Who was Edith Swan-Neck? By Carol McGrath

We really do not know much about Edith Swan-Neck except that she was the handfasted wife of Harold II, set aside during the year he was crowned king. After all, women are the footnotes of history especially the history of the eleventh century. Edith Swan-Neck's sister-in-law, Edith Godwin, was famously married to King Edward whose death in January of that year caused all the trouble in 1066. He died childless. Edith Swan-Neck's mother-in-law, Countess Gytha of Wessex, will be remembered to history since she lost four sons in the year 1066 and, moreover, she withstood William throughout the three week siege of Exeter. Countess Gytha refused to pay King William's tax but after a ghastly siege the citizens made a deal with William by which he allowed the Godwin women and the ladies, who gathered around them, to depart into exile in Flanders.

Harold loved to hunt.

Although King Harold is described in The Vita Edwardii, commissioned by Edith Godwin, as tall, intelligent, experienced in campaign, prodigal with oaths and was accused by foreign writers of promiscuity and adultery, there are no descriptions of Edith Swan-Neck. She was romanticised in the nineteenth century because after the Napoleonic Wars the English sought a pre Norman identity.

Imagined Edith the Fair

Edward Bulwer Lytton, English poet, playwright and politician was very popular during the Victorian era with the reading public. He made a fortune with best-selling novels such as Harold, the Last of the Saxons. He made Edith King Harold's only love and suggested that the couple were handfasted as they were related in the fifth degree. In fact, Their marriage was a legitimate Danish marriage that took place around 1045 after Harold was created Earl of East Anglia.


Handfasting was legal and involved exchange of property. The ceremony is said to have taken place in the Hall by the whetstone. However, this form of marriage more danico was not recognised by the 11th century Gregorian reformed Church. Many nobles, married this way in their youth, later married a second wife in a church ceremony. Harold did this too but most likely for political reasons when he married the King of Wales' widow, Aldgyth of Mercia, to bring her brothers, the Northern Earls, closer to his cause, that of taking England's kingship and protecting the country from invaders-so he hoped.  At the time of their marriage, Edith was probably in her teens.

Lytton also suggested that she was raised by her grandmother, a witch and that she was a god-daughter of Harold's sister Edith, the Queen. The Victorians, especially the Pre-Raphaelite movement, held a passion for a nostalgic purchase on the past, harking back to a romantic and gothic medieval atmosphere.


Edith Swan-Neck, in truth, was most likely a Norfolk noble-woman. She was probably Edith the Fair/ Edith the Rich of The Domesday Book. Her singular mark of beauty was a long neck with pure white skin, like a swan. She was the daughter of a woman called Wulgyth who made a will in 1046 which reveals that she held lands in Hertfordshire, Bucks., Suffolk, Essex, and Cambridgeshire. Wulgyth left her daughter a huge endowment. Edith Swan-Neck inherited 280 hides and 450 acres of land. A hide is around 120 acres. These lands do tally with those attributed to Edith the Fair in the Domesday Book. They passed to Alan the Red of Richmond after the Conquest, another interesting story. In addition, Edith owned four houses in Canterbury and property in Kent.

The Burning House

Edith was of Scandinavian descent and five of their six living children had Scandinavian names. There was Godwin, the eldest, Edmund, Magnus, Gytha, Gunnhild and Ulf. It is possible that Ulf is the child on The Bayeux Tapestry in flight before the Battle of Hastings. Ulf was later taken as a child hostage into Normandy and not released until after King William's death. It is thought that The Bayeux Tapestry was designed by men but was stitched in abbey embroidery schools by women. Wilton Abbey, in particular, was a centre for needlework and Queen Edith was its patron. An aside here- Edith Swan-Neck was benefactress of St Benet's in Norfolk and could be the 1062 'Lady of Walsingham', as described in a late 15th century ballad. Walsingham is close by. These Norfolk lands at one time belonged to Harold.

Ulf and Edith?

