Matilda of Flanders, Queen of the Conqueror

Matilda of Flanders

Matilda of Flanders was the consummate duchess and queen. Born in the early to mid-1030s, possibly around 1032, Matilda was the daughter of Baldwin V, Count of Flanders, and his wife Adela of France, a daughter of Robert the Pious, King of France. Matilda had two brothers and each of them became Count of Flanders in his turn; Baldwin of Mons and Robert the Frisian. As is often the case with medieval women, we know very little of Matilda’s early life, though it is likely she was raised alongside her aunt, Judith, her father’s sister who was of a similar age to Matilda, and who would go on to marry Tostig, Earl of Nurthumberland and brother of king Harold II.

The first time Matilda appears on the world stage is when her marriage is being discussed. There is a popular story of how Matilda refused to marry William, Duke of Normandy, stating that she was too highly born to marry a bastard. As the legend goes; on hearing this, William was so infuriated that he rode to Flanders and confronted Matilda. He is said to have thrown her to the ground, before pulling her braids and cutting her with his spurs. Matilda, unlikely as it seems, then accepted his proposal and they were married. Despite the story most likely being a later invention, William was the one to propose the marriage and, although he was a duke, his illegitimacy would have meant making a proposal to a niece of the King of France was audacious, to say the least.

The arrangements for the marriage of Matilda and William probably started in 1048, but it was a long, drawn out matter, marred by papal and political machinations. The Synod of Reims, of 3 and 4 October 1049, issued a decree instructing Count Baldwin not to allow the marriage of his daughter to Duke William. However, despite these papal objections, Matilda and William were married by 1053, at the latest. A penance was later imposed on the couple for their disobedience in marrying against papal prohibition. Each was to found an abbey; William founded the Abbaye-aux-Hommes, or St Stephen’s Abbey, in his Norman capital of Caen, while Matilda founded the Abbaye-aux-Dames, or Holy Trinity Abbey, in the same city. The two abbeys still stand to this day.

William the Conqueror from the Bayeux Tapestry

The marriage between Matilda and William proved to be a strong and trusting relationship; William is one of very few medieval kings believed to have been completely faithful to his wife, no known lovers or illegitimate children have ever been uncovered, although that did not stop the rumours. William of Malmesbury related one such story, of William having a mistress, the daughter of a priest, who Matilda ordered to be hamstrung and disinherited; in punishment, Matilda is said to have been beaten to death by a horse bridle. Malmesbury himself was sceptical of the story and, given that Matilda’s death came after a short illness in 1083, it does seem rather far-fetched.

William trusted Matilda to act as regent in Normandy during his many absences on campaign or in England. Their relationship appears to have been more of a partnership than most marriages of the time; she was witness to thirty-nine pre-conquest and sixty-one post-conquest charters. Matilda supported her husband’s proposed invasion of England; she promised a great ship for William’s personal use, called the Mora. Just before leaving for England in 1066, William accompanied Matilda to the consecration of her foundation, Holy Trinity Abbey – the Abbaye-aux-Dames – in Caen, arranging for his duchess to act as regent in his absence. The Conquest was a close-run thing and it was not until 1068 that William felt secure enough to bring his wife to England for her coronation. Matilda, six months pregnant with her son Henry, who would be born at Selby in September, was crowned Queen of England in Westminster Abbey, by Archbishop Ealdred of Canterbury, at Whitsuntide 1068.

Matilda and William had a large family, with four boys and at least four daughters. Of their sons; the eldest, Robert Curthose, would inherit Normandy, Richard was killed in a hunting accident as a youth, William, known as Rufus, became King William II, and the youngest was the future King Henry I. Of the four or five daughters; Adeliza became a nun following a series of failed marriage plans, Cecilia was given to the convent of Ste Trinité as a child, Constance married Alain Fergant, Duke of Brittany, and Adela married Stephen of Blois and was the mother of King Stephen of England. There are suggestions of two further daughters, Matilda and Agatha, though evidence for their existence is limited. Queen Matilda was very close to her family, especially her eldest son, Robert. William and Robert, father and son, however, were often at loggerheads, with Robert rebelling against his father as a young man. Matilda was constantly trying to play the peacemaker. During a period of exile imposed on Robert, Matilda still supported her son as best she could; she would send him vast amounts of silver and gold through a Breton messenger, Samson.

Although the problems with Robert, their eldest son, caused considerable tensions within the marriage, Matilda and William’s relationship is one of the most successful of the medieval period. Their partnership as rulers, and as husband and wife, was strong and appeared to be one built on mutual respect. One contemporary remarked that ‘The Queen adored the King and the King the Queen.’ [1]

Matilda’s son Henry I, King of England

Matilda’s piety was renowned. Although founding the Abbaye aux Dames in Caen was a penance for her irregular marriage to William, her constant and repeated donations to religious houses demonstrated her dedication to her faith. The nuns of her abbey at Ste Trinité, Caen, received a substantial bequest from Matilda’s will, written the year before her death; as well as her crown and sceptre, they were given a chalice, a chasuble, a mantle of brocade, two golden chains with a cross, a chain decorated with emblems for hanging a lamp in front of the altar, several large candelabras, the draperies for her horse and all the vases ‘which she had not yet handed out during her life’. [2]

