Helen Hollick on Queen Alditha

Part of the 1066 guide

Alditha – Harold’s Queen.

Before he was crowned as King in January 1066, Harold Godwinesson had what we would now call a common law wife – Edyth Swannhaels – Edith Swanneck, Edith the Fair. As King he was obliged to make a Christian blessed marriage of alliance. There would, perhaps, have been two choices for him. A daughter of Duke William of Normandy could have been a possibility – I am convinced that a marriage agreement was made when Harold was in Normandy during 1064. A betrothal would have been made by William to secure Harold’s loyalty and pledge to aid his bid for the English throne. The engagement would have been broken off by a disgruntled father the day he heard news of Harold’s Coronation.

The other choice was the sister to the two Northern Earls, Edwin and Morkere of Mercia and Northumbria. She was Alditha, widow of the Welsh Prince Gruffydd, defeated, and some say slain, by Harold in 1063.

There are two schools of thought regarding whether Alditha was pleased to be bargained off in a second marriage of convenience, depending on whether you are a Harold supporter or not. On one side, Harold is reported as being a brutal man, arrogant and conceited. It’s interesting that this view is more readily banded by the Welsh. The fact is, Gruffydd was murdered by his own people who then surrendered. In consequence, Wales was left to its own stewardship (similar to when Llewelyn ap Fawr ruled as Prince under John). Nor are there Norman tales of Harold being ruthless – on top of the rest of the Norman propaganda, I would have expected a blackening of his character. (Think subsequent kings who, for various reasons, were discredited.)

The widow Alditha and her young daughter, Nest, were escorted back to her own family in Mercia. This does not strike me as the action of a vindictive man. But I admit I am biased! Nest later married the Marcher Lord Osbern fitz Richard of Richard’s castle on the Hereford/Shropshire border, which gives rise to my personal belief that after 1066 Alditha fled to Wales.

Our first problem with Alditha is her name, there are several variants: Ealdgyth, Algytha, Alditta, Edyth,  Edith… take your pick. I favour Alditha to avoid confusion with Edith Harold’s sister and Edith his first wife. Alditha was the granddaughter of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, daughter of Ælfgar his son and successor. Ælfgar was unpredictable and hostile to the Godwine family and King Edward. Prior to his rebellion of 1062 he had already been banished once from the Kingdom.

Unhappy with Harold’s brother Tostig being made Earl of Northumbria, Ælfgar allied with Gruffydd of Wales, and began raiding the Welsh Marches and Herefordshire. The alliance – sealed by Alditha’s marriage circa 1057 – backfired however, as it gave Harold the excuse he needed to enter Wales and put an end to the many years of aggressive border warfare. Defeated, Ælfgar was exiled and died in 1062. Mercia passed to his son Edwin, and Northumbria went to Morkere when Tostig was exiled in 1065.

It is possible that Harold took Alditha as wife as early as 1063 after Gruffydd’s death, but this is unlikely, and to what purpose? Far more logical that the marriage took place after King Edward’s death to ensure the support of the North, and to provide assurance that Harold would not return Tostig to favour. It is not known whether she was crowned as Queen – again it is logical that she was, in order to secure her brothers’ position.

She had one son, Harold, born posthumously at Chester in late 1066 or early 1067. Her two brothers attempted a rebellion against William in 1068 and again in 1069, probably citing the young child as the legitimate heir. The Norman response was a winter march across the Pennines in 1069-70 to occupy Chester and to crush the two Earls in battle near Stafford. Alditha fled, either into Wales or to Dublin.

William of Malmesbury suggests that the young Harold later journeyed to Norway where he was well received by Olaf Haraldsson, and a Harold is found among the followers of Magnus Olafsson in 1098 when a battle was fought against the Norman earls of Shrewsbury and Chester. Thereafter, this Harold disappears from the records.

Was this was Harold Haroldsson? Or did he die as a young child? I think the latter. No proof, just gut feeling or an author’s fancy.

What happened to Alditha – nobody knows.

A delight for fiction writers; we can make the story up and no one can contradict our ideas.

Helen Hollick is author of Harold the King (UK title) I am the Chosen King (US title), the story of the Battle of Hastings from the English point of view.