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Queens Consort: England's Medieval Queens from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Elizabeth of York

Queens Consort: England's Medieval Queens from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Elizabeth of York

by Lisa Hilton

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Meet the subjects of history’s greatest dramas: the first queens of England
Though their royal husbands occupy the lion’s share of history books, the queens of early England are fascinating subjects in their own right. Lisa Hilton’s Queens Consort vividly evokes the lives and times of England’s first queens, from Matilda of


Meet the subjects of history’s greatest dramas: the first queens of England
Though their royal husbands occupy the lion’s share of history books, the queens of early England are fascinating subjects in their own right. Lisa Hilton’s Queens Consort vividly evokes the lives and times of England’s first queens, from Matilda of Flanders and the Norman conquest of England to Elizabeth of York and the beginning of the Tudor dynasty. By profiling twenty different queens, Hilton provides an intricate and dramatic composite of the English monarch: from the ruthless Isabella of France, who violently gained control of England by dispatching Edward II, to the beloved Matilda of Scotland, known for her intelligence and devotion despite her philandering husband, Henry I; and from a girl who was crowned at the age of nine to a commoner who climbed the social ladder at the most opportune moment. Queens Consort dispels many of the myths that have surrounded these women for centuries, while simultaneously illuminating lesser-known facts about their lives.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Although intended to breed royal heirs, England's medieval queens offered substantial strength, mental acuity, and personal ambition, beginning with the 1066 Norman invasion's elevation of Matilda of Flanders and up through the Plantagenet Elizabeth of York, who married Henry VII in 1486. Hilton (Athénai?s: The Life of Louis XIV's Mistress) successfully unravels the tangled biographies of such queens as the legendary and imposing Eleanor of Aquitaine and the ill-matched but determined Isabella of France, placing them within the context of European politics and property wars. Hilton nimbly pares popular myths and reanimates long-forgotten figures such as Queen Berengaria, married to the crusading Richard I, who never lived in England. When kings wriggled themselves out of undesirable marriages, strange situations sometimes occurred, such as King John in the 13th century sending his second wife, Isabelle, to live with his former wife, Isabella. Hilton offers a pleasurable but serious study of a group of remarkable women and their role in the development of queenship in England. 16 pages of color illus.; maps. (Aug.)

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Queens Consort

England's Medieval Queens

By Lisa Hilton


Copyright © 2010 Lisa Hilton
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4804-0556-1



'The friend of piety and the soother of distress'

Matilda of Flanders never expected to be Queen of England. Initially, she was not much attracted to the idea of becoming Duchess of Normandy. A story in the Chronicle of Tours claims that when she learned Duke William of Normandy had proposed for her, she angrily declared she would never marry a bastard, upon which William forced himself into her bedroom in Bruges and soundly beat her. Another version has the illegitimate Duke dragging her from her horse and pursuing his rough courtship in the roadside mud. Matilda was apparently so overcome by this display of macho passion that she took to her bed and announced she would never marry anyone else. The tale 'may be regarded of more interest to the student of psychology than the student of history', but as with many interpretations of medieval history, what contemporaries could believe had happened is sometimes as revealing as what actually did.

Matilda was descended from Charlemagne and the Saxon king Alfred the Great and her mother, Adela, was a daughter of the King of France. Her prospective husband may have been a duke, but his title gentrified a family that was only a few generations' distance from Viking marauders, whereas her own paternal line, the counts of Flanders, had ruled since the ninth century. But if Matilda objected to the match, her father, Count Baldwin IV, saw a Norman alliance as a contribution to Flanders' growing status as a political power. In the end, that alliance was to become more profitable than the Count could ever have imagined.

Yet when William and Matilda were betrothed in 1049, the status of both Duke and duchy might have made any bride apprehensive. The rights of the dukes of Normandy had been recognised in the early tenth century and William was a direct descendant of the duchy's first ruler, Rolf the Viking. After a splendid career of raiding and pillaging in France, Scotland and Ireland, Rolf (or Rollo) was baptised by the Archbishop ofRouen some time before 918 and settled down to a new life as a Christian ruler. Five generations later, in 1034, Duke Robert, William's father, felt sufficiently detached from his pagan ancestors to set off on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He died on his return journey in 1035, leaving a seven-year-old boy as his heir.

