Good Queen Matilda – more on Edith of Scotland

Edith of Scotland, or Matilda as became upon her marriage to Henry I on Sunday 11th November 1100 was an example of how a medieval queen was supposed to behave. One bishop described her as a mother to her people. Weir makes the point that traditionally she has been seen as a pious queen without much of a political role but as with much of history, over time this view has been reappraised.

She advised the king, attended his meetings and worked for the reform of the Church as well as working with Anselm and maintaining a balance between her husband and his principal cleric. There are thirty-three charters in her own name. Her seal, pictured above is the earliest seal in England for a queen. It is in the hands of the British Library.

It was Matilda in 1103 who persuaded Henry to repeal the curfew laws introduced by his father. The idea had been to stop Saxon plotting. At eight o’clock every night the curfew bell tolled and people were required to damp down their fires – it also prevented fires in towns made largely from wood.

In addition to being pious, caring for the poor and interceding on behalf of the wider population it was also essential for a medieval queen to have children. On 31 July 1101 she gave birth to a daughter called Euphemia who did not live for long. By the summer of the same year she was pregnant again. We know this because Henry summoned the Abbot of Abingdon, a renowned physician, to care for his wife. On 7th February 1102 Matilda gave birth to another girl who was baptised as Aethelice (Adelaide) but she is known to history as the Empress Matilda. The year after that William was born.

There was another son called Richard. The Anglo Saxon Chronicle says that he died young whereas other sources state that a second son of Matilda’s called Richard drowned with the sinking of the White Ship. The fact that Henry also had an illegitimate son called Richard doesn’t much help matters.

After the birth of a male heir (and possibly a spare) Matilda had no more children. William of Malmesbury says that the king and queen stopped sharing a bed by common consent. Perhaps Matilda wasn’t terribly impressed with Henry’s love of the ladies. Princess Nest gave birth to one of Henry’s children in 1103. Weir speculates that Henry may have been put off from the wife he was described as ardently desiring because of the fact she spent so much time caring for the ill and the poor. An early example of social distancing perhaps? Weir goes on to suggest several other possible reasons – all in the realms of speculation but it is evident that the couple fell out over Church matters when Anselm was forbidden to return to England in 1104.

Despite this, Henry appointed Matilda as his regent when he went to Normandy that summer. Weir observes that William the Conqueror left his wife as regent and Henry now did the same – demonstrating that both men respected their wives abilities to maintain order in their absence. Henry gave Matilda the “power to judge crime.”

In 1110 Matilda’s daughter henceforth known as the Empress Matilda left England to marry Henry V- the Holy Roman Emperor.

Matilda died on the 1st May 1118 at Westminster Palace and buried in the abbey where she had spent much time in private prayer during her lifetime. She is also associated with Waltham Abbey and Malmesbury as both of them were part of her dower. Henry did not attend the funeral as he wasn’t in England at the time of her death.

Following Henry I’s death Good Queen Maud’s reputation took a bit of a battering when her nephew by marriage, Stephen of Blois, insisted that she had been a nun when Henry married her which meant that Matilda’s daughter, the Empress Matilda, was not the legitimate heir whatever her father said.

Weir, Alison (2017) Queens of the Conquest. London: Jonathan Cape

Edith/Matilda of Scotland

Edith or Matilda of Scotland was the wife of Henry I.  The couple had four children but only two survived to adulthood – Matilda and William. It was the death of William that ultimately plunged England into a lengthy and rather bloody civil war.

Edith was born circa 1080 in Dunfermline to Malcolm III and Margaret , grand-daughter of King Edmund Ironside and great niece of Edward the Confessor .  Somewhat confusingly since Margaret fled England along with her family at the time of the Norman Conquest it turns out that Edith’s godfather was Robert Curthose, the eldest son of William the Conqueror.  William’s queen, Matilda of Flanders was also present at Edith’s baptism  as godmother. It’s recorded that little Edith pulled at the royal headdress – this was later seen as a sign that Edith would herself be queen one day. Tyler identifies the fact that Edith’s name identifies her Saxon royal heritage whilst the choice of godparents reflects the political capital of the infant.

