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Matilda of Flanders (c. 1031–1083)

Matilda of Flanders (c. 1031–1083)

Queen of England, of noble birth and closely related to the kings of France, who married William, duke of Normandy, later king of England, was the mother of two future kings, and played a significant part in the political affairs of the period, especially in Normandy . Name variations: Matilda or Matilda I; Matilda of England. Born in Flanders around 1031; died in Normandy on November 3, 1083; daughter of Baldwin of Lisle also called Baldwin V le Debonnaire (c. 1012–1067), count of Flanders (r. 1035–1067), and his second wife Adela Capet (c. 1010–1097, daughter of Robert II and sister of Henry I, kings of France); sister of Judith of Flanders (1032–1094) and Baldwin VI, count of Flanders; married William of Normandy (c. 1027–1087), later William I the Conqueror, duke of Normandy (r. 1035–1087), king of England (r. 1066–1087), in 1051 or 1053; children: Robert III also seen as Robert II Curthose (c. 1054–1134), duke of Normandy (r. 1087–1106); Richard (c. 1055–d. between 1069 and 1075), duke of Bernay; Cecilia (c. 1059–1126), abbess of Holy Trinity in Caen; Adeliza (d. 1066?); William II (c. 1060–1100), king of England; Constance (c. 1066–1090); Adela of Blois (c. 1062–1137, countess of Blois and Chartres, who married Stephen Henry, count of Blois); Agatha (betrothed to Harald or Harold II, king of the English, but died unmarried); Henry I (1068–1135), king of England (r. 1100–1135); and perhaps a Matilda (mentioned in Domesday Book, but nothing further is known).

Born into the powerful ruling family of Flanders, was closely related, through her mother, to the ruling house of France; despite opposition of papacy, married William, duke of Normandy (1051 or 1053) and spent much of the rest of her life in the duchy; assisted William in administering the area and acted as his regent when he was absent; following William's conquest of England (1066), became queen of England and was crowned (1068); was a powerful, wealthy woman who was generous in her endowment of the church; had nine or ten children, including two future kings; was approximately 52 years old when she died (1083).

Matilda of Flanders bursts upon the historical record in 1049 as a beautiful young woman of perhaps 17 (we do not know the exact date of her birth). A determined young upstart, William (later William I the Conqueror), the illegitimate son of the duke of Normandy, had come to Flanders seeking a suitable bride. Few young women could have been considered more suitable than Matilda. Her uncle, Henry (I), was the reigning French king. Her mother Adela Capet was a member of the Capetian family, the ruling house of France. (In 998, Pope Gregory V had excommunicated Robert II the Pious, king of France, and voided his second marriage to his cousin Bertha of Burgundy because they were too closely related. Robert then married Constance of Arles , and she gave birth to four children, including Adela Capet.) Count Baldwin V, Matilda's father, was the wealthy and influential ruler of Flanders, an area covering what is now western Belgium and part of northern France.

Adela Capet (c. 1010–1079)

Countess of Flanders . Name variations: Adela of France. Born around 1010; died on January 8, 1079, at Messinesmonastre, France; daughter of Robert II the Pious (972–1031, son of Hugh Capet) sometimes known as Robert I, king of France (r. 996–1031) and Constance of Arles (c. 980–1032); sister of Henry I (1008–1060), king of France (r. 1031–1060), and Robert, duke of Burgundy (r. 1031–1076); married Richard III, 5th duke of Normandy, in January 1026 or 1027; became second wife of Baldwin V (c. 1012–1067), count of Flanders (r. 1035–1067), in 1028; children: (second marriage) possibly Baldwin VI, count of Flanders (d. 1070); Matilda of Flanders (c. 1031–1083); Judith of Flanders (1032–1094).

Following the death of her second husband Baldwin V, count of Flanders, Adela Capet entered the convent.

Bertha of Burgundy (964–1024)

Queen of France . Born around 964; died in 1024; daughter of Matilda Martel (943–c. 982) and Conrad, king of Burgundy (r. 937–993); became second wife of her cousin Robert II the Pious (972–1031, son of Hugh Capet) sometimes known as Robert I, king of France (r. 996–1031), in 996 (marriage annulled in 998); children: Almaric Montfort.

Pope Gregory V voided the marriage of Bertha of Burgundy and Robert II, king of France, in 998, because they were too closely related. Robert then married his third wife Constance of Arles (c. 980–1032).

Since Roman times, Flanders had developed an international reputation as a producer of the finest woolen cloth, and from the late 10th century, under strong rulers and stable government, the region grew from strength to strength. Its favorable coastal location was ideal for trade with the Scandinavian countries of the north, and the Rhine River provided a vital link with the markets of France and Germany. It is, therefore, hardly surprising that the young man who sought to marry Matilda had no easy time in winning her.

First, there was the problem of the suitor himself: although William, at age 21, had already acquired a reputation for bravery and military skill and was the son of the duke of Normandy, that duchy had only been established in the 10th century to placate the Viking invaders. Normandy lacked both the illustrious history and the wealth of neighboring Flanders, and, to further diminish his eligibility, William's illegitimate birth made his claim to the duchy seem tenuous at best. In 1049, no one could be sure that he would manage to defeat the powerful opponents who were plotting to overthrow him, and no one could have foreseen the illustrious future which awaited him.

Sprung from a royal stem; child of a Flemish duke; her mother was Adela, daughter of a king of France, … married to William, most illustrious king.

—Epitaph on Matilda's tomb at Caen

Evidence suggests that Count Baldwin's response to the marriage proposal was less than enthusiastic, and a Norman chronicle (dismissed by one historian as an "idle legend") tells of Matilda's own reaction: she is said to have declared that she would never marry a bastard. William rode secretly to Bruges, so the chronicle recounts, caught her as she was coming out of church, and beat and kicked her. Matilda then took to her bed and told her father that she would marry no one but the duke. Another, and perhaps equally unreliable Norman chronicler provides a different reason for Matilda's reluctance to marry William: according to this account, she had already fallen in love with an Anglo-Saxon thane (a soldier of a king) who had come to Bruges on a diplomatic mission. Rejected by the young man, Matilda allegedly took vengeance upon him when she became queen of England.

Winning over the opposition of Matilda and her father, however it was accomplished, was to prove less difficult for William than gaining the approval of the pope. The papal council held at Rheims in 1049 refused to allow the match on the grounds of consanguinity (a fairly common impediment to politically significant medieval marriages), which meant that the parties were related in some way. Historians have not been able to discover the precise grounds of this alleged relationship; the most likely theory is that the difficulty arose because of a marriage contract between William's uncle, Richard III, duke of Normandy, and Matilda's mother Adela. Other speculative accounts have the two connected through a common great-grandmother, or have Matilda previously married, but none of these stories bear scrutiny. The fact that the marriage of Richard and Adela had never actually taken place did nothing to diminish the force of papal opposition to the match between Matilda and William, duke of Normandy.

William, however, refused to be swayed, and the marriage eventually took place at Eu, on his duchy's northeastern frontier, perhaps as early as 1051 but more likely in 1053, with Matilda subsequently being received in Rouen, William's Norman capital, with much rejoicing. The rejoicing may well have been short-lived, however, as the duchy was subsequently placed under a papal interdict, to punish William for his disobedience, and it may not have been until 1059, when Pope Nicholas II granted a dispensation, that the services of the church were fully restored to William and his subjects.

Matilda of Flanders was made to share in the requirement to make amends for the disobedient marriage: as a physical expression of her contrition, she financed, from her own revenues, the building of the Abbey of the Holy Trinity (La Trinité) at Caen, a magnificent convent for nuns, while William established the Abbey of St. Stephen (St-Etienne) in the same city. Building of the two abbeys as well as a castle commenced in the late 1050s, raising Caen to the status of the second city in Normandy, after the capital, Rouen.

Given what we know of the customs of the time and of the character of Duke William, it would seem wiser to ascribe his determined pursuit of Matilda to politics rather than passion. She was wealthy and well connected and his alliance with Flanders served William well, in Normandy and, later, in England. Yet Matilda of Flanders was well educated, cultured and, according to contemporary descriptions, beautiful, her tiny form a striking contrast to William's imposing size. If the marriage did not start out as a love match, it seems to have developed into one; unlike most of his ancestors and contemporaries, William seems to have been loyal to his wife, a facet of his character considered remarkable by those who observed it, and, though not without some disagreements, William and Matilda remained close for their 30 years together.

Matilda seems to have quickly come to share her husband's role as ruler of Normandy and with it his ambitions for England. Contemporary Norman sources are in agreement that King Edward III the Confessor of England, lacking an heir and grateful to the Normans for their support of his cause when his political survival was in doubt, promised the English throne to William sometime in 1051. Harold II Godwineson's visit to Normandy in 1064 or 1065 is seen, to these same Norman chroniclers, as a mission to confirm this promise and to swear his own oath of loyalty. Given Harold's ambitions to secure the throne for himself, such motivation seems unlikely, although it is probable that William cleverly exploited the visit to serve his own ends. Nor was William alone in his machinations; one account presents Matilda as spending many hours in conversation with Harold Godwineson during his time at the Norman court and alleges that she persuaded him to promise to marry one of her daughters—perhaps an attempt to develop an alternate strategy, should William's master plan fail to materialize.

It soon became clear to William what his master plan must be. Immediately following King Edward's death on January 5, 1066, Harold Godwineson announced that the king had promised him the throne with his dying breath. Then, Harold took advantage of popular support and had himself crowned. If he were to make good his claim, William had no choice but to invade England. It is obvious that he was not unprepared; Matilda was named as regent in Normandy, to be assisted, in the duke's absence, by a council of advisors. As he rallied his supporters before departure, Matilda presented her husband with a ship called the Mora to serve as his flagship. It is shown in the Bayeux Tapestry as a square-rigged Viking ship with a cruciform banner at the masthead. Matilda had placed on board the golden image of a boy, holding an ivory horn to his lips, his right hand pointing towards England.

The dedication of Matilda of Flanders' abbey of the Holy Trinity at Caen on June 18 represented a symbolic culmination of the invasion preparations. At what must have been a most magnificent and memorable ceremony, attended by almost all of the major religious and secular figures in Norman society, William and Matilda gave their eldest daughter Cecilia , then about seven years of age, to be a child oblate at the abbey.

William's fleet finally set sail for England on the night of September 27, 1066. In one of the most famous battles in history, fought at Hastings on October 14, he defeated Harold Godwineson's forces and, on Christmas Day 1066, William of Normandy, now William the Conqueror, was crowned king of England. Meanwhile, Matilda of Flanders successfully ruled in Normandy, ending her regency only with the return of her husband in March 1067 and resuming it once again upon his departure in December. The second regency was established in conjunction with their eldest son Robert, the first of their many children, who had been born shortly after their marriage and was now entering his teens.

Early in 1068, William sent a high-ranking delegation of Normans to escort his wife to their new kingdom. She "quickly obeyed her husband's commands with a willing mind and crossed the sea with a great attendance of knights and noble women." On Whit Sunday, May 11, 1068, she was crowned at Westminster by the archbishop of York, with William sharing in the ceremony to make it all the more splendid. One historian has suggested that this formal ceremony of coronation in the newly conquered land made Matilda the first real queen of England.

Cecilia (c. 1059–1126)

Abbess of the Holy Trinity at Caen . Name variations: Cecily. Born around 1059 (some sources cite 1055) in Normandy, France; died on July 30, 1126 (some sources cite 1127), in Holy Trinity Abbey, Caen, Normandy, France; buried in Holy Trinity Abbey, Caen; daughter of Matilda of Flanders (c. 1031–1083) and William I the Conqueror (c. 1027–1087), duke of Normandy (r. 1035–1087), king of England (r. 1066–1087); sister of Adela of Blois (1062–c. 1137). Elected abbess of the Holy Trinity Abbey at Caen in 1112.

Matilda of Flanders was still in England when she gave birth to her fourth son, Henry (later Henry I), but soon after his birth she returned to Normandy, and she seems to have been greatly involved in Norman affairs for the rest of her life. The couple's eldest son Robert II, nicknamed "Curthose" because of his short legs, was to succeed his father in the duchy, but for many years Matilda, acting first as regent for her husband and then as Robert's guardian, had her name placed on charters alongside that of her son. Often, Matilda's name or seal appeared alone. She was certainly directing Normandy's administration during William's absences of 1066–67, 1067–68 and 1071. Although William had returned to Normandy in 1070, Matilda's name still appears, alongside that of Robert, on important documents of that year. We find her joining her son in a petition to the learned Bishop Lanfranc, inviting him to leave Normandy and accept England's highest ecclesiastical office, that of archbishop of Canterbury. Later the same year, Matilda's orders sent a force from Normandy to Flanders to uphold the claims of her brother and nephew against the claims of Robert the Frisian. The chroniclers tell us that she was much disturbed by the death of her brother Baldwin VI and deeply concerned about the warfare in her native land.

There is no doubt that Matilda of Flanders was an affectionate mother to her numerous children, although there is some doubt about the children themselves; many historians have engaged in the somewhat unrewarding effort to ascertain their precise number and their names. As the eminent 19th-century historian Edward Freeman has observed, "about the number and order of the sons of William and Matilda there is no doubt. They were Robert, Richard, William and Henry…. But about the daughters, their number, names, and order, the statements are most contradictory." There seem to have been five or perhaps six daughters: Cecilia who became an abbess, Constance who married Alan of Brittany, Adeliza, Adela of Blois who married Stephen Henry, count of Blois, Agatha , who was perhaps betrothed to Harold Godwineson but died unmarried, and possibly a Matilda.

It was the eldest of the children, Robert II, who caused what was perhaps the most significant rift between Matilda and her husband. One contemporary observer depicts him as an unstable, ungrateful young man, too easily influenced by his friends and unable to handle money. Father and son quarrelled seriously late in 1077 or early in 1078. Since 1072, William had been spending increasingly lengthy periods with Matilda in Normandy, no doubt curtailing some of Robert's independence; indeed one chronicler records the son's claim that he was being treated like a hired soldier.

Having failed in an attempt to capture the castle at Rouen, Robert left Normandy with a group of other young malcontents and began to make raids across its borders from inside France. During the course of a battle in January 1079, both King William and his third son, William II, were wounded; accounts suggest that Robert himself attacked his father. Following the battle, Robert took refuge with his mother's relatives in Flanders.

Matilda of Flanders found herself emotionally torn by the dispute: as a loyal and devoted wife, she could not abandon her husband, and yet her maternal ties to her firstborn were too strong to sever. While Robert was in Flanders, she sent him large quantities of gold and silver without her husband's knowledge. Such largesse not only indicates the depth of her affection, but reveals the extent to which, after almost 30 years of marriage, she had been able to maintain independent control of her own considerable fortune. The chronicler Orderic Vitalis reports that William discovered what she was doing and reproached her; Matilda excused herself on the grounds of her great love for her son. Nor did the matter end there: William gave orders that the messenger who had carried the treasure be blinded, but, alerted by friends of the queen, the man escaped to a monastery where the abbot, at Matilda's request, granted him refuge. Undaunted, she seems to have continued to send aid to Robert even after William's discovery.

Constance (c. 1066–1090)

Countess of Brittany . Born around 1066; died on August 13, 1090; buried at St. Melans, near Rhedon; daughter of William I the Conqueror, duke of Normandy (r. 1035–1087), king of England (r. 1066–1087), and Matilda of Flanders (c. 1031–1083); married Alan IV, duke of Brittany, in 1086.

Adeliza (d. 1066?)

Anglo-Saxon princess . Name variations: Adelaide, Adelicia, Alice. Birth date unknown; died around 1065 or 1066; daughter of William I the Conqueror, duke of Normandy (r. 1035–1087), king of England (r. 1066–1087), and Matilda of Flanders (c. 1031–1083); possibly betrothed to Harold II Godwineson, in 1062. Adeliza became a nun.

Agatha (fl. 1060)

English princess . Flourished around 1060; buried in Bayeux, Normandy, France; daughter of William I the Conqueror (c. 1027–1087), duke of Normandy (r. 1035–1087), king of England (r. 1066–1087), and Matilda of Flanders (c. 1031–1083); betrothed to Harald or Harold II Godwineson (c. 1022–1066), king of English (r. 1066); betrothed to Alphonso VI, king of Castile and Leon.

It was probably also during the turbulent year of 1079 that Matilda sent gifts to a famous hermit in Germany, with the request that he pray for her husband and Robert and predict what would become of them. The hermit, if he were able to foresee the future accurately, would have told Matilda that after vigorous efforts on the part of many mediators, including Pope Gregory VII, father and son finally sealed a peace at Easter (April 12) 1080.

As she grew older and her health declined, Matilda of Flanders seems to have turned increasingly to religion. We do not know the nature of her illness, but it is likely that her many pregnancies took their toll, particularly if she was as small of stature (about 4'3") as the bones found in her tomb at Caen suggest. On the death of her kinsman, the holy hermit Simon de Valois, count of Amiens, in 1082, she sent gifts to adorn his tomb. While continuing her generosity to her foundation at Caen, Matilda also founded the abbey of St. Mary de Pré at Rouen, and she sent gifts to the abbey of Le Bec and to many other churches.

To the English Church, the queen was less generous; one account has her ordering the abbey of Abingdon to send her some precious ornaments with which she intended to enrich a Norman house, and, when the items offered were not all she expected, demanding more. However, she did use her negotiating skills on several occasions to resolve quarrels among the disputatious ecclesiastical community in England; she persuaded the bishop of Exeter to return a church to the bishop of Wells, and assisted the bishop of Durham in making changes to his administration.

Matilda and William spent Easter 1083 at Fécamp, and by July they were at Caen. It was at Caen that Matilda died on November 3, 1083, and she was buried, with great ceremonial, in her own abbey church. A scurrilous story, reported by only one chronicler, alleges that William had taken a mistress who had been killed on Matilda's orders and, in his fury, William had beaten his wife to death. However, the chronicler, William of Malmesbury, also says that he knows the tale to be nonsense and records that the only "slight dispute" which had arisen between them had been over Matilda's support for their rebellious son. William seems to have been genuinely distraught at his loss of Matilda; Malmesbury has him "weeping most profusely for many days" and reports that, from the time of her death, "he refrained from every gratification" until his own death four years later. The grieving husband had an elaborate monument of gold and precious stones, which has since been destroyed, built over her tomb, but the tomb itself can be seen still, with its proud epitaph proclaiming Matilda's noble connections: "Sprung from a royal stem; child of a Flemish duke; her mother was Adela, daughter of a king of France, sister of Henry, Robert's royal son, married to William, most illustrious king."

Perhaps with something of a prescient eye, Matilda left her substantial English land holdings to her youngest son, Henry. After King William's death, Robert lost Normandy and was imprisoned by his brothers, Richard was killed in a hunting accident, and William II (called William Rufus because of his red hair) succeeded to the throne of England but was also killed while hunting. Only Henry, who succeeded his brother as Henry I in 1100, demonstrated the legacy of his parentage. No match for his father on the battlefield, for he was never more than an adequate military leader, Henry proved to be a vigorous and astute ruler in both England and Normandy. Such refined political skills may be attributed as much to the legacy of his mother as of his father.

Matilda of Flanders, like so many medieval women, especially medieval queens, is all but eclipsed by the shadow of her husband. This familiar situation is exacerbated in Matilda's case because her husband seems to have been, to both his contemporaries and to later historians, larger than life. When contemporary chroniclers, intent on focusing on the deeds of William, pause to consider her at all, they recount a conventional list of her virtues: beauty, learning, prudence, piety, charity, obedience, and fruitfulness, or they manufacture unlikely and completely unsupported tales of jealousy and vengeance, reflecting the popular misogyny of their times.

Even modern historians give little attention to the woman who, for 30 years, shared the life of one of history's most famous men. Perhaps the wisest course in rediscovering Matilda is to consider what we know of her life: a woman of her noble birth, education, and political experience must have been an invaluable asset to William as he struggled, during the first decade of their marriage, to create in Normandy something resembling the ordered and peaceful government of Flanders. Nor could he have been an easy partner; even by the standards of the day, William was said to be a stern, stubborn and sometimes brutal man. As her husband's attention increasingly turned towards England, Matilda was closely involved, first in planning a marriage alliance and then in supporting the invasion, and even providing William with his flagship. Despite her frequent pregnancies, Matilda was actively engaged in governing Normandy during the duke's many lengthy absences, especially after he became king of England in 1066. It is surely significant that, in an age where powerful women were rare, and hence the subjects of close scrutiny, none of the chroniclers has anything negative to report about Matilda as an administrator. Her magnificent coronation in 1068 is a clear testimony not only to William's high regard for her, but also to her political importance.

An astute and independent administrator of her own considerable fortune, she was also, as we have seen, a generous patron of the Church and a skilled negotiator on its behalf. She may also have been involved in the creation of the magnificent Bayeux Tapestry, for while most historians no longer see this giant piece of pictorial embroidery as the work of Matilda's own hand, it fits well with what we know of her character that she would have wished to immortalize her husband's great triumph in such a striking and permanent fashion.

Throughout much of her life Matilda of Flanders was, no doubt, responsible for supervising the intellectual, moral, and political education of her children, and she seems to have been deeply attached to them, as the quarrel with her husband over their son Robert indicates. This proud and powerful woman placed a high value on the importance of family ties, and not only as far as her sons were concerned. She chose for two of her daughters the names Adela and Constance, the first her mother's name, and the second the name of her grandmother.

sources and suggested reading:

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: A Revised Translation. Edited by D. Whitelock, D.C. Douglas, and S.I. Tucker. London: Eyre and Spottiswode, 1961.

Bates, David. William the Conqueror. London: George Philip, 1989.

The Ecclesiastical History of Oderic Vitalis. Edited and translated by Margery Chibnall, 6 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969–1980.

Freeman, Edward A. The History of the Norman Conquest of England. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1875.

Lofts, Norah. Queens of Britain. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1977.

Malmesbury, William of. Chronicle of the Kings of England. Edited by J.A. Giles. London: Bell & Daldy, 1866.

"Matilda," in Dictionary of National Biography. Volume XXXVII. London: Smith Elder, 1894.

(Dr.) Kathleen Garay , Acting Director of Women's Studies Program, McMaster University, Hamilton, Canada

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