Many Anglo-Saxon kings are familiar. Æthelred the Unready is one, yet less is written of his wife, who was consort of two kings and championed one of her sons over the others, or his mother who was an anointed queen and powerful regent, but was also accused of witchcraft and regicide. A royal abbess educated five bishops and was instrumental in deciding the date of Easter; another took on the might of Canterbury and Rome and was accused by the monks of fratricide.
Anglo-Saxon women were prized for their bloodlines – one had such rich blood that it sparked a war – and one was appointed regent of a foreign country. Royal mothers wielded power; Eadgifu, wife of Edward the Elder, maintained a position of authority during the reigns of both her sons.
Æthelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, was a queen in all but name, while few have heard of Queen Seaxburh, who ruled Wessex, or Queen Cynethryth, who issued her own coinage. She, too, was accused of murder, but was also, like many of the royal women, literate and highly-educated.
From seventh-century Northumbria to eleventh-century Wessex and making extensive use of primary sources, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England examines the lives of individual women in a way that has often been done for the Anglo-Saxon men but not for their wives, sisters, mothers and daughters. It tells their stories: those who ruled and schemed, the peace-weavers and the warrior women, the saints and the sinners. It explores, and restores, their reputations.
I was very lucky to receive an advance copy of Annie Whitehead’s wonderful new book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England. Beautifully written and thoroughly researched, this book brings to life the women on England from before the Norman Conquest.
Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England is a wonderful study of the influential royal and noble women of pre-Conquest England, whether they were queens, princesses, abbesses or countesses. Annie Whitehead tells their stories in wonderful, vivid detail, beautifully weaving the historical implications off their lives with their larger-than-life stories.
Though they have been dead a thousand years and more, and while written evidence on these women may be scarce, the author has managed to squeeze every bit of information from the available chronicles, charters and saints’ lives. She has given the reader every possible snippet of information on their lives, presenting and analysing the sources in an accessible, engaging and thoroughly enjoyable reading experience.
The stories of these women is told with a passion and eloquence which makes every chapter a pleasure to read. The more familiar stories of Æthelflæd, Lady Godiva and St Hilda of Whitby are given excellent new interpretations, while the reader may be meeting the less familiar women, such as Æthelfrith of Bernicia, Eadburh and Alfred the Great’s sister, Æthelswith, for the first time.
Ælfgifu appears not to have been married for long. Her son Eadwig was probably born around 940, and his younger brother Edgar around 943. King Edmund himself died in 946 – the victim of a brawl, or perhaps a political assassination – having married again, so his first marriage must have ended not long after Edgar’s birth. The younger of the royal orphans, Edgar, was fostered by a noblewoman, the wife of the ealdorman of East Anglia, whom we shall meet in Part VI.
Ælfgifu is known as Ælfgifu of Shaftesbury, and William of Malmesbury in particular had a lot to say about her. He said that it was she who built the nunnery there and that her bodily remains were placed there. She was ‘so pious and loving that she would even secretly release criminals who had been openly condemned by the gloomy verdict of a jury.’ She would also give away her expensive clothes to the needy and she was a beautiful woman who was remembered for the miracles associated with her; the blind, the deaf and the lame were cured after visiting Shaftesbury.
It would be easy to assume that she retired to Shaftesbury in the manner of a number of previous queens, but the short-lived nature of her marriage and the young age of her children suggest another scenario. It is plausible that she died in childbirth, either in labour with Edgar or with a subsequent pregnancy in which both mother and child died. If she did indeed die in childbirth then she cannot have been a nun at Shaftesbury, but merely its benefactress.
of these women were not easy to find, and the detective work involved in researching Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England is both entertaining and fascinating. In recreating and retelling the lives of these remarkable women, Annie Whitehead has given us a window into a distant past. We have the chance to observe the lives, loves, hopes and dreams of these remarkable women; women who helped shape their present and futures, and thus the world in which we now live.
The author also helps to dispel some of the myths that have arisen about these women, whether by historical fiction writers or the over-active imaginations of the chroniclers of the past. The true stories of Æthelflæd and Godiva, and others, are revealed, the myths surrounding them examined and explained. This is a wonderful book, filled with stories of love, intrigue and murder, of the power struggles and betrayals of Anglo-Saxon England, of strong and influential women who made an impression, not only on their own times, but on the generations who came after.
Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England brings to life the women of the Anglo-Saxon period with vivid clarity. It is a remarkable study of the lives of women of the period – known and unknown – and their impact on history. Saints, princesses and queens; wives, daughters and mothers, Annie Whitehead demonstrates the strengths, weaknesses and challenges these incredible women faced in order to exert their influence on their corner of the world. The author’s meticulous research, beautiful writing and natural storytelling ability make this book a pleasure to read from beginning to end.
