I have recently returned from a visit to Kyiv which features in my novel about Kind Harold’s daughter, Gytha , Gyda or Gita whom I named Thea in my novel, The Betrothed Sister, since her grandmother owned the same name.
After 1066 and his defeat in The Battle of Hastings, the survivors of King Harold II’s family were exiled to foreign lands, with the exception of Gunnhild, his younger daughter who took up with King William’s cousin, Alan of Richmond. Surviving supporters were also scattered to lands as far apart as Byzantium and Denmark. There were, and had been for some time, English communities in Russian Kyiv (Kiev) and Novgorod.
Princess Gyda (Gita/Gytha/Thea in The Betrothed Sister) was King Harold’s elder daughter, exiled with her grandmother sometime after The Battle of Hastings. She may have travelled from Flanders with her brothers to King Sweyn’s court in Denmark circa 1068. Sweyn was King Harold’s mother’s nephew. It is likely that it was Sweyn who arranged this brilliant marriage for his aunt’s grand-daughter to Vladimir Monomarkh, son of the third prince in line for the grand throne of Kyiv and since at this time Kyiv was possibly the richest and largest city in Europe the betrothal was a coup.
Janet Martin, Russian Medievalist, writes in her book Medieval Russia 980-1584 ‘Prince Iarslav Vladimirovitch arranged the marriage of his daughter Elizaveta to the King of Norway; when widowed, she married the King of Denmark…Vladimir Monomarkh’s marriage to Gyda, the daughter of King Harold II of England reflected the prince’s ties with the king of Denmark more than England.’ There were already established historical links between Scandinavian and Rus lands. Only the odd snippet can be discovered in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and The Russian Primary Chronicle; the latter an early twelfth century document from Kyiv, concerning Gyda’s marriage. The Russian Primary Chronicle suggests that the marriage took place in the 1070s.
So what do we know about Princess Gyda’s new home? Her feelings as written in The Betrothed Sister are speculative, as is her lengthy betrothal. As novelists we try to create characters and believable historical worlds for our historical protagonists. It was impossible to discover much about Gyda’s character. However, I discovered through research that she cared deeply about religion and that either through devotion, illness or both, she ended her life in a Kyivan convent. It was easier for me to research the atmosphere and life of medieval Kiev and Novgorod and also speculate on what life may have been for a dispossessed princess married into the wealthy, snobbish Riurikid dynasty.
Rus lands were inhabited by Slavs and Vikings during the ninth century. By the late eleventh century the Russian Orthodox Church, not dissimilar to the Greek Orthodox Church, influenced Rus culture. For instance, a written language evolved and many, including women, throughout society were educated as is evidenced by the discovery of everyday messages scribed on birch bark during this period. Scholars suggest that the seclusion of noble women in a part of the palace called a Tereem dates from the eleventh century rather than from a later medieval period following Mongol invasions. The concept may have originated in Frankish lands or seeped out from Byzantium. The Tereem is not to be confused with a harem. Russians were strictly monogamous. The Russian Primary Chronicle documents the construction of Cathedrals and monasteries, influenced by Byzantine art, each decorated with frescos and icons, provided with liturgical books and sacerdotal robes.
The damp environment of the northern area around Novgorod proved conducive to preserving the layers of a medieval city. When teams of archaeologists began systematic excavations in Novgorod in the 1940s they discovered an immense archaeological treasure trove of items from the old medieval city.
Implements used in daily life were usually fashioned from wood. Ploughs and harrows used in the fields depended on wood, sometimes in a near natural state. Wooden houses from the period have partially been returned to life in Novgorod’s museums because of these excavations. Dwellings were laid out in courtyards that lined streets made of logs split lengthways. Houses were constructed of logs built on decks to protect them from the low damp ground characteristic of the region. Decaying refuse was overlaid with twigs and inhabitants built log pathways across their yards.
In the south, around Kyiv, wood was less important. A Prince of Kyiv inhabited palatial buildings atop a central hill whilst the working population dwelled primarily in wooden homes in separate sections of the city, located on outlying hilltops at the base of bluffs in the area known as Podol. Red slate from an area north west of Kyiv was used in Cathedrals and presumably in palaces.
Thousands of artisans and artists were employed in Kyiv and Novgorod the two major cities of the Rus. The wealthy, such as Thea (Gyda), who could afford more durable materials than wood would own a bone salt box, bone combs, dice and ornamental eating utensils. Byzantine craftsmen filled an increasing demand for luxury items generated by the Kyivan elite, the Riurikid princes and the Church hierarchy. Goods including nuts, spices, amphorae containing olive oil and wine were transported throughout Russia. Glass objects produced in Kyiv using Byzantine techniques were widely used. Kyiv became famous for beautiful jewellery decorated with inlaid enamel and fine pottery.
The sense I have from my thorough investigation into early medieval Kyiv and Novgorod (I read Russian Studies at University) is that it was a wealthy and often an educated society. I aimed to recreate a general image of medieval Kyiv as a bustling cosmopolitan centre sustained by lively commerce and craft production. It was a stable complex society that was threatened during this period by internecine conflict between brothers and cousins who fought to control the central throne.
