One of the most influential and formidable medieval Queens of England was Matilda of Flanders, the wife of William the Conqueror.
Flanders was a principality north of France, roughly where Belgium is now. Matilda’s father was Count Baldwin V and her mother was Adela, the daughter of Robert II “The Pious”, King of France. Her great-great-great-great grandfather on her father’s side had married Elftrude, the daughter of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex (England). She could boast of being very high born indeed.
While no one is sure of the exact date of Matilda’s birth, the best guess is in the year 1031. Flanders was a primitive area compared to Normandy but under the rule of Matilda’s father, things were beginning to improve, mostly due to trade and textiles. He amassed some wealth so Matilda probably lived in some comfort. Her mother was highly educated and made sure that her children were also given a superior education, including Matilda.
Due to Flanders’ strategic position in Europe, her father’s wealth and her high rank, Matilda was highly sought after as a bride. When Matilda was between 15 and 18, King Edward the Confessor of England sent an ambassador to Flanders named Brihtric Mau, a rich Anglo-Saxon landowner. Apparently Matilda fell in love with Brihtric and without telling her parents, sent him a message asking him to marry her. He rejected her proposal. Matilda was furious. She had risked her reputation and lost. This could have been disastrous for her future.
But Matilda came to the attention of the rich and powerful William, Duke of Normandy. There is a legend that says when Matilda was asked if she would marry the Duke of Normandy, she declined saying she was too high born to marry a “bastard”. William was the son of Robert, Duke of Normandy and his mistress, Herleva. The legend continues to say when William heard of her refusal, he rode to Flanders, soundly beat Matilda and left. After this she agreed to marry him! We’ll never know if this story is true but because it appears in many of the primary sources, there may be some truth to the rumors.
Matilda and William were married in 1053, despite a papal ban on their marriage due to consanguinity (being closely related). William was just a few years older than Matilda. It is said that William was entirely faithful to Matilda for the duration of their marriage, which would have been highly unusual for the time. William and Matilda had at least nine children.
William and Matilda fought the papal ban on their marriage for almost a decade. When the ban was finally lifted in 1062, they both founded abbeys in Caen, Normandy in gratitude. William spent the years from their marriage to 1066 consolidating his power in Normandy. When King Edward the Confessor of England died in 1066, William was ready to press his claim to the throne of England by invading and attacking King Harold, Edward’s successor. (See the earlier blog regarding Queen Emma for more information on William’s invasion.)
Matilda gave William a ship called the “Mora” in which he sailed to England. William named Matilda as Regent of Normandy while he was gone, ruling in the name of her eldest son Robert. He trusted her fully to keep the duchy safe. He went on to defeat King Harold at the Battle of Hastings and was crowned King of England soon after. Matilda came to England in March of 1068 to be crowned Queen.
Matilda had great responsibilities as Queen of England and Duchess of Normandy from this time forward. She was greatly admired for her ability to plan and stage events like Easter and Christmas celebrations. William was fond of having what he called “crown wearing “ events where he wore his crown in public to show his strength as a ruler. Matilda also helped rule Normandy when William was in England.
In 1077, William and Matilda’s eldest son Robert rebelled against his father. William recognized the lazy, arrogant and ineffectual personality of his son while Matilda loved Robert, despite his faults. Matilda supported her son in his uprising by giving emotional and financial support. Needless to say, William was not pleased with Matilda. William defeated his son and Matilda apologized for her behavior but their relationship would never be the same.
By July of 1083, Matilda’s health had begun to deteriorate. She was 52, an advanced age for the time and the strains from the family relationships, her great responsibilities and travels and many years of childbearing had finally taken a toll. There is also the possibility she contracted the plague which was rampant at the time. She made her will, giving many particular items and some money and property to her abbey at La Trinite in Caen. She passed away after a long illness on November 2, 1083 and was buried in La Trinite.
The sources say William was faithful to Matilda for the next four years of his life. Despite the turbulence of their relationship, it was a long, successful marriage. Matilda had enhanced William’s reputation and was sorely missed when she was gone. Two of her sons became King of England, William Rufus II and Henry I. What a strong willed, admired woman, even down to this day.
Resources: Queen of the Conqueror, The Life of Matilda, Wife of William the Conqueror by Tracy Borman, William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact upon England by D.C. Douglas