This article was first published in the October 2011 issue of BBC History Magazine
In late autumn 1066, a diminutive woman of 35 prayed fervently in the Benedictine priory of Nôtre Dame du Pré, a small chapel that she had founded in 1060 on the banks of the river Seine near Rouen. Flanked by her ladies, she had spent many hours at her devotions during the previous few days.
It was with good cause that she had kept such an anxious vigil. Her husband, William ‘the Bastard’, Duke of Normandy, had set sail for England more than two weeks before, determined to wrest the throne from Harold Godwinson. At last, a messenger arrived with news that her prayers had been answered. William and his Norman army had triumphed over the Saxons at Senlac hill, close to the town of Hastings by which the battle would henceforth be known. She, Matilda, was now not just Duchess of Normandy, but Queen of England.
Upon hearing the momentous tidings, Matilda joyfully proclaimed that the priory should henceforth be known as ‘Nôtre Dame de Bonnes Nouvelles’ (‘Our Lady of Good News’). She had good reason to rejoice. The crown of England was a glittering prize that even she, with her overweening ambition, could not possibly have hoped for when she had become the wife of the baseborn Duke of Normandy some 15 years earlier.
But Hastings, decisive as it was, marked the start, not the end, of William’s campaign to conquer England. It would take years of bitter fighting before he was finally able to establish a measure of control over the country. William himself realised that he could not rule by the sword alone: he needed to win the hearts and minds of his resentful new subjects. The surest means of achieving this was to place his wife at centre stage.
Matilda had already won great renown within Normandy for her piety, political shrewdness and, above all, her unimpeachable lineage. Daughter of the formidable Count Baldwin V of Flanders and niece of the King of France, she could trace her descent from the great Charlemagne, founding father of the French and German empires.
Even more valuable, from her husband’s perspective, was the fact that she had English royal blood in her veins, for she was descended from King Alfred the Great. Little wonder that William had been so desperate to marry her that, according to one account, he had ridden at full speed to Bruges and dragged her by the hair into the mud, kicking and beating her until she agreed to become his wife.
Despite its rather inauspicious beginnings, William and Matilda’s marriage would prove one of the most successful in history. Together, they established the mighty Norman dynasty which would dominate Europe for more than a hundred years. In an age when the primary duty of female consorts was to produce an heir, Matilda exceeded expectations by giving birth to four sons and at least five daughters, all of whom survived well into adulthood.
She may have been the model of wifely obedience on the surface, but this masked a fierce ambition for power. Matilda combined the unrelenting duties of motherhood with an increasingly active role in the government of Normandy. By 1066, she had gained unrivalled influence over her husband, and he had no hesitation in appointing her regent of the duchy when he embarked upon the invasion of England.
Within weeks of his victory at Hastings, William was sorely missing his wife’s presence. He resolved to defer his coronation (which was scheduled for Christmas Day 1066) so that Matilda might join him, “since if God granted him this honour, he wished for his wife to be crowned with him”. This was more than mere devotion: he knew full well that Matilda’s presence – given her ancestral ties with previous English kings – would lend the occasion much-needed legitimacy. But his advisers urged that he could brook no delay and his coronation went ahead before Matilda was able to leave Normandy.
Matilda was every bit as eager as William to establish herself in England, and had already begun to style herself queen. But it was not until the spring of 1068 that she finally arrived in her new kingdom. The delay had been caused not just by the demands of her regency in Normandy, but also her role as matriarch of the Norman dynasty. She had fallen pregnant shortly before William’s departure for England in 1066 (resulting in the birth of a daughter, Adela), and by the time she landed on English soil, she was pregnant once more.
The new queen’s arrival in England was noted by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, which referred to her derisively as “the Lady Matilda”, while her new subjects called her “the strange woman”. Their suspicion was rooted in the fact that she was spoken of as ‘la Royne’ by the Normans, which implied that she was a female sovereign in her own right. This was shocking to her new subjects: previous English queens had been referred to merely as ‘the king’s wife’.
