The White Ship, ladies and gentlemen. Or, as I like to call, the Titantic of the 12th century. There are actually some similarities, actually, though this one had a by far more marked impact on the English succession. The ship sank on November 25, 1120 and it carried many members of the Royal Family, not least of whom was William Adelin, Duke of Normandy and only son of King Henry I.
In about 1080 Matilda of Flanders, Queen of England and Duchess of Normandy traveled to Dumferline for the christening of Princess Edith. The infant was the daughter of Malcolm III of Scotland and his wife, Margaret, who would later be canonized by the Catholic church. Standing as godmother, Matilda held the child during the ceremony and the infant reportedly amused herself by tugging on the veil of the Queen’s headdress until it gave way. Onlookers took this as a omen that the Princess would also one day be a queen, and they were correct: Two decades later Edith would marry Matilda’s son, Henry, and be crowned queen of England.
Within three years, Matilda was on her deathbed. She spent her last months at a priory in Caen, the illness from which she had suffered since the summer was apparently exacerbated by the death of one of her daughters. Her husband, William the Conqueror, heard her last confession before she died on November 2, 1083.
Recently we discussed changes to the succession laws in 2013 that allow the eldest child, not just the eldest male, to inherit the crown. Because the rules aren’t retroactive, Princess Charlotte is the female member of the British Royal Family to directly benefit from the rule change, meaning that even if she is followed up by a younger brother, he won’t trump her in the line of succession.
So, in honor of that, we’re going to go back and look at the elder daughters who could have ruled if absolute primogeniture had been in place from the get-go – well, from the Norman Conquest.
On May 23, 1125 the only daughter of King Henry I of England was widowed by the death of Henry V, Holy Roman Emperor. Matilda of England had left her home 15 years earlier and in the subsequent years both her mother, Matilda of Scotland, and her brother, William Adelin, had died. Though Henry I married a second time to Adeliza of Louvain, by 1125 the union hadn’t produced any children and Matilda remained her father’s sole legitimate offspring.
Thus, her next steps, including the urgent need for her to marry again, were not only of personal concern, but of national importance. If one considers the amount of sexism that female monarchs like Mary I, Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots encountered in the 16th century, then it should be easy to imagine the disbelief with which many viewed the idea of Matilda ruling England as queen regnant in the 12th. However, rather surprisingly, that’s exactly the plan Henry I put in place.
On August 2, 1100 England’s King William II was shot with an arrow while hunting in the New Forest. His party scattered and his body was eventually carted away unceremoniously. Since then, the question has lingered, was this an accident or an act of political assassination? No one was ever tried for a crime and hunting was certainly a dangerous sport, but the fact remained, there were many who stood to gain from William’s death, some of whom were in the forest with him that day.
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.
The Anarchy is best remembered (assuming it’s known to you at all) as a civil war between the unfortunate King Stephen and Empress Matilda. There was, however, another Matilda in the mix which does very little to keep things straightforward. There were also two Henrys, but isn’t there always?
Anyway, the second Matilda wasn’t Stephen’s rival, but his wife, and she went a long way in positioning him as able to claim the throne when the Empress Matilda’s father, Henry I, died in 1135.
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.
On January 24, 1121, Henry I, King of England and Adeliza of Louvain were married at Windsor Castle. At the time of the wedding, Adeliza was roughly 18 years old, while Henry I was around 53 and had been king for 21 years. The marriage was of dynastic necessity since two months before, Henry’s only son, William Adelin, had died on the sinking of the White Ship (the 12th century version of the Titanic).
Henry had one other living child at the time, a daughter named Matilda, who had been married, at the age of eight, to the Holy Roman Emperor. In 1121, roughly 19 years of age, Matilda was, for all practical purposes, a foreigner, having been raised in a Germanic court. She was also not seriously considered as an heir because she was a woman and, as such, it would be expected that her husband would effectively rule for her, England potentially being merged with the Holy Roman Empire through their hypothetical children.
Thus, it was imperative that Henry take another wife. His first wife, Matilda of Scotland, died in 1118 and had been beloved by her husband and deeply popular with the English people. Now buried at Westminster Abbey, she was often referred to as “Matilda the Good Queen” and there was discussion of having her canonized by the Catholic Church (her mother was Saint Margaret of Scotland, consort to Malcolm III).
Adeliza, daughter of Godrey I, Count of Louvain, was a prize on Christendom’s marital market. She was young, beautiful, and rumored to be descended from Charlemagne. She would serve as Henry’s consort for 14 years and traveled with him extensively through England, which was unusual – queens often moved separately and at a slower pace, joining their husbands periodically. Likely, their proximity was meant to increase the chances of Adeliza conceiving, however she never did, a fact which sparked speculative gossip as to where the fault lay.