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

  They made a ceremonial entry so that the new Duchess could be seen and received by William’s subjects, who gave themselves over to “such rejoicing as was beyond description at the entry of his spouse.”24 The celebrations continued for a fortnight, with the bridal party staying in the tenth-century ducal château with its great stone tower, the Tower of Rouen, which appears in the Bayeux Tapestry and was demolished in 1204. From it the new Duchess could see “the beauty of the country”: to the south, “a beautiful hunting region, wooded and well stocked with beasts of the chase,” and the Seine, full of fish, lapping at the city walls, and daily conveying “ships laden with merchandise of many lands.” On the other side was “the fair and populous city with its ramparts and churches and town buildings, which has rightly dominated the whole of Normandy from the earliest days.”25

  Soon afterward, Matilda’s parents and their retinue departed for Flanders, and William took his bride on a leisurely progress through the duchy. Everywhere she was greeted with enthusiasm and tokens of affection. She was the first Duchess of Normandy for fifty years (several earlier dukes having lived with their mistresses) and was warmly welcomed. A household was established for her, headed in turn by her chamberlains.26 She did not lack for intellectual stimulation, for “illustrious men excellently versed and learned in letters” were made welcome at the ducal court.27

  Soon she was to give the people further cause for rejoicing, for it was not long before William was exacting oaths of fealty from his barons to himself and to his heir, as yet unborn.28


  “Illustrious Progeny”

  Matilda was at most nineteen when she married, “a singular mirror of prudence” and “the perfection of virtue.”1 She was even “more distinguished for the purity of her mind and manners than for her illustrious lineage.” Imbued with the piety of her saintly mother, “she united beauty and gentle breeding with all the graces of Christian holiness”2 and was “very comely of person and generous of heart.”3

  This kind of praise was bestowed on all royal ladies who led virtuous, blameless lives. Monkish chroniclers were usually scathing about those who strayed or flouted the conventions, so there is no reason to disbelieve what was written about Matilda, although other evidence suggests that she had a forceful and spirited personality. Her beauty was extolled unanimously, which, again, was to be expected, for she was royal. Above all else, her noble birth made her the “most beautiful” woman of her age.4 In regard to some royal ladies, the flattery was not as effusive, a clear hint that they were lacking in looks. But observers stress how fair and graceful Matilda was,5 how “very elegant of body,” and how skilled in “feminine arts.” She was “endowed with fairness of face, noble birth, learning, beauty of character and—what is and ever will be more worthy of praise—strong faith and fervent love of Christ.”6 In short, she was “a model of wisdom and exemplar of modesty without parallel in our time.”7

  As so often in this period, there is no surviving description of what she actually looked like—monastic chroniclers rarely gave specific details. Misconceptions have arisen. It is said that Matilda commissioned wall paintings of herself, William and their sons, Robert and William Rufus, for Saint-Étienne’s Chapel in the abbey of the Holy Trinity, which she was to found in Caen. The chapel was demolished in 1700, but not before a Benedictine monk, Bernard de Montfaucon, had made drawings of the frescoes.8 They are usually cited as authentic contemporary images, but they look very much like thirteenth-century work, especially the crowns. The originals would not have been true portraits anyway; the copy of Matilda’s depicts a crowned woman with dark, straggly shoulder-length hair, parted in the middle, a long nose and an oval face. A Victorian engraving based on this forms the frontispiece to Volume 1 of Agnes Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England, but the artist, Henry Colburn, has made Matilda (and most of the other medieval queens in the series) look like Queen Victoria, to whom the books were dedicated. We cannot deduce from these that Matilda was dark-haired and slender.