The Grand Prince was the apex of this social structure. His military retainers formed a layer under him. On a par with them were the Hierarchs of the Church. The bulk of Kyiv’s residents were merchants, tradesmen, artisans, unskilled labourers and the lowest strata of slaves and dependent labourers. Foreigners, such as Earl Conor and Padar in The Betrothed Sister, often held a special status within this society.
This was the strange, exotic world into which King Harold’s daughter married. Sadly, she never lived long enough to see her husband become the Grand Prince of Kyiv, and, interestingly, three of their sons, in turn, also became Grand Princes. King Harold’s daughter was, in fact, an ancestress of the Romanov Dynasty. Therefore, it can be said that although King Harold II did not found a new Anglo-Saxon dynasty in England, his elder daughter by Edith Swan-Neck was a significant and fascinating, if often forgotten historical woman, who continued her father Harold’s lineage and dynastic ambitions through her sons. She was a woman who embraced life in her land of exile, and what a life she must have lived. I hope that in The Betrothed Sister I allowed her a possible life. This novel will be republished next October with a preface and new cover.
Paula Says: Thank you so much for visiting my blog to talk about Harold’s eldest daughter on my blog. Gytha is a fascinating character, despite the fact little is known about her, but you really brought her to life in your book. I think that writing the Betrothed Sister was a very brave undertaking because I wouldn’t have known where to start researching for this and where to look for evidence of the medieval Kiev. I think that you did a marvellous job of injecting life into the framework of Gytha’s story. I heartily agree that Gytha was probably in Denmark where the marriage was brokered for her, mainly because it seems natural that Gytha’s grandmother, Gytha, would go back to her early homeland and to the comfort of her extended family after depositing her daughter Gunnhild in the abbey in Flanders. I want to say that I look forward to seeing the books with new covers and wish you well on your journey as an historical writer. It’s a pleasure to know you.
Today I’d very much like to welcome fellow Anglo-Saxon nut, Annie Whitehead, (sorry Annie!) to my Writers of Anglo-Saxon Literature series. Here she is talking about her beloved Mercia, and the characters that inhabited that world in the not so Dark Ages.
If you’re here reading Paula’s blog, then you probably don’t need to be told how interesting and exciting Anglo-Saxon history is. Despite the epithet, these times weren’t really the Dark Ages. There’s a wealth of documentary and archaeological evidence and an abundance of tales about characters who are too interesting not to write about.
It wasn’t deliberate, but I seem to write almost exclusively about the inhabitants of a particular Anglo-Saxon kingdom: Mercia.
Why Mercia in particular? Well, I happen to think that some of the most charismatic characters came from there or operated within its borders. More of them anon.
We don’t know precisely where the Mercians came from, or how they ended up where they did, or even what their name means and whether that’s what they called themselves.
Theories abound. Some say they migrated from the eastern settlements, some say there’s no evidence for this. Some think that they were Angles rather than Saxons, and most agree that their name, Myrcne, means the Marcher, or Border, People. So straight away they’re marked out as different; not named for who they were and where they came from – unlike the West Saxons, (Wessex) or the North Folk (Norfolk) – and we’re not even sure which border is being referred to. Was it the border with the Welsh? The Northumbrians? Or even the West Saxons?
It gets even more complicated when we realise that they weren’t even one kingdom, but more like a confederation of states. These smaller kingdoms gradually merged, or got consumed by Mercia proper, but their administrative organisation bore traces of those early kingdoms, and tribal identities remained, even into the eleventh century. (They almost toppled Edward the Confessor, too, but I’ll come back to that.)
At crucial times, their backing of a particular candidate for the throne was pivotal. Athelstan was first declared king in Mercia, and just as well, because he had a little difficulty shoring up his position in Wessex, initially. There was a small amount of trouble from a half-brother who was elected king in Wessex but died just a couple of weeks later, and then another half-brother who was implicated in a rebellion and was put to sea, where he drowned.
Later on in the tenth century, a fairly feckless young king, Eadwig, failed to bribe enough noblemen to support him – not for lacking of trying; in his short reign he issued over sixty charters, attempting to buy support in return for land – and the Mercians elected his brother, Edgar, as their king. There were two courts for a while, until Eadwig, like so many before him, died a convenient death at aged just nineteen. Edgar was keen throughout the rest of his reign always carefully to acknowledge the debt he owed to the Mercians and what by then had effectively become the Danelaw, in fact if not in name.
So, for me, they’re a little bit different. A little bit unconventional. And the people who led them were fascinating.
Any history of Mercia has to start off with Penda, the pagan warlord. Official line: he made war on Northumbria for no reason, burning, pillaging and generally behaving in an unsportsmanlike manner. But a chance remark by his sternest critic, the Venerable Bede, informs us that at one point he went to war because the king of Wessex had repudiated his sister. Vicious pagan he may have been, but I’d want him on my side if I ever got ‘dumped’.
