Monday, September 10, 2012


As LADY OF THE ENGLISH approaches publication day in the UK, I thought I'd reprise an earlier post on the Empress Matilda's treasures and wealth. The illustrations are all either firmly within my own copyright, or have permissions for use and I have lightly edited the text.  The photos are representative of the kind of objects with which the Empress would have surrounded herself.

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 similar to the originals, or dating from that time in history. (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 upon the person to enhance status (although that was part of it).  It was also about favour and patronage. Religeous establishments benefitted from rich gifts and became the storage places for much of that wealth - sort of unofficial banks where the goods could be kept safe until needed.  The royal personage got to store their valuables in safety and the establishment benefited from the patronage and status such a service conveyed.  Since many of the items  had religious connotations,  it was also about glory to God.
 Gold and silver artefacts and rich textiles were 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, gold cups and bolts of silk.

Henry I had stored up a vast amount of wealth in his treasury, but when Stephen took the throne he used it to buy soldiers, to buy support, and to buy off the opposition.  We know that he gave items from the royal treasury to his older brother Theobald of Champagne as a settlement against Theobald relinquishing his claim to England and Normandy.  Theobald then used some of that wealth as a contribution  to the building of the new abbey church of St. Denis.
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 perhaps looking a little like this one.  The see-through windows on the fingers would originally have contained fragments of a saint's bones.    Click to enlarge

Later on, the German emperor asked for the return of the hand, but Matilda wasn't having it and offered him a large travelling tent instead. (fashioned from rich materials and so big it had to be raised mechanically). I suppose that exchange is no robbery...

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.

Among the gifts Matilda gave to the Abbey at Bec0Hellouin were the above mentioned crowns and also ar 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?
Gospel book with parts dating from 10th to 12th century

All the above was just the tip of the iceberg. Empress Matilda truly did live in a world of sumptuous glittered. When she died, as well as all her treasure, she gave thirty thousand shillings to the Grandmontine order. In physical terms at least, the Empress died a wealthy woman.
Below, I've added quick links to show what chasubles, copes and dalmatics are.


The Alton Towers tryptych.  Germany circa 1150


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth, does the list of the gifts Matilda made to Bec come from Marjorie Chibnall's excellent article entitled The Empress Matilda and Bec-Hallouin? I read it some time ago and found it very helpful in my research concerning Matilda's grandson, Henry the Young King. I know, there's no mention about Henry in the text, but I am going to write a text about Henry's grandparents in the nearest future. I remember I liked the way Stephen of Rouen described the Empress's passing. He wrote that 'when she died the flower of the meadow withered and a star fell'. I wonder what Matilda herself would have said if she had known she had been called a flower. Usually described as so strong and haughty and all of a sudden, quite unexpectedly, compared to a flower. How did it ever come to this? :-)

I loved your text about Geoffrey le Bel, especially the anecdotes.

Kasia Ogrodnik

P.S. All the objects are of exquisite beauty, even the reliquary :-)