Monday, May 03, 2010

Empress Matilda's Bling!

During the course of my research into Empress Matilda, I found a very interesting list of some of the riches she owned in her lifetime, so I thought I'd write a shiny post today, detailing that list and illustrating it with items that are either the originals, or something very similar. (click on the images to enlarge). Matilda does seem to have liked her rich fabrics, gold and jewels, but when one examines any royal wardrobe list the same trend becomes obvious. Material wealth of the 'bling' variety in the Middle Ages wasn't just about being shiny and flashing wealth on the person to enhance status. It was about favour and patronage too. Religeous establishments benefitted from rich gifts and became the storage places for much of that wealth - sort of unofficial banks where the good could be kept safe until needed. So it was about glory to God and to keeping the church sweet. Gold and silver artefacts and rich textiles were also the rainy day funds should the monarchy fall on hard times. Mercenaries could be paid in jewels and gold cups. Loans could be secured against the wealth. In the early thirteenth century, William Marshal used just this ploy when he became regent. Whatever was left in the royal treasury at Corfe was used to pay the soldiers and keep them in the field. There was no coin to be had, but there were sapphires and emeralds and gold cups and bolts of silk.
But back to the Empress. When Matilda left Germany as a widow in 1125 or 1126, she returned to Normandy bearing a wealth of treasure acquired during her marriage - among which was at least one dubious (mis) appropriation - the Hand of Saint James, which she presented to Reading Abbey. There is a little about the hand here. The hand, however, would originally have been displayed in a ornate relic case probably looking not unlike this one.

This one is German and dates to around
1240, but earlier, similar examples are
known. The relic itself would be visible
through a see-through 'window' in
the cuff or sleeve.

Matilda also returned from Germany with at least two crowns that had been worn by her husband the Emperor. One 'of solid gold, decorated with gems' was worn by Henry II at his coronation and was so heavy that it had to be supported by two silver rods when worn. The front of the crown was adorned by a jewel of great size and value with a gold cross superimposed. The smaller of the crowns had been used by the emperor on feast days. Matilda also had a crown of her own, decorated with golden flowers.

Imperial crown of the
Holy Roman Empire.
It is made in hinged
segments, so can be packed
flat for travel!

There are two actual survivals of artefacts that we know Empress Matilda owned in her lifetime. One is a dalmatic (robe) of red-gold silk, still preserved today in the Parish church of Ambazac - below. The other is a gemstone and gold filigree reliquary cross now in the Musee Departementale at Rouen and given by her to the Cistercian monks at le Valasse.

Empress Matilda's silk dalmatic

Among the gifts Matilda gave to the Abbey at Bec0Hellouin were the above mentioned crowns and also another golden cross decorated with precious stones, two gospel books bound in gold and studded with gems, two silver-gilt censers, a silver incense box and spoon, a gold dish and a gold pyx for the Eucharist. There were three silver flasks, a ewer for holy water and a silver basin. Add to this two portable altars of marble mounted in silver and an ebony chest filled with relics. There were more textiles in the forms of holy vestments - chasubles, dalmatics, copes, and an imperial cloak belonging to herself, besprinkled with gold. All of the above list was donated in her lifetime. After she died, the abbey also received the ornaments she had used in her own private chapel. These included service books, a gold chalice and spoon, four chasubles, two tunics, two dalmatics, six copes, two of which were interwoven with silver, two silver censers and two boxes which were described as 'eggs of griffins'. The legs and claws gripping these 'eggs' were fashioned of silver. The griffin's eggs could have been many things. Ostrich eggs, which were highly prized, or egg-shaped polished agates as per the Greek legends. We don't know. There was a popular 12th century story about Alexander the Great harnessing a pair of Griffins and having them fly him to heaven to see God, only to be asked by an angel why he wanted to see God when he didn't yet understand the world he lived in. Chastened, Alexander flew back to earth. Perhaps Matilda had this pair of griffon's eggs on her altar as a reminder of this legend, who knows?
All the above was just the tip of the iceberg. Empress Matilda truly did live in a world that glittered. When she died, as well as all her treasure, she gave thirty thousand shillings to Grandmontine order. In physical terms at least, the Empress died a wealthy woman.
Below, I've added quick links to what chasubles, copes and dalmatics are, and a few photographs of more glittery bits typical of what the Empress would have seen and used in daily life.


portable altar with marble


Unknown said...

