The Conqueror’s Daughters


Today’s Royal Family is descended from William I, a man alternately known as William the Conqueror or William the Bastard. Born illegitimate, he succeeded his father as Duke of Normandy and made a fortuitous marriage to Matilda of Flanders. Of their sons, two would become kings of England – William II (William Rufus) and Henry I. Understandably, much less is known about their daughters. Indeed, we don’t know for sure their birth order, lifespans, or even how many of them there were.

Some of this has to do quite simply with time and the erosion of records, while the rest has to do with the role that these women played, and were expected to play, in their father’s and brothers’ courts. Those that married and played a dynastic part in the House of Normandy tend to have left a clearer path for us, but it was also incredibly common in this time for royal women to enter religious houses by either choice or their parents’ orders. In the latter case, it can be difficult to glean where they ended up. With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at what we do know about William and Matilda’s daughters, for even though they gave us two kings, it was one of their daughters who gave us a third.

William and Matilda had a tricky time getting their marriage approved by the Vatican, an issue we’ve discussed in the past here. As such, their older children may have been tainted with illegitimacy, even if it was only a technicality. In total, Matilda gave birth to 10 children that we know of, six of whom were daughters. There may have been other children who died in infancy, or pregnancies that ended in miscarriages and stillbirths that went unrecorded, but even if so, it’s remarkable that the couple had such a high success rate in producing children who lived into adulthood.

Matilda’s first child was a son named Robert who was quickly named his father’s heir in Normandy. Her second was a daughter, Adeliza, who was likely born in 1052 or 1053. She is described by the chroniclers as “very beautiful,” but despite having an array of marriage options before her, she chose a religious life. She appears to have been placed under the guardianship of a man named Roger de Beaumont and took the veil in the mid-1060s in the Abbey of Saint-Léger de Préaux, which was founded by Beaumont’s father.

She makes an appearance in the early 1070s when the future of Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm of Aosta, sent her verses of his work and included a letter, which read:

“Despise with an elevated mind everything that must be given up even while you have it. Strive with a humble mind towards that which alone can blessedly be kept for ever as long as you do not have it.”

It’s unclear where Adeliza died or when. It’s possible she ended her days at the Abbey of Saint-Léger de Préaux or that she moved to Holy Trinity in Caen. Regardless, her life played out in Normandy and she never made the trip to England, having entered the convent before her father prevailed at the Battle of Hastings.

Matilda’s third child was likely another daughter, Constance, born in either 1053 or 1054. She is believed to have been her mother’s favorite child and is reported to have been the most intellectually gifted of all her siblings. Aged 12 or 13 when her father became king of England, she may have spent time in the country with her parents, but her life also played out mostly in France. In 1086, at a remarkably late age for the time (22 or 23), she married Alan IV, Duke of Brittany in Caen. She died, childless, just four years later under suspicion of poison at the hands of her servants. The hows and whys of that are unclear.

Matilda’s fourth child was likely yet another daughter, Cecilia, born in 1054 or 1055. Like Adeliza, Cecilia entered a religious life at a young age, but not by choice. Matilda was the patroness of Holy Trinity in Caen, but it was consecrated on June 18, 1066 – just four months before the Battle of Hastings – by the Archbishop of Rouen. As a gift to the Abbey and to note the seriousness with which Matilda took her role, she and William “gifted” it their daughter. William himself presented Cecilia as an oblate (a child to be raised in the Church). Per Alison Weir:

“Dedicating a daughter to God – the oblation – was then seen as a means of laying up treasure in Heaven, or as an act of thanksgiving. For any feudal lord it involved a degree of sacrifice, because daughters were valuable pawns in the making of advantageous political alliances. But William, of course, had a very pressing reason for giving this child to God. He wanted the crown of England, and needed all the divine help he could get. He and Matilda had already allowed their eldest daughter, Adeliza, to take religious vows, and William doubtless thought that dedicating another daughter would win even greater favor with God bring the hoped-for blessings.”

If so, it clearly worked. A key part of oblation, however, was that the child in question was given the opportunity to either commit themselves as an adult or leave, though the latter was extremely rare. It was considered important that a religious life be one of choice, hence why Cecilia wouldn’t take her final vows until 1075.

Cecilia was one of about 20 well-born girls committed to the Abbey that day, with a number of Norman barons following William and Matilda’s example. But while the Abbey was Matilda’s, the choice to commit Cecilia was William’s and there is some belief that Matilda was devastated to lose her daughter.

Cecilia was educated in Caen Abbey, but she did stay in touch with her family and would have known her siblings well. She is said to have been particularly close to her eldest brother, Robert, who would spend his adulthood in Normandy as its duke after their father’s death. In 1112, she became the Abbess of Caen, a position she held for 14 years until her death on July 30, 1126.

Matilda’s fifth child was likely another daughter, Agatha, born in 1055 or 1056. She would be the first of her parents’ children to play a role with England by way of Harold, an English earl. Harold was a renowned warrior and favored councilor in the court of King Edward the Confessor, but in 1064 he traveled to William’s court in Normandy to negotiate the release of his brother and nephew who had been taken hostage. On his way he ended up shipwrecked and was taken prisoner by the Count of Ponthieu, one of William’s vassals.

