Book Corner: The Druid by Steven A. McKay

Northern Britain, AD430

A land in turmoil. A village ablaze. A king’s daughter abducted.

In the aftermath of a surprise attack Dun Buic lies in smoking ruins and many innocent villagers are dead. As the survivors try to make sense of the night’s events the giant warrior-druid, Bellicus, is tasked with hunting down the raiders and thwarting their dark purpose.

With years of training in the old ways, two war-dogs at his side, and unsurpassed skill with a longsword, Bellicus’s quest will take him on a perilous journey through lands still struggling to cope with the departure of the Roman legions.

Meanwhile, amongst her brutal captors the little princess Catia finds an unlikely ally, but even he may not be able to avert the terrible fate King Hengist has in store for her.

This, the first volume in a stunning new series from the bestselling author of Wolf’s Head, explores the rich folklore and culture of post-Roman Britain, where blood-sacrifice, superstition and warfare were as much a part of everyday life as love, laughter and song.

As Saxon invaders and the new Christian religion seek to mould the country for their own ends one man will change the course of Britain’s history forever. . .

. . . THE DRUID.

“Steven A. McKay’s archetypal villains and heroes step vividly onto the page from a mist-veiled past of legend to battle for the life of a princess and the fate of Britain.
Dark age adventure at its gripping best.” – MATTHEW HARFFY, author of The Bernicia Chronicles

 

I have to say that the first thing that attracted me to this book was the awesome cover – it is one of the best and most original that I have seen in a long time. It offers the promise of an amazing story and does not disappoint.

Steven A. McKay is an excellent storyteller, who brings the legends of the past to life, with a new and unique perspective. His Robin Hood series was one of the best I’ve read, moving the events into Barnsdale Forest, he gave a refreshing revamp to the age-old tales and made them his own. He has now gone further back in time, to the dawn of the Anglo-Saxon occupation of Britain, when the departure of the Roman legions was still within living memory and the Britons were trying to resist the incursions of the Angles Saxons and Jutes, who had established bridgeheads on the Saxon shore – the east and south coasts of Britain.

The author sets the scene wonderfully for the events that will take the reader on a breathtaking journey from Scotland to the most sacred site in England, following the druid Bellicus as he hunts the Saxon raiders who had kidnapped a young princess, Catia. A vision of the landscape is beautifully woven into the reader’s mind, with the challenges the moutainous terrain, and the security offered to the northern tribes by Hadrian’s wall all making their own impact on the story. The distances walked or ridden lend credence to  the length of the journey undertaken by the Saxons in their journey back to their master, and by Bellicus in his dogged pursuit of the little princess’s kidnappers.

Yet here they were, with a settlement ravaged by fire and Alt Clota’s princess abducted by Saxon raiders.

“Sometimes I wish the Romans had never left,” Coroticus growled, then nodded his thanks as Nectovelius’s wife placed a steaming bowl of broth on the table before him, closely followed by three more for the other men.

Bellicus understood his king’s feelings at that moment but he couldn’t share them. The Romans might have put a stop to the raids by the people that surrounded Alt Clota, but they’d also tried to destroy the native way of life, including their religion.

The druids had been almost wiped out in the lands south of the Antonine Wall although the “civilising” influence of the Roman overlords had not penetrated much further north. The harsh land there offered sanctuary to those druids who managed to evade their persecutors and Bellicus had learned at the feet of some of them.

No, the giant druid was glad the Romans had gone. Now that they’d finally returned to their own lands the old ways were making a resurgence in Britain and the gods were once again enjoying the reverence they deserved. News had even reached Bellicus of a warlord in the south who aimed to unite the native peoples against the invading Saxon hordes. His closest advisor was a druid steeped in the old traditions, highest of their brotherhood and known as the Merlin.

“What are we going to do?” Gavo’s blunt question broke Bellicus’s reverie.

“We must go after them,” Coroticus responded, his tone making it clear there would be no argument.

Bellicus was always one to speak his mind though, even if kings didn’t like what they heard.

“Aye, certainly we must follow them and rescue the princess,” he agreed. “But you, my lord king, must remain here in Alt Clota.”

He held up a hand, forestalling the expected outburst.

….

As anyone who has read Steven A. MacKay’s work before has come to expect, the large-as-life characters make this story. Bellicus is a truly tenacious and singular druid, he exudes the mystery and magic of his people, confident in his knowledge of the old ways, and in his fighting abilities, the man is not just a giant in height, but also in his power and personality. He instills fear, trust and dedication in those he comes into contact with, and his own dedication to duty is an inspiration to those he comes into contact with.

Bellicus is human, however, and proves susceptible to the odd misdirection, but manages to overcome such setbacks with admirable courage and tenacity. He is a hero it is easy to like, and to whom the reader can easily relate. The supporting characters in the tale demonstrate clearly the conflict which England is about to be torn by, the Britons fighting for survival against the invading German tribes. The lines are drawn, but not always clear.

There are some wonderfully surprising elements to the story, and some cameo appearances that will bring a smile to the reader’s face. The adventure is fun and edge-of-the-seat stuff, from the pursuit to the frequent clashes of arms, the reader barely gets a moment to take a breath before the next part of the action unfolds.

The Druid tells a story as stunning as the cover art suggests and, as the first of a new series, promises drama and excitement for many books to come.

About the author:

Steven A. McKay was born in Scotland in 1977. His first book, “Wolf’s Head”, came out in 2013 and was an Amazon UK top 20 bestseller. “Blood of the Wolf” is the fourth and final book in the Forest Lord series which has over 100,000 sales so far.

Steven’s next book, “The Druid” is the first in a brand new series set in post-Roman Britain and will be published on November 1st 2018.

He plays guitar and sings in a heavy metal band when they can find the time to meet up (which isn’t often these days to be honest).

Check out his website at https://stevenamckay.com/ and sign up for the email list – in return we’ll send you a FREE short story which is not available anywhere else, as well as offering chances to win signed books and other goodies!

The Druid goes on sale on 1st November 2018 and can be found on Steven A. McKay’s Amazon page.

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Coming in November!

Tracing the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing and Book Depository. It is scheduled for release in the US on 1 March 2019 and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.


Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Telling the stories of some of the most incredible women from Medieval history, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, in the US from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository. It will be released in paperback in the UK from 15 March 2019 and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

 

The Dreadful Fate of Alfred the Aetheling

Emma fleeing England with Edward and Alfred, following the invasion of Sweyn Forkbeard

Alfred the Ætheling was the younger son of Æthelred II the Unready and his second wife, Emma of Normandy.

Emma was the daughter of Richard I, Duke of Normandy, and his wife, Gunnora. Born in around 985/987, she was married to Æthelred at Winchester on 5 April 1002, at which time she was given the English name Ælfgifu, although in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle she is often referred to, simply, as ‘The Lady’. Her marriage with Æthelred was an attempt to seal a peace between England and Normandy, and to persuade the Normans not to allow the Viking raiders to winter in their lands between raids into England. Although the Vikings continued to shelter in Normandy during the winter, and raiding into England continued throughout the early years of the 11th century, the marriage was a success in that it produced two more sons and a daughter for Æthelred; a second family considering he was the father of as many as thirteen children by his first wife, Ælfgifu of York, including at least six sons.

Of Emma and Æthelred’s two sons the eldest, Edward, would eventually succeed to the English throne following the death of his half-brother, Harthacnut, son of Emma by her second husband, King Cnut. Edward became king in 1042 and ruled until his death on 5 January 1066, leaving the crown on his deathbed to the ill-fated Harold II Godwinson. Edward’s younger brother, Alfred, however, was to suffer a rather different fate.

