Originally posted 2nd November 2023

2nd November is the anniversary of the death of Matilda of Flanders in 1083. She was the wife of William the Conquerer and therefore Queen of England and Duchess of Normandy. She was the daughter of Baldwin of Flanders and the marriage was most likely political, but it does appear to have been successful; they had nine children who made it to adulthood and William is not recorded as having fathered any illegitimate children, which is extremely unusual for a medieval king. At her death, he is said to have been distraught.

According to legend, when William first courted Matilda she refused him on the grounds that he was too far beneath her in status because he was illegitimate. The story goes that he was so enraged by both the refusal and the reason that he physically attacked her, dragging her to the ground by her hair. She was apparently so impressed by this display of passion - and afraid that it would be repeated - that she declared she would marry him after all. However, the evidence for this event is shaky at best. What is certain is that the marriage was forbidden by the pope. Chroniclers writing in the 1100s claimed that this was because they were too closely related, but no modern historian has found a credible family link between them, so the reason is most likely to have been political; the pope was a relative of the Holy Roman Emperor Henry III, who was on extremely bad terms with Matilda’s father. A dispensation to allow the marriage was granted in 1059, several popes later, after they were married. In penance, they each founded a monastery (Matilda founded a nunnery), and the reconciliation with the papacy may have been the reason both of them - especially Matilda - were especially close with their envoy, Lanfranc, who would go on to become Archbishop of Canterbury.

When WIlliam set out to conquer England, Matilda was left behind to act as regent in Normandy in his absence, in the name of their son Robert, who was 14. After the conquest - and after her magnificent coronation as queen in which she was said for the first time in a queen’s coronation to share royal power - she also acted as regent in England during her husband’s absence. However, only one of her children was born in England, suggesting that she spent the majority of her time in Normandy.

Matilda was noted for her piety and had a close relationship with Gundulph, Bishop of Rochester, who was the first post-conquest bishop to found a nunnery. She is also recorded as having been a devoted mother; the chronicler Orderic Vitalis gives her a spirited speech in defence of her decision to support Robert when he rebelled against his father, insisting that she would shed her own life-blood if it would save his life and such loyalty and love were considered extremely laudable in a royal mother. She also ensured that all her children - girls as well as boys - were well educated, her daughters at the nunnery in Caen that she had founded and her sons by Archbishop Lanfranc. Overall, she is considered to have developed a model of the role of queen consort that brought the role of queen consort to its most powerful form during the Anglo-Norman period.

Originally posted 16th November 2023

Bede, generally known as The Venerable Bede, was a monk at the monastery of Jarrow in the late 600s and early 700s and is best known for his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, which he completed when he was aged about sixty. However, it is one of many books that he wrote over the course of his life, covering a variety of topics around theology and what we would now recognise as science, as well as homilies on the Gospels, texts on saints and martyrs, and poems. At the time of his death, he was supposedly in the process of translating the Gospel of John into English and favoured the use of English, though most of his works were in Latin: the international language of learning at the time.

According to the autobiographical notes in his History, Bede was born in 673 on land owned by the monastery of Wearmouth. He was sent to the monastery aged seven, possibly with a view to him becoming a monk but possibly just for education. There, he was raised by the abbot, Ceorlfrith, and appears to have been extremely fond of him; when Ceorlfrith resigned in 716, Bede was so upset he interrupted his work on a commentary on the Gospel of Mark for several weeks. He was apparently made a deacon at age 19 and ordained as a priest at age 30. We don’t know much about his daily life, but can guess he spent a great deal of time at his writing-desk; he apparently did his own writing and copying for most of his life. However, the principal values of his monastery appear to have centred on humility, brotherhood, the study of scripture, the observance of proper worship, and manual labour. According to Bede, at least one of the abbots took part in manual farm work alongside the other monks and Bede presumably did the same. However, learning and writing were significant at the joint monastery of Wearmoth-Jarrow and it had a highly skilled scriptorium.

The library at Wearmouth-Jarrow was also extremely extensive and this probably contributed to Bede’s work, especially its focus on science; one of his earliest books, On the Nature of Things, was a reworking and critique of a book of the same name by the church father Isidore of Seville and the other book he was working on at the time of his death was a collection of excerpts from Isidore’s work. He also opens his History with a detailed description of Britain, including careful measurements and the properties of its plant and animal life.

Although Bede’s scholarship was extremely wide-ranging, the History is considered his masterpiece. After he finished it in 731, it was copied in his native Northumbria and beyond; four manuscripts survive from the 700s; an impressive survival rate considering that there is only one surviving manuscript of Beowulf from over 200 years later. It would go on to be widely read throughout Western Europe and was first printed in about 1480, remaining constantly in print ever since.

