The lives of England’s medieval queens were packed with incident—love, intrigue, betrayal, adultery, and warfare—but their stories have been largely obscured by centuries of myth and omission. Now esteemed biographer Alison Weir provides a fresh perspective and restores these women to their rightful place in history.
Spanning the years from the Norman conquest in 1066 to the dawn of a new era in 1154, when Henry II succeeded to the throne and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the first Plantagenet queen, was crowned, this epic book brings to vivid life five women, including: Matilda of Flanders, wife of William the Conqueror, the first Norman king; Matilda of Scotland, revered as “the common mother of all England”; and Empress Maud, England’s first female ruler, whose son King Henry II would go on to found the Plantagenet dynasty. More than those who came before or after them, these Norman consorts were recognized as equal sharers in sovereignty. Without the support of their wives, the Norman kings could not have ruled their disparate dominions as effectively.
Drawing from the most reliable contemporary sources, Weir skillfully strips away centuries of romantic lore to share a balanced and authentic take on the importance of these female monarchs. What emerges is a seamless royal saga, an all-encompassing portrait of English medieval queenship, and a sweeping panorama of British history.
Praise for Queens of the Conquest
“Best-selling author [Alison] Weir pens another readable, well-researched English history, the first in a proposed four-volume series on England’s medieval queens. . . . Weir’s research skills and storytelling ability combine beautifully to tell a fascinating story supported by excellent historical research. Fans of her fiction and nonfiction will enjoy this latest work.”—Library Journal (starred review)
“Another sound feminist resurrection by a seasoned historian . . . Though Norman queens were largely unknowable, leave it to this prolific historical biographer to bring them to life. . . . As usual, Weir is meticulous in her research.”—Kirkus Reviews
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Imagine a land centuries before industrialization, a rural, green land of vast royal forests and open fields, wild moorlands and undrained marshlands, with scattered villages overshadowed by towering castles, and small, bustling walled towns. A land inhabited by just two million people, whose lives were dominated by the twin calendars imposed by farming and the Church.
This was a realm torn by conflicts between Church and Crown, and by centuries of strife between the indigenous Anglo--Saxon population and the land--hungry Danes; a realm that bore the scars of the savagery of the Viking invaders, who had colonized parts of the island’s north and east—-yet nevertheless a realm in which trade and learning flourished, and kings traced their lineage back through the mists of time to Noah and the Norse god Woden. This was an age of faith and superstition, and an age of bloody warfare.
Imagine, in place of today’s modern traffic and electronic noise, the sound of birdsong, animals, church bells, plainchant, human voices and the occasional hunting horn or strumming of a lyre. This pleasant land, this rural landscape, was England in the time of the Norman queens.
“We Are Come for Glory”
The news was stupendous.
The messenger from England arrived in Normandy soon after 14 October 1066. He found the Duchess, Matilda of Flanders, on her knees, praying for her lord’s safety, in a chapel of the priory she had founded, Notre--Dame de Pré, near Rouen.
Her husband, William, Duke of Normandy, had launched his invasion of England the previous month, intent on seizing the throne he believed was rightfully his. He had endured a terrible crossing in stormy weather. Making land on 28 September at Pevensey, on England’s south coast, he had stumbled and fallen on the beach. His followers had cried out, “struck with fear at so evil an augury,” but William turned the fall to his advantage, holding up handfuls of sand and announcing, “I have taken seisin of this land with both my hands.” He was borne ashore to hearty acclaim.1
William soon learned that the English King, Harold, was away in the north, repelling an invasion by King Harold Hardrada of Norway. After defeating and killing Harold Hardrada at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire, Harold marched south to deal with the Norman threat. On 14 October, the two armies met at Senlac Hill in Sussex, five miles inland from the coast at Hastings, and engaged in a battle that would last for six hours and later become known as the Battle of Hastings.
Before the fighting began, William addressed his men: “I have no doubt of the victory; we are come for glory; the victory is in our hands, and we may make sure of obtaining it if we so please.” He fought tirelessly: “to see him reining in his horse, shining with sword, helmet and shield, and brandishing his lance, was a pleasant yet terrible sight.” It was said that three horses were killed under him that day, but still he fought on.
Harold and his men had spread out along the ridge called Senlac Hill, which placed the Normans in the fields below at a disadvantage; but when, at length, on William’s order, the Normans staged a retreat, the English made the fatal decision to abandon their strong position and chase after them, at which point the tide of battle turned in William’s favor, for without warning the Normans swung around and engaged the English in a fight that quickly turned into a bloodbath. Harold fell, mortally wounded, beneath his standards depicting the Fighting Man and the Gold Dragon of Wessex. Traditionally, he was shot in the eye by an arrow, but that scene in the Bayeux Tapestry also shows a soldier, who may well be Harold, being cut down with axes. His mother and his mistress were able to identify his mutilated body only from secret marks on it.
