Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Wife to the Conqueror: Matilda of Flanders, Queen of England

Matilda of Flanders
Queen of England and Duchess of Normandy
Matilda of Flanders, the wife of William the Conqueror, and the first woman to be crowned and titled Queen of England after the Norman Conquest, was born sometime in 1031. She was of illustrious descent: her father, Baldwin V, was the Count of Flanders, and her mother Adela, was a daughter of the King of France. On one side or the other, Matilda was related to most of the royal families of Europe.

She was extremely well-educated, and said to be very beautiful - though modern research shows that she never exceeded 5 feet in height. According to old chroniclers, she had a refined, delicate features, a well-set head, and a graceful figure. And when she was in her state dress, she would have compared favorably with a Greek statue. Matilda spent her early years in Lille, a town that was built by her own father in Northern France. She inherited his talent for architecture which she would later turned to such good account. It was also in Lille that Matilda met an English ambassador named Brihtric, the Earl of Gloucester. The youthful Matilda fell in love with him, but Brihtric never returned her affections. He returned to England, perhaps even forgot about her, but her pride was wounded, and she was said to take her revenge years later.

Although Matilda's father Baldwin V possessed no higher title than Count, he ruled over a realm which was one of the wealthiest and most powerful in Europe. So it is no wonder that his daughter was a much sought-after bride. One of her numerous suitors was her own cousin, William of Normandy, the illegitimate and only son of Robert, Duke of Normandy and a woman named Herleva, a daughter of a tanner. William was called by his enemies as "William the Bastard", but he had no problem with it. Even though he was illegitimate, his father made him heir, and when Robert died, William succeeded as Duke of Normandy at the tender age of seven.

William grew up to be a handsome and athletic man, according to all accounts. By the age of nineteen, he was already a toughen man and a reputable warrior who had successfully defended his title. But the Count of Flanders had misgivings regarding William's position, and this view was shared by Matilda. She didn't want him as her husband. She considered herself too high-born to be considered marrying a bastard even though he was a Duke. But William was not the sort of man to easily give up.

Matilda was the smallest Queen of England.
Her height never exceeded beyond five feet.
He had fallen in love with Matilda when he saw her for the first time at the French court. He was said to be so passionately enamored of her that he would do anything to obtain her, whether it means by using force. Nevertheless, her words reached him and he felt slighted. And so one day, while Matilda and her ladies were on their way home from church, she was met by William. Her ladies were alarmed by his wild demeanor, but Matilda remained calm. She remained adamant that she would not marry a bastard, and upon hearing this, William dragged her off her horse by her long braids, and threw her down in the mud-covered street in front of her flabbergasted attendants. He did not abduct her; he rode away.

The Count of Flanders took offense at this, and prepared to attack William's dominions, but Matilda intervened. She may had found William's violent behavior "macho" and likable because she finally agreed to marry him, to the astonishment of all. "His request pleases me well," she said. When her father laughingly asked her how she consented to the marriage after her scornful refusal, she was said to reply: "Because I did not know the Duke then so well as I do now; for he must be a man of great courage and high daring who could venture to come and beat me in my father's place."

William and Matilda were married at the Angi Castle in Normandy, when they were 25 and 21, respectively. Soon after their marriage, the Pope expressed his displeasure at this marriage between cousins and excommunicated them. William indignantly appealed to the Pope, and finally relented but with conditions. They must build two abbeys. And so William founded St. Stephen's Abbey for monks, and Matilda, the Abbaye-aux-Dames for nuns.

Despite the rather violent nature of their meeting, William and Matilda went on to have a successful and happy marriage. William was especially proud of his wife. He made sure that he would take her with him on royal tours of his dominions, showing her off to his subjects. They settled in Rouen, and Matilda became popular with the people. The couple was devoted to each other, and both were noted to possess commanding tempers. She was faithful and affectionate to William, as he was to her, and was able to win and retain his affection, respect and esteem. She supported and sympathized with all his projects, whether they were social or political. They went on to have ten children.