When she was about six Edith was sent to England to be educated by the nuns of Romsey Abbey in Wiltshire.  The Royal House of Wessex had a tradition of association with the abbey and Edith’s aunt Christina was the abbess there. She had left Scotland in 1086 to become a nun. Edith’s older sister Mary went with her. As well as spending time in Romsey the girls also spent time at Wilton Abbey – again there was a royal connection to the House of Wessex – Edward the Confessor’s wife Edith Godwinson was associated with the nunnery and had retired there after the Conquest. Wilton was regarded as a centre for female learning as well as a centre of spirituality.  The nunnery had a nail from the True Cross, bits of the Venerable Bede and St Edith.

The choice of these nunneries perhaps reflects the political heritage of Edith of Dunfermline.  The Normans weren’t necessarily secure on the throne and by maintaining their royal behaviours Malcolm III and his wife were leaving a path open to reclaiming the crown as well as arranging good marriages for their daughters.

Unsurprisingly Edith had lots of prospective suitors including the 2ndearl of Surrey (de Warenne) and Alan Rufus the Lord of Richmond.  It is also suggested that William Rufus might have been a candidate for Edith’s hand – it is perhaps one reason why Edith was required to wear a religious habit during her childhood.

Edith’s settled life came to an end on November 13 1093 when her father and one of her brothers was killed at the Battle of Alnwick.  Her mother died on the 16thNovember at Dunfermline where she is buried. Aside from a controversy about whether she was a nun or not History does not know where Edith was between 1093 and 1100.

At some point in 1093 Edith left Wilton and was ordered back there by Anselm the Bishop of Canterbury. He believed that she had taken holy orders – that she was in fact a nun. In 1100 Edith was called upon to testify before a council of bishops that although she had been educated at Romsey and Wilton that she had not taken any vows.  She stated that Christina had required her to wear a habit to protect her from unwanted attention from Norman lords.  Edith does not appear to have had a good relationship with Christina – she stated that her aunt would often give her a sound slapping and “horrible scolding.” She further added that when she was out of her aunt’s sight she tore off the monastic veil that her aunt made her wear and trampled it in the dust.

In addition to Edith’s testimony there was also the fact that Archbishop Lanfranc had ruled that Saxon women who went into hiding in nunneries in the aftermath of the Conquest could not be deemed as having taken monastic vows when they emerged from their hiding places.  Although Edith clearly hadn’t gone into hiding due to ravaging Normans, Christina’s dressing of the girl in a monastic habit was seen as having stemmed from the same root. William of Malmsebury notes that Christina grew old and died at Romsey so perhaps the move to Wilton was partially to get away from an unloved relation – but that is entirely speculation.  

On one hand its evident that Edith/Matilda’s bloodline was ample reason for Henry I to marry her but William of Malmsebury states that Henry loved his new bride.  Henry I and Edith married on November 11thin Westminster Abbey. Anselm performed the marriage but before doing so told the entire congregation about Edith potentially being a nun and asked for any objections.  The congregation- possibly knowing what was good for it- cried out in Edith’s favour.  Afterwards she took the name Matilda – not that it stopped Henry I’s lords mocking him by calling him Godrick and his queen Godiva because of the return to Saxon customs that Henry instituted.  

And for anyone doubting whether Edith/Matilda was legally able to marry, the fact that a healthy baby daughter, the future Empress Matilda, was born in February 1102 followed by a boy called William in September 1103 put an end to those niggling concerns that Henry might have married a nun – would God have blessed a marriage if it was invalid?

Honeycutt, Lois L. (2005) Matilda of Scotland: A Study in Medieval Queenship

“Edith Becomes Matilda.” England in Europe: English Royal Women and Literary Patronage, C.1000–C.1150, by ELIZABETH M. TYLER, University of Toronto Press, Toronto; Buffalo; London, 2017, pp. 302–353. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.3138/j.ctt1whm96v.14. Accessed 24 Feb. 2020.

Early sources on the death of William Rufus

William Rufus pictured in the Stowe Manuscript

I’ve stated before that we all like a good conspiracy theory – and why not- sometimes though the theory grows with the retelling.