At one point, the kingdom of Mercia stretched from the Thames to the Humber. Mercian kings were at various points overlords of most of the smaller kingdoms of the south and east. Their downfall though came in part because of their make-up. Having started out as a confederacy of separate kingdoms, they retained a tribal element and often their ealdormen weren’t elected by the king, but served in government because they were, effectively, tribal chiefs. This meant that an awful lot of successions to the kingship were contested, by rival claimants from various families. This might not have mattered so much had it not been for two things: the coming of the Vikings, and the fact that Wessex started getting its act together and established a strong dynasty of its own, the most famous member of that family being Alfred the Great.
Still, the Mercians remained quite cheerful, putting their weight behind a lady of whom you might have heard: Æthelflæd, daughter of Alfred. She was half-Mercian anyway, but her strategic burh-building meant that, in partnership with her brother, the boundaries of the Danelaw were pushed back and important territories regained. Her daughter succeeded her in Mercia for a short while. They weren’t queens, but they were accepted by the Mercians in a way that the West Saxons never accepted women leaders.
Still, after a brief spell as leader, this daughter was removed by Alfred’s son, Edward, and Mercia was governed from then on by Wessex.
They weren’t for giving up their national identity though, as we’ve seen; twice they were instrumental in electing West Saxon kings. And in the eleventh century, their identity was still discrete from Wessex. It doesn’t cast them in a positive light, but when their ealdorman, Eadric Streona, was accused of fleeing the battlefield, it was said that he took with him the men of the Magonsæte, one of the original kingdoms which had made up the Mercian confederacy.
Later in the eleventh century, when politics was dominated by the machinations and ambitions of the family of Earl Godwin, the Mercians had a part to play. When the northerners rebelled against Tostig Godwinson, Mercian brothers Edwin – Earl of Mercia – and Morcar – newly-elected earl of Northumbria – led the northern earls in a deputation which very nearly ended in outright rebellion, causing Harold Godwinson to ride north with all due haste and negotiate with them. It might even have been at this point that he arranged to marry the sister of Edwin and Morcar. Not bad work for Mercian brothers who were probably still only teenagers at the time.
When you consider that such lively characters as Offa and Lady Godiva were also Mercians, the question for me isn’t Why Mercia, but Why Not?
Annie is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, chronicles the life of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, who ruled a country in all but name, and her second, Alvar the Kingmaker, tells the story of Earl Alvar, who served King Edgar and his son Æthelred the Unready who were both embroiled in murderous scandals. Her third novel, Cometh the Hour, charts the life of King Penda. She was a contributor to the anthology 1066 Turned Upside Down. She is the recipient of various awards for her novels and has also won awards for her nonfiction essays. She won the inaugural HWA Dorothy Dunnett Short Story Competition and her first full-length nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom was published by Amberley Books in Sep 2018.
Thank you so much, Annie, for coming on my blog today. I’ve learned so much about Mercia already! I think the explanation for the name of Mercia being derived from the marches or borders is a good one myself, and quite reasonable. They were bordered on all sides as you say, so perhaps there is some truth in that. Perhaps they were a mixture of Britons, Saxons, and Angles, which could explain why they were never known as an Anglo-Saxon kingdom.
I agree that the Mercian characters are a fascinating bunch. I wonder how different things might have been had they ended up being the more dominant kingdom instead of Wessex. One of the most interesting things I find was their links with Wales, and how sometimes they were allies and sometimes they were enemies – I noticed you didn’t mention that old rebel, Alfgar, whom i happen to think of as one of the most interesting Mercians of the mid 11th Century apart form Leofric and Godiva, his parents. I’d love to know what it was the recalcitrant son of Godiva blurted out before he could stop himself that got himself exiled on two occasions!
As for Æthelflæd, she is my darling. I love your portrayal of her in your book To Be A Queen . For me she is the kick ass woman of the Dark Ages. If only we knew more about her life, her appearance and her character. Thank goodness that we have authors like yourself who bring these characters to life.
Which leads me to heartily recommend Annie’s books and her recent non-fiction book about MERCIA which currently awaits my hungry little eyes and fingers on my book shelf.
I’m giving away my age by admitting this—not to mention the length of time it took to write this book—but my research on this period began before the internet was a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye. Way before. In fact, I began my research in my college years while I was living in St. Louis, MO—a very nice town but far from the libraries I needed. I went to every university library in the city; luckily they were free to all comers. But I could only get so far. If the book I needed wasn’t in the library, I was out of luck. In fact, I didn’t even know what to look for! Imagine, you young ones, not being able to do a search for all available sources. If the book wasn’t in the card catalogue, it might as well not even exist. Even for me, it’s hard to conceive not being able to find what I need, and I went through it.