Meanwhile, Edward the Confessor, King of England, died without issue, and the throne was fiercely disputed by three claimants. William, now 28 years-old and a hardened man of battle, press his claim through descent to Emma (mother of Edward). He also contended that Edward, when in exile in Normandy, had promised William the throne. But it was Harold who was crowned King of England, in accordance to Edward's last will.

And so William finally set out on his greatest enterprise: the conquest of England. He was helped in his preparations by Matilda, convincing the barons to overcome to reluctance and follow William "beyond the sea". King Philip I of France treated William's idea of annexing England as absurd, and asked him who would be left in charge of Normandy while he was running a kingdom. To this William confidently replied that he had Matilda and his subjects, who were capable of securing the duchy during his absence.

Matilda returned this gesture of confidence by building and fitting out a secret ship to be added to William's navy. It was called the Mora. Upon seeing it, William was surprised. The ship's gold figure-head was an effigy of their youngest son holding a trumpet with one hand and with the other a bow, with its arrow pointed towards England. William took this as his flagship.

Before leaving Normandy, William appointed Matilda as the regent of his dominions. She was helped in this by her eldest son, Robert, who was only 13-years-old. She proved to be a capable and wise regent that when William had successfully landed in England and crowned King of England in Westminster Abbey, he arranged for her coming and had her crowned Queen of England at Winchester Cathedral in 1068.

Matilda remained in Normandy most of the time, looking after her husband's interests while he was detained in England by recurring revolts caused by the Saxons. Her revenue as Queen of England was considerable, this include money to provide oil for her lamp and wood for her hearth. She received tolls on goods landed at Queenhithe, and part of every fine voluntary paid to the crown.

William and Matilda enjoyed a happy marriage life throughout their lives, but the one cause of tension between husband and wife was their eldest son, Robert. He was his mother's favorite child, but he also inherited too much of his father's masterful spirit. He grew up to be arrogant and self-centered. He challenged his father and demanded to be the regent of Normandy. William acquiesced, and Robert acted as regent, while his father was in England busy subduing the rebellions. Then he demanded complete control of Normandy and broke into open rebellion. William was much surprised at his son's capacity as a leader, but he was still no match to him. William successfully suppressed the rebellion, and Robert sought pardon. But William was not to be easily propitiated; he refused to completely forgive his son. Throughout the quarrel between father and son, Matilda gave all her efforts at reconciliation, but to no avail. She was torn between husband and child. She supported Robert during the rebellion, secretly supplying him with money and jewels. William discovered her secret aid for Robert, but this did not seem to have made any difference in his affection for her.
Statue of Matilda of Flanders in the
gardens of the Luxembourg Palace in Paris

William and his son never had a full reconciliation, and this trouble seemed to have already preyed on Matilda's mind. She became ill and grew weaker. When William received the news that she was seriously ill, he hastened to Normandy to be at her bedside. He wrote a letter to Robert, who was by that time staying at Gerberol Castle because of his recent rebellion, and asked him to immediately travel to Rouen. Robert arrived, and William grant him full pardon. For a time, Matilda's health improved. But in 1098, her daughter Constance died, and there were troubles once again between William and Robert. She was deeply affected by these sad events, and died in November after a lingering illness. She was buried at the Abbey of Holy Trinity in Caen.

Matilda's death plunged William into deep depression. It was said that after her death, he became tyrannical, and people blamed it on his having lost her. He no longer went hunting, which was his favorite sport. After four years, William died, and was buried at St. Stephen's Abbey.