The victory was William’s, and, in fulfillment of a vow he had made before he sailed, “on the very spot where God granted him the conquest of England, he caused a great abbey to be built; and settled monks in it and richly endowed it.”2 Here Harold and many others had died, and in the abbey William provided for prayers to be offered in perpetuity for his own sins, for those of his wife Matilda, and for those of the fallen. Today, Battle Abbey stands on the site, although there is very little that remains of William’s original foundation.
William had now to consolidate his victory and establish himself as king, but first he sent his messenger across the sea to Normandy to tell Matilda that she was now, by the grace of God, queen of England.
Matilda of Flanders
Queen of William I
“A Very Beautiful and Noble Girl”
Count Baldwin V of Flanders was famed throughout Christendom as the wisest of men,1 a firm ruler and a precursor of the knights of chivalry—-the kind of prince whose friendship was much sought after. He was “a man of great power who towered above the rest. Counts, marquises, dukes, even archbishops of the highest dignity were struck dumb with admiration whenever the duty of their office earned them the presence of this distinguished guest. Kings too revered and stood in awe of his greatness.”2 He was descended from a powerful and noble family,3 and from the Emperor Charlemagne and England’s King Alfred (reigned 871–-99); Alfred’s daughter Elfrida had married his ancestor Baldwin II.
Baldwin ruled one of the greatest territories in northern Europe. He was strong of body, mighty in arms, wise in council, of “well--tried integrity” and “admirable alike for loyalty and wisdom, grey--haired yet with the vigour of youth.” Although not at heart a man of war, if he thought a cause was just he would support it wholeheartedly and keep faith with his allies.4 His reputation was such that in 1060 his brother--in--law, Henry I, King of France, would name him regent for his young son Philip.
Baldwin’s exalted position owed much to his being the husband of the French King’s sister.5 By the pious, strong--willed Adela, the daughter of Robert II, King of France, he had “gifted sons and daughters”: Baldwin, Robert and Matilda.6 Through the “wise and blessed” Countess Adela, the children inherited “a lineage many times greater even” than their father’s bloodline.7
There is no record of the order in which they were born. Matilda’s date of birth is unknown. The earliest possible date—-if she was the eldest child—-was 1031, her parents having consummated their marriage that year in the face of opposition from her grandfather, Baldwin IV, which was one reason why Baldwin rose against his father soon afterward8 in a rebellion incited by his wife. More likely Matilda was born in 1032 or later. She was connected to most of the ruling houses of Europe: “she sprang from the stock of the kings of Gaul and emperors of Germany, and was renowned equally for nobility of blood and character.”9
Matilda grew up at her father’s court, which was established mainly in Bruges (or Bryghia, as it was originally known), in the ninth--century castle that served as the administrative center of the counts of Flanders. Built around 850 by Count Baldwin I “Iron Arm” on the bank of the River Reie, it occupied what is now Burgplatz (Castle Square), and stood next to the contemporary Romanesque church of St. Donatian.10 From Bruges, Baldwin “Iron Arm” pursued an aggressive expansionist policy to establish the principality of Flanders. Under Matilda’s brother, Count Robert the Frisian, Bruges would become its capital. By Matilda’s time it was a prosperous center of commerce, and enjoyed “very great fame for the number of its inhabitants and for its affluence.”11
Matilda would also have spent time at her father’s castle in the Flemish city of Lille. It stood on an island—-l’Isle, hence the name Lille—-in a rural setting on the left bank of the Basse Deule river, with a vineyard to the east. Dating from before 1039, it housed the Chapelle de la Treille, in which the Blessed Virgin was venerated.12 Within the encircling wall and moat there was a donjon, or keep, and the Count’s residence, which was called La Salle.13
Count Baldwin owned other residences in which Matilda would have stayed: a ninth--century wooden castle at Ghent, on the site of which the present Gravensteen—-the Castle of the Counts—-was built in 1180; a hilltop castle at Thérouanne, overlooking the cathedral; and the tenth--century “bourg” at Saint--Omer, which was visited by the court for the observance of holy and feast days.14
The Flanders into which Matilda was born was a turbulent place. “Daily homicides and the spilling of human blood troubled the peace and quiet of the entire area.” The nobles would urge the bishops to “visit the places where this atrocious cruelty especially raged, and to instruct the docile and bloody spirit of the Flemings in the interest of peace and concord.”15 But trade and commerce were expanding, ushering in a new era of prosperity.