Having drawn up her will in 1082, it is possible that Matilda was aware of her illness long before her last summer. The continuing worry over the rift between her husband and beloved son cannot have helped her health, and the arrival of winter saw her gravely ill. Matilda died on 2 November 1083, having ‘confessed her sins with bitter tears and, after fully accomplishing all that Christian custom requires and being fortified by the saving sacrament’. [3] Her husband was with her throughout the final moments of her illness, and he ‘… showed many days of the deepest mourning how much he missed the love of her whom he had lost’. [4] She was buried at Ste Trinité, Caen, following a funeral that lasted two days and that was attended by a host of monks, abbots, bishops and nuns and a host of people came to pay homage. There is no record of which of her children attended the funeral, although her daughter Cecilia was most likely in attendance, being a nun of the abbey. The original tombstone still survives; it has an inscription carved around the edge, emphasising her royal descent on her mother’s side.

Queen Matilda’s Grave, Ste Trinité, Caen

Matilda’s height has been discussed frequently by historians, with some claiming that she was a dwarf. The casket, containing her bones, was opened in 1961 and misreported as revealing a woman of about 4ft 2in tall. However, Professor Dastague, from the Institut D’Anthropologie at Caen, who was present at the original dig confirmed that it had been calculated that Matilda was in fact 152cm, about 5ft, in height. [5] Matilda’s actual height cannot be said with certainty, however, as the skeleton which was examined was incomplete. The queen’s grave had been destroyed in the sixteenth century, during the French Wars of Religion, and much of her remains never recovered.

William the Conqueror followed his wife to the grave four years later, in 1087. In many aspects of her life, Matilda is clearly seen as the ideal medieval wife and mother. Ever supportive of her husband, he relied heavily on her to administer Normandy in his frequent absences. Even when disobeying William, in her support of their eldest son Robert, she was still trying to be the embodiment of the good medieval woman, playing the peacemaker between warring members of her family. Her piety and steadfast support of her husband provided an example for future queens, and noble ladies, to follow.

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This article, first appeared in March 2019, as Matilda of Flanders: The Ideal Medieval Queen, on Mary Anne Yarde’s wonderful blog Myths, Legends, Book and Coffee Pots.

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Footnotes:

[1] Les Oeuvres Poétiques de Baudri de Bourgueil edited by P. Abrahams; [2] Musset, La Reine Mathilde, quoted by Elizabeth van Houts in oxforddnb.com. [3] Matilda by Tracy Borman, [4] Chronicles of the Kings of England, From the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen by William of Malmesbury; [5] A Historical Obstetric Enigma: How Tall was Matilda? (article) by J Dewhurst Journal of Obstetriccs and Gynaecology.

Pictures:

Courtesy of Wikipedia

Sources:

England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings by Robert Bartlett; Heroines of the Medieval World by Sharon Bennett Connolly; Chronicles of the Kings of England, From the Earliest Period to the Reign of King Stephen by William of Malmesbury; Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest by Sharon Bennett Connolly; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; Matilda by Tracy Borman; The Norman Conquest by Marc Morris; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles by Michael Swanton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle by James Ingram; The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley; oxforddnb.comQueen Matilda, wife of William the Conqueror, was NOT a Dwarf (article) by Marc Morris, marcmorris.org.uk; epistolae.ccnmtl.columbia.edu; womenshistory.about.com; Les Oeuvres Poétiques de Baudri de Bourgueil edited by P. Abrahams

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My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

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.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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Judith of Flanders, Countess of Northumberland

Judith of Flanders

Judith of Flanders was born sometime in the early 1030s. Her father was Baldwin IV, Count of Flanders; he died in 1035, when Judith was, at most, five years old and possibly still only a baby.

Baldwin had been count since the age of seven, from 987. His first wife was Orgive of Luxembourg, the mother of Baldwin’s son and heir, Baldwin V, who was born in 1012. Orgive died in 1030. Their son, Baldwin V, married Adele of France, the second daughter of Robert II (the Pious), King of France, and they had at least three children together, including Baldwin VI, Count of Flanders, and Matilda of Flanders, Duchess of Normandy and Queen of England as the wife of William the Conqueror. After Orgive’s death, Baldwin IV married again. In about 1031 he wed Eleanor of Normandy, the daughter of Baldwin’s neighbour, Richard II, Duke of Normandy, and his wife, Judith of Brittany. Eleanor’s brother was Robert I, Duke of Normandy, the father of William the Conqueror, who became Duke of Normandy and King of England. Eleanor’s daughter and only child Judith, therefore, was a first cousin of William the Conqueror, the future King of England, as well as aunt of his wife, Matilda.

When her father died in 1035, Judith’s older brother, who was about twenty years her senior, succeeded as Count Baldwin V; it would be he who decided on Judith’s future when the time came for her to marry. We know nothing of Judith’s childhood or level of education. As the daughter of a count, expected to make a good marriage into another ruling or noble family, she would have been taught how to run a large household, dancing, embroidery and possibly some languages, such as Latin. It is unlikely, however, that she was taught to read and write, skills usually reserved for members of the Church. It is possible she was raised alongside her niece, Matilda, who was of a similar age to Judith.

