Looking for inspiration for this article, (in days that now seem far away, before the Covid-19 lock down), I ended up in a place I know of old. Recently I relocated to South Wales, where I also spent my teenaged years. Out and about exploring old places and new, I ended up at Narberth Castle.
There isn’t a great deal left of the castle. Cromwell’s Roundheads blew up many ancient defences dotted about Wales in the Civil War so they couldn’t be used by royalists. Some survived, and were restored, like the stunning Pembroke Castle, birthplace of the Tudor dynasty; some became shattered shadows, like Narberth. A collection of fragmented walls remain; the evocative ghost of a building.
For a long time this site was overgrown; grass and bracken and bramble surrounding the ruins, the remains of the castle engulfed by nature. I should know, because this place was important to me and my friends when we were young. We used to come here on the weekend, sit on mounds of earth to talk and joke and share confidences. This castle holds special memories for me. I remember laughing a lot here under the dark Welsh skies.
The adult me would say it is good that a few years ago interest in the site increased and the area was cleaned up. Brambles were clipped back, ruins revealed, digs were made. There are information boards now, and a wall hugging the site so other teenagers can’t do as we did. Coming here now, I welcome the boards and the wall. This site is important and should be protected. Admittedly, however, something of the teenager still inside me mourns.
Having become an author of historical fiction, I’m pleased that the teenager I was formed memories in such a place. Although my personal part of the history of this castle will never be in a book, being unimportant to anyone but me and those who came here as I did over the years, we unremembered too are a part of the long history of this castle. Voices of princes of Wales and Norman lords echo here, but so, too, do the songs we sang, secrets shared.
Returning to Narberth Castle therefore brought memories to me, and it has a vague link to a woman I am writing about; the Empress Matilda. One of her father’s many lovers had a son, called Henry fitz Henry. Fitz Henry became lord of this castle. Henry was half Welsh, his mother being the famous Princess Nest of Wales, so he unlike many lords chosen to rule in Wales had an actual blood tie to the land. But another tale associated with Narberth Castle comes to mind when I visit, a myth.
The myth may or not be associated with this particular site. As with many historical or legendary stories, there is disagreement in the academic ranks. There is another area, down the road, which may be the site of an earlier castle, although some historians point out that Narberth Castle has many advantages in terms of strategic positioning, and the later stone, Norman Castle erected on this site might have been built over an older wooden one. But whether this is the place or not, this is where I personally imagine the myth taking place.
The tale is of Rhiannon. A reoccurring character in the collection of Welsh legends known as the Mabinogion, Rhiannon is a woman probably of the otherworld. She appears and Prince Pwyll of Dyfed (some say King) is smitten. He sees her in the distance dressed in gold and riding a white horse, and sends men to bring her to him. But no man can catch Rhiannon, no matter how fast he rides. Always she is in reach yet unreachable. When the King himself goes after her and asks her to stop, she does, and swiftly berates him for not politely asking sooner. She tells him she has chosen him as her husband, and they marry.
Rhiannon, famed for her intelligence, wealth, generosity and her excellent advice to Pwyll, is a good Queen, and, after a few more adventures, she bears a son. But one night the boy is stolen by a monster of the otherworld. Her ladies, fearing they will be blamed, put puppy blood on the baby’s covers and tell the King and Rhiannon that Rhiannon murdered the child in the night, and consumed him. The King is unwilling to believe this, but his men insist the Queen be punished. Rather than kill her, Pwyll condemns Rhiannon to linger at the gates of Narberth Castle and tell her story to any person who comes past, then she must offer to carry them to the castle on her back. Most people, apparently and thankfully, take pity on the sad Queen and don’t make her carry them to the castle, but she is condemned for many years to sit at the gates. For long years a false story clouds her reputation and ruins her life. She is cast out of her true role and power, condemned by all. Eventually the boy, found by a peasant couple and raised until they notice how strikingly he resembles Pwyll, is returned. The women confess their crime. Rhiannon is found innocent, restored to her position and exonerated.
