Today’s protagonist was small, determined, well-educated and pragmatic. And no, she never waltzed, seeing as she lived long before Richard Strauss set bow to strings – or Australia was “discovered”. (And if you don’t get that reference, I’m sorry. Me, I grew up with an Australian headmaster which is why I can sing about billabongs and swagmans in my sleep.)
Today I’d like to spend time with Matilda of Flanders, a petite woman who seemingly so inflamed her future husband, William of Normandy, that he refused to take her “no” to his suit.
“I’m not about to marry the bastard son of a tanner’s daughter,” Matilda reputedly said, while reminding the bastard duke that she had royal blood – the blood of Charlemagne, of the Capets and of the House of Wessex, no less. As per the legend, William rode all the way to her home in Lille, gripped her by her braids and dragged her to the room, and subsequently beat her – hard. When her father, enraged by William’s behaviour, threatened to bring down his entire military might on the young duke, Matilda apparently told him not to – she’d decided to marry her abuser. This begs the question if Matilda may have been an early practitioner of S&M – or if this legend should be discarded as ridiculous. I lean towards the latter.
In general, at the distance of close to 1 000 years, it is impossible to ascertain why Matilda married William. Once again, legends claim she had her heart stuck on handsome Brictric, a Saxon thegn with impressive landholdings in present day Gloucestershire. Brictric supposedly spurned her advances, so maybe she was on the rebound when she accepted William. Or maybe – and much more likely – her father saw the benefit of hedging his bets: through his sister, Baldwin had blood-ties to the Godwinson family. Through his daughter, he could ensure he was also allied with William, thereby ensuring his Flanders would retain a strong alliance with England no matter who sat on the throne.
Matilda and William were related within the prohibited degree, and the pope initially refused to consider giving them a dispensation. In this, Pope Leo IX was probably not guided so much by piety as by the pressure exerted by the Capet kings of France, who did not want the growing power of Normandy further strengthened by an alliance with Flanders.
Despite the pope’s refusal to allow the marriage, William and Matilda married in 1051 or so. Whether this caused either of them spiritual angst, we do not know, but we do know they were ably served by other devout churchmen such as Lanfranc (future Archbishop of Canterbury) which may indicate they felt their souls were in good hands anyway. But just to be on the safe side, William and Matilda founded two religious establishments in Caen, which resulted in a delayed papal blessing of their union.
At the time of their wedding, William was young, powerful, and surprisingly tall for his time, a couple of inches short of six feet. She, on the other hand, was only around five feet tall, thereby always having to crane her head back to look her substantially taller husband in the eye. We have no idea how either of them looked beyond their respective heights, but the somewhat biased Norman chroniclers describe Matilda as delicately beautiful. Huh: I think there was little of the delicate in this lady, no matter her stature.
Women of lofty lineage like Matilda were not raised to sit in a corner and embroider, now and then batting their eyelashes at their husbands. Well, ok: they probably did embroider, and for their own sake I do hope they batted the odd eyelash or two, but their purpose in life was not merely decorative. No, ladies like Matilda were educated to manage. They were taught to read accounts, they were handed keys and responsibilities, were expected to oversee the sheer logistic endeavour of keeping their (huge) household fed and clothed. Women like Matilda were their husbands’ partners – albeit not entirely an equal partner, at least not legally. So however petite, our Matilda was no retiring violet – rather the reverse.
Personally, I think Matilda and William were a match made in heaven and William seems to have been genuinely fond of her. Once married, he held himself to his wife, and there are no indications he ever took a mistress – William the Bastard left no bastards behind. She gave him at least nine children, and where William was constantly consolidating his power through one skirmish after the other, Matilda busied herself with educating their children and strengthening the overall administration of the Duchy.
Whether or not she encouraged her husband in his ambition to claim the English crown, we don’t know. She, however, came with an impressive pedigree, so maybe she hankered after a crown to cap those glorious bloodlines. We do know that she gifted her husband with the ship that was to carry him across the Channel. Maybe she presented him with a little token to carry with him into battle – an embroidered garter or such – although truth be told, neither William nor Matilda come across as being the sentimental type.
I dare say she prayed for him – invading a country is always a perilous undertaking. I imagine she waved him off, wishing him “Godspeed” and standing straight and tall for as long as he could see her. So off William went, and no matter the heroic stand of Harold II and his men, the Normans won the day, very much due to that innovative addition to armed forces, the cavalry. William was in the midst of the fighting – he was no coward, and had grown up having to defend what was his by right through the might of his sword.