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle  which is one of the earliest accounts of William’s untimely demise is terse. “In the morning after Lammas King William when hunting was shot by an arrow by one of his own men.” Similarly Eadmer, who is St Anselm’s first biographer, states that when the news that William had been killed arrived at the monastery where Anselm was staying that Anselm sobbed for the soul of the king and wished that he had died – the inference being that Anselm had a better chance of Heaven than the “Red King” who was definitely not on the list of the Church’s ten most saintly people. There was however, no suggestion, that he had been murdered.

If anything the accounts that followed wished to create a moral story. Peter of Blois’s account saw the Devil make an appearance whilst William of Malmesbury mentions dreams amongst other portents. In both cases there is no suggestion that William’s death is anything other than a hunting accident. Orderic Vitalis discusses other royal hunting accidents.

Matthew Paris has the arrow that killed William ricocheting off a tree where as earlier accounts have Walter Tirel taking a shot at a second deer but having the sun in his eyes. A later account, 1889, includes the sound of argument and broken bow strings. The broken bow string belonged to Prince Henry and that can be found in Wace’s account of William’s death. Wace was born about 1110 and he wrote his La Roman de Rou in about 1160.

It should probably be noted that William’s likely killer, Walter Tirel, was a patron of the Benedictines. He had links with Bec and let’s face it there’s the additional problem of Henry I’s undignified rush for the treasury in Winchester and the Crown of England. It is very easy to see henry making a bid for the crown, especially as his and William’s elder brother Robert Curthose was on his way back from the First Crusade with a wealthy bride – were she to have children then Henry’s claim would dwindle. Alternatively if you were a Norman prince you probably had to cease opportunities when they came up in order to gain the power you craved.

I have posted elsewhere about the possibility of the Clare family being involved in a conspiracy to finish William and as always there’s more than one argument to be made as well as rather a lot of circumstantial evidence to unpick. It’s certainly provided rather a lot of novelists with material.

William Rufus – the red

King William II – a name that we don’t tend to use – it’s usually Rufus. Bynames which described a person’s appearance crop up a lot in medieval history. It was a habit that gradually disappeared from the naming of English monarchs but in continental Europe there were a whole series of Charleses who rejoiced in bynames such as “fat,” “bald,” “simple,” not to mention a number of King Louis who were pious or who stammered.

Eadmer of Canterbury never uses his byname whilst a slightly later writer, William of Malmesbury does call him King William Rufus and spends some time describing him whereas Geoffrey de Gaimar who wrote before 1140 explains that he was called Rufus on account of his hair colouring.

It’s Orderic Vitalis who calls him William Rufus throughout his account and its probably from him that the name has stuck.

William was a third child after Robert and Richard and as as such may well have been intended, initially at least, for the church. If this was indeed the case he may have been more literate than historians give him credit for. Usually Henry II is identified as the first post-Conquest literate King of England. Essentially if you were going to be a knight and land owner you did not need to be able to read and write – someone else could do it for you.

As a third son his birth was not particularly auspicious – so history down not know the date.

We know that part of his education was overseen by Lanfranc of Bec who went on to become Archbishop of Canterbury. He could have been placed in monastic care from the age of five which might go some way towards explaining his antipathy towards the Church.

Richard died and William’s role in life may have been amended to reflect this. As Robert grew to adulthood he rebelled against his father. Again, William’s standing in society would have been affected by this but it is important to note that a boy’s military training began at the age of twelve and young William was noted for his aptitude in warfare in a family and court that trained hard in combat so if he had been destined for the church William changed his plan early on.

Popular quiz knowledge jumps William from his name to his death in the New Forest. For those with a greater knowledge base is the idea that he was a tad on the villainous side – which is impressive given that his father purportedly laid waste to the north and died being haunted due to the atrocities he committed. The idea of the villainous red king comes from the writings of Eadmer of Canterbury who tells the story of St Anselm. If Anselm is the hero of the tale, William Rufus is the villain.

Later writers took up Eadmer’s position, added the views of Henry I’s chroniclers who often denigrated William to “big up” Henry and his legal reforms – turning Henry into Beauclerk or the Lion of Justice whilst William resides in the role of avaricious thwarter of the church with a questionmark about his sexuality. The Anglo -Saxon Chronicle stated that William was “abhorrent to God.”