Undeterred, Matilda threw herself into the task of bringing much-needed glamour to her husband’s court. A magnificent gathering was held at Winchester to celebrate Easter, and another at Westminster shortly afterwards, attended by a host of English notables. Even the anti-Norman chroniclers could not help but be impressed by the opulent spectacle that the couple presented, clad from head to toe in gold-encrusted robes and eating their sumptuous meals from gold and silver platters.
As soon as these celebrations were out of the way, plans began in earnest for the main purpose of Matilda’s visit: her coronation. The event was loaded with significance. Besides being vital to William’s efforts to reinforce his legitimacy in the eyes of his new subjects, Matilda would be the first queen of England to be formally styled ‘Regina’.
Her coronation was also the first ever staged just for a queen, and Matilda was determined that it should eclipse her husband’s in splendour and magnificence. Every detail was planned with meticulous care. Special laudes (ritual chants) were written for the occasion, declaring that Matilda ‘shared’ William’s authority. Never before had a queen’s power been so formalised – or so equal to that of the king. It was a sign of things to come.
The new queen’s presence did not immediately establish order in England. Barely were the coronation celebrations out of the way than fresh trouble had broken out in the north of the kingdom. Fearing a rebellion, William hastened to York, the principal city of the north, from where he could prepare his own forces to quell any uprisings.
Matilda had no intention of staying behind in the relatively safe confines of the court in London. Sensing an opportunity to win over their recalcitrant subjects, she decided to join her husband in Yorkshire. This involved a journey of some 200 miles on roads that were little more than mud tracks – a considerable enough feat in itself, let alone for a woman who was by then heavily pregnant. Foremost in her mind was the thought that if she could give birth to this new heir in the most rebellious region of her kingdom, it would achieve more towards Anglo-Norman integration than her husband’s strong-arm tactics ever could.
Although she was bound for York, the onset of labour forced Matilda to take refuge in Selby, some 14 miles south of the northern capital. There, she gave birth to Henry, her ninth and final child.
Her plan worked brilliantly. The English came to regard this prince as the only lawful successor to their throne from among the Norman dynasty, even though he had three elder brothers. Matilda encouraged this view by making Henry heir to all of her lands in England. She also named him after her uncle, the King of France, to strengthen his legitimacy. Matilda returned to Normandy shortly after Henry’s birth in order to take up the reins of government once more. But when a fresh uprising broke out in the north of England in 1069, William urged her return.
While he dealt with the rebels in York and the surrounding area, a strong presence was required to guard against any sympathetic uprisings in the south of the kingdom. Matilda, already gaining favour among the English people thanks to her dignified bearing and gentle demeanour, formed a welcome contrast to her husband’s brutality. She was therefore ideally suited for this task.
During the next 12 years, Matilda constantly flitted between England and Normandy, bolstering her husband’s rule in both countries and becoming an ever more powerful figurehead for the Norman regime. In England, she was particularly active in the sphere of justice. There are numerous references in Domesday Book to her hearing English legal cases during William’s absences, which became increasingly frequent during the 1070s. The impressive variety of English charters in which Matilda was involved attests to her versatility in business matters.
The queen was also at the heart of some of the most important religious debates of the reign, notably when she and her husband ordered that the primacy of York should be subject to the authority of the archbishop of Canterbury – a symbolic ruling which effectively brought the north under the control of the court in London. Ever sensitive to the mood of the English people, though, she subsequently made a series of generous bequests to the church. In so doing, she won praise from the chroniclers, who described her as “munificent and liberal of her gifts” and “indefatigable at alleviating distress in every shape”.
Spoils of conquest
Matilda’s liberality set her apart from the other members of the Norman ruling elite who had shared in the spoils of the conquest. And whereas her husband and his Norman entourage relied upon interpreters, she made the effort to master the English language – a fact that greatly endeared her to the native population.
As well as winning popularity in her own right, Matilda also gradually succeeded in persuading her husband to adopt a more conciliatory stance towards his conquered subjects. “King William, by the advice of Matilda, treated the English kindly as long as she lived,” observed one contemporary. When Edward the Confessor’s widow, Edith, who hadlong been a figurehead for the Saxon regime, died in 1075, Matilda urged William to arrange for her remains to be conveyed from Winchester to Westminster with great honour so that she might be interred in the abbey next to her husband. There, a tomb “lavishly decorated with gold and silver” was erected, and William also paid for a suitably ostentatious funeral.
