Gytha of Wessex and the Rise of the House of Godwin

Countess Gytha

The day is finally here! Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest is  in the shops!

So I thought I would write a post about the most fascinating woman I came across while writing the book. I have to admit, I expected Emma of Normandy to be the woman who stole the show with this book, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover it was Gytha of Wessex! Gytha completes the triumvirate of remarkable women who presided over the first half of the eleventh century in England; the others being Emma of Normandy and the legendary Lady Godiva. However, unlike Emma and Godiva, Gytha was at the centre of events before, during and after the fateful year of 1066. Her story is far too long to be told in one blog post, so I will concentrate on the lesser known part of the story; the early years of the marriage of Godwin and Gytha.

A woman of impeccable pedigree, Gytha was the mother of a large brood of children that included several earls, the queen of Edward the Confessor and the last Anglo-Saxon king of England. Raised in Denmark, Gytha was the daughter of Thorgils Sprakaleg, a Danish magnate who himself was said to have been the grandson of a bear and a Swedish maiden. Although obviously not true, such a legend serves to weave a sense of mystery and legacy into a family. Little is known of her mother; a later story suggested she was Tyra, daughter of Harold Bluetooth, king of Norway and Denmark, but this has been discounted by historians.

Gytha was probably either born in the last decade of the tenth century or the first decade of the eleventh, and she had at least two brothers. Eilaf who was Earl of Gloucestershire under King Cnut while her second brother, Earl Ulf, was married to King Cnut’s sister, Estrith, and was the father of Swein Estrithson, King of Denmark from 1047 to 1076. Earl Ulf had two other children, Beorn Estrithson and Asbjørn; Beorn spent time with his aunt’s family and was murdered by his cousin, Gytha’s oldest son, Swein Godwinson, in 1049. Ulf acted as Regent of Denmark for King Cnut before he was killed, apparently on the orders of Cnut himself, on Christmas Day 1026.

It was in about 1022 that Gytha was married to Godwin. According to The Life of King Edward, commissioned by Gytha’s daughter, Queen Edith, it was early in his reign that King Cnut took Godwin with him to Denmark, where the king ‘tested more closely his wisdom’, and ‘admitted [him] to his council and gave him his sister [sic] as wife.’¹ Although Gytha was not, in fact, Cnut’s sister, she was still a part of the extended Danish royal family; giving her to Godwin as a wife was a substantial reward and a sign of Cnut’s trust in him. What Gytha thought of being given in marriage to a man below her station, no matter how much a favourite of Cnut’s he was, we can only surmise. We can assume that she probably had little say in the matter; once Cnut had decided on the marriage, who could refuse such a powerful king?

King Cnut and Gytha’s brother, Earl Ulf

Godwin’s background is obscured by time, but it is likely that he was the son of Wulfnoth Cild, a Sussex thegn who fell afoul of the politics and political machinations of the reign of Æthelred II the Unready. The appellation ‘Cild’ denotes a young man or warrior and is usually applied to those of rank in Anglo-Saxon England. In 1009  Wulfnoth had been accused of treason by Brihtric, the brother of the powerful and wily Eadric Streona. What treason he had committed is unclear, and it is likely that the charges were unfounded. The accusations came during the muster of the magnificent new fleet, built on the orders of Æthelred II to counter the incursions of the Scandinavians. Wulfnoth fled to sea, taking twenty of the new ships with him. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Brihtric went in pursuit of him, with eighty ships, but his force was run aground in a heavy storm and then attacked by Wulfnoth, who set fire to Brihtric’s ships. The destruction of the greater part of the fleet was to put an end to any hope of campaigning off the English coast and Æthelred gave up on the project and went home.

It is possible that Godwin was married to a lady called Thyra, before he married Gytha.  According to William of Malmesbury, Thyra was Cnut’s sister, and a quite unpleasant lady. She is said to have had a son who, while out riding a horse ‘was carried into the Thames, and perished in the stream: his mother, too, paid the penalty of her cruelty; being killed by a stroke of lightning. For it is reported, that she was in the habit of purchasing companies of slaves in England, and sending them into Denmark; more especially girls, whose beauty and age rendered them more valuable, that she might accumulate money by this horrid traffic.’²

Godwin appears to have accumulated considerable lands during the reign of Cnut. Although only one charter survives from the period, in which Cnut granted him Polhampton in Hampshire, Godwin also possessed manors in Kent, Sussex and Hampshire, some of which had previously belonged to the royal estates in the reign of Æthelred II. Although we don’t hear of Gytha at this time – the chronicles rarely mention the women – we can assume that she enjoyed and benefitted from the favour her husband received from King Cnut. It is likely that she spent the majority of her time in the 1020s and 1030s giving birth to, and raising, her large brood of children. Gytha and Godwin had a large family of at least ten – possibly eleven – children.

Their daughter Edith was probably born within a year of the marriage and would become Queen of England as the wife of King Edward the Confessor. Although we cannot be certain of the order of birth, the eldest son seems likely to have been Swein, who was born in about 1023, with Harold – the future King Harold II – probably arriving the year after. Five more sons may have followed; Tostig, Gyrth, Leofwine, Wulfnoth and possibly Alfgar.

Death of Leofwine at the Battle of Hastings, depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry

Tostig, Gyrth and Leofwine all became earls under Edward the Confessor and were deeply involved in the events of 1066, although not all on the same side. While still only a child, Wulfnoth was taken to Normandy as a hostage in about 1052, with his nephew, Hakon (the son of Wulfnoth’s older brother, Swein). Wulfnoth died sometime after 1087, but whether in England or Normandy is unclear. It is possible that young Hakon died whilst still a hostage in Normandy; however, there is some suggestion that he was released following Harold’s visit to Normandy in 1064 and fought – and died – alongside his uncles at the Battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066. Little is known of Alfgar; if he existed, he may have been a monk at Reims in France.

As well as Edith, Gytha and Godwin are thought to have had two or three more daughters. Little is known of Eadgiva (or Eadgifu), but for her name and that she held the comital estate of Crewkerne in Somerset; she is also on a list of women in confraternity with the New Minster at Winchester but may have been dead by 1066. A younger daughter, Gunhilda, is believed to have been a vowess from an early age and became a nun after the Conquest, either at St Omer in France or Bruges in Flanders. Gunhilda died at Bruges on 24 August 1087 and is buried in Bruges Cathedral.

When Edward the Confessor came to the throne in 1042 the support of the powerful Earl Godwin was essential to the success of his accession. Among the lands acquired by Godwin during the 1040s was Woodchester in Gloucestershire, which he bought for Gytha. The manor was intended to support her when she stayed at Berekely, for ‘she was unwilling to use up anything from that manor because of the destruction of the abbey.’¹

As Godwin’s star continued to rise; so too did that of his family. In 1043 an earldom, centred on Hereford, had been created for his eldest son, Swein, and in 1044 Harold, the next oldest, was made Earl of East Anglia. Gytha must have been proud to see her husband and sons rise so high, and surely was overjoyed as she became the mother of a queen when her eldest daughter, Edith, married King Edward on 23  January 1045. The family must have appeared unassailable to their fellow and rival nobles.

For Gytha, it was mostly a time for pride in her children, although one of her sons would disappoint and humiliate her. Swein Godwinson was, by most accounts, a rather unpleasant character. Although a notable fighter, he was ruthless and determined. One source suggests that  Swein had, at some point, impugned his mother’s reputation, claiming that he was not the son of Godwin, but of the former king, Cnut. The claim was indignantly refuted by Gytha, who gathered together the noble ladies of Wessex to witness her oath that Godwin was Swein’s father. It is impossible to imagine what must have gone through Gytha’s mind when Swein made this claim. To be so blatantly accused of infidelity by her eldest son, someone who should have had a care for his mother’s reputation, must have been heartbreaking. Whether it was a political move – to pursue a claim to the throne as Cnut’s heir – or not, Swein effectively rejected Godwin as his father and called his mother an unfaithful wife.

Harold Godwinson, King of England

In the national theater, moreover, the year 1051 brought a crisis that threatened the family’s very position in English society. Edward the Confessor, unhappy at the apparently unassailable position of the Godwin family, sought to curb the Earl of Wessex’s strength and influence. Both sides raised their retainers, intending to defend their positions with force, if necessary. Civil war loomed.

