Malcolm III and Tostig Godwineson

September 3, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics

tostigThe friendship between Earl Tostig and King Malcolm of Scotland seems to have been largely overlooked, but it seems to me that it had a significant impact on Tostig’s career. When Tostig was made Earl of Northumbria in 1055, Malcolm had been unofficial king for a year or so. As usual, there is much confusion regarding this period, but it is thought that Malcolm reigned over Lothian and Strathclyde, or Cumbria, south of the Firth of Forth. He would not officially be crowned while Macbeth lived, as presumably Macbeth still ruled in the northern part of Scotland.

In Wikipedia’s entry about Earl Siward’s Dunsinane campaign, it was stated that “It has been suggested that the chief consequence of Siward’s expedition was not the overthrow of Mac Bethad, but the transfer of British territory—perhaps previously lying under Scottish suzerainty—to Northumbrian overlordship.” If so, it’s possible that Malcolm swore fealty to King Edward for Lothian and Strathclyde and ruled there under the careful eye of his uncle Siward…for a year. But broken by the death of his son at Dinsinane, Siward died and the King awarded Northumbria to his favorite, Tostig.

It’s hard to say what overlordship Tostig may have had in relation to Malcolm. But what we do know is that in 1057, Tostig joined Malcolm’s final expedition against Macbeth. They tracked down and defeated the fleeing king at Lumphanan in Abersdeenshire; Macbeth allegedly died a few days later at Scone. According to E.A. Freeman, Edward’s biographer tells us that “Macbeth…was first defeated by Siward, then by Tostig.” (Vol 3, Appendix EE). So in some eyes, Tostig carried on the conflict begun by his predecessor. It seems he must have had a vested interest.

He went on to create a very strong friendship with Malcolm. In 1059, Malcolm accompanied Tostig to King Edward’s court in 1059 (first visit by a Scottish monarch in 80 years). Somewhere in that time frame, Tostig and Malcom became sworn brothers: blood brothers, as it were. This was a strong tie between rulers, but it seems that Tostig took it more seriously than Malcolm, for the Scots raided across the border whenever it suited them and Tostig seems often to have responded with diplomacy rather than reprisals. This was much to the dissatisfaction of his earldom, who seem to have thought him ineffectual in defending them. But this wasn’t all; according to Freeman, Tostig’s growing unpopularity made it hard for him to raise troops, which sounds like a vicious cycle. It culminated in 1061 while Tostig was on pilgrimage with his brother Gyrth (now Earl of East Anglia) and his favorite Bishop, Ealdred. Apparently Malcolm led the most vicious of all raids deep into Northumbria, and even the sacred abbey of Lindisfarne was not spared. When Tostig returned home, once again he apparently resorted to negotiation, for no further mention is made of violence from either side.

Could it be that Tostig wanted to ensure his welcome if the occasion arose? It seems unlikely he knew what was brewing in his earldom in 1065, for he was frequently in the company of King Edward, neglecting his earldom. When the terrible and well-planned revolt broke out in Northumbria and all 200+ of his household were killed, Tostig was once again in far-off south, hunting with the King. You can read more of the Northumbrian revolt here. Tostig was forced into exile, and the next time he set foot on English soil, he was an outlaw intent on revenge. This most likely took place around May of 1066.

After an aborted raid on Sandwich, he sailed north and stopped at the Humber, but Edwin and Morcar were ready for him and drove his little fleet away. At this juncture, most of his allies (volunteers or impressed into service) melted away, and he limped off with only seven of his original sixty boats in tow. This is when his friendship with Malcolm really gave him a boost, for the King of the Scots welcomed his sworn brother with open arms and reportedly gave him sanctuary for the rest of the summer. From this safe haven, Tostig is said to have recruited Scottish mercenaries as well as allies from the Orkney Islands, who were planning to join Harald Hardrada’s September invasion. King Malcolm did not accompany Tostig on his last campaign, but it is supposed he saw him off with a fond farewell.

I wonder if he said “good riddance” under his breath.


Review for HEIR TO A PROPHECY by Frank Watson

August 21, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics, Macbeth, Reviews

Get out of the way, Philippa Gregory! There’s a new sheriff in town.

Or, considering the historical setting, should I say “high sheriff.”

