Gytha of Wessex and the Fall of the House of Godwin

Statue of King Harold, Waltham Abbey

The years following the death of Earl Godwin of Wessex, husband of Gytha, saw the rise of their sons. Harold had succeeded to his father’s earldom of Wessex and in 1055 Tostig was given the earldom of Northumbria; Earl Siward had died at York, leaving only a young son, Waltheof, to succeed him. It was thought too dangerous to leave a county which bordered Scotland in the hands of a child, and so the earldom was awarded to Tostig. When Ælfgar succeeded to his father Leofric’s earldom of Mercia in 1057, he had to relinquish the earldom of East Anglia, which was given to Gyrth, one of Gytha and Godwin’s younger sons. Another son, Leofwine, appears to have succeeded to part of the earldom of Ralph, Earl of Hereford, on his death in 1057, gaining lands in the south Midlands, including in Hertfordshire, Middlesex and Buckinghamshire.

The movements of Gytha herself over the years immediately following Godwin’s death have gone unrecorded. The widow of the great earl probably spent most of her time in retirement on her estates, possibly visiting her family on occasion and spending time at King Edward’s court, with her daughter, Queen Edith.

However, her family was threatened yet again in 1065, when the Northumbrians revolted against her son Tostig’s harsh rule. Unrest in Northumbria had been growing steadily over recent years. Tostig was rarely in the earldom, preferring to spend his time at court, with the king and his sister, and leaving the day-to-day governance of Northumbria to his representatives in the region. It was these representatives, therefore, who bore the brunt of the disaffection with Tostig’s rule. According to John of Worcester, a force of 200 armed men marched on York, killing about 200 of the earl’s retainers, seizing his weapons and treasury, which were stored in the city.¹ The rebels then invited Morcar, the brother of Earl Edwin of Mercia, to become their earl.  The rebellion gathered pace when Mercian Earl Edwin joined his own forces with those of Morcar, and the brothers were, in turn, joined by their Welsh allies and marched south.

They met Earl Harold, Tostig’s brother, at Northampton; Harold’s message to the rebels was to withdraw their army and take their grievances to the king. The rebels, however, demanded that Tostig should not only be removed from Northumbria, but banished from England altogether. No lord – including Harold – was prepared to restore Tostig by force; no one wanted to see the country divided by civil war. Having run out of options, Edward acquiesced to the rebels’ demands. Morcar was confirmed as Earl of Northumbria and the rights they had enjoyed in the past, called the ‘Laws of Cnut’ by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, were restored to the Northumbrians. Tostig was exiled. It must have caused Gytha great distress to see her son, Tostig, with his wife, Judith, young children and household, cross the English Channel to Flanders, on 1 November 1065. It was probably the last time she saw her son.

Tostig’s departure was merely the start of a year of grief for both Gytha, although it may not have felt that way during the start of the new year of 1066. On 5 January, Edward the Confessor breathed his last, leaving the kingdom to his brother-in-law, Earl Harold. Gytha must have seen Harold’s hasty coronation on 6 January, in the newly rebuilt Westminster Abbey, as the crowning glory forher family, and a sign of new beginnings for all her children. However, if Harold expected a honeymoon period as king, he was to be sorely disappointed. By Easter, England was living in fear of invasion from Duke William of Normandy. These fears were further stoked when ‘a sign such as men never saw before was seen in the heavens.’²

Memorial to the Battle of Stamford Bridge, outside York

The appearance of the great comet, later to be known as Halley’s Comet, was seen as a portent for change in the kingdom. The comet was visible every night for the whole of the last week of April, and no sooner had it disappeared than news arrived of a hostile fleet attacking England’s shores. The threat did not come from Normandy, but from Gytha’s exiled son, Tostig. How devastated she must have been, to see one son attacking another, but Harold proved implacable and set out for Sandwich to confront Tostig. Tostig withdrew before his brother’s arrival and sailed up the coast towards Northumbria, eventually seeking refuge with King Malcom in Scotland.