By the time of her last sojourn in England, in 1081, Matilda had earned widespread admiration among the people. A consummate diplomat, she had steadily and patiently overcome their initial suspicion with a brilliantly executed public relations campaign.
Whereas in the early days of her reign, she had been dismissed as William’s ‘gebedde’ (bedfellow), now she was known as “the queen of the English, Matilda, wealthy and powerful”. Even the most misogynistic of the chroniclers claimed that “the common people, the rich, every gender and age, the whole clergy, every tongue, every class” admired her “just” and “prudent” character.
Matilda’s natural shrewdness and diplomacy had done at least as much – if not more – to secure England for the Normans than her Conqueror husband’s military campaigns ever could.
Matilda’s death in November 1083 was deeply mourned on both sides of the Channel. As one contemporary observed, she would be “wept for by the English and the Normans for many years”. Principal among them was her husband, who fell into a deep depression from which he never recovered. He had good reason to mourn her loss. Matilda had proved the mainstay of William’s rule in England, and without her he was “continually forced to struggle against the storms of troubles that rose up against him”.
Her career marked the dawning of a new era for royal consorts. By wielding immense power in both Normandy and England – not just on behalf of her husband, but at times in direct opposition to him – Matilda confounded the traditional views of women in medieval society and provided an inspiring new model of queenship. No longer confined to the domestic sphere, her successors were able to play an active part in the political, judicial and spiritual life of their kingdoms for centuries to come.
Tracy Borman is a historian and author of Matilda: Queen of the Conqueror (Jonathan Cape, September 2011).
Timeline: The life and times of Queen Matilda
Matilda is born to Count Baldwin V of Flanders and his wife, Adela of France. She immediately becomes a highly prized pawn in the international marriage market
Wedding of Matilda and William takes place at Eu, on the border between Normandy and Flanders, in defiance of a papal ban on the grounds of consanguinity
Work begins on Matilda’s magnificent abbey of La Trinité in Caen, built as a penance after Pope Nicholas II formally lifts the interdict on her marriage
The Norman Conquest. Matilda’s husband triumphs at Hastings and she immediately begins styling herself Queen of England. She inherits substantial landed wealth in her new kingdom
Matilda is crowned at Westminster Abbey and becomes the first consort to be formally recognised as queen in her own right. She gives birth to her fourth son, Henry, shortly afterwards
Death of Edith, widow of Edward the Confessor, a powerful figurehead for the Saxon regime, leads to the full acceptance of Matilda as queen in England
Rebellion led by Robert ‘Curthose’, William and Matilda’s eldest son. Matilda secretly sends money to support him. William furiously denounces her as a “faithless wife”
Matilda dies on 2 November and is buried at La Trinité. William commissions an exquisite monument “wonderfully worked with gold and precious stones” to be erected over her tomb
Matilda: how much do we know?
Although the lives of medieval women are typically obscure, there is a surprisingly rich collection of sources for Matilda’s career as Duchess of Normandy and Queen of England. Principal among them are the chronicles.
The 11th and early 12th centuries were a time of intense activity among monastic historians, and their accounts vividly (and often salaciously) bring to life the characters and events of Matilda’s story. These are supported by the charters to which she put her name, as well as her husband’s ambitious survey of England, known as Domesday Book, and the unique record of the Bayeux tapestry, which was for many years believed to be the work of Matilda and her ladies.
Sadly, there are few clues to Matilda’s appearance. Although all of the chroniclers agree that she was “very beautiful”, any contemporary portraits or statues have long since been destroyed. A number of engravings claiming to be based upon a contemporary likeness appeared in the 19th century, in which Matilda bears a suspiciously close resemblance to Queen Victoria. The only reliable evidence we have derives from the discovery of her skeleton in 1961 at the abbey of La Trinité.
A study of her remains suggested that she was extremely small, for the skeleton measured just 4ft2ins high.