Alfred was born sometime before 1012 and styled ætheling, or throne-worthy, although he had numerous older brothers also holding that title. However, whilst still a young child, his father’s hold on the kingdom was becoming ever more precarious. By 1013 Danish king Sweyn Forkbeard was gaining victory after victory. Emma and her children were sent to safety in her native Normandy. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records:

‘the Lady then turned across the sea to her brother Richard, and Ӕlfsige, abbot of Peterborough with her. And the king sent Bishop Ӕlfhun across the sea with the ӕthelings Edward and Alfred in order that he should look after them.’¹

Ӕthelred spent Christmas on the Isle of Wight, before joining his family in Normandy as Sweyn consolidated his victory. The Dane’s ascendancy was short-lived however, as he died after a fall from his horse on 3 February 1014. His death gave Ӕthelred a way back to his kingdom and he sent Edward to England to negotiate his return with the English Witan, who invited Æthelred to resume the throne ‘if he would govern them better than he did before’.¹ Unfortunately, despite his promises, Æthelred proved just as inept as before, failing to defeat the Danish invaders, led by Sweyn’s son Cnut. The beleaguered Æthelred died just two years later, on 23 April 1016, and was succeeded by his oldest surviving son by his first wife, Edmund II Ironside. Although Edmund put up a valiant fight against the Danish invaders, a summer of fighting took its toll and he died on 30 November 1016, probably from wounds received in the recent string of battles. The rumours of murder by a sword thrust into the bowels as Edmund visited the latrine, only arose centuries later.

Emma, with Edward and Alfred, welcomed to the Norman court by Duke Richard II

Alfred and his brother Edward, again, sought in exile in Normandy, as Cnut consolidated his control on the whole of England.. One of the new king’s first actions was to send for their mother Emma, who he married on 2 July 1017. Marrying Emma was a sensible move for Cnut, she was a link to the old regime and provided a sense of continuity for England’s conquered people. How much choice had in accepting the most powerful man in the country as her husband, we do not know; she may have thought it the only way of ensuring Cnut did not pursue the deaths of her sons in exile. Emma gave Cnut three children including a son, Harthacnut, and two daughters; one, who’s name is lost, died aged 8 and is buried in Bosham, Sussex. A second daughter, Gunhilda, married Henry III, Emperor of Germany.

When Cnut died in 1035 Emma was in England and retired to her manor in Winchester, taking the royal treasury with her, in the hope she could pass it to her son, Harthacnut. However, Harthacnut was in Denmark and it was Harold Harefoot, one of Cnut’s two sons by Ælfgifu of Northampton, who seized the initiative. An agreement was reached whereby the half-brothers ruled as co-kings with Emma acting for Harthacnut, in his absence, and ruling in Wessex.

As it was, in 1036 Harold was accepted as England’s ruler, Harthacnut was ruling in Denmark and Emma was living on her estates in Winchester. Emma faced tragedy, however, when her son Alfred arrived in England. The ætheling was probably approaching thirty years of age and had been living in exile in Normandy for the last twenty years, arrived in England. According to Norman sources, it was Edward who had first tried to join their mother in Winchester in 1036, sailing up the Solent and winning a battle near Southampton before returning to Normandy with his plunder. It was after this that Alfred attempted to visit his mother in Winchester, but many feared he would make a play for the crown.

However, before he had the chance to see Emma, the ӕtheling was welcomed by Earl Godwin, taken to Godwin’s estate at Guildford, where he was seized and taken to Ely. At Ely he was blinded; blinding was a symbolic gesture aimed at destroying his worth as a king.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle retold the tale in rhyme:

Detail of Queen Emma before an altar

‘But then Godwine stopped him, and set him in captivity,

and drove off his companions, and some variously killed;

some of them were sold for money, some cruelly destroyed,

some of them were fettered, some of them were blinded,

some maimed, some scalped.

No more horrible deed was done in this country

since the Danes came and made peace here.

Now we must trust to the dear God

that they who, without blame, were so wretchedly destroyed

rejoice happily with Christ.

The ӕtheling still lived; he was threatened with every evil;

until it was decided that he be led

to Ely town, fettered thus.

As soon as he came on ship he was blinded,

and blind thus brought to the monks.

And there he dwelt as long as he lived.