Annie Whitehead graduated in history having specialised in the ‘Dark Ages’ and is a member of the Royal Historical Society. She’s written three books about early medieval Mercia, the ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdom of the Midlands. The first, To Be a Queen, tells the story of Alfred the Great’s daughter, and was long-listed for the Historical Novelist Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016, and was an IAN (Independent Author Network) Finalist in 2017, while the second, Alvar the Kingmaker, is the story of Aelfhere, Earl of Mercia in the 10th century. The third, Cometh the Hour, is the first of two volumes set in seventh-century Mercia. She was a contributor to the anthology 1066 Turned Upside Down, a collection of alternative short stories. She writes magazine articles and has had pieces printed in diverse publications, including Cumbria Magazine and This England. She has twice been a prize winner in the Mail on Sunday Novel Writing Competition, and won First Prize in the 2012 New Writer Magazine’s Prose and Poetry Competition. She was a finalist in the 2015 Tom Howard Prize for nonfiction, and is also a contributor and editor for the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, as well as blogging for her own site – Casting Light upon the Shadow. In 2017 she won the inaugural HWA/Dorothy Dunnett Society Short Story Prize. Her first full-length nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, is published by Amberley. Her latest nonfiction, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, is published by Pen & Sword Books.
Judith of Flanders was born sometime in the early 1030s. Her father was Baldwin IV, Count of Flanders; he died in 1035, when Judith was, at most, five years old and possibly still only a baby.
Baldwin had been count since the age of seven, from 987. His first wife was Orgive of Luxembourg, the mother of Baldwin’s son and heir, Baldwin V, who was born in 1012. Orgive died in 1030. Their son, Baldwin V, married Adele of France, the second daughter of Robert II (the Pious), King of France, and they had at least three children together, including Baldwin VI, Count of Flanders, and Matilda of Flanders, Duchess of Normandy and Queen of England as the wife of William the Conqueror. After Orgive’s death, Baldwin IV married again. In about 1031 he wed Eleanor of Normandy, the daughter of Baldwin’s neighbour, Richard II, Duke of Normandy, and his wife, Judith of Brittany. Eleanor’s brother was Robert I, Duke of Normandy, the father of William the Conqueror, who became Duke of Normandy and King of England. Eleanor’s daughter and only child Judith, therefore, was a first cousin of William the Conqueror, the future King of England, as well as aunt of his wife, Matilda.
When her father died in 1035, Judith’s older brother, who was about twenty years her senior, succeeded as Count Baldwin V; it would be he who decided on Judith’s future when the time came for her to marry. We know nothing of Judith’s childhood or level of education. As the daughter of a count, expected to make a good marriage into another ruling or noble family, she would have been taught how to run a large household, dancing, embroidery and possibly some languages, such as Latin. It is unlikely, however, that she was taught to read and write, skills usually reserved for members of the Church. It is possible she was raised alongside her niece, Matilda, who was of a similar age to Judith.
In the late summer or autumn of 1051, Judith was married to Tostig, a son of the powerful Earl Godwin of Wessex and his wife, Gytha. And when the family fell foul of King Edward the Confessor, Judith accompanied them into exile; back to her homeland of Flanders. Tostig was probably the third eldest son of Godwin and Gytha of Wessex, one of his older brothers being the future King Harold II of England. He would have been in his early twenties at the time of his marriage and the family’s subsequent exile; Judith was no more than six years younger than him, which would suggest she was at least fifteen years old at the time of her marriage.
have returned to her new homeland of England when Tostig and his family forced
their return from exile in 1052. After some vigorous negotiations in London, an
uneasy peace was restored between Earl Godwin and the king. Judith and Tostig
would have finally been able to settle down to married life, following months
of uncertainty and upheaval. Although it is impossible to say for certain, they
were probably given one of Godwin’s many comital estates, somewhere in Wessex,
in which to set up their household. Their marriage appears to have been a
successful one, with no rumours of infidelity recorded by the various
chroniclers of the time. They are thought to have had two sons together, Skuli
Tostisson Kongsfostre and Ketil Tostisson, born in 1052 and 1054, respectively.
Tostig was created earl of Northumbria in 1055 and spent the next few years sparring with Malcolm III, King of Scots. However, with peace restored Tostig left on pilgrimage to Rome in 1061, taking Judith with him. They were accompanied by several English bishops, including Ealdred, bishop of Worcester, who had just been made archbishop of York by King Edward, and was travelling to Rome to receive his pallium.
Their party reached Rome in the spring of 1061, where they were received honourably by Pope Nicholas; Tostig given the honour of attending a synod, possibly that held on 15 April at Easter 1061, at which Tostig is said to have sat next to the pope. Shortly after departing Rome for their homeward journey, Tostig’s party were caught up in a local dispute between the papacy and the Tuscan nobility; they were ambushed while travelling along the Via Cassia, by the Count of Galeria. Tostig was able to escape by the ruse of one of his own thegns pretending to be the earl. Judith and a large portion of the party had gone on ahead and were unaware for some time of what had befallen Tostig. She must have been relieved to hear of the failure of the attack when Tostig eventually caught up with her.