So, like any warm-blooded researcher who didn’t have a family to take care of, I pulled up stakes and moved to New York. The day I discovered the New York Public Library my life changed forever! The wealth of information at my fingertips had just grown exponentially. Merely thumbing through the card catalogue was enough to make my heart palpitate. You couldn’t browse the shelves and had to request books then wait about twenty minutes, but it was worth the effort. I discovered authors I never knew about, and finally got my hands on my first copy of Edward A. Freeman’s “History of the Norman Conquest of England”. I thought I had gone to heaven! In six volumes he wrote about every aspect of Anglo-Saxon England I could possibly think of. (These days Freeman is somewhat out of fashion, but he’s still my go-to when I need to look something up; he has never failed me yet.) Copy machines were available for ten cents a page, but as much as I needed to copy, I’d be better off buying the books—if I could find them. A couple of years after I moved to New York, I took a book-buying trip to England and discovered Hay-on-Wye. A breakthrough! Those were the days (the late ’80s) when old used hardbacks were still easy to find, and I discovered my very own set of Freeman which I gleefully brought home. That was the original basis of all my research.
I wrote two books (at least the first drafts) before a crushing disappointment and my own thin skin caused me to put my manuscripts on the shelf for twenty years. When the time came for me to blow the dust off my copies, everything had changed. Old books were harder to afford, but search engines had come into their own and the world was at my fingertips. What a difference.
This brings me to my hero Godwine. We know he was a commoner; as for his origins, historians have relied on guesswork and the occasional contemporary document. However, Godwine was a common name as well as Wulfnoth (his father), so we can only assume we have the right man when we put the clues together. Freeman gave us a multi-page assessment of Godwine’s origin in an appendix to Vol. 1 with all the permutations. He favored the story I ultimately used, which was derived from the 13th century Knytlinga Saga (The Saga of Cnut’s Descendants), problematic though it was. It wasn’t until many years after I finished my book that I discovered Ian Walker’s “Harold, The Last Anglo-Saxon King”, where the author concluded that Godwine served first Athelstan then Edmund Ironside before he went over to Canute (or Knut, or Cnut). Both historians’ explanations were pretty convoluted (there were two Wulfnoths in question as far as Freeman was concerned; Walker didn’t go there); nonetheless, these were totally different origin stories. It certainly emphasized the difference between pre- and post- internet. Ultimately, had I known about the other version I still might not have changed anything (I love the saga account), though in essence, I’m glad to be spared the decision!
When it came to Godwine’s marriage to Gytha, I had little to work from. We are told that Canute gave her to him in marriage. That’s about it. As we know, women had little say in the matter, but theirs was an unequal match. This was early in Godwine’s career; he may have been an earl by then, but he couldn’t have moved far beyond his common origins at this point. And she was a noble woman; her brother Ulf was a Danish Earl and her father was a chieftain. I can see the potential for stress! On the other hand, they had lots of children together, so there must have been some attraction between them.
But more to the point for me: why did Swegn turn out to be such a bad egg? Any why did Godwine support him so loyally despite his transgressions? He was the firstborn; the Godwines were wealthy and powerful; his future was guaranteed. I’m not a believer that people are born evil—especially characters in a novel. Something must have happened to sour his personality. Then it came to me in a flash: why not have Swegn be conceived in this environment of stress and antagonism? If he was born before Godwine and Gytha were reconciled, it’s very possible that she could reject her unwanted child. And so the troubled Swegn grew from bad to worse. I could see that Godwine might feel guilty about his neglected son and would feel the need to make up for his unhappy childhood. Thus, all the pieces fell into place.
Other events required more guesswork. Was Godwine responsible for the death of Alfred the Aetheling, or was he a victim of circumstances? That’s a big question. No one has agreed on his guilt, from contemporary writers to the present. That’s where history ends and speculation begins, and of course the historical novelist gets to call the shots!
Born and raised in St. Louis MO, Mercedes Rochelle graduated with a BA in English Literature from University of Missouri. She learned about living history as a re-enactor and has been enamored with historical fiction ever since. A move to New York to do research and two careers ensued, but writing fiction remains her primary vocation. Her first four books are historical novels about 11th century Britain and events surrounding the Norman Conquest. The next series is called The Plantagenet Legacy starting with “A King Under Siege” about Richard II and the first ten years of his reign. Mercedes now lives in Sergeantsville, NJ with her husband in a log home they had built themselves.
Thank you so much for coming onto my blog to talk about this very favourite era of mine! As you know Mercedes, I am also a fan of the Godwins, though perhaps more favourable to his son, Harold. But its hard to deny Godwin’s achievements which were pretty formidable when you consider he came from obscurity, though I’m not so sure I would consider him a commoner, he was the son of a thegn who was a king’s naval commander, as I believe, and not the ‘other’ Wulfnoth that Mercedes mentioned. But I guess it depends on what you call a commoner in those days. Thegns made up a broad grouping of middle nobility with some holding vast areas of land and wealth and some only the mere minimum.
