Thursday, July 7, 2011

Consort Profile: Queen Matilda of Flanders

England’s first Queen consort, after the Conquest, was Matilda of Flanders, wife of King William the Conqueror. She was born sometime around the year 1031 to Count Baldwin V of Flanders and Princess Adèle of France (daughter of Robert II, aka King “Robert the Pious”). Not much is known for certain about her youth or how she came to marry Duke William II of Normandy but there are of course a number of tales and legends about her and how she came to be the wife of the future King William I of England -some more kind than others. We know that the courtship did not begin until after William visited his relative, King Edward the Confessor of England, in 1051 and some have speculated that William may have determined to have Matilda for his bride because of her descent from the famous English King Alfred the Great. Most agree that Matilda was not at first very thrilled at the idea. There may have been any number of reasons for this, they certainly did not seem like a natural pair. William a big, rough and rugged man while Matilda was a very small, even petite (still holding the record for England’s smallest queen) and a pious sort of woman.

In any event, most agree that when William first proposed Matilda rejected his offer, according to some stories because William was of illegitimate birth and therefore not the sort of man who could expect to marry the daughter of the Count of Flanders and a granddaughter of the King of France. This is often given as the reason for the stories surrounding how William came to collect the woman he wanted for his wife, most of which involve some sort of assault and always with William pulling down or even dragging Matilda by her long, braided hair. In any event, whether she came around to the idea of marrying the tall duke with the ruddy complexion or to simply prevent him and her father from trying to kill each other, Matilda agreed to the marriage which took place in 1053. However, there were still problems. The Church objected to the match for reasons which have been lost to history. It was not until 1059 that the couple were forgiven for this and granted a dispensation from the Pope after they promised to make amends by building two abbeys at Caen; Abbaye-aux-Homes (St Stephen’s) and the Abbaye-aux-Dames (Holy Trinity).

Surprisingly enough, considering the rather violent nature of most of the stories about their meeting, William and Matilda went on to have quite a successful marriage for the time and Matilda gave William ten children; four sons and six daughters (the future Kings William II and Henry I among them). From the available information it seems Matilda was an exemplary Duchess of Normandy and also a woman of some independence with her own property and thus her own wealth and income which did not automatically belong to her husband. In 1066 when William set out on his epic invasion of England, Matilda used her own money to equip the vessel Mora which she presented to her husband to use in getting his army across the Channel. When the invasion proved successful the Duke became King William I of the English but Matilda did not visit England until more than a year later and was formally crowned Queen in 1068 at Westminster by the Archbishop of York. In any event it was not until 1071 that England was fully pacified.

Queen Matilda spent most of her time in Normandy, looking after affairs there, raising her children and supporting the Church. Still, she was popular in England and regarded as something of a co-ruler alongside her husband, upon whom she had a moderating influence. The available history provides a number of mentions of Queen Matilda as being a woman of wisdom and compassion. As far as we know, William was a faithful husband and the only known tension in their marriage came when Matilda took the side of their son Robert who rebelled against King William with the support of the King of France and the Count of Anjou. However, she was always a source of calm and quiet for her husband and the people were genuinely sad when she died at Caen on November 2, 1083 at the age of 51. Many sadly noticed that after her death King William became much more short-tempered, gloomy and severe so he seems to have been greatly effected by her loss. She was buried on one of the abbeys she and William had founded in Caen as penance for their initially illicit wedding.


  1. My favorite Queen of England :-)

  2. Of interest is the fact that in 1967 her tomb was opened...she stood only 4 feet 2 inches in height and was of slender build, more the size of a present day 10 year old girl! Having reared 9 children is all the more remarkable when considering such a diminutive size.

  3. I read she was found to be just on 5 feet tall.
    Regarding William's personality, to be fair he had many troubles from 1083 on: the three-year struggle to reconquer Maine, the threatened Danish invasion of 1085, the recruitment of unprecedented numbers of mercenaries from France and Brittany in order to fend off that invasion, the difficulty of billeting and paying them all, the strenuous supervision of the Domesday Survey (one reason for which may have been the funding issue that had just arisen), and then his final, fatal campaign against France.


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