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William’s forgotten Duchess, Mathilda of Normandy

Posted in Historical articles, History, Invasions, Royalty on Friday, 30 September 2011

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This edited article about Normandy originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 829 published on 3 December 1977.

Norman invasion, picture, image, illustration

As Duke William prepared to invade England, he left Normandy under the rule of his Duchess, Mathilda. Picture by Peter Jackson

Duke William of Normandy and his wife Mathilda were a most attached couple. William not only entrusted his wife with tremendous power but often freely acknowledged that without her help he would never have been as successful as he was. But this happy marriage followed a most unusual courtship.

After spending seven unsuccessful years trying to win Mathilda’s affection, William became desperate. One Sunday, according to a Norman story-teller, he waylaid her as she left a church in Bruges, Belgium, seized her, rolled her in the dirt and hit her several times. He then jumped on his horse and rode off. This apparently made him irresistible to Mathilda who then consented to become his wife!

When William announced to his barons that he intended to invade England, not many of them were enthusiastic.

“Who will take care of this dukedom while you are running after a kingdom?” they complained.

William replied: “That is a care that shall not need to trouble our neighbours; by the grace of God we are blessed with a prudent wife and loving subjects who will keep our borders securely during our absence.”

So Mathilda was left behind, invested with the power of a regent.

While William was away Mathilda ruled with kindness and firmness; there was not a hint of trouble in the land. Her government was not only popular, but prosperous. She encouraged the arts and trade and the Norman standard of living went up and up.

“In a word,” says a Norman historian, “she exceeded all commendations, and won the love of all hearts.”

After William’s conquest of England, Mathilda began working on and supervising the production of the gigantic Bayeux tapestry, which tells in seventy-two panoramic scenes the story of her husband’s triumph.

The happiness that reigned over the Conqueror’s household was shattered by a feud between William and his eldest son, Robert, who was anxious to receive some of his inheritance before his father died.

William refused, “It is not my custom to strip before I go to bed,” he told him.

Robert thereupon left the royal household and soon found himself in financial difficulties. Because he had always been her favourite, Mathilda, unknown to her husband, kept Robert in funds to the point where she had to sell her jewels to meet his demands.

William was in England when he heard the news that Robert was planning a rebellion against him, and that Mathilda had been giving him money. He immediately jumped to the worst possible conclusion. Although there is no suggestion that Mathilda was supporting her son against his father. William was saddened and bitter.

“Behold my wife,” he exclaimed. “She whom I have loved as my own soul, to whom I have confided the government of my realms, my treasure and all that I possess in the world, of power and greatness; she has supported my enemy against me, she has strengthened and enriched him from the wealth which I confided to her keeping, and done everything she could to encourage him against me!”

“How do you suppose that I could enjoy the pomp and luxuries with which I was surrounded when I knew that my first-born son was pining in want and misery?” Mathilda replied. “Your authority ought not to impose such insensibility on a mother!”

William now became very angry. He ordered that the messenger whom Mathilda had used to take money to Robert should be blinded. Luckily for the man. Mathilda warned him in time and he made good his escape.

Then William turned to the business of dealing with Robert who had established himself at Gerberve, near Beauvais.

William attacked his son at Gerberve early in 1080, and in a skirmish William was unhorsed and wounded in the hand by his son.

However, the conflict between father and son was to end on a happy note. They resolved their differences and the family were united once more.

Although the rebellion had had a bad effect on Mathilda’s health, she was still governing Normandy. Eventually she consulted a wise hermit about what the outcome would be of the quarrels between her husband and son.

“Illustrious lady,” replied the hermit, “if you do not labour to restore the peace between them you will behold your husband’s death, the ruin of all your race and the desolation of your beloved country.”

This prophesy is supposed to have weighed heavily on Mathilda’s mind and she became ill. William hastened to Caen in Normandy to be at his wife’s side. He arrived in time to be with her when she died in November 1083. She was 52 and had been England’s queen for 17 years. Two of her sons later became kings of England; William Rufus and Henry I.

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