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


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


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

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How To Be A Lady: Matilda of England and the Sisterhood of the Traveling Invasion Force


A lady who is struggling to advance her career will always discover that the key to success is to rely on her girlfriends.

Matilda of England had the distinction of being named the first “Lady of England” in 1141; in effect (if not in name), a queen regnant. She spoke Norman French but could also read Latin, and a contemporary account describes her as a “girl of noble character, distinguished and beautiful, who was held to bring glory and honor to…the English realm.”

In 1139, however, the crown intended for Matilda as the late king’s designated heir was still out of reach, having been snatched away by her cousin Stephen while she was stuck in Normandy. To press her claim, Matilda had gathered an escort of loyal supporters, led by her half-brother Robert of Gloucester, and they were headed for Gloucester’s stronghold at Bristol. But in order to reach it they needed to make landfall on English soil. The sea route to Bristol was too dangerous to sail directly, and their previous attempts to land elsewhere had been thwarted because the line of available ports was controlled by Stephen.

Even when one of Gloucester’s men tried to hold one of his own ports open long enough for Matilda to land, he was quickly crushed by Stephen’s navy and the port slammed shut.

Their prospects looked grim, until one of Matilda’s girlfriends stepped up.

As the second wife of the late king, Adeliza of Louvain was technically Matilda’s stepmother, but their girl-bonding ran much deeper than that. They were both of a similar age and they had a long-established friendship dating back at least fifteen years. Adeliza had a castle at one of the ports, but her new husband, William d’Aubigny, had already professed loyalty to Stephen, thus never causing the usurper a moment’s concern.

In hindsight, however, Stephen should have known that girlfriends never let each other down.

So one night Matilda and Gloucester made landfall at Adeliza’s port of Arundel. And Matilda slipped inside the castle for an evening of medieval chick flicks and cosmos and maybe a little battle strategy, while Gloucester and his knights (now traveling light) rode full-tilt and reached Bristol before Stephen could catch them.

Stephen was furious. But, unable to breach Bristol’s defenses and acutely conscious of the bad optics of besieging two poor helpless ladies at Arundel, he reluctantly allowed Matilda to rejoin Gloucester. And once inside Gloucester’s stronghold and surrounded by his army, Matilda could finally press the claim that would eventually make her “Lady of England.”

Thus a lady whose career progress has been frustrated by the men in her life will find that in her hour of greatest need, she can always count on her girlfriends.

Further Reading

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How To Be A Lady: Eleanor of Leicester and the Benefits of Legal Decorum


A lady should never allow a dispute to descend into a shouting match, though she may elevate one into an international crisis if necessary.

Eleanor of Leicester, sister of King Henry III of England and daughter of the late King John, was one of the greatest ladies of the thirteenth century. She was even honored in a ballad that praised her fair skin, her golden locks and her many feminine virtues, though oddly it left out her litigiousness.

In 1231 Eleanor was sixteen, in the full flower of her youth and newly widowed. Her late husband, William Marshal, had owned lands across the British Isles, and as his widow Eleanor was entitled to one-third of them for her lifetime. But William’s eldest brother Richard was also entitled to inherit, and in the ensuing legal tussle he tried to waltz off with her dowry lands as well as the furniture William had left her.

To end the spat, King Henry finally accepted payment for the lands on Eleanor’s behalf, but Eleanor felt the amount offered was far too low. She wasn’t finished yet.

Fast-forward to 1257 — King Henry sought a treaty with France, whereby he would accept payment in exchange for giving up historical claims to French lands (Seems there were a lot of real estate deals trending among the nobility at the time. Like fancy pointed cone hats, or dysentery). Eleanor, as his sibling and fellow claimant, would need to agree to the exchange. And she didn’t miss her chance.

Eleanor suddenly recalled that other long-buried real estate deal she was never happy with, and flatly refused to sign.

The treaty negotiations continued for two years.

Finally, King Henry dangled a bribe of ten manors in front of Eleanor and pleaded, “Now will you sign?”

Eleanor graciously acquiesced.

And then insisted that 15,000 marks of the French payment to Henry be held in escrow, until the Marshal case was resolved to her satisfaction.

(The Marshal case wasn’t concluded until after the king’s death in 1272, when Eleanor was in her fifties. Must have made an excellent pension plan.)

Thus, it is worth remembering that in every dispute, a lady should always maintain a pleasant and courteous demeanor. Even while stonewalling an international treaty to get what she wants.

Further Reading

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How To Be A Lady: Blanche of Castile and the Importance of Liquid Assets


A lady who finds herself occasionally short of funds should always keep assets on hand that she can sell off in a pinch — including her offspring.

Consider the case of Blanche of Castile, wife of the French prince Louis VIII and soon-to-be queen consort of France in the early thirteenth century. Like most couples who face frequent long-distance business travel, Prince Louis went off to England to lead a baronial uprising against Blanche’s uncle, King John, while Blanche and her two sons tended the home fires back in Paris. When Louis called for additional financial support, Blanche decided to petition her father-in-law, King Philip Augustus, on Louis’ behalf. But the result was not what she had expected.

Whatever the reason, whether his investment returns were a little low that month or the recent sale of a castle or two hadn’t brought as much as expected, Philip Augustus refused.

Point blank.

So Blanche, unwilling to mow the neighbors’ lawns or maison-sit while they were Christmasing in the Alps, started casting about for something she could sell. And realized, like a princess in a fairy tale, that her most valuable possessions came from within.

“By the Blessed Mother of God,” she said to the king. “ I have fair children by my lord; I will pawn them and see what I can raise on them.”

Faced with the prospect of the future king of France and the future Duke of Artois being handed over for cash like Grandpa’s old hauberk, Philip Augustus relented. Those pawnshop loans are only good for the short term anyway.

So, thanks to Blanche’s quick thinking, Prince Louis got his support. Blanche even got to keep her children. And therein lies a valuable lesson about good financial management and the importance of always having assets that can be liquidated in a hurry. Even if they are your progeny.

Further Reading

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