Cover of one of the four gospels commissioned by Judith of Flanders

In the late summer or autumn of 1051, Judith was married to Tostig, a son of the powerful Earl Godwin of Wessex and his wife, Gytha. And when the family fell foul of King Edward the Confessor, Judith accompanied them into exile; back to her homeland of Flanders. Tostig was probably the third eldest son of Godwin and Gytha of Wessex, one of his older brothers being the future King Harold II of England. He would have been in his early twenties at the time of his marriage and the family’s subsequent exile; Judith was no more than six years younger than him, which would suggest she was at least fifteen years old at the time of her marriage.

Judith would have returned to her new homeland of England when Tostig and his family forced their return from exile in 1052. After some vigorous negotiations in London, an uneasy peace was restored between Earl Godwin and the king. Judith and Tostig would have finally been able to settle down to married life, following months of uncertainty and upheaval. Although it is impossible to say for certain, they were probably given one of Godwin’s many comital estates, somewhere in Wessex, in which to set up their household. Their marriage appears to have been a successful one, with no rumours of infidelity recorded by the various chroniclers of the time. They are thought to have had two sons together, Skuli Tostisson Kongsfostre and Ketil Tostisson, born in 1052 and 1054, respectively.

Tostig was created earl of Northumbria in 1055 and spent the next few years sparring with Malcolm III, King of Scots. However, with peace restored Tostig left on pilgrimage to Rome in 1061, taking Judith with him. They were accompanied by several English bishops, including Ealdred, bishop of Worcester, who had just been made archbishop of York by King Edward, and was travelling to Rome to receive his pallium.

Their party reached Rome in the spring of 1061, where they were received honourably by Pope Nicholas; Tostig given the honour of attending a synod, possibly that held on 15 April at Easter 1061, at which Tostig is said to have sat next to the pope. Shortly after departing Rome for their homeward journey, Tostig’s party were caught up in a local dispute between the papacy and the Tuscan nobility; they were ambushed while travelling along the Via Cassia, by the Count of Galeria. Tostig was able to escape by the ruse of one of his own thegns pretending to be the earl. Judith and a large portion of the party had gone on ahead and were unaware for some time of what had befallen Tostig. She must have been relieved to hear of the failure of the attack when Tostig eventually caught up with her.

Memorial to the Battle of Stamford Bridge, York

Judith appears to have been a very pious individual, although some stories have come down to us of disagreements between the Earl and his countess, and the Church. One story from Symeon of Durham tells of Judith’s attempts to circumvent the rules of the community of St Cuthbert. Despite there being a specific injunction forbidding women to enter the precincts of the church in which lay the shrine of St Cuthbert, Judith was determined to get around this. She sent one of her own maidservants to attempt entry, but the poor girl fell ill as soon as she crossed the boundary and died shortly afterwards, clearly demonstrating the power of St Cuthbert’s will. We can assume that Judith gave up trying to enter the shrine after that! Judith sent gifts to the cathedral – including a crucifix, church ornaments and images of the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist, decorated in gold and silver – to make amends for her disastrous attempt to break the rules.

Despite this, the relationship between the couple and the Church at Durham was generally cordial and mutually appreciated. The earl and countess were notable for almsgiving in Northumbria, and for their generosity towards the community of St Cuthbert. In return Æthelwine, Bishop of Durham, was generous enough to give Judith a relic containing some of St Oswine’s hair. As a consequence, Tostig and Judith are both commemorated in the Durham Liber Vitae.

In 1065, rebellion in Northumbria, and the lack of support from his fellow nobles – including his brother Harold – saw Tostig and his family banished from England; he and Judith, their children and their entire household, crossed the English Channel on 1 November 1065. They made their way to Flanders, to seek refuge with Judith’s brother, Count Baldwin, where they were warmly welcomed just a few days before Christmas.

Memorial Plaque, Stamford Bridge, York

However, everything changed in January 1066, with the death of Edward the Confessor and the accession of Tostig’s brother, Harold, to the English throne. Not one to miss an opportunity, Tostig started raiding English shores, before invading from Scotland with his ally Harald Hardrada, King of Norway. They defeated the Northumbrians at the Battle of Fulford, near York, before facing Tostig’s brother, King Harold II, across the battlefield of Stamford Bridge a few days later. King Harold proved victorious and Tostig and his ally, Harald Hardrada, were both killed in the fighting.

Judith’s whereabouts during Tostig’s invasion are not mentioned. It is possible that she stayed safe in Flanders with her family and two young sons, the oldest of whom was about fourteen by 1066. However, she may have travelled with her husband; there is a suggestion that at least one of her sons fought at Stamford Bridge and travelled to Norway with the survivors. Following Tostig’s defeat at Stamford Bridge, and Harold’s subsequent death at the Battle of Hastings, Judith’s two sons by Tostig eventually sought refuge with King Olaf ‘the Peaceable’ of Norway, Harald Hardrada’s son who had been allowed to return home following his father’s defeat and death at Stamford Bridge. Little is known of their movements after that, other than that the oldest, Skuli Tostisson Kongsfostre, must have married and had children as he was the ancestor of King Inge II of Norway.

