The Bayeux Tapestry, on its way to Britain for its first ever overseas exhibition, immediately conjures up images of William the Conqueror and Harold Godwinson. The medieval masterpiece tells the story of their battle for the throne of England, the triumph of William and that arrow in the eye. But while the men might star in the needlepoint action, this mighty work of historical genius has been linked just as often to William’s consort, Matilda of Flanders. The decision to put the Bayeux Tapestry on display in England once more shines the spotlight on this powerhouse of a queen.
The tapestry is so well associated with the Conqueror’s consort that it is sometimes known in French as La Tapisserie de la Reine Mathilde. Some historians even assets that Matilda sat patiently with her ladies sewing the sometimes rather graphic depiction of her husband’s conquering ways herself. Victorian depictions show Matilda, the very model of modesty, working away on her labour of love while William is off turning his new kingdom into the epitome of Norman administrative genius. She must have been quick with a needle. The tapestry is 70 metres long and 50 centimetres high, and that’s before we get to the parts that historians assert may well be missing. Given that Matilda was really rather busy in the years after the Norman Conquest, the idea that she made it herself loses weight.
But then the very notion of Matilda as a stay at home consort who would be happy with a little light sewing to pass the hours is a long way removed from reality. Matilda of Flanders is perhaps one of the most underrated queens in the history of royal women. Examining her through the lens of the Bayeux Tapestry allows some of her real personality to come through.
The most widely asserted story linking Matilda to the tapestry is that she commissioned it. Medieval royal women weren’t just known to patronise the arts, and it was an almost compulsory part of their role. For centuries, it has been argued that Matilda ordered the tapestry to be made. She was alive while it was being sewn (it’s largely believed to have been created in the 1070s, and Matilda died in 1083) while its use of image to tell a story at a time when literacy was still a luxury ties in with her known passion for bringing education to as wide an audience as possible.
Besides, Matilda benefitted just as much from recording William’s Conquest as he did. She had played a big part in turning the rough and ready Duke of Normandy into a masterly medieval monarch. Their marriage, around 1051/2, gave William the veneer of respectability that his own birth had failed to provide. Matilda, as she never tired of telling people, was descended from the Kings of France. William was the illegitimate son of Robert, Duke of Normandy and Herleva, daughter of a Falaise tanner who had inherited his father’s title because he had died without a son born in marriage. William gained a huge amount from their marriage and not just by ensuring his offspring had a good dash of blue blood to boast about.
Matilda was a skilled administrator and politician. She encouraged her husband in his plans to invade England and even provided him with his flagship. While William was off conquering, he left Matilda in charge of Normandy. She would act as regent there several times and also took on that responsibility in England once the kingdom had been conquered. She was very much a partner and an equal, as shown at her coronation as Queen of England when new phrases were added to the service showing the consort to share in regal power.
Which brings us back to finding enough time to sew a tapestry. Clearly, that was never an option for Matilda as she juggled helping her husband rule England and Normandy. Modern historians argue she probably didn’t commission the Bayeux Tapestry either. They think it more likely the idea came from William’s half-brother, Odo of Bayeux, as several of his followers appear in the work and it was found in Bayeux Cathedral which he himself had built.
However, the fact that Matilda has such a strong association with the work is a reminder of just how important a part she played in the Conquest of England in 1066, a seismic event which changed that country and the continental power balance forever. The Bayeux Tapestry is a statement of power, a message to many and a triumph of education and arts. The very fact that Queen Matilda was linked to it, almost from the very beginning of its legends, shows just how important she was in medieval Europe. Victorian historians may have tried to shoehorn her into the 19th-century image of a demure wife, but the decision of Emmanuel Macron to loan the tapestry to Britain once again reminds us that Matilda of Flanders wasn’t just a power behind the throne. She helped create that throne and its power herself.