All of which seems a bit unfair given that William put down his uncle’s rebellion in short order (admittedly he reneged on the promises that he had made to the militia); secured his country’s northern borders and exerted control over his treasury (by failing to appoint bishops and abbots so he could draw the income from the vacant bishoprics and monasteries.) It was Rufus who cemented his father’s conquest of England using techniques familiar to any medieval king worth his salt.

Revisionist historians have argued that actually Henry benefited from his brother’s policies and that William has suffered on account of negative press. It cannot have helped that he alienated the Church and that they were the chroniclers of the period. It’s probably not good press when a saint attacks you for your licentious behaviour!

Edward the Confessor

Edward the confessor drawn.jpgKing Edward was born sometime between 1003 and 1005 at Islip in Oxfordshire. His father was the unfortunate Ethelred the Unready.  It should be “Unraed” which means ill counselled or sometimes he’s described as “the Redelss” which means more or less the same thing.  If Edward has a reputation for saintliness then his poor old father has a reputation for being the most incompetent king in English history – which is saying something. He had the misfortunate to be king at the time when the Scandinavians were flexing their muscles again and after a long period of peace the English were not in any state to resist.  The Anglo Saxon Chronicles of the period talk a lot about flight and being beaten.

The policy of buying off hairy Viking brutes with large axes is called paying Danegeld.  The Saxons had used the method before but after the Battle of Maldon in 991 it became much more commonplace.  And, of course, in paying off one bunch of raiders it didn’t mean that another independent group would arrive or that the first lot wouldn’t turn up for another bite of the cherry.  It went from bad to worse when a Dane called Sweyn Forkbeard arrived with the intention of invading rather than looting.

Ethelred was understandably feeling somewhat harried but it was perhaps a little bit excessive to order the death of all the Danes living ins kingdom especially as the Wantage Code of 991 had been agreed so that the Danes who lived in England would feel greater loyalty to the Saxon rulers.  On 13 November 1002 there was an attack on all the Danish settlers in the kingdom.  This is known as the St Brice’s Day Massacre and had the obvious effect of making all the surviving Danes rally towards Sweyn as averse to the monarch of their adopted country. Sweyn took the opportunity to destroy Exeter – a stronghold of the Saxons.

More sensibly in 1002 Ethelred had arrived at an agreement with the Normans to prevent the Danes from using the Normandy coast as a harbour and jumping off point for their endeavours.  As you might expect this agreement was cemented by a royal marriage. Emma of Normandy was sent to become Ethelred’s wife.

In 1011 the Danes captured Canterbury and its archbishop.  They carted the unfortunate archbishop to Greenwich where they had their encampment.  Archbishop Aelfheah refused to allow himself to be ransomed so the Danes killed him by throwing discarded ox  and cattle bones at him.  Eventually someone put him out of his misery by hitting him over the head with the butt of an axe.

Emma of Normandy.jpgIn 1013, the area known as Danelaw decided that Swyn and his son Cnut would make excellent rulers. This freed up the way for the Danes to invade Wessex at which point Aethelred fled to the Isle of Wight in the first instance leaving Emma to take her two small sons Edward and his younger brother Alfred home to Normandy (shown pictured left) – a young Edward is seated behind his mother.

Sweyn Forkbeard died in 1014 leaving Cnut to rule. Ethelred returned at this point in proceedings to try and retrieve the situation but he also died in 1016. Emma remained in England despite the fact that her children were in her brother’s kingdom. Emma now married Cnut – ignoring the fact that Cnut had a wife called Aelfgifu who he had married on 1006. So, Emma became queen for a second time. She had a son called Harthacnut and set about forging a more united kingdom for the Saxons and the Danes.

All this time Edward was in Normandy where his cousin Robert was now the duke.  It was Robert who demanded that Edward should be allowed to return home and that with Ethelred dead that Edward was the rightful king – although this did bypass the fact that Edward and Alfred were the product of a second marriage and that other older sons were available.  It was only when Robert died andWilliam became Duke of Normandy that the political situation changed.  The Normans did not now have the leisure to interfere in English affairs and it looked as though Edward and Arthur would be left kicking their heals.

