Matilda II: The Forgotten Queen
“By quoting contemporary letters and histories, Arman brings this woman and her world vividly to life. More than that, she shows how Matilda fits into medieval England and what gifts she left the kingdom she ruled so wisely and so well.”
Joanna Arman has provided an important service to medieval history by giving us the story of Matilda II, a Scottish princess who married Henry I, the son of William the Conqueror. Their marriage united dynasties and gave England a stability unusual for the early 12th century. Somehow her identity became merged with that of her daughter, also named Matilda, who married well herself, to the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V, which is why she seems to have been "forgotten."
Arman shines much needed light on this queen, ruling at a pivotal time and deeply involved in the day to day running of the country while her husband was away on his many military campaigns. She begins with the dynastic underpinnings Matilda brought to the thrones of both Scotland and England: "Her first notable contribution to British history was to unite the line of Wessex with the line of William the Conqueror, and because of a series of fortunate marriages her siblings became some of the greatest rulers of Scotland."
Arman nimbly outlines major issues of medieval history, like the Investiture Controversy (who has the right to appoint church officials—the kind or the Church?), the Norman Conquest, and the First Crusade. She manages to introduce a lot of history clearly and briefly, giving just enough detail to make Matilda's world understandable.
Her marriage to Henry was political, as all noble marriages were at the time. She came from Saxon stock, he from Norman. Their union allowed a merging of the two peoples as well, a granting of status to both groups. Arman describes Matilda's important role in solidifying Henry's position on the throne:
"She certainly had a valid ancestral claim to rule England, which worked to give Henry more legitimacy and bolstered his right to rule the country. This gave him support in England which his deceased brother William and surviving brother Robert never managed to secure."
With her family tree and solid education, it wasn't surprising that Henry let Matilda take "the reins of rulership" when he was away, naming her official regent. She had dutifully provided an heir, a son, plus the daughter who bore her same name. With that out of the way, she proved herself useful in other ways:
"It was when Matilda established herself in her role as queen and proved herself to be a worthy consort, that she took an active interest in the political and administrative affairs of state. . . . She attended meetings of the royal council, something which would not have been permitted without the assent of her husband. . . . Matilda proved to be especially helpful in Henry's legal reforms. She almost certainly understood English, and she was useful as a symbol of continuity with the past. Her knowledge of English would have given her an advantage in communicating with local officials . . . Many charters, although not necessarily witnessed by her, mention 'per Queen Matilda' which suggests that she was involved in the decision-making process or the transmission of information in this manner."
This is some of the real work of governing, and here was a woman doing it in the early 12th century.
Matilda was educated, reading and writing Latin, and developing correspondences with major thinkers of the time, most notably Anselm, the powerful archbishop of Canterbury and author of major philosophical and religious treatises. She also wrote to the Byzantine Emperor, Alexius II Kommene, who considered her such a worthy queen, he sent her the most valuable gift he could—a relic of the True Cross, the cross which Christ had been crucified on. Matilda presided over a court that was known for being a center of scholarship and learning.
By quoting contemporary letters and histories, Arman brings this woman and her world vividly to life. More than that, she shows how Matilda fits into medieval England and what gifts she left the kingdom she ruled so wisely and so well.