Judith of Flanders, Countess of Northumberland

Judith of Flanders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorial to the Battle of Stamford Bridge, York

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

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

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

Memorial Plaque, Stamford Bridge, York

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Pictures:

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

Sources:

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

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Gytha of Wessex and the Fall of the House of Godwin

Statue of King Harold, Waltham Abbey

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

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

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

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

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

Memorial to the Battle of Stamford Bridge, outside York

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

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

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

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

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

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

Edith searching the battlefield for Harold’s body

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

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

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

Battlefield at Hastings

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

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

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

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

Gytha, Countess of Wessex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

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

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©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly