England's Norman queens and the power they wielded: an interview with Alison Weir
Though often seen as companions to the powerful men of the Norman period, the queens of Norman England were fascinating, powerful figures in their own right, says Alison Weir.
From Matilda of Flanders, trusted consort of William the Conqueror, to the Empress Matilda who battled her cousin Stephen for the throne of England, the historian and author shares the influence that these women exercised in a dangerous world – but warns that we need to keep their power in perspective
A 20th-century illustration of Matilda of Flanders, wife of William the Conqueror. He relied on her implicitly, says Alison Weir. (Getty Images)
The timeline of England’s Norman kings will be familiar to many, from William the Conqueror’s victory over Harold Godwinson’s army on 14 October 1066, to the deadly power struggle of King Stephen and Empress Matilda in the mid-12th century. Alison Weir’s latest book Queens of the Conquest reconsiders this timeline, centring on the lives and power of the five Norman queens of this period.
Beginning with Matilda of Flanders (d1083), who supported William the Conqueror in his invasion of England, Weir then considers the two wives of King Henry I, Matilda of Scotland (d1118) and Adeliza of Louvain (d1151). The book concludes with the turbulent histories of the wife of King Stephen, Matilda of Boulogne (d1152), and his warring cousin, Empress Matilda (d1167), whom Weir calls ‘Maud’.
As Queens of the Conquest is released, Alison Weir shares six revelations about the five Norman queens…
A tale of four Matildas
Four of the five queens that Weir considers in her volume are associated with the Norman name of Matilda, all using interchangeable variants of the name: Mathilde, Mahaut, Mald or Maud.
Edith of Scotland changed her name to Matilda upon her marriage to Henry I, likely to please the Normans, explains Weir.
“Henry I married her as she had Saxon royal blood. She was a princess of Scotland, but her mother was of the Saxon royal house. Henry thought his marriage would unite the Norman and Saxon peoples. But the Normans were having none of it; they sneered and called the king and his English wife ‘Godric’ and ‘Gogdifu’ [common Saxon names intended to disparage the couple].
“Edith of Scotland had been brought up in the great convents of Romsey Abbey and Wilton Abbey, where her aunt had made her wear a veil, like a nun. Though she didn’t want to wear the veil as a child, she did as a teenager, because Normans had a terrible reputation for raping and assaulting Saxon women and she would have felt very vulnerable. As soon as it became known that Henry I wanted to marry her in 1100, there was talk that she actually was a nun and he couldn’t do it.
“The matter went to the highest ecclesiastical court in the land and the Archbishop of Canterbury himself said that she was free to marry. However, the rumours persisted right into the next century.”
These women were no shrinking violets
Weir: “If you read Agnes Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England, which was published in the 1840s, you may think that all of these women were shrinking violets, who might have been reclining at home like Victorian ladies. But these were tough ladies. They had to be to survive in that world.”
Weir explains that before the Norman administration was centralised at Westminster, which happened gradually through the 12th century, Norman kings relied on their queens, because they had both a kingdom and duchy to rule. “When the king was in one place, the queen was usually regent in another. She would have been ably assisted by a council and deputies to advise her, but she would have had power and she would have exerted that power.”
Matilda of Flanders took a proactive role, and she was regent of Normandy for William when he was in England. “He gave her a share in the royal dominion when the coronation liturgy was changed,” shares Weir. “She was not just his consort; she was a sharer in the royal dominion and he relied on her implicitly.”
They had to learn how to be powerful women in a man’s world
One of the five Norman queens came close to becoming the first female ‘king’ of England. After Henry I’s only legitimate son, William, drowned in the wreck of the White Ship in 1120, the king was determined to secure the throne for his own bloodline and named his daughter Maud as his heir.
Yet her succession was by no means assured and Maud had to learn how to assert her right in the male world of military power. After the king’s death in 1135, many of his barons rejected the rule of Maud and instead backed the king’s nephew, Stephen of Blois. Stephen seized the throne and it wasn’t until three years later that Maud came to England to pursue her claim.
Perhaps surprisingly, says Weir, none of the chroniclers particularly mention any sexist talk at the time which explicitly said that Maud couldn’t rule as a woman. “But clearly the feeling was there, because this is a military aristocracy in which countries are often at war with one another, barons are naturally quarrelsome, and a woman cannot lead armies. That would have been the main prejudice against a female ruler – apart from the fact that women are the ‘descendants of Eve’ and are supposed to be flighty, temperamental and totally unstable!