The two sides came back from the brink, with Godwin called before the king to answer for his actions. The king, however, offered to take the earl back into his peace ‘when he gave him back his brother alive.’ Earl Godwin’s involvement in the death of Edward’s brother, Alfred, had come back to haunt him. Godwin would have known, at that moment, that there was no chance of reconciliation. The earl rode away from London, returning to Bosham. John of Worcester takes up the story:

… but his army gradually dwindling away and deserting him, he did not venture to abide the judgment of the king’s court, but fled, under cover of night. When, therefore, the morning came, the king, in his witan, with the unanimous consent of the whole army, made a decree that Godwin and his five sons should be banished. Thereupon he and his wife Gytha, and Tostig and his wife Judith, the daughter of Baldwin, count of Flanders, and two of his other sons, namely, Sweyn and Gyrth, went, without loss of time, to Thorney, where a ship had been got ready for them. They quickly laded her with as much gold, silver, and other valuable articles as she could hold, and, embarking in great haste, directed her course towards Flanders and Baldwin the count.³

Godwin and Gytha’s two other sons, Harold and Leofwine, headed west; arriving at Bristol, they took Swein’s ship, which had already been prepared and provisioned for him, and sailed to exile in Ireland. The couple’s youngest son, Wulfstan, and Swein’s son, Hakon, may already have been in the custody of King Edward as hostages. Queen Edith, therefore, was the only Godwin who remained at liberty in England, although not for long. She was banished to the nunnery at Wherwell, where Edward’s half-sister was abbess; her land, jewels and possessions were taken from her and Edward may have started divorce proceedings, though they were never completed.

Godwin and Gytha, along with Swein, Tostig and the family’s retainers, spent the winter in Bruges from where Swein, looking to the salvation of his soul, set out on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. According to John of Worcester, Swein walked the whole way, barefoot, but caught a cold on the way home and died. In the spring of 1052, the family set about orchestrating their return to England. After some initial setbacks,  Godwin attacked the Isle of Wight and was reunited with his sons, Harold and Leofwine, newly arrived from Ireland. They proceeded, along the Sussex and Kent coasts, to London, unopposed, and anchored on the south bank of the Thames, opposite the forces of the king and his earls who were waiting on the north bank with fifty ships.

Queen Edith of Wessex

Godwin sent to the king, requesting the restoration of his lands and the lands of his sons, but Edward flatly refused. However, public opinion had turned against the king; his strong support for his Norman advisers and the visit of William of Normandy soon after the Godwin’s exile, had soured public opinion which turned to favour Godwin and his family. The Norman contingent of Edward’s administration, seeing events were turning against them, and that Godwin would be welcomed back into the fold, mounted their horses and fled London, some going north, some west; presumably with Godwin and Gytha’s son, Wulfstan, and their grandson, Hakon, as hostages.

The following morning Godwin met the king in a council outside London. The Earl begged forgiveness of the king, declaring that he and his sons were innocent of the charges laid against them. Despite his underlying fury, Edward had no choice but to grant Godwin a pardon and restore the lands and titles of the whole family. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Gytha is even mentioned in the agreement, whereby the council ‘gave Godwin fairly his earldom, so full and so free as he at first possessed it, and his sons also all that they formerly had; and his wife and his daughter so full and so free as they formerly had.’ Soon after, their daughter, Edith, was fetched from her incarceration in the nunnery and reinstated as queen.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also mentions that Godwin fell sick shortly after the conclusion of negotiations with Edward. Given that the earl died at Easter 1053, we can imagine that Gytha spent the winter nursing her ailing husband. On Easter Sunday (12 April), Godwin was dining with his sons, Harold and Tostig, and King Edward, at Winchester, when ‘he suddenly sank towards the foot-stool, deprived of speech and of all his strength; he was carried to the king’s chamber, and it was thought it would pass over, but it was not so; but he continued like this unspeaking and helpless, through until the Thursday and then gave up his life. And he lies there in the Old Minster; and his son Harold succeeded to his earldom.’ [ASC]

Writing later, with a flair for the dramatic, William of Malmesbury had Godwin’s last words to Edward before he collapsed as; ‘May God not permit me to swallow if I have done anything to endanger Alfred or to hurt you.’² Contemporary chronicles do not mention such a declaration, so while it makes Godwin’s death appear as divine justice, it is more than likely untrue.

King Harold’s coronation in the Bayeux Tapestry

Following his death the House of Godwin continued it inexorable rise. 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’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.

Gytha’s movements in the years immediately after 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. One can imagine she would watch the success of her son’s with pride, unaware of the looming storm clouds that would see 4 of her sons lying dead on battlefields at Stamford Bridge and Hastings within the short space of 3 weeks in the autumn of 1066.

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Footnotes: ¹Godwine, earl of Wessex (d. 1053) by Ann Williams, oxforddnb.com; ²The History of the Kings of England and of his Own Times by William Malmesbury; ³The Chronicle of John of Worcester, translated and edited by Thomas Forester; [ASC] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram

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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; 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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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

 

Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest

The day has finally arrived!

Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest is available from today.

The momentous events of 1066, the story of invasion, battle and conquest, are well known. But what of the women?

Harold II of England had been with Edith Swanneck for twenty years but in 1066, in order to strengthen his hold on the throne, he married Ealdgyth, sister of two earls. William of Normandy’s Duchess, Matilda of Flanders, had supposedly only agreed to marry the Duke after he’d pulled her pigtails and thrown her in the mud. Harald Hardrada had two wives – apparently at the same time. So, who were these women? What was their real story? And what happened to them after 1066?

These are not peripheral figures. Emma of Normandy was a Norman married to both a Saxon and a Dane ‒ and the mother of a king from each. Wife of both King Cnut and Aethelred II, the fact that, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, she had control of the treasury at the end of the reigns of both Cnut and Harthacnut suggests the extent of Emma’s influence over these two kings –and the country itself.

Then there is Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great, and the less well known but still influential Gundrada de Warenne, the wife of one of William the Conqueror’s most loyal knights, and one of the few men who it is known beyond doubt was with the Duke at the Battle of Hastings.

These are lives full of drama, pathos and sometimes mystery: Edith and Gytha searching the battlefield of Hastings for the body of Harold, his lover and mother united in their grief for the fallen king. Who was Ælfgyva, the lady of the Bayeux Tapestry, portrayed with a naked man at her feet?

Silk and the Sword traces the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play during the Norman Conquest – wives, lovers, sisters, mothers, leaders.

 

Two years ago, in 1016, the story of the Norman Conquest was all over the news – it was the 950th anniversary of the fateful year, when Halley’s Comet was seen in the skies, three kings died on English soil (2 in battle), one invasion was repelled and a second succeeded. I remember watching the progress of the English Heritage re-enactors, who marched from Stamford Bridge near York to Hastings in Sussex. They were following in the footsteps of King Harold II himself, marching from victory at Stamford Bridge to defeat and death at Hastings.

And I remember thinking, what about the women?

The focus was always on the men, the soldiers and kings. However, men didn’t do this alone.

No, the women didn’t fight, and it is often hard to discern their presence and influence on events; but they were there and so I determined to discover their stories and place them in the context of the events of, not only, 1066, but of the 11th century as a whole.

Reviews

And the first reviews are already in. Thanks to the Tony Riches, S.J.A. Turney and Louise Wyatt their wonderful assessments of Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest:

From Tony Riches: “the central theme of Silk and the Sword, … is how little is known about the women involved in the build-up to the Norman Conquest. It has taken much detective work to sort out the few known facts from the many myths. It hasn’t helped that even the names of these women are debated and records of the time (including the famous tapestry) focus on the men.”

From S.J.A. Turney: “Once more a refreshing and unique look at the women of British history, this book offers a perspective you’ll not find in any other work on the events of 1066….Silk and the Sword is a valuable addition to any reference library on the Medieval world and simply a very good read.”