I have to say that I totally buy your version of why Swegn was a troubled son. We know today that those raised in non-validating dysfunctional environments often have issues when they are older and I’m sure it was the same back then and throughout history. The terminology ‘black sheep’ has often turned up in throughout the historical narrative. I am slightly on the fence here about theories that have been expressed about Swegn, Cnut and Gytha, but I can also see a possibility that perhaps Gytha and Cnut might have had a relationship before her marriage to Godwin and she might have been pregnant at the time of her wedding to Godwin. Perhaps these ‘rumours’ might have been what Swegn, looking for something to blame his behaviour on, might have jumped on when he put it about that he was not Godwin’s son, but the true son of Cnut, which Gytha had to call for supporters to swear for her before a council of important women to prove her innocence. I’m sure that deeply hurt Gytha. Still, we can only speculate and historical fiction writers are allowed to interpret these long dead people’s actions in order to explain them.
As for the Alfred scenario, my feeling is more in line with Godwin being caught between a rock and a hard place. He was Harefoot’s sworn man, he had to obey orders or he was dead meat himself. I think he had to detain him, was probably going to deliver him to Harefoot, when he was intercepted by his henchmen and had to hand him over. However, we wont really ever know, will we? But as an historical fiction writer, looking at Godwin’s career, he was not known for his ruthless treatment of others. If he was more involved than he’d admitted, it was a one off, most likely. And I can’t see Godwin having anything to do with the blinding of Alfred, that does not seem to have been his style.
Thank you again Mercedes for a very interesting post. I’ve read Mercedes book The Sons of Godwine and recommend it to those interested in this family and period.
I’d like to welcome Judith Arnopp, to the blog who has written many a grand story about Medieval women. Here she talks about what drew her to her characters.
The Women in my Fiction
I started writing Peaceweaver about fifteen years ago, at a time when strong female leads were few and far between in the historical fiction genre. The motivation to write both Peaceweaver and The Forest Dwellers was to illustrate historical events from a woman’s perspective, something that continues to inspire my writing today.
Eadgyth is barely mentioned on the historical record but we know she was queen to both Gruffydd ap Llewelyn of Wales and Harold II of England. It is likely she played a traditional domestic female role. Although some women in history led men into battle, few actually fought, most remained at home, ‘holding the fort’ so to speak. There are even instances where a queen stepped in as regent and governed the country in the king’s absence. Unfortunately, even when women assumed a greater role they were often side-lined by chroniclers, even those like Aethelflaed who defended her lands during the Viking incursions and influenced the shaping the country.
In the years leading up to the Battle of Hastings, Eadgyth played a key part in events, both marriages sealing a political treaty between her father, Earl Aelfgar of Mercia and Gruffydd ap Llewelyn, and later between her brothers, Morcar and Edwin, and Harold Godwinson. She could easily be written off as a pawn but I think to do so would denigrate the female role, which although different to that of her male counterpart, was equally vital.
requires a great deal of courage. To travel as a child into a foreign land
where few people speak your language also requires courage. To bind yourself in
marriage to a man you’ve been raised to despise, to share his bed and bear his
children is little short of valiant. Medieval childbirth in itself was as risky
as riding into battle yet women are given little credit for it. Then, as now,
children of the period were loved and valued; think of the angst we experience
when our teenagers leave home for university, and then imagine the terror of negotiating
them through pestilence, war and politics (unfortunately, thinking about it,
many people still know that pain today). The majority of our children reach
adulthood but in the 11th century child mortality was unimaginably
high and death is never easier because it is commonplace
In Peaceweaver, Eadgyth begins her journey as a spoilt twelve year old sent into the wilds of Wales (and it was pretty wild then) to marry her father’s former enemy, Gruffydd ap Llewellyn who was then the leader of all Wales. She is head strong and unlikeable but as the story unfolds she matures into a brave and intelligent woman. She ends the story as a twenty four year old mother to five children, widow of the recently defeated King of England, Harold II. Defeated, dispossessed and desperate to escape the clutches of the Norman king she goes into hiding but she doesn’t give up. She has sons to defend, boys to shape into warriors who will continue the fight in their father(s) names. I see nothing of the pawn in Eadgyth at all.
This theme of resilience persists through all my books. The Forest Dwellers follows several women through the minefield of early Norman rule; Aelf utilises the skill of the bow while Alys employs different, more feminine means but both require intelligence and subtlety. Often, my protagonists find themselves disempowered but they all endure, and ultimately all wield real power, utilising diplomacy and stealth rather than a sword. Before her fall, Anne Boleyn employs her sharp wit and intelligence to manipulate Henry VIII; Katheryn Parr withstands the last years of Henry’s reign, like her predecessor Catherine of Aragon, standing regent over England and running the country efficiently while he embarks on an expensive and misguided war with France. After the defeat of her house, Elizabeth of York puts aside inbred prejudice to blend her blood with that of Tudor to create the new dynasty. And you can be sure Margaret Beaufort never picked up a sword in her life but I’d defy anyone to stand before her and denigrate her influence on English history.
The male role is not and has never been superior to the female. Deny it all they like, masculine strength and valour depended on the foundation of strength and resilience provided by their wives and mothers.