While William concentrated all his attention on pacifying his new won kingdom – and yes, it was more a question of hammering the defeated Saxons to the ground with a bloodied mail gauntlet than bringing them over with diplomacy and a silken touch – Matilda ruled his duchy. She did so competently, in between maintaining control over all of their children. To Matilda, England must have offered a gilded opportunity to further the interests of her sons: while one of them was destined to be Duke of Normandy, one of her other sons could now look forward to ascending a throne. Plus, in one fell swoop her daughters became very attractive brides, daughters not only to a duke, but also to a king.
I imagine Matilda rather enjoyed ruling Normandy – she does not seem to have been in a hurry to join her husband in England. However, in May of 1068 she finally crossed the Channel and was crowned Queen of England. At the time, she was pregnant with her fourth son, the future Henry I, which sort of indicates William had been doing some travelling back and forth to be with his lady wife.
Matilda was to spend most of her remaining years in Normandy rather than in England, but now and then she acted regent in her husband’s stead. On one such occasion, she supposedly decided to avenge herself on the unfortunate Brictric, the Saxon thegn who chose to laugh off her ardent if youthful professions of love. (Well: as per the romantic legends…) Brictric was stripped of his lands and thrown into prison, where he subsequently died. The more pragmatic version of this story is probably that Brictric, being a Saxon, was considered a major risk to William’s crown, and so he was imprisoned, his extensive lands ending up under Norman control. Whatever the case, the outcome was the same for poor Brictric: he died in chains.
By all accounts, Matilda was a devoted mother – and she was particularly fond of her eldest son, Robert. This the apple of her eye had not been gifted with all that many impressive qualities beyond evident fighting skills, being a youth who preferred pleasure to duty. Love, however, is blind, and while Matilda probably loved all her children, Robert had that extra space in her heart – maybe precisely because he couldn’t quite live up to the expectations of his father.
Once William had established himself as king of England, he decided that Robert would inherit Normandy, while England would go to one of the younger sons. Obviously, Robert was less than pleased: a king ranks higher than a duke, and was he supposed to kow-tow to his brothers? Besides, why did dear old dad ALWAYS side with pesky Will junior and Henry? No; Robert felt unjustly treated, and decided it was time he showed some initiative – which is why he rebelled against his father in 1077. Those of you who know your history will know this is not the only time an English royal son has rebelled against his king and father – some generations down the line, Henry II would face an equally painful experience, when three of his sons, aided and abetted by their mother, rose in rebellion.
In the case of Robert, Matilda was as guilty as Eleanor of Aquitaine of aiding and abetting – in the sense that she sent Robert money and jewels so as to keep him adequately clothed and fed and mounted and armed. I imagine she felt some dismay when her eldest son used her gifts to unleash mayhem in the county of Vexin, going to such lengths that William and Philip of France formed an unlikely – and short-lived – alliance to bring Robert down. And when William found out that Matilda was helping Robert – well, I guess that was not a happy conversation, even less so when a year or so later Robert unhorsed his father and almost killed him.
Matilda was stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, she loved her son. On the other, she must have cared for her husband as well. He definitely cared for her, so much so that he did not punish her for supporting their rebellious Robert. For her sake, he agreed to a truce with Robert in 1080, and father and son exchanged the kiss of peace before the beaming Matilda. In view of subsequent events, I suspect both men had their fingers crossed.
Fortunately for Matilda, she was never to experience the further fall-out between her family members. In 1083, Matilda fell ill, lingering for months before she died in November. Her husband was at her bedside when she passed away. Did he cry? The William that has come down through history most definitely wouldn’t. Depicted as cruel and ruthless, this is a winner who did not succeed in rewriting history to present himself in pleasing colours. Was he all nice and fluffy? No way. Did he have a penchant for walking over dead bodies to reach his goals. Absolutely. But he was also genuinely pious, he was a capable leader and – his saving grace – I do believe he loved his wife, thereby adding a layer of humanity to the cold-hearted bastard. So maybe he did weep, clasping her cold hand in his. We will never know.
Matilda of Flanders never danced a waltz, never swooned as she twirled to The Blue Danube, and I bet she did not marry for love. She married for influence and power, she married to ally her house to the bright and rising star that was William, Duke of Normandy. Genetically, she couldn’t have made a better choice: he would fundamentally change the course of history, and their descendants would go on to become an endless sequence of English – and European – kings.
(Matilda will figure in some of the alternative history stories in “1066 UpsideDown”. Obviously, so will her conquering hubby… Read more HERE!)