Goodbye to the Continent – The Channel

1120 Two years after her mother died, 18-year-old Matilda hears that her younger brother has drowned.

William Adelin was 17, drunk, and son of the King of England when the helmsman of the ship carrying him from Barfleur to England crashed into a rock. As water filled the vessel, William and his friends flung themselves into the life-dinghy. But they were too many. The dinghy capsized.

William’s position is there in his name: Adelin, or æþeling, the Anglo-Saxon term for a prince and heir to the throne. His father, Henry I, had no other sons.

William’s half-sister Matilda – Holy Roman Empress Matilda of Germany – ruled much of Europe alongside her husband, Emperor Henry V. Five years after William died, Henry V died of cancer. Her father had remarried by then, but still had no male heir.

In 1131, Matilda returned to England.  Henry’s bishops and nobles swore an oath that they would support her as their future queen.

2018 Our ferry is approaching Calais, at the Eastern end of France’s top shoreline. The White Ship, William’s ship, capsized further down the coast.

I chose Matilda as one of my guides to the continent because she was most definitely European. Born in England, with a Scottish mother, she lived in Normandy and Germany, and travelled round Italy. She is the ‘citizen of nowhere’ shamed by Theresa May, and there is little to suggest she would have voted Leave. That’s not to ignore the truth that a lot of life in the 12th century was about power and acquisition, colonies not compassion, conquest not cooperation. It’s naïve to think that, had she been Queen, she would have been a peacemaker. Matilda’s defence of her cousin’s challenge to her status as heir to the throne led to civil war – 19 years of violence known as ‘the anarchy’ (sadly, not that unlikely a scenario post-March 2019).

Matilda’s world was a patriarchal one. It was Christian, military and – for nobility like her – itinerant and cultured. But her experience of society’s refusal to grant women authority, despite precedence (Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, c.870-918 was rated ‘more illustrious than Caesar) and her experience (Empress of Germany), chimes even in 2018. There is, too, natural empathy for the loss of her mother, father (she was separated from her family when she was eight), brother, two sons and, indeed, her status. Her father’s summons for her to return to England was an opportunity Matilda surely welcomed and expected – she had lost her authority as Empress when Emperor Henry V died, despite the fact that he had left the imperial insignia in her control, and here was an opportunity to use her political experience and become Queen of England. Even so, her return was prompted by her father, and many women will identify with the feeling of obligation to a parent.

Matilda’s importance is, of course, overlooked (she is only a woman, after all). Not only did she rule parts of Europe when Emperor Henry was away fighting, she was a central figure in the schism between royal and church powers. She mediated between her son and Thomas Becket; no fan of Becket, she did at least try and stop Henry II murdering him. She was also a figurehead at one signing of the Magna Carta, at which her grandson, ‘holy but hapless’ King John, wore her robes.

Charter of Henry II placed on Becket's tomb
Charter of Henry II, Matilda’s son, probably placed on Becket’s tomb. Canterbury Cathedral Archives

Matilda and I both have the wealth and autonomy to make comparatively regular cross-channel trips, mine in significantly more comfort and safety than the Empress – for which I should thank being placed on the privileged side of history. There were 750 ‘known’ fatal ferry accidents globally between 1965 and 2015,[i]   with most deaths in the Philippines, Bangladesh and Indonesia. Poverty is a common factor in fatal ferry accidents.

In the late twenty-first century, my cross-channel ferry has a utilitarian, reassuring bulk to it. The Pride of Burgundy (ah, the Burgundian enemy. Jeanne was an Armagnac. But we’ll come to that…) offers the most banal consumer experiences – gambling, coffee, beer. I can’t understand why everyone isn’t outside looking at the sea, in awe of its size and power. Maybe we’re simply too ashamed to look, knowing that our detritus and plastic has strangled whatever mystery is hidden underneath? I don’t know. I think it’s not Blue Planet shame gluing us to our phones, but anxiety. We anchor to our cameras and game machines, suppressing the knowledge that nature could crush us in a flash. On deck, the peak of the smallest wave is bigger than I am. It is transient, dissipating and transforming into an infinity of movement, just like all our tiny lives and deaths. But the ship’s movement is rhythmical, something out of space and time.

There’s certainly a melancholy in the liminal state of travelling, a desire for a witness to one’s existence in a time of transition. Here I am. It is to temporarily die from our identity. I imagine Matilda felt this disorientation as she reflected on her next life chapter. What was she thinking about when she went back to England after 16 years as Empress, much respected, her authority reaching widely over the continent?

The past? Her first overseas journey, perhaps, when she was only eight, and crossed to Boulogne, travelling on to Liège, before reaching Germany. She married three years later – her husband Henry was 24.

Commemorative tile for Matilda's husband, Emperor Henry V, in Utrecht Cathedral
Commemorative tile for Matilda’s husband, Emperor Henry V, in Utrecht Cathedral

The present? Now 23, in an arranged second marriage, Henry I has summoned her home.

The future? Her new role as daughter, unhappily married to Geoffrey of Anjou. He was 15 on their wedding day and will sleep with her daughter-in-law. Matilda is now no longer Holy Roman Empress but a future queen of England. Does she anticipate the power struggles? Does she anticipate that her cousin, Stephen, will make a claim to the throne? Does she – does anyone – have any idea of the civil war to follow?

Perhaps Matilda felt grief for her brother, drowned in this same sea, and for her childhood – her dead mother, her absent father; and for the home she’s now leaving on the continent. I certainly grieve for my father with whom I shared this trip in the past, standing on deck and watching the White Cliffs recede.

Unlike trees, waves don’t speak, so if they knew or cared, they’re not telling. Instead, they embody Nothingness, the Void – at least, these dark green Channel waves do, to me. Imagining all our fellow travellers – not just Matilda, but her brother; the small boats on their way to Dunkirk; the cross-channel swimmers, whoever it is that comes to mind on this water – conjures up a shared, random, fleeting humanity.

My personal memory… On my last trip in the summer I joined the final leg of the Solidarity March, which started at Vintimille in France and finished in Hyde Park, London. One particular moment on the march symbolised everything about the global movement of people. We stopped outside the Calais ferry port, silently remembering the people who were killed trying to cross the French-UK border. Some marchers tied black rags to the security fences. The silence broke, and refugees, volunteers and protesters rattled the wires. It encapsulated the frustration of being kept out, forbidden and criminalised. The following morning, the sans papiers on the final Calais-Dover-London stage were taken off ferry coach and detained. On board, those who were allowed to go one waved flags and chanted ‘De l’air, de l’air, ouvrez les frontières.’

People are still sleeping under trees just a few miles away, living cold, bitter lives in limbo. They’ve come from Eritrea, or the Sudan, fleeing poverty, or war, or climate breakdown, and are a breath away from England, their hope. But they aren’t welcomed. Instead, our government – well, you and me, if you pay or have paid taxes – has passed on £44.5 million to France to stop them. That same sum could have supported 11,000 refugees for a year.[ii] What a rich blessing of creative, intellectual and global experience to build a just and thriving society. We could have had that.

And it could have saved lives. Since 1999, 200 people, denied the right piece of paper to make this journey safely, have died trying to make it dangerously. 200 families abruptly dumped in grief, feeling powerless, without support, sleepless, ‘going slowly crazy…’ One such person dying – a death that needn’t have happened – ought to have shifted policy; but policies support power, not people.

Not that I claim Matilda as my spiritual patroness of the refugees. I will find her later in the trip. For now, Matilda is my partner as English power-politics sets us on a course we can’t yet know.


[ii] a year of Job Seeker’s Allowance is just over £3,800

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s