When Judith Arnopp began to write professionally there was no question as to which genre to choose. A lifelong history enthusiast and avid reader, Judith holds an honours degree in English and Creative writing, and a Masters in Medieval Studies, both from the University of Wales, Lampeter. Judith writes both fiction and non-fiction, working full-time from her home overlooking Cardigan Bay in Wales where she crafts novels based in the Medieval and Tudor period. Her main focus is on the perspective of historical women from all roles of life, prostitutes to queens.
Beaufort Chronicles: the life of Lady Margaret Beaufort (three book series)
Song of Sixpence: the story of Elizabeth of York
Heart: the story of Katheryn Parr
Kiss of the Concubine: a story of Anne Boleyn
Winchester Goose: at the court of Henry VIII
Song of Heledd
Her non-fiction articles
feature in various historical anthologies and magazines.
While researching Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest I came across some incredibly interesting characters. One of the most misunderstood women of the 11th century has to be Lady Godiva. Although she would have been known as Godgifu in her lifetime, we shall call her Godiva, the name we have all grown up with, and to distinguish her from several notable ladies of a similar name in this period. Known for her legendary naked ride through Coventry in order to ease the tax burdens of its citizens, finding the true story of Lady Godiva was a fascinating experience. She was the grandmother of three of the leading English characters of the Norman Conquest; Harold II’s queen, Ealdgyth and the earls of Mercia and Northumberland, Edwin and Morcar.
The origins of Lady Godiva herself, are shrouded in mystery and the distance of time. We know nothing of her parentage or relations. There is some suggestion that she was the sister of Thorold of Bucknall, who is said to have founded a Benedictine abbey on his manor at Spalding, Lincolnshire, which he then gave to the great abbey at Crowland. However, there does appear to be some confusion and the charter from Crowland which mentions Thorold could well be spurious. The situation is further confused by the fact the land later passed to Ivo Taillebois, who founded a church at Spalding as a satellite of the church of St Nicholas at Angers. Ivo’s wife, Lucy, was the daughter of Turold, Sheriff of Lincoln. It is difficult to say whether Turold of Lincoln and Thorold of Bucknall are one and the same person, but it is possible; Turold and Thorold are both a derivative of the Scandinavian name Thorvaldr. Later legends even name Lucy as a daughter of Earl Ælfgar and therefore a granddaughter of Godiva. However, there is no surviving evidence to support this theory and the identity of Thorold and his relationship to Godiva is just as uncertain.
Godiva was probably married before 1010 and so it is possible that she was born in the early 990s. She possessed considerable lands in the north-west of Mercia, suggesting that this is where she and her family were from. Mercia, in that time, covered almost all of the Midlands region, spreading from the Welsh borders across the centre of England. Her lands in Leicestershire, Warwickshire, Staffordshire and Shropshire, which amounted to sixty hides, may have constituted her own inheritance.  Godiva’s high family status is also attested by the fact that she made a very good marriage, to Leofric, who would later become Earl of Mercia.
Leofric was the son of Leofwine, who had been appointed Ealdorman of the Hwicce, an ancient kingdom within the earldom of Mercia, by Æthelred II in 994. While the family lands were given to victorious Danes on the accession of Cnut, Leofwine was allowed to keep his rank and title and may have succeeded the traitorous Eadric Streona as Ealdorman of Mercia after his death in 1017. The family’s lands and influence appear to have been in the eastern part of Mercia, where they were known religious benefactors; Earl Leofwine was recorded as a benefactor at Peterborough Abbey. Leofric’s marriage to Godiva, therefore, may have been a way of extending his family’s influence into the western parts of Mercia. He was attesting charters as minister between 1019 and 1026, perhaps as sheriff under Hakon, Earl of Worcester. His father, Leofwine, probably died in 1023 or shortly after, as that was the last year in which he attested a charter. There is no clear indication as to whether Leofwine was ever Earl of Mercia, although Leofric certainly held that title through the reigns of four kings; Cnut, Harold Harefoot, Harthacnut and Edward the Confessor. Leofric’s backing of Harold Harefoot, over Harthacnut, may have been a result of his son’s marriage. Ælfgar is thought to have married Ælfgifu, who was possibly a kinswoman of Harold Harefoot’s mother, Ælfgifu of Northampton, sometime in the late 1020s. Such a relationship would explain Leofric’s support for Harold Harefoot. Of course, so would the fact that Harthacnut was in no hurry to return from Denmark and Harold was on the spot and able to take charge.
Lady Godiva and Leofric were great benefactors to the church and acted in partnership, particularly in their endowment of Coventry Abbey which, according to John of Worcester, was made out of lands held by each of them. They also endowed the minster church of Stow St Mary, just to the north of Lincoln, and an Old English memorandum included both Leofric and Godiva in a request to Wulfwig, Bishop of Dorchester-on-Thames ‘to endow the monastery and assign lands to it.’ Stow St Mary is a beautiful building at the centre of the small village of Stow. Founded in the seventh century, it boasts the faded graffiti carving of a Viking longboat on one of its inner walls. The endowment included provision for secular canons, under the supervision of the bishop and was made between and 1053 and 1055.
