Imagine a land centuries before industrialization, a rural, green land of vast royal forests and open fields, wild moorlands and undrained marshlands, with scattered villages overshadowed by towering castles, and small, bustling walled towns. A land inhabited by just two million people, whose lives were dominated by the twin calendars imposed by farming and the Church.
This was a realm torn by conflicts between Church and Crown, and by centuries of strife between the indigenous Anglo--Saxon population and the land--hungry Danes; a realm that bore the scars of the savagery of the Viking invaders, who had colonized parts of the island’s north and east—-yet nevertheless a realm in which trade and learning flourished, and kings traced their lineage back through the mists of time to Noah and the Norse god Woden. This was an age of faith and superstition, and an age of bloody warfare.
Imagine, in place of today’s modern traffic and electronic noise, the sound of birdsong, animals, church bells, plainchant, human voices and the occasional hunting horn or strumming of a lyre. This pleasant land, this rural landscape, was England in the time of the Norman queens.
“We Are Come for Glory”
The news was stupendous.
The messenger from England arrived in Normandy soon after 14 October 1066. He found the Duchess, Matilda of Flanders, on her knees, praying for her lord’s safety, in a chapel of the priory she had founded, Notre--Dame de Pré, near Rouen.
Her husband, William, Duke of Normandy, had launched his invasion of England the previous month, intent on seizing the throne he believed was rightfully his. He had endured a terrible crossing in stormy weather. Making land on 28 September at Pevensey, on England’s south coast, he had stumbled and fallen on the beach. His followers had cried out, “struck with fear at so evil an augury,” but William turned the fall to his advantage, holding up handfuls of sand and announcing, “I have taken seisin of this land with both my hands.” He was borne ashore to hearty acclaim.1
William soon learned that the English King, Harold, was away in the north, repelling an invasion by King Harold Hardrada of Norway. After defeating and killing Harold Hardrada at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire, Harold marched south to deal with the Norman threat. On 14 October, the two armies met at Senlac Hill in Sussex, five miles inland from the coast at Hastings, and engaged in a battle that would last for six hours and later become known as the Battle of Hastings.
Before the fighting began, William addressed his men: “I have no doubt of the victory; we are come for glory; the victory is in our hands, and we may make sure of obtaining it if we so please.” He fought tirelessly: “to see him reining in his horse, shining with sword, helmet and shield, and brandishing his lance, was a pleasant yet terrible sight.” It was said that three horses were killed under him that day, but still he fought on.
Harold and his men had spread out along the ridge called Senlac Hill, which placed the Normans in the fields below at a disadvantage; but when, at length, on William’s order, the Normans staged a retreat, the English made the fatal decision to abandon their strong position and chase after them, at which point the tide of battle turned in William’s favor, for without warning the Normans swung around and engaged the English in a fight that quickly turned into a bloodbath. Harold fell, mortally wounded, beneath his standards depicting the Fighting Man and the Gold Dragon of Wessex. Traditionally, he was shot in the eye by an arrow, but that scene in the Bayeux Tapestry also shows a soldier, who may well be Harold, being cut down with axes. His mother and his mistress were able to identify his mutilated body only from secret marks on it.
The victory was William’s, and, in fulfillment of a vow he had made before he sailed, “on the very spot where God granted him the conquest of England, he caused a great abbey to be built; and settled monks in it and richly endowed it.”2 Here Harold and many others had died, and in the abbey William provided for prayers to be offered in perpetuity for his own sins, for those of his wife Matilda, and for those of the fallen. Today, Battle Abbey stands on the site, although there is very little that remains of William’s original foundation.
William had now to consolidate his victory and establish himself as king, but first he sent his messenger across the sea to Normandy to tell Matilda that she was now, by the grace of God, queen of England.
Matilda of Flanders
Queen of William I
“A Very Beautiful and Noble Girl”
Count Baldwin V of Flanders was famed throughout Christendom as the wisest of men,1 a firm ruler and a precursor of the knights of chivalry—-the kind of prince whose friendship was much sought after. He was “a man of great power who towered above the rest. Counts, marquises, dukes, even archbishops of the highest dignity were struck dumb with admiration whenever the duty of their office earned them the presence of this distinguished guest. Kings too revered and stood in awe of his greatness.”2 He was descended from a powerful and noble family,3 and from the Emperor Charlemagne and England’s King Alfred (reigned 871–-99); Alfred’s daughter Elfrida had married his ancestor Baldwin II.