Matilda may have been old enough to be present in 1037 when the exiled Queen of England, Emma of Normandy, widow of King Cnut, was “honourably received” by Count Baldwin and Countess Adela in Bruges,16 having been driven out of England by her stepson, King Harold Harefoot.17 Baldwin offered Emma a refuge for “as long as she had need.”18 Now aged about fifty--two, she was to stay at his court, paying her own way, until 1040, when Harold Harefoot died and her own son, Harthacnut, succeeded to the English throne. During this time, the young Matilda may have come to know her, and perhaps been impressed by some rudimentary apprehension of Emma’s grandiose and forceful style of English queenship. Emma had wielded political influence and been respected for it; she had used her wealth to patronize scholars. In Bruges, she worked tirelessly for the right of Harthacnut to succeed his half brother. She may also have told Matilda something of Normandy, where she had grown up.
When her son became king and Queen Emma finally returned to England, the people of Flanders “wept, that she, whom during her whole exile they had regarded as a fellow citizen, was leaving them. Such was the lamentation on the whole shore, such was the wailing of all the people standing by,” while “a great abundance of tears” was shed by Baldwin, Adela and Emma as they said their farewells.19
The chronicler Orderic Vitalis would one day praise Matilda’s intelligence and her learning. The early education of royal children, up to the age of seven, was the responsibility of their mother. Learning was respected at Baldwin’s court, and, like her brothers, Matilda was probably taught to read in Latin, although, in common with most high-born children, she was not taught to write. There would always be clerks to do that for her. Much of her tuition would have focused on the Holy Scriptures and the lives of the saints. She may well have read the life of the tenth--century Roman Empress, the highly influential Adelaide of Burgundy, which her mother had commissioned.20 She would have been grounded in needlework and the management of a great household, and had piety instilled into her. This, above all, was an age of faith. The chronicler William of Poitiers, Archdeacon of Lisieux, recorded that Matilda’s most praiseworthy quality was “a strong faith and fervent love of Christ.”
The daughters of kings and lords—-who were referred to as princesses, but not so styled until the eighteenth century—-were brought up to accept that marriages would be arranged for them, and that it was their duty to render obedience first to their parents and later to their husbands. Marriage was seen as a desirable estate for both sexes, and for many women it defined their role in life. The alternative was the cloister, but it was generally expected that most royal and aristocratic women would marry, and marry well; it was rare to find one who died unwed or unprofessed.
The upbringing of high-born girls was therefore geared toward finding a suitable husband, one of fitting rank and standing, and it was incumbent largely upon their mothers to see that their daughters grew up chaste, discreet, humble, pious and obedient, and were prepared for marriage.
Like most girls, princesses were reared to an awareness that they had been born of an inferior sex, and that consequently their freedoms were limited—-although the example of their mothers might have demonstrated that women of rank could be enormously influential. The concept of female inferiority was older than Christianity, but centuries of Christian teaching had rigidly enforced it. Woman was an instrument of the devil, the author of original sin who would lure man away from the path to salvation—-in short, the only imperfection in God’s creation. Medieval women were regarded variously as weak and passive, or as domineering harridans, temptresses and whores. It was held that young girls needed to be protected from themselves so that they could be nurtured as chaste and submissive maidens and mothers. Marriage was essential to the medieval concept of the divine order of the world: the husband ruled his family, as the King ruled his realm, and as God ruled the universe, and—-like subjects—-wives were bound in obedience to their husbands and masters.
Matilda grew up to be fair, graceful, devout, learned and proud21—-“a very beautiful and noble girl of royal stock,” enthused Duke William of Normandy’s chaplain, William of Jumièges, who must have met her.
In the nineteenth century, it was claimed that, according to charters of Lewes Priory, Sussex, the young Matilda was married to Gherbod, advocate of St. Bertin’s Abbey in Flanders, and that she bore him a son, Gherbod the Fleming, Earl of Chester, but these charters have since been proved spurious.22
However, there may have been some truth in the later assertion that, “when she was a maiden,” Matilda “loved a count [earl] of England” called Brihtric Meaw, whose wealth was said to be surpassed only by that of King Edward the Confessor.23 Rarely in medieval times was royalty associated with romance; until comparatively recently, most royal marriages were the subject of treaties and alliances. In medieval times, marrying for love was regarded as an aberration and irresponsible—-and shocking. As the great chronicler William of Malmesbury observed, “Kingship and love make sorry bedfellows and sort but ill together.”
Even if it was merely an accepted fiction, there was some apprehension that love and freedom of choice played their roles in courtship, although they were not allowed to override the more powerful factors at play.