Originally posted 23rd November 2023

William Adelin (or William Aetheling) was the only legitimate son of Henry I and the younger brother of Empress Matilda, who died in the wreck of the White Ship on 25th November 1120. His death ultimately led to the Anarchy when his sister claimed the throne after their father’s death.

William was descended from the Norman royal line through his father and the West Saxon royal line through his mother, Edith-Matilda and from the time of his birth he was extremely politically important as an heir who brought together the two dynasties as well as a Celtic line because his mother was also descended from kings of Scotland. He was born after his father was king, lending more legitimacy to his future claim to the throne in a time when primogeniture was not fully established, and he became more valuable due to the fact that his uncle - a rival to his father for the throne - also had a son (also named William).

From age 10, he began to attest royal charters alongside his father and Henry began arranging for him to marry the two-year-old Matilda of Anjou, though the actual marriage would obviously have to wait until the bride and groom were older. After his mother died in 1118 he was officially Henry’s regent in England while Henry was in his duchy of Normandy, though since he was only 15 it’s unclear how much power he personally had. He married Matilda of Anjou in 1119 and was listed in a charter that year as rex designatus - king-designate - giving further evidence that he was widely accepted as heir to the throne.

William drowned when the ship on which he was crossing the English Channel hit a rock in Barfleur Harbour. The crew and roughly 300 passengers were mostly drunk and were attempting to take advantage of the speed of the ship to overtake Henry’s ship, which had left several hours earlier. The only survivor was a butcher from Rouen who had gone aboard before the ship set out trying to collect money that was owed to him; unlike the nobility on board he was wearing warm clothes and presumably hadn’t joined in the drinking. Among the dead were William, two of his illegitimate half-siblings Richard and Matilda, Countess of Perche, and numerous other young noblemen and -women, including almost the entire noble class of the County of Mortian. According to legend, William was saved in a small rowing boat, but insisted on going back for his sister Matilda, resulting in the boat being swamped when other survivors attempted to climb into it.

Luckily for Matilda of Anjou, she had not been travelling with her husband and ultimately became a nun aged 17 in 1128, the same year as her brother Geoffrey married William’s sister Empress Matilda, who was now Henry I’s only surviving legitimate child and named as his heir. An especially notable escapee of the disaster of the White Ship was Stephen of Blois, who disembarked before the ship sailed due to illness. He would go on to be Matilda’s main rival.

Originally posted 30th November 2023

The village of Buckden dates back to at least the Anglo-Saxon period, though there is some evidence of Roman occupation as well. During the early Saxon period it lay between the kingdoms of the Middle Angles and the East Angles, but the Middle Angles were functionally absorbed into the kingdom of Mercia in the 600s, when King Penda of Mercia appointed his son Peada as a sub-king over them. By the 700s, Mercia held sway over the large monasteries in Middle Anglian territory while East Anglia had the Fens and Ely.

Buckden itself was in an extremely advantageous position because it lay on the Ouse, which was a thoroughfare for trade and had a good shape for water mills. The core of Buckden, like many Saxon settlement centres, lies on a gravel island; the claylands around it were occupied later in the medieval period with moated sites. Metal detectors have found coins from Frisia (modern northern Netherlands and north-west Germany), indicating that trade was occurring in the area, and the fact that it grew to be a major centre of the Bishops of Lincoln and they held court at the Bishop’s Palace that would become Buckden Towers as early as the mid-1100s suggests that it was a major site.

Recent archaeological work has further demonstrated this with the discovery of an unusually large Anglo-Saxon hall-like structure just south of Buckden Towers and an earlier sunken-floored building that was also unusually large. The sunken-floored building contained weaving and fabric-working equipment such as loom weights, a needle case, and bone needles, as well as gold thread, suggesting high-status textiles. Radio-carbon dating suggests a date in the late 600s to early 700s, which was when trade with the continent was really kicking off; England was producing high-quality cloth at this period and trading with Europe for coin and high-status pottery. It’s possible that this large building was a weaving workshop scaled for huge looms that could have produced sails or wall hangings.

The fact that the site was high-status and prosperous in the Saxon period is also suggested by the later hall-like structure - we don’t know exactly what it was used for, but early analysis suggests it was a living space - which was about 20m long and appears to have been extended to that length from an earlier smaller hall, possibly over about a century. It had an unusual foundation deposit: a metal fitting called a coulter from a plough. This was a valuable chunk of metal which could have been reused, so its burial under the north wall of the building was probably deliberate.

Whether the site at Buckden was chosen purely for convenience due to its proximity to the river or for other reasons - there is also a spring nearby which during the early phase of Saxon settlement was surrounded by a double-ditched enclosure, suggesting something special - it is clear that Buckden was an important site even before the Bishops arrived.