Wednesday, May 1, 2013

To Marry a Nun

Seal of Queen Matilda
When King William II died mysteriously in 1100, his brother immediately ascended the throne. Needing a queen, he turned to Matilda of Scotland, then about 20 years old. There was one potential problem with this plan, however: Matilda was a nun.

Or was she?

Matilda was the daughter of Queen (later Saint) Margaret and Malcolm Canmore, King of Scotland (and the model for the Malcolm in Shakespeare's MacBeth). Her mother raised her with daily religious instruction and a ruthless attention to discipline: the steward had permission to beat any of her children if they exhibited bad manners.

At the age of six, Matilda (along with her three-year-old sister, Mary) was sent to Romsey Abbey in Hampshire, where their mother's sister was abbess. "Aunt Cristina" dressed the girls in the heavy black clothing of nuns and beat them regularly to remind them that they were sinful. Several years later, they were sent by their mother's instructions to Wilton Abbey in Wiltshire for further education, saving them from their aunt. Instruction included more than catechism: Matilda knew English, French and Latin, and was able to read St. Augustine and the Bible.

Romsey Abbey today
In 1100, Henry I's wish to marry her created a controversy. Was she a nun and ineligible for marriage? Henry wasn't sure, so he turned to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Anselm of Bec (c.1033-1109). Anselm, recently returned to England after a long time away, shied away from making that decision—although he was a brilliant theologian, he was possibly torn between betraying the Church and annoying a King—and called a council of bishops to debate the matter.

Matilda herself testified that she was never meant to be a nun, that her parents only sent her to abbeys because they wished her to be educated, and that she hated the nun's life and tore off the veil whenever she was out of sight of Abbess Cristina. The council concluded that Matilda was never supposed to be a nun after all, and gave permission for the marriage.


  1. This family is so interesting to read about.

  2. From William the Conqueror to Henry VIII, whomever sat the Throne of England fascinates me. Well, I'm not THAT keen on Edward II, who didn't seem very interested in the job at all.