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

  Among them was Abbot Lanfranc. He had long been William’s right-hand man in matters of church reform and ecclesiastical policy, therefore it shocked the Duke to hear, probably in 1053, that Lanfranc had publicly condemned his marriage to Matilda because it had been banned by the Pope, and personally rebuked William for his defiance.

  William summoned Lanfranc to his court, where the Abbot made matters worse by administering another rebuke to his glowering Duke, who retaliated by stripping him of his abbacy, ordering him into exile and sending soldiers to sack the abbey of Bec-Hellouin. A saddened Lanfranc prepared to go on a pilgrimage, but no sooner was he on his way than he encountered William, who claimed to have met him by chance on the road. Whatever the circumstances, the meeting resulted in a reconciliation, with Lanfranc agreeing to persuade the Pope to withdraw the ban on the marriage.

  Lanfranc may have been engaged in negotiations for the next six years, in which successive popes proved obdurate and refused to back down.5 During this prolonged conflict, William and Matilda doubtless suffered great anxiety, for in the eyes of Christendom they were living in mortal sin, and must have been concerned for the safety of their souls. Moreover, the legitimacy of their children, and the security of the Norman succession, remained in question.

  Matters were made worse by the behavior of William’s uncle, Mauger, Archbishop of Rouen. He too was baseborn, and had always resented the fact that his illegitimate nephew was Duke of Normandy. “He treated me with contempt as a bastard,” William remembered in later years.6 That contempt extended to Matilda. “In his zeal for the Christian faith, Mauger could not endure that they should riot in the bed of consanguinity.” An irritated William bore with his uncle’s troublemaking until 1054 or 1055, when Mauger “hurled the weapon of excommunication” at the Duke and Duchess.7 The duchy appears to have been placed under an interdict.8

  Thoroughly frightened at being cast out from the Church, and all that implied, Matilda complained of Mauger to William.9 So incensed was the Duke that he appealed to the Pope to lift the sentence of excommunication and demanded that Mauger be removed from his see. The Pontiff agreed, on payment of a fine by William, and, in the presence of the Papal legate, Mauger was deposed at a council at Lisieux and banished to Guernsey, on the grounds that he had been “devoting himself more often than was right to hunting and cockfighting and spending the treasures of his church on over-lavish hospitality.” But, according to William of Malmesbury, “some say that there was a secret reason for his deposition. The young man was furious, his wife added her protests, and so (it was said) they had been looking for opportunities to drive from his see the man who had denounced their sin.” William never forgave his uncle, or recalled him.10


  Leo IX died in 1054; his two successors did not reign for long. In 1058, when Nicholas II overthrew Benedict X and became pope, he recognized the Normans who had defeated Pope Leo as the rulers of southern Italy and Sicily. William now seized his chance. When he heard that Benedict was warring with Nicholas, he offered to dispatch an army to support the latter. He then sent Lanfranc and other envoys to Rome with an earnest plea that the Pope sanction his marriage. He expressed concern that Count Baldwin might make war on Normandy to avenge William’s dishonoring of his daughter, instigating a conflict that might engulf their neighbors.

  Lanfranc warned the Pope that William was resolved never to abandon Matilda, and that Count Baldwin’s pride would not suffer his daughter to be returned to him, since she had children whose legitimacy might be in question. He urged the Pontiff to yield,11 whereupon Nicholas capitulated, on condition that William and Matilda agreed to found two abbeys in penance for having married without Papal sanction.12 It was probably at Easter 1059, at the second Lateran Council, that the Pope at last pronounced judgment in William’s favor, and granted a retrospective dispensation formally recognizing the marriage and the legitimacy of its issue, declaring that, “if he were to order a divorce, this might cause a serious war between Flanders and Normandy.” A relieved William and Matilda willingly agreed to endow two monasteries, one for men and one for women, “where monks and nuns should zealously pray for their salvation.”13

  The Norman chroniclers, reticent as ever, recorded only that, having brought peace to the land, William “was minded to found an abbey”;14 they were hardly likely to have written that this zealous reforming son of the Church did so as a penance. The foundation charters of the abbeys also omit to mention the penitential reason for their existence.

