During the course of my research into Empress Matilda, I found a very interesting list of some of the riches she owned in her lifetime, so I thought I'd write a shiny post today, detailing that list and illustrating it with items that are either the originals, or something very similar. (click on the images to enlarge). Matilda does seem to have liked her rich fabrics, gold and jewels, but when one examines any royal wardrobe list the same trend becomes obvious. Material wealth of the 'bling' variety in the Middle Ages wasn't just about being shiny and flashing wealth on the person to enhance status. It was about favour and patronage too. Religeous establishments benefitted from rich gifts and became the storage places for much of that wealth - sort of unofficial banks where the good could be kept safe until needed. So it was about glory to God and to keeping the church sweet. Gold and silver artefacts and rich textiles were also the rainy day funds should the monarchy fall on hard times. Mercenaries could be paid in jewels and gold cups. Loans could be secured against the wealth. In the early thirteenth century, William Marshal used just this ploy when he became regent. Whatever was left in the royal treasury at Corfe was used to pay the soldiers and keep them in the field. There was no coin to be had, but there were sapphires and emeralds and gold cups and bolts of silk.
But back to the Empress. When Matilda left Germany as a widow in 1125 or 1126, she returned to Normandy bearing a wealth of treasure acquired during her marriage - among which was at least one dubious (mis) appropriation - the Hand of Saint James, which she presented to Reading Abbey. There is a little about the hand here.
http://www.strangebritain.co.uk/allthingsodd/hand.html The hand, however, would originally have been displayed in a ornate relic case probably looking not unlike this one.
This one is German and dates to around
1240, but earlier, similar examples are
known. The relic itself would be visible
through a see-through 'window' in
the cuff or sleeve.
Matilda also returned from Germany with at least two crowns that had been worn by her husband the Emperor. One 'of solid gold, decorated with gems' was worn by Henry II at his coronation and was so heavy that it had to be supported by two silver rods when worn. The front of the crown was adorned by a jewel of great size and value with a gold cross superimposed. The smaller of the crowns had been used by the emperor on feast days. Matilda also had a crown of her own, decorated with golden flowers.
Imperial crown of the
Holy Roman Empire.
It is made in hinged
segments, so can be packed
flat for travel!
There are two actual survivals of artefacts that we know Empress Matilda owned in her lifetime. One is a dalmatic (robe) of red-gold silk, still preserved today in the Parish church of Ambazac - below. The other is a gemstone and gold filigree reliquary cross now in the Musee Departementale at Rouen and given by her to the Cistercian monks at le Valasse.
Empress Matilda's silk dalmatic
Among the gifts Matilda gave to the Abbey at Bec0Hellouin were the above mentioned crowns and also another golden cross decorated with precious stones, two gospel books bound in gold and studded with gems, two silver-gilt censers, a silver incense box and spoon, a gold dish and a gold pyx for the Eucharist. There were three silver flasks, a ewer for holy water and a silver basin. Add to this two portable altars of marble mounted in silver and an ebony chest filled with relics. There were more textiles in the forms of holy vestments - chasubles, dalmatics, copes, and an imperial cloak belonging to herself, besprinkled with gold. All of the above list was donated in her lifetime. After she died, the abbey also received the ornaments she had used in her own private chapel. These included service books, a gold chalice and spoon, four chasubles, two tunics, two dalmatics, six copes, two of which were interwoven with silver, two silver censers and two boxes which were described as 'eggs of griffins'. The legs and claws gripping these 'eggs' were fashioned of silver. The griffin's eggs could have been many things. Ostrich eggs, which were highly prized, or egg-shaped polished agates as per the Greek legends. We don't know. There was a popular 12th century story about Alexander the Great harnessing a pair of Griffins and having them fly him to heaven to see God, only to be asked by an angel why he wanted to see God when he didn't yet understand the world he lived in. Chastened, Alexander flew back to earth. Perhaps Matilda had this pair of griffon's eggs on her altar as a reminder of this legend, who knows?
All the above was just the tip of the iceberg. Empress Matilda truly did live in a world that glittered. When she died, as well as all her treasure, she gave thirty thousand shillings to Grandmontine order. In physical terms at least, the Empress died a wealthy woman.
Below, I've added quick links to what chasubles, copes and dalmatics are, and a few photographs of more glittery bits typical of what the Empress would have seen and used in daily life.
portable altar with marble