It is often difficult to work out the extent of Godiva’s involvement in her husband’s religious endowments. The Evesham Chronicle names both Leofric and Godiva (as Godgifu, of course) as the founders of both Coventry Abbey and Holy Trinity Church at Evesham. The couple also gave a crucifix, with the supporting figures of the Virgin and St John the Evangelist, to Holy Trinity Church. Moreover, Godiva had a reputation as a patroness of the Church throughout Mercia during her own lifetime. Orderic Vitalis said that Godiva gave ‘her whole store of gold and silver’ for the provision of ecclesiastical ornaments for the foundation at Coventry and John of Worcester also records Godiva’s devotion to the Virgin. 
There is one example that counters this argument, however, which involves a joint grant by Leofric and Godiva, of Wolverley and Blackwell, Worcestershire. The Second Worcester Cartulary, compiled by Hemming on the orders of Bishop Wulfstan, claims that Leofric returned Wolverley and Blackwell, and promised that the manors at Belbroughton, Bell Hall, Chaddesley Corbett and Fairford, seized by his father Leofwine, would revert to the Church on his death. Hemming, however, claims that Godiva held onto the lands for herself, rather than returning them; although she is said to have given the Church expensive vestments and ornaments, and a promise not only to pay the annual revenues from these estates to the Church, but to return the lands on her own death.  That Edwin and Morcar seized the lands after their grandmother’s death, surely cannot be laid at Godiva’s door?
During her marriage, Godiva held several manors in her own right. Coventry, although little more than a village at this time, and appears to have belonged to Godiva herself. She also had lands in various other parts of Mercia, including Newark, which she may have bought from her son, Ælfgar, as it was part of the comital lands (the earldom). Her lands at Appleby in Derbyshire were leased from Leofric, the Abbot of Peterborough, who was nephew and namesake of her husband, Earl Leofric.
Leofric died in 1057, on either 31 August or 30 September, at his manor of King’s Bromley in Staffordshire. John of Worcester said of him; this ‘man of excellent memory died at a good old age, in his own manor called Bromley, and was buried with honour in Coventry, which monastery he had founded and well endowed.’  The 1057 entry of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reported; ‘The same year died Earl Leofric, on the second before the calends of October; who was very wise before God, and also before the world; and who benefited all this nation’. 
Godiva was to live on as a widow for at least ten more years. She would be there to see her son’s inheritance of the earldom of Mercia. Although titles and land did often pass from father to son, it was not a foregone conclusion. Indeed, Ælfgar’s rebellion in 1055 – which led to a subsequent exile – may well have been in fear of losing his inheritance, given that Edward the Confessor had just given the earldom of Northumbria to Tostig, son of Godwin, on the death of Earl Siward in place of his son and natural heir, Waltheof. Waltheof was still a child, however, and this may well have been a practical decision, in that it would be dangerous to leave such a powerful earldom, and the border with Scotland, in the control of a child. Ælfgar was banished again in 1058, but for a very short while, apparently, with the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reporting; ‘Earl Ælfgar was expelled but he soon came back again, with violence, through the help of Gruffydd.’ 
We do not have the exact date of Godiva’s death. Most historians seem to believe that she survived the Norman Conquest and died around 1067. She is mentioned as a pre-Conquest landholder in the Domesday Book, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that she was alive in 1066. Hemming, who compiled the Worcester cartulary, says that some of her lands passed directly to her grandsons, Edwin and Morcar, offering evidence that Godiva also outlived her son, Ælfgar, who probably died in 1062. If Godiva did live into 1067, then she would have seen the dangers that the Norman Conquest brought to her family. Although her son was dead, her grandchildren were very much alive, and at the heart of events. By 1065 her grandsons were both earls. Morcar became Earl of Northumbria in 1065, chosen by the Northumbrians to replace the unpopular Tostig. His tenure, however, was of short duration and he was replaced with Copsig, an adherent of Tostig, by William the Conqueror. Edwin had succeeded his father as Earl of Mercia in 1062 but neither brother flourished under the rule of William the Conqueror. Their sister, Ealdgyth married Harold Godwinson (Kingg Harold II) sometime in late 1065, or early 1066, and was the uncrowned Queen of England until Harold’s death at Hastings in October 1066. Following the battle, Ealdgyth was taken to Chester by her brothers, where she may have given birth the king Harold’s son, Harold, before disappearing from the records.
Godiva is believed to have died in 1067 and was most likely buried alongside her husband at Coventry; although the Evesham Chronicle claims that she was laid to rest in Holy Trinity, Evesham. In the thirteenth century, her death was remembered on 10 September, but we have no way of confirming the actual date. After the Conquest, Godiva’s lands were held by various personalities.
