When Henri met Matilda

Henry I Stop me if you’ve heard this one. No, actually, don’t. I may have mentioned it before. But today is the day Henri I of England (not a typo; he was French) married Matilda of Scotland whose name was Edith (also not a typo but I can’t explain it).

Now Edith Matilda is a very interesting person in all kinds of ways, trilingually literate, pious, a patron of arts, and active in government on behalf of her often-absent husband in a marriage that seems to have been marked by genuine mutual devotion. Even though King Horny I also had roughly two dozen known illegitimate children.

Henry is interesting too, not least for having bumped off his miserable brother William II in a “hunting accident” after which he made a beeline for the royal treasury almost as though he had known it was going to happen. But I digress.

The thing that fascinates me about this marriage is that Matilda was the daughter of Saint Margaret of Scotland and Scottish king Macolm III (predictably killed in battle with the English on an ill-advised raid). And Margaret was the sister of Edgar Atheling and daughter of Edward the Exile, son of Edmund Ironside, last king but one in the House of Wessex (both Edmund and Edward the Confessor were sons of the wretched Aethelred the Unready, though by different mothers) that traced back to Alfred the Great and beyond.

It’s not just antiquarianism. It’s amazing that the Canadian monarchy to this day has its origins in the miraculously successful struggles against disorder in the darker part of the Dark Ages. And it’s a tribute to statesmanship that Henry, son of William the Conqueror, should have married into the House of Wessex for sound dynastic and political reasons, and wound up with a love match with a remarkable woman into the bargain.

It’s like something out of the Lord of the Rings. Which isn’t that surprising given Tolkien’s academic background in Anglo-Saxon literature. And it also comes out well despite enormous travails, including the death of Henri I’s only legitimate son and the civil war that erupted over efforts to keep his and Matilda’s daughter, also Matilda and confusingly Maude (stop it with the double names) and a former Holy Roman Empress, on the throne and with her the House of Wessex as well as of Normandy.

In the end Maude Matilda’s son by Geoffrey of Anjou, Matilda of Scotland’s grandson, became Henry II the Almost Great. And if he was succeeded by such wretched sons as Richard and John, well, nobody’s perfect. From them came other bummer kings like Henry III, and also excellent ones like Edward I. And a system that learned to curb the menace of bad rulers.

It’s a long and tangled tale, of course. And it’s hard to say how much it owes to the happy coincidence of statecraft and emotion in the marriage of Henri and Matilda. But it owes something, and it’s a happy something.