  In fulfillment of their promise, the Duke and Duchess founded two Benedictine abbeys in Caen. William’s was the abbey of Saint-Étienne, begun in 1060; by 1063, work on it was so far advanced that Lanfranc was summoned from Bec-Hellouin to become its first Abbot.

  Matilda’s abbey was dedicated to the Holy Trinity, but became known as the “Abbaye aux Dames.” It was begun around 1059, under the auspices of an abbess called Matilda, who came from the abbey of Saint-Léger-de-Préaux, where the ducal princess, Adeliza, would become a nun. Duchess Matilda endowed and beautified Holy Trinity with “earnest care” and a steady stream of lands and “goodly gifts,” among them liturgical vestments, wool and rich fabrics, golden lamp chains adorned with crosses, large candelabra crafted at Saint-Lo, a crown, a scepter, a chalice, many jewels15 and an impressive collection of holy relics: splinters of wood from the True Cross and the manger, a piece of bread touched by Christ, some of the Virgin’s hair, a finger of St. Cecilia, a hair of St. Denis, the blood of St. George and the preserved bodies of several saints. She assigned to the nuns tithes on wool to fund fuel, lighting and clothing, plowlands and mills to supply them with flour and grain.16 In later years, she sent a hooded robe of English work made in Winchester, and English “animals, bacon and cheeses” to supplement the nuns’ diet. Matilda also witnessed twenty of the twenty-one charters granted to both abbeys.17 Her largesse to Holy Trinity has been estimated to equate to at least £650,000 in today’s values.18

  Architecturally, the two abbeys differ significantly: William’s was built on severe, unadorned lines, while Matilda’s was elaborately decorated. It has been noted that they may well reflect the contrasting characters and tastes of their founders.19 They were also symbolic of the ecclesiastical revival in Normandy, and in founding them William and Matilda inspired others. The barons of Normandy were moved “by the piety of their princes to do likewise, and encouraged each other to undertake similar enterprises for the salvation of their souls.”20

  In addition to these two magnificent abbeys—which still dominate the skyline of modern Caen, having survived the intervening centuries and wartime bombing (although only the eastern part of Matilda’s church now remains)—the Duke and Duchess also founded the church of Saint-Gilles in Caen21 and four hospitals at Caen, Rouen, Bayeux and Cherbourg, all in penance for their unhallowed union, while in 1060–63 Matilda founded the church of Notre-Dame de Pré at Emandreville, near Rouen, which was soon afterward recognized as a priory of Bec-Hellouin.22 In 1076, moved by the plight of the congregation, Matilda gave money for the rebuilding of the church of Notre-Dame de Guibray, which was too small to accommodate them all.23

  The generous religious benefactions of the Duke and Duchess were not confined to Normandy. They enriched the cathedrals of Chartres and Le Mans, the abbeys of Saint-Denis, near Paris, Saint-Florent de Saumur in Anjou—to which Matilda gave a gold chalice—and Cluny in Burgundy, which received from her a golden liturgical robe so stiff that it could not be folded.24 The wealthy and influential Order of Cluny held that perpetual prayer was best offered up in an elaborate liturgy and surroundings of breathtaking splendor. At the height of its influence at this time, it boasted twelve hundred houses and ten thousand monks, making it the most powerful Order in Europe. It had long enjoyed the patronage of royalty, and the Norman kings and queens would continue to extend favor and largesse.


  From 1060, when visiting Caen, the Duke and Duchess would have stayed in the château, bui
lt of Caen stone by William around that time, but much altered in the centuries since. One of the twelve towers is called the Tour de la Reine Mathilde (Queen Matilda Tower), but it dates only from the thirteenth century. The keep was largely demolished in the French Revolution, and the walls, which trace roughly the circumference of William’s outer wall, date from the twelfth to fifteenth centuries. William’s ducal palace lay in the north of the château precinct, near the main entrance tower (and the present university of Caen). The château contained a hall measuring sixty by twenty feet, a chamber and a chapel; it was a small royal residence compared with those that William would later build in England.25


  “Without Honour”

  In 1063, William conquered Maine and annexed it to Normandy. He betrothed Margaret, sister and designated heiress of the last Count of Maine, to his son Robert, and ordered that she be “guarded with great honour in safe places”1 until the pair were of marriageable age. The wedding was never to take place, as Margaret died later that year.

