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Letters To The Empress Matilda
Empress Matilda, 1102-1167, sometime Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, daughter of King Henry I and mother of King Henry II, briefly Lady of the English but never Queen in England, which if you ask me was nobody’s fault but her own, on account of behaving extremely stupidly upon finally reaching London in 11411, later semi-retired in Normandy, where she still liked to put her oar in across the Channel from time to time.
Copies and translations of her surviving letters available here.
Letter from Matilda to Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury.
To Thomas, etc, from Matilda, etc.
The Pope has encouraged me, for the good of my eternal soul &c., to try to reestablish peace between my son (who you may remember is the king of England) and you (who you may remember is not), and try to reconcile you to one another. Possibly you may also remember asking me to do the same thing yourself.
Well, I have been doing my best to please you both (you and the Pope, I mean, not you and the king of England). God knows I don’t do this to please myself. I have spent enough of my life fighting. I say this only to remind you that every day spent in quarrel and alienation from your king is another day you interfere with the peaceful retirement of a very old and very tired woman, who also happens to be an Empress, which has still got to count for something, even nowadays.
Anyhow all of this seems very important to Henry. All his barons and council say so, and so does he, and they also pointed out to me that he loved you very much, and honored you besides, and in fact raised you to greater honor than anyone else in the whole country of England, whereby you are now archbishop of Canterbury, and spiritually answer to no one above you but the Pope and God, not necessarily in that order.
And he did not raise you to this position merely on a whim or because he thought you looked better in a mitre than the other candidates, but so he could (he thought) have someone in a position of authority he could actually delegate things to, instead of having to do everything himself. Henry tells me that instead of securing that trust he reposed in you, you have disturbed his whole kingdom against him, which I’m sure even you can agree was unlikely to have been his intention in giving you this job. And for my own part I would like to add that it was he who gave you your job and not the other way around. You did not make him king of England but he certainly made you Archbishop of Canterbury, so you tell me which one of you ought to be deposing the other, if there is going to be any deposing, which I think there shouldn’t be. I think you ought to do your job and he ought to do his — But I am writing to sow peace, not to tell you what I think of your ridiculous behavior.
I am sending archdeacon Lawrence to talk to you, because I don’t want to talk to you if you’re going to say outrageous or terrible things. Then he can tell me what you think about my son (who you may also remember is your king, along with everybody English&c) and what you might like me to say to my son the king about you.
One more thing: If you think you’re getting out of this without demonstrating a little abjection you have got another thing coming. Talk to Lawrence; I don’t think it’s appropriate for you to speak directly with royalty any longer, at least not until someone has been able to reassure me that you have learned how to do it properly.
A letter from the monks of Malmesbury to Matilda of England, Empress.
To that wonderful and most terrific empress, not to mention our particular and very special lady, greetings and supplication and prayers and general well-wishes from the brothers of Malmesbury, who serve God and Mother Mary and St. Aldhelm, in that order.
If our expectations of you, dear Lady Matilda, ever seem costly, you must know it is only because of the extreme and delicate zeal, that seemingly-endless piety of your own mother, Queen Matilda, such that even though she has been dead now many a year and we probably ought to have figured better by now, we keep thinking eventually a family resemblance is going to turn up. And wonderfully, at long last, you have, and therefore we thank God.
As far as rectitude is concerned, you’re the trunk of it; as far as clemency goes, you’re the origin; as far as a king’s mercy goes, you extended it. You’re the top. Just between us, when your sainted mother was still awake in this world, there was scarcely anything she wouldn’t do for us. She was always stopping by to review the accounts and go over the cellar with the brewing-master and slipping us “a little walking-around money” when nobody was looking. She was herself half a monk, as far as we were concerned. And you yourself know that as long as she lived, England flourished; this was in no doubt due to to the excellence of her charity and her religion, without which the government of kings has no foundation.
But Fortune envied our success and struck us down, so that when your father the king died and certain Stephens of Blois who shall remain nameless took over, we were entirely forgotten, and now we are as poor as dirt. Thank God you have come to town, noble empress, and we can think of nothing more appropriate than for Matilda to rule England again, especially if she follows the example of the last Matilda who ruled in England, and why wouldn’t she? Of course she would.
If we were to admit a single fault in your triply-virginal mother — which we are not prepared to do! — it would be that she left the church without a rector.
But as we think on it, this was no fault; undoubtedly she left this work undone in order that you, her beautiful gorgeous very special with the best hair daughter, might do it yourself, and thereby match her in glory! Oh, please become king of England, shiny Matilda, for we need you to be king so very much and we don’t like Stephen at all and we think he should be king of nothing.
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And we wrote you a book! Sorry we forgot to mention this sooner. But we have written a book about all the deeds of the kings of the English, who are your ancestors and barely Stephen’s, Stephen is barely a nephew of the kings of the English whereas you are their daughter true, and in this book you will find all sorts of noble deeds, which should instruct you by example how to find triumph and success, and a few not-so-good deeds, such as neglecting Malmesbury and its surrounding environs, that so often lead to misfortune. But on the whole there are more noble deeds than otherwise, so do not worry; yours is an antique and a brilliant lineage, that almost always does right by Malmesbury, probably the most special and important part of England there ever was. “As goes Malmesbury, so goes the country,” they are always saying.
By the way your mother knew about this book. she liked the idea very much. She even took it upon herself to double-check blessed St. Aldhelm, who founded our organization, and she discovered that he was descended from the kings of Wessex, just as you are, which makes us cousins. And we were almost finished with this wonderful book when she died and Henry died and everything was a mess.
But now you are here! And you are the rightful recipient of this book, which is so wonderful you cannot even believe it, and we will haply finish it straightaway if you can see your way towards funding it as your mother did, and after all it is really a book about you and how God cleared a path to you over the course of hundreds of years using your grandparents and so on. Please become queen right away and send money. We have called it Gesta Regum Anglorum but if you can think of a better title we will be happy to change it.
From Matilda of England, Empress, to Louis VII, King of France.
To Louis, excellent and natural king of the Franks, by the Grace of God, from Matilda, empress and also daughter of a king, so we can dispense with most of the niceties and speak normally, hello.
You may remember how I am always asking you why you keep fighting with my son, who is the king of England, but you do not answer me. Or sometimes you answer me but your answer does not make any sense. So I am not going to talk to you anymore.
I am sending you Rainald of St. Valery; talk to him and hurry up because otherwise I will not be able to fix the things that are going to happen to you, the many and terrible things that will happen to you and the people whose lives you are in charge of, and additionally all the people overseas whose lives depend on your actions, who are currently hopeless and afraid and don’t even realize how much more hopeless and afraid things can possibly get. But they will get. So I think you had better work very hard at coming up with a satisfactory answer very quickly indeed, or who knows what might happen to you.
I am writing all this in front of Alduin, who tells me he is a chaplain, so you know that I am serious. He will be happy to confirm the ways I have threatened you here.
People sometimes say she forfeited public opinion by behaving too much like a king while being a woman, and I don’t doubt England held her being a woman against her for a moment, but I say if you ride into London and start hauling nobles into your office for one-on-ones and telling them they’ve got to start paying triple taxes immediately to pay for your army, you’re going to make yourself unpopular. Save those meetings for after the coronation!