I suspect that The Burning House vignette shown on The Bayeux Tapestry, depicting in realistic appearing embroidery a mother and child in flight, could represent Edith Swan-Neck and her youngest son Ulf just before the Battle of Hastings. Two women depicted earlier on the embroidery, which famously tells the story of 1066, are possibly identifiable as two of Harold's sisters, Queen Edith and Aelgiva (the abbess who died at Wilton before The Norman Conquest).

It is argued by Carola Hicks in her book about The Bayeux Tapestry that Dowager Queen Edith was involved in creating the embroidery. It is suggested by Andrew Bridgeford in his book The Secrets of The Bayeux Tapestry that the Burning House vignette indeed shows Edith and Ulf. The Tapestry is a many layered masterpiece shot through with the English point of view. It is tempting to see the woman and child as standing for actual people rather than simply representational images. She wears aristocratic clothes and the house is two storey. These were important figures.

Harold's Death

We hear from The Waltham Chronicle that two named monks, who followed Harold south from Waltham, fetched Edith to the battlefield to identify the king's broken body by marks only known to her. She did own properties in Kent! The image of Harold struck in the eye is one of the most enduring in history but it is not universally accepted as the correct reading. He may be the figure struck in the thigh below the words Interfectus Est- Was Killed. The Carmen, the Song of Hastings, composed for King William and written in 1068 suggests a named knight hacked off Harold's thigh and that another named knight removed his head. It suggests he was buried secretly overlooking the sea. The monks claim he was taken to Waltham Abbey and buried there. It is a mystery.

Edith Identifies Harold's Body

Still, if we believe the Chronicle, Edith Swan-Neck may have performed the last acts of love and it was her sons who led armies against William in the West. As for what happened later to Edith Swan-Neck, she may have fled to Ireland or travelled with Countess Gytha to Exeter and later into exile. There is no record of this though there are records for her daughter, Gytha/Gita, and another sister of Harold who ended her days at St Omer and for Countess Gytha herself.  My own feeling is that, like many heiresses at the time of Conquest, King Harold's beautiful handfasted wife ended her days in a monastery either in Canterbury or Hereford.

Statue of Edith and Harold at Hastings 

I write about Edith Swan-Neck and her daughters Gunnhild and Gita in a trilogy The Daughters of Hastings published by Accent Press and available in bookshops and for e readers.

Anglo-Saxons and their horses

by Helen Hollick

Until recently, it was widely accepted that Anglo-Saxon armies consisted solely of infantry formation, and horses being used only for transportation. But as Ann Hyland points out, "...this seems a complete waste of potential energy and resources" suggesting that while it is unthinkable that entire armies were mounted, wealthier men were more than capable of undertaking mounted fighting and of utilising the horse in a variety of offensive tactics, as circumstances of battle, terrain etc., dictated.

Mounted warfare during the Anglo-Saxon period is shown in sculpture and referred to in manuscripts. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 937 is a record of Aethelstan's triumph over the Scots - the corresponding Croyland Chronicle on this campaign is very clear: "... and Singin unhorsed the Scottish king."

Exmoor Pony
The Native British pony (the present-day breeds of Welsh, Fell, Dales, Exmoor etc.,) were enhanced during the Roman occupation by the cross breeding of new stock and bloodlines, introduced into Britain through cavalry regiments raised from countries holding established equestrian cultures and known for breeds of superior quality. The most priced war horses being the Frisian, Burgundian and Thuringian. These Roman imports would have rapidly improved British stock by adding height, bulk and speed to the already established stamina, intelligence and ability to survive a poor winter climate and sparse food. Britain had - and still has - a rich wealth of these strong and hardy ponies, some around the 12 - 13 h.h. (hands high) mark, others reaching 14.2 h.h. It is significant that the modern day Fell and Dales breeds resemble the modern Frisian, a breed of horse that was much valued in antiquity and remained highly prized in later Medieval times.

want to read more? The full article is on the English Historical Fiction Authors Blog - where you'll also find lots of other interesting historical articles!

