Writers of Anglo-Saxon Literature: Carol McGrath

A New Home for King Harold’s Daughter

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.

medieval kiev diorama
Medieval Kiev

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.

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The Golden Gate of Kiev

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.

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Russian Royal Family

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.

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Entrance to St. Sophia

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.

Gyda's eldest son Mstislav I of Kyiv
Mstislav, Gytha’s eldest son who became Prince of Kiev, called Harold by his family

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.

bethrothed sister FINAL (1)

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