The first years of William's minority rule saw a catalogue of anarchic and brutal violence. The archbishop of Rouen, Count Alan of Brittany and the lords Osbern and Turold had been appointed guardians to the boy, but the archbishop died in 1037, followed by Count Alan in 1040. The Count's replacement, Gilbert of Brionne, was murdered a few months later by assassins in the pay of the Archbishop's son. Turold was killed at the same time. Then Osbern, who acted as William's steward, 'unexpectedly had his throat cut one night ... while he and the Duke were sound asleep in the Duke's chamber at Vaudreuil'. The homicidal avarice of competing factions of the Norman nobility keen to take advantage of William's weakness to seize lands and power for themselves instilled such fear in the boy duke of the treachery within his own household that he was often reduced to sheltering in peasants' cottages.

William's personal survival was dependent mainly on the historical relationship between Normandy and the kings of France. The Norman dukes had been vassals of the kings since 968, and in 1031 King Henry I, Matilda's maternal uncle, had taken refuge at Rouen during a period of civil war. With the help of William's grandfather, Duke Richard II, he had managed to recover his kingdom. When, after a decade of bloody skirmishes, war broke out in Normandy in 1046, William appealed to Henry. Together they fought the first significant battle of William's distinguished military career, at Val-es-Dunes near Caen in 1047, against a rebel army led by William's cousin Guy of Burgundy. William won, but for the next thirteen years he was to find himself almost constantly at war.

The marriage between William and Matilda took place towards the end of 1051. In the beginning it was surrounded by controversy. Although it had been planned in 1049, the match was banned in the autumn of that year by Pope Leo IX at the Council of Reims on the grounds of consanguinity. Christian marriage as it was to be understood by future generations was a relatively new invention in the eleventh century, and as part of increasing reforms the Church was anxious to turn a custom into a regulated institution. Canon law forbade the union of individuals who were related in certain 'prohibited degrees', and William and Matilda were fifth cousins. Family connections were further complicated by a marriage contract between Matilda's mother, Adela, and Duke Richard III of Normandy, William's uncle, before her marriage to Count Baldwin (pre-contract was another invalidating factor), and by the fact that after the death of Matilda's grandmother, Ogiva, her grandfather, Baldwin IV, had taken as his second wife Eleanor, a daughter of Duke Richard II of Normandy. Another theory relating to the papal objection is that Matilda herself was already married, to a man named Gerbod, by whom she had a daughter, Gundrada, who eventually became the wife of William of Warenne, first Earl of Surrey. This story has, however, been dismissed as 'in the highest degree impossible'. Nevertheless, the union did not receive a retrospective papal sanction, from Nicholas II, until the second Lateran Council of 1059.

According to the chronicler William of Jumièges, Matilda's parents, Adela and Baldwin, did not consummate their marriage until 1031, which suggests that Matilda could have been no older than about nineteen when she married William. Since there is no evidence that she was the eldest of their four children, she might well have been considerably younger. Whatever her personal opinion of the match, both her father and her bridegroom were sufficiently keen on it to defy papal sanction, and Count Baldwin brought his daughter to Eu, where the wedding was celebrated. Afterwards the ducal couple travelled together to Rouen.

What were the motivations behind William and Count Baldwin's arrangement? Matilda's father was in the process of reorienting his small but strategically important country with the aim of distancing it from the German-controlled Holy Roman empire and forging stronger links with France, as evinced by his own marriage to the French princess Adela. Having become one of the principal vassals of the King of France, he saw his ambitions further consolidated by the marriage of Matilda's brother Baldwin to Richildis, the widow of the Count of Hainault, in 1049. Having fought unsuccessfully against Flanders in the settlement of Richildis's inheritance, and concerned by constant skirmishing along the Flemish-German border, the German Emperor, Henry III, was apprehensive about a Norman-Flemish alliance which would diminish his influence still further. (Since the current pope, Leo IX, owed his throne to the Emperor, it is unsurprising that he agreed to return the favour by opposing the marriage between William and Matilda.) Normandy could also prove a powerful ally against the English crown, which was at the time hostile to Flanders: King Edward had summoned a fleet to serve against Count Baldwin on the Emperor's side if necessary. In his turn, Duke William was conscious of his own hitherto vulnerable position, dependent as he was on the continued cultivation of the goodwill of the French King and a small group of loyal aristocrats. He was frequently in conflict with the lords of Arques, Ponthieu and the Vexin, who periodically aligned themselves with Count Eustace of Boulogne, one of Count Baldwin's most rebellious vassals. The marriage with Matilda would thus provide both William and Baldwin with a mutual reinforcement of power to subdue the rebels whose territories lay between their lands. Further, it has been suggested that Matilda's impeccable bloodline went some way to enhancing William's own prestige and eradicating the stain of his illegitimacy.