Maybe “steward” (an important official who manages another’s property or financial affairs) might be even more accurate, because Mercedes Rochelle has entered the popular and competitive historical fiction field with Heir to a Prophecy. This tale follows a family from a penniless young man exiled from the court of Macbeth, the Scottish king made famous by Shakespeare, to becoming the first steward of Scotland. The story takes place during the early mid-11th century in Anglo-Saxon England, Wales, and Scotland. Rochelle tells the story in her own unique way that transcends genres and comfortable conventions, combining hints of the supernatural, hard-edged geopolitics, and  historical characters presented as believable human beings living in that place and time. She uses well-researched details to depict scenes of home and hearth as well as cataclysmic battles.

The story starts with an excerpt from a scene in Macbeth, probably familiar to most of us, though it might be considered a throw-away scene. This is early in Shakespeare’s play, when Banquo and his son, Fleance, are leaving a banquet given by the ambitious Macbeth, and are attacked in a base betrayal.

Here is the excerpt from the original:

BANQUO: It will be rain tonight.

FIRST MURDERER: Let it come down.


BANQUO: O treachery! Fly, good Fleance, fly, fly, fly!

Here is Rochelle’s spin:

It was a quiet night, punctuated by the crunch of stones underfoot. Not a cricket was heard – nor birds – only the sigh of leaves rustling far overhead.

“It shall be rain tonight,” Banquo said.

From behind came the cry: “Let it come down!”

In an instant, three dark forms were among them. Banquo was their main target, and two of them fell upon him, slashing the startled man in the face. The worthy lord was blinded by his own blood even as he shouted, “Villains, Murderers! Fly, Fleance, Fly!”

Fleance escapes, but where Shakespeare drops the father and son from his story, Rochelle traces the family through Fleance, his illegitimate son, Walter, and ultimately Walter becoming the first Steward of Scotland.

And the witches? What would any story with any connection to Macbeth be without the witches that Shakespeare included in his play? Some of us would have been tempted to turn the story over to the supernatural elements, which at that time and place were as real as the rocks or sky. The author, however, took a different approach. She incorporates the occult, allowing the witches to be seen and heard, but more as a whisper than a shout. They prophesize about Banquo’s lineage, but to what end? (Hint: Take a close look at the title.)

Making these fantastic elements easier to believe is that they are slipped in as easily as political intrigues, military strategies, and vivid, concrete, descriptions, such as at the Battle of Dunsinane:

Seward saw the danger and retreated, finding himself among friends, who had come to his aid. Together, four of them attacked the horseman, who reared up his mount, using the sharpened horseshoes to ward them off. He didn’t see the fifth man leap up from behind and throw crushing arms around his waist. The Norman was pulled from his horse slashing wildly with his sword. His random stroke met with flesh, but he didn’t know how successful he was; a blow to his face finished him off before he hit the ground…

Heir is the Rochelle’s first published book in a planned series exploring the late Anglo-Saxon period.  Rochelle has a rich vein to explore, and she seems to a good candidate to become not sheriff, but steward, of these riches.


Follow Frank’s blog at Frank Watson, Writer

The Anglo-Saxon Fyrd

August 7, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics
Anglo-Saxon Fyrd from

Anglo-Saxon Fyrd from

This is my third and last post referring to C. Warren Hollister’s Anglo-Saxon Military Institutions on the Eve of the Norman Conquest. We always read about calling up the Fyrd, but what was it composed of? Hollister attempts to explain this in detail and ultimately seems to coin his own phrase; he breaks down the fyrd into two categories: the great fyrd and the select fyrd. Chroniclers didn’t seem to make any distinction between the select and the great fyrd, so I think there is plenty of room for extrapolation. Nonetheless, once I understood the differences, his arguments made a lot of sense.

The great fyrd was, as you would expect, every able-bodied man who is called up in an emergency. They were locals who defended their immediate region against invasion. The key here is that “They must be able to return to their homes by nightfall. If the king should lead them farther, he is obligated to pay them wages.” Hence, they were not paid mercenaries, nor were they expected to come armed with much more than whatever came to hand: clubs, stones tied to sticks, farm utensils, etc. In many cases, they could very well supplement the better-armed select fyrd, which is perhaps what we saw at Hastings.

