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

  Baldwin’s death had serious implications for William. Since 1060 he had been in France acting as regent for the young King Philip I, and protecting William’s interests. Now that he was gone, France’s ancient hostility toward Normandy surfaced again.

  On 6 December, William sailed back to England from Dieppe. This time Robert Curthose was invested as regent by his father, having been assigned the lordship of the duchy.32 He was now about sixteen, which was then considered man’s estate, and was to be advised by the same counselors who had supported his mother, while Matilda herself was there to be consulted—for the time being at least, for William intended to have her crowned queen of England as soon as possible. It was probably for this reason that she had not been appointed regent.


  In England at this time there was malicious gossip that William had been unfaithful to Matilda. Adelise, the wife of Hugh de Grantmesnil, one of William’s barons, had a grudge against the King, and aroused the jealousy of other lordly wives left behind in Normandy by putting about stories that their husbands were committing adultery in England. She even accused William of trying to seduce her.33 The tale gained currency, with embellishments, and Gytha, the mother of King Harold, gleefully reported it to Sweyn II, King of Denmark, adding that the King had also laid siege to the virtue of a daughter of a canon of Canterbury Cathedral, which led to the girl’s furious father, Merleswen, joining an ill-fated rebellion in Kent.34 Of course, the Saxons had sufficient reason for rebellion without scandalous tales about royal adultery; there was great discontent, for which this story was obviously a gloss.

  William of Malmesbury thought it “folly to believe” those “who prate about the King’s having renounced his former chastity.” He reports a story going the rounds after 1066, which claimed that William had “wallowed in the embraces of the daughter of a certain priest,” and that, when Matilda found out, she was filled with jealous rage and took a bloody and brutal revenge, sending a servant to sever the young woman’s hamstrings. “The Conqueror was so enraged at the barbarous revenge taken by his consort that, on his return to Normandy, he beat her with his bridle so severely that she soon after died.” This was a blatant fabrication. Later versions of the tale have Matilda ordering the girl’s jaw to be slit or having her secretly slain.35 This story, and those others alleging that William was violent toward Matilda, may reflect perceptions that the Queen was something of a firebrand in character,36 and that the marriage was known to be tempestuous.

  According to William Dugdale, writing in the seventeenth century, William took as his mistress Maud, said to have been “a Saxon princess,” although she was in fact the daughter of one Ingelric, founder or benefactor of the collegiate church of St. Martin le Grand in London, who was probably a foreign priest. Maud is said to have borne William a son, William Peverell, Lord of Nottingham and Derby, but, despite some wild claims made six or seven hundred years after his death, there is no good evidence that the Conqueror fathered any bastard children. Reliable sources show that he was a faithful husband who had embraced the Church’s new teaching that marriage was an exclusive sacrament between man and woman.37 He honored his vows, as he honored Matilda.


  “Power and Virtue”

  Easter 1168 fell on 23 March, and William kept it at Winchester, then the capital city of England; despite being more important commercially because of its advantageous situation on the Thames, London would not replace it as the capital until the late twelfth century. Having firmly—and brutally—established his rule, at least in the south, the King felt that it was safe for Matilda, now perhaps five months into another pregnancy, to be crowned queen of England.


  There had been queens in ancient Britain, but English queenship had evolved in Anglo-Saxon times. In the centuries known as the “Dark Ages” that succeeded the fall of the Roman Empire in the fifth century, Europe was a melting pot in which kingdoms and feudal principalities were forged, often by violence. Nevertheless, the role of kings was sanctified by a religious coronation liturgy that had its roots in biblical times and conferred on monarchs an almost priestly aura and function, setting them apart, through their hallowing with holy oil, from the rest of humankind, and investing them with a wisdom believed to be denied to ordinary mortals.

  It is often claimed that, prior to 1066, the Anglo-Saxon kings of England did not have queens. Matilda of Flanders, the wife of William the Conqueror, is usually credited with being the first queen of England. But that is a myth.