We have no contemporary description of Godiva, of her personality or appearance. Her patronage of such religious institutions as Stow St Mary and Coventry Abbey is testimony to her piety and generosity. Stories of this generosity and piety were known to later chroniclers, such as William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon. Henry of Huntingdon said of Godiva that her name ‘meriting endless fame, was of distinguished worth, and founded the abbey at Coventry which she enriched with immense treasures of silver and gold. She also built the church at Stow, under the hill at Lincoln, and many others.’  Although Henry of Huntingdon’s geography is a little skewed – Stow is a few miles north of Lincoln, rather than to the south, which ‘under the hill’ would suggest – it is obvious that Godiva’s fame was still alive in the twelfth century.
Lady Godiva is, perhaps, the most famous Anglo-Saxon woman in history. Everyone knows her legend – or a variation of it. And that legend has only grown and expanded down the years; like the game of Chinese whispers, the story has been added to and enhanced with every retelling. It was probably her reputation for generosity that gave rise to the legend for which she is famous today. The story of Godiva’s naked ride through Coventry appears to have been first recounted by Roger of Wendover, who died in 1236:
The Countess Godiva devoutly anxious to free the city of Coventry from a grievous and base thralldom often besought the Count, her husband, that he would for the love of the Holy Trinity and the sacred Mother of God liberate it from such servitude. But he rebuked her for vainly demanding a thing so injurious to himself and forbade her to move further therein. Yet she, out of womanly pertinacity, continued to press the matter in so much that she obtained this answer from him: ‘Ascend,’ he said, ‘thy horse naked and pass thus through the city from one end to the other in sight of the people and on thy return thou shalt obtain thy request.’ Upon which she returned: ‘And should I be willing to do this, wilt thou give me leave?’ ‘I will,’ he responded. Then the Countess Godiva, beloved of God, ascended her horse, naked, loosing her long hair which clothed her entire body except her snow white legs, and having performed the journey, seen by none, returned with joy to her husband who, regarding it as a miracle, thereupon granted Coventry a Charter, confirming it with his seal. 
This legend has grown and expanded over time, providing inspiration for ballads, poetry, paintings and sculptures throughout the centuries, the most famous being the poem, Lady Godiva, by Alfred Lord Tennyson, written in 1840, which included the lines:
“The woman of a thousand summers back,
Godiva, wife to that grim Earl, who ruled
In Coventry: for when he laid a tax
Upon his town, and all the mothers brought
Their children, clamouring, ‘If we pay, we starve!’
She sought her lord, and found him, where he strode
About the hall, among his dogs, alone,
His beard a foot before him, and his hair
A yard behind. She told him of their tears,
And pray’d him, ‘If they pay this tax, they starve.’
Whereat he stared, replying, half-amazed,
‘You would not let your little finger ache
For such as – these?’ – ‘But I would die,’ said she.” 
The legend arose from a story that Earl Leofric had introduced a toll on Coventry that the people could not afford to pay. Godiva went to her husband, begging that he rescind the taxes. He proved reluctant to offer the slightest reduction and is said to have told Godiva that he would only rescind the taxes if she rode naked through Coventry. In the earliest accounts Godiva rode through the market place, accompanied by two of Leofric’s soldiers, with her long, golden hair let loose to protect her modesty. In the early versions, the religious element of the story is highlighted, with Leofric hailing the fact no one had seen her nakedness as a miracle. While the legend is almost certainly distorted beyond recognition from the true story, it has guaranteed the immortality of a remarkable lady.
Footnotes:  Godgifu (d. 1067?) (article) by Ann Williams, oxforddnb.com;  ibid;  The Ecclesiastical History of England and Normandy by Ordericus Vitalis;  Godgifu (d. 1067?) (article) by Ann Williams, oxforddnb.com;  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles edited and translated by Michael Swaton;  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram;  The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles edited and translated by Michael Swaton;  The 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. London, H.G. Bohn, 1807;  Flores Historiarum by Roger of Wendover, translated by Matthew of Westminster;  Godiva by Alfred Lord Tennyson.
About the author:
Sharon Bennett Connolly, has had a lifelong fascination with history. She has studied academically and just for fun – and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites, including Conisbrough Castle.
Born in Yorkshire, she studied at University in Northampton before working in Customer Service roles at Disneyland in Paris and Eurostar in London.
She is now having great fun, passing on her love of the past to her son, hunting dragons through Medieval castles or exploring the hidden alcoves of Tudor Manor Houses.
For Christmas 2014, her husband gave her a blog as a gift – History … the Interesting Bits (www.historytheinterestingbits.com), allowing her to indulge in that love of history. Sharon started researching and writing about the lesser-known stories and people from European history, the stories that have always fascinated. Quite by accident, she started focusing on medieval women. And in 2016 she was given the opportunity to write her first non-fiction book, Heroines of the Medieval World, which will be coming out in paperback in 2019. Sharon has just published her second non-fiction book, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, and is now working on a third, Ladies of Magna Carta.
Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sharon-Bennett-Connolly/e/B072156Z8V/
Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Sharon-Bennett-Connolly/e/B072156Z8V/