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Matilda in the Empire, 1110–25

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 December 2023

Stephen D. Church
Affiliation:
University of East Anglia
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Summary

In May 1134, Empress Matilda, countess of Anjou, spent some time with her father Henry I, king of England and duke of Normandy, in Rouen. She was pregnant with her second child and as the childbirth approached she fell perilously ill. She gave birth to her son at Notre Dame-du-Pré, a priory of the monks of Bec, where she convalesced, having almost lost her life. During her stay, the historian Robert of Torigni (prior of Bec and later abbot of Mont-Saint-Michel, best known for his World chronicle, a continuation of the work of Sigebert of Gembloux) was amongst the monks who provided spiritual care. Robert's earlier work is pertinent to this article. In the late 1130s, within a few years of Empress Matilda's almost fatal illness, he revised the Gesta Normannorum ducum, the deeds of the dukes of the Normans, originally written by William of Jumièges for William the Conqueror, and added a biography of Henry I. In it Robert included Matilda's reminiscences about her early life in the empire to which she owed her epithet ‘empress’. Matilda's semi-autobiography, embedded in the history of the Norman dukes, is of crucial importance for any reconstruction of her early life. Although it is very well known, there are aspects of Matilda's own story as recorded by Robert of Torigni that have either been under-represented or entirely overlooked.

Modern scholarship has painted Matilda as a capable and intelligent woman frustrated by circumstances and gendered prejudice who failed in her bid for the English throne due to her arrogance and impetuosity. This is the picture we find in the most recent biography, written by Marjorie Chibnall who herself followed the German late nineteenth-century biography of Oskar Rössler. Numerous historians have analysed her life, not least the modern biographers of King Stephen: R. H. C. Davis, David Crouch, Edmund King, and Carl Watkins. None of them has paid much attention to Matilda's early career in Germany. During the last twenty years, however, in Germany Amalia Fössel and Claudia Zey have thrown new light on Matilda, not so much as a result of new source material, but because of comparative research on German queens-consort. Both medievalists have stressed the fact that Matilda was unusual in three important aspects.

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Anglo-Norman Studies XLV
Proceedings of the Battle Conference 2022
, pp. 95 - 120
Publisher: Boydell & Brewer
Print publication year: 2023

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