  Anglo-Saxon England comprised various kingdoms. The most important were successively those of Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex. It wasn’t until the tenth century that the country was finally united under one monarch, King Athelstan, of the House of Wessex.

  By the middle of the eighth century, queens were being blessed when their husbands were crowned. A hundred years later, the duties of a queen were defined as running the royal household, keeping “good order for the presentation of the king in dignified splendour” and giving “annual gifts to the men of the household.”1 Already the queen was seen as representing the epitome of virtue, and there was an expectation that she would act as a prudent counselor to her husband and exercise her own authority.2 She would also, by dressing magnificently and wearing gold and jewels, reflect his exalted status and his wealth.3

  In the eighth century, a powerful king of Mercia called Offa had married a woman named Cynethryth and made her his Queen. He allowed her to witness charters and had coins struck with her name. She was described as the mistress of the royal household. Other wives of Mercian kings used the title regina.

  But in the kingdom of Wessex it was a different story. King Alfred’s biographer, Asser, Bishop of Sherborne, writing in the late ninth century, stated: “The West Saxons did not allow the Queen to sit beside the King, nor indeed did they allow her to be called queen, but rather ‘king’s wife.’ The elders of the land maintain that this disputed, and indeed infamous, custom originated on account of a certain grasping and wicked queen, who did everything she could against her lord and the whole people.”

  That queen was Cynethryth’s daughter, Eadburh, although her story was probably much embellished over the years. She dominated her husband, King Beorhtric of Wessex. Some called her a tyrant, and it was said that she poisoned men whom Beorhtric liked or trusted. But one day Beorhtric took the poison by mistake, and died. Exit Eadburh with a lot of treasure to France, where the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne gave her the rule of a convent of nuns. She was soon caught in a compromising situation with a lover and was thrown out of the nunnery to live out the rest of her days in poverty in Italy. It’s an object lesson in how not to be a queen. “Not only did she earn hatred for herself, leading to her expulsion from the Queen’s throne, but she also brought the same foul stigma on all queens who came after her.”4 It was because of Eadburh that the consorts of the kings of Wessex were not called queen.

  That changed in 856 when Ethelwulf, King of Wessex, married Judith, daughter of Charles the Bald, King of the Franks, at Verberie, France. Following French custom, Hincmar, Archbishop of Rheims, consecrated her and placed a diadem on her head, and Ethelwulf formally conferred on her the title of queen. Such a ceremony was not customary to him or his people,5 or indeed in Europe prior to the ninth century.

  The wife of Ethelwulf’s son, Ethelred I, was referred to in a charter as “Wulfthryth Regina.” By then the Saxon word “cwen” meant not only the king’s wife, but also a female ruler or queen. Wulfthryth and her successors—the title “regina” was still being used in the late tenth century—are shadowy figures who may not have been accorded the honor of coronation, but that changed in 973, when Elfrida, the wife of King Edgar, became the first woman known to have been crowned queen in England. Thereafter, with very few exceptions, the wife of the King of England automatically became queen.

  Emma of Normandy’s colorful career shows that English queens in the first half of the eleventh century could and did wield
significant political power, which set a precedent for the future. There are similarities between Anglo-Saxon and Norman queenship, suggesting that Emma’s example was remembered, as was the piety and erudition of the Confessor’s Queen, Edith of Wessex, and that there was continuity in many aspects of it after the Conquest of 1066.6


  William dispatched many high-ranking lords to escort Matilda to England. She “quickly obeyed her husband’s commands with a willing mind.”7 Leaving Robert Curthose as regent, she crossed the Channel8 in the company of her son Richard; her chaplain, Guy, Bishop of Amiens, the most distinguished of the clergy at her court, who—possibly at her request9—had written “Carmen de Hastingae Proelio” (or “The Song of the Battle of Hastings”), a laudatory poem about the Conquest that compares William to Julius Caesar;10 and (probably) Hugh, Bishop of Lisieux, with a host of learned clerks and a great train of knights and noble ladies.11 Soon after Easter,12 she landed at Dover, where William was waiting to welcome her, with a great company of nobles. Together they rode to London.