Wedding of Judith of Flanders and Welf IV, Duke of Bavaria

For a time, Judith remained in Flanders from where her older, half-brother, Count Baldwin V, arranged a second marriage for her in about 1070, to Welf IV, the newly created Duke of Bavaria. The couple were to have two sons and a daughter; Welf, who succeeded his father as Duke of Bavaria and died in 1119, Henry and Kunizza, who married Count Frederick of Diessen and died in 1120. Henry succeeded his brother as Duke of Bavaria and died in 1126; he had at least seven children by his wife, Wulfhilde of Saxony.

A patron of the arts, Judith is renowned for the commissioning of four gospel books, luxurious creations produced in England, probably at Winchester. When Judith left England, she took these gospels, with other manuscripts and relics in her private collection, with her to Flanders. After she remarried, they accompanied her to southern Germany.

On 12 March 1094, with the approval of her husband and sons, Judith drew up a list of bequests. She bequeathed the four gospels and other treasures, to the monastery at Weingarten, a foundation of her husband’s family, thus helping to disseminate Anglo-Saxon art throughout southern Europe. Among the bequests was also a relic of Christ’s blood, given to her by her father. She died a year later, on 5 March 1095, and was buried at the Abbey of Weingarten. Judith is remembered at Weingarten as a widowed queen of England, perhaps a testimony to how close her first husband got to the English throne.

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This article, Judith of Flanders, Countess of Northumberland, first appeared on Mary Anne Yarde’s wonderful blog Myths, Legends, Book and Coffee Pots.

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Pictures:

Courtesy of Wikipedia, except Stamford Bridge memorials ©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly and Judith’s gospel courtesy of the British Library.

Sources:

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

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My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

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.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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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 and Instagram.

©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Margaret of Wessex, Scotland’s Sainted Queen

St Margaret, Queen of Scotland

Margaret of Wessex is a remarkable character to study. Her piety and devotion to the church saw her canonised as St Margaret just 150 years after her death; and named as Patroness of Scotland in the seventeenth century. Margaret had an impeccable Saxon pedigree – she was the daughter of Edward the Exile and his wife, Agatha. Edward was the son of Edmund II, usually known as Ironside, King of England in 1016; Edward’s grandfather was, therefore, Æthelred II (the Unready) and his uncle was Edward the Confessor, England’s king from 1042 until 1066. Such valuable royal blood meant she would never be allowed to pursue a life of seclusion in a convent.

When his father, Edmund II, was murdered in 1016, Edward and his younger brother Edmund were sent into exile on the Continent by England’s new king, Cnut. It is thought that Cnut intended that they would be killed once they had left English soil, but the boys were protected by Olof, King of Sweden, and sent on to safety in Kiev, where his daughter Ingegerd was wife of the ruling prince, Jaroslav the Wise. Edmund died sometime between 1046 and 1054, having married the unnamed daughter of a Hungarian king. Edward was also married, in c.1043, to Agatha, whose origins are uncertain: she may have been a daughter of Jaroslav; however, it is possible she was the daughter of Luidolf, Margrave of West Friesland and therefore a relative of Emperor Heinrich III.

Margaret, the eldest of three children, was born in either 1045 or 1046; her sister, Christina, was born around 1050 and her brother Edgar, the Ætheling, was born sometime between 1052 and 1056. The family might have spent their whole lives in European exile, were it not for Edward the Confessor lacking an heir to the English throne; although Edward was married to Edith Godwinson, the couple remained childless. Sometime in 1054 King Edward sent an embassy to Edward the Exile, to bring him back to England as ætheling, the heir to the throne. The family did not travel immediately, possibly because Agatha was pregnant with Edgar, and it was not until 1057 that they finally arrived in England, having journeyed in a ship  provided by Emperor Heinrich III.

Edmund II Ironside and his descendants

Just days after their return, Edward the Exile was dead, whether by nefarious means or a simple twist of fate is uncertain. The suspicion has been raised that Edward’s rival for the throne, Harold Godwinson – the future King Harold II – may have taken the opportunity to remove his rival; although it was Harold who accompanied Edward back to England, so surely, had he intended murder, he would have done it sooner? Whatever the circumstances, the death of Edward the Exile was a blow for Edward the Confessor’s dynastic hopes. Edward’s little son Edgar, now the ætheling, was much too young to assume a political role. He and his sisters, with their mother, were now under the protection of King Edward. Edgar was given into the custody of Edward’s queen, Edith of Wessex, while the girls were sent to the royal convent at Wilton, to continue their education.

The family continued to live at court and by 5 January 1066, when Edward the Confessor died, Margaret was approaching her twentieth birthday. However, Edgar could have been as young as ten and was probably no older than fourteen; and due to his tender years, the young ætheling was passed over as candidate for the throne in preference for the older and more experienced (both politically and militarily) Harold Godwinson, who was crowned as King Harold II.

Following Harold’s death at the Battle of Hastings in October 1066, Edgar was proclaimed king in London, by some of his supporters, but was incapable of mounting any real challenge to William the Conqueror and his army of Normans; he had no option but to come to terms with the duke. However, Edgar was unsettled under Norman rule and by 1068  he had become involved in the opposition to the new regime, which had been festering in northern England. William’s ruthless response – the Harrying of the North – saw Edgar fleeing for his life; he made his way to Scotland, taking his mother and sisters with him.