The select fyrd, on the other hand, is thought to be composed of those warriors provided by the Five Hide unit which I earlier discussed. Because these warriors were funded as part of the function of these Five Hides (“If the king sent an army anywhere, only one soldier went from five hides, and four shillings were given him from each hide as subsistence and wages for two months. This money, indeed, was not sent to the king but was given to the soldiers” – Domesday passage relating to Berkshire), they were better armed, better trained, and expected to travel. The select fyrd was composed of Thegns, ceorls (under the Promotion Law a ceorl could attain thegnhood if he owned five hides of land) or upper peasantry. There were intermediary groups known as cniht, radmannus, and sokeman, who might be the Five Hide warrior-representative if a Thegn was not available.

There was no annual training period for the select fyrd, and they were only called up in time of war; years could go by without going into service. This is probably one good reason why they fought on foot; there was no cavalry training as in Normandy. Also, a distinction must be made between these warriors who served because of their territorial obligations and hired mercenaries or household troops who were paid by the king or earl, etc. The housecarls would fall into the latter category, though many did own land. They were highly trained and battle-ready. The mercenaries were undoubtedly the spearhead of the Old English fyrd, so in a great battle all three categories of warriors might fight together.

My Review of THE VIKINGS by Magnus Magnusson

July 30, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics, Reviews

vikingsI found this book about The Vikings to be a surprisingly enjoyable read; for the life of me I don’t know how historians can make such a lively subject so boring, but it seems to happen frequently. An unabashed descendant himself, Magnus Magnusson puts the antics of his Viking ancestors in everyday language that moves right along: “‘From the fury of the Northmen, deliver us, O Lord!’ That is probably the most hackneyed line in all the vast literature about the Vikings and their evil ways.” (He tells us that it is apocryphal.)

No, he does not whitewash the Viking violence, but he does make sure we understand the sociological implications of their expansion over Europe: “Their assaults on abbeys and monasteries destroyed not only buildings but also the organization of the extensive demenses of the church. The old-style loyalties to State and Church were breaking down. In their place, rural seigneuries grew up, in which free men offered their services to the lords in return for protection… The Vikings were the midwives of feudalism in France.” He admits this is an oversimplification, but asserts this is the best way to “make sense of the turmoil of the ninth century.” It’s an interesting approach, and throughout the book he does a good job expanding on his theory.

This edition was published in 2003, and I was gratified to see reference to my new favorite Viking: “These brothers (Halfdan, Ubbi and Ivar the Boneless) were said to be the sons of a certain Ragnar — perhaps the Ragnar who attacked Paris in 845.” We get a certain amount of discussion about Britain, and he doesn’t neglect Viking Dublin, Frankia, or Russia. Then we learn about the settlement of the Isle of Man, Iceland, the Faroes, Greenland, and even Vinland. I think he lost some steam during this latter section, but he brings us back to Harald Hardrada and we end the book with Stamfordbridge and his professed end of the Viking Age.

I came out of this reading with a healthy respect for the Viking talent to overcome obstacles, build successful settlements, create beautiful things, make money and survive. It’s a good overall introduction to a diverse set of people, and I would recommend it to readers who have reached any level of research on the subject.

Just who are the Housecarls?

July 18, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics

housecarlAs with most of our information concerning the 11th century, the definition of Housecarl is open to interpretation. Once again I turn to the book “Anglo-Saxon Military Instititions” by C.Warren Hollister for my article; this scholarly work is the most comprehensive I have found on the subject.

Interestingly, the Housecarls as a defined group of warriors apparently only existed in 11th century pre-conquest England. Patterned after the Jomsvikings of Denmark (founded by King Harold, father of Swein Forkbeard), they are first mentioned in relation to King Canute—probably in 1018—and ceased to exist as an organization after the Battle of Hastings. It is believed they were in essence a military guild, with a body of regulations and the ability to call up a gemot or huskarlesteffne in the king’s presence to settle disputes or punish a transgressor. If a member of the guild wanted to leave the organization, they could only do so on New Year’s day. In 1049, when Swegn Godwineson killed his cousin Earl Beorn, the King and all the here (housecarls, thegns, even peasants) called a gemot and declared Swegn a nithing. This was a very judicial function, and under Canute’s rule the law states that he “shall be driven off the king’s estates with nithing’s word, and shall be exiled from every land.”

