Matilda of Flanders, the daughter of Baldwin V, Count of Flanders, and Adela, daughter of Robert the Pious, king of France, was born in about 1030. In October 1049, William the Conqueror, the Duke of Normandy, began negotiations to marry Matilda. Pope Leo IX forbade the marriage on the grounds that William and Matilda were too closely related. It has been suggested that both William and Matilda were cousins in the fifth degree, being both directly descended from Rolf the Viking. (1)
Despite this objections of the Church she married William in about 1050. It has been claimed that Matilda insisted the marriage went ahead without the agreement of the Pope. (2) John Gillingham has argued that the Flemish alliance was more important than papal disapproval. It was said that they looked strange together as William was nearly 6 feet tall while Matilda was only 4 feet 2 inches. (3)
It is believed that in 1059 Pope Nicholas II retrospectively approved the marriage on condition that the couple founded one monastery each. Matilda gave birth to nine children. Seven of these survived: Robert Curthose, William Rufus, Richard (killed in a hunting accident in about 1074), Adeliza, Cecilia, William Rufus, Constance, Adela and Henry Beauclerk. (4)
William appears to have been completely faithful husband. Christopher Brooke has pointed out: "He (William) was in fact the only one of his line to have one wife acknowledged by the Church and to be faithful to her. It is very doubtful if it was a love-match. But its success may have been due in part to his father's example; it may also have been due to a desire to avoid illegitimate children: William's early difficulties, and the the nickname of bastard which always clung to him, may well have determined him to be a faithful husband." (5)
Matilda acted as regent in Normandy for her husband after 1066, probably in collaboration with her son Robert Curthose and under the guidance of Roger de Montgomery and Roger de Beaumont. William returned in March 1067 and the following year he took Matilda back to England where she was crowned queen. (6)
Matilda became a wealthy landowner in England, where she held lands in the counties of Surrey, Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset, Devon, Cornwall, Buckinghamshire, and Gloucestershire. "She had a share in about one quarter of her husband's gifts: thirty-nine pre-conquest and sixty-one post-conquest charters bear her name. This charter evidence supports the chroniclers who say that she was sometimes left with overall responsibility in Normandy." (7)
William returned to Normandy in 1073 and later that year conquered Maine. Robert, who was now in his early twenties, fought with his father. Robert suggested that William should return to England and he should be allowed to rule Normandy. William, now in his fifties, refused with the words: "Normandy is mine by hereditary descent and I will never while I live relinquish the government". Robert was unwilling to accept this decision and joined forces with discontented elements in Brittany, Maine and Anjou. (8)
Robert gained support from Roger of Clare, the son of Richard FitzGilbert and he made his base at Gerberoy. William and his army attacked Robert in December 1078. During the battle William was wounded in the arm and was forced to flee the battlefield. William of Malmesbury claims that it was the greatest humiliation suffered by William in his whole military career. (9)
William returned to Rouen and was forced to enter into negotiations with his opponents: "An influential group of senior members of the Norman aristocracy including Roger of Montgomery, Hugh of Granmesnil, and the veteran Roger of Beaumont at once strove to effect a pacification in the interests of Robert and his young associates, many of whom were the sons or younger brothers of the negotiating magnates." (10)
William agreed to withdraw but in 1080 he made another attempt to regain his kingdom. According to one source, another battle was prevented by the Church: "While the two armies were in face of each other, drawn out for battle, and many hearts quailed at the fearful death, and still more fearful fate after death which awaits the reprobate, a cardinal priest of the Roman Church and some pious monks, intervened by divine inspiration, and remonstrated with the chiefs of both armies." (11)
It is claimed that Matilda of Flanders, intervened in the dispute and the two men were reconciled. Matilda had always been close to Robert and without her husband's knowledge, used to "send her son vast amounts of silver and gold". When the king discovered his wife's generosity, he threatened to blind the Breton messenger Samson used for these missions. (12)
After a long illness Matilda of Flanders died in Normandy on 3rd November 1083. (13)
In the mid-1040s William began to govern for himself. He was almost continuously at war, either against Norman rebels or neighbouring princes, or both. He became a hard and ruthless campaigner - though flatterers liked to say that he was the best knight in the world. His most powerful neighbours were King Henry of France, Count Geoffrey of Anjou and Count Baldwin of Flanders. Between 1052 and 1060 two of these, France and Anjou, were hostile to Normandy so it was well for William that he could count on the friendship of Flanders. He had asked Count Baldwin for the hand of his daughter Matilda, but in 1049 the Pope forbade the marriage, presumably on the grounds that William and Matilda were too closely related. Despite this William went ahead; the Flemish alliance was more important than papal disapproval. William and Matilda must have been an odd-looking couple. The evidence of the bones found in their graves suggests that he was about five foot ten inches tall and she was about four foot two inches.
The Church prohibited the marriage, but William persisted, and was in the end given dispensation... He (William) was in fact the only one of his line to have one wife acknowledged by the Church and to be faithful to her. It is very doubtful if it was a love-match. But its success may have been due in part to his father's example; it may also have been due to a desire to avoid illegitimate children: William's early difficulties, and the the nickname of bastard which always clung to him, may well have determined him to be a faithful husband. The history of medieval marriage is like a maze, with many twisting paths and unexpected corners. The Church could only enforce its moral teaching on the great if it found allies in their midst.
Over a period of seventeen years Matilda gave birth to eight or nine children. She had four sons, of whom Robert Curthose, born in 1051 or 1052, was the eldest. He was duke of Normandy from 1087 to 1106 and died in captivity in England in 1134. The second son was Richard, who died as a youth during a hunting accident between 1069 and 1074. William Rufus, king of England, as William II, from 1087 to 1100, was the third son. Henry I, the youngest child, born in 1068, was the son who ultimately reunited his father's realm of Normandy, Maine, and England; he died in 1135. There were four or five daughters: Adelida (d. before 1113) was the eldest, who after a series of collapsed marriage alliances retired as a nun to St Léger at Préaux; Cecilia was given as an oblate to Ste Trinité in 1066, professed in 1075, became abbess in 1113, and died in 1126; Constance married Alain Fergant, duke of Brittany, in 1086 and died in 1090; Adela was born after her father became king of England - she married c.1080 Stephen, count of Blois, and died as a nun at Marcigny in 1137. A daughter Matilda is known from a reference in Domesday Book, whereas Agatha, who is only mentioned once as a daughter by Orderic Vitalis, may never have existed. Matilda of Flanders was also godmother of St Simon, count of Amiens, Valois, and Vexin from 1074 to 1077, who died at Rome in 1082 and for whose tomb she paid, and of Edith (more often known as Matilda), later the wife of her son Henry I.