30 November marks the anniversary of the death of King Edmund II ‘Ironside’ in 1016, the eldest surviving son of Aethelred II. Although king for only a few months, Edmund later became an important political figure posthumously with the childlessness of his half-brother, Edward the Confessor. Edmund’s successor was his rival, the Danish invader, Cnut. Cnut exiled Edmund’s young sons and one of them, Edward the Exile, settled in Hungary. He was recalled to England by his uncle but died soon afterwards, leaving a son, Edgar Aetheling, and two daughters. At the Confessor’s death in 1066, Edgar was too young to take the throne. Instead, first Harold Godwinson and then William of Normandy won the crown.
In 1100 William’s youngest son, Henry I, became king and, soon afterwards married Matilda, a young Scottish princess. Matilda’s father was Malcomlm Canmore, King of Scotland, while her mother was St Margaret, the daughter of Edward the Exile. In spite of his father’s claims to be the heir to Edward the Confessor, in reality, Henry’s title was based solely on conquest. At the time of Henry and Matilda’s marriage, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle enthused that she was ‘of the rightful royal family of England’ and the marriage went some way to healing the wounds created by the Conquest less than forty years before. Her English royal blood had always been significant and Malcolm and Margaret pointedly gave their children English royal names: Matilda was originally called Edith, the same name as the Confessor’s wife, only later changing her name to a more conventional Norman one. This change notwithstanding, it was well known in England that Matilda was a member of the Anglo-Saxon royal house, adding legitimacy to the Norman dynasty in England.
Henry had to overcome a formidable obstacle to win Matilda as his bride. Matilda and her sister spent much of their childhoods in England at the nunneries of Romsey and Wilton and under the care of her aunt, Christina, Abbess of Romsey. It is possible that, in sending her daughters to Romsey, St Margaret intended that they would both become nuns. This was certainly Christina’s hope and she put considerable pressure on her young nieces to take the veil. According to Matilda’s own account, given to Archbishop Anselm, Christina was convinced that the veil was the only way to protect her young charges:
‘For when I was quite a young girl and went in fear of the rod of my Aunt Christina, whom you knew quite well, she to preserve me from the lust of the Normans which was rampant and at that time ready to assault any woman’s honour, used to put a little black hood on my head and, when I threw it off, she would often make me smart with a good slapping and most horrible scolding, as well as treating me at being in disgrace. That hood I did indeed wear in her presence, chafing at it and fearful; but, as soon as I was able to escape out of her sight, I tore it off and threw it on the ground and trampled on it and in that way, although foolishly, I used to vent my rage and the hatred of it which boiled up in me. In that way, and only in that way, I was veiled, as my conscience bears witness’.
While it may have been intended that Matilda would become a nun, her royal blood meant that she was the subject of considerable interest, with rumours that Henry’s brother and predecessor as king, William Rufus, was her suitor. According to William of Malmesbury, Matilda would wear the veil in order to reject unworthy suitors who came to her at the nunnery and this is borne out by Matilda’s own account of one such occasion. According to Matilda, in 1093 her father arrived unexpectedly at Wilton with Count Alan, intending that he should marry her. Malcolm, ‘when by chance he saw me veiled snatched the veil off and tearing it to pieces invoked the hatred of God upon the person who had put it on me, declaring that he had rather have chosen to marry me to Count Alan than consign me to a house of nuns’. Malcolm was so furious that he took Matilda back to Scotland without taking the time to arrange her marriage. She was soon back in England however and her use of the veil served to make her marriage a scandalous proposition in the eyes of the church.
In 1100, when plans for Matilda’s marriage were announced, Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, believing that she was a nun, ordered her to return to the convent. Matilda went personally to Anselm to ask for his help. She vehemently denied that she was a nun and set out the full story of her childhood with her aunt Christina and the pressure that had been put upon her. Anselm, to Matilda’s relief and gratitude, believed her story and called a church court at Lambeth which investigated her claims. Matilda attended the council and, according to the report of Eadmer, a follower of Anselm, she offered to swear that she was free to marry. This was enough for the Archbishop and he declared that she had never been a nun, allowing the couple to marry a few days later on 11 November 1100. Soon after the ceremony, Anselm consecrated Matilda as queen.
Matilda proved to be an excellent queen consort, often serving as regent during her husband’s absences in Normandy. Her main contribution to history however must be her role in helping to reconcile the English people to the fact of the Norman Conquest. By virtue of her English royal blood, Matilda was able to legitimise the Norman kingship and, also, demonstrate the continuing importance of the indigenous royal family and way of life to the people of England. Matilda’s children were members of both the Norman and Anglo-Saxon royal houses. Her daughter, the Empress Matilda, passed this on to her own son, Henry II, and to all future monarchs of England. In many respects, Matilda represented a amalgamation of both English and Norman queenship, something which is symbolised by her change of name – an English Queen Edith superseded by a Norman Queen Matilda.
You can read more about Matilda of Scotland in my book, England’s Queens: The Biography, which was recently released in paperback by Amberley Publishing.