Born: c1150 in St. Valery, Normandy, now France.
Died: 1210 in a dungeon, England.
Known as: The Lady of Hay and inspiration for clause 39 of Magna Carta.
Special Skills: Building Castles in a night, fighting the Welsh, breeding cattle,
having babies, being outspoken.
Matilda de Braose is known to us mainly through legend. No images survive and history mainly remembers her husband, not her, as is true of most medieval women. She was born into the ruling class and in her teens was married off to Lord William de Braose IV – a Norman of vast wealth and stature in England, who inherited Brecknockshire, Radnorshire and the lordship of Hay.
Back at the time of the conquest in 1066, King William had given the most callous Norman barons an incentive to take lordships along the Welsh border, known as the Marches. Unlike in the rest of England, being a Marcher Lord meant that any land you took on the Welsh side could be claimed tax free, thus monetising the push of conquered England further into Wales. Alongside these stolen lands the de Braoses inherited long lasting feuds and a memory of brutality. Hostility between Norman and Welsh families played out as violent acts of dominance and were met with bloody retaliation and fierce retribution.
As a couple Matilda and William were brutal, powerful and influential and when King John came to the throne in 1199 they became his favourite ruthless Lord and Lady. In 1175 they invited Welsh Princes to a Christmas dinner and then murdered them in a bloody massacre – think the Red Wedding in Game of Thrones – earning William the nickname, The Ogre of Abergavenny. As well as being complicit in barbaric vendettas Matilda is also said to have run the show while her husband was away. Legend claims that she was a fearsome warrior in her own right and tells how she was called to battle in 1198 when Painscastle needed defending. Matilda bravely rose to the challenge and held off thousands of Welsh soldiers until back-up troops arrived, a story which describes a woman of tenacity, strategy and fearlessness. Matilda’s stature was such that stories about her feats became mythical. It was even said that she was a giant and built Hay castle in a single night, gathering stones in her apron. Local legend has it that, at dawn, a stone fell on her foot and she threw it angrily across the river Wye to Llowes, where it can still be seen today.
Alongside the brutal politics of the Welsh borderlands and the image as a fearless warrior, Matilda was also a mother and provider. It is documented that she gave birth to at least 16 children, so spent most of her adult life pregnant. It is in this role as mother and protector of her children that she is blamed for the downfall of the house of de Braose. This swift and sudden fall from grace began in 1208 when King John claimed that the family owed huge amounts in taxes. The rumour spread that William had witnessed the King killing Arthur of Brittany, King John’s nephew and the rightful heir to the throne. King John demanded Matilda’s son as a hostage to ensure loyalty from the family. Matilda refused, stating that she would not deliver her children to a king who had murdered his nephew.
As a result all the de Braose lands were immediately seized by the king and the family fled. Matilda and a son were eventually captured and placed in a dungeon where they were slowly and painfully starved to death.
Matilda’s cruel death and the startling way in which such firm royal favourites could become landless outcasts prompted the already unhappy barons of England into action. Complaints about King John’s power were put to paper and the Magna Carta was drawn up as a means of reducing a king’s ultimate power. King John was forced to sign in 1215 and it is thought Matilda’s unwarranted imprisonment led to clause 39 that states:
“No man shall be taken, imprisoned, outlawed, banished or in any way destroyed, nor will we proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgement of his peers or by the law of the land.”
In speaking out against a increasingly tyrannical king and standing up to him in defence of her family Matilda suffered a horrible death. Her demise however is seen as vital in the creation of a famous law which limited dictatorial power and ushered in a more democratic foundation to the evolving lands that now make up the United Kingdom.