  William was now the undisputed and respected lord of a duchy that was at peace and growing prosperous, and a ruler of impressive stature in the eyes of Christendom. Secure and contented in his marriage, with his family increasing steadily, he now had leisure to focus his energies on England. To this enterprise, Matilda was to lend her enthusiastic support.


  In 1052, Earl Godwin had raised an army, enlisted English backing, and forced King Edward to receive him back into favor. But he had died suddenly at a royal banquet in 1053, whereupon his oldest son, Harold, had succeeded him as earl of Wessex. With Godwin dead, Harold, a warrior of great renown who was popular both at court and with the English people, had won Edward’s favor, and now stood highest in his court. Before long, there was speculation that the King would name Harold his successor. But William had not forgotten Edward’s promise that he should have the crown and riches of England.

  Soon Matilda was to meet Harold, because—if the Bayeux Tapestry is to be believed, although no contemporary English source mentions the episode—in 1064 fate played into William’s hands. On his way to see the Duke to ask for the return of his brother Wulfnoth and his nephew Haakon, who had been hostages at William’s court for the past thirteen years,2 Earl Harold was shipwrecked on the Norman coast, and taken prisoner by Guy, Count of Ponthieu, one of William’s vassals.

  The Duke commanded that Harold be brought to his court at Eu, where he “received him with great respect, and fed and clothed him splendidly, according to the custom of his country.”3 He treated Harold as an honored guest, feasted with him, hunted with him and bestowed gifts upon him. He even took him skirmishing in Brittany, to demonstrate what a fearsome general he himself was, showing off his “warlike preparations, so that Harold could see how far Norman swords were superior to English axes.”4

  Harold soon found that he had exchanged his chains for silken bonds, for the Duke would not allow him to return to England until he had sworn on holy relics that he would do all in his power to help William gain the English throne when King Edward died. Harold had no choice but to agree. He swore the oath at either Bonneville-sur-Touques5 or Rouen.6 To cement their pact, William offered Harold the hand of an unnamed daughter of his, “who was not yet of age,” promising the couple “half the kingdom of England.”7

  An Icelandic saga, dating from 1230 but based on earlier histories and oral traditions, asserts that, at dinner, Harold was seated on the high seat on one side of William, with Matilda on the other side. William and Harold “often talked together for amusement at the drinking-table,” but the Duke usually went to bed early, leaving Harold and Matilda sitting “long in the evenings talking together.”8 It was incumbent upon great ladies to take an interest in the marriages of their children, so if this story is true, Matilda was perhaps discussing Harold’s marriage to her daughter. Probably she charmed this “very tall and handsome” man, who was “remarkable for his physical strength, his courage and eloquence, his ready jests and acts of valour.”9

  If we believe the later saga, it was Harold who was seeking the hand of one of William’s daughters. According to this source, William was jealous of these late-night chats, and Matilda told Harold, “The Duke has asked me what it is we have to talk about so much, for he is angry at it.”

  Harold explained himself to William. “I have to inform you, Duke, that there lies more in my visit here than I have let you know. I would ask your daughter in marriage, and have often spoken over this matter with her mother, and she has promised to support my suit with you.”10 In reality, Harold probably had no choice but to consent to a betrothal.11

  Confusion as to the Princess’s identity has arisen from conflicting evidence relating to the betrothals and marriages of the ducal princesses. One unnamed daughter was betrothed in turn to Herbert II, Count of Maine (before 9 March 1062), Harold of Wessex (1064) and a Spanish prince, one of two brothers who fought for her hand.12 Three chroniclers claimed it was Adeliza who was betrothed to Harold, and remained single after his death in 1066;13 more recently, scholars have mistakenly identified Adeliza with a female figure called Aelfgyva, who appears in the Bayeux Tapestry immediately after the scene showing William and Harold in conversation at Rouen.14 But Adeliza was dedicated to God, so the daughter promised to Harold was probably Agatha. It has been suggested that Orderic invented Agatha or confused her with Adeliza, but the omission of Agatha from his lists of the daughters is probably not significant, as Matilda doesn’t appear in either,15 and in a later book of his history he states that it was Agatha who was betrothed to Harold.