That William was known to his contemporaries as 'the Bastard' and not 'the Conqueror' is not in doubt, but the implications of this status in terms of the eleventh century need to be examined carefully. The chronicler Orderic Vitalis's claim that William 'as a bastard was despised by the native nobility' may be dismissed as an anachronistic judgement from a later age. Contemporary perceptions did not necessarily stigmatise or even fully recognise illegitimacy. The regularisation of ecclesiastical marriage was still very much an ongoing process, and William's grandfather, Duke Richard II, had been the first of the line to make a Christian marriage, at the turn of the previous century. His sons continued to take concubines, as was still the prevailing custom, and William's father, Duke Robert, did not make a dynastic marriage. His concubine Herleva of Falaise, William's mother, was the daughter of Fulbert, 'the chamberlain', which was not necessarily a high office at the time. That William was sensitive on the subject of his birth was clearly known, as the soldiers of Alencon were to find to their cost, but this may have been more to do with his maternal grandfather's profession than his mother's unmarried status. Fulbert was a skinner, though he appears in some accounts as a 'pollinctor', which in Roman usage meant undertaker. When William besieged the castle of Alençon, the troops 'had beaten pelts and furs in order to insult the duke' with his grandfather's dirty, menial origins. William had the hands and feet cut off thirty-two of them.

(The ancestry of the English kings was, incidentally, still good for a giggle a century later. Henry II, having quarrelled with the bishop of Lincoln, refused to greet him at a picnic one day. The King was mending a leather bandage on his finger with a needle and thread and the bishop, daringly trying to amuse him, remarked: 'How like your cousins of Falaise you do look.' Luckily for the bishop, Henry fell about laughing.)

Norman chroniclers do display discomfort with William's birth, as well as with his defiance of the papal ban on his marriage. Flouting the authority of the Pope was a highly risky form of disobedience, since it could provide rebels in the duchy with a religious sanction for political disloyalty. William, however, had been dodging traitors for most of his life, he was a brilliant military strategist and he was possessed of an extremely powerful will. William of Malmesbury recounts how, in the aftermath of his mother's life-threatening labour, the newborn William was left on the floor of Herleva's room while she was cared for. The tiny baby grabbed at the rushes covering the floor with such strength that his attendants predicted he would 'become a mighty man, ready to acquire everything within his reach, and that which he acquired he would with a strong hand steadfastly maintain against all challengers'. So William wanted Matilda of Flanders badly enough to defy the Pope, and he got her.

The prestige of Matilda's ancestry was obviously considered a sufficient compensation for someone of William's relatively uncertain status, as she brought no dowry of land or titles to the union. The desirability of an elite bride was based on the power of her male relations, her wealth and her lineage, and the first two attributes did not necessarily outweigh the third. Ancestry—specifically maternal ancestry—was also to be the principal factor in the choice of the next English queen, the bride of Matilda's son Henry.

At the time of their marriage, William was in his early twenties and Matilda, as has been noted, probably in her late teens. He was a tall man by the standards of the day, about five feet ten, clean shaven and short-haired in the Norman style. Matilda, by contrast, was tiny, just four feet two inches tall. William of Jumièges describes 'a very beautiful and noble girl of royal stock' while Orderic Vitalis declared that she was 'even more distinguished for the purity of her mind and manners than for her illustrious lineage ... She united beauty with gentle breeding and all the graces of Christian holiness.' Conventional tributes such as these appear so frequently that it is difficult to attach much real meaning to them, but William and Matilda were sufficiently attracted to one another for their first child, Robert, to be born within three years of the wedding. They would go on to have three more sons and at least five daughters. Accounts concur that the marriage was happy, and that very happiness was crucially to affect the structure of political power in Normandy and, eventually, in England.

