Ӕlfgyva: The Mysterious Woman in the Bayeux Tapestry

The Bayeux Tapestry is the famous pictorial depiction of the Norman Conquest of 1066, and of the events of the two years leading up to it. Commissioned in the 1070s, probably by Bishop Odo of Bayeux, rather than a woven tapestry, the work is in fact an embroidery. Started within ten years of the Norman Conquest it is a near-contemporary narrative of the events that changed England forever. It is told from the viewpoint of the victorious Normans, but with a sympathetic view of the English, at times. It begins in 1064 with Harold’s journey to Normandy, his meeting with Duke William and campaigning in Brittany, followed by the controversial oath-swearing; it then follows Harold’s return to England and his coronation following the death of Edward the Confessor, before concentrating on William’s preparations for invasion and the Battle of Hastings itself; the missing end panels may have included King William’s coronation.

As a prime example of how women have been given little or no part in the story of the Norman Conquest, out of 626 human figures, there are only three women who appear in the main narrative of the Bayeux Tapestry. One of these is easily identifiable as Edward the Confessor’s queen, Edith of Wessex, attending her husband on his deathbed. Another scene, as the Normans land on the shores of England, shows a woman and her child fleeing from a burning house, set alight by the invaders – possibly King Harold’s first wife, Edith Swanneck. The most intriguing woman in the Bayeux Tapestry, appears in one scene when Harold is in Normandy in 1064. She is identified as ‘Ӕlfgyva’, the name sewn into the tapestry above her head. However, the scene does not appear to be related in any way to the scenes either before or after and has therefore caused much discussion and theorising among historians.

Ӕlfgyva appears to be in a doorway, possibly as a suggestion that she was indoors, with a priest touching her cheek. Whether the touch is in admonishment or blessing is open to interpretation, some take it is a collaboration of some sort between the two. Written in Latin as ‘Ubi unus clericus et Ӕlfgyva’, the inscription simply reads, ‘Here a certain cleric and Ӕlfgyva’. Incomplete, the phrase fails to identify Ӕlfgyva or the priest, nor the context in which the two are together. In the borders, at Ӕlfgyva’s feet, is a naked man, imitating the stance of the cleric, perhaps placed there to indicate some kind of scandal associated with the lady.

As this is the only scene in the entire Bayeux Tapestry in which the woman is the leading character and considering that she is only one of three women depicted in the whole embroidery, the story which is depicted must be of some significance to the story of the Norman Conquest. But who was the mysterious Ӕlfgyva? Unfortunately, we are not without a substantial number of potential candidates who could be identified as Ӕlfgyva; Ӕlfgyva and its variants, Ӕlfgiva, Ӕlfgyfu, Ӕlfgifu and Elgiva, were popular names in England in the eleventh century. Indeed, Emma of Normandy’s name was changed to Ӕlfgifu on her marriage to King Ӕthelred II (often referred to as ‘the Unready’) and, just to make matters more confusing Ӕthelred’s first wife was also called Ӕlfgifu. Many historians have their own favourite theories for the identity of Ӕlfgyva; the numerous possible candidates include Emma herself, a sister of King Harold and the first, handfast wife of King Cnut. Each possibility comes with her own reasons for being the mysterious Ӕlfgyva, and her own claim for inclusion in the tapestry that tells the story of the Norman Conquest.

Several theories can be easily discounted. In the 18th century, it was suggested that ‘Ӕlfgyva’ translated to mean ‘queen’ and the image was therefore of a clerk informing Queen Matilda that King William had promised one of their daughters as a bride for Harold of Wessex. Of course, in 1064, Matilda was not queen, and so ‘Ӕlfgyva’ would have to translate as ‘duchess’.  In the 19th century, it was suggested that the scene depicted the daughter of Matilda and William being informed of her betrothal. This theory ignores the fact that Matilda and William did not have a daughter with the name Ӕlfgyva. A final, easily discounted theory is that the lady is Ealdgyth, Harold’s future queen, receiving the news of Harold’s rescue, either from the shipwreck or from the clutches of Count Guy of Ponthieu, by Duke William. This is meant to demonstrate Harold’s dishonesty in agreeing to marry a daughter of Duke William while he has a betrothed waiting at home. The fact is that there is no evidence that Harold was betrothed to Ealdgyth any earlier than late 1065 or early 1066. In fact, we do not know when Harold and Ealdgyth were betrothed or married, but it is likely to have happened shortly before, or during, his kingship, when he needed the support of the Earls Edwin and Morcar, Ealdgyth’s brothers. 

