Queen of the Conqueror: The Life of Matilda, Wife of William I

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Around the year 1049, William, Duke of Normandy and future conqueror of England, raced to the palace of Baldwin V, Count of Flanders. The count’s eldest daughter, Matilda, had refused William’s offer of marriage and publicly denounced him as a bastard. Encountering the young woman, William furiously dragged her to the ground by her hair and beat her mercilessly. Matilda’s outraged father immediately took up arms on ...

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Queen of the Conqueror: The Life of Matilda, Wife of William I

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Overview

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

Around the year 1049, William, Duke of Normandy and future conqueror of England, raced to the palace of Baldwin V, Count of Flanders. The count’s eldest daughter, Matilda, had refused William’s offer of marriage and publicly denounced him as a bastard. Encountering the young woman, William furiously dragged her to the ground by her hair and beat her mercilessly. Matilda’s outraged father immediately took up arms on his daughter’s behalf. But just a few days later, Baldwin was aghast when Matilda, still recovering from the assault, announced that she would marry none but William, since “he must be a man of great courage and high daring” to have ventured to “come and beat me in my own father’s palace.”
 
Thus began the tempestuous marriage of Matilda of Flanders and William the Conqueror. While William’s exploits and triumphs have been widely chronicled, his consort remains largely overlooked. Now, in her groundbreaking Queen of the Conqueror, acclaimed author and historian Tracy Borman weaves together a comprehensive and illuminating tapestry of this noble woman who stood only four-foot-two and whose role as the first crowned Queen of England had a large and lasting influence on the English monarchy.
 
From a wealth of historical artifacts and documents, Matilda emerges as passionate, steadfast, and wise, yet also utterly ruthless and tenacious in pursuit of her goals, and the only person capable of taming her formidable husband—who, unprecedented for the period, remained staunchly faithful to her. This mother of nine, including four sons who went on to inherit William’s French and English dominions, confounded the traditional views of women in medieval society by seizing the reins of power whenever she had the chance, directing her husband’s policy, and at times flagrantly disobeying his orders.
 
Tracy Borman lays out Matilda’s remarkable story against one of the most fascinating and transformative periods in European history. Stirring, richly detailed, and wholly involving, Queen of the Conqueror reveals not just an extraordinary figure but an iconic woman who shaped generations, and an era that cast the essential framework for the world we know today.

Praise for Queen of the Conqueror
 
“[Tracy Borman] brings to life Queen Matilda’s enormous accomplishments in consolidating early Norman rule. Alongside her warrior husband, William I, Matilda brought legitimacy, a deeper degree of education, diplomatic savvy and artistic and religious flowering to the shared Norman-English throne. Borman . . . the chief executive of Britain’s Heritage Education Trust, fleshes out the personality of this fascinating woman, who set the steely precedent for subsequent English female sovereigns by displaying great longevity and stamina in a rough, paternalistic time. . . . A richly layered treatment of the stormy reign that yielded the incomparable Bayeux Tapestry and the Domesday Book.”Kirkus Reviews
 
“Tracy Borman tells this story with a steady eye and a steady hand, tracing what can be known of Matilda’s part in the events that were to change the course of English history.”—Helen Castor, Literary Review

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Using a ship secretly and lovingly commissioned by his wife, ruthless William of Normandy conquered England in 1066, utterly transforming the country’s culture. Equally ambitious, his wife, Matilda, used his frequent absences and well-placed trust to serve as regent over the Norman duchy and as a calming buffer between the violent new king and the morally crushed Anglo-Saxons. Relying heavily on the Domesday Book and other contemporary sources, British historian Borman (Elizabeth’s Women) describes the surprisingly happy union between the high-born, independently wealthy Matilda and the self-made William the Bastard that soured only after each championed a differentadult child, threatening the line of succession. While detailing Matilda’s innate strengths, Borman also places her reign in the context of the early Middle Ages, when the education of well-born women was encouraged though motherhood was still their primary duty. Matilda’s legacy of intelligence, self-possession, and strength served as a powerful example for legendary medieval queens such as Isabella the She-Wolf and Eleanor of Aquitaine. Photos; 2 maps. Agent: Julian Alexander, LAW Ltd. (U.K.). (Apr.)
From the Publisher
“[Tracy Borman] brings to life Queen Matilda’s enormous accomplishments in consolidating early Norman rule. Alongside her warrior husband, William I, Matilda brought legitimacy, a deeper degree of education, diplomatic savvy and artistic and religious flowering to the shared Norman-English throne. Borman . . . the chief executive of Britain’s Heritage Education Trust, fleshes out the personality of this fascinating woman, who set the steely precedent for subsequent English female sovereigns by displaying great longevity and stamina in a rough, paternalistic time. . . . A richly layered treatment of the stormy reign that yielded the incomparable Bayeux Tapestry and the Domesday Book.”Kirkus Reviews
 