  As the royal procession passed, the Saxons came running to see “the strange [i.e. foreign] woman” who was to be crowned their Queen. It is understandable that they found Matilda strange. Their native kings had usually married English women from powerful families. From now on, they would have to accustom themselves to seeing their Norman invaders bring into England queens from European kingdoms and feudal states. Few may have realized that Matilda was descended from their own Alfred the Great, and that royal Saxon blood ran in her veins.

  Matilda probably thought the Saxons strange too. “They had their hair cropped, their beards shaven, their arms laden with gold bracelets, their skin adorned with punctured designs. They were accustomed to eat until they were surfeited, and to drink till they were sick.” They wore their mustaches “formidably long and turned up at the ends.” This must have seemed alien to one now used to living among the Normans, who, “being a race inured to war, were proudly apparelled, delicate in their food, but not at all gluttonous,” and “liked to live in large edifices, but with economy.”13

  William brought Matilda to the palace of Westminster, which had been built by Edward the Confessor by the River Thames, facing the great Benedictine abbey dedicated to St. Peter, which he had also rebuilt, and which had been consecrated in 1065. Here Matilda was to be crowned.14 It was claimed in her day that it was on the shore at Westminster that King Cnut was said to have demonstrated to his courtiers that he could not command the tide, which has led some historians to suggest that there had been an earlier royal residence on the site, but there is no evidence for it.

  Both palace and abbey stood on marshy ground known as Thorney Island. “It was a delightful spot, surrounded with fertile lands and green fields, and near the main channel of the river, which bore abundant merchandise of every kind for sale from the whole world to the town on its banks.”15 If the Bayeux Tapestry’s depiction of the palace is accurate, which is by no means certain, it was a single large building with the royal apartments above the hall. It was fortified and surrounded by a moat. It soon became the chief royal residence, and William was to enlarge it.

  He and Matilda kept a great court at Westminster that Whitsun, at which their son Richard and many leading Norman and English lords, both spiritual and temporal, were present. Among them were the King’s half brothers (his mother’s sons by her second husband), Robert, Count of Mortain, and Odo, Bishop of Bayeux; Roger of Montgomery; Robert, Count of Eu; Geoffrey, Bishop of Coutances; and the foremost English earls, Edwin of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria.16 It was William who established in England the custom of holding crown-wearings at Christmas, Easter and Whitsuntide, which, when he was not overseas, he usually kept at Gloucester, Winchester and Westminster respectively, hosting great gatherings of his magnates. “All the great men of England were assembled about him: archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, thanes, and knights.”17 It was at one of these ceremonies that “a silly cleric,” seeing the King pass by majestically in his crown and royal robes, exclaimed, “Behold, I see God!”—and earned himself a rebuke from Archbishop Lanfranc and a flogging.18


  As with kings, the anointing of a queen consort with holy oil conferred on her an almost holy sanctity. From 973 there had been provision for queens consort to be crowned with their husbands, but Matilda was the first to have a separate coronation. William may have intended it as the first great state celebration of his reign, since his own coronation had been hurried and marred by the riot at Westminster.

  He spared no expense on Matilda’s crowning, which took place on Whitsunday, 11 May 1068, in Westminster Abbey. The abbey was packed with nobles and guests, who watched the Queen arrive, escorted by Norman lords. It was fitting that, in this, the foremost royal church of the Anglo-Saxons, William arrived wearing his own crown, which the Norman kings did only at great ceremonies or important feast days of the Church.

