The Medieval Book Reviews 2: Matilda, Queen of the Conqueror by Tracy Borman

There are two famous historical events allegedly involving Matilda of Flanders, wife of William the Bastard, Duke of Normandy, who defeated King Harold of England in 1066 to become William the Conqueror. The first is her scornful initial refusal of his proposal of marriage. While Matilda was the legitimate daughter of Count Baldwin V of Flanders and Countess Adela, sister of King Robert the Pious of France, William had been born of Duke Robert of Normandy’s liaison with Herleva of Falaise, who was most likely a tanner’s daughter. According to the Chronicle of Tours, a satirical volume filled with anti-Norman sentiments, Matilda declared that she would marry no bastard, and William beat her until she changed her mind.

The second well known story presents a much more docile image of Matilda. According to legend, the Duchess of Normandy and her ladies sewed the Bayeux Tapestry while William pacified England after the Battle of Hastings. In France, the tapestry is called La Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde in honour of its supposed creator. In Queen of the Conqueror, Tracy Borman’s critical reading of the monastic chronicles that provide much of the evidence of Matilda’s life challenges both these classic accounts of Matilda’s historical significance.

As regent of Normandy during William’s conquest of England, Matilda would have been too busy ruling her husband’s fractious domains to spend her days doing embroidery. As for William’s supposed beating of Matilda, her reconsideration of his proposal was more likely prompted by the lingering scandal created by her past interest in a visiting Saxon nobleman. Matilda’s real story may be more interesting than the legends.

The persistence of apocryphal accounts of Matilda’s life and significance demonstrates the necessity of a full length biography. Despite Matilda’s significance as the first woman to be formally crowned Queen of England, and her presence in popular culture as a prominent character in historical novels such as Helen Hollick’s I Am The Chosen King: One Kingdom, Two Men, One Crown (First published as Harold the King) and Hilda Lewis’s Wife to the Bastard, Borman’s Queen of the Conqueror is the first work of non-fiction focused on her life.

As the author of Elizabeth’s Women and King’s Mistress, Queen’s Servant: Henrietta Howard, Borman has extensive experience uncovering new material about the lives of previously overlooked court women. She applies this careful approach to the often contradictory source material concerning Matilda, weighing the different accounts of her activities as Duchess of Normandy and Queen of England to provide the most probable version of her life.

One of the great strengths of Queen of the Conqueror is its vivid portrayal of court life in eleventh century Europe. The Age of Chivalry had not yet begun, and royal and aristocratic women were expected to be politically active, administrating estates, duchies and kingdoms while their husbands were at war. The Battle of Hastings was not the end of the Norman Conquest of England but the beginning. William spent years brutally suppressing opposition to his rule, circumstances which expanded Matilda’s responsibilities in Normandy.

While William was most likely illiterate (as were all Kings of England between Alfred the Great and William and Matilda’s youngest son, Henry I “Beauclerk”), Matilda could read and converse in Latin. As Duchess of Normandy then Queen of England, she brought cultural and religious patronage to her husband’s courts in Rouen and London. Despite rumours of her reluctance to marry William, and his violent temper, she appears to have enjoyed a harmonious marriage until conflicts between her husband and eldest son compelled her to take sides within the factions that formed in her immediate family.

Queen of the Conqueror is an engaging biography of one of the most significant women of eleventh century Europe. Matilda’s roles as a diplomat, administrator, cultural and religious patron, wife, and mother are brought to life by Tracy Borman’s exhaustive research and eye for interesting historical details.

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