Overshadowed by their husbands or subject to their father’s ambitions, noble medieval women had to be pretty plucky to carve out a niche in the history books. Still, Gytha Thorkelsdóttir was related to so many famous (and mostly tragic) figures that it is amazing we know so little about her.
Raised in Denmark, she was the sister of Earl Ulf who served Canute as Regent of Denmark before his unfortunate death (reportedly killed by Canute’s order). Her father Thorkel (also known as Torkel, Torgils, or Thorgil) was said to have been the grandson of a bear and a Swedish maiden. Of course, having a bear as an ancestor is only mentioned when referring to a male (like Ulf), but I can only assume the a female of the line would absorb the same characteristics?
Ulf was married to Canute’s sister, which made Gytha part of the royal family. So it may have been a great surprise to Gytha when King Canute married her off to his favorite, Godwine. Probably from a less than stellar background (his father was an out-of-favor Thegn in England), Godwine’s rapid rise to power was destined to make him the most important man in England after the king. But he hadn’t achieved this status yet, though he may have been Earl of Wessex when they married. I doubt whether Gytha was given a choice.
They did have a large family: at least 10, possibly 11 children. Among their brood was Edith, later Queen of England married to Edward the Confessor and Harold Godwineson, last Saxon King of England. However, it was her misfortune out outlive at least six of them; she lost three in one day at the Battle of Hastings, for Harold died alongside his brothers Gyrth and Leofwine. And of course this was only two weeks after the death of Tostig at the Battle of Stamfordbridge. How a mother felt seeing two sons face each other as enemies across the battlefield can only be surmised.
So Gytha was the mother of a king and of a queen and many earls. She was also the aunt of King Sweyn II of Denmark. It was written that Gytha petitioned William the Conqueror to let her take Harold’s body and even offered to pay him its weight in gold, but William refused, fearing the Saxons would turn it into a shrine. However, local legend at Bosham declares that the unidentified bones beneath the floor of the church belong to Harold who was secretly buried there after the fact. The family estates were confiscated by William the Conqueror after Hastings, and it is thought that Gytha returned to her native Denmark. She probably died four years later.