Read about other Queens-Consort of England:

Berengaria of Navarre
Isabella of Angouleme
Mary of Modena

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Napoleon's Beautiful Enemy: Queen Louise of Prussia

Princess Louise of Mecklenburg-Strelitz,
Queen of Prussia

She was a glamorous figure of her day. A beautiful and fashionable young woman, her popularity is very similar to that of Diana, Princess of Wales and the Austrian Empress Elizabeth. She was probably the most famous and well-loved queen consort in German history. She was Queen Louise of Prussia, wife of King Frederick William III of Prussia. She influenced her contemporaries and modern Germany probably more than any other woman. Often called the “Queen of Hearts”, she impressed those around her with her beauty, charisma and cheerful, friendly nature. Her legacy was further cemented by her infamous meeting with Napoleon Bonaparte of France, and thus became the symbol of German national unity that eventually led to the creation of the German Empire.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Almost an Empress - Anna Feodorovna of Russia

Grand Duchess Anna Feodorovna of Russia
Born Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld

From a portrait by Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun
(The Royal Collection)

Little has been written about the Grand Duchess Anna Feodorovna of Russia in English so it's not surprising that many people reading about the Romanovs are not familiar with her. And yet, she bears that distinction as the first princess who married into the Romanov Family to be divorced from her husband. She was related to almost all royal families in Europe, and perhaps the most famous of her relatives was Queen Victoria. Anna Feodorovna was the sister of Queen Victoria's mother, the Duchess of Kent, as well as Leopold, King of the Belgians, thus, Anna was aunt to Victoria.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Heroine of Gaeta - Maria Sophia of Bavaria

Duchess Maria Sophia of Bavaria,
Queen of the Two-Sicilies

Maria Sophia of Bavaria was the last queen of the Kingdom of the Two Siciles, who by the age of 19, had been a queen, lost her kingdom, rallied soldiers around her in the hopeless defense of a lost cause, and had had men - even her enemies - writing reams of romantic slush about her. She was "the angel of Gaeta" who would "wipe your brow if you were wounded or cradle you in her arms while you die". D'Annunzio called her the "stern little Bavarian eagle" and Marcel Proust spoke of the "soldier queen on the ramparts of Gaeta". She was intelligent, lovely, and headstrong; she could ride a horse and defend herself with a sword. She was everything you could ask for - a combination of Amazon and Angel of Mercy.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Poem for Empress Maria Feodorovna

On June 15, 1888, when Maria Feodorovna had been Empress of Russia for three years, her husband's cousin, the poet Grand Duke Konstantin Konstantinovich, wrote a poem dedicated to her.

On the balcony, blooming in spring,
As the nightingales sing in the gardens,
I admired you in silence,
Gazing into your gentle eyes.

A quiet voice rang in my ears,
But I can not hear what you were saying:
I was like in a dream immersed
In the depth of those soft eyes.

All that is joyous, pure, lovely,
That lives in beautiful dreams
Were all told so simply and clearly
To me through these enchanting sight.

In their secret meaning
No words can be enough...
Like the night hanging over me,
A Radiant, Spring night!

Friday, August 5, 2011

Joan of Kent: The First Princess of Wales

Joan of Kent,
Countess of Kent and Lady Wake of Liddell
Countess of Salisbury,
Princess of Wales
(Modern portrait by Stephen Warde Anderson)

"The most beautiful woman in all England, and the most loving.”
-Jean Froissart, Medieval Chronicler

In modern times, the British courtesy title Princess of Wales has become synonymous to style, beauty and charm. The most well-known bearer of this title was the late Lady Diana Spencer, and she was the epitome of that title. There were over forty kings who occupied the British throne since William of Normandy conquered England in 1066, but the women who held the title Princess of Wales - a title reserved only for the wife of the heir to the throne - were only ten. Eight of them eventually became Queens Consort, but the remaining two were never crowned because they were predeceased by their husbands.

Joan of Kent was one of those two who never became Queen, and she was the first woman to become Princess of Wales. She was the consort of Edward, Prince of Wales or known famously as "The Black Prince", son of King Edward III. Joan was known in history as "The Fair Maid of Kent", a nickname that later historians ascribed because of her immense beauty. She was of royal blood, a Plantagenet, through her father, and because of her royal descent and beauty, she was a much sought-after bride. She was born around 1328, the third child of Edmund of Woodstock, Earl of Kent (a son of King Edward I) and Lady Margaret Wake of Liddell.

