Guest Post: Busting Mediaeval Building Myths: Part Two

Tattershall Castle, Lincolnshire

I think after the wonderful insights of last week’s Guest Post: Busting Mediaeval Building Myths: Part One, we have all been eagerly awaiting Part Two of James Wright‘s brilliant article – I know I have!

So, without further ado. Here it is:

Busting Mediaeval Building Myths: Part Two

James Wright, Buildings Archaeologist, Triskele Heritage

In my last guest blog for History the Interesting Bits, we discussed five common myths about mediaeval buildings. These tall tales included stories of secret passages, yarns about the twist of spiral staircases relating to right-handed defenders and anecdotes that lepers were provided special windows in churches to watch the mass through.

As a buildings archaeologist I often meet folk who are eager to tell me all about their properties and their enthusiasm is genuinely infectious. I’m a great lover of historic architecture and believe that we can learn so much of value about a society by what it builds. However, romanticised and elaborated stories often grow up around certain mysterious features in mediaeval buildings – and it is surprising how often these get repeated all across the country in so many different structures.

In the second part of this series, I will discuss five more common misconceptions, attempt to explain how they come about and what the underlying truth behind each myth is. Hopefully this will help to give a broader and deeper understanding of historic buildings that will bring us that little bit closer to their former occupants.

  • Ship Timbers
Ship timbers, Tattershall

Perhaps the most tenacious and persistent mediaeval building myth is that lots of timber-framed buildings were constructed from salvaged ship timbers. There is even a house in Hertfordshire that is actually called Ships Timbers! Given that traditional British boozers have a reputation as hotbeds of rumour and intrigue, it will come as no shock that many pubs have the reused ship timbers story associated with them – often linked to a famous battle such as Trafalgar. Is there any truth in these tales?

On extremely rare occasions, it can be demonstrated that specific pieces of timber may have genuinely originated from a ship. I cannot stress just how rare this is and that documentary evidence is often lacking. My former colleague, Damian Goodburn, Historic Timber Specialist at MOLA, has pointed out that ship timbers rarely lend themselves to reuse in terrestrial buildings due to extreme weathering, their shaping designed for aquatic settings and the overall unworkability of seasoned oak. Instead, timbers from ship-breaking yards tend to be reused in marine or inter-tidal architecture, such as the Bermondsey foreshore of the River Thames in London. Alternatively, ship timbers may occasionally be found in the foundations of structures located very close to waterways, such as the three pieces recorded in the foundations of the Rose Playhouse, Bankside, London.

The vast majority of timber-framed buildings were constructed from newly felled trees and/or reused terrestrial structures such as barns, granaries and houses. The reuse of buildings is widely documented – for example the building accounts for Tattershall Castle, Lincolnshire, refer to the removal of timber from nearby Revesby Abbey in 1434-5. Reused timber will often be placed in a different part of the new building to the original structure leaving rectangular holes, known as mortises, visible and it is probably this which gives us the origin of the romantic story of timbers salvaged from wrecked ships.

  • Arrow-sharpening Grooves
Arrow grooves, Lambley

Worn into the hard stonework of the interior of many a church porch can be found clusters of strange vertical grooves which visitors are commonly told were created by archers sharpening their arrows, such as those at Holy Trinity, Lambley, Nottinghamshire. Given Edward III’s law of 1363, that all able-bodied men aged between 16 and 60 must practice their archery on Sundays and holy days, plus the location of many archery butts close to the parish church, the arrow-sharpening story has become received wisdom wherever the grooves are found.

There is neither any documentary evidence to suggest that archers sharpened their arrows on the stones of church porches, neither would this be a practical solution to the problem of dulled arrowheads. As churchyards were consecrated ground, archery butts were located elsewhere in the manor, creating a laborious trek to the porch. Instead, the sixteenth century archery expert, Roger Ascham tells us that bowmen would sharpen their arrows using hand-held files and whetstones. Equally, the majority of the grooves are orientated vertically and are located relatively low-down in the porches which render them as impractical for drawing a metre long arrow shaft across. Finally, these grooves are often found on soft limestones entirely useless for honing an edge.

