One of my favourite aspects of the story of William the Conqueror is his relationship with his wife, Matilda of Flanders. Unlike any previous Duke of Normandy, William had one wife, who was the mother of all his children, and is not known to have had any mistresses or sired any bastards. Now, this may say less about his fidelity than the fact that he was so powerful that no chronicler dared tell any negative stories about him. But had he produced any illegitimate sons, they would have grown up to be powerful men in Normandy or England, and threats to the position of his legitimate successors. And we would have heard about them. But we haven’t.
So let us assume that one woman attracted, won and kept the richest, most powerful man of his age. Let us also note the contrast between William’s mighty stature, for one of the things that distinguished him was his sheer size and physical presence, and his wife who was tiny, possibly less than five feet tall and thus might easily have seemed like a timid little mouse beside her lion of a husband.
Yet though Matilda may have been small, she was anything but timid. The stories of her youth tell of a fiery, headstrong, wilful personality. She had to be all those things to prevent a man as tough, implacable and even bullying as William from riding roughshod over her. But that didn’t happen.
What did happen, however, was sex, and plenty of it. Matilda produced four sons and (probably) five daughters, spread over the best part of twenty years. So she and William kept coming back for more, and the chemistry between them is made clear in one of my favourite stories from the entire period: William’s unusual, but effective seduction of his bride. I will not say exactly what happened. That would ruin the final pages of Duke. Suffice it to say that Matilda was not impressed by the idea of being married off to an overbearing, uncouth Norman lout, and he – while not much keener on her to begin with – did not appreciate being dismissed by a pint-sized Belgian. His solution was so wildly inappropriate that it makes The Taming of the Shrew seem like a manual of political correctness and would certainly constitute a criminal offence if attempted today.
But… and this is the crucial ‘but’ from an author’s point of view … what William did was outrageously entertaining, undeniably dramatic and, in these particular circumstances, fantastically sexy. This was William’s first conquest. As a means of getting his way with the women he desired it made Christian ‘Fifty Shades of ’ Grey look like a weedy, vanilla beginner. And what novelist – let alone what pint-sized Belgian – could possibly say no to that?
DUKE, by David Churchill is out now in paperback