Malcolm II Canmore

The family was warmly received at Dunfermline by Scotland’s king, Malcolm III Canmore. In 1057, King Malcolm had defeated King Macbeth in battle, at Lumphanan, to take the throne. By 1069 he was well established as king and married to Ingebiorg; the couple had at least two sons, Duncan and Donald. Ingebiorg seems to have disappeared from the scene before the Saxon royal family’s arrival in Scotland. Whether she died or was put aside seems uncertain, although her death seems most likely, leaving Malcolm free to find another wife. In 1069 Malcolm asked Edgar and his mother for Margaret’s hand in marriage. Margaret was reluctant to agree to the marriage as 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. Margaret’s life as Queen of Scotland did not prevent her pursuing an active religious life; indeed, her position gave her a unique opportunity to influence the practice of Christianity in Scotland.

Margaret strove to bring the Church of Scotland into conformity with the practices of Western Catholicism, and away from the tenets of the Celtic Church, which had a great deal of influence in the country. She encouraged the Scottish clergy, and its people, to receive communion more than once a year at Easter, to refrain from working on a Sunday and to observe the Lenten fast from Ash Wednesday, rather than the following Monday. Queen Margaret also urged the clergy to celebrate Mass with a common ritual and sought to forbid marriage between a man and his stepmother or sister-in-law.

The queen was supported in all her reforms by her husband; indeed, if Malcolm III had not given his support it is doubtful that Margaret’s influence would have achieved much, if anything at all. The king’s role in her attempts at religious reform is vague, although Malcolm did arrange a conference for the clergy to introduce a number of reforms. Margaret was present, and embarrassed some of the clerics by knowing more about the proper procedures of the Church than they did. She even had the papal manuals to quote from.

Dunfermline Abbey

The queen founded a monastic community at Dunfermline, building the first major stone church in Scotland; and arranged with Lanfranc, Archbishop of Canterbury, to send monks from the cathedral monastery at Canterbury to become its first community. Although it started as a priory, it was elevated to an independent abbey in 1128, at the instigation of Margaret’s son, David I.

Margaret was a strong figure; she was pious but also worldly-wise. Having grown up on the Continent, she was familiar with many of the courts of Europe and had met some of its leading churchmen. A modernising queen, Margaret brought luxury to the Scottish court and into the lives of the nobles of her new country. A Life of St Margaret was commissioned by her daughter, Matilda, when she became Queen of England. It was written sometime between 1100 and 1107 by Turgot, Margaret’s former chaplain and the prior of Durham.

The biography emphasises the queen’s compassion for children and the poor and stresses her piety, pointing to the severity of her self-denial and her frequent fasting. However, it also tells us that she had a love of etiquette and formality, and had a fondness for fine clothes and jewellery.¹ Margaret enjoyed a high reputation in the Anglo-Norman world, even in her own lifetime; Orderic Vitalis described her as ‘eminent from her high birth, but even more renowned for her virtue and holy life’.²

Malcolm III and St Margaret

Margaret and Malcolm would have a large family, with six sons and two daughters growing to adulthood. Margaret took great care in educating them, ensuring they were given the essentials for their future royal careers. Her second son, Edmund, became king in November 1094, ruling jointly with his uncle – Malcolm’s brother  – Donald III, following the death of his half-brother, Duncan II. Edmund ruled south of the Forth/Clyde boundary, while Donald ruled the north, although there is no indication that he was ever crowned. In 1097, the co-kings were deposed in favour of Edmund’s younger brother, Edgar; Edmund became a monk at Montacute Abbey, Somerset, and died there, having never married. Edgar himself died on 8 January 1107. Unmarried and childless, he was succeeded by his brother, Alexander I, who died in April 1124. David I succeeded Alexander; he reigned until 1153 and was succeeded, in turn, by his grandson, Malcolm IV the Maiden. Another son, Æthelred, styled Earl of Fife, became Lay Abbot at Dunkeld and died around 1097. Malcolm and Margaret also had two daughters: Edith, who changed her name to Matilda on marrying King Henry I of England; and Mary, who married Eustace III, Count of Boulogne, and was the mother of Matilda of Boulogne, wife of Stephen, King of England. Edith (Matilda) and Mary were educated at Romsey Abbey, where Margaret’s sister, Christina was abbess.

As King of Scots, Malcolm also had claims to Cumbria and Northumbria and in 1069/70, he made raids into Northumberland. William I responded by sending an army north and the eventual peace treaty saw Malcolm’s oldest son by Ingebiorg, Duncan, being sent south as a hostage and guarantee of his good faith. Duncan would eventually reign, briefly, as Duncan II but was killed at the Battle of Monthechin in 1094. Malcolm made frequent raids into Northumberland, notably in 1079 and 1091, in attempts to gain control over the county.

