William of Normandy (c. 1027/1028-1087) was the illegitimate son of Duke Robert I of Normandy and Herleve, the daughter of a tanner. Luckily for William, his father, Duke Robert, never fathered any other known sons. Therefore, when Robert decided to leave France in order to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the duke made sure everyone knew that William was the heir to his domain. Duke Robert died in 1035, while returning home from that aforementioned pilgrimage. Upon the death, William was recognized as the new Duke of Normandy. Even so, his illegitimate birth left him vulnerable to rivals who coveted his power.
William’s childhood was perilous, with plots and schemes around every corner. After surviving his dangerous youth, William was knighted in 1042, at the age of fifteen, and began to assert his ducal powers. The many resulting rebellions caused by these attempts to assert authority continued for well over a decade. In fact, the revolts in Normandy were still ongoing when William began considering marriage. He ultimately married Matilda, the daughter of Count Baldwin V of Flanders. The duke and the count were both in vital need of allies and the union would be of mutual benefit. Arrangements between the two rulers began as early as 1049, but the marriage took place in 1053, when William was in his mid-twenties. At the time of their wedding, the rebellions in Normandy still posed a serious threat to William, and he would not regain complete control for another one or two years.
Matilda of Flanders, William’s new wife, was said to have been one of the great beauties of her day. The marriage proved quite fruitful, and she would eventually give birth to four sons and a least five or six daughters. Although her husband’s position may have seemed precarious to Matilda in 1053, William would eventually make himself the strongest warlord in northern France and, after the Battle of Hastings in 1066, he also made himself the king of England. Although the union was a politically arranged marriage, William evidently trusted and respected Matilda, for when he crossed the English Channel to conquer the Anglo-Saxon kingdom; he made his wife (aided by their son, Robert Curthose) the regent ruler of Normandy.
When the abbey of Ste Trinité, located in Caen, underwent excavations in 1961, Queen Matilda’s bones were examined. Based on observations of the bones, scholars made an interesting observation—Queen Matilda was really, really short. They estimated that she could only have been around four feet, two inches tall! Compared to the above-average height of her husband, William (approximately five feet, ten inches), the powerful pair must have been quite the sight.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Painting of Queen Matilda sewing, c. 1868, by Joseph Martin Kronheim (1810–96), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- King Harald’s Saga, by Snorri Sturluson, translated by Magnus Mangusson and Hermann Pálsson. New York: Penguin Books, 1966, 2005.