Adela of the Franks, Consanguinity, Count Baldwin V of Flanders, House of Wessex, Matilda of Flanders, Queen of the English, Regent, Robert II of West Francia, William II of Normandy, William the Bastard, William the Conqueror
Matilda of Flanders (c. 1031 – November 2, 1083) was Queen of the English and Duchess of Normandy by marriage to William the Conqueror, and regent of Normandy during his absences from the duchy. She was the mother of ten children who survived to adulthood, including two kings, William II and Henry I.
In 1031, Matilda was born into the House of Flanders, the second daughter of Count Baldwin V of Flanders and Adela of the Franks, the second daughter of King Robert II of West Francia and Constance of Arles.
Flanders was of strategic importance to England and most of Europe as a “stepping stone between England and the Continent” necessary for strategic trade and for keeping the Scandinavian Intruders from England. In addition, her mother was the daughter of Robert II of West Francia.
There were rumours that Matilda had been in love with the English ambassador to Flanders and with the great Saxon Brictric, son of Algar, who (according to the account by the Continuator of Wace and others) in his youth declined her advances. Whatever the truth of the matter, years later she is said to have used her authority to confiscate Brictric’s lands and throw him into prison, where he died.
Matlida’s descent from the Anglo-Saxon royal House of Wessex was also to become a useful card in the negotiations for her marriage. Matilda was of a more noble birth than William, who was illegitimate.
According to legend, when Duke William II the Bastard (later called the Conqueror) of Normandy sent his representative to ask for Matilda’s hand in marriage, she told the representative that she was far too high-born to consider marrying a bastard.
After hearing this response, William rode from Normandy to Bruges, found Matilda on her way to church, dragged her off her horse by her long braids, threw her down in the street in front of her flabbergasted attendants and rode off.
Another version of the story states that William rode to Matilda’s father’s house in Lille, threw her to the ground in her room (again, by her braids) and hit her (or violently battered her) before leaving. Naturally, Baldwin took offence at this; but, before they could draw swords, Matilda settled the matter by refusing to marry anyone but William; even a papal ban by Pope Leo IX at the Council of Reims on the grounds of consanguinity did not dissuade her.
William and Matilda were married after a delay in c. 1051–52. Like many royal marriages of the period, it breached the rules of consanguinity, then at their most restrictive (to seven generations or degrees of relatedness); Matilda and William were third-cousins once removed. She was about 20 when they married in 1051/2; William was some four years older, and had been Duke of Normandy since he was about eight (in 1035).
A papal dispensation was finally awarded in 1059 by Pope Nicholas II. Lanfranc, at the time prior of Bec Abbey, negotiated the arrangement in Rome and it came only after William and Matilda agreed to found two churches as penance.
The marriage appears to have been successful, and William is not recorded to have had any bastards. Matilda was about 35, and had already borne most of her children, when William embarked on the Norman conquest of England, sailing in his flagship Mora, which Matilda had given him.
Matilda governed the Duchy of Normandy in his absence, joining him in England only after more than a year, and subsequently returning to Normandy, where she spent most of the remainder of her life, while William was mostly in his new kingdom. She was about 52 when she died in Normandy in 1083.
Apart from governing Normandy and supporting her brother’s interests in Flanders, Matilda took a close interest in the education of her children, who were unusually well educated for contemporary royalty. The boys were tutored by the Italian Lanfranc, who was made Archbishop of Canterbury in 1070, while the girls learned Latin in Sainte-Trinité Abbey in Caen, founded by William and Matilda as part of the papal dispensation allowing their marriage.
Matilda fell ill during the summer of 1083 and died on November 2, 1083. Her husband was present for her final confession. William swore to give up hunting, his favorite sport, to express his grief after the death of his wife. William himself died four years later in 1087.
Contrary to the common belief that she was buried at St. Stephen’s, also called l’Abbaye-aux-Hommes in Caen, Normandy, where William was eventually buried, she is entombed in Caen at l’Abbaye aux Dames, which is the community of Sainte-Trinité.
Of particular interest is the 11th-century slab, a sleek black ledger stone decorated with her epitaph, marking her grave at the rear of the church. In contrast, the grave marker for William’s tomb was replaced as recently as the beginning of the 19th century.
Over time Matilda’s tomb was desecrated and her original coffin destroyed. Her remains were placed in a sealed box and reburied under the original black slab. In 1959 Matilda’s incomplete skeleton was examined and her femur and tibia were measured to determine her height using anthropometric methods. Her height was 5 feet (152 cm), a normal female height for the time. However, as a result of this examination she was misreported as being 4 feet 2 inches (127 cm) leading to the myth that she was extremely small.