Baldwin ruled one of the greatest territories in northern Europe. He was strong of body, mighty in arms, wise in council, of “well--tried integrity” and “admirable alike for loyalty and wisdom, grey--haired yet with the vigour of youth.” Although not at heart a man of war, if he thought a cause was just he would support it wholeheartedly and keep faith with his allies.4 His reputation was such that in 1060 his brother--in--law, Henry I, King of France, would name him regent for his young son Philip.
Baldwin’s exalted position owed much to his being the husband of the French King’s sister.5 By the pious, strong--willed Adela, the daughter of Robert II, King of France, he had “gifted sons and daughters”: Baldwin, Robert and Matilda.6 Through the “wise and blessed” Countess Adela, the children inherited “a lineage many times greater even” than their father’s bloodline.7
There is no record of the order in which they were born. Matilda’s date of birth is unknown. The earliest possible date—-if she was the eldest child—-was 1031, her parents having consummated their marriage that year in the face of opposition from her grandfather, Baldwin IV, which was one reason why Baldwin rose against his father soon afterward8 in a rebellion incited by his wife. More likely Matilda was born in 1032 or later. She was connected to most of the ruling houses of Europe: “she sprang from the stock of the kings of Gaul and emperors of Germany, and was renowned equally for nobility of blood and character.”9
Matilda grew up at her father’s court, which was established mainly in Bruges (or Bryghia, as it was originally known), in the ninth--century castle that served as the administrative center of the counts of Flanders. Built around 850 by Count Baldwin I “Iron Arm” on the bank of the River Reie, it occupied what is now Burgplatz (Castle Square), and stood next to the contemporary Romanesque church of St. Donatian.10 From Bruges, Baldwin “Iron Arm” pursued an aggressive expansionist policy to establish the principality of Flanders. Under Matilda’s brother, Count Robert the Frisian, Bruges would become its capital. By Matilda’s time it was a prosperous center of commerce, and enjoyed “very great fame for the number of its inhabitants and for its affluence.”11
Matilda would also have spent time at her father’s castle in the Flemish city of Lille. It stood on an island—-l’Isle, hence the name Lille—-in a rural setting on the left bank of the Basse Deule river, with a vineyard to the east. Dating from before 1039, it housed the Chapelle de la Treille, in which the Blessed Virgin was venerated.12 Within the encircling wall and moat there was a donjon, or keep, and the Count’s residence, which was called La Salle.13
Count Baldwin owned other residences in which Matilda would have stayed: a ninth--century wooden castle at Ghent, on the site of which the present Gravensteen—-the Castle of the Counts—-was built in 1180; a hilltop castle at Thérouanne, overlooking the cathedral; and the tenth--century “bourg” at Saint--Omer, which was visited by the court for the observance of holy and feast days.14
The Flanders into which Matilda was born was a turbulent place. “Daily homicides and the spilling of human blood troubled the peace and quiet of the entire area.” The nobles would urge the bishops to “visit the places where this atrocious cruelty especially raged, and to instruct the docile and bloody spirit of the Flemings in the interest of peace and concord.”15 But trade and commerce were expanding, ushering in a new era of prosperity.
Matilda may have been old enough to be present in 1037 when the exiled Queen of England, Emma of Normandy, widow of King Cnut, was “honourably received” by Count Baldwin and Countess Adela in Bruges,16 having been driven out of England by her stepson, King Harold Harefoot.17 Baldwin offered Emma a refuge for “as long as she had need.”18 Now aged about fifty--two, she was to stay at his court, paying her own way, until 1040, when Harold Harefoot died and her own son, Harthacnut, succeeded to the English throne. During this time, the young Matilda may have come to know her, and perhaps been impressed by some rudimentary apprehension of Emma’s grandiose and forceful style of English queenship. Emma had wielded political influence and been respected for it; she had used her wealth to patronize scholars. In Bruges, she worked tirelessly for the right of Harthacnut to succeed his half brother. She may also have told Matilda something of Normandy, where she had grown up.