Conveyed to William’s court, he was treated honorably, but a prisoner he still was. By now the Norman duke was fixated on taking the English throne after King Edward’s death and he forced Harold to swear on holy relics that he would assist him when the time came. To cement the oath, William promised Harold one of his daughters, Agatha, and pledged to gift them “half the kingdom of England” when he could. Harold made the oath and agreed to the betrothal, but he also had no choice. Legend has it that Agatha was besotted with her intended, but given that the girl was no more than eight or nine, this could be utterly apocryphal.

But Harold was pivotal to English history. Contrary to his pledge to William, when King Edward died on January 5, 1066, Harold named himself king of England and was crowned the very next day. Still worse, he married Edith of Mercia, a widowed Welsh queen, and cast Agatha off. It would be this man who William defeated at the Battle of Hastings that October.

Two years later, Agatha was betrothed to Alfonso VI, King of León after he and his brother, Sancho II of Castile, fought over who would claim the prize of the Conqueror’s daughter. Alfonso won and in 1068 she bid farewell to her parents, apparently unhappy over the marriage. Legend has it that she was still heartbroken over the loss of Harold and prayed that she would die before the wedding took place. If true, her prayers were answered. She died en-route to Spain aged 12 or 13. The veracity of the story behind the logistics is highly debatable, but it’s certainly a romantic story.

Matilda’s next two children were likely sons, Richard and William, born between 1057 and the summer of 1060. Her next daughter is one whose existence is debatable – Matilda, whose birth year is unknown. If she was in fact a child of William and Matilda’s then it’s likely she was born in the first half of the 1060s in Normandy. The debate over whether this woman was in fact a princess is premised on the fact that she is left out of a number of records, but she is listed in the Domesday Book and in a mortuary roll written for Cecilia in 1112.

The theory is that Matilda was married to a Norman magnate named Walter d’Aincourt, who is listed as having a wife of the same name, while a number of this couple’s descendants were named William or Matilda (which would make sense if they were their descendants). William gave Walter 55 lordships in England after he became king, while Walter certainly made the trip across the Channel after the Conquest and is buried in York Minster. This clear favoritism, the names of their family and the appearance of Matilda in the Domesday Book and Cecilia’s mortuary roll provide a fairly good case for this woman having been within the family. Unfortunately, we don’t know when Matilda died.

After Richard, William and (maybe) Matilda, yet another daughter was born, Adela. She likely made her debut in 1066 or 1067, raising the possibility that she was the first of her father’s children to be born after he was king. Described as beautiful and very learned, she was reportedly her father’s favorite. One chronicler recorded:

“She surpasses her father in her appreciation of poetry and her knowledge of books. She rewards the merits of poets, she has critical judgment, and she as her own store of songs and poems to dictate.”

She grew up in the nursery with her younger brother, and the last of her parents’ children, Henry, born in 1068. The two of them often traveled with their mother and would have spent considerable time in England as children. In July 1080, Adela was formally betrothed to Stephen of Blois in front of her parents and her brothers, Robert and William. An exact wedding date for the couple is unknown, but it had certainly taken place before Matilda’s death in November 1083.

Like her mother, Adela went on to have 10 children whose birth order and exact lifespans are unknown. One of them was a son named Stephen for his father, who was born in the early 1090s, while another was a son named Henry for his maternal uncle. In 1089, Adela’s husband became the Count of Blois, while in 1096, he left to join the First Crusade with Adela’s brother, Robert.

In his absence, Adela was trusted with running his lands, lending credence to reports that she was both educated and intelligent. Between Stephen’s first and second expeditions, Adela acted as regent for a total of four years. Unfortunately, her husband died while abroad in 1102 following the Battle of Ramia. She continued to act as regent on behalf of her son, Theobold, and was seen as a powerful figure at his court well into his adulthood and until her own retirement.

Adela’s father passed away in 1087 and he stipulated that Normandy be given to Robert, while England was left to William. Richard, the second son, was already dead, and the youngest, Henry, was given a lump sum of money. Naturally, this led to considerable strife between the three brothers, which is well-worth its own post someday soon, but the final result was that William was killed in a hunting accident in 1100 – possibly with help from Henry – and Adela’s favorite brother finally saw himself made king.

Her close relationship with Henry paid off. Her son, Stephen, was sent to join his court in 1111 and was favored by the King. It was likely Henry who helped arrange his marriage with the heiress, Matilda of Boulogne, and it was their kinship that created the opening and opportunity for Stephen to set himself up as a possible heir to his uncle once Henry’s son, William Adelin, was killed in a shipwreck in 1121. When Henry died in 1135, despite questionable oaths of loyalty to his daughter, Stephen named himself king of England was supported by the majority of Henry’s barons. Thus began the Anarchy, but luckily for Adela, she missed the height of the civil war.

In 1120, Adela chose to retire to Marcigny Convent, near where her son, Henry, was stationed at Cluny Abbey. Unfortunately we don’t know what Adela made of Stephen succeeding her brother, but it’s hard to imagine she wasn’t pleased, or that she wasn’t proud when Henry followed him to England and was made Bishop of Winchester in 1129. She passed away around age 69 or 70 at Marcigny in March 1137.

With the exception of Adela, none of William and Matilda’s daughters played a particularly important role in the makeup of Europe, but nevertheless they do illustrate the various life paths that young women in their positions often followed. Convents, death and forced marriages – it wasn’t much of a choice. In that sense, it makes it all the more remarkable that Adela lived the life that she did and was able to hold real political power, much like her mother.

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