“Tracy Borman tells this story with a steady eye and a steady hand, tracing what can be known of Matilda’s part in the events that were to change the course of English history.”—Helen Castor, Literary Review
Library Journal
Borman (chief executive, Heritage Education Trust; Elizabeth's Women: Friends, Rivals, and Foes Who Shaped the Virgin Queen) traces the life of the important but often forgotten Matilda of Flanders (1031–83). While women at this time played solely a background role in social and political spheres, Borman argues that Matilda showed great agency both before her marriage to William the Conqueror and during her time as Duchess of Normandy and Queen of England. Drawing from contemporaneous chronicles and legal documents, Borman creates a vivid portrait of a strong woman who was not at all uncomfortable delving into the antagonistic and decidedly masculine realm of court politics. Further, she contends that Matilda's refined presence as queen helped calm the newly conquered English and assisted in providing a smooth transition for the Norman dynasty in England, as her haughty lineage—she was, after all, granddaughter of the King of France—made up for her husband's well-known illegitimacy. VERDICT A highly useful work that sheds light on the life of a surprisingly obscure but important figure in English history. As Borman suggests, Matilda did perhaps serve as an exemplar for later authoritative q ueens such as Elizabeth I and Victoria.—Brian Renvall, Mesalands Community Coll., Tucumcari, NM
Kirkus Reviews
A British historian brings to life Queen Matilda's enormous accomplishments in consolidating early Norman rule. Alongside her warrior husband, William I, Matilda brought legitimacy, a deeper degree of education, diplomatic savvy and artistic and religious flowering to the shared Norman-English throne. Borman (Elizabeth's Women: Friends, Rivals, and Foes Who Shaped the Virgin Queen, 2010, etc.) the chief executive of Britain's Heritage Education Trust, fleshes out the personality of this fascinating woman, who set the steely precedent for subsequent English female sovereigns by displaying great longevity and stamina in a rough, paternalistic time. The daughter of Baldwin V, Count of Flanders, one of the most illustrious houses of Europe, Matilda, apparently diminutive and comely, demonstrated early on her extraordinarily strong will by not only pursuing a suitor on her own, and suffering rejection, but initially rejecting the suit of William of Normandy because he was an illegitimate son of Duke Robert I. Nonetheless, William won her, and their fruitful, long marriage established a powerful, solid dynasty in Normandy before William even cast his eyes covetously across the English Channel. Leaving her as regent to keep Normandy in line—the records show that she was a hands-on, effective ruler—William set out to conquer England. While his methods won few admirers from the English, Matilda proved politically astute, generously endowing monasteries, encouraging cultural integration and ensuring her last son, Henry, was born in England and viewed as its natural heir. Indeed, her fierce loyalty to her sons would prove nettlesome later in the marriage. A richly layered treatment of the stormy reign that yielded the incomparable Bayeux Tapestry and the Domesday Book.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780553808148
  • Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/3/2012
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 6.60 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Tracy Borman is the author of Henrietta Howard: King’s Mistress, Queen’s Servant and Elizabeth’s Women: Friends, Rivals, and Foes Who Shaped the Virgin Queen, as well as The Ring and the Crown: A History of Royal Weddings, 1066–2011, which she co-authored with Alison Weir, Kate Williams, and Sarah Gristwood. Borman studied and taught history at the University of Hull and was awarded a Ph.D. in 1997. She has worked for various historic properties and national heritage organizations, including the National Archives and English Heritage. She is now chief executive of the Heritage Education Trust and also works for Historic Royal Palaces. Borman is a regular contributor to history magazines, such as BBC History Magazine, and is a frequent guest on television and radio.

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Read an Excerpt

1

"Of Kingly Line"

From the very beginning, Matilda's life was shrouded inmystery. Even the date of her birth cannot be deduced with any certainty fromthe surviving sources. At the earliest, it would have been toward the end ofthe year 1031. Her parents were the future Count Baldwin V of Flanders andAdela, daughter of Robert II "the Pious," King of France, by histhird wife, Constance of Arles. Their marriage took place in 1028. The Normanchronicler William of Jumièges, who was a direct contemporary of Matilda,claims that it was not consummated until 1031, and that the long period ofwaiting was one of the factors that incited Baldwin to rebel against his fatherthat year. In fact, young Baldwin had already rebelled soon after the wedding;it seemed that an alliance with French royal blood had given him an inflatedsense of his own importance, and he therefore contested his father's positionas count. The two men came to terms in 1030 and a truce was concluded wherebythey agreed to rule jointly.

