Proto-Feminism in the 12th Century:This is Your Life, Queen Edith Matilda

Just over a year ago, I published an account of Eleanor of Aquitaine, the famous Queen of King Henry II.* I then argued that the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine reflected the important political role women played in Western Europe in the mid-twelfth century.

Eleanor, the Queen Consort to Henry II, is very well known. Less well-known is Edith Matilda, Queen Consort to King Henry I, who died just under 900 years ago today, on 1st May 1118. Yet it could be argued that Edith Matilda’s life was the political trail-blazer for 12th century feminism. In many ways, Eleanor of Aquitaine’s success was due to the feminist foundations set by Edith Matilda in the first quarter of the 12th century.

  • Edith’s background was aristocratic. More importantly, she was descended from the Anglo/Saxon aristocracy. Born in about 1080, Edith was the seventh child of King Malcolm III of Scotland, and his Queen, Margaret. It was through her mother, the saintly Queen Margaret, that Edith claimed legitimate decent from the Anglo-Saxon Wessex dynasty. Edith’s mother, Margaret, was the sister of Edgar the Atheling, whose legitimate claims to the English succession in 1066 had been effectively over-ruled by Harold Godwine. Not only that, but Edith was also descended from the Anglo-Saxon monarch King Edmund Ironside; confirming her descent from the Royal House of Wessex.
  • Edith’s childhood was mainly spent at Romsey Abbey in Hampshire. It seems that Edith never actually took the vows of a nun, and certainly did not lack for eligible suitors as she grew to womanhood. The suitor who mattered was Henry, the youngest son of William the Conqueror. King Henry I married Edith on 11th November 1100, shortly after his accession in August 1100. The marriage included Edith’s coronation as Henry I’s Queen. Henceforth, Edith also took the name of Matilda, partly as a sop to Norman sentiment; and so she is known to historians as ‘Edith Matilda’.
  • Henry I’s new bride greatly helped Henry to consolidate his accession to the English Throne in 1100. As is well known, Henry had succeeded to the English Crown in August 1100 in odd circumstances. His elder brother, William II, had been killed in a freak accident whilst hunting in the New Forest (he had been killed by an arrow from a member of his hunting party). William II lacked any offspring, so Henry seized his chance and took the throne before his other brother, Duke Robert of Normandy, could act. Henry’s ‘royalist coup d’état’ left him in a vulnerable position, and his marriage to Edith Matilda probably won him the useful support of the Anglo-Saxon population. As the contemporary writer of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle stated: “The King married Maud [Edith Matilda], daughter of Malcolm, king of Scots, and of Margaret, the good queen, the kinswoman of King Edward, of the true royal family of England” (my italics).
  • As queen consort, Edith Matilda showed she was no mere cipher. After Henry’s opportunistic royal takeover in August 1100, he faced continual opposition from his eldest brother Duke Robert, who felt cheated out of his legitimate claim to rule England. In 1101, Duke Robert led a formidable invasion force to England. In the face of Robert’s invasion, Henry managed to retain his royal authority in England; but the price he had to pay for his success was a staggering £2,000 a year to Duke Robert. The annual payment of such a ‘Danegeld’ would have been a serious drain on Henry I’s financial resources; but it seems that Edith Matilda was able to persuade Duke Robert to forgo this annual pension a few years later. The fact that Duke Robert was personally well disposed to Edith Matilda (he was her godfather) will have helped. Even so, Edith Matilda had shown diplomatic skill in her dealings with Duke Robert, and one suspects that Robert would not have been so accommodating to his brother Henry.
  • In the eighteen years from Henry I’s accession in 1100 to her own death in 1118, Edith Matilda took an important role In Henry’s government, particularly when Henry was across the Channel in Normandy. Queen Edith Matilda then acted as Henry’s Regent in England. She issued writs in her own name. Edith Matilda had her own seal, with which she validated her writs and charters. Edith Matilda also expected to be consulted by Henry’s ministers on important matters of government. One such minister was Bishop Roger of Salisbury. Under Edith Matilda’s political patronage Bishop Roger started to display his talents for government, whether in finance, or conduct of the law. For example, Bishop Roger was probably the force behind the creation of the pipe rolls, possibly as early as 1114. After Edith Matilda’s early death, in 1118, Bishop Roger emerged as Henry I’s chief minister. The office of Justicar had effectively been created, and Edith Matilda had played an important role in the creation of that vitally important ministerial office.


The medieval period certainly contained notable female personalities:-

  • Matilda of Boulogne (c.1105 to 1152), Queen Consort to King Stephen
  • Eleanor de Montfort (1215 to 1275), Countess of Pembroke and Leicester.
  • Isabella of France (1295 to 1358), Queen Consort to King Edward II.
  • Margaret of Anjou (1430 to 1482), Queen Consort to King Henry VI.

These four female rulers, spanning the 12th to the 15th centuries, were certainly formidable personalities; but all of their energies were essentially aimed at preserving either their own power, or that of their menfolk.

What sets both Edith Matilda and Eleanor of Aquitaine apart from these female personalities is that Edith Matilda and Eleanor of Aquitaine each  played a notable role in medieval government. As such, they were both harbingers of a developing feminist influence on 12th century medieval government; an influence that was effectively curtailed in the later medieval period.

Question Time!

(i)                Queen Edith Matilda was born in Dunfermline. Which other British monarch was also born in Dunfermline?

(ii)             Queen Isabella of France is popularly known by what nickname?

(iii)     In one of his History Plays, Shakespeare uses the same nickname.   What is the name of this play? (As a clue, the play has two alternative titles.)

*See my blog entry, ‘Proto-Feminism in 12th Century Western Europe: This is your life, Eleanor of Aquitaine.’ Posted on 1st April, 2011.


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Filed under 12th Century England, Angevins, Anglo-Saxon history, British Kings and Queens, Famous women, Feminism, Henry I, History, Medieval government, Medieval History, Medieval pipe rolls, Norman Kings, Scotland, Women's Rights

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