When a diplomatic mission in 1092 failed, he attacked again in 1093, taking his eldest son by Margaret, Edward, with him. Malcolm was killed at the Siege of Alnwick, on 13 November 1093; Edward died shortly after, near Jedburgh, from wounds received at the Siege. Margaret died on 16 November 1093, just days after the battle, possibly on receiving the news, brought by her son Edgar, of the deaths of her husband and eldest son. Although the fact her body was weakened by her frequent fasting may have hastened her death. She was buried in the abbey she had founded at Dunfermline. Malcolm was initially buried at Tynemouth, but his remains were later moved to join his wife at Dunfermline.

Margaret’s sons honoured their mother’s memory, encouraging the popular cult of St  Margaret that developed soon after the queen’s death, to foster the idea that she should be made a saint; such an honour would serve to enhance the political and religious status of their family. One of the miracles attributed to her was that in 1199 Scotland’s king, William the Lion, was persuaded against launching an invasion of England after experiencing a vision while holding a vigil at Margaret’s tomb at Dunfermline. Her canonisation came in 1250, and in 1673 Pope Clement X named her Patroness of Scotland. Following the Reformation, the remains of both Margaret and Malcolm were removed to Spain by Philip II and reinterred in a chapel at the Escorial in Madrid.

St Margaret, Queen of Scotland

Margaret was a direct descendant of King Alfred the Great of Wessex. Her Saxon royal blood guaranteed she would not be allowed to enter a convent, she was too valuable on the marriage market. However, through her efforts to reform the Scottish Church, it could be said that she found a better way to worship God. Her legacy was cemented through the work of her son, David I, who continued in her policy of Church reform; while her Saxon blood found its way back into the English royal family through her daughter, Matilda, and her marriage to Henry I. Saint Margaret’s royal lineage ensured that she would not be allowed to devote her entire life to God, but her position as Queen of Scotland gave her the opportunity to direct her devotional tendencies into Church reform, making her a heroine to generations of Scots.

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Footnotes:

¹ Vita B Simonis, col. 1219, quoted by Elizabeth van Houts in oxforddnb.com, May 2008; ² Quoted by epistolae.ccnmtl.columbia.edu.

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Pictures

All pictures courtesy of Wikipedia, except: Dunfermline Abbey courtesy of Angela Bennett; Edmund II Ironside and his descendants courtesy of British Library Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts.

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Sources:

epistolae.ccnmtl.columbia.edu; 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; Heroines of the Medieval World by Sharon Bennett Connolly; 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 Swanton; 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.

Coming out in Paperback on 15 March:

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 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 in the US on 1 June 2019. It is available for pre-order from both Amazon UK and Amazon US.

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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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©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly

 

Gytha of Wessex and the Fall of the House of Godwin

Statue of King Harold, Waltham Abbey

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

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

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

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

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

Memorial to the Battle of Stamford Bridge, outside York

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edith searching the battlefield for Harold’s body

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

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

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

Battlefield at Hastings

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

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

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

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

Gytha, Countess of Wessex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Out Now!

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

 

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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

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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

Christmas Giveaway!

It’s just over 4 weeks to Christmas and so I thought the time is ideal to do a prize draw for a signed and dedicated copy of Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest.

An ideal Christmas present for yourself or a friend!

About Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest

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.

If you would like to win the signed copy of Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest to put under your Christmas tree, or someone else’s Christmas tree, simply leave a comment below or on the giveaway post on my Facebook page and I will include you in the prize draw.

And don’t worry if you already have a copy – I’ll be happy to send you a signed bookplate to give it as a Christmas present, while you keep your newly signed copy.

The draw will be made on Sunday 2nd December, so you should get the book in time for Christmas Day. Good luck!

***AND THE WINNER IS…..Chloe Amy***
Thank you so much to everyone who entered the Silk and the Sword giveaway – there were 149 entries in all and I am only sorry there can only be 1 winner. Google’s random number generator picked no. 102, which is Chloe Amy. Congratulations, Chloe, if you can drop me a pm with address, I will get your book out to you this week.
To everyone else who entered, thank you so much for taking the time and for leaving such wonderful comments. If you do buy the book, drop me a message, through the ‘contact me’ button, with your address and I will send you out a signed bookplate to pop in the front. Best wishes, Sharon

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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 is available from 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

Gytha of Wessex and the Rise of the House of Godwin

Countess Gytha

I have to admit, I expected Emma of Normandy to be the woman who stole the show with my latest book, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest, 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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My books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

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.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

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Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is available now on kindle and in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon, in the US from Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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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 and Instagram.

©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

The Dreadful Fate of Alfred the Aetheling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle retold the tale in rhyme:

Detail of Queen Emma before an altar

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

and drove off his companions, and some variously killed;

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

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

some maimed, some scalped.

No more horrible deed was done in this country

since the Danes came and made peace here.

Now we must trust to the dear God

that they who, without blame, were so wretchedly destroyed

rejoice happily with Christ.

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

until it was decided that he be led

to Ely town, fettered thus.

As soon as he came on ship he was blinded,

and blind thus brought to the monks.

And there he dwelt as long as he lived.

Afterwards he was buried, as well befitted him,

full honourably, as he was entitled,

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

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

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

Edward the Confessor, taken from the Bayeux Tapestry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My Books

Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest

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.  Available now from Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository and Amazon US.

Heroines of the Medieval World

Telling the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from Amazon UK, and in the US from Amazon US. It is available now in paperback in the UK from from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon and worldwide from Book Depository.

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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

The Atheling and the Tragedy of the White Ship

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William the Atheling

In the late summer of 1103 England’s queen, Matilda of Scotland, gave birth to a son. Named after his grandfather, William the Conqueror, the young prince would be known to history as William the Ætheling. He is one of those historical figures who resides in the shadows, more famous for his death than his all-too-short life as the heir to England’s throne.

William’s father, Henry, was a younger son of William the Conqueror. When his father had died in 1087, the patrimony of England and Normandy was divided between Henry’s older brothers;  the eldest, Robert Curthose, inherited Normandy while William II Rufus became King of England. It was intended that Henry would go into the church or maybe inherit their mother’s lands. However, the little brother seems to have set his sights on greater things and, as a result, was distrusted by William, who kept him close to home, so he could not cause any mischief.

On 2nd August, 1100, while out hunting in the New Forest, William was struck by a stray arrow and killed. Some say it was planned, others that it was an accident; I guess we’ll never know for sure…

Henry, however, did not waste the opportunity. With his older brother Robert still on his way back from Crusading in the Holy Land, Henry seized the initiative, the treasury and the kingdom; he was crowned at Westminster Abbey just 3 days after his brother’s death. Within months Henry had found himself a bride with impeccable parentage. Matilda had been born Edith of Scotland and was the daughter of Malcolm III, King of Scots. Through her mother, St Margaret, she was the great-granddaughter of Edmund II Ironside, Saxon king of England. She changed her name on marrying Henry, as Edith was considered ‘too Saxon’ a name for Norman tastes.

Matylda_zena
Matilda of Scotland

Henry and Matilda were married in November 1100 and within 3 years were the proud parents of 2 children. Their daughter, Adelaide, was born in 1102; she would adopt the name Matilda on her marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor, Henry V, and would be known to history as the Empress Matilda (or Maude). Although some historians suggest they were twins, it is most likely that Matilda’s younger brother, William, was born in 1103; a message of congratulations was sent to Henry I by Pope Paschal II on 23rd November of that year.

The soubriquet of Ætheling is attributed to chronicler Oderic Vitalis and harks back to Saxon times as a title given to the king’s designated heir. According to William of Malmesbury, William, with a Saxon mother and Norman father, represented the hope of reconciliation between the conquered and conquerors of England.

Although the king and queen had only 2 children – a 3rd, Richard, is thought to have died young – the king had numerous illegitimate offspring by various women, several of whom were raised alongside his legitimate children. William and a number of his illegitimate brothers, including Robert, Earl of Gloucester,  were tutored by Otuel (or Othuer) Fitzearl, natural son of Hugh, Earl of Chester. Fitzearl had been made castellan of the Tower of London and so it is likely that the prince and his brothers were frequently in residence there, in order ton pursue their education.

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William’s sister, Adelaide; Empress Matilda

According to William of Malmesbury, William was trained for his future role ‘with fond hope and immense care’. In 1108, while their father was away in Normandy, William and his sister were entrusted to the spiritual care of Anselm, the revered Archbishop of Canterbury.

In 1110 William’s sister, Adelaide/Matilda, left for Germany; she was to continue her education at the court of her future husband, but would not be married until January 1114, just before her 12th birthday. William was still only 6 years old when his sister left; Matilda was 8. It’s sad to think the young siblings would never meet again.

Following his sister’s departure, William’s education continued apace. By 1113, aged just 10, William began to attest royal documents. While still only 9, in February of that year, William was betrothed, at Alençon, to Alice (who changed her name to Matilda on her marriage), the daughter of Fulk V, count of Anjou and Maine. The betrothal formed part of his father’s wider diplomacy, which had also included his sister’s marriage to the Holy Roman Emperor.

Henry I spent the early part of his reign fighting against his brother, Robert Curthose, and, later, Robert’s son, William Clito, trying to secure a smooth succession for William. Robert had been decisively defeated at Tinchebrai in 1106 and  spent his remaining years – until his death in 1134 – a prisoner of his brother. Henry subsequently claimed Normandy for the English crown, but William Clito was still a thorn in his side. Clito was supported by the French king, Louis VI; who used him as a counter to Henry’s attempts to conquer Maine.

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Henry I

In 1115, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Henry arranged for the Norman barons to do homage and swear fealty to William, in an attempt to counter the claims of William Clito. A similar ceremony was arranged in England in 1116, for all the great men and barons of England to swear fealty to William as the king’s heir. The Hyde Chronicle referred to William as ‘rex Norman-Angllorum, ut putabatur futurus’ (assumed to be the future king of the Norman-English).

On 1st May 1118 William’s mother, Queen Matilda, died at Westminster and was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey. We do not know how the young prince felt at the loss of his mother – he was 15 at the time. However, it is from this point that William took on more responsibility, acting as regent whenever the king was away in Normandy.

In December 1118 Henry’s troops defeated the Angevins, under Fulk of Anjou, at Alençon. To counteract the defeat, William and Matilda were married, with the Count settling Maine on them as their marriage gift, thus deserting the cause of the French king. Inevitably, war with Louis VI followed.