Very interesting post. It is fascinating to me to see items that were used (or are similar to what was used) by royalty in the middle ages.

Charmaine said...

Another fascinating post. Most interesting to me is the AKASHIC Records regarding Geoffrey of Anjou's thoughts towards Matilda. Did she hate him as much as we read in other books? Was there any sexual attraction on her part because he was considered handsome?

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

The Akashics on Geoffrey are spot on both with the physical descriptions and his attitudes. Here he's a teenage boy. Later on (Alison and I have done quite a lot of work on Geoffrey) he matures to a degree and some of his attitudes channge towards Matilda, but never the need to be in control. Yes, she hated him, but she was sexually attracted too. And he found out that she wasn't an old hag when it came down to business, and the fact that she wouldn't obey him both enraged him and increased his desire. It's a bit like the song Die For You by Megan McCauley if you know it - It's around on Youtube. That's the feeling even if all the lyrics don't suit.

Anne Gilbert said...

I'm always on the lookout for authentic "period" clothing for my own characters. That"dalmatiic" was certainly "glittery", though my guess is Matilda probably wouldn't have worn it for "everyday". However, as you point out, all this "bling" people of a certain rank wore, or used, could be used for all kinds of purposes, and was even a kind of "money".
Anne G

Carla said...

Remarkable that the silk dalmatic has been preserved all this time - do we know why the Empress gave it to the church?

Jewellery and precious objects formed a sort of savings account you could wear, as well as a mark of your status, even for quite ordinary people - three functions in one. At the top level treasure takes on a political function as well, as you say. I came across a line in a book once (can't remember where) that described treasure as "....the wherewithal to buy power.", which struck me as very apt.

Anonymous said...

Why is the Mantle of Roger II pictured here? I don't think the mantle ever left Sicily or that Matilda would have owned an article of clothing like that.

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Hi Killbunniesdead,
I say quite clearly that this is the type of thing she would have had, not that the item actually was. If you read the list of donations Matilda made to various religeous establishments in Chibnall's biography of the Empress, you will see a fabulous array of effects (including that illustrated red and gold dalmatic) that show the Palermo stlye of cloak is easily within scope and fits in well.

Grandmont said...

Thanks for this well documented post. Yet M. Chibnall felt very uneasy about the mention of Stephen's dalmatic "given by the empress" in the 15th century inventory of Grandmont. And she was right. It has been proved that the dalmatic was made in the 13th century. Monks like to boast prestigious patrons.
Trésors d’églises de Haute-Vienne, Ambazac, M. PLANTEC et Th. ZIMMER, éditions du Patrimoine, Limoges, 1997. D. G., SHEPHERD, « La dalmatique d’Ambazac », Bulletin de liaison du centre international d’étude des textiles anciens, Lyon, 1960, p. 11-29.

HawkLord71 said...

Just watched a fantastic documentary on Empress Maude (Matilda) and Eleanor of Aquitaine on BBC4. Amazing... I know very little of this period, so it was a real eye opener. Great post, by the way. Don't you just love history and the way artefacts, even mere pictures of them, gives history a real tangibility?

It's like when I visited Edward Longshanks many castles in North Wales... The stones of the corridor that led to the royal bed chamber in one was so narrow that you *know* you're literally walking in the steps of an ancient King. For some people it just goes right over their heads, but for me I love that feeling of being in physical touch with the past.

I only wish I had been more receptive to all this at school as I was a real waste of space, but now I have such a hunger for history and knowledge.