Who was Edith Swan-Neck? By Carol McGrath

We really do not know much about Edith Swan-Neck except that she was the handfasted wife of Harold II, set aside during the year he was crowned king. After all, women are the footnotes of history especially the history of the eleventh century. Edith Swan-Neck's sister-in-law, Edith Godwin, was famously married to King Edward whose death in January of that year caused all the trouble in 1066. He died childless. Edith Swan-Neck's mother-in-law, Countess Gytha of Wessex, will be remembered to history since she lost four sons in the year 1066 and, moreover, she withstood William throughout the three week siege of Exeter. Countess Gytha refused to pay King William's tax but after a ghastly siege the citizens made a deal with William by which he allowed the Godwin women and the ladies, who gathered around them, to depart into exile in Flanders.

Harold loved to hunt.


Although King Harold is described in The Vita Edwardii, commissioned by Edith Godwin, as tall, intelligent, experienced in campaign, prodigal with oaths and was accused by foreign writers of promiscuity and adultery, there are no descriptions of Edith Swan-Neck. She was romanticised in the nineteenth century because after the Napoleonic Wars the English sought a pre Norman identity.

Imagined Edith the Fair


Edward Bulwer Lytton, English poet, playwright and politician was very popular during the Victorian era with the reading public. He made a fortune with best-selling novels such as Harold, the Last of the Saxons. He made Edith King Harold's only love and suggested that the couple were handfasted as they were related in the fifth degree. In fact, Their marriage was a legitimate Danish marriage that took place around 1045 after Harold was created Earl of East Anglia.

Handfasting


Handfasting was legal and involved exchange of property. The ceremony is said to have taken place in the Hall by the whetstone. However, this form of marriage more danico was not recognised by the 11th century Gregorian reformed Church. Many nobles, married this way in their youth, later married a second wife in a church ceremony. Harold did this too but most likely for political reasons when he married the King of Wales' widow, Aldgyth of Mercia, to bring her brothers, the Northern Earls, closer to his cause, that of taking England's kingship and protecting the country from invaders-so he hoped.  At the time of their marriage, Edith was probably in her teens.



Lytton also suggested that she was raised by her grandmother, a witch and that she was a god-daughter of Harold's sister Edith, the Queen. The Victorians, especially the Pre-Raphaelite movement, held a passion for a nostalgic purchase on the past, harking back to a romantic and gothic medieval atmosphere.

Wills


Edith Swan-Neck, in truth, was most likely a Norfolk noble-woman. She was probably Edith the Fair/ Edith the Rich of The Domesday Book. Her singular mark of beauty was a long neck with pure white skin, like a swan. She was the daughter of a woman called Wulgyth who made a will in 1046 which reveals that she held lands in Hertfordshire, Bucks., Suffolk, Essex, and Cambridgeshire. Wulgyth left her daughter a huge endowment. Edith Swan-Neck inherited 280 hides and 450 acres of land. A hide is around 120 acres. These lands do tally with those attributed to Edith the Fair in the Domesday Book. They passed to Alan the Red of Richmond after the Conquest, another interesting story. In addition, Edith owned four houses in Canterbury and property in Kent.

The Burning House


Edith was of Scandinavian descent and five of their six living children had Scandinavian names. There was Godwin, the eldest, Edmund, Magnus, Gytha, Gunnhild and Ulf. It is possible that Ulf is the child on The Bayeux Tapestry in flight before the Battle of Hastings. Ulf was later taken as a child hostage into Normandy and not released until after King William's death. It is thought that The Bayeux Tapestry was designed by men but was stitched in abbey embroidery schools by women. Wilton Abbey, in particular, was a centre for needlework and Queen Edith was its patron. An aside here- Edith Swan-Neck was benefactress of St Benet's in Norfolk and could be the 1062 'Lady of Walsingham', as described in a late 15th century ballad. Walsingham is close by. These Norfolk lands at one time belonged to Harold.

Ulf and Edith?

I suspect that The Burning House vignette shown on The Bayeux Tapestry, depicting in realistic appearing embroidery a mother and child in flight, could represent Edith Swan-Neck and her youngest son Ulf just before the Battle of Hastings. Two women depicted earlier on the embroidery, which famously tells the story of 1066, are possibly identifiable as two of Harold's sisters, Queen Edith and Aelgiva (the abbess who died at Wilton before The Norman Conquest).

It is argued by Carola Hicks in her book about The Bayeux Tapestry that Dowager Queen Edith was involved in creating the embroidery. It is suggested by Andrew Bridgeford in his book The Secrets of The Bayeux Tapestry that the Burning House vignette indeed shows Edith and Ulf. The Tapestry is a many layered masterpiece shot through with the English point of view. It is tempting to see the woman and child as standing for actual people rather than simply representational images. She wears aristocratic clothes and the house is two storey. These were important figures.

Harold's Death


We hear from The Waltham Chronicle that two named monks, who followed Harold south from Waltham, fetched Edith to the battlefield to identify the king's broken body by marks only known to her. She did own properties in Kent! The image of Harold struck in the eye is one of the most enduring in history but it is not universally accepted as the correct reading. He may be the figure struck in the thigh below the words Interfectus Est- Was Killed. The Carmen, the Song of Hastings, composed for King William and written in 1068 suggests a named knight hacked off Harold's thigh and that another named knight removed his head. It suggests he was buried secretly overlooking the sea. The monks claim he was taken to Waltham Abbey and buried there. It is a mystery.

Edith Identifies Harold's Body


Still, if we believe the Chronicle, Edith Swan-Neck may have performed the last acts of love and it was her sons who led armies against William in the West. As for what happened later to Edith Swan-Neck, she may have fled to Ireland or travelled with Countess Gytha to Exeter and later into exile. There is no record of this though there are records for her daughter, Gytha/Gita, and another sister of Harold who ended her days at St Omer and for Countess Gytha herself.  My own feeling is that, like many heiresses at the time of Conquest, King Harold's beautiful handfasted wife ended her days in a monastery either in Canterbury or Hereford.


Statue of Edith and Harold at Hastings 


I write about Edith Swan-Neck and her daughters Gunnhild and Gita in a trilogy The Daughters of Hastings published by Accent Press and available in bookshops and for e readers.






6 comments:

  1. There are also references that Edith was from Nazeing in Essex, which is just up the road from Waltham Abbey - there is farm called Harold's Park Farm up on the ridge looking down over the Lee and Roding Valleys, I've always liked to think that this is where Edith's family lived, and where Harold first met her when he was Earl of Essex. Regarding Harold's burial evidence points to Bosham, but I am certain his head and heart were taken to Waltham, after all, he did build the Saxon Abbey.

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    1. Perhaps indeed Nazing was one of the places they lived. After all they moved around. As for where Harold was buried, there are a few possibilities and no one knows exactly where. There is contradictory evidence for this. Who knows is my response. A delicious mystery.

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  2. Fascinating. Women in history are fascinating because they must work with what they have to rise up and mean something. The tendency of History is to leave them in the shadows, a thing which only compels us to draw them out. Yes, who were they.
    More contemporary, I am researching French Doctor Nicole Girard-Mangin who served at the front, was brilliant by all accounts and well aware of the inflated egos of the male doctors who often shunned the really bad cases. And WWI produced some really bad cases. Sadly, after the war, and something I can relate to, she took her own life, no doubt suffering from PTSD, in a time that the great sacrifices, accomplishments of women were marginalised.

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    1. The main reason why we don't hear of the women is that history (until recently) was written by the men, in particular in Early Medieval, monks. One of my biggest 'beefs' is that Beatrix Potter (her of Peter Rabbit fame) did a complete and thorough research into lichens but her work was dismissed because she was a woman. A few years ago her findings were 'rediscovered' and it was realised that her research was spot-on accurate. Mind you, if her work had originally been accepted maybe we would never have had her delightful stories instead, which would have meant all the land she purchased with the royalties in the Lake District would never have been passed into the care of the National Trust, so swings and roundabouts I suppose!

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  3. And also the 11th C was a long time ago and there was chaos after the Battle of Hastings. Even the entries written by monks in the AS Chronicles happened much later. Interestingly Edmer, the Canterbury monk in his anal talks about Matilda who had to have a dispensation to marry Henry I in 1100. She was in Romsey Abbey not Wilton as suggested by a later writer. Her aunt Christina was the Abbess and was very strict. All this was documented and the issue was whether or not she took vows. After conquest abbeys became a sanctuary too for heiresses. I write about Harold's daughter Gunnhild in The Swan-Daughter and how she eloped from Wilton Abbey with Alan of Richmond a second cousin to King William. I think you can find bits by thorough digging and also looking at who signed charters.

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  4. I should also say that I am the author of the above blog. I see I never signed it.

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