Part One Anglo-Saxons and Their Horses

Part Two  Harold II's Horses...

It seems likely that horses were used at Harold's victorious battle prior to Hastings at Stamford Bridge in September 1066. Although sagas cannot always be relied upon, the Saga of Snorri Sturleson, The Heimskringla, is accurate in its main points. The saga states that the English had cavalry and were not an infantry force.

   "Then, as a sign of victory, Hrothgar, son of Healfdene
     Presented to Beowulf ....
     Eight war-horses
     With glancing bridles, one with a saddle
     Studded with stones - battle seat of the Danes."

1066 - The Mercian Perspective

By Annie Whitehead

In 1066, when Edward the Confessor died, Harold Godwinson was declared king. Yet he felt the need to ride north to secure the pledges of the northern nobles, and thought it prudent to forsake his long-term partner and marry the sister of two powerful northern earls. Why?

Let’s go back a bit...

Readers of To Be A Queen will recall that in Aethelflaed’s day, Mercia was still a kingdom in its own right, albeit one which was fast running out of kings. Forty years later, in Alvar the Kingmaker, Mercia has become a powerful ealdordom (later known as earldoms.)

And there is a new problem: the Danelaw.

However much Aethelflaed, her father, husband, and brother fought against them, inevitably some of the Danes who came over in their dragon boats stayed, and settled in the north and east. In the 10th century, King Edgar was careful to preserve the rights and traditions of the Danelaw, as well as the erstwhile independence of Mercia.

Edgar’s dealings with the Danelaw can be found in the law code known as IV Edgar, or the Wihbordesstan Code. It has often been said that Edgar was creating something new with this code, but technically speaking this is a letter to the Danes, showing Edgar eager to respect an autonomy which was already a fact.

It is probable that Edgar became king of England in 959 with the help of a powerful group of magnates who wanted a king who would not encroach on the customary law. Edgar stresses five times that he has every intention of respecting the Danelaw. It is possible that although IV Edgar is a recognition of established fact, Edgar himself created the Danelaw, as there are no earlier references to it. In all probability these privileges were granted by Edgar in 957, in gratitude for the support given him in the north against his brother Eadwig (Edwy.)

Although Edgar’s reign was notable for being free of invasion - his epithet was ‘The Peaceable’ - it was a time of great change. As well as this identification and recognition of the Danelaw, there began a shift in the power and influence of the nobility. As ealdormen died, their lands were given to neighbouring nobles - Alvar (Aelfhere), already earl of southern Mercia, gained the northern portion when the earl of Chester died - until the earldoms were as big as the old kingdoms. By the time of Edgar IV, there were three principal noblemen, and in the law code he demands that:

“Earl Oslac (Northumbria) and all the host that dwell in his aldermanry are to give their support that this may be enforced” and that “Many documents are to be written concerning this, and sent both to ealdorman Aelfhere (Mercia) and ealdorman Aethelwine, (East Anglia) and that they are to send them in all directions, that this measure may be known to both the poor and the rich.” [IV Edgar 15. & 15.1]

Royal control was difficult to establish in areas with separatist feeling, and Mercia was another of these areas. Edgar was respectful of these regional differences, as his charters show - a land charter of 969 carefully states the ‘boundary of the Mercians’ - but his successors were not... Read on ...

Imagine Horses

by Eliza Redgold

Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth
For ‘tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings.
~ William Shakespeare: Henry V

Once upon a time, I visited Tintagel in Cornwall with my small daughter. Full of history and mystery, the cliff side town is steeped in Arthurian legend. As we made our way along the path towards the cliffs and the ancient site of Arthur’s castle, her hand in mine, I heard the sound of galloping hooves behind us. “Look, horses!” I swung her around to see them.

