Norman women: the power behind the thrones

History tends to focus on kings, warriors and bishops – but a number of 11th-century women were hugely influential in war, state and church. Leonie Hicks introduces a quartet of powerful Norman women.

This article was first published in BBC History Magazine's The Story of the Normans bookazine

This article might best begin by paraphrasing a popular bon mot: ‘behind every successful Norman man was a brilliant woman’. Here I will focus on four of them: Gunnor (c950–1031), Emma of Normandy (c985–1052), Matilda of Flanders (c1031–1083) and Sichelgaita (1040–1090).

We are fortunate that enough evidence survives from the 11th and 12th centuries to provide insights into the lives, activities and roles expected of the women who married Normans, or who were themselves Norman and married into other ruling houses. Chronicles such as the History of the Normans by Dudo of Saint-Quentin, and works by Orderic Vitalis, Amatus of Montecassino and Anna Comnena, furnish us with glimpses into how these women were regarded by their contemporaries.

In addition, charters, epitaphs and the remarkable Encomium Emmae Reginae –
a lavishly illustrated document recounting events involving Cnut and his queen, Emma of Normandy – reveal how the women themselves might have wished to be remembered. Our knowledge of the lives of these women reflects the survival of the evidence, and also the Normans’ experiences across Europe.

History records these women primarily because they married powerful men, forming politically significant unions. Gunnor’s marriage to Duke Richard I of Normandy sometime after 968 helped consolidate ducal power at a time when his influence did not extend much beyond the area centred on Rouen in the east of the region. She was a member of another Danish kin group and helped strengthen connections between the competing groups of Scandinavian settlers.

Emma, daughter of Gunnor and Richard, sailed across the channel to marry Æthelred II (the ‘Unready’), king of the English, in 1002. This was an alliance designed to secure peace at a time of renewed Viking attacks on the English coast; a previous treaty reveals that raiders had been finding shelter in Norman harbours. Following Æthelred’s death in 1016, Emma married his successor by conquest, Cnut – and if she had any choice in the matter, it was almost certainly Hobson’s choice.

Matilda brought to her marriage to Duke William II (later the Conqueror) allies on Normandy’s eastern border, while Sichelgaita of Salerno, a Lombard princess, acted as a peace-weaver through her 1058 union with Robert Guiscard who had emerged as the leading Norman power in southern Italy in the second half of the 11th century.

Gunnor, Emma and Sichelgaita all married men who had had previous wives and, in some cases, children. The fact that their sons were able to inherit is testament to their political acumen. For Gunnor and Matilda, the situation was fairly straightforward, and their numerous children played significant roles in the court and church, and through marriage, helping to bolster their families’ power and influence.


A 20th-century illustration of Matilda of Flanders, wife of William the Conqueror. Her resources helped support his invasion of England. (Getty Images)

 

Queenly qualities

Surviving evidence provides details of the qualities valued in noble women. Dudo of Saint-Quentin described Gunnor as being “fortified by an abundance of all good qualities”. Prior to her marriage she had been Richard’s concubine for several years; after the death of his first wife, his followers pressed him to formalise his union with Gunnor. Evidence presented in her favour said she was “born from magnificent stock, beautiful to look at and attractive, cautious and prudent in counsel, devoted in her feelings, disciplined in emotion, restrained in her advice, mild in her dealings with people, hard working and wise in all matters”. She also had a very good memory, exploited by Dudo when writing during her widowhood. This paints a picture of a duchess who boasted much the same qualities as any male adviser in the ducal court.

In a charter for the abbey of Sainte-Trinité (La Trinité) in Caen, dating from after the conquest of England, Matilda is described as “the most noble of queens, the daughter of Baldwin, most energetic and famous count of Flanders, and the most famous niece of Henry, king of the French”. There is a sense that Matilda’s lineage was highly significant, both in terms of how she saw herself and also the lustre this added to her marriage. Her epitaph emphasises her double royalty, through descent and by marriage. William’s reign as duke had begun uncertainly (he was only seven or eight when his father died on pilgrimage) and his illegitimate birth did not make for smooth succession. His marriage to Matilda (c1051/2) added legitimacy to his court.