Brihtric was lord of the extensive honor of Gloucester, an honor being a great feudal lordship comprising dozens or hundreds of manors, held by great magnates (tenants--in--chief) of the Crown. He was a handsome man with snowy white hair, “meaw” meaning snow in Anglo--Saxon English. He may have been somewhat older than Matilda, as he had inherited Tewkesbury in 1020 and attested royal charters in the 1040s.24 She met him when King Edward sent him as an envoy to her father’s court at Bruges. Smitten, she resolved to obtain his love. It was not a wild or unrealistic fancy. In 1051, her aunt, Judith of Flanders, was to marry Tostig, a younger son of an English earl, Godwin of Wessex; Brihtric was a man of rank and far greater wealth than Tostig.
Boldly, Matilda sent a messenger to Brihtric, summoned him to see her, declared her feelings and proposed marriage. But he refused her.25 Fortunately another suitor was in view.
Table of Contents
Family Trees xvi
Glossary of British Terms xxv
"We Are Come for Glory" 5
Part 1 Matilda of Flanders
1 "A Very Beautiful and Noble Girl" 9
2 "Great Courage and High Daring" 14
3 "William Bastard" 18
4 "The Greatest Ceremony and Honour" 21
5 "Illustrious Progeny" 28
6 "The Tenderest Regard" 36
7 "The Piety of Their Princes" 43
8 "Without Honour" 50
9 "A Prudent Wife" 53
10 "The Splendour of the King" 58
11 "Power and Virtue" 66
12 "In Queenly Purple" 73
13 "Sword and Fire" 80
14 "Much Trouble" 89
15 "An Untimely Death" 96
16 "The Praise and Agreement of Queen Matilda" 100
17 "Ties of Blood" 102
18 "A Mother's Tenderness" 107
19 "The Noblest Gem of a Royal Race" 114
20 "Twofold Light of November" 117
Part 2 Matilda of Scotland
1 "Casting Off the Veil of Religion" 127
1 "Her Whom He so Ardently Desired" 135
3 "A Matter of Controversy" 140
4 "Godric and Godgifu" 143
5 "Another Esther in Our Own Time" 148
6 "Lust for Glory" 154
7 "The Common Mother of All England" 158
8 "Most Noble and Royal on Both Sides" 164
9 "Daughter of Archbishop Anselm" 169
10 "Reprove, Beseech, Rebuke" 173
11 "Incessant Greetings" 180
12 Pious Devotion" 187
13 "A Girl of Noble Character" 193
14 "The Peace of the King and Me" 198
"All the Dignity of a Queen" 201
"Blessed Throughout the Ages" 205
Part 3 Adeliza of Louvain
1 "Without Warning" 215
2 "A Fortunate Beauty" 219
3 "His Only Heir" 227
4 "Royal English Blood" 232
5 "The Offence of the Daughter" 238
6 "The Peril of Death" 245
7 "Cast Down in Darkness" 250
Part 4 Matilda of Boulogne and the Empress Maud
1 "In Violation of His Oath" 257
2 "Ravening Wolves" 261
3 "A Manly Heart in a Woman's Body" 264
4 "The First Anniversary of My Lord" 271
5 "Unable to Break Through" 274
6 "Ties of Kinship" 279
7 "Feminine Shrewdness" 283
8 "Touch Not Mine Anointed" 287
9 "His Extraordinary Queen" 291
10 "A Desert Full of Wild Beasts" 294
11 "Treacherous Advice" 298
12 "May Your Imperial Dignity Thrive" 302
13 "Christ and His Saints Slept" 306
14 "Hunger-Starved Wolves" 310
15 "Shaken with Amazement" 314
16 "Dragged by Different Hooks" 317
17 "Sovereign Lady of England" 322
18 "Insufferable Arrogance" 327
19 "Terrified and Troubled" 334
20 "Rejoicing and Exultation" 341
21 "The Lawful Heir" 347
22 "One of God's Manifest Miracles" 352
23 "Wretchedness and Oppression" 357
24 "A New Light Had Dawned" 361
25 "An Example of Fortitude and Patience" 367
26 "For the Good of My Soul" 370
27 "Carried by the Hands of Angels" 376
Part 5 The Empress Maud
1 "Joy and Honour" 381
2 "The Light of Morning" 385
3 "A Woman of the Stock of Tyrants" 390
4 "A Star Fell" 397
Appendix I A Guide to the Principal Chronicle Sources 405
Appendix II Letters 413
Select Bibliography 441
Notes and References 469
Reading Group Guide
It was extraordinary to discover, when I was researching Queens of the Conquest, that, in a brutal world dominated by men, the Norman queens were recognized as equal sharers in the royal authority, and that they wielded real power and often acted autonomously. Few females of lesser rank could have broken so remarkably through the constraints of an age in which women were regarded as inferior creatures who should be subject to the rule of men; yet there was one who, like the Norman queens, defied the conventions of her time, took control of her own body, and was one of the great free thinkers of her day. Her name was Heloise, and her story is known through eight letters that were discovered in the thirteenth century.She is famous for her tragic love affair with the scholar Peter Abelard, yet there was much more to her life than that. Not for nothing has she been celebrated, for eight centuries, by historians, artists, poets, novelists and filmmakers.