The path behind us was empty. There were no horses. Nothing was there.
Or perhaps not …

In Shakespeare’s Henry V the famous prologue that begins “O for a Muse of fire” encourages the audience to use their imaginations. To see Kings and Queens, instead of actors, to imagine battlefields instead of a wooden stage. In this collection of 1066 stories, readers are encouraged to go further – to imagine not only histories and fictions, but also alternate pasts.

I was so excited to be asked to contribute my story ‘The Needle Can Mend’ to 1066 Turned Upside Down. My connection to the historical period is through Lady Godiva – she of the famous horse ride. In 2015, my historical women’s fiction Naked: A Novel of Lady Godiva was published by St Martin’s Press in New York. So the legend goes, Godiva of Coventry begged her husband Lord Leofric of Mercia to lift a high tax on her people, who would starve if forced to pay. He demanded a forfeit: that Godiva ride naked on horseback through the town.  Lady Godiva (or Countess Godgyfu, in the Anglo-Saxon version of her name) was a real person who lived in 11th century Anglo-Saxon England. Yet her myth goes even further back.  Her legend has been be transformed again and again, come down to us through the ages in a mix of fact and folk-lore.

In Naked, I told Godiva’s tale as ‘herstory’ – from the heroine’s perspective. The historical Godiva would have been alive in 1066, so of course I wanted to include her in my story for this collection. 

Godiva was the grandmother (or step-grandmother) to Queen Edith, the second wife of King Harold, and may well have figured in 1066 and its political aftermath, or so I imagined.   In ‘The Needle can Mend’ I wanted to capture the strength and power of women and the tales they weave. No more is this revealed than in the mysterious fabric of the Bayeaux Tapestry, which depicts the 1066 Battle of Hastings, and stitches together my tale.  It is a woman-made work of political art, secret and imagination that has stood the test of time.

In a recent speech in Vietnam, US President Obama commented on the importance of imagination in international politics. To imagine is to form a mental image, to think, to believe, to dream, to picture. It is both idea and ideal. Our dreams can take us from small acts of empathy to noble visions of equality and justice. Imagination charges the flame: it puts us in touch with our creativity, our life force. In a world of increasing global conflict, perhaps imagination has never been more important – just like it might have been in 1066.

Alternate histories. Alternate realities. Alternate futures.

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Bringing God to the Vikings

...was not a mission for the weak-hearted. And still, someone had to do it, which is why an English monk named Sigfrid left everything he knew behind and set out on a long journey to a country where the masjority still held to Oden and Thor, having little patience with that meek and long-suffering dude, Jesus. Anyway, for the whole story - including Sigfrid's three nephews and ghostly lights over the lake - go here!

We have pre-order!

Huzzah! 1066 Turned Upside Down 
is now available for pre-order!

click the link for an Amazon store near you and get your 
e-book ordered today!

New Releases!

Announcing the release of two new books by our 1066 Turned Upside Down Authors!

First : Anna Belfrage

Welcome to a world of medieval intrigue! Follow Isabella of France and Roger Mortimer as they invade England and make war on Edward II – her husband, his king.

Watch protagonists Adam de Guirande and his wife, Kit, navigate a world in which loss is certain and survival is not.

The dice are cast – and there is no going back!
Released on July 5th!
Pop by Anna's Amazon Author page 

And should you want to know more about Anna, why not visit her blog where she showcases her passion for history, or pop by her website.

Next : Helen Hollick

Weighing anchor for the fifth Sea Witch Voyage to set sail:
the anchor cable is being hauled in,
the sails are being set....
On The Account, released 7th July

Helen's Amazon Author Page
to grab your copy of the swashbuckling adventure! (paperback or e-book)

Here's the first in Sea Witch's voyage around the blogs: The Anticipation of the New Book...
'I am happy to host Helen Hollick, writer of engrossing historical fiction, luscious series set in far ago times and fascinating places. Her creativity is only matched by her encouragement and support of other writers.' (my thanks to host Diana Wilder) http://dianawilder.blogspot.co.uk/2016/07/do-fabulous-writers-make-you-nervous.html