Having seen off his brother, Harold now prepared to face the greater threat of Duke William of Normandy, watching and waiting for the arrival of William’s ships. The fear and anticipation that gripped the country cannot have failed to affect Gytha, knowing that her sons were at the heart of events. Leofwine and Gyrth were stalwart in their support of Harold, whilst Tostig was brooding and planning in the court of the Scots king. The months of anticipation must have been hard on them all, but in September, Harold was forced to stand down his army, provisions had run out and ‘no man could keep them there any longer. They therefore had leave to go home; and the king rode up, and the ships were driven to London; but many perished ere they came thither.’²

As the summer drew to a close, Harold received news that his brother, Tostig, had landed in the north with Harald Hardrada, King of Norway, and 300 ships. They defeated a force of Northumbrians, led by the Mercian brothers, earls Morcar and Edwin, at the Battle of Fulford on 20 September 1066. Having received news of this defeat, King Harold force marched his army the 190 miles from London to York in just four days, so that he was able to face the Scandinavians at Stamford Bridge, on the outskirts of the city, on 25  September. He was accompanied by two of his younger brothers, Gyrth and Leofwine.

King Harold’s troops prevailed, despite their near-exhausted state after such a march. Harald Hardrada and Tostig were both killed in the battle, which saw about 11,000 of the estimated 20,000 combatants dead at the end of the day. Harold had no time to savour his victory, nor mourn the loss of his brother, for three days after the battle Duke William of Normandy landed at Pevensey on the south coast. As soon as he received the news, Harold turned his army south and marched to face this new enemy. It may well be that he sent a messenger to his mother while en route, informing her of Tostig’s death and of his own success.

William of Jumièges states that Gytha tried to persuade Harold against facing Duke William. In the same, tense family conference, Harold’s brother Gyrth offered to fight the Duke, ‘since he had sworn no oath and owed nothing to him’.[4] Harold was enraged, he ‘taunted Gyrth and even insolently kicked his mother Gytha who was trying to hold him back.’[4] By 14 October Harold had arrived at Senlac Hill, 7 miles north of Hastings, where he arrayed his army to face the opposing Normans. Stories have Gytha awaiting the outcome of the battle behind the lines, with Harold’s handfast wife, Edith Swanneck.

By the end of the day, three of Gytha’s sons lay among the dead; Harold, Gyrth and Leofwine. It is also possible her grandson Hakon died on the field of battle; he had returned to England with Harold in 1064, after being held hostage in Normandy since 1052. According to William of Poitiers, ‘Far and wide the earth was covered with the flower of the English nobility and youth, drenched in blood.’[5]

Edith searching the battlefield for Harold’s body

In the aftermath of the battle there is a heartrending story that Gytha and Edith walked the battlefield, searching for Harold’s body, which was said to be recognisable by marks that only Edith, his lover of twenty years, would know (probably tattoos). It was reported that Gytha offered Duke William the weight of Harold’s body in gold, if she could be allowed to take him for burial. William refused, with an angry retort, saying it would be unfair to bury him, given that so many remained unburied on the field on his account. However, most sources suggest that William then ordered that Harold be buried in an unmarked grave, on a cliff overlooking England’s shores. Other stories have Harold’s remains being claimed by Edith and taken for burial at Harold’s own foundation of Waltham Abbey. Whether it was Gytha or Edith who identified Harold, whether he was buried in Waltham Abbey of an unmarked grave close to the sea, the tragedy for Gytha and Edith was that Harold was dead and William was now England’s ruler.

As William consolidated his hold on England and as she was grieving the loss of four sons within a space of three weeks, Gytha probably retreated to her estates in Wessex. Her one surviving son, Wulfnoth, was still a hostage in Normandy and so nothing more is heard of her until 1068. Gytha appears to have settled in the west of Wessex, for she and her family were implicated in a conspiracy in Exeter, from where messages were being sent to other cities, urging rebellion. It appears that Gytha planned a Godwinson revival with the sons of Harold and Edith Swanneck.

In their late teens or early twenties, the boys fled to Ireland after the death of their father and were now plotting to return with an invasion fleet. King William had just returned from Normandy, when the conspiracy arose. Exeter was to be the base from which the rebellion could gather and spread throughout the country; when the king demanded Exeter give the king its fealty, the city refused. As William arrived at the city with his army, they played for time, saying they would open their gates, while at the same time preparing to resist. After eighteen days of siege, the city surrendered. The Norman chroniclers suggest that the inhabitants were worn down by William the Conqueror’s relentless assaults, or that the city wall partially collapsed; while the English Chroniclers argue that the surrender came about after Gytha had deserted the cause.