The swashbuckling tales of English victories at Crécy and Azincourt have led to nationalistic myths of an epic proportion. Not only have accounts of the battles become rather knotted, but the desire to connect local history to the heroic archers has led to a misreading of the evidence. Folk traditions from pre-modern Germany and France, collected in the nineteenth century by Charles Rau, refer to parishioners scraping powder from church stonework to use in rituals. The stone was seen as a powerful holy material which was ingested as cures for fever or impotence. It is likely that similar ritualistic practises associated with holy buildings were also once common in Britain and the grooves in church porches relates to this folk ritual.

  • Murder Holes
Murder holes, Berry Pomeroy, Devon

Look up whilst you are visiting castles and you will often see voids in the overhead masonry associated with the defence of the building. These can take the form of slots overhanging the walls, known as machicolations (for example at Berry Pomeroy, Devon), or holes in the gate passage, known as murder holes (such as those at Caernarfon, Gwynedd). The popular story is that they were built so that the defenders could pour boiling oil down upon attackers.

Although it is not a myth that these holes were created to potentially hurl items into the spaces below them, including projectiles, stones and caustic lime, their uses were even more complicated. They could act as safe observation points from which the wall foot or passageway could be seen. If fires were started, either accidentally or deliberately, during a siege the slots could also be used to douse the flames with cold water.

Boiling oil was rarely used – it was prohibitively expensive, not often available in large enough quantities to be effective, would have been difficult to heat (it has a boiling point at 2040C), problematic to transport around the parapets and could have been a fire risk in itself. There are a very small number of scattered references to the use of hot oil, including at the siege of Orléans in 1428. For the most part, castles were rarely laid siege to and murder holes were mostly left untested. In fact many of them were intended to be nothing more than symbols of architectural prestige: the machicolations at Tattershall would have directly overlooked the roofs of the castle’s Inner Ward – not the best place to drop offensive weapons or scalding materials!

  • Templar Graffiti
Templar graffiti, Worksop

Type “Templar graffiti” into a search engine and you will find a mind-boggling number of links to hundreds of castles and churches, from the dungeons of Warwick Castle to the porch of Worksop Priory, Nottinghamshire. The websites invariably refer to cross-shaped graffiti left behind by the enigmatic Order of the Knights Templar (founded 1199 and dissolved 1312) and their crusading brethren. The legend that he Templars harboured the Holy Grail is all-consuming and many believe that the location of the cup of Christ can be found by decoding intriguing symbols and carvings at sites such as Royston Cave, Hertfordshire.

One of the principle problems with these romanticised notions is that they have more akin to conspiracy theories and Dan Brown novels than to historical research. In particular, it can be demonstrated that the “dungeon” at Warwick Castle was actually the storage basement of Caesar’s Tower, built over 30 years after the Templars were dissolved. Similarly, the carvings at Royston Cave, have been identified, by archaeologist Matthew Champion, as dating to the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Again, this falls outside of the Templar period and the religious character of the carvings is entirely consistent with those in a wide variety of other sites of the period.

Ultimately, crosses are a very common discovery in mediaeval graffiti surveys. They may be related to devotional activities such as prayer, but, as large numbers – around 80% – are found in church porches (as at Worksop) it is also likely that they relate to more secular behaviour. In particular, there is good evidence for mediaeval porches being used as sheltered meeting rooms, places where manorial courts were held, locations for reading wills and a site for parish notices to be read or fixed. As such the graffiti crosses may have been left as contractual memorials akin to swearing on the Bible or signing a document.

  • Devil’s Door
Devil’s door, Warkworth

Many churches, such as St Lawrence, Warkworth, Northumberland, have their north aisle doors blocked up – a phenomena which has been increasingly referred to as the Devil’s Door. Tradition states that this door, nearest to the font, was left open during baptisms so that demons could escape from the new-born child upon command of the priest. The north side of the church was thought of as being connected with the devil and after the Reformation these doors were blocked up as they were considered to relate to superstitions incompatible with the Protestant faith.