Ӕthelred II’s second wife is a candidate who does merit closer investigation. Emma of Normandy was the wife of Ӕthelred from the spring of 1002 until his death in 1016. In 1017, however, she married Ӕthelred’s nemesis and eventual successor, Cnut. Emma had three children by her first husband, Alfred, Edward and Goda, or Godgifu. She had three further children by King Cnut; Harthacnut, Gunhilda and an unnamed daughter who died as a child, aged 8. Emma’s name had been changed to Ӕlfgifu on her marriage to Ӕthelred and she was a prominent figure at the English court, having been crowned and anointed queen after the wedding ceremony. Emma gained even more prominence in the reign of King Cnut, who married her soon after he took the crown. Cnut appears to have trusted Emma a great deal and is known to have left his treasury with her, as did her son, Harthacnut.

As Cnut’s wife, Emma served to provide a link between Ӕthelred’s ancient dynasty of Wessex, dating back to King Alfred and beyond, and the new Danish dynasty of Cnut. As Cnut’s queen, until his death in 1035, her position appeared unassailable. That changed, however, when Cnut died and was succeeded by his sons as co-regents. With Harthacnut fighting in Denmark, Emma was left isolated and Harold I Harefoot moved against her. Emma was banished from England, and Harold seized control of the whole country. Following Harold’s death in 1040, Emma and her son returned unopposed and Harthacnut finally claimed the crown. Her triumph was short-lived, however, as Harthacnut collapsed and died at a wedding in 1042, and was replaced as king by his older, half-brother, Edward. Edward was also a son of Queen Emma, but his relationship with his mother was far less cordial. Having been exiled in Normandy for twenty-five years, while his mother sat beside Cnut on the English throne for much of that time, Edward held a great deal of resentment for his Emma.

Emma’s lands and property were all taken from her. The Dowager Queen’s close friend and advisor, Stigand, newly consecrated as bishop of East Anglia, shared in Emma’s disgrace and was stripped of office and ‘they took all that he had into their hands for the king, because he was nighest the counsel of his mother; and she acted as he advised, as men supposed’. Taken from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, this shows that Edward thought that Stigand had encouraged Emma in her perceived maltreatment of her only surviving son. It was probably as a result of this incident that various legends arose over Emma’s disgrace.

One story, appearing only two centuries later, suggested that Emma’s relationship with Bishop Stigand was far more than that of a queen and her advisor and that he was, in fact, her lover. The story continues that Emma chose to prove her innocence in a trial by ordeal, and that she walked barefoot over white-hot ploughshares. Even though the tale varies depending on the source, the result is the same; when she completed the ordeal unharmed, and was thus proven guiltless, she was reconciled with her contrite son, Edward. Emma appears to have never recovered fully from the depredations placed on her. Both she and Stigand seem to have been reconciled, to some extent, with Edward’s regime by 1044 but she never again enjoyed the status to which she had become accustomed during the reigns of Cnut and Harthacnut.

If Emma were the Ӕlfgyva/Ӕlfgifu of the Bayeux Tapestry, this story could well explain her inclusion, especially if the touch of the cleric in the Ӕlfgyva scene is that of a tender lover, rather than an admonishing priest. However, there are several reasons for discarding Emma as the candidate. The first instance of the story of Emma and Stigand as lovers appears two or three hundred years after her death, and there is no contemporary evidence of an affair that would have been the scandal of the decade, if not the century. Given that many of the chroniclers of the time were not averse to including such stories, it seems strange that they were all silent on the subject; unless, of course, the whole incident was a 14th century fabrication. Another argument against the theory is that Emma’s affair with Bishop Stigand, even in the unlikely event that it happened, would have had little bearing on the Norman Conquest, and would therefore be unlikely to merit inclusion in the Bayeux Tapestry.

Another leading possibility for the identity of the Ӕlfgyva of the Bayeux Tapestry is Ӕlfgifu of Northampton. Ӕlfgifu was the first wife of King Cnut, whom he had married as a handfast wife, in the Danish fashion rather than in a church. She was born around 990, into a prominent and influential Midlands family. It was possibly as a love-match, but also as part of the policy of Cnut’s father, King Sweyn Forkbeard, to establish himself in the midlands, that Ӕlfgifu was married to Cnut sometime between 1013 and 1016. The couple had two sons, Swein and Harold Harefoot. Swein would later be sent by his father to rule Norway, with his mother as regent, but was driven out by the Norwegians following years of misrule. He died in Denmark and Ӕlfgifu returned to England and her only surviving son, Harold I Harefoot who was crowned as sole king in 1037.

If Ӕlfgifu is the woman in the Bayeux Tapestry, then she is probably there in reference to a scandal that was spoken about even in her lifetime, in that Ӕlfgifu was so desperate to have a son by Cnut that she, with the help of a monk, passed off the new-born son a serving maid as her own child; Swein. Similar was said of Ӕlfgifu’s second son by Cnut, Harold I Harefoot, in the Anglo-Saxon Chonicle, which reported that, ‘some men said of Harold that he was son of King Cnut and Ӕlfgifu, daughter of Ealdorman Ӕlfhelm, but to many men it seemed quite unbelievable’. The scandalous stories arose after Cnut’s death in 1035, when Ӕlfgifu was back in England, working to establish the rule of her son, Harold Harefoot, as king. In another version of the tale, the monk had fathered the children himself. The stories may have been mere propaganda used to discredit Ӕlfgifu and cast doubts on the legitimacy of Harold and, therefore, his right to rule as Cnut’s successor.

The main question arising from the theory that Ӕlfgifu of Northampton is the Ӕlfgyva of the Bayeux Tapestry would be the relevance of a scandal that had arisen more than thirty years earlier. It has been argued that both William and Harold would view the scandal as propaganda, to discredit any claims by the Norwegians, such as Harald Hardrada, to the English throne. The naked men in the margins of the scene, one of whom is swinging an axe, are used as further evidence that it was Ӕlfgifu’s scandalous behavior to which the tapestry is referring. However, the fact that both of Ӕlfgifu’s sons died without heirs and that, therefore, there were no claimants descended from her to contest the throne in 1066, makes Ӕlfgifu’s inclusion – if, indeed it is Ӕlfgifu – rather redundant.  

My own leading candidate for Ӕlfgyva is a woman of a different name, but whose story included a scandal that would have been relevant to Harold of Wessex and his hostages. This lady was Eadgifu, or Eadgyva, who was Abbess of Leominster in 1046. Eadgifu’s story is told in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, when she came under the power of Swein Godwinson, oldest son of Earl Godwin and Countess Gytha. Swein, had been given an earldom made up from lands in Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Berkshire, Oxfordshire and Somerset in 1043. In 1046 he had been campaigning in south Wales alongside Gruffydd, King of Gwynedd. The military campaign had ended successfully, with Swein receiving hostages for the good faith of the Welsh. On his return homeward, Swein stopped at Leominster, which was owned by the abbey of Leominster and administered by its abbess, Eadgifu. Swein abducted Eadgifu, probably in order to gain control of Leominster’s vast estates in Herefordshire. However, the king refused to give his permission for Swein and Eadgifu to marry; the pious King Edward the Confessor was understandably horrified at the idea of Swein marrying an abbess, a woman who had dedicated her life to God. Thwarted in his plans, Swein released Eadgifu after he had held her for some considerable time, possibly as long as a year.

As a result of his actions, which were considered not only criminal but sacrilegious in the eyes of the church, Swein was forced to flee England. A few months later, Swein returned to England, but was exiled again for the murder of his cousin, Beorn Estrithson. He was eventually forgiven and allowed to return home. When the feud between Earl Godwin’s family and the king arose in 1051, Earl Godwin and Swein were forced to give up hostages to the king, each handing over a son, Wulfnoth for Godwin and Hakon for Swein. Rather than face the witan, Godwin and his family chose to go into exile at the end on 1051 and only returned to England in the spring of 1052. Swein would never return as he had left on barefoot pilgrimage to Jerusalem and died on his homeward journey. The two hostages, however, were not restored to the family and are thought to have been sent to Normandy, possibly as a way to guarantee the future cooperation of the Godwin family.

It is possible that the union between Eadgifu and Swein resulted in a son, Hakon. It is not entirely certain that Hakon was the son of Eadgifu, but it does seem likely, as no other wife or concubine of Swein’s is mentioned in the chronicles. If he was the son of Eadgifu and Swein, the child would have been five or six years old when he was taken as a hostage to Normandy in 1052. If Eadgifu was the mother of Hakon it would not only explain her presence in the Bayeux Tapestry, but also the inclusion of Ӕlfgyva (Eadgifu) and her cleric in that part of the tapestry. Although there is no direct mention of these hostages in the tapestry, the scene immediately before the Ӕlfgyva scene is that of Harold arriving at Duke William’s court; and one of the possible reasons for Harold’s presence at William’s court was the recovery of the hostages, Eadgifu’s son included. Given the disgrace that Eadgifu must have faced, as an abbess having given birth to an illegitimate child, and the fact the child was only five years old when he was taken to Normandy as a hostage, it is not implausible that his mother accompanied him, and therefore is included in the Bayeux Tapestry as Hakon, no longer a valuable hostage given that his father had been dead for over ten years, was allowed to return to England with Earl Harold.

There is one major flaw in this argument, and that is the confusion of names, Eadgifu and Ӕlfgyva are similar but very different names and it is hard to imagine that someone would make such a big mistake on so important an undertaking as the Bayeux Tapestry; although not implausible, given that Harold’s brother, Leofwine, is identified as Lewine on another portion of the tapestry. We do not know, moreover, that Eadgifu ever accompanied her son to Normandy, or visited him there while he was a hostage. However, Eadgifu’s story, the scandal associated with her abduction by Swein and the presence of her son in Normandy, still makes her a contender. The scene with the cleric could well be him giving her a blessing on her return to England, or an admonition on the fact she had a child out of wedlock – and while she was an abbess who had given her life to God. Despite the disparity in names, the fact that she had links to Normandy through her son, and that her story was associated with Harold’s visit to Normandy and the request for the hostages to be freed, gives her a relevance to the tapestry and makes her one of the most plausible candidates for Ӕlfgyva.

Despite the many possibilities and theories surrounding Ӕlfgyva and her cleric, their identities and the reason for their inclusion in the Bayeux Tapestry, one fact remains; no definitive explanation is forthcoming. It is not beyond reason that the Ӕlfgyva of the Bayeux Tapestry is none of the ladies I have suggested, but someone else entirely who, in the passage of nearly a millennium, has been lost in the fogs of time. The story may well have been a familiar one at the time the tapestry was created, and no explanation beyond ‘Here a certain cleric and Ӕlfgyva’ may have been needed to identify the protagonists to viewers in the eleventh century.

Today, however, the story and the identity of the players continues to elude us…

Historical Writers Forum hosted a fabulous debate on ‘Ӕlfgyva’: The Mysterious Woman in the Bayeux Tapestry, which is available on YouTube. Hosted by Samantha Wilcoxson, it features myself, Pat Bracewell, Carol McGrath and Paula Lofting.

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Images:

Courtesy of Flickr and Wikipedia

Sources:

A Historical Document Pierre Bouet and François Neveux, bayeuxmuseum.com/en/un_document_historique_en; The Mystery Lady of the Bayeux Tapestry (article) by Paula Lofting, annabelfrage.qordpress.com; Ӕlfgyva: The Mysterious lady of the Bayeux Tapestry (article) by M.W. Campbell, Annales de Normandie; The Bayeux Tapestry, the Life Story of a Masterpiece by Carola Hicks; Æthelred II [Ethelred; known as Ethelred the Unready] (c. 966×8-1016) (article) by Simon Keynes, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, oxforddnb.com; Britain’s Royal Families; the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; Queen Emma and the Vikings: The Woman Who Shaped the Events of 1066 by Harriet O’Brien; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; On the Spindle Side: the Kinswomen of Earl Godwin of Wessex by Ann Williams; Swein [Sweyn], earl by Ann Williams, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, oxforddnb.com, 23 September 2004; Ӕlfgifu [Ӕlfgifu of Northampton (fl. 1006-1036) (article) by Pauline Stafford, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, oxforddnb.com; The Chronicle of John of Worcester, translated and edited by Thomas Forester, A.M; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles edited and translated by Michael Swanton.

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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 returned 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 Edith 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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My Books

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England  looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & SwordAmazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

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Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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,  Amberley Publishing, Book Depository.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly

The Wives and Family of King Harold II

Statue of King Harold II at Waltham Abbey

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

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

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

Memorial to the 1066 Battle of Stamford bridge just outside York

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

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

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

The battlefield of Hastings

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

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

The gatehouse of Battle Abbey

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

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

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

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

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

William the Conqueror, Harold’s nemesis

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

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

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

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

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

Edith searching the battlefield of Hastings for Harold’s body

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My books

Signed, dedicated copies of all my books are available, please get in touch by completing the contact me form.

Defenders of the Norman Crown: The Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey tells the fascinating story of the Warenne dynasty, of the successes and failures of one of the most powerful families in England, from its origins in Normandy, through the Conquest, Magna Carta, the wars and marriages that led to its ultimate demise in the reign of Edward III. Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey is now available from Pen & Sword BooksAmazon in the UK and US and Book Depository.

1 family. 8 earls. 300 years of English history!

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Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Ladies of Magna Carta: Women of Influence in Thirteenth Century England looks into the relationships of the various noble families of the 13th century, and how they were affected by the Barons’ Wars, Magna Carta and its aftermath; the bonds that were formed and those that were broken. It is now available from Pen & Sword,  Amazon and from Book Depository worldwide.

Heroines of the Medieval World tells the stories of some of the most remarkable women from Medieval history, from Eleanor of Aquitaine to Julian of Norwich. Available now from Amberley Publishing and Amazon and Book Depository.

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,  Amberley Publishing, 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