Hidden historical heroines (#34: Edith Swanneck)

Edith discovering the body of HaroldEdith Swannesha (Ealdgȳð Swann hnesce – “Edith [the] Gentle Swan” – c. 1025 – c. 1086) – also known as “Edith Swanneck” or “Edith the Fair” – was the first wife and consort of Harold Godwinson, a famous beauty known for her gentleness and the pleasing paleness of her skin.

Edith was Harold’s common-law wife since they were both very young, married by the old Danish custom of a “handfast”. This meant that the Catholic Church – with its rising influence in the British Isles – did not recognise the union as legal and Edith as more of a sort of concubine than anything approaching a Queen. Their children however – Godwin, Edmund, Magnus, Gytha, Gunnhild and Ulf – weren’t considered illegitimate; Gytha in particular was known and addressed as the “princess” and married off to a Slavic Grand Duke!

Nevertheless, after Harold became King in 1066 he was prevailed upon to make a legitimate and Christian marriage and he did so with Edith of Mercia, the widow of the Welsh King Gruffydd ap Llywelyn whom he had defeated in battle.  This marriage seems to have been one of political convenience, and there was apparently no issue from it. After Harold’s defeat in the Battle of Hastings, Edith of Mercia’s brothers came and whisked her away and into the mists of history.

Edith the Fair, meanwhile, travelled to the bloody battlefield in Hastings. Harold’s corpse had been brutalised and mutilated, and lay in the mud amongst countless others. The estimates are that 4,000 Saxons, 2,000 Normans and some 750 horses lay slain in that field in Senlac. The Normans refused – despite Harold’s mother and family’s pleadings – to surrender the body for burial, even after being offered the customary “weight in gold”. Although she was assured that the body of her husband was disfigured beyond even her recognition, Edith walked through the carnage of the battlefield for hours until she recognised the torso of her lover by marks on his chest “known only to her”; these are sometimes considered birthmarks, and sometimes love bites remaining from the couple’s last passions the night before the battle. Some who are perhaps more patriotic than romantic claim it was a tattoo that said “ENGLAND” across his heart.

A sculpture in Sussex

Nobody knows what happened to Edith after the Normans took full control of England. It is likely she went into exile with her mother-in-law and children – maybe even to Kiev with her daughter, Gytha – or perhaps she remained in England and entered a nunnery. The rich lands that records like the Domesday Book showed she held in her own name were passed to prominent Normans. However, rather wonderfully, the descendants of Edith’s daughter, Gytha, eventually ended up marrying into most of the Royal Houses of Europe – including back into England’s; in fact, our current Queen Elizabeth is the 29th great-granddaughter of that famous Anglo-Danish beauty.

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2 thoughts on “Hidden historical heroines (#34: Edith Swanneck)

  1. When Edith the Fair’s estates passed to Alan Rufus, he kept most of her tenants on. Her daughter Gunnhild was said to be his mistress – Anselm made a great fuss over this, as he wanted her to stay in Wilton Abbey as a nun. Chroniclers speak well of Alan’s character – as one example, he stood up to King William II for bullying witnesses in court.

    Alan may have had a reputation in his time for being kinder to the natives of England than most of the invaders from across the Channel, because one Waltheof, the son of Gospatric, an English Earl of Northumbria whose lands suffered greatly from the terrible Harrying of the North in 1069-1070, and who was deposed by William the Conqueror in 1072, named his heir Alan and a daughter Gunnilda.

  2. After much study, Edith Swanneshals (Ealdgyth) and Edith the Fair/Rich (Eadgifu) may be as different as their names. The Domesday Book has one entry in which Eadgifu pre-1066 is described as a Countess. Now, Harold’s brother Gyrth was Earl of East Anglia, whereas Alan Rufus, who received the majority of Eadgifu’s properties, also received 28 of Earl Gyrth’s, fractionally fewer than William the Conqueror did, and rather more than anyone else and including Costessey (upstream of Norwich) and Ipswich, two of the most valuable. These facts suggest that Eadgifu was Earl Gyrth’s wife.

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