When you think of women’s rights, I doubt the medieval time period comes to mind. Religion played a huge role in society during this time. That led to a more patriarchal culture, so it’s understandable. However, if an observer digs deeper into history, the medieval era provides examples of women who left behind memorable lives that promote equality. Such as Matilda, queen to William the Conqueror. Through the circumstances of her birth, marriage, and legacy, Queen Matilda is a historical figure who deserves more recognition.
Matilda had the good fortune to be born in 1031 into one of the most ancient and prestigious, though non-royal, bloodlines in Europe. She was the daughter of Count Baldwin the Fifth of Flanders and his wife Adela, a daughter of King Robert the Second of France. Though contemporary sources for her life are scarce, historians have found references that say she exemplified the virtues expected of women at the time. Most interesting to me, as a short woman myself, is she was diminutive; they measured the skeleton that is likely hers at 4 foot, 2 inches.
She also had an independent spirit. Matilda at first refused to marry William, saying she wouldn’t lower herself to marry a bastard. This gave rise to the (probably apocryphal) story that William rode to Bruges where Matilda was leaving church, pulled her down to the ground, and gave her a thrashing.
This might not sound like an auspicious start for a marriage, but apparently it was because Matilda shortly after declared she would marry no one but William since he must have courage to do what he did. They married circa 1051.
They had nine recorded children. There is no evidence William had mistresses or any illegitimate children, which is unusual. Matilda’s public life is remarkable. She was crowned Queen of England in her own right in 1068, two years after William conquered the country. Together, the royal couple granted many charters and founded abbeys. Matilda acted as William’s regent in Normandy (especially during his invasion of England) and as chief justiciar during his absences from England throughout his reign.
Matilda dared to side with her eldest son Robert when he rebelled against his father, but this was short-lived. Her health deteriorated. She died in 1083. They describe the level of grief showed by William upon her death in the chronicles of the period as extremely high. The world lamented her loss with no less intensity. They buried her in Caen, France in the Abbey aux Dames she had founded. The civilizing and calming effect Matilda had upon her husband soon faded. William only outlived her by four years. Their son inherited the vast territories they ruled and become Henry the First of England. He would grant his daughter succession to his throne over a nephew, no doubt influenced by his capable mother.
Far beyond the offspring she left behind, Matilda provided a noteworthy legacy as queen to William the Conqueror. She inspired the strong queens and consorts after her, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine and Isabella, wife to Edward the Second of England. Matilda has earned a wider reputation in history as she was ahead of her time. She set a much-needed precedent in the medieval period and carried into the future the public’s perception of how powerful a woman could be.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Sexton lives in Ohio with her dog Lily. Her favorite things are movies and books, and her hobby is editing fan videos.