Matilda Fitzwalter's tomb c.1782
Occasionally I like to delve into various subjects linked to the Robin Hood legend and recently I decided to look at one particular place associated with Robin’s girlfriend - Little Dunmow, near Colchester in Essex. I was glad I did and unearthed far more than I expected!
Today all that survives of the Augustinian priory of St Mary the Virgin, (founded in Dunmow in 1106) is the present church in St. Mary’s Place, which was the Lady Chapel. It is here that local tradition states, is the tomb of Maid Marian.
Little Dunmow church
Dunmow formed the caput of a feudal barony along with Baynard’s Castle in south-west London, which was granted to Robert Fitzwalter of Woodham (c.1198- 1235) on the death of his father in 1198. Robert was the baronial leader, styled ‘Master of the Army of God and the Holy Church’ who later went on to oppose King John and lead the revolt that culminated in the Magna Carta in 1215. Today he has become romanticized and styled the champion of English liberty, but history reveals that he was far from the saintly character created by modern myth.
King John had refused to allow the pope any right to appoint an archbishop of Canterbury without royal assent. He banished from England five monks from Canterbury and seized all the English offices held by Italian bishops. He then went on to refuse to allow any papal legates to enter the country. By the spring of 1208 the Pope had placed the country under an Interdict forbidding any church services to be held.
In 1212, Robert Fitzwalter had been heavily implicated in an assassination plot against King John during his expedition against the Welsh. The king was to be killed, or to be abandoned to the Welsh while a new king was chosen. But John had received intelligence of the scheme and Fitzwalter was outlawed and fled to the court of King Philip of France. John seized Fitzwalter’s lands and destroyed both Baynard and Benington castles. But in the ‘Historire des ducs de Normandie (p.118)’, compiled between 1215-16, it states that when Robert Fitzwalter fled to France, he told King Philip that his break with John was caused by the latter’s attempt to rape his daughter Matilda. How this allegation arose is unclear and not taken seriously by modern scholars. Some historians suggest that Fitzwalter may have left his wife Gunnor de Valognes and the children, at Arras in Northern France while he had gone to repeat his tale to Philip Augustus!
Seal Dye of Robert Fitzwalter
Meanwhile another enemy of John, Eustace de Vesci, had also been allegedly enraged by what he described as the king’s attempt to seduce his wife Margaret, the daughter of King William of Scotland. Later a chronicler wrote of these allegations, at the Cistercian Abbey of Waverly, accusing King John of violating the wives and daughters of many of his barons. These attempted rapes were also confirmed by Matthew Paris; who although not a contemporary of John continued to re-write and add to the work of Roger of Wendover, with extreme hostility, describing the monarch as irreligious, lazy and wishing to convert the country to Islam.
This is perhaps unsurprising when you consider that King John had been excommunicated by the Pope and this severely biased all views of him emanating from monastic sources -‘veiled behind fable, invention and hostile criticism.’ So true or not, as hostile propaganda, these allegations helped to establish the image of an immoral and untrustworthy king that has lasted to the present day.
The story of the seduction of Robert Fitzwalter’s daughter by King John first appeared in the manuscript chronicle of Dunmow (Ms.Cotton, Cleop, C, 3. f29). Sadly only one copy survives from the 16th Century, but it was probably begun by Nicholas de Brumfield a canon of Dunmow in the latter part of the 13th Century.
In 1597 appeared Michael Drayton’s (1563-1631) England's Heroical Epistles, a series of poetical accounts, in imitation of those of Ovid. In this we first get our first glimpse of Dunmow’s heavily romanticized myth:
“King John enamour’d, by all means assay’d,
To win chaste Matilda, a chaste noble maid,
The Lord Fitzwater’s daughter; and to gain her,
When by his courtship he could not obtain her,
Nor by his gifts, strives (to far being in)
To get by force, what fear means could not win.
And banisheth the nearest of her blood,
Which he could think had his desires withstood:
When she to Dunmow to a nun’ry flies,
Whither be writeth, and whence she replies.”
It is interesting to note that between 1597 and 1602 Michael Drayton had strong connections in London with the theatrical syndicate of Philip Henslowe, and collaborated with many of the playwrights of that time. Drayton’s influence possibly inspired two Elizabethan dramas that left a lasting legacy on the legend of Robin Hood.
Henslowe’s famous theatrical diary states that the prolific Anthony Munday (1563-1633) registered two plays on the 1st December 1600:
1. “The Downfall of Robert Earl of Huntington, afterwards called Robin Hood of Merrie Sherwood; with the lamentable tragedy of chaste Matilda, the Lord Fitzwater’s daughter afterwards his faire maid Marian.”
2. The Death of Robert Earl of Huntington, otherwise called Robin Hood of merrie Sherwood; with the lamentable tragedy of chaste Matilda, his faire maid Marian, poysoned at Dunmowe by King John. (On this second play, Munday was helped by another playwright, Henry Chettle).
In Munday’s fist play we see Matilda being persecuted by Prince John and following her lover to Sherwood where she assumes the name Maid Marian. In the ‘Downfall’ Maid Marian is once again pursued by the lecherous John (who has now become king) to Dunmowe Abbey, where he eventually poisons her.