Despite the rumor of its delayed consummation, Baldwinand Adela's marriage was said to have been blessed with "a numerousprogeny of gifted sons and daughters." However, the only children we canbe certain of are Matilda and her two brothers, Baldwin and Robert, and it isnot clear in what order they were born. Matilda is often referred to last inthe lists provided by contemporary chroniclers, but this does not necessarilymean that she was the youngest child: daughters were seen as being of secondaryimportance to sons and were often left out of accounts altogether.

If Matilda's age was uncertain, her pedigree was not. Oneof the most prominent chroniclers of the age introduces her to his readers as"the highly born Matilda." This was no mere flattery. Born into theruling family of one of the most important principalities in Europe, she couldtrace her descent from impressive stock. The Flemish counts had the mostdistinguished lineage of any nonroyal house in Europe. Her father's maleforebears had been counts of Flanders since the ninth century and weredescended from the great Charlemagne, founding father of the French and Germanempires. Count Baldwin II had married the daughter of King Alfred the Great-analliance with Saxon blood that would prove useful to Matilda. Moreover, as thegranddaughter of a French king, she retained strong royal connections. OnRobert II's death in 1031, her maternal uncle, Henry, had become king ofFrance, and another uncle, Robert, had inherited the dukedom of Burgundy the followingyear, and so through her mother's side of the family, Matilda was related tomost of the great nobility of France.

Her parents chose a name to emphasize this impressivepedigree. "Matilda" was a highly unusual moniker in Flanders andFrance at the time of her birth. It came from the old Teutonic"Machtild" and was firmly rooted in Baldwin's German ancestry. Withher illustrious lineage, Matilda was a great prize in the internationalmarriage market-even more so given the immense strategic importance of theprincipality in which she was born. Flanders was situated in the heart ofwestern Europe, embracing parts of modern-day Belgium, northern France, and theNetherlands. Its name derived from the area around Bruges known as the PagusFlandrensis. It had been dominated by Germanic tribes for several hundred yearsbefore becoming part of an empire established by Charlemagne in the ninthcentury. The first known count, Baldwin I, ensured his family's fortune in late861 by eloping with Judith, the eldest child of the Carolingian emperor Charlesthe Bald. His lands were at that time limited to the prosperous town of Ghentin eastern Flanders, but when he finally married Judith in 863, he was grantedthe Pagus Flandrensis. The marriage greatly enhanced the prestige of the countyby uniting it with both the French and English royal families.

Under Baldwin I's leadership and that of his son, BaldwinII, Flanders was made secure against the incursions of the Vikings, who hadplagued the province for many years. The latter added other territories to thecounty so that it comprised a sprawling area of land bordering parts ofNormandy, northern France, and the Germanic empire. Baldwin II's marriage toAelfthryth, the daughter of King Alfred the Great, also strengthened ties withEngland. In the early part of the tenth century, their grandson, Baldwin III,laid the basis for the future industrial and commercial greatness of the regionby establishing the wool and silk industries at Ghent and instituting annual fairsat Bruges and other towns. Prior to this, their son, Arnulf I, who succeeded ascount in 918, had embarked upon an ambitious campaign to extend the Flemishterritory southward. His attempt to take the strategically important town ofMontreuil-sur-Mer led to conflict with William Longsword of Normandy. Therefollowed a prolonged period of hostilities as each tried to gain the upperhand, which culminated with William's murder by Arnulf's men in 942. Thisrivalry between Flanders and Normandy continued to dominate Flemish foreignpolicy until the middle of the eleventh century, when Matilda's marriagebrought it to an end.

Although it was later to become a thriving center ofcommerce and culture, in the early eleventh century Flanders was a primitiveplace. The landscape to the west was dominated by swamps and was barelyhabitable. The east, which was densely wooded, was comparatively more civilizedand had a higher number of inhabitants. But in contrast to neighboringNormandy, there were no bustling urban centers, and the towns that did existwere small, with rudimentary buildings. Language also presented a problem.There was no uniformity, with some areas speaking a Germanic dialect and othersFrench. It was only gradually that Flemish was adopted as the nationallanguage. It seems the populace, too, retained a certain primitivism. In 900,for example, Archbishop Fulk of Rheims scorned the inhabitants as being"of barbarous...savagery and language." Indeed, the Flemish soonbecame the butt of jokes among the more civilized nations, such as England andFrance, where they were derided for their crudity and backwardness. Theirreputation had improved little by the late twelfth century, when Richard ofDevizes advised a young man who was due to travel to England that he shouldexpect nothing but ignorance and boorishness from Cornishmen, "as we inFrance consider our Flemings."