The Housecarls were the closest thing to a paid, standing army (or household troops) one would find in late Anglo-Saxon England. Occasionally they were used as tax collectors. They were loyal to their employer, the king or great earl, and were usually composed of Danish or English professional soldiers. Many of their number were landowners. It appears that as the years progressed, the Housecarls started to become a more generic designation, and the word began to be used synonymously with hiredmenn or hired and finally lithsmen and butescarls. The latter two are warriors that can fight equally well on both land and shipboard. In the end, perhaps it can only be said with real assurance that they were all mercenaries or retainers.

Highly trained warriors, the Housecarls mostly fought on foot although it is more than possible that they were perfectly capable of fighting on horseback. Snorri Sturluson tells us in Heimskringla that Harold’s mounted troops attacked the disorganized Norwegians in the early phase of the Stamfordbridge battle. They would not have attacked head-on like we picture in the 14th century battles; rather they would veer past the enemy and launch javelins into their foes’ ranks, much like the Normans did at Hastings. Then they would dismount and finish the battle on foot. During the Battle of Hastings, Harold most likely spread out his Housecarls along the shield wall to support the less experienced fyrd. Armed with their long Danish axes, the Housecarls would have been a formidable sight.

What was an Anglo-Saxon Hide?

June 19, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | 8 Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics


For many, many years I was content to think of the Anglo-Saxon Hide as a sort-of unit of measure, equivalent to the amount of land required to feed a peasant family. Good soil, smaller hide, I assumed. Rocky, mountainous soil, a larger hide. And perhaps it started this way, as Wikipedia tells us; the acre, as we know it today, did not exist. Imagine my surprise, when digging even farther into Anglo-Saxon studies, to discover that at least in the late Anglo-Saxon period, the Hide had an altogether different purpose. It was used to determine the amount of service owed to the king.

Now, let me start by saying I am not an expert on this subject! I am a student of history, and this article is intended to pass on my new discovery the best way I can; it’s is a very difficult topic, considering what little source material we have to go on. Nothing in the country was universal. Much has been pieced together by C.Warren Hollister, and he was as dry as they come (ANGLO-SAXON MILITARY INSTITUTIONS On the Eve of the Norman Conquest, 1962). But my copy of his little book is full of place-marks and I have to reorganize my mental file cabinet to absorb it all!

The Hide was not a geographic unit of measure, nor was it necessarily static. I would guess it had more to do with a density of population rather than a physical land mass, considering the above chart. The bigger towns had more hides. You will note that they are all measured in increments of 5; this seems to be the closest to universal that we will find. What was the responsibility of the five-hide unit? There was a three-fold obligation: military service, fortress work, and bridge repair. Each five-hide unit was required to produce one soldier and pay him for two months’ service (20 shillings) if called up by the king. This soldier was usually the same person whenever called up, so he would probably be better trained and equipped than the ordinary fyrdman. The five-hide unit would be contributing to the select fyrd, as Hollister puts it, rather than the great fyrd (I think these are his terms, used for convenience sake. More on that in another post). So Cambridge, for instance, would be obliged to product 20 warriors; where exactly they came from did not matter, as long as there were 20. If a great lord had the necessary number of retainers in his household, that could serve. But again, he was also obliged to pay their subsistence, not the king.

A five-hide unit could be a portion of one man’s estate, or several small estates could be stitched together to compose one five-hide unit (they would probably be contiguous). If the warrior-representative owned all 5 hides, he would be responsible for collecting his own pay from his tenants or his own income (or he could send someone in his stead). If the five-hide unit was made up of smaller landholders, they would be responsible for paying the soldier proportionally. Say, for example, five one-hide farms made up the unit. One hide would produce the warrior who paid himself 4 shillings; the the other four hides would have to contribute 4 shillings each to make up the 20 shillings for his subsistence. I believe the warrior would not be responsible for the bridge repairs and fortress work; the other representatives would contribute the manpower on that end. (In the Danelaw, the land was assessed in carucates rather than hides, and Hollister thinks they practiced a similar custom of military service.)

The hide was also a fiscal unit as well as military. When Danegeld was raised, the assessment was customarily 2 shillings per hide regardless of its size. Also, there might be additional requirements. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, in 1008 “Every 300 hides should provide a large warship, every ten hides should produce a cutter, and every eight hides should produce a helmet and a coat of mail”.  Can you imagine the distress when Aethelred’s fleet met with disaster later that year? “The vast toil of the whole nation was thus thrown away,” according of Florence of Worcester.