The qualities valued in Gunnor and Matilda also found echoes in a brief description of Sichelgaita by Amatus of Montecassino: “she was of noble parentage, beautiful in body, and very wise”. She was a daughter of the Salernitan royal house, so in marrying Robert formed an alliance between her brother and her husband in a region where competing factions fought for power. However, it was when Robert ousted her brother that his marriage to Sichelgaita really proved its worth. He had no claim to Salerno other than right of conquest, but his wife, with her birth connections, provided necessary legitimacy and continuity to help smooth the transfer of power.

It was almost certainly for this same reason that Cnut married Emma. Following his assumption of the English throne in 1016 he sent for the dowager queen and married her. Though Norman rather than English, Emma provided continuity with the previous regime following a bloody conquest.


King Cnut and Emma (called Ælfgifu in English sources) present a cross on the altar of the New Minster, shown in the Liber Vitae of New Minster Winchester. Such donations helped establish the Christian rulership of the couple in England. (Getty Images)

During their marriages, and subsequently as widows (with the exception of Matilda who predeceased her husband), these women exercised power in various ways. One of the most significant was through patronage, particularly of the church. This was not just a means of expressing piety and ensuring prayers for the souls of one’s family and self but, crucially, as a way of imposing authority and making peace.

Gunnor held lands in the west of Normandy, particularly the Cotentin peninsula, an area that largely fell outside ducal control. One of the significant powers in the area was the abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel, traditionally under the protection of the dukes of Brittany. Gunnor made many gifts to the abbey, recorded in its 12th-century cartulary (collection of deeds or charters) along with a line drawing of the duchess handing over her charter to the monks. Though this is not a contemporary depiction, it demonstrates the importance of the gifts and marks a shift in the abbey’s patronage, bringing it more firmly under Norman control.


Gunnor, duchess of Normandy, is shown making a donation to the abbey of Mont-Saint-Michel, in an illustration in the abbey’s 12th-century cartulary. (Bridgeman Art Library)

Matilda of Flanders also exercised patronage as a way of bolstering authority. The great 12th-century chronicler Orderic Vitalis, writing at the monastery of Saint-Évroult in Normandy, records that, after the refoundation of the abbey, Matilda gave the monks “a costly chasuble and cape for the divine office and a hundred Rouen pounds for work on the refectory”. This monastery lay in a contested area towards the southern border of the duchy, so grants from the ducal house acted as a marker of protection from potentially predatory local lords.

La Trinité, founded by Matilda, received gifts of land and money, and acted as an impetus to economic development in Caen – at the time, a new town and William’s capital in the west of Normandy. In this La Trinité mirrored her husband William’s monastery of Saint-Étienne, also in Caen.

Emma’s gifts to churches during her marriage to Cnut were particularly significant in restoring peace and establishing confidence in her husband’s position as a Christian ruler (Cnut’s family had been Christian for only three generations). The English church was impoverished following the turbulence and taxations of Æthelred’s reign and the Viking raids and conquests. Emma gifted vestments and altar cloths to the church at Ely, which housed the shrine of a significant Anglo-Saxon saint, Æthelthryth.

Winchester, the royal capital of Wessex, also enjoyed her patronage, as did Canterbury, the mother church of the realm, founded by Saint Augustine. Such gifts of land, books, vestments and other liturgical paraphernalia went some way not only to restoring the glory of the church but also establishing the royal couple in traditions of Christian rulership.

 

Royal relics

This activity was supported by one of Emma’s more remarkable traits: she was a relic collector. She notably acquired the bodies of Saint Bartholemew and Saint Ouen, keeping parts for herself and donating the rest to Canterbury. This might seem rather grisly to modern sensibilities, but such relics were highly venerated and sought after. They could be the focus for private devotion or establish a centre of pilgrimage, increasing the revenue and prestige of a particular church while gilding the memory of the patron.

Emma’s standing as a benefactor of the church is demonstrated in an illustration in the Liber Vitae of New Minster Winchester, the ‘Book of Life’ that commemorated its patrons. She and Cnut are shown presenting a cross to the altar, while above them Christ is enthroned in majesty, flanked by the Virgin Mary on his right and Saint Peter on his left. Mary and Emma share the distinction of being placed at Christ’s right hand.

Sichelgaita’s patronage of the important abbey of Montecassino alongside that of
her husband also helped to restore the community’s wealth and establish good relations between the church and the Normans; Robert and his family had previously despoiled the monastery’s lands. Amatus records that, such was Sichelgaita’s devotion to the abbey and to Abbot Desiderius in particular, “she seemed more like a daughter to him”.


