9/30/2008

Woman of the week - Matilda of Flanders

Name: Matilda (sometimes also known as Maud)
Born: c. 1031
Dead: 2 November 1083
Married to: William, duke of Normandy, later king of England
Children:
About 11
Occupation: Duchess of Normandy, queen of England

Like many other medieval figure it is sometimes hard to discern what is legend and what is the actual historical truth about Matilda. Much is of course due to the fact that the sources do not say that much and when there is a lack of sources the imagination can run more freely, filling in the gaps.

We do not even really know what she looked like since no contemporary portrait of her survived - she is not portrayed on the Bayeux tapestry, like her husband was. This statue was made in 1850 by the artist Carle Elshoecht (and can be found in Paris).

But if we try to discern history from later legends a good outline of her life can be drawn. She was the daughter of count Baldwin V of Flanders and Adèle, a daughter of the French king - which made her descendant also to the English king Alfred the Great. She married William, duke of Normandy, in c. 1053. He had yet to conquer the English throne and he was a bastard son which would make her more noble - but the duchy of Normandy was a very strong province only loosely attached to the French throne so the difference of birth should not be stretched too far.

By all accounts it was a happy marriage, William was a faithful husband (!) and they had about eleven children in 14 years. They had four sons, but the exact number of daughters is a bit unsure. They were probably somewhere between five to seven. Two of her sons would live to be kings of England, but not her oldest who was made duke of Normandy but rebelled against his father and therefore lost his place in the succession - this was a time when first-born did not automatically meant you was first in line to the crown.

Matilda was a capable ruler, not just a pretty plaything for a king. She took care of things in Normandy when her husband went to England to rule over there - though he spent quite a lot of time in Normandy too. It was long believed that it was Matilda that was behind the Bayeux tapestry, that tells the story of the conquest of England (and in France it is still known as 'La tapisserie de la reine Mathilde' [Queen Matilda's tapestry]), but know it is generally believed it was commissioned by William's half-brother, bishop Odo.

Matilda died when she was about 52 years old, and she was buried in L'abbeyae aux dames in Caen, France - one of the two churches she and her husband founded as a penance when the pope opposed the marriage, the two were related by blood.

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