Queen of the Conqueror: The Life of Matilda, Wife of William
, by Tracy Borman. Bantam (New York, 2011). 336 pp., $30.00 HB
Everyone knows who William the Conqueror was. He was the Duke of Normandy in what is now the country of France who, on Oct. 13, 1066, after having crossed the English Channel with an army, defeated Harold II and his army at Hastings. In England, William, Duke of Normandy, became William I, King of England, and established the line of royalty that still exists in Britain today.
Does everyone know who William’s wife was? In Queen of the Conqueror, Tracy Borman writes that she “has been largely overlooked by historians, and there has never been a full biography of her in English” until this one.
In the book’s introduction, Borman continues, “In the many modern-day accounts of William the Conqueror and the Norman invasion, his wife is accorded little more than an occasional reference.” In this fascinating biography of Matilda, Borman sketches a remarkable woman whose “story is played out against one of the most fascinating and transformative periods of European history.”
The presentation of Matilda begins with the account of a tale that occurred around 1049, when William rode to the palace of Baldwin V, Count of Flanders, in Bruges, where he encountered the object of his rage leaving the palace chapel: Matilda, the count’s only daughter. “The headstrong girl had dared to refuse [William’s] offer of marriage, haughtily declaring that she would not lower herself so far as to accept a mere bastard.” Immediately, the young duke “dragged her to the ground by her hair and beat her mercilessly.” Then he mounted his horse and rode back to Normandy.
Needless to say, she was shaken and humiliated. “Matilda was helped to her feet by her terrified ladies and carried home to bed. A few days later, she shocked her family, the court, and most of Europe by declaring that she would marry none but William. Thus began one of the most turbulent marriages in history.”
According to Borman, Matilda “broke the mold of female consorts and established a model of active queenship that would influence her successors for centuries to come.” She was her husband’s trusted regent in Normandy when he was in England; her name appears frequently on charters, documents recording the transfer of property or estates.
Matilda gave birth to at least nine children. Her more famous sons are William II (known as William Rufus), who ruled England from 1087-1100, and Henry I, who ruled both England and Normandy from 1100-1135. One of her daughters, Cecilia, became abbess of Holy Trinity in Caen, a monastery established by Matilda. Not to be forgotten are the religious houses established by both Matilda and William. Throughout Normandy and England they provided land for the Church and often established communities of men and women. Matilda died in 1083 and was buried in Holy Trinity in Caen.
Another well-known Queen of England is Eleanor of Aquitaine, first the wife of Louis VII, King of France, and, after the annulment of that marriage, the wife of Henry II, Duke of Normandy and King of England. Alison Weir presents this powerful 12th-century woman in Captive Queen (New York: Ballantine Books, 2010).
The book’s title comes from the fact that Henry II, in order to curtail his wife’s endeavors, kept her locked in castles for over 15 years of their marriage. Only Henry’s death finally set her free. In Weir’s 478-page historical novel, she unfolds the life of this interesting woman. Weir writes that “historical sources are subject to a wide variety of interpretations, but they are the only means we have of learning what happened centuries ago, and it is crucial that a historical novelist, just like a historian, uses them with integrity.” In this reviewer’s opinion, the author has done a very good job of interpreting her sources and presenting them in a readable format.