From Louise Wyatt: “Although this is obviously a work of non-fiction, the intricacy and meticulous attention to detail adds a woven depth that brings the reader into the tumultuous times these people lived in….this is an example of the level Sharon works at – professional microscopic attention to detail – and this shines through in Sharon’s writing….Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest is a most vicarious read, be it for leisure and/or for referencing. Highly recommended.

From Annie Whitehead: “Great care has been taken to skilfully extract these women from the general narrative and talk about them in isolation, whilst keeping the facts of their lives in context….This was an ambitious project, beautifully executed…..This book is a light, easy read, but it’s also full of depth.”

Guest Blog Posts

Read about Emma of Normandy, twice-crowned Queen of England over at Myths, Legeneds, Books & Coffee Pots.

Thank Yous

I owe a huge thank you to everyone in the Facebook community, to Amberley Publishing, to my friends and family and the incredible readers of this blog, who have shown nothing but encouragement and support. THANK YOU!

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Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will is available in the UK ffrom today and is available for order on Amazon UKAmberley Publishing and Book Depository. It will be published in the USA 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

Edward the Exile and the Last Saxon Royal Family

Edward the Exile

The story of Edward the Exile is a sad tale of an opportunity lost. Edward the Exile was one of the two sons of Edmund II Ironside, King of England in 1016; Edmund was the son of Ӕthelred II and his first wife, Ӕlfgifu of York. Edward’s grandfather was, therefore, Ӕthelred II (the Unready) and his uncle was Edward the Confessor, England’s king from 1042 until 1066.

Edward the Exile’s mother was Ealdgyth, the widow of Sigeferth, a thegn from East Anglia, who had been betrayed in 1015, along with another thegn, Morcar, by Eadric Streona. Eadric had lured them into his chamber during a great assembly at Oxford and killed them.  After her first husband’s murder, King Ӕthelred ‘took possession of their effects, and ordered Elgitha [Ealdgyth], Sigeferth’s widow, to be taken to the town of Malmesbury’.¹

Taking a stand against his father and Eadric, however, Edmund rescued Ealdgyth from Malmesbury and ‘married her against his father’s will’, between the middle of August and the middle of September 1015, Edmund then rode into the territories of Sigeferth and Morcar, in the Five Boroughs (The Five Boroughs were Derby, Leicester, Lincoln, Nottingham and Stamford), ‘and seizing the lands of Sigeferth and Morcar, compelled the villeins to acknowledge him as their lord’.¹

Edmund and Ealdgyth were probably married at the beginning of August 1015. They would have two sons, Edward and Edmund, who may well have been twins or were born just one year apart. Edward was born in 1016, with Edmund being born no later than 1017. Their father spent the rest of 1015 and 1016 trying to encourage resistance to the constant Danish onslaught.

Edmund II Ironside

Following the death of Ӕthelred II on 23 April 1016, Edmund was proclaimed King Edmund II as the old king’s oldest surviving son. He was to spend the remainder of his life fighting the forces of King Cnut, the Danish contender for the English crown. He even allied with the treacherous Eadric Streona in the hope that their combined forces could fend off the Danes. However, when it came to the crunch, in the Battle of Assundun, on 18 October 2016, Streona fled in the face of the enemy, leaving Edmund and his allies to fight on alone. The result was defeat for Edmund, and the deaths of many of England’s leading nobles.

A peace was eventually negotiated, in which England was divided between the two contenders, with Edmund taking Wessex and Cnut taking Northumbria and, probably, Mercia. Under the treaty it was agreed the other would inherit the remainder of the country from whichever died first. Unfortunately, on 30 November 1016, Edmund died, either from wounds received during the summer of battles, or by more nefarious means – it is impossible to tell. A later story that Edmund was killed, by a sword or spear thrust into his bowels, as he visited the latrine, does not appear in any contemporary chronicles.

Cnut was now sole king of England.

As soon as he had control, Cnut sent Edmund’s infant sons to the court of the king of Sweden, Olof Stötkonung, apparently with instructions to have them killed. However, the Swedish king was understandably squeamish about murdering two innocent toddlers. He was an old ally of the boys’ grandfather, Ӕthelred II and spared the children, sending them to safety in Hungary. When Cnut’s assassins almost caught up with them there, they were forced to flee for their lives, settling at the court of Yaroslav the Wise in Kiev, where Ingegerd, the daughter of King Olof of Sweden, was queen.

Edmund Aetheling, brother of Edward the Exile

In 1046,  as young adults, Edward and Edmund made their way back to Hungary and helped in the restoration of the exiled Andrew of Hungary. Edmund is said to have married a Hungarian princess but died sometime before 1054. Around 1043 Edward married Agatha, whose origins are extremely obscure. She may have been a daughter of Yaroslav and Ingegerd of Kiev but was more likely the daughter of Luidolf, Margrave of West Friesland and a relative of Holy Roman Emperor Henry III. The couple had three children together. Margaret, the eldest, was born in either 1045 or 1046; her sister, Christina was born around 1050 and her brother Edgar, the Ӕtheling was born sometime between 1052 and 1056.

The family could have spent their whole lives in European exile, were it not for Edward the Confessor’s failure to produce a legitimate heir by his wife, Edith of Wessex. In 1054 Edward, having realised that he needed to settle the question over the succession, sent an embassy to eastern Europe in search of his brother, Edmund’s children. Ealdred, Archbishop of York, spent several months at the court of Holy Roman Emperor Henry III, but was initially unsuccessful in arranging Edward the Exile’s return to England.

A second embassy in 1056 managed to persuade the prince to return to his homeland and he arrived back in England in 1057, forty years after he was sent into exile.  We do not know whether his family travelled with him or arrived later. However, just days after his return Edward the Exile was dead, before he even saw the king, his uncle, and was laid to rest in St Paul’s Cathedral, London, where his grandfather, Ӕthelred II, was also buried. Whether his death was caused by nefarious means or simply a sad twist of fate is uncertain. The suspicion has been raised that Edward’s rival for the throne, Harold Godwinson – the future Harold II – may have taken the opportunity to remove his rival; although it was likely that it was Harold who had escorted Edward back to England, as he was on the continent at that time. So surely, had he intended murder, he would have done it sooner and far from English soil?

Christina, daughter of Edward the Exile and Agatha

Edward the Exile’s brother, Edmund, is not mentioned as a candidate for the English throne, nor is he spoken of when his brother returned from Hungary in 1057, so it seems likely that he had died in his eastern exile in the late 1040s or early 1050s; otherwise it would have been prudent for the king to send for him following Edward the Exile’s unfortunate demise in 1057.

Whatever the circumstances, the death of Edward the Exile was a blow for Edward the Confessor’s dynastic hopes. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle bemoans his death, ‘Alas! That was a rueful time, and injurious to all this nation – that he ended his life so soon after he came to England, to the misfortune of this miserable people.’¹ With Edward’s death, his son, Edgar, became the ӕtheling, but Edgar was still very much a child of about five years of age and unlikely to inherit if King Edward died in the near future. He and his sisters, along with their mother, were now in the protection of King Edward. They continued to live at court, Edgar was adopted by Queen Edith, who raised him and saw to his education. Margaret and Christina were probably sent to the nunnery at Wilton, where the queen had been schooled, to continue their education. They would have undergone instruction in religion, spinning and embroidery, household management and possibly music and dancing.

By January 1066, when Edward the Confessor died, Margaret was approaching her twentieth birthday, while Edgar could have been as young as ten and was, probably, no older than fourteen. Due to his tender years Edgar was passed over as a candidate for the throne, in preference for the older and more experienced Harold Godwinson; who was crowned as King Harold II the day after King Edward’s death. Following Harold’s death at the Battle of Hastings in October 1066, Edgar was proclaimed king by some of his supporters, including Archbishop Ealdred of York, but was hardly capable of mounting any real challenge to William the Conqueror and by December had come to terms with him at Berkhamsted.

