In making his preparations to invade England, Duke William of Normandy had the full support of his ambitious wife, Matilda of Flanders, who was eager to add the crown of England to their dominions. It was said that the Duke asked her if he and his men ‘might have the benefit of her prayers and those of her ladies.’ Matilda no doubt acceded to this request, and did a great deal more besides. La Trinité, the abbey that she had commissioned in Caen to recompense for her uncanonical marriage to William, was probably still not completed at this time, but she decided that this would be the perfect moment to dedicate it. An elaborate ceremony was planned, to which all of the high-ranking members of Norman society were invited. The date assigned for it was 18 June 1066, at the height of William’s propaganda campaign for his planned conquest of England. It was an important occasion for Matilda and her husband. A contemporary charter shows that as well as nobles from across the principality, all of the most senior churchmen were in attendance.
All of this may seem like a rather cynical attempt by Matilda to lend her husband’s campaign religious legitimacy, but the occasion did involve a genuine sacrifice on her part. On the day of the ceremony, she and William offered up their daughter, Cecilia, as a novice at the abbey. Giving one’s child to a religious house was considered the greatest gift that one could bestow upon God. It echoed biblical tales of people offering their children, animals or other precious possessions as a sacrifice. That William and Matilda should choose to do so at such a time was profoundly significant. They were effectively striking a bargain with God: they had given Him their daughter, now He should give them England.
Matilda did not allow herself long to mourn the loss of her youngest daughter to the religious life. The prospect of becoming Queen of England was evidently an appealing one, for she threw herself into William’s invasion effort with even more directness. Her contribution was both spectacular and unique. She commissioned a magnificent new flagship, The Mora, in which her husband might cross the Channel and lay siege to his prospective kingdom. Matilda had planned every detail of the ship with meticulous care, and each of the embellishments was loaded with symbolism. The result inspired all who saw it, and was vividly depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry.
But by far the greatest contribution that Matilda made to her husband’s campaign to conquer England was to assume the Regency of Normandy during his absence. This was no mean feat: the duchy was beset with overmighty nobles, all eager to capitalise upon their leader’s absence. That William should leave his wife in charge was both shocking and enormously significant. Women were still largely sidelined in political affairs, and no Duchess of Normandy before Matilda had exercised such power. The outcome of the Battle of Hastings would ensure that Matilda would enjoy an even more powerful role in the affairs of both Normandy and England during the years that followed.