Wife to the Bastard
Originally published in 1967, this is one of those oldies but goodies, but its age, sadly, shows a bit around the edges.
Beautiful, diminutive, passionate Mathilda of Flanders suffers through a broken engagement and an unwanted pregnancy. She must marry but is averse to marrying just anyone. Her father chooses for her William of Normandy, who many title “The Bastard.” Mathilda is not thrilled with the choice, but must demur.
The couple’s life together is marked by the birth of many children, many battles fought by one of the great soldiers of all time, and numerous challenges, both political and emotional. For her it is all ambition—for him, for her children, and perhaps a bit for herself. For much of their marriage, Mathilda is William’s most respected advisor, his comrade in planning for a kingdom and the mother of his ever growing brood.
What drives them apart is the lack of respect and love William gives his oldest son, his lack of concern about his female children and his willingness to overlook the cruelty and distorted vision of power which marks their son, Rufus, from his earliest childhood. Ambitious, yes, but Mathilda is first and foremost a mother. She worries about William constantly, but she is sickened—figuratively and then literally—by his abuse of Robert, their eldest.
Although we recognize that Mathilda never loved William, the question remains at the end of the book: Did William love Mathilda?
We all know the history, but Lewis’s focus is on the impact upon women of the medieval conventions of royalty and marriage. Where Isabel of Lewis’ Harlot Queen takes matters into her own hands, the earlier Mathilda, seemingly feisty when we first meet her, has her strength wrested from her by her husband. A bit dry in places, but chock full of historical fact and interesting characterizations.