  A myth has arisen that she was tiny in stature. It was long claimed that she was just fifty inches in height. This estimate rested on an examination of her bones in 1819 by Dr. Dominel, a surgeon of Caen, before they were sealed away in a lead box. But in 1959,9 a further study of the remains was made, using more modern anthropological tests. The skull and other bones were missing, but examination of the tibia and femur showed that, if this was indeed Matilda, she had been about five feet tall,10 not so diminutive when it is considered that the average height of a man then was about five foot five. The identification cannot be made with certainty, given the desecration of her tomb and others nearby in the sixteenth century; the bones that were retrieved by Abbess Anne de Montmorency may not all have been Matilda’s.11 However, the reconstructed pelvis was wide, which would explain why Matilda managed to present William with ten children, which she probably could not have done had she been just over four feet tall.12


  Contraception was not an option for Matilda. Like all nobly born ladies, her first duty was to bear male heirs to ensure the ducal (and later the royal) succession and lead her husband’s armies in war, as well as daughters who could be given in advantageous alliances. Large families were not uncommon, and childbirth could be almost an annual event, as Matilda would find.

  Infant mortality was high, and many mothers had to bear the grief of losing at least one child. Of the ninety-three royal children born to fifteen of England’s twenty medieval queens, twenty-seven died in childhood—nearly thirty percent. This bears sad testimony to the fatal lack of understanding of the process of childbirth, good hygiene and the proper care of infants in medieval times, and to the tragic consequences that could ensue when a child contracted an infection in an age before antibiotics.

  There may have been more lost babies than we know of, for children who died in infancy, even royal ones, may not have been recorded. Often the dates of birth of royal offspring have to be estimated, as they were not written down, as is the case with three of the five queens in this book. Often historians have to make educated guesses based on circumstantial evidence, such as the date of the parents’ marriage (if known), the seniority of siblings, and other factors.

  In order for them to produce as many surviving children as possible, highborn ladies did not normally breastfeed their infants. It was thought worthy of notice that Ida of Lorraine, the grandmother of Matilda of Boulogne, insisted on suckling her infants, “fearing lest they be contaminated by perverse morals,”13 which were thought to be transmitted through breast milk.

  Matilda “bore her distinguished husband the offspring he desired, both sons and daughters.”14 Probably all but one of their “illustrious progeny”15 were born in Normandy, but evidence for their dates of birth is sparse. Those born while the Papal ban was in place were illegitimate in the eyes of the Church, bastards like their father. The chroniclers are silent on this, but it may have been a taint that clung.16

  The eldest son, the heir to whom William had insisted on his nobles swearing allegiance while the babe was still in the womb, was called Robert, after William’s father and Matilda’s grandfather, Robert II, King of France. In 1054 and 1063 he appears in documents as the heir to both William and Matilda—in the latter as “Robert, their son, whom they had chosen to govern the realm after their deaths.”17 The wording of this document reveals that Matilda was already very much a sharer in the ducal power.

  William and Matilda’s second son was Richard, named after three previous dukes of Normandy. His epitaph describes him as duke of Bernay in Normandy, but he is never called that in written sources or referred to as “comitas” in contemporary documents.18 He witnessed charters from 1067. William of Jumièges places his birth around 1055, but he could have been born as late as 1059.19

  The third son, William, later nicknamed Rufus because of his ruddy face, red beard and equally flaming temper, was born shortly before August 1060; when he died in August 1100, he was above the
age of forty.20 He was the son most like his father and namesake and, accordingly, the Duke’s favorite.

  It appears that William chose the names of the couple’s sons and Matilda the names of their daughters. Her choice reflects her pride in her royal French ancestry,21 which is evident in her signing herself in charters as “daughter of Baldwin, Duke [sic] of the Flemings, and niece of Henry, most illustrious King of the French.”22 Constance was named for Matilda’s grandmother, the French Queen, Constance of Arles;23 Adela was named for Matilda’s mother, a princess of France; and Matilda after herself. Adeliza (or Adelida or Adelaide—the names are interchangeable at this date) may have been called after Adelaide of Aquitaine, queen of Hugh Capet, King of France; Queen Adelaide’s mother, Adela, had been the daughter of Rollo of Normandy.