Francis Young has written eloquently on the subject of baptismal folklore and suggests that the sacrament was never considered to be a true exorcism, thus we might not be expecting demons to come flying out of the north door. Furthermore, Nicholas Groves has pointed out that the part of the baptism when the devil was commanded to leave the body of the infant, actually took place outside of the south porch in the churchyard. Equally, the belief that the north side of the church was particularly feared also does not stand up. Many churches have their principle entrance to the north, including Southwell Minster, Nottinghamshire, they face the principle access route from the settlement. It is also the case that large numbers of churches retained both their north and south porches, as at Kelham, Nottinghamshire.

Although it is acknowledged that north aisle doors may have been left open during baptisms, this was never part of the established liturgy. However, a number of formal church processions, including that on Palm Sunday, required the north porch as an exit point prior to walking, clockwise, around the east end of the church and back in through the south porch. Following the Reformation, these processions no longer took place making the door and porch essentially redundant. Churchwardens eventually decommissioned many of them as an expensive maintenance liability.

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I hope that you enjoyed this blog and that it will prove useful in trying to fully understand mediaeval buildings on your own visits. Should you wish for more information on this subject, please feel free to tweet me on @jpwarchaeology or email on james@triskeleheritage.com

All images courtesy of James Wright.

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I would like to say a HUGE THANK YOU to James Wright for taking the time to write two incredibly fascinating post. I owe you one, James.

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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 and James Wright

Book Corner: Odin’s Game by Tim Hodkinson

Orkney, 931: A young woman flees her home to secure a life for her unborn child. Eighteen years later, a witch foretells that she must lose him once more.

The subject of a Viking prophecy, it is Einar’s destiny to leave Iceland and fight his father – of whom only only one will survive.

As the clouds of war gather, he will fight unimaginable foes, forge new friendships, and discover what it truly means to be a warrior.

Not everyone will survive, but who will conquer all?

Odin’s Game by Tim Hodkinson is a wonderful, involved story, weaving a tale from the icy chill of Iceland to the dramatic landscape of Ireland, with a sojourn on the Orkneys in between. It tells the story of a young man’s journey to become a warrior, whilst uncovering the secrets of his parentage. It is not a straight forward journey. Fraught with danger, and the clash of two worlds and two religions, the Christian and the Norse gods, young Einar must fight for survival.

The characters are believable and wholly original. The reader is drawn into their troubles and finds themselves cheering on the ragtag crew that the hero, Einar, has found himself attached to. These are violent times, with war and intrigue being practically the norm. Betrayal is only ever just around the corner and it is a testament to the strength of the story in the the novel that the reader never quite knows from where the betrayal will come – nor from where the hero, Einar, will get his strength and support. Einar has to face a steep learning curve if he is to survive and prosper.

‘My mother’s Irish,’ Einar said. ‘When I was young, she used to tell me stories about it. I suppose ever since then I’ve had this notion of going there. She never talks about it now.’

Asmundarsson stopped his horse. Einar reined his own to a halt to avoid riding into the back of him. They had reached a wider part of the path where a long, flat rock stretched out, overhanging the precipice that dropped down to the icy waters of the tumbling river below.

‘Irish?’ The merchant whipped his head round and fixed Einar with a glare, his eyes narrowed. Einar was taken aback by this sudden change in demeanour. ‘I was told there’s a farm here run by an Irishwoman who works it all by herself.’

‘That’s my mother, Unn Kjartinsdottir,’ Einar said, his feelings of pride mixing with confusion and unease at the intensity with which the merchant was looking at him. ‘I help her, of course.’

To his further surprise, Asmundarsson’s expression changed again. His eyes widened and his jaw dropped open, making his mouth gape amid the grey hairs of his plaited beard.

‘It’s you …’ the merchant breathed.

As if from nowhere, mean appeared all round them. They scrambled up from behind rocks above the path. Several more jumped up on the path ahead. They wore iron helmets and their faces were masked behind helmet visors, they crouched behind the cover of round iron-bound shields. They bore spears.