Edgar the Aetheling, son of Edward the Exile and Agatha

By 1068 Edgar the Ӕtheling had become involved in the opposition to Norman rule, which had been festering in northern England. However, when events turned against him he fled to Scotland, taking his mother and sisters along with him. The family was warmly received at Dunfermline by Scotland’s king, Malcolm III Canmore. Malcolm III Canmore was the son of Duncan I and Sybilla of Northumbria. His father had been killed by Macbeth, of Shakespeare fame, in August of 1040. Malcolm himself had defeated King Macbeth in battle, at Lumphanan, in August 1057 and Macbeth’s son Lulach in March 1058, to take the throne. By 1069 he was well established as king and had two sons by his first wife, Ingebiorg. Ingeborg was the daughter of Fin Arnasson, friend of Harald Hardrada and Jarl of Holland. The couple had three sons Duncan, Malcolm and Donald. In 1069 Malcolm asked Edgar and his mother for Margaret’s hand in marriage:

‘Then began Malcolm to yearn after the child’s [Edgar] sister, Margaret, to wife; but he and all his men long refused; and she also herself was averse, and said that she would neither have him nor anyone else, if the Supreme Power would grant, that she in her maidenhood might please the mighty Lord with a carnal heart, in this short life, in pure continence. The king, however, earnestly urged her brother, until he answered Yea. And indeed he durst not otherwise; for they were come into his kingdom … The prescient Creator wist long before what he of her would have done; for that she would increase the glory of God in this land, lead the king aright from the path of error, bend him and his people together by a better way, and suppress the bad customs which the nation formerly followed: all which she afterwards did. The king therefore received her, though it was against her will, and was pleased with her manners, and thanked God, who in his might had given him such a match.’¹

Margaret was reluctant to agree to the marriage, she was more inclined to a religious life and had hoped to become a nun. Nonetheless, with pressure from Malcolm, her brother and, possibly, her own sense of obligation to the king who was sheltering her family, she eventually accepted his proposal. They were married at Dunfermline sometime in 1069 or 1070 and, by all accounts, it seems to have been a happy and successful marriage and partnership.

St Margaret, Queen of Scotland

Every English monarch, from Henry II onwards, could also claim descent from Alfred the Great, but through the female line of St Margaret, Queen of Scotland, daughter of King Edward ‘s nephew, Edward the Exile, and mother of Henry I’s wife, Matilda of Scotland.

Margaret’s sister, Christina would later take holy orders, becoming the abbess of Romsey Abbey and overseeing the education of her nieces, Edith and Mary, the daughters of her sister, Margaret, Queen of Scotland.

Edgar seems to have been only a minor player in the politics and upheaval following the Norman Conquest. His political isolation meant that few took his claim to the English crown seriously. While his participation in military actions, and in relations with Scotland are mentioned in various documents, his death passed without notice – or remark. William of Malmesbury wrote of him in 1125, that ‘he now grows old in the country in privacy and quiet’². Nothing is mentioned of him thereafter; neither is it ever remarked that he had a wife of children.

If he had only been a few years older in that crucial year of 1066, or if his father had survived to inherit the throne from Edward the Confessor, the story could have been very different.

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Footnotes: ¹The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James ingram; ²William of Malmesbury, De gestis regum; ³Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, 1097, Text E.

Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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.

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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: 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 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.

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

Guest Post: King Cenwulf by Annie Whitehead

Today it is a pleasure to welcome author Annie Whitehead to the blog. Annie’s book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom was released by Amberley on 15th September and traces the fortunes of the Anglo-Saxon Midlands kingdom of Mercia, from its origins in the 6th century to its absorption into Norman England in the 11th century. The book is a fabulous, enjoyable read and I can highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in Anglo-Saxon England.

A huge thank you to Annie for this fabulous article.

King Who?

King Cenwulf, that’s who. He may not be all that well known, but he was one of the most successful Anglo-Saxon kings and was king for twenty-five years (796-821) during a period when most kings were lucky if they survived a year in the job.

So why don’t we know more about him? Probably because his reign was sandwiched between a lot of kings with odd names, and he was overshadowed by his more famous predecessor, Offa.

Cenwulf was supposedly descended from a brother of the infamous pagan king, Penda, but no one is entirely sure of the precise link (although my new book provides an intriguing theory…).

Statue/carving of King Cenwulf in St Peter’s Winchcomb

One thing is for sure, and that is that he had no direct connection with his immediate predecessor, Ecgfrith, who was Offa’s son. Offa had gone to great lengths to secure the succession of his son, even going so far as to have him anointed as his heir. But all his plans were for naught, because Ecgfrith survived only five months after being crowned.

Foul play? Maybe. There was no suggestion of it in the chronicles and many believed that he died for the sins of his father. It looks as if Cenwulf wasn’t around at court much during Offa’s reign, and may have been in exile. Perhaps he was the victim of the purges of which Offa had been accused, and for which the punishment was supposedly the untimely death of his son. No accusations of murder were ever levelled against Cenwulf.

Cenwulf’s reign was an impressive one of overlordship and conquest. We don’t know much about his marital history but it is possible that he was married twice, firstly to a lady named Cynegyth, although it’s by no means certain, as a charter naming her as queen has been declared unreliable. His – possibly second – wife was Ælfthryth.

Offa had controlled East Anglia (famously doing away with their king, whom he’d had beheaded) but after his death East Anglia seems to have regained its independence. That was short-lived, however, for while they had been minting their own coins, very soon after he came to power, the East Anglian moneyers were striking coins for Cenwulf.

Coffin believed by some to be that of Kenelm, Cwoenthryth’s murdered brother, but it actually dates from a later period.

East Saxon independence also appears to have been short-lived, with its last ever recorded king, Sigered, being reduced to the status of first sub-king, and then dux.

In 801, Cenwulf was attacked by King Eardwulf of the Northumbrians, ‘because of his harbouring of his enemies.’ A letter from Pope Leo III to Charlemagne in 808 mentions the nobleman, Wada, and seems to confirm the accusation that Cenwulf had indeed been harbouring Eardwulf’s enemies, because Wada was involved in a battle of 798 where he had fought against King Eardwulf. Eventually the two kings agreed to a truce.

Things were a little more violent when it came to Cenwulf’s dealings with Kent, however, and it was perhaps not Cenwulf’s finest hour.

In 798, the same year as the battle involving Wada, Cenwulf was busy ravaging Kent, and he captured the Kentish king, known as Eadberht Præn.

When Offa, who had been overlord of Kent, died, Kent had risen up in revolt against Mercia. Eadberht Præn had been in exile at the court of Charlemagne, and he returned after Offa’s death, forcing the archbishop of Canterbury – who was known to have Mercian sympathies – to flee.

Kenelm’s Well, supposedly where his funeral procession rested on its journey

According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Cenwulf ‘seized Præn and brought him in fetters into Mercia’ where his eyes were put out and his hands cut off. But while one later chronicler, Henry of Huntingdon, refers to the capture, he makes no mention of the mutilations and another twelfth-century writer, William of Malmesbury, called Cenwulf a ‘truly great man’ who ‘surpassed his fame by his virtues, doing nothing that malice could justly find fault with.’ His praise seems motivated by the latter’s having restored Canterbury, and he goes on to say that Cenwulf released Eadberht Præn out of pity.

For a short while, Cenwulf put his brother into Kent to rule there as a puppet king, but after his brother died, he took direct control.

For all William of Malmesbury praised Cenwulf for restoring order at Canterbury (Offa had fought to have the archbishopric moved to London and when that failed, established one at Lichfield. Cenwulf reversed this decision), Cenwulf had a fractious relationship with the Church.

He became embroiled in an argument with the new archbishop of Canterbury, Wulfred. The dispute concerned the Kentish minsters and whether it was right that the state should have control over ecclesiastical lands. The argument raged from 816 and was not resolved when Cenwulf died in 821.

Drawing of Coenwulf Coin

The kings who followed him make up a list which looks a little like a cat has walked over the keyboard and show that the kingdom was troubled by a series of dynastic disputes between rival families. In amongst this, Cenwulf reigned successfully for a quarter of a century, and it seems as though he was on campaign against the Welsh when he died, but his reign is overshadowed by what (allegedly) happened to his children.

His daughter, Cwoenthryth, inherited not only her father’s lands but his dispute with the Church. Wulfred was accused of forging documents to support his case, but the Church Council found in his favour and whilst Cwoenthryth was allowed to keep the possession of Winchcombe she was forced to hand over the rights to the Kentish minsters. Winchcombe, where her father was buried and where she was abbess, became the centre of a scandal when she was accused of arranging for her little brother, Kenelm, to be murdered. Some of the stories say that her eyeballs dropped out as divine punishment, some that she was struck down dead. Reality was probably somewhat different, since it’s hard to prove that the young brother in question was even a small boy at the time of the alleged murder, and Cwoenthryth lived on as abbess of Winchcombe; some historians think she survived until the 840s.