“The other Matilda [of Boulogne, Stephen’s wife] was powerful, too. She was joint commander at the siege of Dover [during the conflict between Stephen and Maud]. While she wasn’t involved in the fighting, she was there directing operations. She was indefatigable in the interests of her rather weak and ineffective husband. She was a great stateswoman, but she got away with it because she was doing it in the interests of her husband, and not on her own behalf. At one point in the civil war, Stephen was imprisoned for several months and his wife did all she could to get him out, and because her efforts were for him, that was seen as laudable.
“In the case of Empress Maud, when she came to England and made a bid for the throne, she alienated many people with displays of aggression and assertiveness that, in a man would have been accepted, but in a woman, were seen as totally unacceptable.”
Much of what we know is either scandalous or saintly
A lot of the information on these Norman queens has sadly been lost over the centuries, explains Weir, “even if it was recorded at all,” and a challenge that she regularly faced when researching was that the deeds of women were rarely recorded by the chroniclers of the time, “unless they were notably pious, politically important or scandalous”.
“We’re seeing it all through the glass of – not misogyny, that’s not the word – but monks who were wary of women, because they believed that women were descendants of Eve, who had tempted man into sin.
“Of course, there are huge chunks that we don’t know about these queens, but there’s more than enough to inspire interest. They’re intriguing to research because we have to get through layers of monastic chroniclers’ prejudices against women, romantic legends and myths that have built up over the centuries. All these have to be stripped away and then we can see what’s left.”
The period had a number of fantastic chroniclers, Weir explains, naming Orderic Vitalis and William of Malmesbury among her sources. “Their work is incredibly rich in detail, and some of them actually knew the royal personages about which they wrote. We are talking about really primary sources.”
The lives of these women were tough…
The lives of aristocratic women during this period were beset by violence and hardship, as one tale of the ‘courtship’ between William the Conqueror and Matilda shows.
“There’s a story of William the Conqueror that tells of when Matilda refused his suit because he was a bastard,” says Weir. “He rode hotfoot to her father’s castle and came upon her as she was returning from Mass. He knocked her to the ground and he beat her and rolled her. She was so badly hurt that she had to take to her bed. He stormed off and her father armed for war, and then suddenly Matilda said ‘He must be a man of high courage and daring and I want to marry him.’ The story usually gets a laugh from audiences, but nowadays it’s obvious that we would take a rather dim view of it. It’s probably not true, fortunately.”
Two of the queens in Weir’s account may have been as young as 12 when they were married.
“The church permitted brides to cohabit with a husband from the age of 12, boys from 14, so for us, that’s child abuse, paedophilia. But it wasn’t in the 11th and 12th centuries, because life was shorter.”
A different mindset is required, says Weir, when considering the lives of these queens. “You have to do a lot of background research and I hope I’ve put a sufficient amount in the book to give a good picture of what life was like for aristocratic women of that time. You have to get into that mindset where you can look at it from a modern point of view, but you can’t judge them, because they should be judged on the values of their own day.”
We need to keep their power in perspective
Powerful as these women were, it is important to keep their influence in context, says Weir.
“There has been such a surge in women’s history and gender study, it’s almost flooded the market with biographies and books on women. It’s sort of upset the balance a little, because David Starkey is quite correct when he says that most European history is made by white middle-class males.”
Starkey told the Daily Telegraph in 2009 that to attempt to paint many women in history as ‘power players’ was wrong, saying: "If you are to do a proper history of Europe before the last five minutes, it is a history of white males because they were the power players, and to pretend anything else is to falsify."
Weir added: “There has been a tendency to overstate the case in terms of how much power these women held. We are retrieving women’s histories in the wake of feminism and therefore we have to be careful and keep them in perspective. You need to have the context of how the men governed and how the kings ruled before you can see where the queens fit in to this. Then, hopefully, you can get some perspective on how much influence they actually wielded.”
Alison Weir’s Queens of the Conquest is published by Jonathan Cape and on sale now. Weir will be discussing how queens throughout history fought to secure power – and succeeded in wielding it to their advantage – at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on Friday 13 October.