Queens and female rulers of the early Middle Ages have claimed a good deal of attention in recent years, and deserve to receive more. Of several books about or inspired by Queen Emma, wife successively of Æthelræd ‘the Unready’ and Canute ‘the Great’, the best is Pauline Stafford’s Queen Emma and Queen Edith (1997), which brackets Emma with her successor, wife of Edward ‘the Confessor’. Stafford’s earlier Queens, Concubines and Dowagers (1983) took a broader view, as does Lisa Hilton’s Queens Consort: England’s Medieval Queens (2008). If one were to pick out another powerful ruler too often forgotten, one might ask for a biography of King Alfred’s daughter Æthelflæd, ‘Lady of the Mercians’, who in partnership with her brother Edward ‘the Elder’ and her extremely mysterious husband, ‘Alderman’ Æthelræd, played the Isabella role in the tenth-century reconquista of central England from the pagan Vikings, and left her mark on the map of England to this day.
Perhaps, though, we just do not know enough about her. Emma and Edith both give historians a start by having contemporary narrative accounts entirely or largely about them, the Encomium Emmae Reginae and the Vita Edwardi Regis respectively. Contemporary histories like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle remained almost silent about Æthelflæd, however, probably deliberately: her Wessex dynasty wanted to suppress any revival of Mercian demands for independence. And the same seems to be true of the topic Tracy Borman has now chosen, Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror.
Borman, now chief executive of the Heritage Education Trust, has already published two books looking at female figures of the past. King’s Mistress, Queen’s Servant (2007) was about Henrietta Howard, long-service mistress of George II, while Elizabeth’s Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen (2010) dealt with Elizabeth’s mother, sister and female competitors. Her co-authored history of royal weddings, The Ring and the Crown, came out somewhat opportunistically early this year. But with the world of female royalty to choose from, one might wonder why she chose Matilda.
Only two things about Matilda have got anywhere near the status of general knowledge, and neither seems to make her much of a role model. One is that even by medieval standards she was allegedly extremely small: an examination in 1961 of what is thought to be her skeleton measured her at 4’2’’. No bar to greatness, of course, but one wonders how she must have looked next to her husband, tall by medieval standards and probably burly even by modern ones. Forensics, however, can’t be trusted. Byrhtnoth, hero of the battle of Maldon, was said to be 6’9’’ by early enthusiastic explorers of his tomb in Ely cathedral, though accurate measurement was impossible owing to the lack of a head: the estimate is now generally revised down. Readers of the LRB of 22 July 2010 may remember the arthritic 70-year-old said to be the occupant of the Gokstad ship, later revealed as an almost freakishly robust man in his prime, with several fatal battle wounds. So it isn’t unlikely they got Matilda wrong too.
The other allegation would be even more damaging to her image, if it were true. In that instance, it was said that as the daughter of Baldwin V, Count of Flanders, and granddaughter of Robert II ‘the Pious’, King of France, she proudly refused a marriage proposal from William Duke of Normandy, on the grounds that he was illegitimate and she would not demean herself to marry a bastard. At this, the story goes, William rode up from Normandy, caught her as she emerged from chapel, ‘dragged her to the ground by her hair and beat her mercilessly, rolling her in the mud and ruining her rich gown’ before riding off. Once she had recovered, the story continues, she declared that William was the only man for her; the subsequent marriage, which produced nine or ten children, lasted till her death. But this ‘taming of the shrew’ narrative comes from a chronicle written almost two hundred years later, and is almost certainly untrue. Quite apart from anything else, wouldn’t the daughter of the count of Flanders have had pretty effective bodyguards?
The story exemplifies Borman’s central problem. Her aim is perfectly clear, and often repeated. She wants to present Matilda as the woman who ‘broke the mould of female consorts’ and ‘established a model of female rule that would last for hundreds of years’. She did this by creating ‘one of the most successful partnerships in medieval Europe’, which made her the ‘vital ingredient’ in William’s success. Borman also reckons that, the silence of modern historians notwithstanding, her case can be made thanks to ‘a staggering array of contemporary records’ which have been unaccountably overlooked.
