- Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
Chances are when you hear the name “Matilda” if you think of anything you might recall Harry Belafonte’s eponymous 1950s hit calypso song about the woman who takes his money and runs to Venezuela. Or the unofficial national anthem of Australia, “Waltzing Matilda,” the most recorded song in the Land Down Under. (“Matilda” is Oz slang for the bag or backpack in which the “swagman” or hobo carries his essentials as he roams the country).
Tracy Borman’s “Queen of the Conqueror: The Life of Matilda, Wife of William I” (Bantam Books, 336 pages, glossy illustration section, maps, bibliography, notes, index, $30.00) will change your understanding of the name “Matilda” forever. I raved about Borman’s stylish, accessible, yet very scholarly writing style in my review of her 2010 book “Elizabeth’s Women” (link:archives.huntingtonnews.net/…/101013-kinchen-columnsbookreview).
Borman set the bar high with “Elizabeth’s Women” and her other books, but “Queen of the Conqueror” meets and even exceeds those high standards It’s a page-turning, suspenseful work that examines William the Conqueror’s brutal side as well as the moderating influence this diminutive woman of noble birth had on the Norman duke who invaded England in 1066. (Matilda was reputed to be four feet two inches tall, although some sources say she was five feet tall. In any case, she was the shortest queen in England’s history!)
When Matilda of Flanders was born in 1030 or 1031, women weren’t considered important enough to matter to serious historians, so Borman has drawn on many original sources, including the “Domesday Book” and the “Anglo-Saxon Chronicles” to piece together the story of this remarkable woman.
Borman says Matilda was the model for future powerful women rulers, who relied on their intelligence and political skills to often “out man” their male counterparts. Think Eleanor of Acquitaine, Queen Elizabeth I of England, Catherine the Great of Russia, Golda Meir of Israel and “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher. In Matilda’s case, this was true up to the time when she took the side of her oldest son, Robert, in his struggle to wrest Normandy away from William, who was both King of England and Duke of Normandy and who refused to give up control of his native duchy.
I’m a history and biography junkie, but I think Borman’s book will appeal to a wide variety of readers, from fans of TV series like “The Tudors” and “The Borgias” to people who are drawn to the portrayals of Queen Elizabeth I on the tube and big screen.
When Matilda met William around the year 1049, it was far from the “cute meet” that Hollywood loves so well (see “Sleepless in Seattle”). William raced to the palace of Baldwin V, Count of Flanders, outraged that the headstrong 19-year-old Matilda, the count’s oldest daughter, had refused William’s offer of marriage on the grounds that he was illegitimate. Spying Matilda, so the story goes, William dragged her to the ground by her long braided hair and beat her.
Needless to say, this didn’t sit well with Baldwin, but before he could react, the impetuous Matilda — who reportedly had previously been rejected as a spouse by Brihtric, the English ambassador to Flanders — changed her mind and said she would marry none but William, since “he must be a man of great courage and high daring” to have ventured to “come and beat me in my own father’s palace.” What a story! They married around 1049 or 1050 — the exact date is not known, Borman writes — and it must have been a love match because William was faithful to her in a time when that was unusual behavior — and they had nine children.
Matilda was the first crowned queen of England, in 1068, and the ceremonies outdid those of her husband — as did her funeral in 1083. Drawing on a staggering number of historical artifacts and documents, Borman’s Matilda emerges as passionate, steadfast, and wise, yet also utterly ruthless and tenacious in pursuit of her goals, and the only person capable of taming her formidable husband, one of the most brutal kings in a country with rulers noted for harsh behavior toward their downtrodden subjects.
Matilda turned the traditional views of women in medieval society on their head by seizing the reins of power whenever she had the chance, directing her husband’s policy, and at times — as when she took Robert’s side in his battle with William — treasonously disobeying his orders. Matilda took over the reins of power in Normandy when William was in England building palaces and castles and ruthlessly putting down rebellions by people who didn’t like the idea of a foreigner as king.
William never learned English, using interpreters, unlike his wife who learned the language, which was far more difficult than present-day English. Matilda died on Nov. 2, 1083 and without her moderating influence on William chaos prevailed in both England and Normandy. The exploits of William, who died in 1087, have been extensively covered by historians, but they’ve neglected Matilda’s accomplishments. Borman’s book gives her the attention she deserves as a modern woman in a pre-modern era.
About the author
Tracy Borman is the author of “Henrietta Howard: King’s Mistress, Queen’s Servant” and “Elizabeth’s Women: Friends, Rivals, and Foes Who Shaped the Virgin Queen”, as well as “The Ring and the Crown: A History of Royal Weddings, 1066–2011”, which she co-authored with Alison Weir, Kate Williams, and Sarah Gristwood. Borman studied and taught history at the University of Hull and was awarded a Ph.D. in 1997. She has worked for various historic properties and national heritage organizations, including the National Archives and English Heritage. She is now chief executive of the Heritage Education Trust and also works for Historic Royal Palaces. Borman is a regular contributor to history magazines, such as BBC History Magazine, and is a frequent guest on television and radio. Her website: www.tracyborman.co.uk.
Publisher’s website: www.bantamdell.com