Afterwards he was buried, as well befitted him,

full honourably, as he was entitled,

at the west end, very near at hand to the steeple,

in the south side-chapel. His soul is with Christ.²

Emma’s own biography, the Encomium Emmae Reginae tells the story slightly differently, saying that Harold Harefoot forged a letter from Emma to her son, which claimed that the English would prefer Edward or Alfred as king, enticing Alfred to come to England and claim the crown. It does seem likely that Alfred received such a letter, but it may well have come from Emma herself, who sought to lay the blame on Harold when the expedition failed so abysmally.

Edward the Confessor, taken from the Bayeux Tapestry

The sources are confusing over what exactly happened. Some state that when Alfred arrived in England, he was met by Earl Godwin, who swore fealty to him and established the ætheling at Guildford, but then Harold attacked in the night and took Alfred to Ely, where he was tried, blinded, killed and buried. While others suggest that Godwin betrayed Alfred and handed him over to King Harold. Either way, the result is always the same; Alfred was blinded and either intentionally killed or died from wounds caused by his blinding, on Harold’s orders, with or without the connivance of Godwin in late 1036 or early 1037.³ This one potential threat to Harold’s crown was thus eliminated and buried in Ely.

Emma must have been relieved that at least Edward had remained safe in Normandy. Despite the fact she had not seen him for many years, the loss of Alfred must have been a cruel blow to his mother. His brothers, moreover, did not forget Alfred’s fate. On his accession in 1040, Harthacnut pursued the prosecution of Godwin and Lyfing, the Bishop of Worcester and Crediton who had also been implicated in Alfred’s death, for Alfred’s murder. Lyfing was deprived of his see in punishment. Godwin gave the king a warship carrying eighty fighting men as appeasement – an expensive sweetener – and swore that he had not wanted the prince blinded and that whatever he had done had been on the orders of King Harold.

Like Harthacnut, Edward was never convinced of Godwin’s innocence, a fact which added to the increasing distrust and conflict between the king and his most powerful earl in the first ten years of Edward’s reign. Indeed, when the Godwin family and Edward quarrelled in 1051, it was Edward’s demand to have his brother returned to him that made Earl Godwin realise there would be no rapprochement; the earl sailed into exile in Flanders with his family. When he did manage to negotiate his return the following year, Edward and Godwin were still wary of each other. Moreover, when Godwin died at Winchester 1052, having collapsed during the Easter feast to entertain the king, a story arose that Godwin had called on God to choke him with a mouthful of cake if he were guilty of Alfred’s murder. Needless to say, Earl Godwin collapsed on the floor the very next moment. Though it is a great moral story, there is probably little truth in it, and it is likely we will never know the extent of Godwin’s guilt, or innocence.

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Footnotes: ¹The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James ingram; ²The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swaton; ³Alfred Ætheling (article) by M.K.Lawson, oxforddnb.com

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia, except Queen Emma, courtesy of British Library.

Sources: Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir;The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swaton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; Queen Emma and the Vikings by Harriett O’Brien; The Bayeux Tapestry by Carola Hicks; oxforddnb.com.

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Coming in November!

Tracing the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing and Book Depository. It is scheduled for release in the US on 1 March 2019 and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Telling the stories of some of the most incredible women from Medieval history, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, in the US from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository. It will be released in paperback in the UK from 15 March 2019 and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Book Corner: Blood’s Revolution by Angus Donald

Newly returned from years of secret work in Paris, Lieutenant Holcroft Blood, a brilliant but unusual gunnery officer in His Majesty’s Ordnance, must now face King James II’s enemies on the gore-drenched battlefields of the British Isles.

But after the victory at Sedgemoor – and its cruel aftermath, the Bloody Assizes, in which the Duke of Monmouth’s rebellion was ruthlessly crushed – many powerful men have grown tired of Catholic James’s brutal, autocratic rule and seek to invite William, the Protestant Prince of Orange, to seize the thrones of the Three Kingdoms.

While revolution brews in the gentlemen’s clubs of London, Holcroft discovers that a sinister French agent, known only by his code name Narrey, has followed him across the Channel and intends to murder him. Worse, Holcroft must decide whether to join the conspirators, including his old friend Jack Churchill, now Lord Marlborough, and support Dutch William’s invasion – or remain loyal to his unpopular king.

