The woman history records as Queen Matilda of Scotland, wife of King Henry I, was born Edith of Scotland in 1080 (or thereabouts), the eldest daughter of Malcolm III and his English bride Saint Margaret.
Edith’s mother was an Wessex princess, sister of Edgar Ætheling, grandniece of King Edward the Confessor, whose family was displaced northwards after the Norman invasion of England in 1066. Edith was therefore a great-granddaughter of King Edmund Ironside, and her blood would lend any of her sons a legitimate claim to the throne of England from an Anglo-Saxon view point. Edith was thus an extremely sought after bride.
Forming ties of peace between the Anglo-Saxon nobility was of vast important to William the Conqueror, whose Norman reign was still being disputed and rebelled against by Saxon insurrectionists. He notably sent his queen, Matilda of Flanders, to Scotland to serve as the infant Edith’s godmother, a very important relationship in the Christian kingdoms. During the baptism, Edith grabbed Queen Matilda’s headdress, as babies are wont to do, but this was taken as an omen that Edith would also become a queen in her own right one day.
As a child, Edith and her younger sister Mary were sent to Romsey Abbey to be taught by their aunt Cristina, who was the abbess there. The girls became very well-educated women under their aunt’s guidance. Edith learned to read in English, French, and most importantly, in Latin, the official language of scholarship.
Edith’s first official betrothal was to Alan Rufus, as a reward for his unwavering support William II of England in the Rebellion of 1088. However, after William II killed her father in November of 1093, Alan Rufus broke off the engagement with Edith in favor of an engagement to Gunhild of Wessex, a daughter of Harold Godwinson, former claimant to the English throne. Edith’s aunt Cristina had her young niece veiled as a nun (without taking a nun’s vows) at the abbey, so Edith would be safe “from the lust of the Normans” who might seek her hand in marriage.
When Henry I came to the throne after his brother’s mysterious death in 1100, he wanted to make Edith his queen. This wasn’t just political savvy; he was apparently in love with her. No one can pinpoint how or when the two had met, but according to William of Malmesbury the new king had “long been attached” to Edith of Scotland.
But was she a nun or not? If so, could she be released from her vows to marry the king? Henry went to Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, to see if a union would be permissible. Anselm summoned a council of bishops, who had the good sense to call Edith before them and simply ASK her if she was a nun or not. Edith told the council that she had never taken vows, and didn’t intend to, preferring to marry the king.
Edith married King Henry I on 11 November 1100 at Westminster Abbey. She was thereafter crowned Queen Matilda of England, however, because it was felt that she needed a name that would reflect the Norman linage. What better Norman name could she take than that of Henry’s mother, who was also her godmother?
She had pulled on Queen Matilda’s wimple as a baby, and now she was a Queen Matilda as well.
The courtiers nicknamed her Godiva, however, as a marker of her Wessex roots and overall “Englishness”. She was nonetheless a greatly loved and greatly respected queen.
Queen Matilda was a true monarch of England, the king’s partner in administration as well as in heir-producing. She “accompanied her husband on his travels around England, and … was the designated head of Henry’s curia and acted as regent during his frequent absences.” She also acted as political mediator and diplomat, with a far-flung network of correspondents across Europe among nobles and scholars alike.
Notwithstanding her political acumen, Matilda was first and foremost renowned for her piety and her charity. She washed the feet of the poor during Lent, founded at least two leper hospitals, and gave alms to religious houses and the impoverished with an openhanded generosity. She was also lauded for her patronage of the arts, filling her court with musicians and poets. Matilda commissioned the biography of her mother, Saint Margret, as well as a book on The Voyage of Saint Brendan.
Matilda put her erudition to good use in many ways. She personally managed her extensive dower lands, most of which had previously belonged to Edith of Wessex, but which also included a large section of London. (The people of London were particularly devoted to Matilda because she was a scion of the Wessex kings, as well as being an awesome queen.) Additionally, the queen “had the first arched bridge in England built, at Stratford-le-Bow, as well as a bathhouse with piped-in water and public lavatories at Queenhithe.” Matilda was moreover the force behind the decisions to build such famous Norman-style buildings as Waltham Abbey and Holy Trinity Aldgate.
Matilda also performed the more traditional duty of the queen consort: she produced an heir. She gave birth to a daughter, Matilda, on 7 February 1102, and a son, William, called “Adelin”, on 5 August 1103. Both children were alive and well when Matilda died suddenly on 1 May 1118, so the queen passed away with the contented belief that her son would inherent his father’s crown.
Although the teenaged Prince Adelin would die in the calamitous White Ship disaster of 25 November 1120, her daughter’s son would later take the throne Henry II of England, founding the Plantagenet dynasty and securing the kingdom’s Norman/Anglo-Saxon monarchial lineage.