During Joan's lifetime, three important historic events occurred: the Hundred Years' War, the Black Death, and the Peasants' Revolt. The backdrop of her story was the Hundred Years' War, the age when the Plantagenet monarchs of England claimed the throne of France and made many attempts to secure it. The Black Death reduced the able-bodied people of England, thus causing labor shortage. And finally, the Peasants' Revolt, a consequence of the Black Death.

When Joan was two years-old, tragedy struck her family. King Edward II was murdered at the instigation of his wife, Queen Isabella. Joan's father, a younger brother and a supporter of the king, began investigating the circumstances of his murder. This greatly infuriated Queen Isabella, and arranged to have Edmund charged with treason. Soldiers seized Arundel Castle and held Edmund's wife and children prisoner. Edmund was later executed, leaving a total of three children to his wife.

When the new king, Edward III became aware of the injustice done to his uncle, he banished his mother Queen Isabella to Anglia. The new queen, the virtuous Philippa of Hainault, set out to make amends, and arranged for the Kent Family to be brought to court so that the Joan and her siblings could be raised with their royal cousins. Joan was given a governess, Catherine Montague, Countess of Salisbury. The Countess and her husband the Earl were a very enterprising couple, and raised an ambition to wed Joan to their son and heir William. However, Joan had other ideas. At the age of twelve, she had fallen in love with Thomas Holland, a steward in the Salisbury household and a man eight years her senior. They contracted a secret marriage, without royal consent. The following year, Thomas Holland went overseas to fight in one of the many campaigns of Hundred Years' War. With Thomas absent, the Saliburys forced Joan to marry William. Joan later claimed she was afraid that disclosing her previous marriage would lead to Thomas's execution for treason on his return, and so did not disclose it. She may also have become convinced that the earlier marriage was invalid.

When Thomas returned from France he could do little to reclaim his wife, and he soon went off again serving with Edward, the Black Prince. Meanwhile, back at court, Joan was now Countess of Salisbury, since her father-in-law had died in 1347. She was a great favorite of Edward III and Queen Philippa. But Thomas Holland had not forgotten Joan. Now wealthy and influential, he appealed to the Pope to arrange Joan's divorce from Salisbury. The Pope decided in favor of Sir Thomas's claim and Joan was returned to him. She had no children by her previous marriage to Salisbury, but with Holland she soon became a mother of five.

Her cousin the Black Prince stood as godfather to her two children, and gave his cousin "Jeanette" a silver cup. By 1353, Joan became the Countess of Kent after the death of her brother. She inherited a substantial property, but her happy marriage with Sir Thomas ended in his death in December 1360.

Joan, now thirty-two years old, was a very sought-after prize. Suitors flocked around the beautiful and wealthy widow, but she was uninterested. By this time, she had her eyes only to her cousin, Prince Edward, to whom she shared a strong attachment ever since they were children. When Edward knew that she was in love with 'somebody', he entreated her to identify the object of her affection. Joan then revealed that she was in love with him, and Edward, who had been in love with her for quite a long time, asked his parents' consent for marriage. Although the King and Queen liked Joan, they were not pleased with Edward's choice. Queen Philippa was especially concerned about Joan's reputation and her flighty disposition. But Edward was adamant that if he was to marry, he would only marry Joan, his true love. Finally, the King and Queen acquiesced, a papal dispensation was sent (because of consanguinity), and Edward and Joan were married on October 10, 1361 at Windsor Castle.

The Black Prince owned several residences but Berkhamsted in Hertfordshire was his favorite. There the newly-weds went to stay, but not to long. The Prince was anxious to return to France to secure more territory. In February 1362, Edward and Joan sailed for France accompanied by her children. They set up their home in Bordeaux, and two years later Joan gave birth to a son they named Edward. The Black Prince was delighted. Another son was added in family on January 1367 and they named him Richard. Once assured that Joan had recovered, the Prince set out for the south, to check an advance over the Pyrenees by a Spanish army.

Edward and Joan appeared to be a very loving couple. Before Edward left for the south, the couple "very sweetly embraced and take farewell with kisses." And on his return, they went on an informal walkabout: "The Princess came to meet him, bringing with her her first born son...very sweetly they embraced when they met together. The gentle prince kissed his wife and son. They went to their lodging on foot, holding each other by the hand."

