Tales from the Hamlet – the two Matilda’s with Cassandra Campbell-Kemp

Tales from the Hamlet – the two Matilda’s


It is with great sadness that I shall now only be returning to this special place for a few weeks each year and not spending the summers there.

But life is about changes and I’m facing up to this one with all the fortitude of my Race – the British!!

Much has changed in my life over the past few months and while I shall not have the pleasure of extended Italian stays, I have the equivalent pleasure of finally being settled at home in my magical corner of England.

I live in a 300 year old cottage in an historic town which was founded in the 8th century although there had been settlements here since the Stone Age. We are safely perched upon a steep hill, surrounded by a river on three sides – an easily defended site from the mists of time.

The town is steeped in history, it has fathered several famous families (including Tom Hanks’ forebears), it is the resting place of the first King of all England, Athelstan, it has a magnificent half ruined Benedictine Abbey atop the hill,

it housed William of Malmesbury, the “most learned man in Europe” in the 11th century, it is adjacent to The Old Bell, the oldest continually inhabited hotel in Britain and the most exciting gardeners – the renowned Naked Gardeners of Abbey House Gardens. It is a special magical place – every bit as special as my Italian Hamlet. In fact the two are similar in so many ways. I feel equally at home in both and both have an impressive history.

Malmesbury is on the edge of an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and The Hamlet is situated in a UNESCO biosphere. There are more connections – historical ones.

The Hamlet is set in the middle of the lands of Matilde di Canossa also known as the Gran Contessa, Margravine of Tuscany, for the modern day province was the very centre of her holdings. She inherited everything from her father following his murder in 1052, but, as women were not allowed to own property in her own right.


Her cousin the German King Henry IV loathed her and coveted her lands which were rich and fruitful. She and the Pope fought Henry while she tried to resurrect the Justinian Law (named after the Roman Emperor whose wife, Theodora, has persuaded him to enact this avant-garde piece of legislation. She was hugely devout and became one of Pope Gregory VII’s most trusted advisors and generous benefactors. She died in 1115 and sure enough Henry’s son, now Henry V and his new young wife, also called Matilda, came to live in her castles and administer her lands as she had died without heirs.

This second one, known as Empress Matilda was the granddaughter of the Norman King, William the Conqueror who had invaded England in 1066.

Following the death of her father, many of the English nobles supported her claim to the English throne against her cousin Stephen who also claimed it.

They fought at, you guessed it, Malmesbury…! Thus both The Hamlet and The Burgh are linked!!

There is also the possibility that the original Matilde of Canossa met William of Malmesbury, as he was known to have travelled throughout Europe in search of rare books and manuscripts – which she had in abundance.

Both were hugely intellectual, well-read and outstanding linguists and the Pilgrim Route from Canterbury to Rome, the Via Franchigena, passed through her lands. In fact she had endowed many Abbeys and Hostels to ensure a safe passage and a sure welcome to pilgrims. In fact, in her lifetime she endowed, built and restored 100 religious buildings.

So I am linked by the two towns and 900 years of history!     


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