Lady Matilda Fitzwalter was a woman of great beauty and refinement, born to Robert Fitzwalter, a powerful baron, and the holder of Castle Baynard and Little Dunmow.
The story of Lady Matilda has been the subject of many retellings, but the facts that we do have are enough to make it clear that she was a victim of the king’s lust and wrath.
King John was one of the most controversial and unpopular English kings of the Middle Ages, largely due to his erratic behaviour, his tendency to be cruel and rapacious, and his insatiable desire for power and pleasure.
Lady Matilda’s story is one of the many tales that illustrate King John’s cruelty and lack of respect for ‘the laws of God and man’.
The Early Life of Lady Matilda Fitzwalter
Lady Matilda was known for her beauty and her charm, and many men were enamoured by her.
One of her suitors was King John himself, who, despite his reputation as a lecherous and selfish ruler, was taken with Lady Matilda’s charms.
However, Lady Matilda was married to Geoffrey de Mandeville, the Earl of Essex, and she remained faithful to him despite the king’s advances.
The Revolt of Robert Fitzwalter and the Imprisonment of Lady Matilda
King John did not take Lady Matilda’s rejection well, and he tried to force Robert Fitzwalter, Lady Matilda’s father, to hand her over to him.
When Robert refused, King John sought to destroy Fitzwalter and his property. Robert was banished in 1212, but he was later reconciled to the king, only to revolt in 1215 as a leader of the “Army of God” that massed against the king.
King John imprisoned Lady Matilda in the Tower of London, hoping to break her resolve.
When Lady Matilda persisted in rejecting his advances, the king sent her a poisoned egg, which she promptly ate and died as a result.
The Legend of Lady Matilda Fitzwalter
The story of Lady Matilda has been the subject of many legends, including the tale that she spurned King John’s advances because she was actually in love with Robin Hood, also known by the fictitious name of Robert, Earl of Huntingdon. However, the truth is even stranger than legend.
After Lady Matilda’s death, Geoffrey de Mandeville married Isabella of Gloucester, King John’s first wife.
John was able to get his marriage to Isabella annulled because they were half-second cousins.
At no point did John apply for a papal dispensation, and it soon became clear that he was looking for a better-placed wife with plans to marry Alice, sister of Philip Augustus.
The divorce occurred almost as soon as John became king. Isabella led a half-life for many years, neither a captive nor free until John, desperate for cash for a continental war, effectively sold Isabella to the highest bidder – Geoffrey de Mandeville. Geoffrey and Isabella revolted against King John as well.
Lady Matilda Fitzwalter’s tragic story is just one example of King John’s cruelty and lack of respect for the ‘laws of God and man’.
Although her story has been retold many times over the centuries, the facts that we have are enough to make it clear that Lady Matilda was a victim of King John’s lust and wrath.