Heloise grew up in a world dominated by feudalism, the Church and the flowering of the twelfth--century Renaissance. She was the niece of Fulbert, a wealthy, cunning and miserly canon of the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. Reared at the ancient royal convent of Argenteuil, she was taught Latin, Greek and even Hebrew, and educated to a standard not normally permitted to girls, even those of noble birth. At seventeen, by which time her formidable erudition was already renowned, she was sent to Paris to live in the house of her uncle, who would hopefully find her a husband of standing—-and enrich himself in the process.
But Heloise turned down offers of marriage, as she wanted to continue with her studies. Arriving at her uncle’s house in 1115, she met his lodger, the famous scholar Peter Abelard, and, like many women, was powerfully attracted to him. “What king or philosopher could match your fame?” she would later write. “What region, city, or village did not long to see you? When you appeared in public, who did not hurry to catch a glimpse of you, or crane her neck and strain her eyes to follow your departure? Every wife, every young girl, desired you in absence and was on fire in your presence. Your manhood was adorned by every grace of mind and body.”
Abelard was then about thirty--six, more than twice Heloise’s age. The oldest son of a noble Breton family, he was already established as a great—-and revolutionary—-teacher in the cathedral school of Paris, which later evolved into the university of the Sorbonne. As was mandatory for all such teachers at that time, Abelard had taken minor orders and was vowed to celibacy, for it was believed that marriage and family life were incompatible with the teaching of theology, philosophy and other disciplines.
As part--payment for his keep, Canon Fulbert asked Abelard to tutor Heloise. Abelard, who had until now kept his vow of celibacy, found himself captivated by her beauty and intellect. He later recalled: “In looks she did not rank least, while in the abundance of her learning she was supreme. A gift for letters is so rare in women that it added greatly to her charm and had made her very famous throughout the realm.” Entranced, he seduced her. “Knowing her knowledge and love of letters I thought she would be all the more ready to consent, and that even when separated we could enjoy each other’s presence by exchange of written messages in which we could write many things more boldly than we could say them, and so need never lack the pleasures of conversation.” And so it proved. In Paris, on the wall of a house near Notre Dame, there is even an inscription commemorating the place where Heloise first experienced the joys of consummation.
Secretly, they embarked on a passionate love affair. Abelard recalled: “We were united, first under one roof, then in heart; and so, with our lessons as a pretext, we abandoned ourselves entirely to love. Her studies allowed us to withdraw in private, as love desired, and then, with our books open before us, more words of love than of our reading passed between us, and more kissing than teaching. My hands strayed oftener to her bosom than to the pages; love drew our eyes to look on each other more than reading kept them on our texts.”
Their “desires left no stage of lovemaking untried, and if love devised something new, [they] welcomed it.” They risked making love in Fulbert’s house, on holy days (when it was forbidden) and even in a convent. Sometimes the sex was violent, as Abelard would reveal. “To attract less suspicion, I sometimes gave her blows, but out of love, not fury, out of kindness, not anger—-blows that surpassed the sweetness of all ointment.” He blamed himself for this. “Even when you were unwilling, resisted to the utmost of your power, and tried to dissuade me, as yours was the weaker nature, I often forced you to consent with threats and blows. So intense were the fires of lust which bound me to you that I set those wretched, obscene pleasures, which we blush even to name, above God as above myself.” He was aware at the time that, in making Heloise his mistress, he was not only infringing all the laws of hospitality, but also fatally diminishing her chances in the marriage market, for virginal girls of good birth were essentially chattels who could be married off for profit.
Abelard was also tormented by guilt for betraying his vows, but Heloise saw things differently. For her, the love they bore each other superseded all else. Abelard was everything to her. She wanted only to love him and pursue her studies. Marriage was a convention that meant nothing. “I looked for no marriage--bond, no marriage portion, and it was not my own pleasures and wishes I sought to gratify, as you well know, but yours,” she was to tell Abelard. “The name of wife may seem more sacred or more binding, but sweeter for me will always be the word friend, or, if it does not shame you, that of concubine, or whore. I believed that, the more I humbled myself on your account, the more gratitude I should win from you, and also the less damage I should do to the brightness of your reputation.”