I find the tale interesting. The ease with which a woman of great power, of confidence, is brought low and disparaged, reduced in power and status to become, essentially, a beast of burden, fascinates me. Betrayed by other women, Rhiannon’s good deeds as Queen vanish because of the power of one lie. Protesting her innocence does no good. On the word of others she is condemned, lowered and shamed.
In the same way, history has not been kind to the Empress Matilda. This woman, granddaughter of William the Conqueror, daughter of Henry I, was once Empress of the Holy Roman Empire, and as a teenager ruled as regent for her husband in northern Italy for a time. In youth she was crowned Queen of the Germans and Romans, and was known as Good Queen Matilda in the Empire because of her mercy and charity. Later in life, Matilda waged war against her cousin, Stephen, when her father, Henry I, died and Stephen usurped her throne.
Matilda became her father’s heir by accident of fate. Her only legitimate brother, William, died in a terrible accident; the ship carrying him and half the English and Norman court hit a rock. Everyone except one man on board died; more than three hundred people. Matilda was then still married to Emperor Heinrich, but after his death she returned to Normandy, becoming her father’s named heir. In front of her and her father, barons of England and Normandy as well as high ranking men of the clergy swore to uphold her as Queen, not just once, but at least twice.
Female rule was not unknown, but it was more usual that a woman ruled as regent for an absent husband, or for a young son. Matilda had neither son nor husband when she returned to Normandy. This was swiftly rectified; her father married the young woman to an even younger boy, Geoffrey of Anjou. The idea appears to have been that Matilda would have an heir of her own, then transmit her claim to a son. If Henry I could stay alive long enough, the crown might go straight to Matilda’s son. But she was named heir, and were it not for her cousin Stephen, Matilda might have become England and Normandy’s first regnant Queen.
Stephen, in truth, had a terrible claim to the throne. He was Matilda’s cousin, and hailed from a female line of the Conqueror; his mother was the formidable and politically astute Adela of Blois. Stephen was not Adela’s eldest son. He had two older brothers. Matilda was the eldest child of the reigning King, his named heir, and although there had been a male claimant (William Clito, only son and heir of Robert Curthose, eldest son of the Conqueror) with an arguably better claim, Clito had died by the time the throne of England fell vacant. Between Matilda and Stephen, Matilda had the better claim. But claim doesn’t secure a crown. What Stephen did have was more important; a speedy head start. Henry I died suddenly in Normandy. Stephen heard and hot-footed it to England where he claimed the treasury and had himself hastily crowned. It was a family tradition. Henry I, also a claimant with an older heir still living, (Curthose again), did his own mad dash to Winchester to grab the treasury and be crowned when his brother King William II (or Rufus as he is known) died in mysterious circumstances in the New Forest. Circumstances that Henry I perhaps created, but that mystery remains unsolved.
Matilda didn’t hear that her father was dead for some time, and didn’t know about Stephen for even longer. Pregnant with her third son and in Normandy, she found herself late to the crown-claiming party, but eventually she came to England to fight for her throne. The Civil War that unfolded is called, in modern times, the Anarchy. At the time it was called the Shipwreck. Both sides committed atrocities, common people suffered, many died. Civil War is never civil. No war is.
Matilda comes in for a great deal of criticism, but not for acts of war. Matilda was, and is, often represented as cold and proud in character. Condemned (tellingly) as acting in an un-womanlike way, Matilda is often censured in chronicles of the times more for personality than acts. What is striking is that most of the qualities she is condemned for were displayed by another woman, Matilda of Blois, Queen of Stephen. Matilda of Blois demonstrated shrewd leadership, pride in herself and her family, and was a strong commander. Indeed, without her I doubt Stephen would have done half as well as he did. Many of the things the Empress Matilda was criticised for, Matilda of Blois was praised for. When done on behalf of a man, therefore, it appears it was acceptable for women to display qualities of leadership, pride, command and control. The difference between them was that Empress Matilda was attempting to claim the throne in her own right. Matilda of Blois was acting on behalf of her husband.
Even today some historians follow the traditional line and accuse Matilda of acting with undue pride and coldness. Read some reports of the times, however, and she is called generous, warm and kind. Men followed her in the war with loyalty and devotion. She seems to have had friends willing not only to help and support her, but to die for her. After a rocky start she made the best of a bad marriage, in youth she was upheld as a merciful and good Queen, and in her old age was celebrated by men of the Church and men of state as a benevolent, wise influence on her son.
But the bad impression, largely based on one incident during the war, is the one that lasted. Reading about her early life I did not see a woman with undue pride or coldness. It may be that as Empress, a role she was trained for from the age of eight, she learned to act with a certain degree of regal distance. In male rulers, this would have been praised. Pride, too, would not have been considered improper for a King. Many sources, written to uphold King Stephen, condemn Matilda because he was his enemy. This is traditional, of course, but I have to wonder if when it comes to women of history, if their bad qualities are always remembered better than good, where this would not happen for a King.
Henry I, for example, most would agree was a great King. He did great things. He brought the English system of justice to life, controlled his barons, brought about peace in England and Normandy for the majority of his reign and was successful in war. That he also allowed his granddaughters to be blinded in retribution for a crime of their father’s, that he had a fearsome temper, was an infamous womanizer, that he might have murdered one brother and certainly imprisoned another for life are mentioned but, and here is the important part, do not detract from the central idea of his great kingship.
Yet with Matilda, this is not so. Matilda is better spoken of after the war, when she resigned her claim to the throne in favour of her son, Henry. After decades of war, it was agreed that when Stephen died Henry would take the throne. He became Henry II. When he was King, Matilda advised him, represented him in Normandy, and when acting for him she was praised.
There remains, sadly, a pressure of perfection upon women in power. I think it is still true that women are judged, by both men and women, more harshly than men in power are. If women of history have one fault, that fault is remembered and sometimes is all they are remembered for. Matilda was not perfect, of course. No one is. Perhaps she was proud. Perhaps she was distant. She appears to have had a definite stubborn streak, rather like her father. Humans are flawed. But we should remember this applies to the Kings of our history as well as the Queens. I’m not asking for us to uphold only the good about either. Many, male or female, did breathtakingly appalling acts. But, with the long gaze of history, let us assess their reigns for good and bad, and their characters too.
Perhaps that is why, when I was walking nearby, Narberth Castle drew me close again. Rhiannon, a woman of legend, and Matilda, one of history, have something in common. They have both been left outside the borders, remembered badly, removed from their true position. Matilda has been waiting at the gates, telling a tale of her life that is at least incomplete. I think it’s time she was released, brought back to the warm hall of Kings, so she can reclaim her rightful position as one of our great women of history whose story deserves to be remembered, in a balanced way.
It’s time for the Empress to take her throne in the long hall of Kings, this woman who might have been the first true Queen of England and Normandy, and from whom came the line of the Plantagenets, the longest reigning house ever to sit on the English throne. The gates of history have had the Empress sitting at them too long. It’s time to open them, and welcome Matilda back to the castle.
Child of Water: Book One in The Heirs of Anarchy series
Winter, 1110, England
On a beach, standing in the snow, a girl of eight winters waits for a ship that will take her from her homeland of England, from her family, to her husband. That girl is Matilda, daughter of Henry I, King of the English and Duke of Normandy. In time she would become Queen of the Germans and Romans, and Empress of the Holy Empire.
From the dark forests and mighty castles of the German states of the Empire, to the Alps, northern Italy and Rome, Matilda will travel, at first the apprentice of power, learning from her husband, Heinrich, the Emperor. Through times of war and peace, loss and deepest sorrow, her story unfolds, leading her back to the place of her birth, and the promise of a throne.
The author’s thanks are due to Julia Gibbs, proof reader of this work, and Consuelo Parra, the cover artist.