Einar felt as if he was frozen. Fear and shock locked him to the saddle. His chest was so tight he could not breathe in.

‘It’s trouble, lad!’ Asmundarsson shouted, wheeling his horse to ride back the way they had come. There were other men close behind them and Einar realised they must have been waiting, hidden, for them to pass by then jumped out onto the path to block their escape. Asmundarsson could go nowhere.

The little details demonstrate the extent to which the author has obviously researched the history and customs of the Norsemen. Weapons and fighting techniques are as accurate as any I have read; as are the finer details of clothing, customs and the relationships between the Norwegians, Irish and the Icelanders. The result for the reader is a total immersion into the unfolding story. The landscape is just as absorbing as the characters in the novel. You can practically feel the cold seeping into your bones in Iceland; or the damp, harsh conditions of Ireland.

This is a thoroughly enjoyable story that will draw the reader in from the opening pages. One of the most unpredictable stories I have read in recent times, it will keep you on your toes, wondering what will happen next and whether any will get out alive. The tension is palpable!

If you enjoy a good, original story, full of action and intrigue, and a bag full of tension – this is the book for you!

Odin’s Game is a thoroughly enjoyable adventure, twisting and turning in unexpected ways as the story unfolds. And, like all good stories, the ending does not exactly turn out as the reader would guess, leaving you wanting more. I sincerely hope that this is the beginning of a wonderful series of adventures fro Einar and his companions. It was a delight to read every page.

About the Author

Tim Hodkinson grew up in Northern Ireland where the rugged coast and call of the Atlantic ocean led to a lifelong fascination with vikings and a degree in Medieval English and Old Norse Literature. Apart from Old Norse sagas, Tim’s more recent writing heroes include Ben Kane, Giles Kristian, Bernard Cornwell, George RR Martin and Lee Child. After several years New Hampshire, USA, Tim has returned to Northern Ireland, where he lives with his wife and children.

Follow Tim:

Twitter: @TimHodkinson

Pre-order links:

Amazon; iBooks; Kobo; Google Play.

Follow Aria

Website: www.ariafiction.com; Twitter: @aria_fiction; Facebook: @ariafiction; Instagram: @ariafiction

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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.

©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Emma of Normandy, Queen of England

Detail of Emma of Normandy before an altar

In the years leading up to the Norman Conquest of 1066 one woman, in particular, stands out as the matriarch of the period: Emma of Normandy.

As wife of both Æthelred II and King Cnut, Emma of Normandy was the lynchpin of the story of the 11th century. As a Norman, and the mother of both a Danish king of England and a Saxon King of England, it was Emma who bound all three sides together in the conflict of 1066. Her story is suitably dramatic; with exile, tragedy and scandal all playing their part, starkly contrasting with the wealth and privilege of her role as the only twice-crowned Queen of England.

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, who tormented England’s shores, to winter in their lands between raids into England. Despite the fact the Vikings continued to shelter in Normandy every 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.

Edward the Confessor

Of Emma and Æthelred’s two sons the eldest, Edward, would eventually succeed his half-brother, Harthacnut, to the English throne in 1042, ruling until his death on 5 January 1066. Edward’s younger brother, Alfred, was cruelly murdered during the reign of his step-brother, Harold I Harefoot. Harold was the son of Cnut by his first, handfast wife, Ælfgifu of Northampton. Alfred had arrived in England in 1036, ostensibly to visit his mother, though there are also theories that he intended to mount a challenge for the throne, and was welcomed by Earl Godwin of Wessex. However, his party were ambushed whilst being entertained by Godwin and Alfred was seized and taken to the abbey at Ely in Cambridgeshire, where he was later blinded and either murdered, or succumbed to his wounds. Either way, he died on 5 February 1037 and was buried in Ely Cathedral. Edward and Alfred’s sister, Goda (or Godgifu), was married firstly to Drogo, Count of Mantes and, secondly to Eustace II, Count of Boulogne. One of her sons by Drogo, Ralph, was made Earl of Hereford by his uncle, Edward, but earned himself the insulting nickname Ralph the Timid after fleeing the Welsh in battle.

