Matilda of Flanders may not be a name you’re familiar with, however she is actually one of the most influential and formidable queens England has seen. How so? We hear you ask… Well not because her husband was William the Conqueror, we reply, but because of the woman she was… and so our story begins.
Who was she?
In truth, it’s not surprising if you’ve not have heard of Matilda of Flanders because even to historians she’s a woman of great mystery. Details of her life are sketchy, even her date of birth isn’t known with certainty, and when medieval authors make reference to her they either extol her virtues to excess or paint her in a dark picture of harsh vengeance. What doesn’t seem to be disputed, however, is that Matilda played a key role in helping William control both Normandy and England after the battle of Hastings in 1066. She acted as regent in his absence in France, sat in judgement in the courts, whilst all the while publicly developing and enhancing her husband’s position.
But how did this come to be?
Matilda was of respectable ascent. Her father, Baldwin V, was the Count of Flanders, and her mother was a daughter to the King of France. And although her father never reached a higher title than Count, his realm was one of the richest and most powerful in Europe. She was, in effect, related to most of the royal families … and this gave her clout. It was no surprise, therefore, that she became a very sought after bride.
Amongst the list of keen suitors was her illegitimate cousin – William of Normandy. On the face of it, William’s clout was a bit more flimsy. Yes, he was the only son of Robert, Duke of Normandy, but only in so far as he was also a bastard. And the fact that Robert had made him heir, which William inherited at the age of 7 when Robert died, wasn’t something to turn a young Matilda’s head; that had already been turned by an English ambassador named Brihtric, the Earl of Gloucester. Much to Matilda’s dismay, however, it appears that Brihtric never returned her affections. When he headed back to England, he left without her. A fatal mistake, some have conjectured, for it’s possible this led to his death eventually, when Matilda diplomatically took her revenge in later life.
However, William wasn’t one to be put off by unrequited love, and differing accounts of his determination abound. The romantic version has him dragging her off her horse by her braids in an impressive testosterone-fuelled act of dominance. Less charming accounts paint a far more brutal picture. Either way, however, wherever the truth actually sits, it would seem that his machismo won her over for she did in the end consent to be his wife. And by all accounts, this was then the start of a long, successful marriage, for Matilda attracted surprising fidelity from her husband – William not being known to have had children by any other woman.
A union that was greater than the sum of the parts…
So, already, a picture of an interesting woman is forming. Many chroniclers have marvelled at Matilda’s beauty, despite her petite stature. And unusually for the time, she was a very well educated woman. Such a potent combination would have been a boon for a strong man like William. And as a pair, they became a force to be reckoned with.
Whilst William pursued his interests in England, Matilda ruled in Normandy on his behalf. She was respected, admired and listened to. In Normandy, her word was the final word.
She made her first mark on England, however, when William brought her over for her own coronation. At this point, Matilda became the first Queen of England to receive such an accolade. This was no run of the mill woman…
If there’s one smudge on her record with regard to her husband, it comes in the form of her eldest son, Robert. Robert and William didn’t see eye to eye, and it would appear at one point Matilda, perhaps through loyalty as a mother, did financially offer support for a rebellion Robert organised against his father. Clearly the whole story will never be known, and it’s not believed that a full reconciliation was ever achieved between father and son. However William is thought to have forgiven his wife, which is certainly a testament to the strength of their relationship.
In later years, it’s believed the stress of the discord within the family took its toll, though, for Matilda’s health suffered… enough so for William to take a trip Normandy to see her. Whatever was said between them, it appears he offered his son a full pardon. A step in the right direction, perhaps, but not enough to fully heal the rift underneath. And it’s likely that Matilda died knowing this. Within four years, William had passed away too, but not before pointing England in a new direction for ever.
A legacy we still enjoy today…
If you like the saying, ‘behind every successful man, there’s a woman…’ Matilda of Flanders would most definitely fit the bill. She was beautiful, intelligent, devoted to her husband (notwithstanding a little collusion with her son … but what’s a bit of rebellion between family members?), a masterful diplomat, and clearly comfortable with power. William could not have succeeded in his quest to take England without her, as well as produce heirs (two of which became kings of England) of course. And he certainly couldn’t have moved this country into a new era in the way that he did. England was never the same after William. And William was more than just a man after he united with Matilda.