Holcroft Blood is my hero!

What a fabulous character Angus Donald has created in this fabulous new series set during the Stuart era. Holcroft is not your typical swashbuckling hero, he is a young man who struggles with personal connections and the nuances of human traits. He is more comfortable with mathematics and his cannons, but he has a remarkable knack for sniffing out trouble and unravelling conspiracies. In Blood’s Game, the first book in this new series, Holcroft was a young boy thrown into the heart of the court as a page to the Duke of Buckingham. Now he is an officer in the Royal Ordnance of the Stuart army and in Blood’s Revolution, his loyalty to his king is tested as the country and society turn against the Catholic king James II (VII in Scotland).

Blood’s Revolution is set some 15 years after the conclusion of the first book, Blood’s Game, which means it can easily be read as a standalone – though for anyone who hasn’t read Blood’s Game I can heartily recommend it!

Opening with Monmouth’s rebellion and the Battle of Sedgemoor, the early action sets the pace for the rest of the book, barely leaving the reader any opportunity to breathe, as Holcroft attempts to unravel the plots against the King and expose the plotters – and the French masterspy backing them. And at the same time, Holcroft has his own personal life to deal with; changing friendships, marriage and an errant brother all serve to upset the young man’s well-ordered life.

Matthew was standing now, red-faced, shaking with anger. ‘I will speak no more to you about Father Palmer nor about any other matter. I would rather hang!’

Holcroft lowered his head, he looked at his big hands, ignoring the threat of the angry boy standing over him and listening only to his words. He was not naturally skilled at this – the passion and poetry that resided in other men’s hearts had always been  something of a mystery to him. Yet he knew of his shortcomings and had trained himself, as far as it was possible, to listen to what men said and to test their words for truth or falsehood. To his ear, this was the voice of truth. The outrage was not false, so far as he could tell. This boy believed the Jesuit priest was innocent.

Holcroft looked up.

‘Sit down, and calm yourself. Or I will see that you do hang. I have one more question for you before I go. Sit down, be quiet and listen to me.’ Holcroft waited. Eventually, Matthews subsided and sat back down on the bed.

‘Tell me, John, why did you attempt to steal the keg of gunpowder from the magazine? Tell me truly and I will leave you here in peace, and do all I can for you with Lord Dartmouth at the court martial, as I have sworn on my honour to do.’

The fiction is seeded with real historical characters, ranging from Holcroft’s friend John Churchill – the future Duke of Marlborough – to the doomed Duke of Monmouth himself. Holcroft’s story itself is woven within the historical narrative, so that it is hard to tell where the facts end and fiction takes over; always a sign of a good book – and an opportunity for research that is hard to ignore. And the author’s note at the end also helps to distinguish between the fact and the fiction.

Angus Donald is a superb storyteller, drawing the reader in to the wonderfully wicked world he has recreated for Holcroft Blood to navigate his way through. It is hard to find a negative. The story is clever, imaginative and addictive. The characters are fascinating, full of life and vigour. The locations, especially 17th century London, are painstakingly recreated and brought to bustling life, the smells, sounds and atmosphere of a London, that is almost-recognisable to the 21st century reader, enhancing the story further.

It is going to be hard for the author to top this story with the next book in the series, but I cannot wait to find out what happens to Holcroft next…..

And at least I now know what to get my dad for Christmas – he’s gonna love this!

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Blood’s Revolution is available from Amazon in the UK from 18 October 2018.

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About the Author:

Angus Donald was educated at Marlborough College and Edinburgh University. He has worked as a fruit-picker in Greece, a waiter in New York and as an anthropologist studying magic and witchcraft in Indonesia. For many years he was a journalist in Hong Kong, India, Afghanistan and London. He is married to Mary, with whom he has two children, and he now writes full time from a medieval farmhouse in Kent.

He is the author of the bestselling Outlaw Chronicles, a series of eight books set in the 12th/13th centuries and featuring a gangster-ish Robin Hood and his loyal lieutenant Sir Alan Dale. His new Holcroft Blood series stars a mildly autistic artillery officer who was the son of notorious 17th-century Crown Jewel thief Colonel Thomas Blood. The series begins with Blood’s Game and continues with Blood’s Revolution (to be published in October 2018) and Blood’s Campaign (out October 2019). The author has also written an epic Asian fantasy novel Gates of Stone (out February 2019) under the pseudonym Angus Macallan. He is always happy to chat to readers on Facebook, Twitter and via his website http://www.angusdonaldbooks.com

 

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Coming in November!

Tracing the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing and Book Depository. It is scheduled for release in the US on 1 March 2019 and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Telling the stories of some of the most incredible women from Medieval history, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, in the US from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository. It will be released in paperback in the UK from 15 March 2019 and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

The Wives and Family of King Harold II

Statue of King Harold II at Waltham Abbey

The future king, Harold II Godwinson, was born into an Anglo-Danish family whose extensive influence and power meant they were frequently seen as the power behind the throne. This also meant that they were often seen as a threat to the man wearing the crown – especially Edward the Confessor – and suffered exile as a result.

Harold was born around 1022/3 to Godwin and his wife, Gytha Thorkelsdottir. Gytha was a member of the extended Danish royal family, as her brother, Ulf, was married to King Cnut the Great’s sister, Estrith. Gytha’s nephew, Sweyn Estrithson, would eventually rule Denmark as king. Harold received the earldom of East Anglia in 1044 and, as the oldest surviving son of Godwin, Earl of Wessex, he succeeded to his father’s earldom in 1053. Godwin died at Winchester in Easter week of 1053, after collapsing during a feast to entertain his son-in-law, King Edward the Confessor.

Harold’s sister, Edith, was the wife of King Edward; she had married him in January 1046. However, the fact they had no children meant there was no clear successor to the English crown; a situation that would be a major cause of the crisis of 1066. Of Harold’s brothers three were to become earls; Tostig, Gyrth and Leofwine. However, Tostig was driven out of his earldom of Northumberland by an uprising in 1065 and replaced with Morcar, the brother of Edwin, earl of Mercia. Gyrth and Leofwine both fought – and died – alongside Harold at Hastings. Harold’s older brother, Sweyn, once Earl of Hereford, had left on pilgrimage to Jerusalem in 1051, to atone for his many sins, which included the murder of his own cousin and the kidnapping and rape of an abbess, Eadgifu. He died – or was killed – on his journey home. Another, younger brother, Wulfnoth, was a hostage at the court of William, Duke of Normandy, along with his nephew – Sweyn’s son – Hakon.

Memorial to the 1066 Battle of Stamford bridge just outside York

Harold, himself, was not only one of the king’s foremost earls but also one of his most respected advisors and generals. In short, the Godwinsons were the most powerful family in the kingdom, after the king himself – and often resented for the fact. At one point Harold, with his father and brothers, had been exiled from England after quarrelling with the king. During a visit to Normandy in 1064, Harold is even said to have sworn an oath to back William of Normandy’s claim to the English throne in the likely event that Edward the Confessor died without an heir; a claim that William used to the full in order to secure papal approval for his invasion of England.

However, when it came to the moment of truth, it was Harold the old king is said to have named on his deathbed as his successor. He was crowned on 6 January, just hours after the burial of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey. There was no gentle introduction to kingship for King Harold II, however, and  almost immediately he had to prepare to defend England against the rival claimants of Norway and Normandy; and against his own brother, Tostig, who had joined forces with Harald Hardrada, King of Norway.

Harold’s love life was as tangled as his political life.

The battlefield of Hastings

Harold probably met Edith the Swan-neck (or Swanneshals) at about the same time as he became Earl of East Anglia, in 1044, which makes it possible that Edith the Swan-neck and the East Anglian magnate, Eadgifu the Fair, are one and the same. Eadgifu the Fair held over 270 hides of land and was one of the richest magnates in England. The majority of her estates lay in Cambridgeshire, but she also held land in Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Essex and Suffolk; in the Domesday Book, Eadgifu held the manor at Harkstead in Suffolk, which was attached to Harold’s manor of Brightlingsea in Essex, and some of her Suffolk lands were tributary to Harold’s manor of East Bergholt.

While it is by no means certain that Eadgifu is Edith the Swan-neck, several historians – including Ann Williams in the Oxford Database of National Biography – make convincing arguments that they were. Even their names, Eadgifu and Eadgyth, are so similar that the difference could be merely a matter of spelling or mistranslation; indeed, the Abbey of St Benet of Hulme, Norfolk, remembers an Eadgifu Swanneshals among its patrons.

The gatehouse of Battle Abbey

What we do know is that by 1065 Harold had been living with the wonderfully-named Eadgyth Swanneshals (Edith the Swan-neck) for twenty years. History books label her as Harold’s concubine, but Edith was, obviously, no weak and powerless peasant, so it’s highly likely they went through a hand-fasting ceremony  – or ‘Danish marriage’ – a marriage, but not one recognised by the Church. It was not an uncommon practice – King Cnut had married his first wife, Ælfgifu of Northampton, in the same fashion. Edith being a hand-fast wife meant that Harold was still free to marry a second ‘wife’ in a Christian ceremony at a later date. Although we can’t say why Harold didn’t marry Edith in a manner recognised by the Church, it may be that they were both young and one or both of their families would not consent to their marriage.

Harold and Edith had about six children together – including three sons, Godwin, Edmund, Magnus and possibly a fourth, Ulf. They also had two daughters. Gytha married Vladimir Monomakh, Great Prince of Kiev, and is the ancestress of the current queen, Elizabeth II, through her descent from Philippa of Hainault. A second daughter, Gunnhild, spent sometime in Wilton Abbey in Wiltshire, although it is not certain that she was there with the intention of becoming a nun, or for safety and protection from the invading Normans. However, she is said to have eloped, before taking her vows, with a Breton knight, Alan the Red.

Lady Godiva, grandmother of Harold’s second wife, Ealdgyth

However, despite their twenty years and many children, and with the health of the king, Edward the Confessor, deteriorating, it became politically expedient for Harold to marry, to strengthen his position as England’s premier earl and, possibly, next king. Ealdgyth of Mercia was the daughter of Alfgar, Earl of Mercia, and granddaughter of the famous Lady Godiva and, according to William of Jumièges, very beautiful. Her brothers were Edwin, Earl of Mercia, and Morcar, who replaced Harold’s brother Tostig as Earl of Northumberland in the last months of 1065.

Ealdgyth was the widow of Gruffuddd ap Llywelyn, King of Gwynedd from 1039 and ruler of all Wales after 1055, with whom she had had at least one child, a daughter, Nest. Gruffuddd had been murdered in 1063, following an English expedition into Wales. Gruffudd’s own men are said to have betrayed their king, killed him and presented his head to Harold in submission. Harold’s subsequent marriage to Ealdgyth, which probably took place at the end of 1065 or beginning of 1066, not only secured the support of the earls of Northumbria and Mercia, but also weakened the political ties of the same earls with the new rulers of north Wales.

William the Conqueror, Harold’s nemesis

As Harold’s wife Ealdgyth was, therefore, for a short time, Queen of England. However, with Harold having to defend his realm, first against Harold Hardrada and his own brother, Tostig, at Stamford Bridge in September of 1066 and, subsequently, against William of Normandy at Hastings, it is unlikely Ealdgyth had time to enjoy her exalted status. At the time of the Battle of Hastings, on 14 October 1066, Ealdgyth was in London, but her brothers took her north to Chester soon after. Although sources are contradictory, it seems possible Ealdgyth was heavily pregnant and gave birth to a son, or twin sons, Harold and Ulf Haroldson, within months of the battle. The identity of Ulf’s mother seems to be sorely disputed, with some believing he was the twin brother of Harold and others that he was the youngest son of Edith Swan-neck; I suppose we will never know for certain.

Unfortunately, we hear nothing of Ealdgyth after the birth of Harold (and Ulf); her fate remains unknown. Young Harold is said to have grown up in exile on the Continent and died in 1098.