As the Viking raids increased from 1010 onwards, Æthelred’s position on the throne proved precarious and he sent his wife and her young sons to Normandy for safety, before being forced into exile there himself in 1013, when Sweyn Forkbeard seized the throne. Sweyn’s death early in 1014 offered Æthelred a way back 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] Despite his promises, Æthelred proved just as inept as previously, failing to defeat the Danish invaders, led by Cnut. Æthelred died just two years later, on 23 April 1016 (ironically, St George’s Day), 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, led by Cnut, a summer of fighting took its toll and he died on 30 November 1016.

Coin from the reign of Harthacnut

Cnut took control of the whole of England and one of his first actions was to send for Emma, who he married on 2 July 1017. Although Emma appears to have had little influence during the reign of her first husband, her marriage with Cnut appears to have been a partnership. She was a more visible figure in public, enjoying considerable influence at court and offering substantial patronage to the church. She 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 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 and ruling in Wessex. However, two years later Harthacnut had still not returned to England and Harold took the crown for himself, driving Emma into exile with Count Baldwin in Flanders.

Genealogical table of Cnut, Harold I and Harthacnut

Harthacnut appears to have been, by far, Emma’s favourite child. It was for his accession to the English throne that she schemed, rather than for her eldest son, Edward. In the early months of 1040 she and Harthacnut were preparing to invade England when they heard of Harold’s death. Harthacnut succeeded to the English throne without a fight and a year later invited his half-brother Edward, who had spent almost 25 years in Norman exile, to join him in England as his successor.

Harthacnut reigned for just ten days short of two years, he died after collapsing during a wedding celebration at Lambeth. He was buried alongside his father in the old minster at Winchester and Emma gave the head of St Valentine to the new minster for her son’s soul. Emma’s relationship with Edward, however, was more strained than that she experienced with Harthacnut. Years of separation and a strong sense of abandonment on Edward’s part cannot have helped the situation. Following his coronation in 1043, one of Edward’s first actions was to ride to Winchester and take charge of the Treasury, which had been left in his mother’s hands by Harthacnut. Accompanied by the three greatest earls of his realm – Siward, Godwin and Leofric – ‘they deprived her of all the treasure that she had; which were immense; because she was formerly very hard upon the king her son, and did less for him than he wished before he was king…’ [2]

Emma’s friend and close adviser, Bishop Stigand, was deprived of his bishopric, although he was later reinstated and created Bishop of Winchester. He eventually rose to be Archbishop of Canterbury but was removed from office by William the Conqueror. However, at the time of her disgrace, Emma and Stigand’s close relationship gave rise to a later legend that they were more than friends and that Emma was accused of adultery with Stigand (although the 13th century story claimed the bishop’s name was Ælfwine). There is no contemporary evidence of the story, however, and it first appears more than 100 years after the Conquest. As the story went, Emma was accused of adultery and required to walk across red-hot ploughshares in order to prove her innocence. Being neither cut nor burned by the instruments she was declared innocent. As a consequence, Emma was welcomed back into the royal circle by a contrite Edward.

Winchester Cathedral

Although the story is almost certainly a fabrication, Emma was eventually reconciled with Edward, although she enjoyed a much less exalted position as the king’s mother than she had when Harthacnut reigned. She eventually retired to her own estates, living away from the limelight until her death on 6 March 1052. She was buried in the old minster at Winchester, alongside her second husband, Cnut and her favourite son, Harthacnut. Emma’s story forms the basis for the book Encomium Emmae Reginae, possibly commissioned by Emma herself, which provides a significant insight into English politics for the first half of the 11th century.

Emma had played a pivotal role in English politics in the first half of the 11th century, the effects of which would lead to the fateful events of 1066. She helped to shape the events from which the unique situation of the Norman Conquest would arise.  A prominent figure, particularly in the reigns of Cnut and Harthacnut, she was the most distinguished woman of her time. More than any other single person, Emma’s story provides the background to the Norman Conquest through the political and personal relationships formed in the first half of the 11th century.

