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

  Unusually in an age of arranged marriages, and given the promiscuity of his forebears, William “conducted himself, during many years, in such wise as never to be suspected of any criminal intercourse.”4 “He had learnt that marriage vows were holy and respected their sanctity.”5 Infidelity was tolerated in kings and nobles, but in 1079 he was openly to declare that he had been “faithful and devoted in his affection,” and referred to Matilda as “she whom I have loved as my own soul.” Matilda, in turn, was devoted to her husband,6 and faithful, in which William was fortunate, since infidelity on her part could have compromised not only her honor, but also her husband’s bloodline, which was why adultery was regarded as a serious transgression in women. She remained—with one notable lapse—a loyal and supportive wife and helpmeet throughout her married life. Undoubtedly she was in William’s confidence, and privy to his counsels, and he grew to trust her and rely on her good sense and wisdom. Her influence over him was known to be considerable.

  There is good evidence that Matilda came to love William. When he was at Cherbourg, shortly before 1066, when he was about thirty-eight and she at least four years younger, he became so ill that “his life was wholly despaired of and he was laid on the ground, as at the point of death, and gave the canons of the church the relics of the saints which he carried in his own chapel.” Relics—body parts, clothing or mementos of saints—were objects of veneration and important aids to devotion, conferring a special sanctity on holy buildings. It was an act of penitance for a dying person to be laid flat on the ground, sometimes on a bed of ashes. Lying there, William vowed that, “if God and St Mary would raise him from this sickness,” he would establish a house of canons at Coutances Cathedral.7

  Matilda was distraught. She rode to Coutances, seventy-five miles south of Cherbourg, and offered 100s. at the altar of the cathedral, praying “that God and St Mary might give her back her dearest husband.” The clergy were astonished to see her with her hair loose and disheveled, which also symbolized penitence and even bereavement, and which may have been a measure of her distress. When William recovered, “she helped him in her joy to re-establish the church,” and to build another close by the château of Coutances. The charters they granted were witnessed by their sons, Robert and Richard.8

  If there were spirited clashes between the couple—both were proud and opinionated, with formidable personalities—they are not recorded.9 However, some monastic writers seem to have relished recounting tales of William’s violence toward Matilda. One thirteenth-century account described him kicking her in the breast with his spur, and claimed she had died from the wound,10 which was patently untrue, although wife-beating was common in the Middle Ages, and not seen as incompatible with medieval notions of conjugal love. It was even thought praiseworthy that a man correct his erring wife, and the Church itself condoned such punishment, although in the twelfth century it did take steps to limit the size of the stick a husband might use for chastisement.


  Matilda was to spend much of her married life in castles or palaces, where she enjoyed domestic living on a grand scale; at other times she would have resided in smaller places, such as manor houses or hunting lodges. Castles offered not only protection but also splendid royal apartments. The sparse, if precious, belongings listed by kings and queens in their wills testify to the fact that the Normans did not live in a consumer society. Life was often turbulent, and material comforts took second place to security. But the Norman queens did inhabit a world where beauty and luxury were appreciated, and furnishings were opulent and colorful. Such comforts not only made life more pleasant, they proclaimed their owner’s wealth, power and status.11

  There was, however, little privacy, even for the highest in rank. Castle life was largely communal, and focused on the hall, where the Queen presided alone or with the King over business, courts, meals or feasts. Trestle tables were set up and removed as required. The design of the Norman hall was simple—it was a large, lofty chamber. The earliest reference to a screens passage at the end of the hall opposite the dais dates only from the fourteenth century. The walls might have been adorned with embroidered woolen or cloth hangings, or tapestries, an ancient craft that was revived in Poitiers in the eleventh century and quickly gained popularity. Early examples portrayed—crudely, compared to later tapestries—kings, emperors, saints, biblical characters, animals and flowers.

  Servants often slept on pallets in the chambers where they performed their duties, and many slept in the hall at night, near the fire on the central hearth, while hunting dogs scavenged for scraps among the rushes that were strewn on the floor. The rushes were sometimes sprinkled with herbs to mask the stench of rotting food and dog piss. Halls would have been smoky, stuffy places, the smoke from the fire rising to a louver in the roof.

