21 November 2011

The Women of 1066

By Helen Hollick

We have all heard of 1066 and the Battle of Hastings - King Harold and the arrow in the eye, William the Conqueror and all that -  but rarely mentioned are the queens, wives and mistresses – the women - who influenced the march of history for decades before that fateful day,  October 14th 1066.
Why? Because events were written by monks – the men. Women, with a few notable exceptions, were consigned to the shadows. Yet the series of events, political, personal and passionate,  that led to this unique battle were, in part, due to the role of those women who stood behind the men.
I wonder – do you agree that it is about time we looked into this female role? Just who were the women, and how important – or not – were they?

The Players

Emma: Queen to Æthelred the Unready. She was married at a young age to unify Normandy and England in alliance. The marriage was loveless and a disaster. On Æthelred’s death, wishing to retain her crown, she married the Dane, Cnut (Canute) after his conquest of England. Her two sons by Æthelred, Edward and Alfred, were sent to Normandy. Edward was to remain there for over 30 years.
Emma ruled as regent for Cnut on many occasions – and after his death struggled to obtain the crown for their son, Harthacnut, from Cnut’s firstborn illegitimate son Harald Harefoot (Harald I) Losing the fight when the English earls turned against her, she fled into exile and for propaganda purposes had her biography written: the Encomium Emmae.  Her son Alfred attempted to return to England but was brutally murdered by Harefoot (or possibly his mother – yet another woman of power and influence!)  Partial blame was laid at Emma’s feet. For it was claimed that she had recalled her sons, thus possibly causing civil war and unrest.
With Harald I dying unexpectedly she returned to England with Hardicanute, but triumph was short, for he died as a young man, and Edward, the only male survivor of the Royal Line, was crowned as King.
Duke William of Normandy  used the relationship of Emma, his Great Aunt as one reason for his claim to the English throne.
Queen Emma’s life with Æthelred were to shape her mind and attitude. She was a tough, hard, educated woman who had a strong idea of what she wanted for herself and the English monarchy. Her decisions were to influence  English politics for decades.

Gytha: wife to Earl Godwine, the most influential Earl in England. Mother to Harold Godwinesson (Harold II), rebellious Tostig and hot tempered Sweyn. Her younger sons Gyrth and Leofwine died with Harold at Hastings, Wulfnoth, her youngest, was held hostage in Normandy all his teenage and adult life and Edith, the only daughter, became queen to Edward the Confessor.
Gytha begged for Harold’s body to be returned to her after the Battle at Hastings offering William its weight in gold. Officially she was refused, but it is probable that in secret she arranged for Harold’s burial in the church of the family Manor House in Bosham, for a mutilated torso was found buried beneath the Chancel arch – the place where only bishops or Kings are laid to rest. Possibly three anomalies that may well be other burials have been found along the Nave. The graves of her two sons, Leofwine and Gyrth, and her grandson, Hakon, perhaps?
The remains contained only the torso, it is therefore highly probable that Harold’s head and heart were taken to Waltham Abbey and laid to rest beneath the alter. This would account for the substantial claim by the Abbey that he rests there.

Edith, daughter to Earl Godwine, sister to Harold and wife of Edward the Confessor. Edward took her as wife to control her father, Earl Godwine, who with his extensive influence of power virtually ran England - much to the distain of Edward and other earls.
When the Godwines were exiled after serious disagreement with the King, she was sent in disgrace to a convent, but Godwine’s authority was extensive and although disliked by the English Earls, he was preferable to Edward’s new friends at Court – Norman monks and barons. Godwine was re-instated, the Normans were banished (taking the Earl’s youngest son, Wulfnoth and grandson, Hakon, with them as security) and Edith was re-consecrated as Queen.
Learning her lesson she turned away from her family and gave full support to her husband, often sitting at his feet during council meetings. She pampered him, as the mother he had never had. There were no children born to the marriage – but Edward never blamed Edith, unusual for a King in this period? Impotent? Homosexual? Homosexuality is known within the following family line, and while not wishing to stereotype, Edward did display some of the characteristics typically regarded as “gay”. Long feminine hands, a liking to “dress up” in his regalia on Crown wearing days. Mood swings – often petulant.
After Hastings, Duke William acknowledged Edith as the rightful Dowager Queen, the only family member to retain estates and position. As girl and woman she was spoiled and selfish, as child and an adult, determined to have her own way

Edith Swanneck (Edith the Fair) of Nazeing,Essex. Probably the daughter of a freeborn Thegn. She nursed Harold to health after a serious illness and remained at his side for over 20 years as his common-law wife.  She bore at least six children – one of her daughters, after Hastings married Vladimir Prince of Kiev, her son establishing the imperial line of Tsars. Through this line, Harold’s relationship to the present Royal family is retained. Her eldest two sons were killed near Bristol trying to raise a rebellion against William.
Harold remained loyal to Edith throughout his life, until in 1066 when consecrated as King he was forced to make a marriage of political alliance.
It was Edith Swanneck who was among the women at Hastings, however, not his Queen. Edith who was forced to identify Harold’s remains, for only she could recognise his mutilated torso by the distinguishing marks and scars that only a wife, or lover, would know. How had she felt walking that battlefield, knowing all was lost, knowing her beloved lord had been hacked to pieces but hours before?

Matilda of Flanders wife to William the Conqueror. She was independently wealthy and refused a number of times to marry William citing his illegitimacy and inability to read. Eventually she acquiesced and became as ambitious as her husband for a royal crown.  She was to fund some of the cost of building the ships William used in his invasion of England, and presented him with his own vessel.
Later, she assisted her firstborn son, Robert, to raise rebellion against William and tried to take control of Normandy for herself and her sons. Soon after, William was die alone and abandoned, his body naked, stripped of all jewels and left to bloat so badly that it burst as it was forced into a coffin.

Aldytha (technically also another Edith) official wife of Harold II. In 1066 she became Harold’s Queen when he needed to make firm alliance with the two northern earls, her brothers Edwin and Morkere. She was widow to the Welsh Prince, Gryffydd, defeated by Harold’s conquest of Wales in the early 1060’s.
Upon William’s invasion, heavily pregnant, Harold sent her to Chester for safety. She bore him a son, who possibly died in his infancy, and fled into Wales. Never to be heard of again.
But what were her feelings, her hopes, her apprehensions? Here was a woman who knew nothing except being used as a political pawn. To be delivered of a Crown and then so tragically to lose it, Alditha ‘s story is one of sadness and despair. What happened to her I wonder?

And what of the ordinary women? The mothers, wives, daughters and sweethearts who saw their men-folk slaughtered on the battlefield seen miles from the coast at Hastings?
Their story has as much right to be told, does it not?

Comments from Original Post:

Blogger Pauline Barclay said...

An amazing Blog filled with so much information, but then so are your wonderful book!

Anonymous Richard Denning said...

Good article and as you say some strong female figures there.

These questions of WHAT happened to various people after Hastings fascinates me. We tend to draw a line under Hastings, sweep away the Saxon era and start again - even numbering our kings ONLY from 1066 onwards - ignoring those who came before.

Thank God you are here to redress that eh Helen?

Anonymous Tricia Gurnett said...

Excellent, Helen. It is good, and unusual, to see all the women of the Harold story set out together like this. I agree they played an important part in it, particularly my personal favourite, Edith Swanhaels.

Blogger Annis said...

A very interesting post, thanks. Some time ago Geoff Boxell put together an article about the fate of Harold's family which may also be of interest. I was quite taken by the story of his wayward daughter Gunnild, who exchanged life in a nunnery for one with first Alan the Red, and then his brother Alan the Black!

I'd love to know what happened to Edith Swan-neck - she just seems to vanish from the face of the earth. In his novel, "Harold, the Last of the Saxon Kings", Victorian author Edward Bulwer-Lytton has her die of grief after finding Harold's body. Perhaps he wasn't too far from the truth?


  1. Very interesting article and thank you for writing it. I have often wondered about the role of women during the time before/after the Battle of Hastings. Someone once told me that young noble women were 'given in marriage' to those men from Normandy who had also been given titles and land. Any truth to this? Thank you for your time!

    1. Hello - yes that is perfectly true! Nearly all marriages of the 'nobility' pre and post 1066 were arranged, usually as a political alliance. After the conquest there were many (hundreds of nobility thousands of ordinary women!) of English widows and fatherless daughters, the quickest way for the Normans to establish themselves, and take ownership of the lady was to marry these women. Women of the past, sadly, had very few rights. Add to this the marriageable age for girls was at puberty - so about 12 or 13. Emma of Normandy (mother of Edward the Confessor) was married to Aethelred of England between 13-15 as a political alliance (see my novel A Hollow Crown - titled The Forever Queen in the US)


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