Flanders was also a notoriously lawless area, whereviolence and uprisings were commonplace. "Daily homicides and spilling ofhuman blood had troubled the peace and quiet of the entire area," claimedthe twelfth-century Life of St. Arnulf. "Thus a great number of nobles,through the force of their prayers, convinced the bishop of the lord to visitthe places where this atrocious cruelty especially raged and to instruct thedocile and bloody spirit of the Flemings in the interest of peace andconcord."

Nevertheless, under the stewardship of Count Baldwin IV(988-1035), Flanders began to show signs of improvement. Its salvation wastrade. The textile industry became particularly successful, thanks to importsof wool from England and Spain. Matilda's father, Baldwin V, commissioned thebuilding of new roads and canals to stimulate the growth of trade both withinand outside Flanders. Before long, he had amassed more wealth than any of hispredecessors. This dramatically improved standards of living among hissubjects, particularly within the major urban centers. Handsome stone housesreplaced the ramshackle wooden dwellings of former days, and the citizens alsobenefited from the dazzling array of exotic goods that arrived into theprincipality from far-flung corners of the globe.

By the time of Baldwin V's reign, then, Flanders wasenjoying increasing wealth. Given the new count's overweening pride andambition, it is likely that he would have built magnificent residences for hisfamily. There are very few contemporary descriptions of the buildings andpalaces that Matilda would have known, but a detailed account by thetwelfth-century chronicler Lambert of Ardres of the castle there gives a senseof a typical stately residence of the principality. The castle was built ofwood and stood atop a large mound, towering over the rest of the town. Itsrooms were structured according to a strict hierarchy:

The first storey was on the surface of the ground, wherewere cellars and granaries, and great boxes, tuns, casks, and other domesticutensils. In the storey above were the dwelling and common living-rooms of theresidents, in which were the larders, the rooms of the bakers and butlers, andthe great chamber in which the lord and his wife slept. Adjoining this was aprivate room, the dormitory of the waiting maids and children. In the innerpart of the great chamber was a certain private room, where at early dawn or inthe evening or during sickness or at time of blood-letting, or for warming themaids and weaned children, they used to have a fire...In the upper storey ofthe house were garret rooms, in which on the one side the sons (when they wishedit), on the other side the daughters (because they were obliged), 5 of the lordof the house used to sleep. In this storey also the watchmen and servantsappointed to keep the house took their sleep at some time or other. High up onthe east side of the house, in a convenient place, was the chapel, which wasmade like unto the tabernacle of Solomon in its ceiling and painting. Therewere stairs and passages from storey to storey, from the house into thekitchen, from room to room, and again from the house into the loggia, wherethey used to sit in conversation for recreation, and again from the loggia intothe oratory.

This castle belonged to the lord of Ardres, so it islikely that, as the daughter of the count of Flanders, Matilda would have knowneven greater luxury.

As well as encouraging the commercial development of hisprincipality, Matilda's father also capitalized upon Flanders's immensestrategic importance. Its situation enabled the counts to hold the balance ofpower between the kings of France to the south, the dukes of Normandy to thewest, and the German rulers to the east. This made Flanders a power to bereckoned with in medieval Europe. Baldwin V made the most of this advantage bynegotiating favorable treaty terms and arranging prestigious marriages for eachof his children. Keenly aware of his family's distinguished pedigree, he tookevery opportunity to enhance his own prestige, and became known as "princeof the fatherland" in Flemish texts.

The eleventh-century chronicler William of Poitiers wasapparently in some awe of Baldwin V, describing him as "a man of greatpower who towered above the rest" and "this wisest of men."According to his account, "Counts, marquises, dukes, even archbishops ofthe highest dignity were struck dumb with admiration whenever the duty of theiroffice earned them the presence of this distinguished guest...Kings too reveredand stood in awe of his greatness." William of Malmesbury, whose GestaRegum Anglorum (The Deeds of the Kings of the English) was completed in around1125, was no less impressed, but he paints a rather more benevolent picture of"a man admirable alike for loyalty and wisdom, grey-haired yet with thevigour of youth, and of exalted position as husband of the king's sister."