Interestingly enough, when the King wanted to show favor, he could reduce the hidage of certain estates, hence reducing the military obligation. In one recorded instance, “The manor of Chilcomb, belonging to the bishop of Worcester, was reduced prior to the Conquest from 100 hides to one hide” (Hollister, p.55). Thus, the size of the estate was not reduced, only its assessment.

When taken as a whole, this system seems to have been very well organized and helps explain why the continentals thought England to be such a wealthy country. I have made a few other discoveries reading this book, and will put them together in a future post.


Review for HEIR TO A PROPHECY by Helen Skinner

May 25, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics, Macbeth, Reviews

“Thou shalt get kings, though thou be none.” In Shakespeare’s Macbeth, these are the words spoken by the three witches to Macbeth’s friend, Banquo. Soon after this, Banquo is murdered and his son, Fleance, flees Scotland and does not appear again in the play. In Heir to a Prophecy, we follow Fleance as he escapes to Wales and joins the court of the Welsh king, Gruffydd ap Llewelyn. Here he meets Gruffydd’s daughter, Nesta, and they have a child together. The name of this child is Walter and it is through him that the witches’ prophecy will eventually be fulfilled.

According to some legends, the Stewart monarchs of Scotland were descended from Fleance, although more recent research has shown that in reality Banquo and Fleance probably never even existed. However, this doesn’t make Heir to a Prophecy any less enjoyable to read. The witches’ prophecy is a starting point which the author uses to explore the history of the 11th century, mixing fact, fiction and fantasy together into one fascinating story.

As we accompany first Fleance, then Walter on a journey through medieval Scotland, England and Wales, we witness the unfolding of important historical events which will shape the future of the British Isles. We spend some time in France where William of Normandy, with his eye on the throne of England, is preparing to cross the Channel. His invasion will result in victory over Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, but a period of further discontent and rebellion will follow. We also join Walter as he embarks on a personal mission to discover the truth behind his grandfather Banquo’s murder and ultimately to return to his rightful place by the side of Scotland’s King Malcom III.

Read the rest of the review here

The almost forgotten Edith of Wessex, Queen of England

May 15, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | 1 Comment | Filed in General 11th Century topics

Edith at left on top panel

Edith was a common name in Anglo-Saxon England, and it’s hard to keep them all straight. You are more likely to see this name spelled Ealdgyth, Editha, Aldgyth, Eddeva, Aldyth, Eadgyth, Edyth…I’m sure I missed a few. I like to think of her as Edith Godwindottir, but she is rarely found under that name. Why Edith of Wessex? She was Queen of England, not Wessex. She did not belong to the House of Wessex like her husband Edward the Confessor. Since her father was first Earl of Wessex, I suppose that is why the name stuck, though I do find it puzzling.

I also find it ironic that one our primary sources of the period, the Life of King Edward who rests at Westminster was commissioned by Edith herself (admittedly called a work of propaganda), and yet she’s been largely overlooked in favor of her illustrious brother Harold II. Try finding any artwork about her; oh yes, there is one memorable depiction of Edith warming Edward’s feet on his deathbed in the Bayeux Tapestry. If you look really hard you can see a female figure. There’s another depiction of her in a MS illum. next to her husband. But that’s about it. Nonetheless, according to Wikipedia, at the time of her husband’s death she was the wealthiest woman in England and the fourth wealthiest person in England after the King, Archbishop Stigand, and her brother Harold. Of course, by the time William was through with her, I imagine some of that great wealth had dissipated.

As was natural for a noble-born daughter, Edith didn’t have any say in her marriage plans. She was a very important pawn in her father’s ambitions, and I imagine Godwine didn’t even consider that she would object to becoming queen of England. But King Edward was at least 20 years older than her, and it seems to be common knowledge that he wasn’t terribly friendly toward her father. It’s pretty clear that Edward held Godwine responsible for the violent death of his brother Alfred, no matter how much the Earl protested his innocence. I wonder who was more unwilling: the bride or the groom?