  The Queen, like the King, had her own great chamber.12 The chamber was where royalty lived, and it was the most comfortable and well-appointed room in the castle. If it was situated behind the hall, on the first floor, it was sometimes called a solar. In the chamber the royal family enjoyed a degree of privacy. It would have been quite dark, lit only by arrow slits or narrow windows, torches in wall brackets, oil lamps or candles set into chandeliers, sconces or candlesticks. No royal candlesticks survive from the period, but they would have been of ornate craftsmanship, such as the gold Gloucester Candlestick, dating from 1107–13.13 Glass was rarely used in this period, even in royal residences. Instead, windows were covered by oiled linen, canvas, wooden shutters or grilles. The lack of light indoors—a great drawback to reading or doing embroidery—was one reason why window seats were built into castle walls.

  In the chamber, where the Queen spent much of her time, the walls would have been whitewashed with plaster of paris or gypsum, painted with murals or patterns, and perhaps hung with tapestries or painted cloths. Furniture was usually made of wood, and consisted of beds, chairs, stools, cupboards and tables.

  Beyond the chamber there might have been one or more private rooms, each opening onto the next; the last, and most private, was the bedchamber. Its walls were hung with curtains, and the bed had a canopy “for the avoiding of flies and spiders.” There are no records of royal beds before the reign of Henry III (1216–72), but the beds of the Norman queens would most likely have had a canopy and curtains to afford privacy and help keep out drafts.

  The only other items of furniture in the bedchamber were usually a chair, stools and a bench, placed near the bed, a chest, and a perch for a hawk. Clothing hung from poles or wooden pegs, and body linen was stored in chests.14 The bed would have been made up with a feather mattress with an attached bolster. A quilted pad of striped cloth would cover this, on which a cushion was placed. Queens probably slept in sheets of muslin or pure linen, beneath a coverlet of cloth or wool lined with fur—a necessity since most people slept naked. There are several manuscript illustrations of kings and queens naked in bed together wearing only their crowns.

  We have a rare description of a royal bedchamber, dating from 1107. It belonged to Adela, the daughter of William and Matilda, and was a beautiful hall hung with tapestries of wool, silk, gold and silver. On one wall was the story of the Creation, the Fall of Man, the killing of Abel by Cain and the Flood. Another showed Old Testament history from Noah to Solomon. The hangings on the third wall portrayed the Greek gods and myths, and those on the fourth the ancient Roman kings. Above Adela’s bed hung panels of the conquest of England.

  The ceiling was colorfully painted as the sky with its constellations, the signs of the zodiac, the stars and the planets. The floor was inlaid with a map of the world as it was known then, showing Asia, Europe and Africa, with their seas, rivers, mountains and cities. Adela’s bed was decorated with three groups of allegorical statues: at the head were Philosophy and the liberal arts, or the quadrivium: music, arithmetic, astronomy, geometry; at the foot, the trivium: rhetoric, dialectic and grammar. The third group represented Galen and Hippocrates, the fathers of medicine, with t
he four humors—blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm—that were linked to the four elements, the seasons of the year and various illnesses.15

  The decoration of the room reflected Adela’s intellectual and spiritual interests, fostered under the auspices of her parents, who probably enjoyed a similarly luxurious style of living in their residences. Today, with those that do survive reduced to ruins or bare stone walls, it is hard to imagine the rich colors of murals and hangings, or the quality of the furnishings.

  The chapel was an essential part of a Norman royal household. Here, the royal chaplains would celebrate Mass for the King and Queen and their retinue, and perform the offices of the Church. Royal chapels, like St. John the Evangelist in the Tower of London—a magnificent survival of Norman, or Romanesque, architecture—may have been furnished with a throne on a dais, facing the high altar, for the King or Queen.

  Castles could be chilly, drafty places. Stokers were paid to maintain the fires and braziers, which were allowed only between Michaelmas and Easter. After Easter Sunday, whatever the weather, the hearths—then in the center of the room—were arrayed with flowers and green rushes.16

  Garderobes (the commonest contemporary term for latrines or privies) set into the thickness of the walls had wooden seats. The waste was evacuated down a chute to the moat or ditch below, or into a cesspit. Private chambers often boasted a garderobe. The Queen’s would probably have been equipped with a niche in the wall for a candle, and a basin or a washstand, called a laver, for washing her hands.

  Water came from wells—most castles had them—or from streams, rivers and ponds. When the Queen bathed, she did so in a wooden tub lined with sponges and cloth, prepared by her female attendants. When the King had a bath, the ewerer received 4d. except on the great feasts of the year, which suggests that royalty bathed regularly—although how often is not known. In the early twelfth century King John had eight baths a year. There was a washerwoman to care for the King’s linen,17 and perhaps the Queen’s.

  In Norman times, the day began early, around 5 A.M., and most people were in bed by 9 A.M. In the early twelfth century, at Henry I’s court, the mornings were devoted to state affairs and settling disputes. After dinner there was a midday siesta, and the afternoons were passed in sports, recreation and “hilarity.”18 When not engaged on administrative or state business, the Queen probably spent most of her time sewing or doing embroidery with her ladies. She might have played chess, which had been introduced into England by the early eleventh century. Games of dice were also played in the royal chambers, as well as tables (backgammon). Very little music survives from the Norman period, but it was played in halls and castles, as manuscript illustrations testify. They portray a variety of instruments, including horns, pipes, harps, organs, vielles and cymbals. Most music, of course, was performed in church, forming part of the liturgy; some was polyphonic.

  The Steward, the Master Dispensers of the Larder and Bread, the Master Butler and the pantler were responsible for providing the royal household with food and wine. Already the royal kitchens were divided into separate offices. There were cooks, scullions and ushers (including an usher of the roasting house), all with their subordinates, as well as slaughterers and sergeants of the kitchen, who received supplies including venison from the royal parks. One cook exclusively served the King’s personal servants. In the pantry there were four bakers who prepared a vast supply of “bakers’ loaves,” “superior simnels” and “salt simnels.” Simnels were buns made of very fine flour, boiled before they were baked. There were about twenty different kinds of bread in the twelfth century, but manchet, made with white flour, and wheaten loaves were eaten by the upper classes. Two meals a day were served at the Norman court—dinner was eaten as early as 9 or 10 A.M., and supper at 5 or 6 P.M.—but food was usually available for the peckish at other times. In Lent and on fast days meat was replaced with fish, which is why there were fishponds at many royal residences, and millers paid dues in eels.

  The Normans enjoyed a varied diet, more sophisticated than the food eaten in Saxon England before the Conquest of 1066, which they found too plain. The chief cook in a Norman establishment would keep a pepper mill and a cupboard for aromatic spices—imported at great cost, which was why they were locked up. The Normans ate a lot of meat, game and fowl, and fish, often pickled, on fast days, as well as cheese. Meat might be served in pastry. Vegetables included cabbage, lentils, peas, shelled beans, millet and onions. Favored drinks were cider, beer, pure wine, unfermented wine, mixed wine, red wine and “clove-spiced wine for gluttons whose thirst is unquenchable.”19


  “The Piety of Their Princes”

  The wrath of God did not descend on the Duke and Duchess for having dared to defy the Pope. Indeed, it seemed that God had blessed the union by making it fruitful. And in 1051, as William later asserted, he learned that a crown was in his sights.

  That year, England’s King, the half-Norman pious albino Edward the Confessor, son of Ethelred II by Emma of Normandy, was forced to address the problem of the English succession. Until recently he had been in thrall to the powerful family of Godwin, Earl of Wessex, whose daughter Edith he had married. She had borne no children because the saintly Edward loved chastity too much to indulge in marital relations.1 In 1051 there occurred a dramatic falling-out between Edward and Godwin, and the latter fled into exile with his family, seeking refuge with Matilda’s father, Count Baldwin of Flanders. Baldwin was eager to discountenance Edward the Confessor, who was an ally of the Emperor. Earlier that year, Baldwin’s half sister, Matilda’s aunt Judith, had married Tostig Godwinson, Godwin’s third son, thereby strengthening his connection to the powerful Earl.

  Godwin and his family spent the winter in exile at the court of Flanders. This was not the first time Baldwin had granted asylum to the Godwins. Matilda may have met the eldest son, the unsavory Swein, in 1046, when he had fled to her father’s court after seducing and abducting Edgiva, the Abbess of Leominster.

  Edward’s anger with the Godwins extended to his wife, Queen Edith, whom he banished to a nunnery. It looked as if she might remain there. With no prospect of an heir, there was no clear successor to the English throne. The only candidate of Anglo-Saxon royal blood was the King’s nephew, Edward Atheling, “Atheling” being the Saxon title for a prince or lord. Edward Atheling was the son of Edward’s late half brother, Edmund II “Ironside,” and was living far away in Hungary.

  There was a legend—probably invented later with the benefit of hindsight—that, before Duke William’s birth, his mother Herleva had had a dream in which she saw a tree growing out of her pregnant body, and the branches of the tree stretching out over Normandy and England. William was to claim that, in 1051, Edward promised him the crown of England on his death, knowing that he would be a strong ruler.

  It may have been true. Edward had spent his childhood in Normandy, and later had almost certainly known William as a boy. His court was modeled on the civilized Norman model, and his sympathies were pro-Norman. Edward would have heard that William was “well worthy” of a crown, “being a young man of high spirit, who had reached his high dignity by energy and strength of character.”2 He may have taken into account the fact that William’s Duchess was a descendant of King Alfred. Possibly his promise was conveyed to William by his Norman Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert of Jumièges. To show that Edward was intent on keeping that promise, Godwin’s son Wulfnoth and grandson Haakon were left with William as hostages.3

  The law of primogeniture—whereby the eldest son succeeded—had not yet been established in regard to the English royal succession. The right to the crown had been disputed several times in the past century or so. It was often a case of the fittest man getting the prize. In 1016, King Cnut of Denmark had gained the English throne by right of conquest, wresting it from the old Saxon line. In the light of this, William’s chances of succeeding looked promising, especially after Edward Atheling died in 1057, leaving a six-year-old boy, Edgar,
as his heir. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, King Edward invited William to England in 1051, and confirmed his promise, giving him a ring and a ceremonial sword in token of his good faith.


  By 1052, the political situation in Normandy was such as to prove that William’s marriage to Matilda had been not only desirable but necessary. Southwest of Normandy lay two small feudal counties: Maine, and farther south still, Anjou, a strategically important state on the lower Loire, governed by aggressive expansionist rulers. That year, Geoffrey Martel, Count of Anjou, conquered Maine, from which vantage point it looked as if he might overrun Normandy too. France, William’s most powerful neighbor, was no longer friendly, for its king, his feudal overlord Henry I, had allied himself with Anjou in a confederacy hostile to Norman interests. The only other strong power in the west was Flanders, so William’s alliance with Count Baldwin now assumed a new importance.

  England was hostile to Flanders because of the Godwins, but Baldwin’s alliance with William counterbalanced that. Their friendship cemented by the bond of marriage, they were ready to deal together with the threats from Anjou and France. Naturally, those two powers had been against William’s marriage. But William was not to be intimidated.

  Yet still, in the eyes of the Church, he and Matilda were not lawfully wed. Norman chroniclers are silent on the Pope’s reaction to their marriage. Leo, intent on crushing the Normans in Italy, was clearly not amenable to lifting the ban. Even so, there appears to have been no enduring rift between William and Rome. After Leo’s defeat at Civitate in 1053, relations were cordial, and in 1055, a Papal legate attended a Norman synod at Lisieux. But there were rumblings of ecclesiastical disapproval from some Norman bishops, who reproved William for marrying his “cousin.”4

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