In a sense, what Borman says about the number of contemporary records is true. Matilda signed more than a hundred charters (though charter evidence, dealing as it did with grants of property and privilege, is notoriously prone to forgery). There was a great deal of contemporary interest in William, with several first-hand accounts of the Battle of Hastings, as one would expect of one of the most decisive, and profitable, battles of the Middle Ages. But Matilda, naturally enough, does not figure in these, and people no longer believe that she commissioned and directed the making of the Bayeux Tapestry, a very large piece of ‘contemporary record’. By contrast, she does figure in a number of scandalous stories. But without exception these date from centuries after her time, and were quite likely invented. It’s a historian’s dilemma: the true stuff is dull, and the exciting stuff is unlikely.
There are four scandalous stories about Matilda, apart from the ‘rough wooing’ one, and Borman gives them all a good deal of space, while hiding cautious disclaimers here and there. One is that Matilda, while a teenager, fell in love with an Anglo-Saxon ambassador to her father’s court, one Brihtric ‘Meaw’. After he’d gone home, she sent him a proposal of marriage: ‘an astonishingly audacious act’, as Borman approvingly comments, ‘in an age when daughters were expected to meekly accept the fate that was decided for them by their parents’. However, Brihtric turned her down. This was a bad move in the light of later events, for nearly 40 years on Matilda, as wife of the Conqueror, would be in a position to ‘exact a dreadful revenge on the man who had so callously spurned her’. She seized his manor in Tewkesbury, deprived his town of Gloucester of its charter, and had him thrown into prison in Winchester, where he died in mysterious circumstances.
It’s a good ‘hell hath no fury’ stereotype, but there’s no real support for it. The story comes from the Chronicle of Tewkesbury, an unreliable source written centuries later, probably with the aim of creating a local hero. Brihtric existed, and he was an important landowner, who may have been stripped of his lands, like so many Anglo-Saxons post-Conquest, for real or fancied disloyalty to the Conqueror, or just because he had them. He was an old man by the time of the Conquest, and there is no need for a romantic motive to explain either his dispossession or his death. And his nickname does not mean that he was ‘handsome in the Saxon way … with blond hair’, for it has nothing to do with the Anglo-Saxon word for snow: it means ‘seagull’. Borman knows all this (except for the seagull bit), but keeps the story anyway, to demonstrate Matilda’s ‘pride and strength of will’, with poor Brihtric written off more than once as a callous trifler with a young girl’s affections.
The next scandal has to do with allegations of Matilda’s adultery. In 1067 (the story goes), William returned to Normandy, where Matilda had been acting as regent for him, to hear it said that she had betrayed him with another man. The duke paraded her naked through the streets of Caen, but eventually, convinced of her innocence, had the knight who accused her, Grimoult de Plessis, hunted down and skinned with a wooden knife, then used the skin as a saddle blanket. The legend, Borman assures us, has ‘left its mark on the topography of modern-day Caen’, for there is still a ‘Rue Froide’ – so-called from the cold-hearted indifference of its inhabitants to the queen’s humiliation – and a collection of crosses where Matilda is supposed to have raised a ‘Croix Pleureuse’. Assessing the truth of the legend isn’t easy. Borman cites a French secondary source, which may go back to a collection of documents edited by the same historian, but the primary source, whatever it is, is not discussed. Local legends about the origins of place-names are notoriously easy to invent.
One scandal has Matilda ordering the death of two young female novices whom William had been chivalrously, or perhaps guiltily, protecting; and in yet another, the niece of a Kentish nobleman called Merleswen is vengefully hamstrung, or alternatively murdered, on Matilda’s orders. The first is plain invention by an 18th-century novelist, who seems to have felt that William needed a few laddish credentials to be a suitable hero for France. The second comes from William of Malmesbury, much closer to the time of the Conquest, but even he didn’t believe it. Both stories have William parading Matilda naked through Caen (once again), or beating her to death with his bridle, which we know he didn’t. But Borman, reliable material thin on the ground, takes what she can find. Claims of Matilda’s beauty are backed up, if you take the trouble to look at the notes and then at the bibliography, by a poem written in 1859 by an Englishman as ‘A Poetical Tribute to the Imperial Academy of Caen’, for what reason we don’t know: the poem later sneaks in again. ‘Abbot Ingulphus of Croyland’ is cited twice, from a 1908 edition, as evidence for post-Conquest conditions, but has long been relabelled ‘pseudo-Ingulf’ and considered a 14th-century remake with later continuation. Mention of ‘Snorro Sturleson’ indicates dependence on Samuel Laing’s 1844 translation of Snorri Sturluson’s Heimskringla, long kept in print by Everyman but made by someone who could not read Old Norse. Borman’s best source is Orderic Vitalis’s Historia Ecclesiastica. This was completed before 1141, and was written by someone who knew Matilda at least at second-hand, for though English by birth, Orderic was a monk at the Norman monastery of St Evroul, some of whose older monks must have known her. It’s a pity to see him mixed up with salacious French novelists and fanciful Victorian flatterers.