  There is no detailed description of the coronation of an English queen prior to 1236.19 The ordo, or form of service, used for Matilda’s coronation had originally been devised by St. Dunstan for that of King Edgar’s Queen, Elfrida, in 973. It provided for a queen consort to be consecrated immediately after her husband and “adorned with the ring for the integrity of her faith, and with a crown for the glory of eternity.” She was almost certainly given a scepter too. Matilda is recorded as owning one and they appear on the seals of queens from 1118 onward.20

  When Cnut and Emma of Normandy were crowned in 1017, the ordo had been changed, making Emma a partner in her husband’s rule, as Imperial consort and peace-weaver.21 Between 1066 and 1200, the service was again altered to conform to the European model used for the crowning of the Roman Emperor. It is not known for certain whether Matilda entered the church to be blessed and greeted by a prayer asking that she might “obtain the crown that is next unto virginity,” or whether she and her crown were blessed as she knelt at the altar before the anointing and crowning,22 but the hymn Laudes Regiae was sung in her honor, which suggests that the new form of service was already in use. If so, Matilda would have been hallowed by holy oil as a sharer in the royal dominion.

  This revised service defined medieval queenship as a role in which a queen was the helpmeet of her husband, a model of virtue through her symbolic virginity, a guardian and fosterer of religious faith, and a benefactor of the Church.23 In a departure from precedent, the words of the Laudes Regiae proclaimed that the Queen was “placed by God among the people” and shared royal power; and that the English people were “blessed to be ruled by the power and virtue of the Queen.”24 Female saints were omitted from the Laudes, in favor of male patrons.25 It was almost as if Matilda was a queen regnant, masculinized as an honorary man.26 She shared the King’s power in a very real sense, set apart—like him—from ordinary mortals by her hallowing, and exercising his authority both in concert with him and in his absence.

  Ealdred, Archbishop of York, placed the consort’s crown on her head.27 It was probably made for her, as there was no medieval tradition in England of the consort’s crown being handed down from queen to queen. Sadly, like the rest of the early English regalia, it was probably lost in 1216 with King John’s baggage train, which was swept away by the tide in the Lincolnshire estuary known as the Wash.

  When the long rite was over, English nobles—as was thought fitting— conducted the Queen out of the abbey to the palace. Here a lavish banquet was held, during which one of the King’s knights, Robert de Marmion, rode his horse into the hall and cried three times: “If any person denies that our most gracious sovereign, King William, and his spouse Matilda are king and queen of England, he is a false-hearted traitor and a liar; and here I, as champion, do challenge him to single combat.” Thus was established the custom of the King’s Champion inviting all comers to challenge the right of the King at subsequent coronations. For his good service, Marmion was rewarded with the hereditary office of Champion and estates in England and Normandy.
  He was not the only one to benefit from that day. The royal cook, Tezelin, had prepared such an excellent dish—there are various versions of the story, but it appears to have been a dillegrout, a white pottage or soup made with capons, almond milk, sugar and spices—that the King gave him the manor of Addington, Surrey, declaring that henceforth the lords of Addington would prepare the dish for future coronation banquets, or once during the reign of each successive king.28

  Matilda’s coronation had enhanced not only her own prestige and influence, but also that of her children, and strengthened their right to the succession; it also marked the beginning of a new era of female influence. Not for centuries had a woman been so honored in England. “The Queen adorned the King, the King the Queen.”29


  “In Queenly Purple”

  The Queen of England occupied a powerful and socially desirable position. Her status was reflected in every aspect of the ritual and ceremonial that surrounded her and governed her life; and she would have been aware of the weight of responsibility that brought with it. A queen had to be the embodiment of piety, beyond reproach morally, the guardian of the royal bloodline, a gentle and moderate mediator in the conflicts of men and a helpmeet to her husband. Her virtue was exemplified by her chastity and humility, her charity and her acts of mercy. People looked to her as “a kind mother, from whom no one goes away empty-handed.”1

  A queen had to negotiate the political institution that was the court, which might mean subsuming her private loyalties to her duty to the King her husband. She was a fount of patronage to the Church and to scholars and artists. It was her duty to love her husband, and to play a subordinate role to him. She had to forge good relations with his relatives, his ministers and his household officers. Sometimes she had to be a regent, an administrator, a lawgiver and an intercessor.

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