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.
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.
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.