the future King Stephen’s aversion to supporting the canonization of the mother of his rival for the throne, the Empress Maud, for he believed that Matilda had been a professed nun and that her daughter was therefore a bastard.

  Centuries after her death, however, Matilda’s goodness was still being spoken of far and wide.51 The fourteenth-century chronicler Langtoft wrote: “Whoever desires to know fully all her acts of goodness, let him go to Westminster; there they are registered.”


  “Without Warning”

  After Matilda’s funeral, a grief-stricken Henry took himself off to Normandy and embraced a life of celibacy1—but not for long. An affair with a married noblewoman, Robert de Beaumont’s daughter Isabella, produced a daughter, another Isabella, around 1120, and in the 1140s Henry’s bastard son Gilbert was young and unwed,2 so was probably conceived around this time.

  Still hopeful of begetting more legitimate sons and securing a male succession,3 the King was contemplating marrying again when he was approached by a vassal of his son-in-law, the Emperor Heinrich V. “The warlord of Louvain,”4 Godfrey (or Geoffrey) VII “the Great” or “Barbatus” (“the Bearded”), was a powerful ruler whose lands encompassed part of what is now Belgium and eastern France: he was duke of Lower Lotharingia (Lorraine), landgrave of Brabant, marquess of Antwerp and count of Brussels and Louvain (or Leuven), and he was offering his eldest daughter, Adeliza, the “fair maid of Brabant,” as a bride for the King. Henry expressed interest.

  The duchy of Brabant and all Godfrey’s other territories were part of the Roman Empire. Brabant was then divided into four parts, and Godfrey’s landgraviate comprised Lower Brabant, the capital of which was Louvain. Godfrey’s wife, Ida, Countess of Namur, daughter of Otto II, Count of Chiny, had died in 1117; through her, Adeliza of Louvain—like Matilda of Flanders—was descended from Charlemagne.

  The city of Louvain had been established in the late ninth century on the site of a Roman settlement, and was becoming an important mercantile center with a population of two thousand. Its name means “the marsh in the forest,” for forests then surrounded the marshy valley of the River Dijle. It had come into the possession of Godfrey’s forebears at the end of the tenth century. The castle of the dukes of Brabant, where Adeliza spent much of her childhood, had been built soon after the founding of Louvain, and stood on an island on the Dijle. It was abandoned by the fourteenth century, and nothing survives today. Nearby stood the ancient, possibly eighth-century, church of St. Peter, which was later rebuilt in the Gothic style.

  Adeliza probably also spent time at the hilltop castle of Coudenberg in Brussels,5 or at Antwerp, which was still essentially a Roman city. The castle there, the Antwerpen Burcht (later renamed Het Steen), had been built in stone by the Emperor Otto II in 980, less than a mile from the old Roman settlement at Viersel. It incorporated an ancient wharf and a new church dedicated to St. Walpurgis, patron saint of Antwerp.6

  Duke Godfrey had been at v
iolent odds with the Emperor Heinrich until 1118, but since then they had been allies, and in 1119 the Emperor had helped Godfrey to regain Lotharingia. At this time Adeliza had perhaps stayed at the Imperial court at Aachen and become acquainted with the Empress Maud. Possibly her marriage to Henry I was already being discussed by her father and his ally.

  For Duke Godfrey, an alliance with the Emperor’s father-in-law would have been highly prestigious. A defensive treaty with England against their mutual enemy, Flanders, would also have been advantageous, since Godfrey’s border was under threat.

  Henry was said to have chosen Adeliza “because of her beauty,”7 but there were political advantages for him too. The union would reinforce his friendship with the Roman Empire, which had been fostered by the marriage of his daughter Maud; it would also establish bonds with Brabant and so strengthen his position in the northern marches of France. He may have put out feelers for an alliance in 1119, and Maud was perhaps instrumental in furthering negotiations.8

  On 6 January 1120, in London, on the advice of Ralph d’Escures, Archbishop of Canterbury, and some of his nobles, Henry informed his Council of his need to take a second wife, and revealed to them his choice.9 The chroniclers struggled with the young lady’s name, giving it variously as Adeliza, Adelid(a), Adelicia, Adela, Adala, Adelaide, Adelheite, Adeline, Adelina, Aeliz, Aethelice, Aleyda, Alice, Alicia, Aaliz and Adelidis. To Flemish and Provençal poets, she was Alise, Adelais or “Alix la Belle.”

  Envoys from Duke Godfrey came to London to negotiate the terms of the alliance with Henry. Willingly the King “renounced the celibacy he had cherished since Matilda’s death, anxious for future heirs by a new consort”10 and desirous of keeping himself from “disgraceful conduct.” The betrothal contract was signed on 16 April 1120, with the King waiving a dowry but promising a lavish dower, and Adeliza was proclaimed Lady of the English.11 She would not be styled queen until she was crowned.

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