Her passion was returned in full measure. “If there is anything that may properly be called happiness here below,” Abelard wrote, “I am persuaded it is the union of two persons who love each other with perfect liberty, who are united by a secret inclination, and satisfied with each other’s merits. Their hearts are full and leave no vacancy for any other passion; they enjoy perpetual tranquillity because they enjoy contentment.”
Such a great passion could not be kept secret for long. Abelard, Heloise recalled, had “the gift of composing verse and song. More than anything, this made women sigh for love of you.” His love songs celebrating her were widely circulated and became famous. “As most of the songs told of our love, they soon made me widely known and roused the envy of many women against me.” She would claim that “queens and great ladies envied me my joys and my bed.”
Fulbert heard the gossip and was enraged. After Heloise discovered she was pregnant, he threw Abelard out of his house. Abelard tried bribing one servant after another to get a message to Heloise, urging her to abscond with him. At length, her singing teacher agreed, and Heloise managed to inform Abelard that she was expecting his child and would willingly join him. He fled with her to his sister’s house in Brittany, where she gave birth to a son whom she called Astrolabe—-because that instrument was seen as a path to Heaven and the stars and symbolized her love for Abelard.
Learning what had happened, Fulbert flew into a fury. To pacify him, Abelard offered to wed a reluctant Heloise. “She, however, most violently disapproved of this, and for two chief reasons: the danger thereof, and the disgrace which it would bring upon me. What penalties, she said, would the world rightly demand of her if she should rob it of so shining a light!” But she really had no choice. Leaving her son in Brittany (beyond a few obscure references to him in her letters, nothing is known of what became of him), she returned to Paris, where she and Abelard married in secret, to protect his reputation and his career. Not wishing to stand in the way of that, Heloise chose openly to deny that she was his wife. “God knows,” she wrote, “I never sought anything in you except yourself. I wanted simply you, nothing of yours.”
She had a presentiment that marriage would sound the death knell of their love. “Then there is no more left but this, that in our doom the sorrow yet to come shall be no less than the love we two have already known.” With hindsight, Abelard later wrote, “As now the whole world knows, she did not lack the spirit of prophecy.”
As fearful for her reputation as she was for his, and to shield her from Fulbert’s anger, Abelard persuaded her to put on a nun’s habit and seek refuge at the convent of Argenteuil. Again, Fulbert was enraged, believing that this was just a ruse on Abelard’s part to be rid of her, although Abelard was visiting her there—-and having sex with her on the table in the visitors’ parlor or kitchen. Incandescent at Abelard bringing such shame upon him, and thwarted in his plans for a lucrative marriage for Heloise, Fulbert sent some of his relatives and friends to take his revenge. Later, Abelard described what happened next: “Violently incensed, they laid a plot against me, and one night, while I, all unsuspecting, was asleep in a secret room in my lodgings, they broke in with the help of one of my servants whom they had bribed. There they had vengeance on me with a most cruel and most shameful punishment, such as astounded the whole world; for they cut off those parts of my body with which I had done that which was the cause of their sorrow.”
Although Abelard recovered, the loss of his manhood was devastating for both him and Heloise. Not only did it put an end to their passionate relationship, but it also put an end to any hope Abelard might have had for future high office in the Church, since eunuchs were barred from that—-a fact of which Fulbert had been fully aware. The perpetrators of the crime were condemned to be castrated also, and Fulbert was barred from Notre Dame for some years, but that did not help the lovers. In shame, Abelard retreated to the abbey of St. Denis in Paris, and there became a monk. But first, contrary to her own desire—-she was only twenty—-he commanded, as her husband, that Heloise too enter religion, as a nun at Argenteuil. It was as if he was ensuring that, if he could not have her, no other man could.
That hurt her deeply. She was still feeling a sense of betrayal years later when she wrote to him: “As though mindful of the wife of Lot, who looked back from behind him, you delivered me first to the sacred garments and monastic profession before you gave yourself to God. And for that, in this one thing, you should have had little trust in me: I vehemently grieved and was ashamed. For I (God knows) would without hesitation precede or follow you to the Vulcanian fires according to your word. For not with me was my heart, but with thee. But now, more than ever, if it be not with thee, it is nowhere. For without thee it cannot anywhere exist.”
She had no leaning toward the religious life. “It was not any sense of vocation which brought me as a young girl to accept the austerities of the cloister, but your bidding alone. I can expect no reward for this from God, for it is certain that I have done nothing as yet for love of Him.” She existed only for Abelard’s love, or the memory of it.