On 20 August 1119, 16-year-old William was with his father at the Battle of Brémule. Henry won the fight against the forces of Louis VI of France and William Clito. During the battle, William had captured the palfrey of his cousin, William Clito, which he chivalrously returned at the end of the battle.

In the same year William witnessed a charter at Rouen, in which he was described as ‘dei gratia, rex designatus’ (by the grace of God, king designate). And continuing his education in diplomacy, in November 1119, William accompanied his father to a meeting with Pope Calixtus II, (William’s 2nd cousin once removed).

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Louis VI of France

At the turn of the year, it must have seemed to Henry that his dynasty – and the future of England – was secure in the hands of his son; at the age of 16 he was experienced in warfare and diplomacy and married to 12-year-old Matilda, who brought with her the county of Maine as her marriage portion (and the promise of Anjou should her father die whilst on Crusade).

In 1120 peace was finally achieved with France, with William being created Duke of Normandy by his father, and paying homage for the duchy to King Louis; a precedent that would be used  by future English kings, in order to avoid a king paying homage to a fellow king for part of his holdings. William, in turn, then received the homage of the Norman barons. Accompanied by his father, wife and several of his half brothers and sisters, it must have been a time of great rejoicing and festivities.

Indeed, when the large party prepared to cross the Channel, to return to England, it seems several of them were still celebrating. While Henry made the crossing in his own ship, taking with him several nobles and his daughter-in-law, the prince took the offer of a newly built ship, the Blanche Nef – or White Ship – which its owner, Thomas Fitzstephen, claimed would guarantee a swift, safe passage. William the Ætheling was accompanied by many of the young nobles of the great families of England, including his half-sister, Matilda, and half-brother, Richard of Lincoln.

WhiteShipSinking
The Sinking of the White Ship

Most of the passengers and crew were still drunk from celebrating when the ship finally left the harbour of Barfleur, in the dark, on the evening of 25th November, 1120. Oderic Vitalis described the scene:

At length he gave the signal to put to sea. Then the rowers made haste to take up their oars and, in high spirits because they knew nothing of what lay ahead, put the rest of the equipment ready and made the ship lean forward and race through the sea. As the drunken oarsmen were rowing with all their might, and the luckless helmsman paid scant attention to steering the ship though he sea, the port side of the White Ship struck violently against a huge rock, which was uncovered each day as the tide ebbed and covered once more at high tide. Two planks were shattered and, terrible to relate, the ship capsized without warning. Everyone cried out at once in their great peril, but the water pouring into the boat soon drowned their cries and all alike perished.¹

William was ushered into a small boat and was being rowed to safety when he is said to have heard the cries of his half-sister, Matilda. The prince insisted on rowing to her aid, but the little boat was overwhelmed by those trying to make it to safety, and capsized, taking everyone with it.

William the Ætheling was 17-years-old.

With only one survivor, a butcher from Rouen, over 300 souls were lost – drowned – and only a handful of bodies were ever recovered. With the sinking of the White Ship Henry I lost his son, England and Normandy lost their next ruler.

Young Matilda had lost her husband. They had no children. Matilda had made the crossing of the Channel with the King, rather than her husband, and sometime after the disaster she returned to her father’s court. In 1121 Matilda became a nun, eventually becoming abbess of the convent at Fontevrault. She died in 1158.

With the uncertainty that followed, Louis VI renewed his support of William Clito, who continued to be a thorn in Henry I’s side until his death fighting in Flanders in 1128. Henry himself, in the hope of producing another son, married  again in 1121; to Adeliza of Louvain. Unfortunately, the marriage proved childless and Henry spent the final years of his reign trying to secure the throne for his daughter, Matilda. Matilda had returned to Henry’s court following the death of her husband in 1125 and was married again,  in 1128, to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, in the hope that the union would strengthen her claim to the throne.

In the end, however, despite the fact Henry had made the barons of England swear fealty to Matilda as his successor Henry’s nephew, Stephen, claimed the throne on the old king’s death in 1135; thus ushering in 20 years of warfare, an era which became known as The Anarchy.

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Chapter house of Reading Abbey

William’s death was a tragedy, not only on a national scale, but also a personal one, for Henry I. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle the disaster was ‘a double grief: first that they lost their lives so swiftly; second that few of their bodies were found afterwards’. The young prince’s body was never recovered, leaving no monument to his life, save for Reading Abbey, established as a priory – and later an abbey – in 1121 by Henry I ‘for the salvation of my soul and that of king William my father and king William my brother and William my son and queen Matilda my mother and queen Matilda my wife and all of my predecessors and successors.’

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Footnote: ¹Vitalis, Oderic, The Ecclesiastical History of Oderic Vitalis.

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Sources: oxforddnb.com; Oderic Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis; Donald Matthew, King Stephen; Robert Bartlett, England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings; David Williamson, Brewer’s British Royalty; the History Today Companion to British History; Dan Jones, the Plantagenets; englishmonarchs.co.uk; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; Mike Ashley, The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens; Alison Weir, Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy; medievalilsts.net; The Plantagenet Chronicles Edited by Elizabeth Hallam.

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Pictures courtesy of Wikipedia

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©2016 Sharon Bennett Connolly