A medieval miniature shows Pope Nicholas II investing Robert Guiscard as Duke of Apulia, Calabria and Sicily in 1059. Robert’s marriage to the noble Sichelgaita legitimised his rule. (Alamy)

Evidence also survives demonstrating how these women acted in government and helped to administer justice. The survival of charters and writs – encompassing many of the decisions relating to law, gifts or transfers of land, or other matters – is patchy for this period. We do know, however, that these women all acted as witnesses or grantors at various stages during their careers.

Sometimes these documents also cast light on the lives of other women not otherwise recorded. A charter from the abbey of Jumièges concerning a substituted child not only reveals Matilda and William acting together, but also how a widow by the name of Oringa was able to make money by renting another woman’s child to pass off as her own to continue receiving maintenance payments from the father.

Literary and chronicle evidence also sheds light on the women’s roles. A remarkable poem by Warner of Rouen from the early 11th century shows Gunnor in her widowhood as active at court and making decisions – specifically, to free the wife of the wandering enslaved poet Morihut. There is undoubtedly an element of flattery in Warner’s description of Gunnor as “the leading person of the kingdom”, but there is no doubting the fact that she played a significant role in the government of Normandy well into her old age.

One event in particular shows how a duchess could play an important part in her husband’s ambitions and the wider politics of her time: the conquest of England in 1066.

A document from Fécamp, Normandy known as the ‘Ship List’ – a record of people who contributed to the fleet – shows that Matilda provided Mora, the duke’s flagship for the invasion fleet, and that “on its prow Matilda had fitted [a statue of] a child who with his right hand pointed to England and with his left hand held an ivory horn against his mouth”. The Bayeux tapestry shows this ship also carrying the papal banner granted by Alexander II, though the child is shown as being on the stern.

Other figures in the list included leading nobles who did not take part in the battle for various reasons, not least because they held lands in sensitive regions of Normandy, such as the borders, that needed protecting. One of those men, Roger of Montgomery, had acted as regent with Matilda during the duke’s campaigns. She thus played a significant role in the planning and success of the conquest.

Sichelgaita also seems to have played a significant role in Robert’s military activities. She accompanied him during the campaigns led by his brother Roger in Sicily against the Byzantine empire. This suggests that Robert valued his wife’s counsel and company.

A remarkable illustration of the effect that she had on the army’s morale is provided by Anna Comnena, the 12th-century Byzantine princess who wrote a biography of her father, Alexius I. Anna noted that Sichelgaita travelled on campaign and “when she donned her armour [she] was indeed a formidable sight”. It does not matter whether or not she actually wore armour – though evidence from other chronicles suggests that women might well protect themselves in this way – but rather that she was demonstrating her position next to her husband in a very visible way: she identified wholly with his cause.

On another occasion she supposedly shamed the fleeing Normans into standing and fighting the Byzantine army by charging them with a spear. There is more than an element of poking fun at the Normans’ perceived cowardice in Anna’s account, but Sichelgaita herself emerges as formidable and indispensable.

 

In memoriam

Finally, these women all left behind indications of how they wanted to be remembered. Gunnor’s prodigious memory helped shape the very first history of the Normans, and her patronage of literary figures suggests some approval for the way she was portrayed.

Emma commissioned the Encomium to push her version of the events of the turbulent early to mid-11th century; it painted her as good company, generous to the poor, a supporter of widows and loved by her people.

Through the pen of Amatus, monk of Montecassino under Abbot Desiderius, so beloved of Sichelgaita, we get a sense of a woman who managed the conflicting expectations of her natal and marital families.

Matilda’s sense of identity is best expressed through her epitaph and gifts to La Trinité. The latter included personal items such as cases, but also “a chasuble [a priest’s garment] made at Winchester by the wife of Ealdred”, a cloak, two crosses on gold chains, a chain to hang up an altar lamp, candlesticks and, significantly, her royal regalia.

Additionally one of Matilda’s daughters, Cecilia, was given as an oblate to La Trinité, and later became its abbess. She was thus well-placed to ensure the continuation of her mother’s royal memory. 

Leonie Hicks is senior lecturer in medieval history at Canterbury Christ Church University.

We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here