Rough Wooing

Tom Shippey

  • Matilda: Queen of the Conqueror by Tracy Borman
    Cape, 297 pp, £20.00, September 2011, ISBN 978 0 224 09055 1

Queens and female rulers of the early Middle Ages have claimed a good deal of attention in recent years, and deserve to receive more. Of several books about or inspired by Queen Emma, wife successively of Æthelræd ‘the Unready’ and Canute ‘the Great’, the best is Pauline Stafford’s Queen Emma and Queen Edith (1997), which brackets Emma with her successor, wife of Edward ‘the Confessor’. Stafford’s earlier Queens, Concubines and Dowagers (1983) took a broader view, as does Lisa Hilton’s Queens Consort: England’s Medieval Queens (2008). If one were to pick out another powerful ruler too often forgotten, one might ask for a biography of King Alfred’s daughter Æthelflæd, ‘Lady of the Mercians’, who in partnership with her brother Edward ‘the Elder’ and her extremely mysterious husband, ‘Alderman’ Æthelræd, played the Isabella role in the tenth-century reconquista of central England from the pagan Vikings, and left her mark on the map of England to this day.

Perhaps, though, we just do not know enough about her. Emma and Edith both give historians a start by having contemporary narrative accounts entirely or largely about them, the Encomium Emmae Reginae and the Vita Edwardi Regis respectively. Contemporary histories like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle remained almost silent about Æthelflæd, however, probably deliberately: her Wessex dynasty wanted to suppress any revival of Mercian demands for independence. And the same seems to be true of the topic Tracy Borman has now chosen, Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror.

Borman, now chief executive of the Heritage Education Trust, has already published two books looking at female figures of the past. King’s Mistress, Queen’s Servant (2007) was about Henrietta Howard, long-service mistress of George II, while Elizabeth’s Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen (2010) dealt with Elizabeth’s mother, sister and female competitors. Her co-authored history of royal weddings, The Ring and the Crown, came out somewhat opportunistically early this year. But with the world of female royalty to choose from, one might wonder why she chose Matilda.

Only two things about Matilda have got anywhere near the status of general knowledge, and neither seems to make her much of a role model. One is that even by medieval standards she was allegedly extremely small: an examination in 1961 of what is thought to be her skeleton measured her at 4’2’’. No bar to greatness, of course, but one wonders how she must have looked next to her husband, tall by medieval standards and probably burly even by modern ones. Forensics, however, can’t be trusted. Byrhtnoth, hero of the battle of Maldon, was said to be 6’9’’ by early enthusiastic explorers of his tomb in Ely cathedral, though accurate measurement was impossible owing to the lack of a head: the estimate is now generally revised down. Readers of the LRB of 22 July 2010 may remember the arthritic 70-year-old said to be the occupant of the Gokstad ship, later revealed as an almost freakishly robust man in his prime, with several fatal battle wounds. So it isn’t unlikely they got Matilda wrong too.

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