Battlefield at Hastings

According to John of Worcester, ‘the countess Gytha, mother of Harold, king of England, and sister of Sweyn, king of Denmark, escaped from the city, with many others, and retired to Flanders; and the citizens submitted to the king, and paid him fealty.’¹ Gytha took a boat into the Bristol Channel and landed on the island of Flat Holme, possibly to await the arrival of her grandsons from Ireland. And with Gytha and her supporters gone, the city was able to surrender and agree terms with the king. Following the failure of the conspiracy, Gytha’s lands in England were declared forfeit and distributed among the victorious Normans, as had previously happened to those who had fought at Hastings in 1066.

She remained on Flat Holm for some time; her grandsons, Godwine, Edmund and Magnus, arrived from Ireland later in the year, possibly making a brief stop on Flat Holm to visit her before landing in Somerset and making for Bristol. Although the campaign failed to take the city, they returned to Ireland with considerable plunder after raiding along the Somerset coast. Another attempt at gathering support in Devon the following year also ended in failure and the boys retured to Ireland.

It was probably after this second failed invasion that Gytha left the island of Flat Holm and England, taking with her ‘a great store of treasure’.[6] She was accompanied by several surviving members of her family, including her daughter, Gunhilda, and her granddaughter and namesake Gytha (Harold’s daughter by Edith Swanneck). After a short stay in Flanders, Gytha may have made her way to Denmark, where her nephew Swein Estrithson was king.

Gytha’s daughter, Gunhilda, joined the convent at St  Omer, staying there for several years before moving to Bruges. Apart from one visit to Denmark, she then spent the remainder of her years in Bruges, dying there on 24 August 1087, a memorial plaque, discovered in 1786, describes her as a child of noble parents, her father Godwin ‘ruled over the greater part of England’ and her mother Gytha ‘sprung from a noble family of Danes’.[7] According to Ann Williams, Gunhilda had lived her life as a vowess, taking a vow of perpetual virginity when still a girl. In Bruges she may have been attached to the Church of St Donatien as a vowess, as she had donated a collection of relics to the church.

Gytha, Countess of Wessex

Gytha’s granddaughter, Gytha, the daughter of King Harold by Edith Swanneck, was married to Vladimir II Monomakh, prince of Smolensk and (later) Kiev, sometime after her arrival on the Continent. She was the mother of Mstislav the Great, Grand Prince of Kiev, who was born in 1076; he was the last ruler of a united Kievan Rus. Gytha died in 1107; it was through her and her son Mstislav that the Godwinson blood eventually made it back into the English royal family, with Mstislav’s direct descendant Philippa of Hainault, wife and queen of Edward III.

Unfortunately for us, once she reaches the Continent, Gytha, the wife of Godwin, disappears from history. Where she lived, and for how much longer, has gone unrecorded, shrouding her last days or years in mystery.

Gytha’s life was an extraordinary story of privilege and power, war and loss. She was a wife whose husband decided the fate of kings, and a mother who lost four sons in battle within three weeks in 1066, three in the same battle. It is impossible to imagine the agony of waiting at Hastings, and hearing of the death of her son the king. It speaks for her determination and tenacity that she did not just curl up and give in after such losses. She continued her resistance to William the Conqueror for as long as she could, before going into exile on the Continent, disappearing from the pages of history.

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Photos of King Harold and Stamford Bridge ©Sharon Bennett Connolly 2018. Pictures of Gytha and Edoth Swanneck courtesy of Wikipedia.

Footnotes: ¹The Chronicle of John of Worcester, translated and edited by Thomas Forester, A.M.; ²The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; ³The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon. Comprising the history of England, from the invasion of Julius Caesar to the accession of Henry II. Also, the Acts of Stephen, King of England and duke of Normandy Translated and edited by Thomas Forester; [4] Gesta Normannorum Ducum by William of Jumièges, edited and translated by Elizabeth Van Houts; [5] The Gesta Guillielmi of William of Poitiers, edited by R.H.C. Davis and Marjorie Chibnall; [6] The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy by Ordericus Vitalis; [7] On the Spindle Side: the Kinswomen of Earl Godwin of Wessex by Ann Williams.

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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 Conquestby 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; On the Spindle Side: the Kinswomen of Earl Godwin of Wessex by Ann Williams; oxforddnb.com.

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Out Now!

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.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

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