Condemned for heresy in 1121 (he had attacked the accepted concept of the Holy Trinity), Abelard became a hermit for a time, then, with the aid of his pupils, he built a new monastic school, which he called the Paraclete (the Comforter) near Troyes, in northeastern France. In 1125, he was made Abbot of St Gildas--de--Rhuys in his native Brittany, and gave the Paraclete to Heloise and her sister nuns. Throughout their monastic lives, Heloise and Abelard maintained a regular and often passionate correspondence. Their letters reveal how their love endured until the end of their lives.
“Let me have a faithful account of all that concerns you,” Heloise wrote in one. “I would know everything, be it ever so unfortunate. Perhaps, by mingling my sighs with yours, I may make your sufferings less, for it is said that all sorrows divided are made lighter.” It grieved her that, although he remained devoted to her, Abelard would not engage with her emotionally in his letters, or give her the responsive support she needed to endure the life he had chosen for her. “While I am denied your presence, give me at least through your words, of which you have enough to spare, some sweet semblance of yourself. Remember, I implore you, what I have done, and think how much you owe me. I beg you to restore your presence to me in what way you can, by writing some word of comfort. Give ear to my pleas, and I will finish a long letter with a brief ending: farewell, my one--and--only.”
In time, Abelard could find it in himself to thank God for his “greatest misfortune,” which had mercifully excised “the place from which lust rules”; he now felt he had been “cleansed rather than deprived.” Heloise had no such consolation. “Men call me chaste,” she wrote. “They do not know the hypocrite I am.” She kept asking to meet Abelard, reminding him that they were still married, but he refused, saying his love for her had been purely physical. God’s mercy had freed them from sexual desire so that they could embrace divine love.
Yet Heloise could never forget their passion. For her, love had been intensely physical, and the remembrance of it burned like a flame in her soul. “The lovers’ pleasures we enjoyed together were so sweet to me that they can scarcely fade from my memory. Wherever I turn, they are always there before my eyes, bringing with them awakened longings and fantasies which will not even let me sleep. Even during the celebration of the Mass, when our prayers should be purer, lewd visions of those pleasures take such a hold on my most unhappy soul that my thoughts are on their wantonness rather than on prayer. I, who should be grieving for the sins I have committed, am sighing rather for what I have lost. The things we did, and also the places and times we did them, are stamped on my heart along with your image, so that I live through them all again with you. Even in sleep I know no respite.”
In time, though, her letters took on a more spiritual tone, and she resigned herself to being Abelard’s “dearly beloved sister in Christ.”
In 1142, after again being accused of heresy and retiring to the great abbey of Cluny, Abelard died at the priory of St. Marcel near Chalon, aged sixty--three. At Heloise’s request, his body was buried at the Paraclete, and she was laid to rest beside him in the same tomb on her own death in 1164. Legend has it that, as she was laid beside him, Abelard’s skeleton opened its arms to embrace her. In 1800, after being moved several times, their remains were translated to Paris, and in 1817, at the behest of the Empress Josephine, they were buried together in an elaborate sepulchre at Pere Lachaise cemetery. Today, lovers still leave flowers there.
In 1980, a cache of 113 short letters said to have been exchanged between Heloise and Abelard was discovered in a Latin manual of letter writing dating from 1471, having been transcribed in a single document. But the attribution to the lovers can be based only on circumstantial, rather than actual, evidence, and scholarly opinion is divided as to the letters’ authenticity.
Heloise’s story is perceived as being eternally entwined with Abelard’s, but she deserves to stand in her own right alongside such heroines of the twelfth century as Matilda of Scotland, Hildegard of Bingen, Matilda of Boulogne and Eleanor of Aquitaine. In some ways, Heloise is a very modern heroine, for in making her controversial choice to place her love for Abelard above all other considerations, and to indulge that love freely, taking no account of the conventions of her day, she defied society and the rules of the Church. She has been seen as a champion of free love because for a long time she refused marriage, believing that men and women should give themselves freely to each other without enslavement. She is also seen as a rebel who defied God Himself, and as an early champion of the liberation of women. Her name is synonymous with both love and tragedy, and for that alone, she has become a legend.
1. “The past is a foreign country,” wrote L. P. Hartley, but is it possible to draw parallels between the world inhabited by the Norman queens and our world today?
2. Were you surprised by the extent of the power and influence enjoyed by the Norman queens? If so, why?
3. Which queen did you like most? And which one was most effective in her role?
4. Why was it that women were so often denied power in the past? Did the example of the Empress Maud reinforce those views?
5. Was it the Empress Maud’s sex that militated against her? Or was it her own actions?
6. Is it possible to see any of the Norman queens as feminist heroines? And is it right to draw feminist parallels with women who lived centuries ago and had no understanding of the concept of feminism?
7. In the nineteenth century, biographer Agnes Strickland wrote highly romanticized and moralistic accounts of medieval queens, an approach that has only relatively recently been abandoned. Do you think that Alison Weir has achieved a more realistic and objective portrayal?
