“Imagine a land centuries before industrialisation…a green, rural land, inhabited by just two million people – their lives governed by the calendars of the church and of farming. This was the England of the Norman kings.” Thus began Alison Weir, as she introduced us to her new book ‘Queens of the Conquest’, an epic depiction of the lives of England’s medieval queens.
Alison is a compelling speaker, as well as being an excellent writer, and this was a highly entertaining and informative evening. She has done a phenomenal amount of research for this book and we were amazed when she told us that she managed to track down 26 original letters written by the Norman queens, from which she was able to piece together a “vivid and inspiring story.”
Describing the women that she’s written about as “remarkable”, Alison says that her aim was to provide an insight into how these women exercised power and influence in what was very much a man’s world. To put what follows into context, it’s worth remembering that the English monarchs ruled in a feudal world, where the king was accountable only to God. As far as women went, it had been seen as unnatural for a woman to reign over men. Only widows escaped male supervision, and it was accepted that queens could only ever wield power on behalf of their husbands.
That, however, changed during Norman times, when queens were recognised as equal sharers in the royal dominions. They acted as trusted advisers, and took up arms when necessary. Matilda of Flanders ruled Normandy – effectively – as regent. Matilda of Boulogne, as we will see later, successfully waged war on her husband, Stephen’s, behalf.
The book begins in 1066 with Matilda, wife of William the Bastard, who defeated Harold at the Battle of Hastings – for which achievement he became known as William the Conqueror. Marriage, then, was essentially a diplomatic contract. No-one married for love: “Kingship and love make sorry bedfellows”, observed one contemporary chronicler. In respect of Matilda, William was determined to win her and counteract the stain of bastardry that hung over him. Matilda had other ideas, and wasn’t shy about saying so – but her rejected suitor returned to “woo” her; in other words, he beat her up, leaving Matilda with injuries so severe she was bedridden. Bafflingly – and despite the fact that her father was ready to go to battle on her behalf – Matilda had a change of heart; she and William were married in 1050 and enjoyed, by all accounts, a harmonious marriage.
Matilda was privy to William’s counsels and he grew to trust her, so much so that her influence over him became considerable and she acted as regent of Normandy during his many forays overseas. They had “at least” ten healthy children, the first-born being Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy. Their two youngest sons would succeed to the throne of England after their father’s death, as William II and Henry I respectively, although it was Robert who was Matilda’s favourite – even when he went to war against William. She paid Robert’s army, leading to a furious and public confrontation between her and William. That said, William was devastated when Matilda died, in 1083 – and fulsome tributes to his wife were paid in both England and France.
William II ruled England from 1087 until his death in a hunting accident in 1100. Henry I succeeded him, that same year marrying Edith of Scotland. She then adopted the name “Matilda” – and is the next subject of Alison’s book. Henry and Matilda’s marriage was pleasing to the Saxons, but not to the Norman barons, who referred to their new queen as “the Saxon woman”.
It was, says Alison, a happy marriage – despite Henry’s many infidelities (he had 25 bastards that we know of). Matilda was a pious and charitable woman who frequently acted as regent of England while Robert lived in Normandy. She died in 1118 and her funeral was held in Westminster Abbey; her grave remains unmarked in Confessor’s Chapel.
Matilda and Robert’s marriage had produced only two legitimate royal children, and their son died in an accident in 1120, leaving 18 year-old Maude, who was living in Germany as the wife of Holy Roman Emperor Henry V, sole heiress. Despite remarrying, to Adeliza of Louvain, King Henry I had no more legitimate children – and he in due course declared the Maude (by now known as “Empress Matilda”) his heir. She is the third subject of Alison’s book, in which she is described as her father’s daughter – possessing his iron will, but also her mother’s sanctity.
An Empress in Europe she may have been, but Maude never did become ruler of England, despite her best efforts. After she was widowed, in 1125, her father recalled her to Normandy, where she was remarried to Geoffrey of Anjou; their tempestuous marriage produced three sons (including the future Henry II). Henry made his court swear an oath of loyalty to Maude and her successors – but this was an unpopular decision in the Anglo-Norman court and when Henry died, in 1135, Stephen of Blois seized the throne, with the backing of the English Church.
Stephen was Henry I’s nephew and their relationship, says Alison, dominated Stephen’s life. Alison describes Stephen as “an imprudent man: a fine knight, but a fool”. He did, however, have a highly successful marriage, to Matilda of Boulogne, with whom he had five children. It is this Matilda who is the fourth subject of Alison’s book.
After Stephen seized the throne, Matilda travelled over to England and proved a feisty queen, courageous and loyal – far more effective than her weak-willed partner. Closely involved in government, because Stephen respected her political judgement, Matilda would go on to found the Royal Hospital of St Catherine’s and establish the Knights Templar.
In the meantime, however, civil war – known as “the Anarchy” – broke out between Stephen and Maude; an 18-year conflict that would see atrocities committed by both sides. In 1139, Maude invaded England, supported by her uncle, King David I of Scotland. Two years later, their army captured Stephen at the Battle of Lincoln and in due course the gates of London were opened to Maude – however, public hostility made it impossible for her coronation to take place. Accordingly, Matilda marched upon London and laid siege to the Tower of London. Maude’s supporters were driven from the city; Stephen was freed and he and Matilda re-crowned.
That was not the end of the fighting, though. In 1142, Maude seized the city of Oxford and England’s civil war dragged on. It would take another decade before peace was restored under her son, Henry II, and his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine.
The above is, of course, the tip of iceberg. Alison’s book (a hefty 500 pages!) goes into astonishing and colourful detail about the lives of these formidable queens. I was enthralled by Alison’s reading tonight – and her obvious passion for her subject – and cannot wait to find out more both about these women and the Norman era.