top of page

Abbess Matilda

Updated: Nov 12, 2019

In the first three episodes of the Lonely King we followed King Philip as he struggled to work out what was important to him as a leader. We now hear the story of Mother Matilda, as she develops through stages of leadership.

An ending

King Philip rose as the coffin came into the convent church, followed by the sisters – many visibly upset. Beside him the Queen dabbed at her eyes with her handkerchief. Archbishop Anselm stood in front of the alter, bowing deeply and sincerely as the coffin was placed in its stand in front of him.

‘Dust thou are, and unto dust thou shalt return.’ he pronounced sonorously. ‘We are gathered here today to bid farewell to our beloved sister in Christ, our Mother Matilda, who has been gathered into the arms of the one she loved most...’

Philip’s mind wandered back to the early days when he was a young man and Matilda had just been appointed Abbess of the Convent of St Bridgit. The choice had been rather unexpected, there were nuns senior to her in both years and experience, and she had not come from one of the aristocratic families who might expect their daughters to lead the most important convent in the kingdom. But Archbishop Justin had recognised something in her and had persuaded Philip’s uncle, King Ralph, to agree to her appointment.

The young Abbess

They lived to regret their decision. As soon as Matilda had been installed, she started to make her presence felt. She jealously guarded the rights and privileges of the convent and of her position as Abbess. Whenever there was an opportunity for her to argue for a new grant of land for the convent she would. She was adept at twisting the arms of the nobles, and King, to give rich gifts to the convent. She also insisted on receiving the honours due to her as Abbess, once even taking precedence over the King’s sister at a Royal Banquet. ‘Not that she was wrong’, Ralph confided to Justin the next day, ‘but I had a hell of a headache after sitting next to her all evening.’

Matilda took great pride in her convent and enjoyed seeing visitors to the convent marvel at the munificence of the church, the neatness of the sisters, and the quality of the music. The young novices rapidly learned the consequences of being late, or chatting in the laundry room. They learned to respect their Abbess, respect that was tinged with a hint of fear.

A Change

One Autumn the Abbess fell sick. A fever took hold, and she took to her bed. For nearly a month her life hung in the balance, the sisters prayed for her recovery 7 times a day.

Slowly the threat passed. But she was weak and could not leave her room. Food was carried up to her chambers. It was not until Christmas that she could make it to the church, taking her place for the midnight mass.

Even then it took months before she was back to full health. Over that time the sisters realised she had changed, she had seemed to soften. One evening the novices ran late into the refectory, giggling over some joke. There was general astonishment among the older sisters that Matilda did not immediately impose a day’s silence as penance, but rather telling them that the novices were still young and would grow up in time.

Justin also noticed the difference. Baron Firth died, leaving a manor to the Church. The Archbishop expected her to visit, insisting that the manor was given to the convent. He was pleasantly surprised, when he did meet her a couple of weeks later, that she meekly agreed to his suggestion that the manor be used to support a school in a poor part of Penza.

Matilda wanted to be closer to the sisters and started using a room just off the cloister for her office. She was pleased when the sisters confided in her their secrets and concerns. In their turn the sisters were delighted in having an Abbess that cared for them.

People saw a difference in the convent. The sisters seemed happier, chatting and laughing around the building. However, they were often late for services, and, in the opinion of some, the music was no longer at the highest level. There was gossip about the lax standards, gossip that seemed confirmed when one of the novices, the daughter of a noble family, eloped in the middle of the night with a young squire from court. Matilda did not seem particularly concerned, indeed almost pleased that two young people had found love with each other.

King Ralph summoned the Archbishop. ‘I don’t know what effect the illness has had on the Abbess, but this cannot continue. She must be made to stand aside and let someone else take control.’ he urged.

Justin sighed, and sat in silence for a minute. He then looked up at the King. ‘Your Majesty. Matilda has started on a journey, I am not sure where it will end up. However, I see something in her that makes me think that it could be somewhere fantastic. I ask you to give her some time and space to get there.’

The King was sceptical, asking, ‘All that is well and good, but how do we help her get to this place, rather than the disaster that she is heading to?’.

‘Your Majesty, leave that with me. I know someone who can help’, said Justin.

Father Sam

The next morning a young black-haired friar came to the convent. The Abbess met him in her room off the cloisters where he introduced himself as Fr Sam, recently arrived at Penza. They talked for the whole afternoon, before joining the sisters for their evening prayers.

Fr Sam became a regular visitor at the convent. Through the window the sisters would see him and the Abbess talking together, though it seemed that she did most of the talking and he most of the listening.

A transformational leader

Things gradually started to change. The first was the music. After one particularly dire Sunday, when the lack of practice had been glaringly obvious to everyone in the congregation, the Abbess calmly spoke at the Chapter meeting about why music was important to the life of the convent, and that those who did not take worship seriously were not taking their God seriously. The change was almost immediate.

The nuns also noticed a new steel in their Abbess. Two of the novices, from rich families but with no desire or aptitude for the cloistered life, were encouraged to leave. A senior sister who had overseen the charitable giving for as long as anyone could remember was gently relieved of her duties.

The Abbess still cared for and loved her sisters, but she expected them to be the very best that they could, and the sisters found, often to their surprise, how much more they could achieve with this expectation and encouragement.

The biggest change was a year later. Matilda asked all the nuns to think about how they wanted the convent to contribute to the life of Mantava. Some were perplexed, expecting to be told what they had to do. However, over the next six months, with the support of Fr Sam, the sisters started to come up with ideas that they talked through with each other and visitors.

They surprised themselves by their creativity and, under the leadership of Matilda, put many of their ideas into practice. They started a summer school for choirs, raising the musical ability across Mantava. The nuns decided that, while it was important that a beautiful church honoured God, that he would not mind if they sold much of the gold and silver to start three schools in poor areas of the kingdom. They started to support widows, helping them develop trades to earn their own living.

In this way the Convent of St Bridget grew to occupy an important position in Mantava. Mother Matilda not only led the convent, loved and respected by her sisters, but was valued by many as someone who had a sympathetic ear, but who was uncompromising in her beliefs. People who consulted her would feel leave feeling challenged, stretched but also able to achieve something better than they had imagined. One of her favourite phrases was, ‘Heaven is for those who reach for the stars, even if they fall short. Hell is an eternity of wondering if one should have been bolder.’


King Philip looked back up to the coffin sitting in front of the High Altar. He remembered with affection and thanksgiving the help that Matilda had given to him and to Queen Agatha when his uncle, Ralph, had died. Through his tears he saw the sisters bid a final farewell to their Abbess, and a friar, hair now greying at the temples, give the final blessing.


I do not want to ‘translate’ these short stories into ‘management speak’. However, some readers have said it would be useful to have a short commentary. This story draws strongly on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and his (and others, including Carl Rogers) description of the importance of self actualisation.

Mother Matilda’s journey as a leader has lessons for us all. She was catapulted into an important role, and initially she sees her duty as to make sure that the reputation of the convent (and of herself) was ensured. In Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs she was making sure that her need for esteem was fulfilled. As a leader she was focused on some key objectives, and she may have lost the ‘bigger picture’. Much leadership happens at this level, with people focussed on delivering success as measured by league tables or the narrow success of their organisation. Following a crisis, she re-evaluates her style, and focusses on the people that she is responsible for – to the detriment of the convent. This may meet her need for love and belonging, something that leaders can lack in their work. However, with the help of Fr. Sam, she moves into self-actualisation, where she is showing her true potential as a leader and is driven by higher values. She gets the best out of her sisters, entrusting them with responsibility. It is as a self-actualised person that she becomes a truly transformation leader, not only to those she is responsible for but all who are drawn to her.

The Lonely King

Other posts in the Lonely King series available here

Andrew George

An executive coach and consultant. Andrew has been held senior roles in universities. His interests include medical research and innovation, education, leadership and research ethics.

Web page:

Twitter: @ProfAGeorge

For previous articles in the Lonely King series see: Lonely King 1, 2 and 3.

© 2019, Andrew George, all rights reserved

15 July, 2019


bottom of page