Matilda or Mrs William the Conqueror

matilda of flandersMatilda of Flanders had an illustrious pedigree including Alfred the Great.  Tracy Borman comments that she was related to most, if not all, Norther Europe’s royalty.  Her mother Adela supervised her education and later Matilda would be praised for her learning.  By the time Matilda was eighteen in about 1049 a certain Duke William whose lands marched with those of Count Baldwin V looked to be an advantageous match so when he approached Baldwin with a marriage proposal Matilda’s father accepted.

However, Matilda was less delighted.  She refused to marry William.  Borman speculates that it was because William was illegitimate – although of course the stigma of illegitimacy was not necessarily the bar to high office that it became in later centuries.

imagesWilliam was not a happy man.  He rode to Bruges, met Matilda coming out of church and proceeded to knock her into the mud, pull her plaits and hit her…an interesting variation on a box of chocolates and bunch of flowers.  In one account he is said to have kicked her with his spurs which would have been painful at the very least and Borman makes the point probably fatal.  Baldwin immediately declared war on William only to discover that Matilda had changed her mind.  After her rather rough wooing she decided she wanted to marry William.  The story was written approximately two hundred years later so a rather large pinch of salt is required in order to digest the tale but the pair do seem to have been evenly matched in terms of temper.

There may have been another reason for the change of heart.  Tracey Borman discusses the possibility of an earlier relationship with Brihtric Mau tarnishing her reputation but there again her father had already arranged another betrothal with Saxony when Matilda refused William.

Brihtric Mau was Edward the Confessor’s ambassador. He was descended from the House of Wessex and he was a wealthy man which made him a powerful man.  He was tall and handsome with blond hair.  Borman suggests that Mau is derived from ‘snew’  which is of course the Old English word for snow (Borman: 17).  Borman goes on to explain that the Chronicle of Tewkesbury – and the largest part of Mau’s lands were in Gloucestershire- describes Matilda as falling in love with the handsome Saxon.  She apparently sent a messenger back to England when he returned there proposing marriage.  This was not the way that a nice girl behaved, even if she was the daughter of a count.  It caused a scandal and to make matters worse the unspellable Brihtric rejected her.

The reason why the Chronicle of Tewkesbury is at such pains to tell the tale is because in 1067, twenty years after he’d rejected her, Matilda got her own back.  She asked William for the Manor of Tewkesbury and removed Gloucester’s charter – which was a disaster commercially and legally for the town. Dugdale’s History of the Norman Conquest adds the fact that Brihtric found himself in a dungeon in Winchester where he died in suspicious circumstances two years later – though there’s nothing very suspicious about lack of food, poor hygiene and lack of fresh air.

That’s the story – Borman also presents the evidence that Brihtric was present at Matilda’s coronation (Borman:118) which means that he can’t have been languishing in a dank cell in Winchester awaiting a visit from Matilda’s assassin.  Whatever the truth all we have is rumours and historical fragments.  It does at least demonstrate that Matilda must have been as tempestuous as her spouse.

Borman, Tracy. (2011) Matilda: Queen of the Conqueror. London: Jonathan Cape

4 thoughts on “Matilda or Mrs William the Conqueror

  1. Fragmentary evidence in sufficient quantity can lead to impressive reconstructions, whether of Troy or of Hittite politics, for an instance each from archaeology and history. In 11th century Europe, we are blessed with some lively accounts and an occasional abundance of sources.

    Many of the characters of this time were connected in a multitude of half-forgotten ways. Conan II of Brittany, for several years the biggest threat to all his neighbours, was descended, via his mother Bertha of Blois, from Louis IV who was one of the last Carolingian rulers and a grandson of Edward “the Elder”, King Alfred’s son. Conan thus had claims to almost everything on the map.

    Tostig Godwinson’s wife Judith of Flanders (related by marriage to Matilda) was named after her grandmother, the frail but bountiful Judith of Brittany. After Tostig’s death his widow would become the ancestress of the long line of Welfs who would rule much of Germany for centuries and give rise in the male line to the Hanovers, among other dynasties.

    The Norman interest in Flanders was a natural territorial extension of their conquest of Ponthieu in the Somme, the county that not only would produce the Song of Hastings but it appears had already produced Herluin de Conteville and thus Robert, Count of Mortain, and his brother the notorious Odo, Bishop of Bayeux. Ponthieu had a longstanding interest in matters Breton, which Herluin’s sons continued by employing many Bretons on their estates and attempting to interfere in Breton politics.

    Speaking again of Brittany, Alan Rufus is likely by several arguments to be the pre-conquest Alan, lord of Wyken (Farm) in Suffolk, whom David Roffe has identified as a royal thegn of Edward the Confessor. In Latin texts, “royal thegn” was rendered as “comes” (“companion”), perhaps the origin of Alan’s title which is conventionally rendered as “Count” though it did not attach to land. Alan of course was a close relative of both Edward and William, and thus of Robert fitz Wymarc whom the Bayeux tapestry depicts at Edward’s deathbed.

    Several Bretons held important positions in Edward’s court, among them Ralph the Staller whose family often cooperated with Alan’s father Eudon. Alfred of Lincoln was also Breton; indeed “Alfred” was a popular Breton name, perhaps stemming from King Alfred’s decree that Bretons were welcome in England.

    There’s a tale from the 1200s in Norway about the “Lay of the Strand”, a verse composed by the mysterious “Red Lady of Brittany” who was summoned to commemorate William the Conqueror’s pleasant stay at Barfleur around 1078. George R.R. Martin fans may even have picked up his references to the Narrow Sea, a Breton term for the English Channel.

    Thereby I am minded of Muriel, the contemporary “versatrix” (poetess) of Wilton Abbey, whose identity is likewise uncertain. (It seems that Alan spent inordinate time at or near Wilton, so far from his own properties, so perhaps Muriel, whose name is Breton, was one reason predating his association with Gunhild.)

    • You’re so right about evidence building up, there’s always a puzzle to be solved or jigsaw to be added to. I think it’s one of the reasons I enjoy history so much.

  2. You and I the same. His story is ours we play the part and onward all see your mistakes our meaness our fault. Others see human ways and judge us fairly. Others lie to secure that title. Rob to live in luxury at our expense. Governments and power mad men ride shoulder to shoulder and when it comes to us with some of the facts and a lot of proper rot we sort it out like that puzzle we had in youth. Jig saw comes to mind.We are the detectives of the past. It is and was important for me to search for my Grandfather who fought both the first and the second world wars. Bred 12 children who survived and built a plumbers business. What i found was more than I could ever have imagined. I was 10 years old when my 87 year old Great Aunt from Sizergh told me that I was Royal. I refused to accept this and as a youth only Cromwell was my hero. It took over sixty years to see the truth and look behind that glass that holds the living from the dead.I gave voice to those long departed. My book Time Detective is on Kindle E books to read. My tale is not part of this but English Injustices are. So Julia my dear forgive me I too know history. I enjoy talking with you as a a fellow learned historian and forgive me as nearly half of those we discuss gave me their blood in my veins. Yes I love history but now it is family business to me. Without that knowledge the power that is would have stopped my inherited titles long ago. Two other English titles exist that are mine by right of kinship and one would bring me to my place in the House of Lords. I will prove my case before I shuffle off my mortal coil. That is history in the making for you to be the first to record.

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