Photo of the Cenwulf coin is a replica from my own collection

When the history of this period includes Offa the Great, a murder of a little boy, and dynastic struggle which also ended in murder, it’s hardly surprising that poor Cenwulf gets forgotten. But as one historian pointed out, his achievement was ‘scarcely less impressive’ than Offa’s.

He controlled the whole of the south east, and while his influence was not felt over Wessex, he at least kept the Northumbrians at bay, and he increased pressure on the Welsh, to the extent that his eventual successor, his brother, was able virtually to overrun Powys. Old-fashioned warlord he may have been, but he was the only English king before the tenth century to be styled ‘emperor’. If only he’d lived at another time, or gone up against more famous adversaries, perhaps he’d be better remembered today.

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Picture credits: ©Annie Whitehead except drawing of Cenwulf (public domain).

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About the Author:

Annie Whitehead graduated in history having specialised in the ‘Dark Ages’ and is a member of the Royal Historical Society. She’s written three books about early medieval Mercia, the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom of the Midlands. The first, To Be a Queen, tells the story of Alfred the Great’s daughter, and was long-listed for the Historical Novelist Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016, and was an IAN (Independent Author Network) Finalist in 2017, while the second, Alvar the Kingmaker, is the story of Aelfhere, Earl of Mercia in the 10th century. The third, Cometh the Hour, is the first of two volumes set in seventh-century Mercia. She was a contributor to the anthology 1066 Turned Upside Down, a collection of alternative short stories. She writes magazine articles and has had pieces printed in diverse publications, including Cumbria Magazine and This England. She has twice been a prize winner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing Competition, and won First Prize in the 2012 New Writer Magazine’s Prose and Poetry Competition. She was a finalist in the 2015 Tom Howard Prize for nonfiction, and is also a contributor and editor for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, as well as blogging for her own site – Casting Light upon the Shadow. In 2017 she won the inaugural HWA/Dorothy Dunnett Society Short Story Prize.

Her first full-length nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, is published by Amberley and available from Amazon UK.

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My books

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.

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.

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 and Annie Whitehead

 

Book Corner: Mercia, the Rise and Fall of a Kingdom by Annie Whitehead

Many people know about Wessex, the ‘Last Kingdom’ of the Anglo-Saxons to fall to the Northmen, but another kingdom, Mercia, once enjoyed supremacy over not only Wessex, but all of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. At its zenith Mercia controlled what is now Birmingham and London ‒ and the political, commercial paramountcy of the two today finds echoes in the past.

Those interested in the period will surely have heard of Penda, Offa, and Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians ‒ but remarkably there is no single book that tells their story in its entirety, the story of the great kingdom of the midlands.

Historically, the records are in two halves, pre- and post-Viking, in the way they have been preserved. Pre-Viking, virtually all the source material was written by the victims, or perceived victims, of Mercian aggression and expansion. Post-Viking, the surviving documents tend to hail from places which were not sacked or burned by the Northmen, particularly from Wessex, the traditional enemy of Mercia. The inclusion of those records here allows for the exploration of Mercia post-924.

Mercia ceased to be a kingdom when Alfred the Great came to power, but its history did not end there. Examining the roles of the great ealdormen in the anti-monastic reaction of the tenth century, through the treachery of Eadric Streona in the eleventh, and the last, brave young earls who made a stand against William the Conqueror, this book shows the important role the Mercians played in the forging of the English nation.

 

I have been waiting eagerly for Annie Whitehead’s Mercia: the Rise and Fall of  a Kingdom ever since I knew she was writing it. Luckily, I got an advanced copy from the publisher – but it was well worth the wait! In her introduction Annie Whitehead promises:

This is the story of the Mercians, the kings, the queens, saints, sinners, earls and warrior women who governed the kingdom and shaped its history.

 

And she does not disappoint!

Mercia: the Rise and Fall of  a Kingdom covers the story of the English midlands kingdom from its pagan origins, in the 7th century, to its absorption into the kingdom of England; a process started in the reign of King Alfred but not completed until after the Norman Conquest. Annie Whitehead traced the fortunes of Mercia from Penda, a king we know little enough about – and that from his enemies. As the author tells us, the problems with knowing anything about early Mercian history spring from the fact Mercia was a pagan land; they therefore had no monastic tradition of writing everything down. In which case, their history is taken from such as the Venerable Bede, who lived in the land of Mercia’s enemies, Northumbria.

As a result, Annie Whitehead’s first task was to assess the bias of her sources, all of whom had their own hostile vision of Mercia. She uses sources from varied fields, including charter and archaeological evidence, in order to reconstruct early Mercian society and tell the story of the land itself, and its relations to its neighbours, such as Northumbria, Wessex and East Anglia. Using primary sources wherever possible, Mercia: the Rise and Fall of  a Kingdom brings the people of this ancient kingdom to vivid life. The author also uses alliterative analysis, to suggest familial links between such rulers as Coenred and Ceolred, for example. Although this is not an exact science, it does help to give the reader some perspective on the personal and familial relationships between the major players in the region.

Throughout the book, Annie Whitehead retells the story from the available sources, taking great care to avoid filling in the gaps with invention and clearly offering theories and analysis to explain the direction in which the narrative proceeded. She provides an ongoing assessment of sources, discussing their validity, honesty and integrity; clearly stating where charters are thought to be spurious or of dubious provenance.

The story portrayed is one of conflict, from within and without the region, marriage alliances, murder and betrayal and the shifting political tensions of the various kingdoms within England. The history, inevitably, draws on the history of Wessex, Northumbria, Kent and Wales. However, Annie Whitehead constantly retains the focus firmly on Mercia, while clearly demonstrating the shifting political alliances and the internal and external forces which decided the direction in which Mercian – and English history as a whole – would eventual be drawn.

It is difficult to piece together the circumstances of Æthelbald’s exile. It doesn’t appear that Ceolred was a strong enough king to stave off contenders, particularly ones of the calibre Æthelbald would prove to be. Perhaps, then, he had been in exile since the time of Æthelred, yet he did not emerge until after Ceolred’s death. Were there other contenders to the throne? Had he been chased out of Mercia because the kings there were strong, or because he was, and thus he was  a threat? Dynastic disputes would become a feature of Mercian politics, particularly in the next century.

There is, in fact, a hint that the takeover was not so peaceful, provided by a reference in one source to a Ceolwald reigning between Ceolred and Æthelbald. This man, briefly mentioned in Chapter Three, could, if he existed at all, have been the brother of Ceolred. If so, and if he became king, he did not reign for long, for Æthelbald became king in the same year in which Coelred died. Perhaps there was a coup? If only we knew; but as we have seen, particularly when it comes to Mercian history, absence of evidence is most assuredly not evidence of absence, and we can only speculate when we come across these tantalising nuggets of information.

Æthelflæd, Lady of Mercia

Annie Whitehead provides a thorough and in-depth analysis of Mercia, its history and its people. Where there is uncertainty or conflicting evidence , she carefully sets out the opposing theories, providing her own thoughts and analysis, while making it clear what alternative reasoning there is available. The text is supplemented by some wonderful illustrations, colourful photographs of locations and buildings closely associated with Mercia’s history, from the well-known statue of Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred the Great and Lady of Mercia, to Repton in Derbyshire, burial site of a number of Mercian kings.

On a personal level, it is fascinating to read another author’s interpretation of subjects I have researched myself. Annie Whitehead dedicates (and rightfully so) an entire chapter to the Lady Æthelflæd and her husband Æthelred. And it is good to know that her version of Æthelflæd does not contradict the lady I found when researching Heroines of the Medieval World. The same also happened with her depiction of Lady Godiva. Godiva appears in my next book, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest; she was the wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and grandmother of the last Anglo-Saxon Earl of Mercia, Edwin, who was killed in 1071 after fighting against the Normans.

Mercia: the Rise and Fall of  a Kingdom  is written in an engaging and conversational manner, leaving the reader both entertained and informed. It is impossible to read this book without being made aware of the depth of research that has gone into producing such an authoritative depiction of Mercia. the

Rich in detail, this is a must-have book for anyone interested in the English midlands, and Anglo-Saxon history. Annie Whitehead delves into all the corners of Mercia, her history and conflicts and relates the story of not just the land, but of the generations of people who occupied it.

About the author:

Annie Whitehead graduated in history having specialised in the ‘Dark Ages’ and is a member of the Royal Historical Society. She’s written three books about early medieval Mercia, the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom of the Midlands. The first, To Be a Queen, tells the story of Alfred the Great’s daughter, and was long-listed for the Historical Novelist Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016, and was an IAN (Independent Author Network) Finalist in 2017, while the second, Alvar the Kingmaker, is the story of Aelfhere, Earl of Mercia in the 10th century. The third, Cometh the Hour, is the first of two volumes set in seventh-century Mercia. She was a contributor to the anthology 1066 Turned Upside Down, a collection of alternative short stories. She writes magazine articles and has had pieces printed in diverse publications, including Cumbria Magazine and This England. She has twice been a prize winner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing Competition, and won First Prize in the 2012 New Writer Magazine’s Prose and Poetry Competition. She was a finalist in the 2015 Tom Howard Prize for nonfiction, and is also a contributor and editor for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, as well as blogging for her own site – Casting Light upon the Shadow. In 2017 she won the inaugural HWA/Dorothy Dunnett Society Short Story Prize. Her first full-length nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, is published by Amberley and available from Amazon UK.

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

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.

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: After the Conquest by Teresa Cole

On his deathbed William the Conqueror divided his property between his three sons, Robert, William and Henry. One of them got England, one got Normandy and one £5,000 of silver. None of them was satisfied with what he received. It took much violence, treachery, sudden death and twenty years before one of them reigned supreme over all the Conqueror’s lands.

Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his ‘Prophecies of Merlin’, depicted them as two dragons and a lion with a mighty roar, but which would end up the winner, and what was the fate of the losers?

After the Conquest tells the story of the turbulent lives of the sons of the Conqueror.

Having read and enjoyed Teresa Cole’s book, The Norman Conquest, I was expecting a great deal from this book, and was not disappointed. After the Conquest takes up the story where the first book left off, giving an overview of the Conquest and the years which followed with the reign of William the Conqueror, before coming into its own with the stories of the Conqueror’s 3 surviving sons; Robert Curthose, William Rufus and Henry I. Taking the story from teh Conquest itself, to the death of Henry I and the succession squabble which followed, Teresa Cole provides and in-depth view of the post-Conquest years in England and Normandy.

Robert II Curthose, Duke of Normandy

After the Conquest provides a complete and detailed study of each of the 3 sons of William and Matilda; their family life and military and political careers. She is thorough and analytical in her approach, using primary sources to support her arguments and theories. The book provides a new and refreshing insight into the story of the struggles between the brothers is told in a balanced, thoughtful style, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of each with equal vigour. She dissects the abilities and failings of each brother separately, and compares their successes and failures, providing a complete image of their changing relationships throughout the years.

There is a tendency to see Henry, especially at this time, as the innocent younger brother, tossed about and beset by the whims of hos elders. Clearly, though, there was a strong streak of his father’s ruthlessness in the young man’s make-up, and also a strong conviction as to what was due to people of his class and upbringing.

William II Rufus, King of England

 

Rather than an example of brotherly love, After the Conquest tells the story of one of the most significant examples of sibling rivalry in English royal history, rivalling that of King Richard the Lionheart and King John in its viciousness. However, although this theme runs throughout the book, the author also provides an in-depth study of the regimes of each of the brothers, separately, highlighting the successes and failures of their rule as kings of England and dukes of Normandy. While Henry I, the youngest brother, invariably comes out on top, it is fascinating to read of Henry’s abilities, as the baby of the family, to exploit his brothers’ weaknesses for his own benefit.

Teresa Cole not only analyses the relationship of the brothers, with each other, but also with those around them, including their siblings,  officials, servants and the church. She provides a wonderful overview of the period and the main actors involved the affairs of England and Normandy in the years immediately following the Conquest.

If Henry had thought his support for his brother might have secured his affection, or at least his approval, he was soon disillusioned. Instead, it appeared that Robert grudged him his success, particularly in view of his own perceived failure…

Teresa Cole’s writing style  is a pleasure to read. While authoritative and thorough, the book is an enjoyable, accessible read for all those interested in history in general, and the Norman Conquest in particular. She also provides a brief, comprehensive analysis of each of the primary sources used in her work. My only criticism, however, would be the lack of footnotes hampers the reader’s ability to investigate some of her arguments further.

Henry I, King of England and Duke of Normandy

After spending a year researching the women of the period for my new book, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest, I was worried that, having read so much on the period recently, I would be too jaded with the 11th century to truly enjoy the book. However, in After the Conquest, Teresa Cole has taken a new approach, in focusing on the 3 sons of William the Conqueror, and has produced a thoroughly engaging book, providing a view of the Conquest and its aftermath from a new and intriguing angle. It would be a wonderful complement to anyone’s library of 11th century works.

After the Conquest by Teresa Cole is available from both Amazon and Amberley Publishing.

About the Author

Teresa Cole has been a teacher for thirty years. She has written several law books and a historical biography by Amberley, ‘Henry V: The Life of the Warrior King & the Battle of Agincourt 1415’ (‘Cole understands the importance of drama… a thorough account of Henry’s life’ HISTORY OF WAR MAGAZINE). She lives just outside Bath.

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. It is available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Æthelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces 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.

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

Ӕlfgifu of York

Æthelread II the Unready

The first wife of Ӕthelred II, Ӕlfgifu of York is a shadowy figure in history, with very little known about her. She was probably born sometime in the 960s. Ӕthelred and Ӕlfgifu were married around 985, when he was in his late teens or early twenties; Ӕlfgifu may have been a little younger.

The monk Ailred of Rievaulx, writing in the 1150s, identified her as the daughter of, Thored. Ailred had served in the household of David I, King of Scotland, a great-great-grandson of Ӕthelred II and Ӕlfgifu through his mother, Queen Margaret and so Ailred was well place to learn the ancestry of King David with some accuracy. Thored was Earl of Northumbria between, about, 975 and 992 and regularly attested charters by King Ӕthelred II during the 980s.

Marriage to the daughter of the leading noble of Northumbria would have been a beneficial move for King Ӕthelred. It would have helped to expand strengthen his influence over the north of England, an area notoriously independent of the royal administration of the south, and bring him powerful friends and allies.

Ӕthelred was the youngest son of King Edgar the Peaceable and his last wife, Ælfthryth. The grandson of Edward the Elder, and great-grandson of Alfred the Great, Edgar was king from 959 until his death in 975. His wife, Ælfthryth, was probably born around 945; she was the daughter of Ealdorman Ordgar of Devon, her mother an unknown woman who is said to have been descended from the royal family. She was first married around the age of eleven to Æthelwold, the son of Æthelstan Half-King, ealdorman of East Anglia. However, Æthelwold died in 962, probably in a hunting accident, although there were rumours of murder on the orders of his wife’s supposed lover, King Edgar. Edgar’s marital history was already chequered. Ælfthryth could be Edgar’s second or third wife; she was certainly the third relationship by which children were born.

Ælfgifu’s son Edmund II Ironside

Ælfthryth and Edgar were married in 964 and were soon the parents of two sons; Edmund and Æthelred. Despite having an older half-brother, Edward, it is Edmund who was treated as Edgar’s acknowledged heir; his name being above that of Edward’s in a charter of 966, witnessed by both boys, which founded the New Minster at Winchester. Poor Ælfthryth must have been distraught when, in 971 and still only a child of about seven, young Edmund died.

When King Edgar died suddenly in 975 it was Edward, at the age of  13, who was proclaimed king, despite Ælfthryth trying to claim the crown for her surviving son, Æthelred, who was aged between 7 and 10 years of age. Edward reigned for just 3 years before he met a violent and untimely death at Corfe Castle in Dorset.