During the ‘Downfall’ play, Matilda confusingly changes back to Marian then Matilda again, which possibly indicates how Munday was struggling to combine the two separate traditions. But both plays became hugely popular at the time and the ‘Downfall’ was later selected for performance at Court.
This popularity led to another play, ‘King John and Matilda,’ written about 1628 by Richard Davenport. But critics tend to describe this historical tragedy as lacking originality and bearing a strong resemblance to Munday’s second Robin Hood production.
In 1631 John Weever published his ‘Ancient Funeral Monuments of Great Britain’ and under Little Dunmow writes:
“The church of this monastery is yet standing, in the choir whereof, between two pillars, lieth the body of Matilda the fair entombed, who was the daughter of Robert Fitz-Water, the most valiant knight of England. About the year 1213 saith the book of Dunmow, there arose a great discord betwixt K. John and his barons, because of Matilda surnamed the faire, daughter of Robert Fitz-Water, whom the king unlawfully loved, but could not obtain her, nor her father’s consent thereunto. Whereupon, and for other like causes, ensued war through the whole realm. The king banished the said Fitz-Water among others, and caused his castle, called Baynard, and other his houses to be spoiled. Which being done, he sent a messenger unto Matilda the fair, about his old suit in love, et quia noluit consentire toxicavit eam. And because she would not agree to his wicked motion, the messenger poisoned a boiled, or potched egg, against she was hungry, and gave it unto her, whereof she died in the year 1213.”
The story was repeated, with more substance in William Dugdale’s (1605-1686) Monasticon Anglicanum (1693):
“...in the year 1216 Robert Fitz Walter refusing to consent to King John’s unlawful love to his daughter Matilda the Fair, that king seized upon his Estate and Barony , and his castle of Baynard at London; and Matilda, who was then there at Dunmow not admitting the King’s Suit, was poisoned in a mess of broth. These things occasioned the Barons Wars, which after a while were again composed, and Robert Fitz Walter restored to his Barony and the King’s favour as formerly.”
'Matilda's' tomb at Dunmow
So the legend was taken into the nineteenth century, but Geoffery Fitzpeter in his ‘Historical Essay on Magna Carta’ was more critical:
‘... between two pillars, on the north side of the choir, is the tomb of the fair Matilda, daughter of the second Walter Fitz-Walter, who, according to the monkish story, unsupported by history, is pretended to have been poisoned by the contrivance of King John, for refusing to gratify his illicit passion. Her figure is in alabaster, and by no means a despicable piece of workmanship. Her fingers are stained with a red colour, which according to the Ciceroni of the place, was done to represent the effect of the poison; but in all likelihood is the remains of a former painting.”
This for me has been a very interesting journey. On the way we have seen how the seeds were sown to portray King John as the bad king of popular literature and film and also witnessed the gentrification of Maid Marian, the village May Queen into Matilda Fitzwalter daughter of Lord Robert Fitzwalter.
After the death of his wife Gunnora de Valognes, Robert Fitzwalter married Rohese Bayard who survived him. He is recorded in most sources as having four children, Robert (pre-deceased him), Walter his heir from his second marriage (d.1258), and Christina who married William de Mandeville.
But did Robert Fitzwalter have a daughter called Matilda? I have searched for historical evidence, but frustratingly, apart from a mention in Sidney Painter’s ‘King John’ (1966), that ‘Matilda did die about that time  but it is unlikely John poisoned her,’ there is no reference.
The tomb of King John
In W.L.Warren’s excellent book on the life of King John, he writes:
“[Robert Fitzwalter and Eustace de Vesci] put out stories of John’s lecherous designs upon their woman folk - an easy enough charge to make, but the stories they told were so confused and unsubstantiated as to be beyond unravelling, let alone belief. They seem indeed to be unintelligent fabrications to cover lack of rational excuse; and it is hard to believe that Fitzwalter and Vesci were anything more than baronial roughnecks. They had been out simply for John’s blood in the conspiracy of 1212...”
Warren goes on: “Fitzwalter was altogether disreputable and mischievous, rescued from ignominy only by his great fiefs, and owing his leadership largely to his dominating aggressiveness. He was quick to take offence and draw his sword.”
Maurice Ashley writes, “The story that John importuned and molested the wives and daughters of his barons, including specifically the wives of Eustace de Vesci and Robert fitz Walter, sounds improbable and was no doubt cooked up by the monks.”
The damaged face on the alabaster tomb
The figure, said to be of Matilda, the daughter of Robert Fitzwalter, on the tomb in Priory Church Little Dunmow, is made of alabaster and dated from the early fifteenth century. It is likely to belong to a later member of the Fitzwalter family, but this endearing legend will of course live on.
Lucy Griffiths as Marian Fitzwalter in Robin Hood (1992)
1215 The Year of Magna Carta by Danny Danziger and John Gillingham
The Reign of King John by Sidney Painter
King John by Maurice Ashley
King John by W.L.Warren
Magna Carta by Geoffrey Hindley