So what kind of marriage did Edward and Edith have? It is thought by some that Edith commissioned Edward’s Life as an attempt to save face concerning her barren marriage. After all, a woman was always held responsible for a lack of children, and England’s fate relied on her. If she could portray Edward as too saintly to be anything but celibate, then she was off the hook. Was this really the case? Or did Edward find her guilt-by-association too much to overcome? Did they ever consummate the marriage? Or was one of them merely infertile? Hmm, one of the great mysteries of the eleventh century.

One thing is for sure: once Earl Godwine was sent into exile in 1051, poor Edith was trundled off to a nunnery at the earliest opportunity. It is said that if Archbishop Robert of Jumieges had his way, Edward would have annulled his marriage. But the King stopped short of this; perhaps he feared the consequences. On Godwine’s return, Edith was reinstalled as well, and for the rest of his reign she was treated with respect. On his deathbed, Edward said she had always been like a loving and dutiful daughter. Of course, those could have been her propagandist’s words, but they do put some distance between man and wife.

Edith does seem to have a reputation as a well-educated woman, speaking many languages; she made sure Edward’s appearance was always exquisite, outfitting him with fine accessories and jewels. She is also thought to be demanding and possibly ruthless; there was an assassination at the Christmas Court in 1064 which has been pinned on Edith, who allegedly ordered the murder of a certain Gospatric as a favor to Tostig, her closest brother. It must have been difficult for her to be sidelined after Edward died, but in those challenging times maybe it wasn’t such a bad thing to fade into the background. At first Harold treated her as befit her station, then after the conquest William pretty much left her alone, provided she didn’t make any trouble for him. William even buried her in Westminster Abbey beside her husband. In the end it could be said that she fared better than her more illustrious siblings.


Review of GODWINE KINGMAKER by Stephanie Hopkins

May 8, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | No Comments | Filed in Earl Godwine of Wessex, General 11th Century topics, Reviews

I’d like to first say that this period in English history is probably without a doubt my favorite. I am quite the critic when it comes to reading historical fiction during this extraordinary time…when I saw this book tour available for this book, I knew that I had to read this story. I wanted to know how seriously Rochelle takes her history and how she will portray this period and the people. I’d have to say I was thoroughly fascinated with her look into this time. She gives you a really good sense of it if you will. That’s what I want in a story. To be transported back.

This story centers on Harold Godwineson’s Father, Godwine. He became Earl of Wessex under King Canute. For those of you who don’t know, Canute is Danish by birth. He and his father conquered England. I highly recommend you read up on King Canute.

Anyhow, I really have never had an opinion about Godwine. I knew he was powerful and how he got his power. I have always been more interested in his son Harold-the last king of the Saxon rule. They were both two powerful men in their own right. Although what Godwine built for his families power was amazing! It really is extraordinary how he rose from his commoner status and how his family rose even further with Harold. This story shows Godwine’s power and intelligence-I think-perfectly. The story begins with him as a young boy who was befriended by the Danes. By chance really and was befriended by King Canute. This is that story and more. A brilliant story at that. Gosh there is so much to this story and I could go on and on about it. But instead of me doing that, I really encourage you to read the book.

I will caution those who are critical of authors for taking liberties regarding the historical aspects of a story. I will say this with a firm voice, “This is Historical Fiction!” I did spot some of that in this story and even asked the author about one particular scene via social media. How she explained it to me worked perfectly in her story. Matter of fact there is a part of history about a piece of land that Canute and Godwine was viewing and where Canute was telling Godwine about it is where she took some liberty. Still she kept it believable and I actually want to do further study on it. So thank you, Rochelle for including the scene in your story. Readers, I can’t tell you what it is because I don’t want to give spoilers….so go read it and find out!

I adore the authors writing style, premise, how she brought it all together. She knows how to write historical fiction and I can’t WAIT for the second book to come out. I hope it will be soon! I’m rating this book five stars. Thank you, Rochelle for a fine story. We readers of history do appreciate it.

Oh, and one last thing….I pretty much agree with Rochelle’s portrayal of the Normans! Ha! :)

Stephanie M. Hopkins


The Children of Harold Godwineson

March 15, 2015 by Mercedes Rochelle | 17 Comments | Filed in General 11th Century topics, The Sons of Godwine
by Horace Vernet

Edith Swanneck discovering King Harold’s corpse on the battle field of Hastings by Horace Vernet

Like much of the eleventh century, the fate of Harold’s children is somewhat vague. We have a pretty good idea about the immediate years after the Battle of Hastings, but with the exception of Harold’s daughter Gytha we don’t exactly know what happened to them.