Upon his return to Bordeaux, the Prince was far from well. His health grew steadily worse after the death of the little six year-old prince Edward. The parents were grief-stricken with the loss, and decided to sail back to England. As he became increasingly ill, the Prince fretted over the succession, suspicious that his brother John of Gaunt would claim the throne on the death of the King. Edward feared that his son Richard might be set aside by John of Gaunt. Meanwhile, Joan did not involve herself in politics, but she showed no small skill when the future of her son might be in jeopardy.

Edward the Black Prince died in June 1376, when Richard was only nine years-old. One year later, King Edward III died, and Richard became King of England. Early in his reign, the young King faced the challenge of the Peasants' Revolt. The Lollards, religious reformers led by John Wyclif, had enjoyed the protection of Joan, but the violent climax of the popular movement for reform reduced the feisty Joan to a state of terror, while leaving the King with an improved reputation. As the power behind the throne, the now Dowager Princess of Wales was well-loved for her influence over the young king, She maintained a cordial relationship with her brother-in-law John of Gaunt for the sake of her son, and was supportive of her new daughter-in-law, Richard's wife, Anne of Bohemia.

Joan then retired to Wallingford, but she did not remain uninvolved. Richard was a peaceloving, artistic youth, clearly lacking the warlike qualities necessary in a successful 14th century monarch. These were present in John of Gaunt, and Joan felt compelled to continue as peacemaker between the young King and his grasping uncle. At the end of her life, Joan was disturbed by a quarrel between her two sons, Richard II and his half-brother John Holland. This eventually lead to a reconciliation between the two, thanks to the effort of their mother. But the strain proved too much for the Dowager Princess of Wales, now fragile at the age of fifty-seven, and died in August 1385 in her castle at Wallingford. According to her will, she was buried not near the Black Prince, but beside her first husband, Sir Thomas Holland, Earl of Kent, at Church of the Grey Friars at Stamford.

Joan of Kent, the first Princess of Wales, was a strong character who exercised considerable influence in the years after the Black Prince died. She was a Plantagenet and an heiress, and through her children by Thomas Holland, the ancestress of many English aristocratic families.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Courage of the Grand Duchess Elizabeth

This is an excerpt from the memoirs of Prince Adam Jerzy Czartoryski, a Polish stateman in Russian service and a best friend of Tsar Alexander I, where he recalls the night of the murder of Tsar Paul I in 1801, and how he admired the courage that was displayed by the future Empress Elizabeth Alexeievna, wife of Alexander I and the woman rumored to be his great love.
"During the first terrible moments Alexander was so absorbed by his remorse that he seemed incapable of saying a word or thinking of anybody. His mother, on the other hand, was in a passion of grief and animosity; the only member of the Imperial family that retained her presence of mind was the young Empress [Elizabeth]. She did her utmost to console Alexander and give him courage and self-reliance. She did not leave him during the whole of the night, except when she went for a few moments to calm her mother-in-law and persuade her to stop in her room and not expose herself to the fury of the conspirators. While in this night of trouble and horror some were intoxicated with triumph and others plunged in grief and despair, the Empress Elizabeth alone exercised a mediatory influence between her husband, her mother-in-law, and the conspirators. "

The murder of Tsar Paul I of Russia, March 1801

Portrait of the Grand Duchess Elizabeth

Monday, August 1, 2011

Queen of Pearls: Margherita of Savoy

Princess Margherita of Savoy,
Queen of Italty

Portrait by Michele Gordigiani

Margherita of Savoy, the first Queen of Italy, was born on November 20, 1851 in Chiablese Palazzo in Turin. She was the only daughter of Prince Ferdinand of Savoy, Duke of Genoa, and Princess Elisabeth of Saxony.