It was on 18th March 978 that 16-year-old King Edward visited his step-mother and half-brother at Ælfthryth estate at Corfe. Whether Edward had been out hunting, or was in the area to specifically visit his Ælfthryth and Æthelred seems to be uncertain. However, he did send a message that he would be calling on them and Ælfthryth’s retainers were awaiting the young king at the gate, when he arrived with a small retinue. Still sitting in the saddle, he was handed a drink; and stabbed. It must have been a horrific sight, as the king’s horse panicked and bolted, racing off with Edward’s foot stuck in the stirrup and the dying king being dragged along behind. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded:

No worse deed than this was ever done by the English nation since they first sought the land of Britain. Men murdered him, but God hath magnified him. He was in life an earthly king. He is now after death a heavenly saint. ¹

With Edward’s death his surviving brother, Æthelred, possibly as young as 10 years old, and certainly no older than 13, was now king of England, with his mother and a council of prominent nobleman to guide him. He would rule over a tumultuous period in English history, when Saxon England was under frequent attacks from the Danes. His tendency to inaction, indecision, his ineffectual handling of the Danish incursions and the fact he lost the throne to Sweyn Forkbeard, have earned him a reputation as one of England’s worst rulers.

Edward the Exile, grandson of Ælfgifu and father of St Margaret, Queen of Scotland

As his mother and adviser – and a force to be reckoned with – it may well have been Ælfthryth who chose Ӕlfgifu of York as a bride for Æthelred. It is also possible, even likely, that Ælfgifu was never crowned because her mother-in-law, the crowned and anointed queen, was still alive. Indeed,  Ælfgifu’s successor as Æthelred’s wife, Emma of Normandy, was given a coronation, but Ælfthryth was dead by then.

In the 15-or-so years of marriage to Ӕlfgifu of York, the couple had a large number of children, including at least 6 boys and 4 girls. It is even likely that Ӕlfgifu’s mother-in-law, Ælfthryth, raised a number of her children, including the royal couple’s first-born son and ætheling, Æthelstan. Ӕthelstan, was born c.986 but would die before his father. He died in June 1014, either killed in battle or from wounds received during the wars against Sweyn Forkbeard and his son Cnut. Their other sons included Ecgberht, Edmund, Eadred, Eadwig and Edgar and all died young.

In April 1016 Edmund succeeded his father as King Edmund II Ironside but died in November of the same year, probably from wounds received in battle after a summer of constant fighting. His sole-surviving brother Eadwig was murdered in 1017, on the orders of the victorious King Cnut.

Of Ӕthelred and Ӕlfgifu’s daughters, three were married to prominent Saxon noblemen. Edith was married to the traitorous Ealdorman, Eadric Streona, who kept changing sides during the wars against the Danes and eventually met his death on the orders of the triumphant King Cnut. Ӕlfgifu married Uhtred, Earl of Northumbria, an ally of Edmund Ironside who had to submit to Cnut when his earldom was under threat of being overrun by the Danes. He and forty of his supporters were murdered on Cnut’s orders in 1016. A third daughter, Wulfhild, married Ulfcytel, Ealdorman of East Anglia, who was killed in the fighting of 1016. A possible fourth daughter, whose name is unknown, became the abbess at Wherwell, a prominent convent at the time, and died in the 1050s.

Other than the children she bore, however, Ӕlfgifu of York has left very little imprint on history.  She gets barely a mention in the chronicles of the time. Sulcard of Westminster, writing in the second half of the eleventh century, says that she was “of very noble English stock”, but fails to give her name, while William of Malmesbury ignores her altogether. John of Worcester makes mention of Ӕlfgifu, giving her name and listing her sons but states, probably erroneously, that she was the daughter of Ӕthelberht. Ailred of Rievaulx provides us with the details of Ӕlfgifu’s parentage but, again, fails to name her. The poor woman doesn’t even make it into the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

St Margaret, Queen of Scotland

There is no evidence that Ӕlfgifu was a crowned and anointed as queen, unlike her successor, Emma of Normandy. We know nothing of her, not her personality or her actions during her time as Ӕthelred’s wife. We don’t even know the date of her death, though it must have been before April 1002, when Ӕthelred married Emma of Normandy.

Ӕlfgifu of York’s story has been greatly overshadowed by her larger-than-life successor, Emma of Normandy, the twice-crowned Queen of England as the wife of both Ӕthelred II (the Unready) and King Cnut (the Great). However, although she may have had little impact on history during her lifetime, it is the blood of Ӕlfgifu of York that still runs in the veins of the British royal family today, through the descendants of her son, Edmund II Ironside and his granddaughter, St Margaret, Queen of Scotland. Margaret’s daughter, Edith, was married to King Henry I of England. Her name was changed to Matilda on her marriage and it is through this Matilda and her daughter and namesake, Matilda, the Lady of the English, that all English kings and queens are descended.

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Footnotes: ¹ Anglo-Saxon Chronicle edited by Michael Swaton.

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. It is available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Aethelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces 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 UKAmberley Publishing and Book Depository.

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

Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians

Æthelflæd (from The Cartulary and Customs of Abingdon Abbey, c. 1220)

12th June 2018 marks the 1100th anniversary of one of England’s greatest ever women. The daughter of Alfred the Great, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, led the resistance against Danish invasion, alongside her brother, Edward the Elder. And yet, she is virtually unknown to the people of today.

Æthelflæd was born about 870, the eldest child of King Alfred and his wife, Ealhswith. Alfred’s biographer, Asser, says Ealhswith was a member of the Mercian royal house through her mother, Eadburh. Around 886 Æthelflæd was married to Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia and a trusted lieutenant of her father. Æthelred ruled over the English half of the Mercian kingdom, which had been dissected by the Vikings, but submitted to King Alfred’s overlordship. The marriage was a political alliance, intended to strengthen Saxon resistance to the Danes, who were now occupying Northumbria, Yorkshire and East Anglia. The resulting close relationship of Mercia and Wessex was only further strengthened by the renewed Viking attacks of the 890s.

During the early years of their marriage the young couple appear to have settled in London, the city that had been entrusted to Æthelred’s care by Alfred. Æthelflæd seems to have taken after her father – she was a strong, brave woman and is often regarded more as a partner to Æthelred than a meek, obedient wife. The couple jointly presided over provincial courts. The ‘Mercian Register’, a fragment of a Mercian chronicle, included in some versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, records that Æthelflæd was exercising regal powers in the region even before her husband’s death. In his final years Æthelred increasingly suffered from illness, during which time Æthelflæd assumed greater authority. The couple had only one child, a daughter, Ælfwynn. Writing 2 centuries later William of Malmesbury claimed the lack of more children was due to Æthelflæd’s avoidance of marital relations, possibly due to a fear of dying in childbirth. Malmesbury quotes her as saying it was ‘unbecoming a daughter of a king to give way to a delight, which after a time produced such painful consequences’. Æthelred died in 911, though whether this was from wounds received in battle or from illness remains unclear. He was buried at Gloucester.

Charter S 221 dated 901 of Æthelred and Ætheflæd donating land and a golden chalice to Much Wenlock Church

Wessex had already adjusted to a change in ruler when Æthelflæd’s father had died in 899 and had been succeeded by her younger brother, Edward ‘the Elder’. When Æthelred died, Edward was happy to support his sister as sole ruler of Mercia, but he took personal control of the cities of London and Oxford, cities that could be used as bases from which Edward would be able to launch campaigns against the Danes of the Midlands. The siblings seem to have had a trusting relationship for many years; Edward had entrusted his son Æthelstan, often viewed as the first king of England, to Æthelflæd and her husband, to be educated at the Mercian court.

The first woman to rule an Anglo-Saxon kingdom  – albeit as a client of her brother’s more powerful kingdom of Wessex, Æthelflæd was accorded the title the Lady of the Mercians. She proved to be a vital ally to her brother and the siblings worked together to combat the threats of the Danes. In 909, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Edward sent an army, made up of West Saxons and Mercians, into Danish territory in the north. It was probably this army that brought back to Mercia the relics of St Oswald, the 7th century Northumbrian saint. They had been taken from Bardney in Lincolnshire and Æthelflæd had them translated to the new minster at Gloucester, which was renamed St Oswald in his honour.

