One bit of irony I’ve always enjoyed about those taking pride in claiming descent from the Conquest is that doing so essentially means that you’re both French and once swore fealty to a bastard. All of today’s monarchy, in fact, can be traced back to an illegitimate French duke who was scrappier than he was “to the manor born.”
William the Conqueror, otherwise known as William I or William the Bastard, was the illegitimate son of Robert I, Duke of Normandy and a mistress, usually known simply Herleva. The daughter of a tanner, she may have met the duke as a member of his household, but she certainly wasn’t lofty enough to marry him and become duchess. Her son, however, was a different story, which underlines the general flexibility of succession back in the day. Yes, a legitimate eldest son was generally considered the heir, but in the absence of one, all sorts of back bends could be accomplished.
It was a situation that came up again during the reign of Henry VI when his half-brothers, Edmund and Jasper Tudor, were briefly considered as potential heirs before Edward of Lancaster was born. And again the following century when rumors abounded that Henry VIII meant to name his bastard son, Henry Fitzroy, his heir instead of his daughter, Princess Mary.
In any case, while illegitimacy was by no means desired, there were certainly more cases of bastards inheriting in the “Dark Ages” than in subsequent periods. When William was about seven Robert left for a crusade and had his magnates swear fealty to his son in the event of his death. A few months later he was dead and by a mixture of luck and pluck, William the Bastard kept his ducal seat into adulthood.
Impressive while that may be, it didn’t sway Matilda of Flanders at first. Born to Baldwin V, Count of Flanders and his wife, Adela, a daughter of the King of France, Matilda was initially horrified by the idea of marrying William on the grounds he was far too beneath her. At least this is how the legend goes.
One version claims that upon hearing of Matilda’s disdain for his proposal, William traveled to Bruges, accosted her on her way to church by dragging her off her horse via her braids and throwing her on the ground.
Another version has William finding her at her father’s house in Lille and beating her, which naturally offended Baldwin and prompted Matilda to play the peacemaker by agreeing to marry the bastard duke.
So, really romantic, lovely stories, but hey, it was the 11th century. Anyway, that is the legend of Matilda, but who was she really?
The fact is, though her husband became one of the most famous figures in European history, Matilda remains somewhat of a mystery. We don’t know exactly what year she was born, nor in what order. We do know that her pedigree was impeccable, which her name indicates, “Matilda” referencing her father’s German ancestry. It’s believed that she was raised in the wealthy, cosmopolitan city of Bruges under the tutelage of her mother, a woman who enjoyed a surprisingly egalitarian marriage for the time and played an active role in politics. That Matilda was highly aware of her lineage and the value that afforded can be safely assumed; later on, William of Poitiers noted that:
“Her wise and blessed mother [Adela] had nurtured in her daughter a lineage many times greater even than her parents inheritance.”
Somewhat ironically given her eventual marriage, Baldwin’s court housed a fair number of English refugees who had left home after the accession of Edward the Confessor in 1051, thus exposing his daughter to her future people and hints of the political machinations at play there.
The other tidbit we know is that Matilda was a remarkably small woman, even compared to her peers. An examination of her skeleton found that she measured in at 4’2″, making the fact she would eventually give birth to 10 children all the more extraordinary.
Reportedly, in the late 1040s, when Matilda was about 15 to 18 years old, she played an active role in securing herself a husband – borderline too active. A wealthy English noble by the name of Brihtric Mau arrived in Bruges and caught Matilda’s eyes. When he left she sent a messenger after him in England proposing marriage, which he roundly rejected. Humiliated and angry, for Mau was of considerably lower pedigree, Matilda took his answer in the chin – for a while, at least. Some 20 years later, about a year after William had conquered England, Matilda claimed Mau’s manor of Tewkesbury and deprived Gloucester, considerable sources of his income. Apparently not done, she somehow convinced William to have Mau seized and thrown into prison. Two days after his arrest he was found dead, with many believing that Matilda ordered his murder.
Hell hath no fury and such.
Now, to be fair, the evidence surrounding this is wildly inconclusive, which makes sense given the centuries that have elapsed since. Is it possible? Yes, but the timing and logistics of it may have been muddled given where Matilda, and William for that matter, were in the immediate years following the conquest. What we do know is that Mau quickly fell from grace once William and Matilda arrived in England, he ended up dead and Matilda claimed significant portions of his land.
If the rumor is true, then Matilda was more than a fair match for her violent husband.
What attracted to William to Matilda is no secret. Besides her lineage, she was a known beauty and had considerable wealth. For a man as confident (well past the point of arrogance) and with a reputation for considerable military prowess, Matilda signified the perfect trophy to complement the Norman court and bolster the bastard duke’s place as its head.
But the legend of the “rough wooing” detailed above is likely hyperbolic and stems from anti-Norman sources. What is likely is that the story is rooted in truth, which is that Matilda rejected William’s initial proposal on the grounds of his illegitimacy and that he was offended. That she did an about-face was certainly surprising, but likely not because the Duke physically assaulted her. What is possible is that Matilda’s own reputation had taken a bit of dinging following Mau’s rejection of her proposal and, with few other marital alternatives, she went ahead and signed on with William.
The next hurdle came when the Vatican banned the marriage, likely on the grounds that the couple were related. William and Matilda went ahead and got married anyway; the exact date isn’t certain but was likely right around 1050, when Matilda would have been about 19 and William was 23. Rome would only get on board by 1059 after the couple had founded two churches as penance.
It would be another 16 years before William conquered England and Matilda joined him there as queen, a topic we will cover in more detail later on. In the first years of her marriage, Matilda was simply the Duchess of Normandy, which was a considerably prestigious title on its own. It was during these years that her children were born, including her sons, William and Henry, who would eventually succeed their father as kings of England. Through her daughter, Adela, she is also grandmother to yet another king, Stephen, who ruled during the Anarchy of the 12th century.
By all accounts, Matilda grew to be devoted to Normandy and she was a dutiful mistress of it, playing a similar role for William that her mother had for her father. When William was away she acted as regent, and once her husband had segued to England, it was she that returned time and again to Normandy to oversee its governance on his behalf.
However their marriage truly started, William and Matilda grew to have a strong and mutually beneficial relationship, one that allowed the Conqueror’s proud wife plenty of opportunities to take the spotlight.