Sift out the engaging trash, and what is left of the underlying claims about Matilda’s mould-breaking political roles? Given the Norman propensity for rebellion and self-interest, it was a bold decision on William’s part to leave Matilda as regent of Normandy while he pursued his invasion of England; she seems to have held things together very competently. It’s perhaps significant that stress was laid on her own separate coronation as queen of England, ‘the first one ever staged just for a queen’, with specially commissioned laudes designed to formalise her position. Whether this was a tribute to Matilda personally, or part of the Norman intention to bring backward and insular England into line with good Continental practice, is not known: perhaps it was both.
Borman thinks that Matilda’s descent from Alfred the Great was useful to William as a conciliation to Anglo-Saxon dynastic sentiment, but the link was six generations back, and William himself (unlike his rival Harold) was at least a cousin of their predecessor King Edward, if only through his great-aunt Emma. The idea that Matilda ‘formed a welcome contrast to her brutal, arrogant husband’ and ‘lent a much needed feminine, civilising influence to William’s court’ rests on nothing much: pseudo-Ingulf again, and Thomas Rudborne writing centuries later. She may have persuaded William to allow a decent burial in 1075 for Queen Edith, Harold’s sister and Edward’s wife, but William was always careful about King Edward’s reputation, it being a vital part of his claim to the throne that he was Edward’s legal successor who had displaced a mere usurper. Matilda was certainly rich, powerful, quite long-lived by the standards of the time, and always well-connected. It’s hard to go much beyond that.
One last important event in Matilda’s life was the rebellion against his father by their eldest son, Robert ‘Curthose’, the insulting nickname apparently pinned on him by his father and referring to the short stature he might have inherited from his mother. Matilda took Robert’s side against her husband and her younger sons, Rufus and Henry, and Orderic is good evidence for the Conqueror’s anger: one of her go-betweens sought sanctuary from a sentence of blinding in St Evroul, where Orderic met him. There were successive rapprochements, even after Robert had bested his father in hand-to-hand combat outside the castle of Gerberoi, but Borman says of William and Matilda, in anachronistically modern style, ‘their relationship would never recover.’ William was with Matilda when she died a few years later, however, and seems to have been profoundly depressed in his own last few years. His death and burial were lonely and squalid, testifying perhaps to the extent of his reliance on his consort.
Borman does her best for her subject, without reaching complete conviction, mainly because of the sometimes inextricable mingling of primary and secondary sources. There’s also a strategic uncertainty to some of her claims. Should one build up the contribution made by women to political and intellectual life in the Middle Ages, as shown by the claim that the ‘new monastic movement that swept across Europe between the sixth and the tenth centuries was spearheaded by women’? This would have been news to its thoroughly misogynistic founder St Benedict, as also to saints like Cuthbert, whose tomb at Durham was still off-limits to female visitors until quite recently. Or should one stress the disabilities imposed on women, their correspondence non-existent because destroyed, even queens subject to the double standard of chastity, sons much better recorded than daughters?
Borman takes each incident on the volley, not bothering about consistency. She often seems to have been ill-informed. Who told her that all five queens named in Beowulf ‘display what the author considers to be typically feminine virtues of pacifism, diplomacy, hospitality and wisdom’? It’s true that Hrothgar’s queen, Wealhtheow, is the only person in the Danish court who can see what’s going on; and Hygelac’s Geatish queen Hygd is also praised, though in routine fashion. But the poor ladies Freawaru and Hildeburh just seem to exemplify the breakdown of diplomacy, and Fremu (who used to be called Modthrytho till the editors changed their minds) is a serial false accuser who has to be tamed by a strong hand. One hopes the verb ‘hamstrung’ is used of her only metaphorically.
Not only here, but in matters of ethnic politics, Borman should have kept off the blacks and whites, and allowed a more nuanced picture. There were no doubt a lot of Anglo-Saxons in 1066 who, if they did not exactly vote for William, at least did not consider Harold or any of the other Godwinssons as ‘one of their own’. What they made of Matilda remains obscure. Probably, for most of the population, nothing at all. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, a genuinely contemporary record, reports her coronation and her death in two different manuscripts, in each case in one sentence and without further comment.