Aristocratic marriages were not made in the expectation of affection. Matrimony was the primary means of advancing family and dynastic interests. A woman of Matilda's status was required to marry as the concerns of her family directed, but this did not mean she would be merely handed about Europe like a diplomatic doll. All eleventh-century politics were family politics, and political legitimacy was dependent not only on military power but on claims of blood, and therefore on women. A particular emphasis was placed in dynastic marriages on the role of the wife as a 'peace-weaver', a mediator or intercessor. In the Anglo-Saxon poem 'Beowulf' a match is arranged is arranged between the children of two enemies, Hrothgar and Froda, 'to settle with the woman a part of his deadly feuds and struggles'. Even if women were no longer carried off as booty from the battlefield as they had been a few centuries previously, in an extremely violent society the grace and good manners of an aristocratic wife were vital to the domestic interactions of powerful men:

The woman must excel as one cherished among her people and be buoyant of mood, keep confidences, be open-heartedly generous with horses and with treasures, in deliberation over the mead, in the presence of the troop of companions, she must always and everywhere greet first the chief of those princes and instantly offer the chalice to her lord's hand, and she must know what is prudent for them both as rulers of the hall.

The country where Matilda had grown up was considered an extraordinarily violent region even by the standards of the time. In comparison with France and England it was a primitive, backward area—Dudo of St Quentin claimed that when the Scandinavians were offered the province by Charles the Simple, they rejected it in favour of Normandy A twelfth-century account, The Life of St Amulf, describes the state of Flanders in the eleventh century: 'Daily homicides and spilling of human blood had troubled the peace and quiet of the entire area. Thus a great number of nobles, through the force of their prayers, convinced the bishop of the lord to visit the places where this atrocious cruelty especially raged and to instruct the docile and bloody spirit of the Flemings in the interest of peace and concord.' These turbulent conditions hampered development. No town had a population of more than 5,000 and there were few stone buildings. Nevertheless, the mid-eleventh century saw the beginning of an increasing prosperity which would make Flanders one of the most important European centres of commerce and culture in the centuries to come. By the fifteenth century, it was 'completely founded on the fact and course of merchandise' and the centre of mercantile activity was Bruges, already in Matilda's time a key port. In 1037, her parents had been in the city to greet a famous visitor, the exiled Queen Emma of England.

A dynastic connection between Flanders and England had been established in the ninth century. Judith, the daughter of Charles the Bald, became England's first consecrated queen in 856 on her marriage to Aethelwulf, King of the West Saxons. After Aethelwulf's death, Judith was briefly married to her own stepson before eloping with Baldwin 'Iron Arm', the first Count of Flanders. Their son, Baldwin II, married Aelfthryth of England, a daughter of Alfred the Great, the first monarch to be recognised as ruler of all England. Matilda was descended from both England's first anointed queen and one of its greatest kings.

When Emma, daughter of Duke Richard I of Normandy, married Aethelred of England nearly 150 years later, she was able to take advantage of the growing customary power attached to the role of queen. In 973, Aelfthryth, her mother-in-law, had been consecrated, and after her death the new queen became 'the axis around which English politics turned'. Extraordinarily, Emma was crowned queen twice, as after Aethelred's death she married Cnut of Denmark, who reigned from 1016 to 1035. The conflicts between the children of these two marriages led to Emma's exile in Flanders and formed the background to Matilda's own coronation as queen of England.


Excerpted from Queens Consort by Lisa Hilton. Copyright © 2010 Lisa Hilton. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Lisa Hilton is the critically acclaimed author of Wolves in Winter, Athénaïs: The Life of Louis XIV’s Mistress, the Real Queen of France,and The Horror of Love: Nancy Mitford and Gaston Palewski in Paris and London. Hilton grew up in Northern England and studied English at Oxford before studying art in Milan and Paris. Hilton has written for GQ, Elle, the New Yorker, and the Spectator. She lives in London with her daughter, Octavia, and works as a broadcaster, journalist, and lecturer.  

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