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Queen of the Conqueror: The Life of Matilda, Wife of William I    by Tracy Borman order for
Queen of the Conqueror
by Tracy Borman
Order:  USA  Can
Bantam, 2012 (2012)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I've been intrigued by Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror, ever since reading Georgette Heyer's amazing The Conqueror, so picked up Tracy Borman's well-researched biography of her life with great interest. As well as this new Queen of the Conqueror: The Life of Matilda, Wife of William I, the author/historian also wrote Henrietta Howard: King's Mistress, Queen's Servant and Elizabeth's Women: Friends, Rivals, and Foes Who Shaped the Virgin Queen.

The author sets the stage at the beginning with Genealogical Tables for William and Matilda, as well as maps of England, and Normandy and its environs, in their time. In her Introduction, she compares her compilation of the biography to the making of the Bayeux Tapestry ... 'On their own, the various threads of evidence have at first appeared fragile and insubstantial, but when carefully and painstakingly bound together, they present a rich and illuminating picture of one of the most remarkable women in history.'

Matilda, 'related to most of the great nobility of France' and daughter of the Count of Flanders, brought to her 1049 marriage an 'impressive pedigree' that shored the foundations of William's rule in both Normandy and England. Borman tells us that 'She broke the mold of female consorts and established a model of active queenship that would influence her successors for centuries to come?' How is this known, given the scarcity of source material on her life? From the chronicles of monastic historians and also the large number of charters that Matilda signed in England.

Matilda was well educated and devout - following in her mother's and aunt's footsteps to become an active religious patron - but also superstitious, 'by no means unusual among the ruling elite.' She was strong willed and independent and, before wedding William, created scandal by offering herself in marriage to a Saxon nobleman. After her union with the Duke of Normandy, she 'was the very model of a dutiful wife', well suited to her role as duchess and bearing her husband heirs with alacrity. She also created 'a center of culture and refinement' in the ducal court.

The four-foot-two Matilda often acted as regent in her husband's absence, in a time when women were 'largely sidelined in political affairs' and she became the first crowned Queen of England. Borman describes the turbulence of William's early reign in England (when Matilda was his regent in Normandy); their children's upbringing; Matilda's personal wealth and ambition; her support of her son Robert in his rebellion against his father; and how her 'wisdom, shrewdness, and strength of character made her utterly irreplaceable' after her death in 1083.

If you have any interest in British history, then I highly recommend this excellent and illuminating biography to you - and if you've also read Heyer's version, you'll be just as fascinated by Queen of the Conqueror as I was.

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