Despite his marriage to Ealdgyth of Mercia it seems Edith the Swan-neck remained close to Harold and it was she who was said to be waiting close by when the king faced William of Normandy at Senlac Hill near Hastings on 14 October 1066. She awaited the outcome alongside Harold’s mother, Gytha. Having lost a son, Tostig, just two weeks before, fighting against his brother and with the Norwegians at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, Gytha lost three more sons – Harold, Gyrth and Leofwine and, possibly, her grandson, Haakon, in the fierce battle at Hastings.

Waltham Abbey, where Edith is said to have brought Harold’s body after the Battle of Hastings

It is heart-wrenching, even now, to think of Edith and the elderly Gytha, wandering the blood-soaked field after the battle, in search of the fallen king. Sources say that Gytha was unable to identify her sons amid the mangled and mutilated bodies. It fell to Edith to find Harold, by undoing the chain mail of the victims, in order to recognise certain identifying marks on the king’s body – probably tattoos. There is a tradition, from the monks of Waltham Abbey, of Edith bringing Harold’s body to them for burial, soon after the battle. Although other sources suggest Harold was buried close to the battlefield, and without ceremony, it is hard not to hope that Edith was able to perform this last service for the king. However, any trace of Harold’s remains was swept away by Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, so the grave of England’s last Anglo-Saxon king is lost to history.

Edith searching the battlefield of Hastings for Harold’s body

After another year or so of leading resistance to Norman rule in the south-west, Harold’s mother, Gytha, eventually fled into exile on the Continent, taking Harold and Edith’s daughter, another Gytha, with her. Gytha and her nephew, Swein Estrithson, King of Denmark, arranged the marriage of the younger Gytha to the prince of Smolensk and – later – Kiev, Vladimir II Monomakh.

Edith and Harold’s sons fled to Ireland with all but one living into the 1080s, though the dates of their eventual deaths remain uncertain. Gunnhild remained in her nunnery at Wilton until sometime before 1093, when she became the wife or concubine of Alan the Red, a Norman magnate. Whether or not she was kidnapped seems to be in question but when Alan died in 1093, instead of returning to the convent, Gunnhild became the mistress of Alan’s brother and heir, Alan Niger. Alan Rufus held vast lands in East Anglia – lands that had once belonged to Eadgifu the Fair and, if Eadgifu was Edith the Swan-neck, it’s possible that Alan married Gunnhild to strengthen his claims to her mother’s lands.

Stone marking the site of Harold’s grave at Waltham Abbey

After 1066 Edith’s lands had passed to Ralph de Gael, but he rebelled against King William and so they were eventually given to Alan the Red. Gunnhild and Alan are thought to have had a daughter, Matilda, who was married to Walter d’Eyncourt. Matilda and Walter’s oldest son, William d’Eyncourt, died as a child whilst fostered in the household of William II Rufus. He was buried in Lincoln Cathedral, but his grave is now lost

Of Edith the Swan-neck, there is no trace after Harold is interred at Waltham Abbey. Although she spent twenty years at the side of the man who would become king, and her daughter, Gytha, would be an ancestress of the English royal family of today, Edith simply disappears from the pages of history. Overall, history has treated Edith kindly; sympathising with a woman who remained loyal to her man to the end, despite the fact her official status was questionable.

 

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Pictures ©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly except Lady Godiva, which is courtesy of the Rijksmuseum and Edith at Hastings and William the Conqueror, which are courtesy of Wikipedia.

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Sources: The English and the Norman Conquest by Dr Ann Williams; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris; Harold, the King Who Fell at Hastings by Peter Rex; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; The Anglo-Saxon Age by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swaton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; Queen Emma and the Vikings by Harriett O’Brien; The Bayeux Tapestry by Carola Hicks; oxforddnb.com.

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Coming in November!

Tracing the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UKAmazon USAmberley Publishing and Book Depository.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Telling the stories of some of the most incredible women from Medieval history, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, in the US from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository. It will be released in paperback in the UK from 15 March 2019 and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly