The Duke of Normandy went down in history when he invaded England and killed their king. At that moment, he became William “the Conqueror”. Thanks to author Tracy Borman, we also know more about William’s powerful consort, Matilda. She was part and parcel of why William was able to launch a successful invasion at all. This book details why.
Duke and Duchess of Normandy
Before that famous invasion in 1066, William already had considerable power in Normandy. He had to fight tooth and nail to maintain it, however. William had to contend with external aggressors as well as internal ambitions within Normandy over his origins.
William’s nickname “the Bastard” (whispered mostly behind his back) stemmed from his illegitimate birth, the result of an affair between his father, Robert I, Duke of Normandy, and a woman named Herleva. It gave William’s enemies a reason to cast doubt on his succession to Robert’s dukedom.
An important move in making William’s succession legitimate was through his marriage to Matilda of Flanders. Her pedigree was impeccable – she was the daughter of the powerful Flemish Count Baldwin and the granddaughter of Robert II, King of France. Matilda’s high birth, William believed, would cement his position as a legitimate ruler of Normandy and secure future heirs to the dukedom.
However, it wasn’t just Matilda’s noble background that attracted William; it was also her intelligence that made her an excellent prospect. Matilda was extraordinary. Thanks to her mother, Matilda was schooled in all of the graces society required, but she was well-educated and could read and write. Tracy Borman notes that this was unusual for someone of Matilda’s time and social position.
Bolstering Adèle’s efforts in Matilda’s upbringing was the exiled Queen Emma of England. The queen set Matilda on a path to becoming one of medieval history’s most important political women. Emma had been at the center of English political life and she shaped Matilda giving her a sharp mind, skills in politics, and diplomacy.
Most women were overlooked by the men who chronicled their contemporary Norman history. The efforts of Adèle, Countess of Flanders and Queen Emma made it impossible for Matilda to just be another footnote.
An Extraordinary Union
The start of Matilda and William’s courtship was said to be inauspicious. According to legend, Matilda refused William’s initial proposal, so he viciously grabbed her by the hair and pummeled her. He then walked away, leaving her ladies-in-waiting to tend to her wounds. It seems a fitting image for a man descended from Vikings and known for his brutality, but it probably wasn’t true. After reading Borman’s book, you realize that William valued Matilda. Not only did he love her, but he relied on her input so much that charters and other legal documents signed in her name prove that he trusted her to act in his stead. When he went off to invade England, that’s exactly what he did.
Matilda gave William the ultimate wedding anniversary gift when she funded the creation of his lead ship for the invasion of England. William returned the favor by leaving her as the ruler of Normandy. In Matilda, William had someone whom he trusted to be absolutely loyal to him and strong enough to maintain power in the region.
After their wedding, William and Matilda’s marriage was successfully consummated. Over the years she bore William 10 healthy children and came though the births relatively unscathed. This is miraculous given that the medieval period was not known for its cleanliness or medical technology. Borman states that there are no reports of Matilda having any miscarriages or children who died in infancy, just the records of her children who survived to adulthood. Whether or not any misfortunes befell her, it is unknown.
Matilda, like her own mother, ensured her children were well-educated in reading and writing Latin. She is also revealed to be an overly-indulgent mother,especially with her eldest son, Robert. It is this characteristic of the queen which caused William’s trust to falter. When Matilda financially supported Robert, even after he had instigated an insurrection against William, she caused a storm of controversy. Eventually, Matilda succeeded in reconciling the two men. As a result, William left the dukedom of Normandy to Robert but gave his cherished throne of England to his second son, William II (Rufus).
The details surrounding some of William and Matilda’s daughters are vague, except for Adela. Following her mother’s example, Adela was politically shrewd and described by Norman chronicler Orderic Vitalis as a “wise and spirited woman”. The only other daughter to have record was Cecile, who entered the Abbey of Sainte-Trinité as a nun.
It is evident that Borman has worked hard to piece together her research on Matilda and she delivers on what she has found. The clarity that Borman has provided helps us to see Matilda in a unique light. The Norman queen of England now has a vivacious and intellectual feel instead of just being a background figure to William’s life. I recommend this book for anyone interested in something out of the ordinary in the Norman period.