Behind every great man, so the saying goes, is a great woman – or, in the case of the man known to posterity as William the Conqueror, a diminutive one. William’s wife Matilda of Flanders stood little more than four feet tall, but she loomed large, all the same, in the creation of his newly royal dynasty.
The first of her attributes that appealed to the young William, duke of Normandy, was her impeccably blue blood. Matilda’s father, Baldwin, was count of the wealthy and strategically significant territories of Flanders, and a descendant of the great Charlemagne, while her mother, Adela, was a daughter of the king of France. Her lineage promised to bestow both lustre and legitimacy on the bastard-born Norman duke, whose power, amid the brutal unpredictability of eleventh-century politics, had always depended principally on the strength of his sword-arm.
When they married, probably in 1050, William discovered that he liked more about his well-connected wife than simply her pedigree. Strikingly, and very unusually for a medieval ruler, he seems to have taken no mistresses and fathered no illegitimate children once he became a married man. During the