Judith appears to have been a very pious individual, although some stories have come down to us of disagreements between the Earl and his countess, and the Church. One story from Symeon of Durham tells of Judith’s attempts to circumvent the rules of the community of St Cuthbert. Despite there being a specific injunction forbidding women to enter the precincts of the church in which lay the shrine of St Cuthbert, Judith was determined to get around this. She sent one of her own maidservants to attempt entry, but the poor girl fell ill as soon as she crossed the boundary and died shortly afterwards, clearly demonstrating the power of St Cuthbert’s will. We can assume that Judith gave up trying to enter the shrine after that! Judith sent gifts to the cathedral – including a crucifix, church ornaments and images of the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist, decorated in gold and silver – to make amends for her disastrous attempt to break the rules.
Despite this, the relationship between the couple and the Church at Durham was generally cordial and mutually appreciated. The earl and countess were notable for almsgiving in Northumbria, and for their generosity towards the community of St Cuthbert. In return Æthelwine, Bishop of Durham, was generous enough to give Judith a relic containing some of St Oswine’s hair. As a consequence, Tostig and Judith are both commemorated in the Durham Liber Vitae.
In 1065, rebellion in Northumbria, and the lack of support from his fellow nobles – including his brother Harold – saw Tostig and his family banished from England; he and Judith, their children and their entire household, crossed the English Channel on 1 November 1065. They made their way to Flanders, to seek refuge with Judith’s brother, Count Baldwin, where they were warmly welcomed just a few days before Christmas.
However, everything changed in January 1066, with the death of Edward the Confessor and the accession of Tostig’s brother, Harold, to the English throne. Not one to miss an opportunity, Tostig started raiding English shores, before invading from Scotland with his ally Harald Hardrada, King of Norway. They defeated the Northumbrians at the Battle of Fulford, near York, before facing Tostig’s brother, King Harold II, across the battlefield of Stamford Bridge a few days later. King Harold proved victorious and Tostig and his ally, Harald Hardrada, were both killed in the fighting.
Judith’s whereabouts during Tostig’s invasion are not mentioned. It is possible that she stayed safe in Flanders with her family and two young sons, the oldest of whom was about fourteen by 1066. However, she may have travelled with her husband; there is a suggestion that at least one of her sons fought at Stamford Bridge and travelled to Norway with the survivors. Following Tostig’s defeat at Stamford Bridge, and Harold’s subsequent death at the Battle of Hastings, Judith’s two sons by Tostig eventually sought refuge with King Olaf ‘the Peaceable’ of Norway, Harald Hardrada’s son who had been allowed to return home following his father’s defeat and death at Stamford Bridge. Little is known of their movements after that, other than that the oldest, Skuli Tostisson Kongsfostre, must have married and had children as he was the ancestor of King Inge II of Norway.
For a time,
Judith remained in Flanders from where her older, half-brother, Count Baldwin
V, arranged a second marriage for her in about 1070, to Welf IV, the newly
created Duke of Bavaria. The couple were to have two sons and a daughter; Welf,
who succeeded his father as Duke of Bavaria and died in 1119, Henry and
Kunizza, who married Count Frederick of Diessen and died in 1120. Henry
succeeded his brother as Duke of Bavaria and died in 1126; he had at least
seven children by his wife, Wulfhilde of Saxony.
A patron of the arts, Judith is renowned for the commissioning of four gospel books, luxurious creations produced in England, probably at Winchester. When Judith left England, she took these gospels, with other manuscripts and relics in her private collection, with her to Flanders. After she remarried, they accompanied her to southern Germany.
On 12 March 1094, with the approval of her husband and sons, Judith drew up a list of bequests. She bequeathed the four gospels and other treasures, to the monastery at Weingarten, a foundation of her husband’s family, thus helping to disseminate Anglo-Saxon art throughout southern Europe. Among the bequests was also a relic of Christ’s blood, given to her by her father. She died a year later, on 5 March 1095, and was buried at the Abbey of Weingarten. Judith is remembered at Weingarten as a widowed queen of England, perhaps a testimony to how close her first husband got to the English throne.
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.
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
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’. Harold was enraged, he ‘taunted Gyrth and even insolently kicked his mother Gytha who was trying to hold him back.’ 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.’
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.
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’. 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’. 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’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.
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;  Gesta Normannorum Ducum by William of Jumièges, edited and translated by Elizabeth Van Houts;  The Gesta Guillielmi of William of Poitiers, edited by R.H.C. Davis and Marjorie Chibnall;  The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy by Ordericus Vitalis;  On the Spindle Side: the Kinswomen of Earl Godwin of Wessex by Ann Williams.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.