  The girl was much taken with the English Earl.16 She was “very young” at the time—eight years or thereabouts—and therefore “it was resolved that the wedding should be deferred for some years.”17 After Harold jilted her early in 1066, when he married Edith of Mercia, widow of the Welsh King, Gruffydd ap Llewelyn,18 this devout girl wanted to drown her sorrows in a nunnery.19 Hearing of Harold’s marriage to Edith, William demanded in vain that he honor his betrothal.20

  Harold did not keep his oath to William either. For all his gifts, he was “without honour, which is the root of all good.”21 When the Confessor died on 5 January 1066, and was buried in the newly consecrated Westminster Abbey, which he himself had rebuilt, Harold claimed that he was the late King’s chosen successor, appointed by him on his deathbed, and the Witan—the council that advised the Anglo-Saxon kings of England—elected him king. The very next day, he hastened to his coronation.


  “A Prudent Wife”

  When the news of Harold’s perfidy was reported to William, he resolved to take England by force and win the throne by right of conquest. This led to a flurry of preparations throughout Normandy, with nobles, clergy, burghers and private citizens contributing ships, horses, men and provisions, each according to his means. On 24 April, Halley’s Comet was seen trailing across the sky, “remaining visible for fifteen days,”1 which was interpreted as a sign of divine approval. “This portended the transfer of a kingdom,” declared Orderic. Divine approval also came via the Pope, who, angered at Harold’s perjury, sent a banner he had blessed, with heartfelt prayers for William’s victory; the Pontiff had been pleased to learn of the Duke’s resolve to reform the degenerate English Church along Norman lines. Now William could claim that he was fighting a holy war.

  On 18 June 1066, although still unfinished, Matilda’s new abbey of Holy Trinity at Caen was consecrated by Maurilius, Mauger’s successor as archbishop of Rouen, in a lavish ceremony graced by the Duke and Duchess and their three sons, in the presence of four bishops, eight abbots and the flower of Norman society. The abbey would not be completed until 1080,2 but on that June day, Matilda ratified her generous endowment to her foundation, and she and William bestowed on it an even more precious gift, their daughter Cecilia, a “girl child”3 of between ten and twelve years, the latter being the earliest age for entry to the novitiate. She was presented at the altar by her father
as an oblate, a child who would be raised in the religious life and in time, when she was of an age to make the choice for herself, enter the novitiate with a view to taking vows as a nun. In 656, a church council at Toledo had ruled that a child had to be at least ten years old before it could be accepted as an oblate. William declared to the congregation that Cecilia was to be dedicated to God, by whose grace he and Matilda had been blessed with so many offspring and other gifts.4 They may have anticipated that she would one day become abbess of Caen.

  Dedicating a daughter to God—the oblation—was then seen as a means of laying up treasure in Heaven, or as an act of thanksgiving. For any feudal lord it involved a degree of sacrifice, because daughters were valuable pawns in the making of advantageous political alliances. But William, of course, had a very pressing reason for giving this child to God. He wanted the crown of England, and needed all the divine help he could get. He and Matilda had already allowed their eldest daughter, Adeliza, to take religious vows, and William doubtless thought that dedicating another daughter would win even greater favor with God and bring the hoped-for blessings.

  It has been suggested that it was in 1075, when Cecilia took her final vows, that the French poet Fulcoius of Beauvais wrote a satirical poem comparing the sacrifice of Jephthah’s daughter Selia, in return for her father’s victory in battle, to William’s offering of his daughter Cecilia—there is a parallel in the names alone—in the hope of taking England.5 But Fulcoius is far more likely to have written his poem in 1066, because Cecilia was under no obligation to take the veil. When she reached twelve, the age of decision, she could choose to stay in the convent or leave it for the world—which is what she did choose. In the meantime she would be “brought up and carefully educated” by Abbess Matilda, who was vigorous in enforcing the Rule of St. Benedict.6

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