How To Be A Lady: Matilda of England and the Perilous Risks of Fashion

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A lady must be confident enough in her style choices to take a few risks, such as wearing white fabrics out of season while also escaping from a besieged castle.

Matilda of England was a lady as much admired for her literacy in Latin as for her personal embodiment of “her father’s courage and her mother’s piety”, as William of Malmesbury put it. Less well known, perhaps, was her daring sense of fashion, and how her audacious style eventually paved the way to the throne.

In December 1142, she and her cousin Stephen were once again tussling over the English crown, and Matilda’s cards were momentarily down. She and her small retinue were besieged at Oxford Castle by Stephen’s forces. Her one hope of winning a way out through military strength, her half-brother Robert of Gloucester, was then in Normandy assisting Matilda’s husband with his conquest there. Overall, the situation looked bleak.

Until Matilda’s dauntless sense of style came into play.

Even though it was nearly Christmas (and thus well out of season for the color), Matilda adorned herself and her guards in white cloaks for an evening sojourn. In perfect silence, they slipped through a side door in the castle and walked out into the mounting snow. It was there that her sartorial brilliance finally found its runway: the whiteness of the travelers’ clothing blended seamlessly with the heavy snowfall, rendering them nearly invisible in the fading light.

It was a high-concept approach to couture that even Anna Wintour would have envied.

Thus attired, they snuck past the watch Stephen had set and headed out into the country. They then tramped seven miles over the frozen River Isis and across open fields to the town of Abingdon, where they acquired horses and rode to safety at Wallingford Castle.

And once safe at Wallingford, Matilda could continue the struggle that would eventually lead to the throne. Though in the end, it would be for her son rather than for herself that she would win it.

Thus a lady must sometimes take calculated risks with her fashion choices, in the hopes of bringing her long-sought career goals to fruition.

Further Reading

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How To Be A Lady: Odette de Pougy and the Inviolable Sanctity of Homeownership

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A lady blessed with a religious calling must render unto God what is God’s, but she is free to render nothing unto upstart popes with a tenuous grasp of property rights.

Little is known of Odette de Pougy, medieval abbess of Notre Dame aux Nonains in Troyes, France, though a lack of personal details wasn’t enough to keep her out of the history books. Like most nuns of the era she was probably of the nobility, and as abbess she would have been in the company of some of the most respected female intellectuals of the Middle Ages. She is best remembered, however, for her utter intransigence in refusing to give up a portion of her abbey’s property for someone else’s pet project — even if that someone were the pope.

This will surprise absolutely no one who has ever worked with nuns.

In 1266 Pope Urban IV, the son of a shoemaker from Troyes, wanted to build a church on the site of his father’s former shop. Unfortunately for him, the prospective location was on the property of Notre Dame aux Nonains, so Odette refused.

The medieval Church, it seems, had been steadily chipping away at its nuns’ authority over the centuries. Where once the continent had been dotted with independent abbeys that women could lead, most of the nuns’ houses founded in the later Middle Ages were priories instead, and therefore of lower rank and under the jurisdiction of a male abbot. Abbesses, in one of the few women’s roles that granted actual influence, were becoming an endangered species.

In light of this, Odette could perhaps be forgiven her insistence on preserving this last remaining bit of dominion over her own house.

When the pope decided to begin construction anyway, Odette charged forth at the head of a group of armed men, chased off the builders and flattened the church-in-progress. When he persisted, she led a second assault two years later that drove the infuriated pontiff to excommunicate the entire convent.

Undeterred, Odette held her ground on the issue for the rest of her life. As a result, the church of St. Urbain wasn’t built until after her death; almost literally (as abbesses were often buried on their church grounds) over her dead body.

Thus a lady with a religious calling should remember that while in matters of theology she must submit to a higher authority, in more temporal concerns she is free to use her own discretion.

Also, it is generally advisable for ladies and gentlemen alike to show a little respect to their subordinates instead of eminent-domaining part of their house for your personal commemorative shrine.

Further Reading

Image Source / Public Domain