  There has been much debate about the number and names of the daughters. Orderic Vitalis gives two lists in different books of his Historia Ecclesia: Adeliza, Constance, Cecilia and Adela appear on both, but Agatha appears only on the later list. William of Malmesbury also lists five daughters: Cecilia, Constance, Adela and two others whose names had escaped him. William of Jumièges and a later chronicler, Robert of Torigni, both state that there were four daughters. In fact, there were probably six.

  None of these chroniclers lists a daughter called Matilda. In 1086–87, at the order of William the Conqueror, the vast Domesday survey of England was carried out, and all the landholdings in the kingdom, and their values, were recorded in what became known as the Domesday Book. The King’s daughter Matilda is mentioned in the Domesday Book24 and in a mortuary roll written for her sister Cecilia in June 1112 by the nuns of Holy Trinity, Caen, in which prayers are requested for Queen Matilda, and Cecilia’s sisters, “Adilidis” (Adeliza), Constance and Matilda, who were all deceased.25

  It has been suggested that the younger Matilda married a Norman magnate, Walter d’Aincourt,26 whose wife was called Matilda and whose son, William, was described on an inscription on his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral as being “born of royal stock” and a kinsman of Remigius de Fécamp, Bishop of Lincoln, who was also related to William the Conqueror.27 William gave Walter d’Aincourt no fewer than fifty-five lordships in Lincolnshire, Yorkshire and other counties. Walter and Matilda were benefactors of St. Mary’s Abbey, York, and Walter was buried in York Minster. According to the epitaph at Lincoln, his son William died “while living in fosterage” at the court of William II, in or after 1092, when Lincoln Cathedral was consecrated. These circumstances, and the fact that several of Walter and Matilda’s descendants were called William or Matilda, have given rise to the theory that William d’Aincourt’s mother was Matilda of Normandy.28

  The chronological listing of the three sisters in the mortuary roll suggests that Adeliza was the eldest daughter of William and Matilda, born in 1052 or later, and named in honor of Matilda’s mother. By all accounts, Constance was the second daughter, born in 1053–55. It is impossible to list the other daughters in any certain order. Cecilia and Agatha probably came after Constance. Cecilia was aged between ten and twelve in June 1066, so was born around 1054–56. Agatha was at least twelve in 1068, so was born in 1056 at the latest. Adela is the youngest in three sources, and was born in 1066–67. It is not known where Matilda fits into this sequence.

  Adeliza was “very beautiful. When she reached the age of marriage, she piously devoted herself to God, and made a holy end under the guardianship” of her father’s trusty cousin and liegeman, Roger de Beaumont, a man famed for his wisdom.29 Thus she must have died before his death in November 1094. The earliest canonical age for marriage or religious profession was twelve. If Adeliza was the eldest daughter, she was born in 1052 or later, and possibly entered religion as early as 1064.

  She was probably placed under the guardianship of Roger de Beaumont because she took the veil at the abbey of Saint-Léger-de-Préaux, founded by his father in c.1050, and under his patronage. Possibly she was buried in the abbey,30 although Holy Trinity, Caen, and—less credibly—Bayeux Cathedral have been suggested as her resting place.31 Roger’s own daughter, Aubrey, became abbess at Saint-Léger-de-Préaux, and Matilda, the first Abbess of Queen Matilda’s future foundation, Holy Trinity at Caen, came from there. In 1112 the mortuary roll of Matilda, Abbess of Holy Trinity, mentions Adelina, Prioress of Saint-Léger, and Adeliza, a nun there; either could have been William and Matilda’s daughter,32 although she was long dead by then.

  Adeliza was almost certainly the royal nun called Adelaide who, around 1071–72, wrote asking Anselm of Aosta, Abbot of Bec (Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093), to send for her use some verses from his work Flowers of the Psalms (which is now lost). He made some selections and sent them to her with prayers and a letter, in which he enjoined her: “Despise with an elevated mind everything that must be given up even while you have it. Strive with a humble mind towards that which alone can blessedly be kept for ever as long as you do not have it.”33

