Why is everyone called Matilda?

Published on: Author: Harriet Gaston Leave a comment

A guest post by Dr Steve Marritt, Lecturer in History, University of Glasgow.

Certainly one of the coins in the In Focus case display ‘Anarchy? Coinage of King Stephen’s Reign, and perhaps a second, the two-figure coin, incorporate Matildas. Actually, this question is quite easy, but it comes with some complications! First, not everyone we know as Matilda was actually called Matilda originally. Second, you don’t have to call them Matilda, you can also call them Mathilda or Maud, the crucial thing is to be consistent! Queen Matilda II, daughter of Malcolm III Canmore King of Scotland, had been christened Edith, an Anglo-Saxon name. That makes sense because her mother, Queen Margaret, was an Anglo-Saxon princess and she and Malcolm III had named three of their sons with Anglo-Saxon royal names, including King Edgar of Scotland (ruled 1097-1107). When Edith married Henry I in 1100 (though that name must have been considered unsuitable by the Norman aristocracy who still thought of themselves very much as such), Henry crowned her as Queen Matilda. In fact, the Norman elite of Conquest England still mocked Henry and his new queen for her Anglo-Saxon background– they christened them ‘Godric’ and ‘Godgifu’, the ‘chav’ Anglo-Saxon names of the time. Matilda II is often known as Matilda of Scotland, but no one called her this in her own time (indeed, there is a better candidate, for whom see below). Matilda II wasn’t the first Queen of England who had had to take a new name. She is an interesting reversal of the case of Emma of Normandy (d.1052), daughter of Duke Richard I (and therefore a great aunt of William the Conqueror), who had married first Aethelred the Unready (and had Edward the Confessor with him) and then Cnut (and had Harthacnut with him). In England, she was known as Aelfigifu.

Matilda was not an uncommon name in the eleventh and twelfth-centuries in what is now northern France and Belgium, but many of our Matildas were almost certainly named for William the Conqueror’s wife, Matilda, Duchess of Normandy and Queen Matilda I of England. Matilda was a daughter of the Count of Flanders, who was sought out by William because she offered him legitimacy and ancestry that he, an illegitimate son of duchy with a very short history, simply didn’t have. In the twelfth century, stories circulated that William may have abducted Matilda and perhaps even raped her to make sure that she and her family would consent to a marriage they may all have thought was beneath her. It seems that the marriage itself was very strong, William is famously the only Norman king who we’re sure was heterosexual and who had no known illegitimate children. Matilda became his partner in government in both Normandy and in England. Indeed, she would rule both for him while he was in the other. She also contributed the flagship for William’s invasion fleet in 1066. A formidable and rightly revered queen, it isn’t a surprise that Edith would take Matilda as a name on her marriage to Henry I, son of Matilda I and Henry I, nor that their daughter, the Empress would take the name too.

Stephen’s queen, Matilda of Boulogne, Matilda III, may well have been named in the same tradition. We’ve already noted that Matilda wasn’t an uncommon name in the eleventh-century and Matilda III’s own great-grandmother had been a Matilda, Matilda of Leuven (in modern Belgium), but she herself was born in around 1105. Her mother’s sister was by then Queen Matilda II and her father and grandfather, Counts Eustace II and III of Boulogne, had been intimately (though not always easily) connected to the Norman conquest and William the Conqueror and his family from the very start.

David I’s wife, Matilda de Senlis, was probably named for Matilda I too. Her mother, Judith of Lens, was a daughter of William the Conqueror’s sister, Adelaide. William had married Judith to Waltheof, the Anglo-Danish Earl of Northampton and Huntingdon (and member of the historic ruling family of Northumbria), as part of an attempt to rule with the surviving English elite in the first years after the Conquest. Judith’s loyalties were to her uncle: she betrayed her husband’s involvement in a rebellion in 1075 and William had him beheaded. William then wanted her to marry Simon I de Senlis, who he had given Waltheof’s estates to. Judith refused and fled into exile, so William married Matilda to Simon instead. This Matilda has the better claim than her aunt Matilda II to be called Matilda of Scotland, though we know very little about her as David’s consort here.

The Empress Matilda’s son, Henry II, would marry outside the Norman/Anglo-Saxon royal connections. He married Eleanor, Duchess of Aquitaine, ex-wife of King Louis VII of France, and there would be no more Queen Matildas of England. Even so, one of their daughters would be called Matilda and become Duchess of Saxony (1156-1189). One of her sons would become Emperor Otto IV (d.1209).

With the possible exception of our ‘Matilda of Scotland’, David I’s consort of whom we know relatively little, all of our Matildas (Matilda I, Matilda II, Matilda III and the Empress Matilda) were major political, religious and cultural figures with considerable independent agency. All need to be considered in their own right, not just as consorts of their husbands.

 Empress Matilda, penny, c.1141 - 1142, silver, Cardiff, GLAHM:37697, purchase 1981.
Empress Matilda, penny, c.1141 – 1142, silver, Cardiff, GLAHM:37697, purchase 1981.

The in focus display ‘Anarchy’? The Coinage of King Stephen’s Reign is at the Hunterian Museum until 15 December 2019. Further information is also available on The Hunterian website.

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