Guest Post: The Two Women in the life of Harold II by Sharon Bennett Connolly


Harold Godwinson was born around 1022 and did more in the 44 years he was on this earth, than most people could achieve in 3 lifetimes. He received the earldom of East Anglia in 1044 and, as the son of Godwin, earl of Wessex, he succeeded to his father’s earldom in 1053. His sister was the wife of King Edward the Confessor, his brother was the earl of Northumberland (for a time). Harold was not only one of the king’s foremost earls but also one of his most respected advisors. In short, the Godwinsons were the most powerful family in the kingdom, after the king himself. At one point Harold, along with his father and brothers, had been exiled from England after quarrelling with the king. He is even said to have sworn an oath to back William of Normandy’s claim to the English throne in the likely event that Edward the Confessor died without an heir; a claim that William used to the full in order to secure papal approval for his invasion of England. However, when it came to the moment of truth; when Edward the Confessor died, it was Harold who took the throne and prepared to defend England against the rival claimants of Norway and Normandy.
But what of the women in his life? Harold’s queen was Ealdgyth, the widow of Gruffydd and daughter of Aelfgar – and sister of Edwin and Morcar, the earls of Mercia and Northumbria respectively. The marriage was a judicious one which gave Harold powerful allies in the guise of Ealdgyth’s two brothers. However, Ealdgyth was not the first woman in Harold’s life, nor, indeed, the most important.
For twenty years Harold had been living with the wonderfully-named Eadgyth Swanneshals (Edith the Swan-neck). History books label her as a Harold’s concubine, but Edith was no weak and powerless peasant, so it’s highly likely they went through a hand-fasting ceremony – or ‘Danish marriage’ – a marriage, but not one recognized by the church, thus allowing Harold to take a second ‘wife’. Harold and Edith had at least 6 children together; including four sons, Godwin, Edmund, Magnus and Ulf and two daughters, Gytha, who married Vladimir Monomakh, Great Prince of Kiev, and Gunnhild, who was intended to become a nun at Wilton Abbey in Wiltshire before going on to marry a Breton knight.
Harold met Edith the Swan-neck at about the same time he became earl of East Anglia, in 1044. Which makes it possible that Edith the Swan-neck and the East Anglian magnate, Eadgifu the Fair, are one and the same. Eadgifu the Fair held over 270 hides of land and was one of the richest magnates in England. The majority of her estates lay in Cambridgeshire, but she also held land in Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Essex and Suffolk; in the Domesday Book Eadgifu held the manor at Harkstead in Suffolk, which was attached to Harold’s manor of Brightlingsea in Essex and some of her Suffolk lands were tributary to Harold’s manor of East Bergholt. While it is by no means certain that Eadgifu is Edith the Swan-neck, several historians – including Ann Williams in the Oxford Database of National Biography – make convincing arguments that they were. Even their names, Eadgifu and Eadgyth, are so similar that the difference could be merely a matter of spelling or mistranlation; indeed, the abbey of St Benet of Hulme, Norfolk, remembers an Eadgifu Swanneshals among its patrons. [1]
Despite their twenty years and six children together, in 1065, with the king’s health deteriorating, it became politically expedient for Harold to marry in order to strengthen his position as England’s premier earl and, possibly, next king. Ealdgyth was the daughter of Alfgar, earl of Mercia, and, according to William of Jumieges, very beautiful. She was the widow of Gruffudd ap Llywelyn, King of Gwynedd from 1039 and ruler of all Wales after 1055, with whom she had had at least one child, a daughter, Nest. Gruffudd had been murdered in 1063, following an expedition into Wales by Harold himself. Harold’s subsequent marriage to Ealdgyth not only secured the support of the earls of Northumbria and Mercia, but also weakened the political ties of the same earls with the new rulers of north Wales.
As Harold’s wife Ealdgyth was, therefore, for a short time, queen of England. However, with Harold having to defend his realm, first against Harold Hardrada at Stamford Bridge in September of 1066 and, subsequently, against William of Normandy at Hastings, it is unlikely Ealdgyth had time to enjoy her exalted status. At the time of the Battle of Hastings, 14th October 1066, Ealdgyth was in London, but her brothers took her north to Chester soon after. Although sources are confused it seems possible that Ealdgyth was heavily pregnant and gave birth to a son, Harold Haroldson, within months of the battle. Unfortunately, that is the last we hear of Ealdgyth; her fate remains unknown. Young Harold grew up in exile on the Continent and died in 1098.
Despite his marriage to Ealdgyth, however, it seems Edith the Swan-neck remained close to Harold and it was she who was close by when the king faced William of Normandy at Senlac Hill near Hastings. She awaited the outcome alongside Harold’s mother, Gytha. Having lost a son, Tostig, just two weeks before, fighting against his brother and with the Norwegians at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, Gytha lost three more sons – Harold, Gyrth and Leofwine – and a nephew in the battle at Hastings.

It is heart-wrenching, even now, to think of Edith and the elderly Gytha, wandering the blood-soaked field in the aftermath of the battle, in search of the fallen king. Sources say that Gytha was unable to identify her sons amidst the mangled and mutilated bodies. It fell to Edith to find Harold, by undoing the chain mail of the victims, in order to recognize certain identifying marks on the king’s body – probably tattoos.
The monks of Waltham Abbey had a tradition of Edith bringing Harold’s body to them for burial, soon after the battle. Although other sources suggest Harold was buried close to the battlefield, and without ceremony, it is hard not to hope that Edith was able to perform this last service for the king. However, any trace of Harold’s remains was swept away by Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries, so the grave of England’s last Anglo-Saxon king is lost to history.

Harold’s mother, Gytha, eventually fled into exile on the Continent, taking Harold and Edith’s daughter, another Gytha, with her, possibly arranging her marriage to the prince of Smolensk and – later – Kiev. Edith and Harold’s sons fled to Ireland, all but one, living into the 1080s, though the dates of their eventual deaths remain uncertain. Gunnhild remained in her nunnery at Wilton until sometime before 1093, when she became the wife or concubine of Alan the Red, a Norman magnate. Whether or not she was kidnapped seems to be in question but when Alan died in 1093, instead of returning to the convent, Gunnhild became the mistress of Alan’s brother and heir, Alan Niger. Alan Rufus held vast lands in East Anglia – lands that had once belonged to Eadgifu the Fair and, if Eadgifu was Edith the Swan-neck, it’s possible that Alan married Gunnhild to strengthen his claims to her mother’s lands.
After 1066 Edith’s lands had passed to Ralph de Gael before eventually falling into the hands of Alan the Red. Of Edith the Swan-neck, there is no trace after Harold is interred at Waltham Abbey, she simply disappears from the pages of history…

[1] Ann Williams,, 2004

Sources:; History Today Companion to British History Edited by Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; Britain’s Royal Families; the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Mammoth Book of British Kings & Queens by Mike Ashley.