I took a deeeeeep dive into medieval history these past couple of weeks. 😛 I don’t really know how it started, but it ended with me reading a historian’s complete dissertation (300 pages long!) on the life of Mathilda of Flanders.
I was engrossed. This medieval queen, whose name I had never even heard of before, captivated me by her truly inspirational leadership.
Mathilda of Flanders is a poignant example of a powerful female leader. One marked by grace and confident authority.
Her legacy is one of a competent ruler, who acted with her own agency in political matters, used her influence and wealth for the welfare of others and was a remarkable wife and mother.
Her influence was recognized by many, including Pope Gregory VII. In letters to Queen Mathilda, Gregory often applauded her governmental work and encouraged her to continue using her power and influence for good (Gathagan, 58).
Have you heard of Mathilda of Flanders?
I’m guessing not. It seems that unless you are a historian, or have access to academic papers written by historians, the information about this leading lady is sparse.
I did a quick Google search and checked Wikipedia to see what might be out there on the web. Friend, the results made me sad. 😔
Wikipedia has seven sections on their page about Mathilda, each only around a paragraph long. The sections go in this order: Marriage, Rumored Romances, Duchess of Normandy, Queen, Height, Family and Children, and Ancestry.
That’s correct. Mathilda was a governing queen, and the internet introduces her ‘rumored romances’ before her queenship! Not to mention that historical accounts are unanimous that Mathilda and William were devoted to each other (neither had affairs) as long as they lived–which was nearly unheard of at the time (Gathagan, 46).
So these rumored romances are pure distraction from her exceptional leadership. Rawr.
*P.S. If you read her Wikipedia page, be warned. The marriage portion highlights a folktale that Mathilda was beaten into marrying her husband, William. However, most historians agree that this story is a fable that started in the 13th century to warn against marrying people of lower status or of illegitimate birth (Mathilda was of higher status than her husband, and royalty didn’t want this to be seen as acceptable) (Gathagan, 41).
Mathilda’s career was full – governing Normandy on her own with “complete stability” during a politically tense period, and participating in virtually every major political and religious charter during her reign (Gathagan, 105).
There is something magical about learning of historical women leaders who led with dignity and respect. In the case of Mathilda, we’re talking about a loooong time ago. She lived from 1031 -1083. A time when queenship wasn’t very well documented, and even today hasn’t been well researched (part of the reason why we likely never heard of Mathilda in history class).
However, historians find Mathilda a marvel too.
She was able to acquire and retain authority in a manner that was unprecedented at her time. Even though Mathilda came from a lineage of educated and influential women, they did not have the power Mathilda did.
In fact, she was the first recorded English queen to have been given a scepter, which is a symbol of governmental authority, on par with the king’s (Gathagan, 73).
Mathilda was often the first, or the only women present in many governmental and religious affairs. But that didn’t cause her to back down or second guess the activities and policies she pursued.
Rather, she recognized her status and ability, and chose to fully engage her position and authority.
Laura Gathagan, the historian who wrote her dissertation on Mathilda sums up her career this way: “Lord, judge, and patron, Mathilda assumed these roles repeatedly with competence and success throughout her life, for the furtherance of her own and her family’s power.” (Gathagan, 74)
It is believed that Mathilda had a deep sense of her own authority, and that operating out of that knowledge is what enabled her to become a successful and beloved ruler.
Mathilda was a change maker. She married William on her own accord (i.e. not an arranged marriage, which was the norm), at age 20, which was considered an older age for marriage at the time. Not only that, but the papal court would not recognize their marriage as valid because William was conceived during an affair, making him illegitimate. It took nearly ten years of advocating, led by Mathilda, before their marriage was formally recognized (Gathagan, 40).
She had 10 kids, and was known to have been very involved, especially in their education. Making sure the boys and girls were equally well educated. The girls were even taught in the abbey Mathilda founded, La Trinité.
And one more example of her changing making was Mathilda’s coronation. It matched the the elaborateness of William’s. The liturgy (formal readings and proceedings of the coronation) was actually updated for Mathilda to reflect her equal authority to rule as the king had (Gathagan, 104).
What can we learn from Mathilda?
As you can probably tell, there are several things that stand out to me about Mathilda of Flanders. But let’s focus in on a couple of takeaways we can apply to our own leadership journeys.
- History is more complex than it seems. I found Mathilda’s story fascinating because I simply just.had.no.idea. I wasn’t aware that are historical accounts of empowered female leaders that have been glanced over or ignored for hundreds/thousands of years. That lack of knowledge led me to believe that female leadership is a relatively new ‘thing.’ While each generation faces it’s own unique challenges, I find it very inspiring knowing that there is a long legacy of women who have chartered their own path. I imagine that if we’d grown up learning about Mathilda and other outstanding women with the same reverence as their male contemporaries, it wouldn’t be so hard for women to pursue leadership positions or for others to get behind them.
- Even if the climate is welcoming to women, we need a deep sense of confidence and worthiness to lead well. Mathilda exemplifies this. We know that Mathilda’s female peers had wealth and influence, granted to them by their place in society. And while many used what they had for good, they did so within the confines of what was expected. Mathilda, on the other hand, continued to grow and seek opportunities to use her power to lead. I want us to be like Mathilda, using our strengths, wisdom and integrity to create positive change. But doing so isn’t easy. There are expectations and boundaries we will come up against–we need to believe in our competence in order to lead well and move past them.
- We build on each other. Mathilda had a family tree of educated and involved women. She also had strong friendships with her female contemporaries (we know this through their letters back and forth). Mathilda’s success didn’t happen in a vacuum, and ours won’t either. We need to cheer each other on by speaking words of life, truth and encouragement to our female friends. Of course, success looks different for everyone. Building upon each other’s success doesn’t necessitate that we all are pursuing the same lifestyle, and that’s perfectly okay. 😊
- Invest in others. Mathilda was known by her service and patronage to monasteries and promoting education. She was also seen as a spiritual leader in her marriage and the people she governed. She used her life and status to benefit others, which I imagine was the motivating force behind her confident leadership.
Let’s look beyond ourselves. How can growing in our leadership benefit those we love and the people around us?
I’d love to know which historical women you admire! I know there are thousands I’m unfamiliar with.
If you’re eager to keep reading about other historical women, I’ve got a list for you: ‘11 of History’s Fiercest Females Everyone Should Know‘ – enjoy!
Thanks for being part of the journey with me.