The growth of Flanders's status, and that of Baldwin,ensured that Matilda enjoyed a privileged upbringing. Most of her childhood wasspent at the comital palace in Bruges, which was by now the foremost city inthe principality, Baldwin V having rebuilt and "greatly beautified"it as an expression of his dynasty's growing status. Bruges was immensely rich,having evolved into a thriving center of commerce. This lent it a cosmopolitanatmosphere, with traders from across the globe converging upon the city. Onecontemporary visitor observed that it "enjoys very great fame for thenumber of its merchants and for its affluence in all things upon which mankindplaces the greatest value." Matilda and her family also regularly stayedat Lille, Ghent, Thérouanne, and the coastal town of St.-Omer, where herfather's court met on "special days" such as religious festivals.

Matilda's upbringing was superintended by her mother. Assuch, she had a powerful female role model from her very earliest days. Eventhough women were assigned the inferior role in marriage, politics, and societyin general, Adela's relationship with Count Baldwin was a marriage of equals.Not for her the traditional duties of a consort, which were confined toproducing heirs and leading a godly life. Instead she played an active part inthe government of Flanders, and her name appears in more than half of thecharters that were issued during her husband's reign. In many of these she wasstyled as the "sister of the king of France," an indication of the samepride in her ancestry that she would pass on to her daughter. Few of her peersenjoyed such prominence in the political life of their kingdoms, and it is rareto find a consort's name on more than a handful of legal documents: Adela'scontemporaries were obviously aware of her connections. The biography of QueenEmma of England, who was well acquainted with Adela, claimed that her namemeant "most noble," and it was careful to describe her as the"daughter of Robert, king of the French."

It was by no means unusual that Adela should superviseMatilda's education. The role of the mother was seen as paramount in thisrespect throughout the medieval period. A ninth-century account praised KingAlfred's mother, Osburgh, "a religious woman, noble by birth and nature,"who gave her two sons a book of Saxon poetry, saying, "Whichever of youshall the soonest learn this volume shall have it for his own." WhenAlfred triumphs over his brother, his mother "smiles withsatisfaction."

Mothers were expected to attain a high standard oflearning themselves so that they might pass this on to their offspring. Despitebeing rarely praised by contemporary sources, it was in fact common at thistime for wives to exceed their husbands in intellect. The early eleventhcentury was one of the most enlightened periods in the education of women, whenit was taken every bit as seriously as-and often more seriously than-that oftheir male counterparts. Daughters were encouraged to spend their leisure timecultivating their knowledge through reading, while sons would undertake moreactive pursuits such as hunting and training for warfare. Royal women, inparticular, tended to be better educated than men. Even though many others weretaught little else but how to read the psalter and sign their name, this wasmore than most laymen were capable of.

The relative enlightenment of the period is proved bycomparing it with the later Middle Ages, when the entire emphasis of a woman'seducation seemed to be upon how she might best serve her future husband. Theinfluential fourteenth-century manual The Book of the Knight of the Toweradvocated submissiveness and modesty in young girls in preparation formarriage, and said that women's learning should be limited "to thevirtuous things of scripture, wherefore they may better see and know theirsalvation." In a similar vein, in the following century, BartholomewGranville urged the importance of serenity in appearance to the well-bredwoman's character.

 

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Sort by: Showing all of 10 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 4, 2012

    Highly recommended to anyone who loves historical fiction

    Personally I had never heard of Matilda,but I wanted to read ahistorical fiction book ,that would not put me to sleep. This book certainly filled the bill!The author draws you in from the first page and keeps you there. I had a hard time putting it down.This is a wondeful,insighfull read.

    14 out of 16 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 24, 2013

    Knowing very little about Matilda except that she was the wife o

    Knowing very little about Matilda except that she was the wife of William the Conqueror, I was interested in reading this biography. I was not disappointed. I would recommend this to anybody interested in this period of time and, particularly, in women of early middle ages England.

    13 out of 13 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 19, 2014

    I Also Recommend:

    Queen of the Conqueror is a very well written book. I found the

    Queen of the Conqueror is a very well written book. I found the writing simply fascinating and the subject matter even more so. The relationship is stormy from the start. Matilda is a fascinating character, to say the least. I highly recommend this book.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 9, 2014

    WA good read and interesting.

    Reveals a magnificent women and insight into William the Conqurer.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 24, 2014

    Dvgff

    ,12345678907

    0 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 20, 2014

    Not so good

    I was excited to read this book based on other reviews. I was very disappointed. There was too much repeatition.....how many times can you say she was pious, proud of her heritage, smart for a woman, loved her husband and country, gave to the poor. I especially disliked how the author built up detail reasons why something could have happened and then in as much detail why it might not have happened.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 13, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2014

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 20, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted September 14, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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