In 1035 Cnut died.  Emma had negotiated as part of her marriage alliance with Cnut that any sons she might have would have a better claim to the kingdom than sons by other women. She took the precaution of commandeering the treasury. Unfortunately Harthacnut was in Denmark when Cnut popped his clogs so whilst Emma waited in Winchester for the arrival of her son, Cnut’s other wife Aelfgifu lobbied for her own son Harold Harefoot to become king. Ultimately there was a meeting in Oxford as both sons had a claim to the throne and both of them had their own group of supporters. Harthacnut still had not returned to England – so inevitably Harold Harefoot had the upper hand simply because he was on the scene.

It was a period of uncertainty.  This was the time that the sons by her first marriage to Ethelred, Edward and Alfred, returned to England to see if they could snaffle a kingdom whilst Cnut’s sons were busy.  Edward made landfall in Southampton and then went to Winchester where he met with his mother. Alfred arrived in Kent.

Unfortunately Earl Godwin had his own vested interests to consider and they did not involve the sons of Ethelred the Unready.  He met with Alfred and said that he would escort Alfred to Winchester. Instead he captured Alfred and blinded him. Edward seeing which way the tide had turned fled back to Normandy.

In 1037 Emma was forced to leave England. Harold Harefoot was king. Ultimately Harthacnut did not have to worry about invading England because after three years as ruler Harold Harefoot died rather unexpectedly whilst celebrating a wedding.

Harthacnut would not have won a popularity contest. He died unexpectedly as well.

Earl Godwin now decided that Edward was a better bet than some of the other possible claimants to the Crown.  Edward was crowned on 3rd April 1043 in Winchester.  The price for Godwin’s support was marriage to his daughter Edith – who had originally been named after her mother but changed to the more Saxon sounding Edith upon marriage – something that occurred in 1045 when Earl Godwin was at the height of his powers. Edith was about twenty-two whilst Edward was somewhere close to forty as we aren’t totally sure which year he was born. Rather unusually Edith had her own coronation. Anglo-Saxon kings don’t seem to have crowned their spouses very much.

Godwin had done very nicely from the rule of Cnut.  He also had a Danish wife  called Gytha who just so happened to be Cnut’s sister through marriage and a brood of sons – something which Edward the Confessor lacked. His sons Swein and Harold both became earls in their own right and they were brothers-in-law of the king just as Godwin was the king’s father-in-law. The trouble was that Edward did not look towards Scandinavian countries for alliances.  He turned to Normandy. Matters came to a head in 1051 when Edward insisted on appointing a Frenchman to the archbishopric of Canterbury.  There was then a spot of trouble in Dover which Godwin refused to put down followed by a stand off at Gloucester when Godwin had a rant about foreigners.

Edward who was not always the saintly but weak man that history often portrays him  called out the militia which meant that Godwin and his sons found themselves on the wrong end of an army – including some of their own tenants.  Edward then outlawed Swein who had some very questionable attitudes to women and property.  He demanded that Harold and Godwin explain themselves or face the consequences.  Godwin fled and was declared an outlaw – I’m not sure if any of this enhanced Edward’s relationship with his wife- especially when he confiscated Godwin’s property and sent Edith to a nunnery where she remained until 1052.

There is some evidence that by 1051 Edward had agreed to William becoming the next king of England but it is also true to say that Edward contacted the exiled son of Edmund Ironside, who was Edward the Confessor’s older half-brother by Ethelred’s first wife, and invited him to return from Hungary.  His name was also Edward.  History tends to call him Edward the Atheling or more pointedly Edward the Exile.  Edward the Atheling received his letter from his uncle inviting him home in 1056 having sent someone to find him on 1054.  He arrived with his wife Agatha, his daughter Margaret and his son Edgar.  This exiled family was a way for Edward the Confessor to get one over on Earl Godwin because not only did the king want to support his own family but the Witan (England’s council) liked the idea of England being ruled by the Saxon ruling house rather than a power hungry Godwin who’d done very nicely thank you out of Cnut’s reign. Unfortunately Edward the Atheling died unexpectedly on 19th April 1057 without ever meeting Edward the Confessor. The inevitable suspicion is that some unscrupulous person must have poisoned the Atheling leaving Edgar who was too young to be of political signficance.

