Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Edith Swan-neck

 Shortly after The Battle of Hastings Eadgifu Swanneshals, known as Edith Swan-neck was brought to the field at Senlac by two priests of Waltham Abbey, Osgod Cnoppe and Elthelric Childemaister, to identify King Harold’s body.  Amongst the slain, she discovered his corpse, almost unrecognisable, stripped of all regal insignia. The Waltham Chronicler writes:
‘She had at one time been the king’s concubine and knew the secret marks on his body better than others did, for she had been admitted to a greater intimacy of his person. Thus they would be assured by her knowledge of his secret marks when they could not be sure from his external appearance.’

 Waltham Chronicle 12th Century
What do we know about Edith Swan-neck? Women are marginalised in early historical accounts so Edith presents a challenge for any twenty first century writer.  
Edith is recorded in the Domesday Book as Edfgifu the Rich, an heiress who brought extensive lands to Harold’s support when he was created Earl of Anglia in 1042. She was an Anglo-Danish noblewoman.
‘Count Alain holds Cherry Hinton…There is land for 13 ploughs…19 villans, 22 borders, with 9 ploughs…Eadgifu the Fair held this manor…’  The Domesday Book also records that she held other manors in Hertfordshire, Berks, Essex and Cambridgeshire and dwellings in Canterbury. She was a woman of some substance.

 Wife or Concubine
Edith and Harold were married More Danico. This was a system whereby the bride and groom were hand-fasted which perhaps nowadays might be compared to a civil partnership. Historian, Frank Barlow suggests that they were cousins in the fifth degree, indicating that a Church wedding was unacceptable. However, the arrangement allowed Harold to later remarry within the Church. In 1066, he made a politically expedient marriage to Aldgyth, sister of the Northern Earls.  Although Edith had now become his “concubine” he was, I suggest, still deeply attached to her and their six surviving children, Godwin, Edmund, Magnus, Gytha, Gunnhild and Ulf. The importance of these children is indicated by the fact that one of them was held hostage in the aftermath of the battle.  

A Noble Lady
The swanlike white skin of her neck was a sign of beauty amongst English noble women. She would have been greatly admired. As a wealthy aristocrat, she had her personal goldsmith, Grimwald. As a noble woman she probably received a basic education. We know that she donated a valuable Gospel to Thorney Abbey. Moreover, she was the benefactress of St Benet’s Monastery.
  After the Great Battle
Bayeaux Tapestry Historian, Andrew Bridgeford suggests that she fled when the Normans burned Godwin property in Sussex. He posits that this estate is The Burning House depicted on The Bayeux Tapestry. After the Battle, Edith disappears from historical record. By 1086, her lands had passed to an invader, Alain of Richmond. Possibly she joined Harold’s mother Gytha in Exeter from where she may have been exiled after the siege in the winter of 1068; perhaps she joined her exiled sons in Ireland or Denmark. Equally, she may have lived out her life in a Nunnery. Whatever happened after she identified King Harold’s corpse, I like to think that she survived the terrible aftermath of 1066. As Harold ’s lover and mother of his six children she has a place in the epic story of 1066 and therefore should be remembered.

This blog is part of a sequence in commemoration of the Battle of Hastings and there is a competition being run by the Historical Novels Society on this link.  There are questions on the six blogs and the chance to win £50 worth of Amazon vouchers.

Monday, 10 October 2011



The journey to my current "oeuvre" was sparked to literary life during a stay in the Medieval town of Villedieu les Poeles (literally City of God of the Pans - it's the centre of the trade in copper cooking pots in Normandy).

On a wind-blown and overcast Autumn day we had visited Bayeux's Museum where the famous Tapestry spools around a curved wall and within its dimly lighted glass capsule manages in its two meagre,time-faded dimensions to bring to life with immediacy and vibrancy the pivotal moment in England's story.The story of what for the Anglo Saxon population was a true Apocalyse, a time when all was changed, a time when the Freemen of England fell under the yoke of Norman servitude.

At the time I was working towards a Diploma of Creative Writing at Oxford University, and making my first attempt to write a play for radio. There in Bayeux on that blustery afternoon I found a story. It grew out of a small vignette on the embroidery which depicted two Normans, recognisable by their distinctive punkish haircuts, setting fire to an Anglo Saxon house while the occupants, a woman and child, flee for their lives. The fact that the woman is from the upper classes is evident in the extravagant opulence of her dress sleeves. William's forces lay waste to the estates and villages around Pevensey prior to regrouping for what would become known as the Battle of Hastings. 

Later, I returned to The Burning House vignette and embarked on a novel about Edith SwanNeck, Harold's handfasted wife and the mother of his children. The research has transported me into the early medieval world inhabited by Edith and her contemporaries. It involved learning Anglo-Saxon, attending history conferences, trawling original souce materials at The Bodleian Library and writing, rewriting and pruning my story of this woman's survival in the aftermath of war. 

Now, I am planning the second novel in the sequence Women of Hastings. So it was that an image hand-embroidered by cloistered women almost a thousand years ago provided the inspiration for me to begin my telling of Edith's story.

 Secrets of The Bayeux Tapestry

The tapestry has not just been the major inspiration for my novel, it is a valuable resource about early medieval England. It is embroidered on a plain linen background in wools of red, yellow, grey, two greens and three shades of blue. There are figures in castles and on horseback. These characters look and point as if they mean to tell us secrets. This is a story of conspirators, of dangerous times and of war that began with dark deeds that occurred a few years before 1066. Only by historical detective work can its secrets be deduced. Not all specialists are in agreement but it is thought that the tapestry was made in conquered England within a decade of 1066. The Bayeux Tapestry is considered to be filled with hidden meaning, a subversive account of the Norman claim to the English throne.  It is the story of how a helpless conquerered people attempted to understand what had happened to them.

 The House That Burned

This vignette lies at the heart of my novel. It sets my heroine, Elditha (Edith Swanneck) and her narrative in motion. William had a scorched earth policy before the Battle of Hastings, probably premeditated. The path of Norman rampage may today be traced in The Domesday Book of 1086. A succession of lands in Sussex were devastated and laid waste.There are only three women depicted on the tapestry. Some historians wonder if Edith SwanNeck is the third woman identified on the tapestry. The child, they think, may well be one of Harold's children. The writing above the vignette states HIC DOMUS INCENDITUR (Here a House is Burned). Although the woman and child are often regarded as representational figures and it is tempting to see them as innocent victims of war, they probably stood for actual people. The only two other women in the tapestry are identified- the named Elfgyva and the unnamed but identifiable Queen Edith. It is, therefore, most likely that the third woman, also in aristocratic clothes, is indeed a real and identifiable person. Here, in colours still bright, fleeing from flames and destruction could be Edith SwanNeck, the heroine of "The Handfasted Wife/ Here a House is Burned".

If interested in the Tapestry's Story, I would recommend the following works:

Andrew Bridgeford 1066,The Hidden History of the Bayeux Tapestry.

The Bayeux Tapestry, New Approaches edited by Michael Lewis, Gale R. Owen Crocker and Dan Terkla.

Carola Hicks, The Bayeux Tapestry, The Life Story of a Masterpiece.