William Duke of Normandy needed a bride. He settled on Matilda of Flanders the daughter of Count Baldwin V of Flanders. The German emperor, Henry III, wasn’t keen on the match as in his mind it created an overly powerful duchy. Such was Henry’s clout that Pope Leo IX forbade the pair to marry in 1049 when William began his negotiations with Flanders.
Matilda was born in about 1031, so about eighteen when the negotiations started. She had a mind of her own. It wasn’t just the German emperor and the pope who objected – Matilda wasn’t too keen on the idea either. Apparently being related to most of the royalty in Europe of the time she considered herself a cut above William. (she was also descended from King Alfred the Great). There was also the fact that she’d taken a shine to Brittric of Gloucester, Edward the Confessor’s ambassador in Flanders.
William, according to popular story, rode to Bruges, confronted Matilda and dragged her from her horse by her hair before throwing her on the floor – an unusual courting technique which seems surprisingly successful despite the risk of starting a war with Matilda’s outraged father. Matilda changed her mind and announced that she would have no one but William. Other versions of story are available.
Ultimately William married Matilda in 1051ish (depending on the source) but there was still a question mark over the marriage. William’s uncle Duke Richard III had been married to Adela of France – who also happened to be Matilda’s mother so there was a degree of relationship. There was also the fact that they shared a common ancestor in Rolf the Viking.
Papal approval only came in 1059. By that time Pope Nicholas II had replaced Leo who had been German which leads us neatly back to Henry III’s objections to the match. The only condition to the backdated dispensation was that both William and Matilda had to found a monastic house each. The founding at Caen of the Benedictine “Abbey aux Dames” dedicated to the Holy Trinity was Matilda’s penance for marrying William. He founded the abbey of St Stephen’s also in Caen.
Leonie Hicks makes the point that William, who was some four years older than her and who had been duke since childhood, made himself more secure with his marriage to Matilda who brought with her an alliance with Flanders and undoubted royalty.
She would provide her spouse nine or ten children and enjoy a loyalty, unusual for the period, from William in return.
The statue of Matilda can be found in the Luxembourg Gardens in Paris.
Hicks, Leonie. Norman women: the power behind the thrones. History Extra, https://www.historyextra.com/period/norman/norman-women-the-power-behind-the-thrones/