Robert Fitzwalter, holder of Castle Baynard and Lord of Little Dunmow was a revolting baron during the reign of King John and little wonder if the stories are anything to go by.
Robert’s daughter Matilda was a bit of a stunner– men threw themselves at her feet, jousted for her favours etc and dear old King John fell head over heels in lust. Matilda, being a good girl and not having heard that when a medieval king does his best Lesley Philips impersonation that all the usual rules are out of the window told him to be on his way.
John did not take personal rejection well – his penchant for white satin, large collections of jewels and regular bathing, not to mention him being a king, should have made him a hit with the ladies but at no more than five foot five inches, having an inclination to fat as he got older, and an interest in the wives and daughters of his barons was not always as well received by the aforementioned ladies as he might have hoped. Rather than chalk Matilda’s refusal up to experience he tried to cajole Robert Fitzwalter into handing his daughter over: Robert refused. Perhaps John should have had a word with Matilda’s husband rather than her father but more about him shortly. In the stories John sets about destroying Fitzwalter and his property. Fitzwalter was indeed banished in 1212 but was later reconciled to John only to revolt in 1215 as a leader of the ‘Army of God’ that massed against the king. Fitzwalter is one of the Magna Carta barons and Matilda’s sad story is often given as part of the rationale for Fitzwalter’s rebellion.
Presumably because he could, John imprisoned Matilda in The Tower before sending her a message reminding her that all she need to do was to look upon him more favourably. When Matilda persisted in rejecting his advances John sent Matilda a poisoned egg, in some versions of the story a poisoned bracelet, which she promptly ate/put on and expired as a result presumably because she was a) hungry or b) it was a very nice bracelet. The corpse of Fair Matilda was then sent home for burial (very considerate). Elizabeth Norton’s book addressing the life of Isabella of Angouleme says that John forced Matilda to become his mistress – and you would have to say why go to all the bother of locking her up in the Tower to force compliance? Norton uses Matilda as but one example of John’s rapacious tendencies. What is clear is that by 1212 Matilda was dead.
Matilda Fitzwalter’s story is told by Mathew Paris and the Anonymous Chronicler of Bethune. The criticism of John made by the chroniclers was not that he didn’t know how to take no for an answer but that he had dishonoured the fathers and husbands of the women concerned in the tales of lust that they recounted. Anonymous makes the point that John was devoted to good food and to pleasure – if he’d taken an interest in serving wenches then no one would have batted an eyelid.
From the threads of truth, of which very little actually remains to history, the tale of Matilda becomes steadily more romantic. According to lore Matilda Fitzwalter spurned King John’s advances because she was actually smitten with another – a chap called Robert, Earl of Huntingdon a.k.a. Robin Hood who was at that time away on crusade – making Matilda the fair Maid Marian. The chronicler Mathew Paris called her “Maud the Fair” or “Maid Marian.” It wasn’t until a couple of centuries later though that Matilda Fitzwalter escaped to the Greenwood to live happily ever after…making Maid Marian an Essex girl.
In this case, however, truth is even stranger than legend. Matilda had actually been married to Geoffrey de Mandeville, the Earl of Essex. After her death de Mandeville married, at vast expense, Isabella of Gloucester – none other than King John’s first wife.
John was able to get his marriage to Isabella annulled because they were half-second cousins which was well within the prohibited degree of consanguinity. At the time of his marriage the Pope had been furious and Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury had placed John and all his lands under an interdict until an ecclesiastical council reversed the decision. At no point in time did John apply for a papal dispensation and it soon became clear that he was looking for a better placed wife with plans afoot fir him to marry Alice, sister of Philip Augustus – rejected fiancée of brother Richard and if stories are true mistress of Henry II and mother of his child. The divorce occurred almost as soon as John became king. Isabella led a half-life for many years neither a captive nor free until John, desperate for cash for a continental war effectively sold Isabella to the highest bidder – Geoffrey de Mandeville. It will perhaps come as no surprise to find out that Geoffrey and Isabella revolted against King John as well.
Norton, Elizabeth. She Wolves: The Notorious Queens of England