When her son became king and Queen Emma finally returned to England, the people of Flanders “wept, that she, whom during her whole exile they had regarded as a fellow citizen, was leaving them. Such was the lamentation on the whole shore, such was the wailing of all the people standing by,” while “a great abundance of tears” was shed by Baldwin, Adela and Emma as they said their farewells.19
The chronicler Orderic Vitalis would one day praise Matilda’s intelligence and her learning. The early education of royal children, up to the age of seven, was the responsibility of their mother. Learning was respected at Baldwin’s court, and, like her brothers, Matilda was probably taught to read in Latin, although, in common with most high-born children, she was not taught to write. There would always be clerks to do that for her. Much of her tuition would have focused on the Holy Scriptures and the lives of the saints. She may well have read the life of the tenth--century Roman Empress, the highly influential Adelaide of Burgundy, which her mother had commissioned.20 She would have been grounded in needlework and the management of a great household, and had piety instilled into her. This, above all, was an age of faith. The chronicler William of Poitiers, Archdeacon of Lisieux, recorded that Matilda’s most praiseworthy quality was “a strong faith and fervent love of Christ.”
The daughters of kings and lords—-who were referred to as princesses, but not so styled until the eighteenth century—-were brought up to accept that marriages would be arranged for them, and that it was their duty to render obedience first to their parents and later to their husbands. Marriage was seen as a desirable estate for both sexes, and for many women it defined their role in life. The alternative was the cloister, but it was generally expected that most royal and aristocratic women would marry, and marry well; it was rare to find one who died unwed or unprofessed.
The upbringing of high-born girls was therefore geared toward finding a suitable husband, one of fitting rank and standing, and it was incumbent largely upon their mothers to see that their daughters grew up chaste, discreet, humble, pious and obedient, and were prepared for marriage.
Like most girls, princesses were reared to an awareness that they had been born of an inferior sex, and that consequently their freedoms were limited—-although the example of their mothers might have demonstrated that women of rank could be enormously influential. The concept of female inferiority was older than Christianity, but centuries of Christian teaching had rigidly enforced it. Woman was an instrument of the devil, the author of original sin who would lure man away from the path to salvation—-in short, the only imperfection in God’s creation. Medieval women were regarded variously as weak and passive, or as domineering harridans, temptresses and whores. It was held that young girls needed to be protected from themselves so that they could be nurtured as chaste and submissive maidens and mothers. Marriage was essential to the medieval concept of the divine order of the world: the husband ruled his family, as the King ruled his realm, and as God ruled the universe, and—-like subjects—-wives were bound in obedience to their husbands and masters.
Matilda grew up to be fair, graceful, devout, learned and proud21—-“a very beautiful and noble girl of royal stock,” enthused Duke William of Normandy’s chaplain, William of Jumièges, who must have met her.
In the nineteenth century, it was claimed that, according to charters of Lewes Priory, Sussex, the young Matilda was married to Gherbod, advocate of St. Bertin’s Abbey in Flanders, and that she bore him a son, Gherbod the Fleming, Earl of Chester, but these charters have since been proved spurious.22
However, there may have been some truth in the later assertion that, “when she was a maiden,” Matilda “loved a count [earl] of England” called Brihtric Meaw, whose wealth was said to be surpassed only by that of King Edward the Confessor.23 Rarely in medieval times was royalty associated with romance; until comparatively recently, most royal marriages were the subject of treaties and alliances. In medieval times, marrying for love was regarded as an aberration and irresponsible—-and shocking. As the great chronicler William of Malmesbury observed, “Kingship and love make sorry bedfellows and sort but ill together.”
Even if it was merely an accepted fiction, there was some apprehension that love and freedom of choice played their roles in courtship, although they were not allowed to override the more powerful factors at play.
Brihtric was lord of the extensive honor of Gloucester, an honor being a great feudal lordship comprising dozens or hundreds of manors, held by great magnates (tenants--in--chief) of the Crown. He was a handsome man with snowy white hair, “meaw” meaning snow in Anglo--Saxon English. He may have been somewhat older than Matilda, as he had inherited Tewkesbury in 1020 and attested royal charters in the 1040s.24 She met him when King Edward sent him as an envoy to her father’s court at Bruges. Smitten, she resolved to obtain his love. It was not a wild or unrealistic fancy. In 1051, her aunt, Judith of Flanders, was to marry Tostig, a younger son of an English earl, Godwin of Wessex; Brihtric was a man of rank and far greater wealth than Tostig.
Boldly, Matilda sent a messenger to Brihtric, summoned him to see her, declared her feelings and proposed marriage. But he refused her.25 Fortunately another suitor was in view.