  Adeliza was clearly of an age to know her own mind, in keeping with her having been born in the early 1050s. The above passage hints that, for all her piety, she still enjoyed wealth and worldly treasures, and was finding difficulty in sacrificing them for a life of piety, which was why Anselm was exhorting her to seek the love of God. Yet taking religious vows was evidently her own choice, not a case of her parents making a decision to dedicate her to God, as they did her sister Cecilia. Adeliza evidently overcame worldly temptations, for “after her death, the callus found on her knees bore witness to her constancy in prayer.”34


  A few historians still assert that Matilda had another daughter. Southover (now Lewes) Priory in Sussex was founded by William de Warenne, 1st Earl of Surrey, and his Flemish wife, Gundrada (or Gundred), in 1078–82. A document purporting to be its foundation charter refers to Warenne establishing the priory for the health of “Queen Matilda, mother of my wife.” Gundrada’s tomb inscription, which dates from the twelfth century, records that she was the “distinguished offspring of dukes and a noble shoot in her own time.” A late-medieval tradition, fostered by the monks of the priory before the Reformation, held that William and Matilda were Gundrada’s parents, or that Matilda was her mother.35 In 1846, the historian Thomas Stapleton argued that, prior to her marriage to William, Matilda had married Gherbod, advocate of the abbey of Saint-Bertin at Saint-Omer, and by him had Gundrada and two sons, Gherbod the Fleming, Earl of Chester, and Frederick of Oosterzele-Scheldewindeke. This, supposedly, was why the Pope had forbidden Matilda’s marriage to William in 1049.36

  Gundrada was indeed the sister of Gherbod,37 who is described as “the brother of the Countess Gundred,”38 but her kinship with Frederick is based only on speculation.39 However, it has long been established that the so-called foundation charter said to have been granted by Warenne dates only from the fifteenth century, and is probably spurious. In the original charter, there is no reference to Gundrada being related to William or Matilda. It is not feasible that Matilda was married to Gherbod before she married William, for many sources refer to her as a maiden. She knew Gundrada, a fellow Fleming—she gave her the manor of Carlton, Cambridgeshire40—but there is no contemporary evidence that they were related.

  The tradition that was born at Lewes in the fifteenth century probably arose out of a deliberate doctoring of the evidence.41 If Gundrada had been William’s daughter, her epitaph would surely have described her as the offspring of a king; if she had been Matilda’s daughter, she could not have been “the offspring of dukes.” Conclusive evidence that Gundrada was not the child of William and Matilda can be found in a letter from Anselm of Aosta, Archbishop of Canterbury, to their son, Henry I, in which Anselm refused to sanction the marriage of Gundrada’s son, William de Warenne, 2nd Earl of Surrey, to a daughter of the King because there was consanguinity in the fourth degree on one side and the sixth degree on the other. Had Gundrada been Henry’s half sister, they would have been related in the first degree.42


is was an age of high infant mortality, yet we have no record of any of Matilda’s children dying at birth or in infancy, which seems remarkable, unless the loss of any such infants went unrecorded. But each of her children, “in their day, was subject to mischance.”43

  As a mother, Matilda “resembled Martha in her solicitous care.”44 She was “most tender toward her children.”45 The evidence suggests that she had charge of them in their early years, and possibly for longer—Robert, for example, remained with her for most of his childhood and youth.


  “The Tenderest Regard”

  William was proud of his family, and of Matilda, whose “obedience to her husband and fruitfulness in children excited in his mind the tenderest regard for her,”1 as well it might, for the Norman succession was soon firmly assured. Theirs was a true partnership. Throughout their marriage, emulating the queens of France,2 Matilda would preside with William over his courts and witness his charters—she witnessed no fewer than a hundred charters issued up to 1066, far more than any other signatory3—and he would rely on her to exercise authority in his absence. She also presided with him when he heard lawsuits.

  The relationship between the Duke and Duchess seems to have been harmonious from the first. When strangers wed, it was hoped that love would develop after marriage, and indeed it was the duty of a wife to love her husband. Some royal couples did come to love one another; others were hopelessly mismatched, with disastrous consequences; many simply made the best of it. In this case, love seems to have flourished.

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