Æthelflæd continued the policy, started by her father, of building burhs and established a ring of fortified centres around western Mercia. The burhs not only provided protection against the Danes, but served as bases from which to launch attacks on Danish occupied regions. Each burh could provide a refuge for all villagers within a 20-mile radius; it would have a large garrison, depot and its own water supply. During Æthelred’s lifetime, burhs had been established at ‘Bremesburh’, Worcester (between 887 and 899) and Chester (907). Later, on Æthelflæd’s orders, in 913, fortresses were built at several further sites, including Bridgnorth, Tamworth and Stafford, in response to Viking raids into Edward’s territories.

Edward built two further burhs at Buckingham in 914, plugging a defensive gap between Tamworth and Hertford. At the same time, Æthelflæd built one at Warwick and another at Eddisbury; this latter, with a new burh at Runcorn in 915, helped to strengthen her northern defences. While the Danes appeared to be the greatest risk, Æthelflæd did not neglect her defences along the Welsh border, building a burh at Chirbury and one at the now-lost location of ‘Wearburh’. In the same year, Edward fortified Bedford and in 916 he built a burh at Maldon to fortify Essex against seaborne raiding. While this building programme was going on, it also seems highly likely that Æthelflæd rebuilt and strengthened the defences of Gloucester and Hereford.

Statue of Æthelflæd and her nephew, Athelstan, Tamworth

Æthelflæd was no silent partner in Edward’s reconquest of England. Most remarkably, she personally led successful military campaigns against the Welsh, the Norse and the Danes of York. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle relates that on the feast of St Cyriac the Martyr, 16 June 916, the abbot Egbert and his retainers, were murdered for no known reason. The Mercian abbot had been travelling in the Welsh mountain kingdom of Brycheiniog when he was attacked. Æthelflæd seems to have taken the murder as a personal affront; the abbot was, after all, under her protection. Three days later she invaded Wales; her army ravaged Brycheiniog, burning the little kingdom. Although King Tewdr escaped, Æthelflæd took his wife, Queen Angharad, as a hostage, with 33 others, many of whom were relatives of the Welsh king. Eventually, the king submitted to Æthelflæd, promising to serve her faithfully and to pay compensation. The incident not only demonstrates Æthelflæd’s commitment to her people, but also shows her strength and determination, attributes she was to put to good use against the Danes.

In 917 Æthelflæd turned her attention to those Danes. Danish forces had taken the offensive, raiding English territories. By the end of the year Edward had subdued East Anglia, with all the Scandinavian armies of the region submitting to him. While her brother was raiding in  the East Midlands, Æthelflæd led her forces across the West Midlands. She marched on the Viking stronghold of Derby, personally leading the army on campaign. It would be the first of the Danes’ ‘Five Boroughs’, which made up the Danelaw, to fall. Although she managed to successfully storm the fort, her army suffered heavy casualties, including four of her most trusted and senior thegns (thegns were the army’s commanders and officers). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported; ‘With God’s help Ethelfleda, lady of Mercia, captured the fortress known as Derby with all its assets. Four of her favoured ministers were slain inside the gates’.¹

The Saxon victory was a great shock to the Danes. Their Viking myths told of an invincible woman who would appear at Ragnarok, the Norse apocalypse, and make brave warriors cower before her. Æthelflæd was relentless  – in early 918 she and her army moved on to Leicester, while Edward headed for Stamford. Leicester was the centre of a heavily settled Danish colony, and Æthelflæd ravaged the countryside around the settlement. The Danes had no choice but to surrender in the face of her indefatigable forces. However, she was magnanimous in victory, displaying mercy and charity by distributing alms as she progressed into town.

Æthelflæd in the thirteenth century Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings

The inexorable advance of Æthelflæd’s army combined with her compassion for the defeated was to prove to be a clever strategy, demonstrating to those regions still controlled by the Danes that she was prepared to offer compromise if they would only submit to her. The Danes of York, the Viking capital, in particular, began to look at submitting to Æthelflæd as a serious option to avoid continued conflict. Their new king was Ragnall, a Viking pirate from Dublin, who had taken the throne by force; but the Danes knew that Edward and Æthelflæd would never make peace with him. In the summer of 918 the noblemen and magnates of York sent emissaries to Æthelflæd, promising that they would surrender to her.

In May, King Edward had marched his army to Stamford, building a new fort south of the river and accepting the surrender of the local Danes, who submitted to him as their new ruler. It was while he was still at Stamford that Edward received word of his sister, The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle made a cold, clinical report:

918 While he was there his sister Æthelflæd died at Tamworth two weeks before midsummer. The king took possession of Tamworth and the whole province of Mercia which she had governed.²

Æthelflæd died suddenly at Tamworth on 12 June 918. She was buried beside her husband, in the east chapel of the cathedral she had founded, St Oswald’s Minister, Gloucester. Although she did not live long enough to see the successful conclusion to the work she and her brother had carried out, her achievements cannot be lightly brushed off. Between 910 and 920 all Danish territories south of Yorkshire had been conquered. Her nephew Athelstan consolidated the kingdom that had been created by the efforts of Edward and Æthelflæd. If Æthelflæd did not live to see the extent of her success, neither did she live to see her daughter, Ælfwynn, nearly thirty and still unmarried, briefly become the nominal ruler of Mercia; only to be ‘deprived of all authority’ six months later and taken to Wessex, from where nothing more is heard of her.

St Oswald’s Priory, Gloucester, where Æthelflæd and her husband are buried

The story of Æthelflæd mainly comes from the Mercian Register, embedded largely in the B, C and D texts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. She appears only rarely in the primary text, text A, which focuses on Edward and Wessex. Text A tries to minimise Æthelflæd’s significance, but could not wholly obscure her achievements. She was, after all, the daughter of Alfred the Great, the wife of the ealdorman of Mercia and a prominent woman in her own right, in an era when this was an incredible rarity. It is thought that it was Æthelflæd, the Lady of the Mercians, who inspired the 10th century poem, ‘Judith’ who is ‘white and shining’, ‘noble and courageous’. In the poem, Æthelflæd is depicted as the ‘valorous virgin’ who struck off the head of the hostile foe with her gleaming sword and ‘ascribed the glory of all that to the Lord of Hosts’. Recognising her vital role in the creation of England, the 12th century Henry of Huntingdon declared Æthelflæd ‘to have been so powerful that in praise and exaltation of her wonderful gifts, some call her not only lady, but even king’. In a poem he described her as ‘worthy of a man’s name’ and ‘more illustrious than Caesar’, apparently high praise indeed – for a woman.

In the 21st century Æthelflæd’s story is becoming more widely known than it has ever been. She is one of the major influences of my book, Heroines of the Medieval World and appears, appropriately, in the chapter on Warrior Heroines. Joanna Arman’s non-fiction book The Warrior Queen: the Life and Legend of Æthelflæd, Daughter of Alfred the Great is well worth a perusalIn addition, with her appearance in Bernard Cornwell’s wonderful The Last Kingdom books and television series, and Annie Whitehead’s novel, To Be A Queen, Æthelflæd’s story is finally being brought into the light. On the 1100th anniversary of her death, her incredible achievements are being celebrated in the heart of Mercia, in Gloucester and Tamworth. And not before time; Æthelflæd should be the inspiration for future generations of strong, influential women and stand out as an example of what can be achieved if you are determined enough.

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Footnotes: ¹ The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles by Michael Swaton; ² ibid.

Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

Further Reading: The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles by Michael Swaton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle by James Ingram; Chronicles of the Kings of England, From the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen, c. 1090–1143 by William of Malmesbury; The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon by Thomas Forester; Alfred the Great by David Sturdy; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson;  History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner & Neil Wenborn; The mammoth Book of British kings & Queen by Mike Ashley; 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 Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; oxforddnb.com.

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My books

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. It is available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK. It is now available in Hardback from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository.

From Emma of Normandy, wife of both King Cnut and Aethelred II to Saint Margaret, a descendant of Alfred the Great himself, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest traces 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 UKAmberley Publishing and Book Depository.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly