Since the military action of 1066 was so dominant and due to the time period we are discussing, sometimes the women involved went unnoticed throughout history. Even though they were not directly involved in the physical fighting, they were present and contributed to the historic record in their own ways. With this post I want to dedicate it to three women who lived through this era and how the events influenced their lives.
Edith the Fair or also called Edith Swanneck is often called the love of Harold Godwinsons life. Swanneck might seem a strange name, but it was attributed to her because she is described as having a beautiful long and pale neck. Being dubbed Fair also indicates she was a very attractive woman. She was of Scandinavian descent and was born around 1025. It makes for a very romantic story that Harold was devoted to her most his life and that she was his hand-fasted bride. They had six surviving children together: Edmund, Magnus, Gytha, Gunnhild and Ulf. But, she was also fairly wealthy as according the Doomsday Book she owned a great amount of land around Cambridge and was probably a noblewoman. That would make sense that a young Harold, newly made earl of East Anglia would find it beneficial to marry Edith. Hand-fasting was also not eloping. It comes from Anglo-Saxon/Danish tradition and was considered legally binding, though not in the eyes of the church. Edith stood by Harold’s side from the beginning of his public life up until the bitter end (despite his having to marry a new wife in 1066 for political reasons). Being with him from the beginning in a love match it is easy to imagine all the possible discussions they would have at night, the advice that she could have given, and influence in decisions.
It is said Edith was there at the Battle of Hastings, watching the battle from a high position with Harold’s mother and the local monks. I cannot even imagine the worry and fear for her lover or even watching a real and bloody battle all day! After the battle there was a great search for the fallen King Harold’s body and Edith the Fair was chosen to identify it. It was Edith his common law wife, not his legal wife who was chosen for this duty. This would be such a difficult thing to do. Harold’s body was mutilated and almost unrecognizable. She identified him by markings that only a lover would know. This was the father of her children, her partner she had loyally followed throughout life and who she was now with at the bitter end. She walked through the carnage in order to save his body and give him a proper Christian burial unlike the rest of the common English soldiers at Hastings who were left as food for the animals. Edith and her children would live in exile the rest of their days with her sons having no claim to the throne at all (as Harold himself had no blood relation).
Edith of Wessex was Harold Godwinson’s sister and daughter of the great Earl Godwin. Being from such a powerful family she was well educated and raised for her future position as Queen of England. She studied at the abbey of Wilton and spoke multiple languages as well as having knowledge in grammar, math and astronomy. The Godwin family helped the future Edward the Confessor reclaim his throne and in return demanded his marriage to their eldest daughter, Edith. They were married on January 23, 1045 when Edith was twenty-two. As Queen she held a powerful position and had influence in advising King Edward. She helped to improve his image as a powerful King through his appearance (as Edward, being very pious, wanted nothing to do with rich clothing). They did not have children together and there are many theories as to why. The legend is that Edward was so pious that he decided to remain celibate his whole life, but it was most likely one was infertile. Unfortunately, this childless situation is one of the catalysts to starting 1066.
In the 1050s, Edith was exiled by her husband and sent to a nunnery when the Godwin family was out of favor. She was reinstated after the family regained power and by 1066 was the richest woman in England owning a great deal of land and was a sponsor of the abbey at Wilton where she was educated. After the Norman Conquest, William demanded her subordination and she agreed, but, in return, she got to keep her lands. I believe on of her greatest accomplishments was the commissioning of the Life of King Edward, which kept her husband’s memory alive, told the story of her own life, and became a great source for historians who studied this time (this is where we get our information regarding Edward’s controversial deathbed scene). She would remain the only member of the original English royalty to prosper during the rule of William the Conqueror, proving her intelligence and strategic mind.
Matilda was the wife of William the Conqueror and was extremely powerful. She was born in 1031 to the Count of Flanders. She was very high born and was actually a descendant of King Alfred the Great of England. This ancestry was a great motive for William to pursue her as a wife as it just added to his own claim to the England throne. She was well educated and a reverent Christian. According to legend, when William first offered the proposal of marriage Mathilda refused stating she was much too high born for a man who was born a bastard. If this is true it seems she came around to the idea of marriage and, being an intelligent woman, saw the advantages of a union to a possible future King of England. They were married in 1051 or 1052 with William standing a great 6 ft tall and petite Matilda at only about 5 feet. The couple were actually excommunicated by the pope for a marriage that was deemed “incestuous”, but then was reinstated after establishing two new churches for penance..
Matilda was very encouraging of her husband’s ambitions and commissioned a great ship named The Mora for her husband’s upcoming invasion of England. William trusted her as regent in Normandy while he was campaigning and after the invasion Matilda became a symbol to represent the power of the Norman invasion. She would have nine children which would consolidated their power in England. This was a dynasty that Edward the Confessor was never able to give.
Matilda had a lavish coronation, which was the first of its kind, and proved her power would be as equal as her husband. When rebellions broke out in the wake of the Norman invasion she traveled to her husband on the field, heavily pregnant with her ninth child. She gave birth to a son out there in the rebellious conditions and since this was the first child they had on on English soil the rebels became more accepting of the Norman rule. Mathilda very cleverly followed this up by making her ninth son, Henry, the heir to all the English lands. She was a great symbol of Norman power and was a perfect foil for Williams rough personality due to her gentle persona. Over the years Matilda would rule in Normandy while William was King in England, showing how much he depended on her. He would also recall her back to England when needed for many political events. She heard many English legal cases when William was unavailable (where she probably earned her reputation of being just) and was involved with many business charters. Her clever diplomacy and intelligence in political affairs helped to make her (and the Norman Conquest) more accepted over the years. She was beloved. William may not have been able to maintain his power without Matilda by his side, they depended on one another. I would love to learn more about Matilda in the future because she really was an amazing woman of her time.
1066: The Story of a Year by Denis Butler