8. What kind of monarchs would these queens have made had they been allowed to rule?
9. How do the moral values and priorities of the eleventh and twelfth centuries differ from those of today? Would kings like William the Conqueror and Henry I be as much admired in the modern age?
10. Do you feel that this book and other contemporary sources clarify or obscure our view of the Norman queens? And do you believe it is possible for a historian to achieve—-and convey to readers—-some apprehension of their emotional lives?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Although I have always been interested in British history, I have only recently discovered Alison Weir's books. This one, Queens of the Conquest, is the first of a four-volume series the author has planned. Weir does extensive research of each of her subjects, in order to provide exhaustive detail for the reader, and this volume is no different. While not a textbook, Queens of the Conquest contains information for serious study of the time period. Lovers of British history will enjoy this all-encompassing account of the queens during the time of the Normans, beginning with with the story of Matilda of Flanders, wife of William the Conquor, and continuing with Matilda of Scotland ("Edith"), first wife of Henry I, and Adelaiza of Louvain, second wife of wife of Henry I, Matilda of Boulogne, wife of Stephen, and the Empress Maud (also named Matilda) who was chosen by her father, Henry I to succeed him, but was rejected because she was a woman. I wrote about the tragic story of Maud in the historical fiction book, The Fatal Crown, whose author admits to taking some liberties with the calendar and a few obscure facts to make a more interesting story. Weir, however, writes non-fiction, and, therefore, conducts extensive historical research. The book is quite lengthy, but if you are a history lover as I am, you will enjoy every page. I am already looking forward to the next volumes in this series.
If you enjoy non-fiction books about English history, this is a must. Alison Weir's "Queens of Conquest" is so well done, I really had a hard time putting it down. Now, that is hard to say about non-fiction, especially ones filled with so much detail, but this book is a treasure of information. This book focuses on four of England's Medieval Queens and how they helped shaped the history of their country. The scope of Weir's research is wonderful, she has buckets of references (which I find great in a non-fiction book). As with all history this old, and especially about women, there sometimes isn't a lot of information to go with, or the information can be biased from a patriarchal society. In this work, Weir presents the facts, but also includes "myths" and "stories" about the women, noting the history of the information and how reliable it may be. This book covers many aspects of the queen's lives from the clothing they wore, to how they ran their household, to how they handled diplomacy and intimate affairs of the heart. Of course, a novel about queens will undoubtedly include information about their spouses and children. Although the main focus of the information is on the lives these women led, you have to get the grander picture, which includes their royal marriages and the history of the spouses. Because the historical facts of these great women, although today is seen as incredibly important, didn't really concern the scholars of the day, there are a lot of gaps and assumptions that have to be made based on what the royal court was doing at certain times of the year. This is really common with subject matter this old, especially in areas of the world where few could read and write. A beautiful, well written book. I am going to add it to my collection of medieval history. You don't have to be an expert on English history to enjoy this book, but you may get a little lost with all the names and dates. My suggestion is to take your time, and even do a little internet research to get a bigger picture of the family lineages and to see the notable places Weir mentions. My only advice is to get the hardback copy if you are interested in maps or tables. Weir works out the family trees of these women, but it is a bit hard to follow on a e-book. Of course, you can look everything up online if you do decided to get the e-book. I received an e-copy of this book from NetGalley for my honest review.
For those like reading detailed history of The Queens of the Conquest is an interesting read. My first and only other book I have read by Alison Weir is Elizabeth of York (Henry the Eighth's mother). She was a very passive queen. As a group the medieval queens were much involved in governing. While they would not have been seen as men's equals, they were influential. They were very literate in an age when many Kings could not read. They acted as regents when the kings were away at war. They built churches and founded charities. There is a long bloody civil war where one woman (Maud) wants to become the ruling queen of England and is fighting Stephen for the throne where Stephen’s wife plays a key role in keeping the war going. Thus in this civil war two women played leading roles on opposing sides. As an American, I feel a cultural barrier sometimes when reading about English history before Henry the Eighth written by British writers. My knowledge of this period is very scantly. (For example it was only in the past couple of years that I found out that the Normans were decedents of the Vikings; I did not realize that ethnically they were Scandinavian not Latin. I was taught that the English were invaded by the French). Many British writers, I think are writing on the assumption people have a greater knowledge of British history than what I was taught in the states. These writers sometimes assume a knowledge of British history that does not get caught in the states. The book is very detailed; some readers may find it slow. I was surprised at the amount of information that exists about some of these rulers. The book is for someone who is a determined reader. However for history buffs this book is a worthwhile read. I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.