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Footnotes: [1] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; [2] ibid.

Picture credits: Detail of Emma of Normandy before an altar courtesy of the British Library; Edward the confessor courtesy of Wikipedia; coin from the reign of Harthacnut, courtesy of Hedning, taken from Wikipedia; Genealogical table of Cnut, Harold I and Harthacnut from the Genealogical Chronicle of the English Kings, British Library; Winchester Cathedral courtesy of Anne Marie Bouchard.

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

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Be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebookpage or joining me on Twitter.

©2019 Sharon Bennett Connolly

Guest Post – Tales of Freya by Sarah Dahl

When Viking research turns personal

Dress

One question every author of historical fiction is asked is “How do you do your research?”, and then we most likely explain it like this: I have the usual array (or let’s say: addiction to) books about the era and specific aspects of the time (in my and surely also Sharon’s case: women’s lives in the era). My all-time favourite is an absolutely rich book I always consult: Hjardar/Vike’s “Vikings at War”. Unprecedented detail in text, maps, and depictions.

Then we add that of course we go online for more research. We collect pictures, maps, articles. I have a Pinterest board (https://www.pinterest.de/sarahdahl13), where I collect my favourite visual inspiration. This, and a lot more, can be done from home, behind the desk. Entire worlds a few clicks away.

The next step would be to put on pants and actually go outside, to do a journey of sorts, because unlike contemporary authors, us histfic folk have to travel a bit to reach a certain place of interest for more hands-on research. I’m talking museums, battlefields, graveyards, ruins, whatever. In my case, all of those make sense: the Viking times were violent and rich in cultural exchange. I can get just as excited over a bump in the grass that contains a grave as I can enjoy looking at a heap of stones that once was an early medieval wall.

The challenge is to really envision life and people behind these artefacts. Sometimes it’s impossible, sometimes quite easy: imagination runs wild, and with it begin stories. My main interest is always the people and possible stories behind these cold, hard (arte)facts. This is how most of my plots start: during outdoor research, inspired by a place.

The magic of Viking Hedeby/Haithabu

axe

A place I’m particularly fond of is Hedeby in northern Germany. Not just because it is actually within reach for me in my Dreiländereck – but because it has it all: a modern, interactive museum with all the beautiful artefacts you could wish for, really bringing the era to life. But most important, there’s an open-air reconstruction of the Viking town in the actual historically correct place. So not only some houses and paths are erected again and ready to experience “live”, but the landscape is pretty much still what it was in those times, too. I can stand high on the protective wall and look down at the small settlement and imagine people walking the streets. I can envision the jetties where once dragonboats and merchants’ ships were moored. I can feel the harsh wind and hear the reeds rustle that still so densly border the Slien fjord. I can walk away from the settlement and into the fields and encounter massive runestones with original inscriptions. I really get a feel for the place and era. And every time, new story ideas form.

So this has become a habit now: every year I take a long weekend off to drive up to Schleswig and revisit my favourite place of inspiration. I just take time to be there, discover more details in the wood of the houses, the frameworks, the landscape. I let more stories unfold just by sitting on a bench, or watching a reenactor stir herbs to dye wool in a big pot. Driving home, I always have to pull over and take more notes.

Here is also where my research took another unexpected turn. Hedeby hosts several markets; and I attended the Viking spring market. It does something to a writer when she suddenly walks among her characters as they come alive with frightening vitality. Yes, I totally stalked some of them. The white-bearded guy with braided hair and tattoos. The incredibly handsome sword figther with the thoughtful face. The storyteller lady who captured an audience with a swipe of her staff.
And the colours, the smells! It’s almost shocking to be standing in the world you so far just imagined. You see the colour of their cheese, the texture of their bread, and the vivid patterns of their dresses. You inhale the scent of baking, cooking, sheepskins, and fires.

I never imagined actually HOW dark it is inside a Viking house once the door closes! But sitting on furs around the fire with other Vikings and a storyteller is mind-blowing. I didn’t want to leave! And when the door opened again, a ray of light hit a bump right behind me – it was so dark, I had overlooked sleeping kids within an arms-length. I suddenly had to acknowledge that I was stretching reality in my stories, in that I had made the houses much brighter to have the stories work. My protagonists need to see their opponent’s expressions and movements much clearer than what was obviously possible. We all have to stretch reality a little at times, especially for today’s readers. But I drove home deep in thought.

Becoming what you write

thumbnail_Dyeing

Another thing the market did was: I had so far only seen myself as an observer, not a participant. I use the knowledge of Viking reenactors to discuss my plots and characters, but I didn’t want to take part in markets, I just visited them, and took notes. Until then, at Hedeby.

I suddenly craved a dress and all that comes with it. But as a Viking dress contains many pieces (including jewellery and tools), and it has to be hand-made in the ancient craft, I found it too expensive an experiment if I didn’t plan to participate in markets. Until my birthday loomed and I thought I want a real feast: a Viking feast in a barn, in a dress of my own!

So that’s when my research became very personal and I commissioned Danish seamstresses to make me a dress. I chose fitting brooches and beads to go with it, crafted after original finds. I chose every single bead according to its correct time period and location: Hedeby, 10th century. It was the most exciting thing I’ve ever put together.

The day of fitting then wasn’t only a transformation, it was a revelation: as layer upon layer of clothing slipped over my head, I turned from an observer into more than a participant – I “became” something new. Suddenly everything I had studied and written about was ON me, became part of me. The rough fabrics, the smooth flow of the dress around my ankles. The glint of the brooches and clinging of the beads. I was a little in shock and a lot in awe when I saw myself in the mirror. It does something to you when you suddenly “become” what you write.

I now know what it feels like to prick yourself in the attempt to fix the beads to the brooches. What they sound like when I walk. How warm but light the linen and wool-combination feels.

And since that amazing birthday feast I also know what it’s like to swing a real Viking axe, made by a Norwegian smith (using ancient craftsmanship)! My “shieldmaiden axe” was the incredible birthday gift my husband had ordered made to my tiny measures. It’s awe-inspiring to hold and touch, let alone cut logs with!

So if these days someone asks me “How do you do your research?” I skip the boring books and online part. I hold up the beads I often wear around my wrist, and I might take the shiny axe off the wall and hold it out to the enquirer.

It always, always silences both parties for a long while: to weigh the ancient stuff in your hand and “feel” history is more than inspiring: it’s awe-inspiring. And then to imagine the people who might have lived and died in the times …

It’s so much stronger than my words.

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“Tales of Freya – Sensual Short Stories”

(the complete collection, just out in ebook and paperback)

About Tales of Freya collection of sensual short stories set in the Viking age:

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In this collection of adult bedtime stories, Sarah Dahl pulls back the curtain of history to depict the erotic lives of Viking men and women. Amid the stark landscapes of fjords, forests and snowcapped mountain peaks, her characters search for love and passion. Dahl authentically illuminates the sensual side of a world of battle and plunder in an alluring collection perfect for every lover of gritty Viking romance.

A warrior recovering by a river is drawn into an unforeseen skirmish with a beautiful shield maiden. An enslaved Christian monk is entranced by his captors’ pagan allure. A dissatisfied housewife finds that her home holds an unexpected and liberating secret. An injured farmer is captivated by the magic of his irresistible healer …

In a world of crackling fires and rough landscapes, long winters and bloody raids, the immediacy of life and death ignites undeniable passions. Warriors and monks, healers and housewives – all follow the call of their hearts and bodies to indulge in pleasures that may forever change their lives.

Buy links:

Amazon US

Amazon UK

About the author:

Sarah Dahl lives on the edge of the rural German Eifel and writes historical fiction (novels and short stories) primarily set in the Viking age. She also works as an editor, translates, and coaches new writers in German and English. She is interested in everyday life in bygone centuries and the human stories that may have occurred behind the hard, historical facts.

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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.

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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 and Sarah Dahl

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.

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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

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

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

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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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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly