The Almost Saint Matilda of Scotland

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Back in January we took a look at Adeliza of Louvain and her marriage to Henry I, which, had it been fruitful, may have been able to hold off the decades of civil war that ensued after Henry’s death when his daughter and nephew fought over the throne. But Adeliza was Henry’s second wife and today we’re going to take a look at his first wife, Matilda of Scotland.

Matilda was born “Edith” in around 1080 in Dunfermline, Scotland to King Malcolm III and Margaret of England. Margaret was the daughter of Edward “the Exile,” the son of the English King Edmund Ironside who was defeated by the Danish Canute the Great in 1016. She is more famously known, however, as Saint Margaret of Scotland since she was canonized in 1250 by Pope Innocent IV, a relatively rare occurrence for royalty. Margaret became renowned for both her piety and her focus on education, of which her children were beneficiaries.

Turgot of Durham, Bishop of Saint Andrews later wrote an account of Margaret’s life for Edith and describes her as strict but fair; she didn’t “spare the rod” when disciplining her children, but she also saw to it that they were well-prepared for their futures as princes and princesses of Scotland.

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Saint Margaret

In about 1086 Edith and her sister, Mary, were sent to Romsey Abbey in southern England to be formally educated. In a time when even upper-class girls weren’t always literate, Edith not only learned how to read and write, but could also speak English, French and Latin.

In 1093, when Edith was 13, she was betrothed to Alan Rufus, Lord of Richmond, however before the wedding could go forward her father ended up at odds with King William II and was killed during a skirmish on November 13th. Already ill when she learned of her husband’s death, Margaret died three days later leaving Edith and her siblings orphans.

What exactly came of Edith for the next several years isn’t entirely known as she disappears from the record. Likely, as an unmarried princess, she remained at the English convent, however because she hadn’t taken religious vows it’s possible that she occasionally traveled and may have visited the English court. It’s believed that she and her future husband knew one another prior to their wedding, furthering the theory that she ventured past the convent gates at some point during these years.

In August 1100 William II ostensibly died during a hunting accident, though rumors still abound that his assassination was ordered by his younger brother, Henry. Either way, Henry moved with alacrity for London where he claimed the throne and had himself crowned King Henry I. Unmarried, he next set about in  securing the succession and his choice of wife was none other than Edith, whose dowry, beauty and reputation made her a sought after candidate on the Norman marriage market.

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Henry I

By this time Edith had spent more than 15 years living in a convent and there was concern that she had either taken religious vows or was intended for the church. A council was convened to decide whether she was eligible, while Edith herself maintained that she only lived in the Abbey for educational purposes and her parents had always intended that she eventually wed. The council ruled in Henry and Edith’s favor and they were married on November 11th.

Edith was crowned queen on her wedding day and chose the English name “Matilda,” which would henceforth be the public name by which she was known. Henry and Matilda had two children who lived, Matilda (b. 1102) and William Adelin (b. 1103), who were book-ended by two daughters, Euphemia and Elizabeth, who both died young. It’s possible there was a second son, Richard, however his existence is debatable. Even with those additional children, it is rather curious that no further issue arrived later in the marriage. It’s possible that health issues were at play, or that Matilda suffered miscarriages in subsequent years that weren’t recorded. In any event, it left the succession in a precarious position given that Henry didn’t have any younger brothers and the death rate in the 12th century was high.

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Matilda’s seal as queen of England

Henry and Matilda appear to have had a successful marriage. While Matilda spent most of her time at Westminster Palace in London, she also occasionally accompanied her husband during some of his travels and acted as his regent when he was out of the country for longer stints, such as when he was residing in Normandy. She was known for her piety, her patronage of the arts and, like her mother, her emphasis on education. She was extremely popular with the English people due to her focus on caring for the poor – notably she founded two leper hospitals as queen.

For better or for worse (well, for worse), Henry took a near-continuous series of mistresses before and after his marriage that resulted in a plethora of royal bastards. It’s unknown what Matilda made of this, particularly in light of her religious beliefs, but there is no record of her expressing an opinion one way or the other. If she was in love with her husband, and given that she didn’t give birth to a child past 1104 it’s possible the situation was painful, however it’s equally as likely that she viewed her marriage as a business arrangement and never expected fidelity from Henry.

In 1110 Princess Matilda left England for Germany to marry Henry V, the Holy Roman Emperor. The match was a lofty one and a strong alliance for England, but it unfortunately meant the permanent separation of mother and daughter when the Princess was less than eight years old.

Matilda died on May 1, 1118 at Westminster, leaving behind Henry and her son, William Adelin. Henry was out of the country at the time and was unable to return for the funeral, but he is believed to have genuinely mourned his wife and he remained a widower for over two years, likely only entering into a second marriage to beget more heirs after William Adelin drowned in the sinking of the White Ship in 1120.

When that marriage remained childless, Henry would eventually name his daughter as his heir, a move which failed to inspire confidence in the English magnates and resulted in civil war for nearly two decades. However, the Empress Matilda’s son became King Henry II and the founder of the Plantagenet dynasty in England, meaning that today’s Royal Family are all direct descendants of Matilda of Scotland.

Matilda was remembered by the English as “the Good Queen” and “Matilda of Blessed Memory.” Given her charitable endeavors and public acts of piety there was even discussion of having her canonized like her mother in the Catholic Church, however the issue wasn’t seriously pursued. She is buried in Westminster Abbey.

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