Harold’s long relationship with his handfasted wife Edith Swanneck produced five or six children. Godwine, the eldest, was named after Harold’s father. Then we have Edmund (named after Edmund Ironside?), Magnus, Gunhild and Gytha. The youngest son, Ulf, was probably from this marriage, but some historians think he was the twin brother of Harold from his father’s second marriage to Ealdgyth, sister of Edwin and Morcar and (uncrowned) Queen of England.

From the first, we don’t know what happened to Edith Swanneck. Legend has it that she was brought to the battlefield to identify King Harold’s mangled corpse, based on marks that only she would know. After that, she presumably accompanied the body to Waltham Abbey for burial, but we know nothing further after that. Where were the children all this time?

We know that Gunhild took refuge in Wilton Abbey, a favorite establishment of her aunt Editha (Edward the Confessor’s wife). Perhaps Gunhild was already settled at the Abbey for her education and thus remained there after the battle. Years later, she left the Abbey in the company of Count Alain le Roux, Lord of Richmond, who was the recipient of many estates belonging to her mother. It seems that she had little vocation for the veil and took advantage of an opportunity to go back to her own lands. She and Alain lived together until his death, and afterwards she took up with his brother, Alain le Noir who inherited the estates. After le Noir’s death, she disappears from the records.

The three eldest sons of Edith may well have accompanied their mother to Ireland. Diarmaid of Leinster, the same King who sheltered Harold Godwineson back in 1051, is said to have welcomed Harold’s sons in their exile. It’s also possible that they went to Exeter, a stronghold of the Godwine family where their grandmother Gytha resided. Exeter became a focal point of local rebellion; King William took this threat seriously enough to lay siege to the city for 18 days in the winter of 1068. Apparently the besieged were not in agreement, for they capitulated to William while Gytha, accompanied by her allies, fled to the island of Flat Holm in the Bristol channel and stayed for many months.

The Irish King permitted the sons of Harold to recruit a fleet of mercenaries and invade England on two separate occasions; the last invasion proved a costly disaster in manpower and Magnus was probably killed. It’s possible that Gytha waited until it was clear that her grandsons’ cause was hopeless before leaving Flat Holme for good and traveling to Flanders. She may have entered a convent at St. Omer. Or she might have gone back to Scandinavia, where the presiding King of Denmark was her nephew.

It was thought that Godwine and Edmund probably went to Scandinavia as well, along with their sister Gytha. If they thought King Swegn would help militarily, they were destined to be disappointed. Our knowledge of their fate disappears after this, but Swegn was able to use his influence to set young Gytha up in a royal marriage. Her new husband, Vladimir Monomakh, prince of Smolensk was said to be handsome and rich, and she lived, in apparent contentment, until 1107.

Ulf, surprisingly, ended up a hostage in William the Conqueror’s court. Whether he was captured after the Exeter siege (which would make him a son of Edith Swanneck) or captured as a baby in Chester (which would make him a son of Ealdgyth) is unknown. He stayed in captivity until King William’s death in 1087, when he was released into the custody of Duke Robert, who knighted him and set him free. By all indications Ulf wisely stayed on the continent and has been identified as Loup Fitz Heraut (Wulf son of Harold) whose signature has been found in charters.

This leaves us with young Harold Haroldson, son of Queen Ealdgyth and heir to the throne if all had gone differently. Ealdgyth was heavily pregnant by the battle of Hastings, and afterwards her brothers Edwin and Morcar whisked her off to Chester for safekeeping. It is thought that the child’s uncles might have had it in mind to use him as a figurehead in a future bid for the throne, but they never got that far. When Ealdgyth found herself with no defenders, she is said to have fled to Ireland with her son. After he grew up, Harold apparently found his way to Norway.  In 1098 he accompanied King Magnus III Barelegs on an expedition to Ireland, but all traces are lost after this point.

It is ironic that Godwine and his clan, once the most powerful force in England, should be reduced to historical footnotes in two generations. And it’s even more ironic that through his daughter Gytha and her son (Mstislav I Vladimirovich the Great), Harold’s blood still flows through the royal houses of Europe all the way to the present day.