Little Dunmow Church, St Mary, is one of the oldest buildings in Essex, England.
The building was originally the chapel of the lady of an Augustinian convent of the 12th century, and inside there is an alabaster tomb depicting one of the most famous women in British history, Maid Marian.
Legendary companion of Robin Hood, the literary character was actually inspired by the life and legends surrounding the daughter of a 13th-century Essex baron, Matilda Fitzwalter.
Born in the late 12th century, Matilda was the daughter of Robert, Baron Fitzwalter, a wealthy lord of Little Dunmow. The man was a powerful nobleman, and he was among the leaders of the aristocracy who forced King John to sign the Magna Carta.
One possible reason for Robert’s grudges against King John surrounds Matilda’s 18th birthday, a story that has now become legendary because it was the first time she met Robin Hood.
According to the legend, Matilda’s father hosted a large banquet and a tournament for many guests. It was on the fourth day, however, that the festivities truly came to a peak when an unknow knight, familiar to no-one, managed to dominate all the others in jousting and fighting. Matilda immediately fell in love with the mysterious and charming knight, but he quickly disappeared during the night.
Although Matilda had appreciated the unknown knight, Prince John, the future King, had set his sights on her and wanted her as his lover. Both the powerful Baron Robert and Matilda disdainfully rejected John’s offensive offer and this, of course, aroused the anger of the king.
This circumstance is not only the result of legend but also finds traces in historical documents, because Baron Fitzwalter was officially and really banned at the beginning of the 13th century.
And on the continuation of the story, however, legend and history mix together, not allowing us to understand where one begins and where the other ends…
Apparently, Matilda managed to escape from Prince John and ran to hide in the forest, where she met the mysterious knight again. During this meeting he was no longer hidden behind the armor but he was together with some merry men, dressed as an archer. He introduced himself finally as the one and only outlaw earl, Robin Hood.
After some fights between John, Matilda and Robin Hood himself, King Richard returned from the Crusades and Robin Hood County was restored. Matilda, who had married Robin some time before, became Countess of Huntingdon, but the peace did not last long as Richard, who lived in France, died in a short time, and the crown passed to the cruel brother John.
King John again placed a bounty on Robin Hood’s head, and within a few years the people’s hero died, leaving Matilda at the mercy of the king’s cruelty. Matilda took refuge in the Priory of Dunmow to seek protection, but the expedient was not effective enough: under the pretext of seeking peace, the King plotted to kill Matilda in her refuge, sending an unsuspecting knight to bring her a deadly gift, a poisoned bracelet.
Such a well-mannered gentleman did not arouse suspicions in Matilda, who wore in her presence the jewel sent to her by King John.
Legend has it that, in a few moments, the former countess turned pale, dying in the blink of an eye.
Matilda was buried surrounded by flowers, and apparently she kept a smile even after her death.
An image that remains, still today, imprinted on her tomb…
Images from web – Google Research