Which brings us back to Earl Godwin and his brood.  Godwin had returned from exile in 1052 along with his son Harold who’d spent the time in Ireland.  Together they were able to march on London and force Edward to reinstate them.  Godwin died the following year but Harold was now nicely positioned to make a claim on the crown assuming that athelings dropped like flies whenever they came near his brother-in-law King Edward.

Meanwhile Edith was allowed to return to court when her father and brother regained the upper hand as Edward lacked the men or will to overcome them a second time.  Clearly the time spent contemplating her situation hadn’t improved the relationship between husband and wife.  Historians speculate as to the nature of their marriage.  It has been suggested that Edward refused to consummate the union because the bride was forced upon him by the family who had betrayed his brother, blinded him and left him to die.

From 1055 onwards the Godwinsons – Harold in the south (he had inherited his father’s Sussex estates) and Tostig in the North were more or less responsible for the running of the kingdom.  Edith can be found issuing charters and patronising monastic houses – in particular Wilton where she was educated and spent her time in exile from court.

In 1064 Harold made a mysterious trip to Normandy.  It might have been a bid to ransom members of his family or it might have been a bid to sort out who would wear England’s crown after Edward died.  Either way, Harold ended up taking part in a campaign against Conan II of Brittany and apparently swearing to support Duke William to become Edward the Confessor’s successor.

When Edward the Confessor died on 5 January 1065 he had just finished work on Westminster Abbey which is featured in the Bayeux Tapestry – a workman is in the middle of affixing a weather vane to it to indicate how complete it was.  These days he has a reputation for holiness thanks in part to William of Malmesbury who wrote, in the 1120s, about Edward and miracles associated with him either in his life time or at his tomb.  It was from texts like this that the concept of the king being able to cure scrofula or “the king’s evil” is derived.

Inevitably Edward the Confessor is usually remembered as the king who died and triggered the Norman Conquest.

Morris, Marc. (2013) The Norman Conquest. London:Windmill Books

 

Sybilla of Conversano

df53082bbdd2602149f06143573dfe88Sybilla of Conversano, daughter of Geoffrey of Brindisi, was rather younger than her husband – Robert, Duke of Normandy a.k.a. Curthose pictured left. Chroniclers waxed lyrical about her intelligence, virtue and her beauty.  She is even purported to have sucked the poison from a poisoned arrow, or something of that ilk, that had wounded and threatened to kill her stout spouse. I note that his effigy makes him fetchingly lean as well as demonstrating a pressing need to avail himself of the facilities…sorry, shouldn’t joke.  The crossed legs are a reminder of the fact that Robert has been on crusade.

Apparently he met her on his way to the First Crusade. Obviously she made quite an impression on him because he married her on the way home. Clearly being a Duke meant you couldn’t sit around at home admiring your beautiful young bride and besides which he was a bit peeved because he’d already missed out on the English crown to his younger brother William Rufus. Whilst he’d been away William had a nasty accident with an arrow and his even younger brother Henry had snitched the crown to become King Henry I. Robert had already tried to take the crown from William and now he felt honour bound to have a go at the next brother (I should imagine the royal nursery was a cheery place during their infancies!)

 

Sybilla proved herself to be an effective agent on her husand’s behalf in his absence. Robert of Torigny even said that she did a better job than the Duke. What more could a Duke want of a wife? Just one thing – sons. Sybilla duly obliged and produced William known as Clito which translates as something similar to ‘Atheling’ or ‘heir.’

 

A few months later, in 1103, she died at Rouen. There’s nothing like a happy ending and this is nothing like a happy ending. History does not know what carried Sybilla off. William of Malmesbury blamed a midwife for binding her breasts too tightly. It could just have likely been a complication of childbirth but rumour was quick to blame Robert’s mistress. Robert of Torigny who was clearly one of Sybilla’s fans blamed the mistress as did the Orderic Vitalis who pointed a finger at Agnes Gifford who’d been widowed for about a year and was looking for another spouse – if she had arranged for her arrival to exit stage left she was to be sadly disappointed as Robert found himself rather occupied with keeping his kingdom for himself.