The Meaning of “Mora”, the Flagship Matilda of Flanders Gave William the Conqueror ~ a guest post by Elisabeth Waugaman

The Freelance History Writer would like to welcome Elisabeth Waugaman, PhD with a guest post on some interesting medieval history regarding the Norman Conquest. Her degree from Duke University is in French Literature and she is a published author of two books. Elisabeth was awarded a medal from the government of Brazil for her book on aviator Alberto Santos Dumont and she has an ongoing blog for the magazine “Psychology Today”. Welcome Elisabeth!

Bayeux tapestry Mora

Scholars have never found a satisfactory explanation for “Mora”, the name of the flagship Matilda of Flanders gave William the Conqueror for his expedition to England. One of the earliest theories based on the Spanish verb “morar” (to live or dwell), is that “Mora” means “mansion” or “dwelling.” Why would Matilda choose a foreign Spanish word to inspire the Normans and Celts who made up William’s army? Another theory is that “mora” means blackberry in Latin and refers to Matilda’s dark-haired beauty. Others suggest “Mora” is an anagram for “Amor”, a nickname for Matilda as a naughty child, a delay, or a “foolish woman”— suggesting in jest that Matilda was foolish to support such a dangerous expedition. For such an historic endeavor, these theories are totally inadequate, even disrespectful.

Everything we know about Matilda affirms she was a powerful, intelligent woman. She was the first English queen crowned with power “so equal to that of the king” that she presided over pleas with William and they pronounced judgments jointly. She ruled in Normandy and England during William’s absences. A woman this powerful and this intelligent would not have given William’s magnificent flagship a name which made her appear immature or foolish. On the contrary, in order to help William, Matilda would have searched for a name that would rally her husband’s diverse allies around a symbol they all understood—a symbol that would inspire their faith in their leader and his quest.

Because William the Conqueror was of illegitimate birth, he needed to clearly bolster his claim to the throne. The Merovingian kings inspired noble families to create their own bloodlines. Duke Richard I, William’s great-great-grandfather, started recording his family’s bloodlines with Dudo’s “Historia Normannorum” (circa 1030). Recognizing the importance of establishing his lineage, William the Conqueror commissioned Guillaume de Jumièges’ “Gesta Normannorum” (circa 1070) and Guillaume de Poitiers’ “Gesta Guillelmi” (circa 1077) to document the history of the Norman dynasty. The more royal bloodlines a claimant had, the greater his right to rule and the more allies he could call upon. William recognized the importance of establishing his royal bloodlines for history.

Nordic lineage was crucial not only to assert William’s regal lineage, but also because England had a line of Viking kings—Sweyn Forkbeard, Cnut, Harold Harefoot, and Harthacnut—reigning intermittently from 1013 to 1042. French sources note that William the Conqueror’s family was related to both Stenkil, king of Sweden, and Harald Hardrada, king of Norway. William was also related to King Sweyn II of Denmark through his great-great grandmother Gunnora, wife of Richard I, duke of Normandy—in family legend, if not in fact. Through his Norman bloodline, William was related to King Cnut via Cnut’s marriage to Queen Emma, William’s great-aunt, and to their son, King Harthacnut. Through his Nordic and Norman bloodlines, William was related to the Nordic-English kings and the ruling kings of Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Because of the Nordic-English kings and the large number of Nordic immigrants in England, Nordic ancestry was crucial for any claimant to the English throne in 1066.

Medieval queens were the keepers of family lineage and history. Matilda was carefully instructed in the importance of her royal lineage and thoroughly understood its importance. She therefore understood the necessity of proclaiming William’s lineage. By naming William’s flagship the “Mora”, Matilda chose a name that boldly proclaimed William’s regal lineage through his Nordic ancestry. The Yngling line of Swedish and Norwegian kings and the Skiddung line of Danish kings traced their ancestry back to Odin. Because of its proximity with the temple of Uppsala sacred to Thor, Freyr, and Odin, the king crowned at the Mora Stone held preeminence among the early Nordic peoples, long before they were clearly divided into three separate kingdoms. With their intertwined history, all Norsemen —Danes, Swedes, and Norwegians—held the Mora Stone sacred. By choosing “Mora” for the name of William’s flagship, Matilda proclaimed that William’s royal Nordic bloodline was equal to that of any ruling Nordic king and part of the lineage of England’s kings.

In 1060, William’s relative, Stenkil, a Christian king, was crowned at the Mora Stone. With Stenkil’s crowning, we have historic proof that the consecration of the Nordic king at the Mora Stone was still paramount for Norsemen in 1060. Stenkil was the first king to add a new stone with his name, a tradition that subsequent Swedish kings continued, thereby associating the Mora Stone with Swedish kingship in later history. Stenkil died in 1066 “about the time Harold fell in England,” just as William the Conqueror was claiming his regal Nordic lineage.

William could claim rights to the English throne via three different lineages. In addition to his Nordic ancestry, William had Norman ties to both the Saxon and Nordic kings of England because of his great aunt Emma, who linked him to four English kings—to Aethelred II (a Saxon king, Emma’s first husband) and their son King Edward the Confessor (Norman by upbringing); to King Cnut (a Nordic king, Emma’s second husband) and their son King Harthacnut. Because Queen Emma fled to the Flemish court when Matilda was a child, Matilda would have known Emma and her Saxon, Nordic, and Norman history. Having learned the importance of ancestry from her mother and Emma’s amazing life, Matilda proclaimed William’s royal lineage with the name “Mora.” “Mora” also echoes “Møre” and the creation of the Earldoms of Orkney and Shetland by Rognvald, the ancestor of Rollo, the founder of Normandy, thus placing William in a lineage that created new domains, which William continued with his plan to conquer England.

