Matilda's devout prayers for William the Conqueror
Matilda had come before the altar, at the feet of Christ many times in her life. She had been present for both marriages of her uncle, King Henry 1st of France, the baptisms of her own children and that of a future king. All were glorious and all were humbling to experience divine love.
However today, the marble of the steps hard against her knees Matilda pressed her hands together recalling another time she came to before Christ and his witnesses - the bishops, her family and her Norman and France congregation. On that day, she didn’t gaze up at a statue hanging from a cross, but into the steely blue eyes of her betrothed, William.
As then, as today, she broke into tears. The young man everyone berated and scorned turned to be her true love. She had defied everyone - her father, her uncle the king and even the Pope to marry William, an illegitimate bastard whom, after a tempestuous wooing became a devoted husband and she admittedly not the best wife.
Oh, she played the good wife. Delivered William seven children, three sons. She prayed with him, campaigned and fundraised for him, and yet as she knelt here in the abbey she wondered if she truly loved him.
Anna was right, Matilda thought of the present Queen Regent of France, a woman who walked the thin line of hell and heaven for an excommunicated husband. “What true sacrifice have I made for love?” Matilda asked herself. “I have let my desirous thoughts wander. I have let my own ambitions guide my husband. I have let my ego sharpen politics and policies, when even the shrewdest around me walked the path of true love. In my heart, my mind and dare say, my spirit, I am the ultimate sinner of sinners.”
As a descendant of the French monarchy, Matilda had ambitions. Yes, she wanted to be queen. She deserved it as much as Anna, a foreigner to France, but here today, before God and his only son she wondered if risking the life of her beloved William was worth it as he prepared for battle across the Channel.
“We all offer our prayers to the Duke,” a nun said, quietly addressing her.
Matilda gazed up at the wrinkled and wise face of an elder nun. “Thank you. He needs all our prayers.” Before turning her head back to the cross, she absorbed the serenity of the abbey. Daylight pouring in from stained glass window. Even the methodical chores of devout servants of God sounded as a music to her ears. She smiled and returned to her earnest prayer.
She shifted position on the step, sensing a fullness invading her heart and thought of her life with William, mostly intimate memories of laying naked in bed together while a storm raged outside and when a man, who could espouse such a brutal nature softly brushed and braided her hair. She did love him in a way only God could know and now she feared her own ambitions risked his life. “All I ask is his safety. Keep him from harm. I don’t care for victory. I don’t even care for the throne. Please return William to me,” she prayed with full vigor.
As the day, drew into night, Matilda didn’t have the faith to leave the altar, instead, she made herself a part of it, curling on the step for sleep and clutching the gold cross dangling from a chain around her neck. She was determined for God to see her devotion to her husband, even if she had to plant herself at his son’s feet until William returned.
The next morning, a sharp glint of sunlight stabbed her eye from the stained-glass window. As she moved from her curled position, she kicked what felt like a body. Opening her eyes and as her blurred vision cleared, she saw her mother, Adele of France kneeling at the altar.
Dressed all in white and her long grey hair hidden under her wimple, Adele gazed down at her daughter, stern, yet loving. “Get up Maud. All of us had men in battle. Some return, others don’t. You have to believe fate is God’s will.”
Lifting herself upright, she saw her daughters, Adelia and Ceclia behind her and even Queen Anne herself had come to pray. Matilda let out a tearful laugh, knowing her dear friend Anna had her all ulterior motives. William’s success abroad meant security for her son Philip’s throne here in France. It didn’t matter, they were all women praying for love - the love of men and kings. This was their power, and Matilda was building her own army of faith.
“Welcome, my friend,” Matilda said to Anna, gesturing for her to kneel beside her. “Come kneel with me.”
Anna, despite being Queen Regent, wore the crown with little regality, far more comfortable with her hair down and strewn around her face, and yet, despite Anna’s foreign wild ways, she always managed to be far more royal than others. From behind Matilda’s daughters, Anna stepped forth beside Matilda and knelt down in prayer. “Have you eaten?” Anna whispered.
“What is talk of food when we should be sacrificing?” Matilda responded.
“Strength. William needs you to be strong.,” Anna replied.
Matilda reached for Anna’s hand. “My sisters of faith will keep me strong.”
Anna smirked her common curious grin. “As men of battle need their rations to remain hearty and fit, so do women in their faith. We can arrange the nuns of the abbey to provide us sustenance.”
All that was needed to obey was a slight nod of Matilda’s head and smile of relief on her face. Her army of faith arrived and she didn’t have to fight her fears by herself. “Thank you,” she said and it was done. Women were sent to request food from the nuns and shortly thereafter food and drink was served.
As the hours passed, women arrived from Normandy and Northern France, all with their own private allegiance to husbands and lovers, and all praying for William’s army. They came with food, wine and great spirit to feed their endeavor, as the Norman army sat waiting for battle in Hastings. No one could know the parallel crusade rising at home. The physical and spiritual force on both sides of the Channel. Certainly, the Saxon kingdom in Wessex could not compete.
As days dragged on with bouts of devout prayer, light-hearted and spirited discussions of love and faith, Matilda and the women lingered about the Abbey. With all the comings and goings during the days and even the nights, no one came notice when the abbey doors opened and in walked a messenger. Finally, his appearance gave dread - his tunic soaked in blood; his chain mail covered in soil. Praying and spirited banter ceased as all attention turned to him.
A heavy jolt struck Matilda aiming for her heart with filled it with panic. While all others waited in silence, Matilda boldly stepped forward to face her fate. “Yes,” she said attempting to maintain as much strength as she could.
The messenger dropped to his knee, pulled back his chain mail hood and even removing his cloth skull cap, letting lose a mass of sweaty black hair. “Your Majesty,” he addressed Matilda. “The King sent me to advise you, the Queen. London is secure and he expects to return by Christmas.”
“The King?” Matilda questioned with a gasp.
“Yes, your Majesty. King William of Wessex.” The messenger rose, a smile now creeping across his dirty face “We were victorious and the Duke, our new King and all our army fought valiantly. Our victory so resounding, they dared not offer any conflict as we sailed down the Thames.”
Matilda’s body shuddered as she immediately covered her mouth to smother the scream that was about to escape her lips. It didn’t matter, all those in the Abbey of St Denis erupted in a loud cheer and as soon as everyone quieted, the church bells announced the news to all of France and Normandy: their once beleaguered Duke, was now King of Wessex, a fate which was to alter the course of history.