Margherita's parents had a brief marriage. Prince Ferdinand died when Margherita was only 4 years-old and her brother Thomas barely a year old. For a time, the widowed Princess Elisabeth was interested in a possible marriage with her widower brother-in-law, King Victor Emmanuel II. But the King dismissed the idea as absurd. Elisabeth, upset with such rebuff began a relationship with her chamberlain and married him secretly less than a year after the death of her husband. This created a huge scandal. King Victor Emmanuel was so infuriated that he ordered her and her new husband into exile, forbidding her from seeing her two children. However, the exile didn't last long and she was allowed back again at court. Realizing that she made a mistake in marrying her chamberlain, she devoted herself and her time in raising her children.

The young Margherita, a lovely girl with a pretty smile, grew up to be religious and conservative, showing great interest in the arts. She was an excellent conversationalist and gained considerable popularity, especially among the Italian masses. She was so devoted to her homeland that she refused a proposal of marriage from Prince Karl of Romania. Instead, the now 17-year-old Margherita was married to her cousin Umberto, the 24 year-old heir to the Italian throne. They were married on April 22, 1868 at the Royal Palace in Turin. A year after their marriage, Margherita gave birth to the couple's only child, a son, Prince Victor Emmanuel of Naples.

When Umberto and Margherita visited the Netherlands, Margherita attracted admiring glances from the people, and Queen Sophie of the Netherlands wrote about the couple: "The Prince and Princess Royal of Italy are here. She is a lovely child, white, small, delicate, graceful - he is a brute and it is impossible not to feel pity for that young and naive creature. Just now her dresses, her jewels, the release from governess and schoolroom make her happy. Lovely as she is, he seems to have no admiration for her..."

In 1878, King Victor Emmanuel II died, and Umberto and Margherita were crowned as the new King and Queen of Italy. Months after their succession, the royal couple made a trip throughout Italy to greet their subjects. The young Queen, with her charm and affability, was able to win the hearts of her people.

Only few people within the court knew the real state of the royal marriage. Since 1864, Umberto had been in liaison with the much older Eugenia Attendolo Bolognini, Duchess of Litta. It turned out that she was the love of his life. Margherita had known about her husband's mistress even at the start of their marriage. She had to put up to that, but nevertheless, Umberto tried to be a good husband to her, and the marriage was still considered a harmonious one.

Queen Margherita promoted the arts and culture, introduced the chamber music in Italy, and founded the quintet of Rome. She was also a keen mountaineer and became the first woman to climb the highest peak of Monte Rosa, the Punta Gnifetti. The mountain hut there was named after her.

She had a magnificent and lavish collection of jewelry, but the most famous was her large collection of pearls. She was called the "Queen of Pearls" and her portraits show her always wearing a profusion of these. She was described by the Crown Princess of Prussia as "certainly lovely and fascinating" and "a very charming and graceful creature. So amiable." Wherever she would go, everyone was charmed by her. With her beauty and elegance, she was among the most admired women of her day, along with the Empress of France and the Empress of Austria.

On July 29, 1900, while King Umberto and Queen Margherita were on a visit in Monza, the King was assassinated. He was shot four times by an anarchist named Gaetano Bresci. He claimed he wanted to avenge the people killed due to the suppression of the uprisings in Milan by Gen. Fiorenzo Bava Beccaris. The King had given honor to Beccaris in the belief that the uprising was a form of socialism aiming to shake the monarchy to its foundation.

The Queen was staying in Villa Reale when the assassination of the King took place and his body was brought there. Her son Victor Emmanuel was now the King of Italy.

After her husband's death, Margherita, now the Queen Mother, devoted her time to charity work and promoting the arts and culture. She encouraged artists and writers, and founded more cultural institutions. As the Queen Mother, she showed great support to her son and his wife, Elena.

Politically, she favored Fascism, which at that time was the only movement that opposed Socialists and Bolsheviks. In October 1922, the quadrumvirs visited her in her villa at Bordighera to pay their respects prior the March on Rome.

Queen Margherita died in in her villa in Bordighera on January 4, 1926. Her remains were then taken to Rome to be interred at the royal vault in the Pantheon. Margherita was deeply mourned by the people. It took a long time for the funeral train to reach its destination because of the crowd of people trying to get close and throw flowers to her coffin.

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