Women in History: Matilda

Matilda, also known as Maud, has long beem one of my favourite feisty women of history. Long before it was acceptable, let alone fashionable, she knew what she was entitled to, did everything in her power to get it, and refused to let any man tell her what she could or could not do. 

The daughter of Henry I of England, Matilda was born in London in 1102.
Her brother, William the Aetheling, was heir to both the English and Norman thrones. Matilda was married twice, both times in the interest of Political alliances that would help to protect strengthening Normandy against the French. In 1114 she was married to the German Prince Henry, who would later become the Holy Roman Emeror Henry V, but she was left childless and a widow when he died in 1125. In 1128 she married Geoffrey of Anjou, who gave the Plantagenet dynasty its name.

Her brother diedin 1120, making Matilda Henry I’s sole legitimate heir, and although a woman had not  ruled either England or Normandy on her own before, Henry forced his baronsto accept her as his successor. However, her marriage to Geoffrey was unpopular because the barons had insisted that Matilda should not be married out of England without their consent. In 1133, Matilda gave birth to her first son, giving the barons hope of a different heir, but he was only two when Henry I died.

In a swift and powerful coup, the English throne was taken by Stephen of Blois, grandson of son of William the Conqueror by his daughter, Adela. The church and most of the baronage supported Stephen, but Matilda’s claims were powerfully upheld in England by her half brother Robert of Gloucester and her uncle, King David I of Scotland.

A series of battles, captures and exiles ensued in a civil war between Matilda and Stephen and those loyal to each of them, a period referred to as The Anarchy. Never one to give up, Matilda kept on fighting despite the gradual attrition of her supporters, and managed to take Stephen as her prisoner at Lincoln in 1141.

A clerical council at Winchester acclaimed her ‘The Lady of the English” and she made a victorious entry into London, but the people thought her haughty and greedy, and rejected her before her coronation. She fled to the west of England, after which her support base continued to be depleted.

Matilda retreated to Normandy in 1148, and instead of fighting to regain her throne, sought instead to secure the position of her eldest son, Henry, who became duke of Normandy in 1150 and King Henry II of England in 1154. While Henry was active in ruling England, it was Matilda who oversaw and maintained the European elements of his kingdom.

Beowulf: A Marvellous Story, Magnificently Told.

Beowulf, a centuries-old epic poem, is a marvellous story, magnificently told.

Beowulf is the oldest poem that we have in an English language. It is a medieval Anglo-Saxon epic poem that tells of the adventures of the hero, a great warrior named Beowulf, who crossed the sea from Sweden and helped the Danes fight the monster Grendel. ‘Beowulf’ is based on an early Germanic tale that relates events which would have happened after the fall of the Roman Empire and before these tribes moved into Britain. It celebrates a culture that glorifies strength, courage, and heroic achievements. These stories were told in verse by poet-singers called scops as a popular form of entertainment.

imagesAfter being passed down as an oral tradition for centuries, Beowulf was written down somewhere between the eighth and tenth centuries in Old English, the language that the Anglo-Saxons spoke in Britain. We don’t know who wrote it, or exactly when or where it was written down, or if the characters in the poem really existed. The single manuscript that still exists was written in two different people’s handwriting. The poem could be one traditional tale, or a combination of a number of folk tales into one great story. There was a Swedish king named Hygelac who died in 521AD, so it is possible that some or all of the characters were based on real people.

Old English is very different to modern English, so the poem has been translated into modern English so that we can still read and understand the poem today.

Perhaps the most distinctive poetic device in Old English poetry is the kenning. A kenning is a short, metaphorical term which describes a thing without using its name. In ‘Beowulf’, the king is referred to as a “ring-giver”, while Beowulf himself is called “Higlac’s follower”. My favourite from ‘Beowulf’ is “whale-road” as a description for the sea– isn’t that magnificent? While we are still very fond of metaphor, I think it’s a shame we don’t make more use of the kenning. Old English poetry was also characterised by strong rhythm and frequent alliteration. This would have helped the scops learn and remember the tale as an oral tradition, and added a musical element to the recitation, as well as making the story pleasant to listen to for the audience.

Beowulf_Manuscript

Modern translations follow the convention of making frequent and consistent use of both kennings and alliteration. This adds a wonderful sensory element to reading the story of Beowulf, which even today is a thrilling read. It delivers elements of adventure, history, heroism, and macabre storytelling.

The poem is way too long to include in this post, but you can find Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney, as a safe-to-download PDF at Scribd.
(Note: you do not have to subscribe or accept any trial memberships to get this file.)

There is also a wonderful reading of the poem in contemporary English on Youtube.

Joey'sMapleLeafTatt

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