“Mora” also had associations for the Celts who had joined William’s expedition. Professor Elisabeth Van Houts notes that “Mora” derives from “Morini”, the ancient inhabitants of Flanders, and that name was a reminder of Matilda’s Flemish origin. “Mora” resonated not simply with the Flemish Celts, however. In Breton, “mor” means “a great expanse of water” (i.e. the sea). According to Pliny, the vast maritime districts of Western Gaul were called Armorica, meaning “by the sea.” “Mor” is the root of many compound words having to do with the sea in Breton making it an essential part of their vocabulary and identity. In Scottish Gaelic, “mór” means “great” or “large”: “móra” is found in many words describing “large,” “big,” “important,” “noble,” and “the landed classes.” The Celts also had a tradition of crowning their king at sacred stones—the Lia Fáil and the Stone of Scone—a regal crowning tradition linking Celts and Normans. In addition to the regal Nordic associations, which the Norman nobility recognized, “Mora” also resonated with the core of Celtic identity.

sea parsnip picture

There is also a serendipitous Anglo-Saxon association with “mora,” an edible root, like a carrot or parsnip. The sea carrot grows abundantly on the southern coasts of England, blooms from May until September, and was noted as a cure for various ailments. The Anglo-Saxon word suggests that like the plant, the ship had a remedy for the Saxons, whose lineage was tainted by the murder of Edward the Martyr, King Aethelred’s brother; by the murder of Alfred Aetheling, the son of King Aethelred and Emma, William’s great-aunt; and by Harold’s broken oath according to William. English commentators believed the Norman invasion and the English defeat were punishment for these sins. The name of William’s ship suggested a cure —a new lineage with multiple roots in English kingship. The Anglo-Saxon link also echoes Matilda’s Anglo-Saxon bloodline.

In addition to dynastic, regal, cultural, and linguistic associations, the “Mora” displayed numerous religious symbols affirming William’s divine election. The Bayeux Tapestry depicts the mast topped with a cross and the pope’s flag emblazoned with a cross, symbolizing the blessings of God and the pope for William’s cause. The ship’s prow has the gilded statue of a child pointing to England with his right hand and blowing a horn as white as ivory with his left. Van Houts suggests the statue evokes Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue, with its references to the birth of a child who would bring about a Golden Age. The reference to Virgil also brings up associations with the “Aeneid” and the formation of the a new dynasty, that of the Romans, by the Trojan Aeneas, which is yet another link to William and his endeavor for Dudo’s “Gesta” traces William’s lineage back to the Trojan Antenor.

The stern of the “Mora” bore the head of a lion, a symbol of strength, stability, and royal power. Animal symbolism appears throughout the Bayeux tapestry. The lion was the biblical symbol for the royal lineage of Christ. The “Mora” proclaimed William’s divinely chosen bloodline. In the Bayeux tapestry, David Crouch notes that William sits on a chair of state carved with lions just like King Solomon’s seat of justice. The lion, a symbol of Christ as the divine king, mirrors William’s quest to be an earthly king. With his coronation on Christmas Day, William emphasized this divine association.

Matilda’s placement of religious symbols at the top of the mast, the prow and the stern form a religious trinity protecting the ship and the expedition. The cross and papal flag symbolize God’s blessing and His divine will, acknowledged by the pope, God’s representative on earth. The head of a lion on the stern represents Christ the Heavenly King and William, the future earthly king. The gold statue of the child symbolizes the Holy Spirit, God’s spirit at work in the world, linking past and present with Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue prefiguring William’s reign and the new lineage of William and Matilda in their children. William could save England as Christ saved mankind. The importance of the Holy Spirit is highlighted by Matilda’s coronation on Whit Sunday—on Pentecost, the Feast of the Holy Spirit. Such complex symbolism reveals Matilda’s deep faith, befitting her father Baldwin V, The Pious; her mother Adela, who was canonized; and her grandfather King Robert II, the Pious, of France.

In choosing a name for William’s magnificent flagship, Matilda would have searched for a regal symbol that had meaning for William’s culturally diverse army. The “Mora” is an historical, cultural, linguistic, and religious tour de force with regal associations for Norsemen, Normans, and Celts. “Mora” highlights William’s ancient royal lineage, unites past and present, human and divine will, the king and his land; but most of all, the name had meaning for the many different ethnic groups, who could unite to help William win the throne.

Further Reading: “Matilda, Queen of the Conqueror” by Tracy Borman, “The Normans: The History of a Dynasty” by David Crouch, “1066: The Year of the Conquest” by David Howarth, “Harold and William: The Battle for England: 1064-66” by Benton Patterson, “The Ship List of William the Conqueror” by Elisabeth Van Houts, “1066: A New History of the Norman Invasion” by Richard Rex, “A Note on Viking Age Inaugurations” by Elisabeth Vastergaard, “Women in England in the Middle Ages” by Jennifer Ward