The Noblewomen of 1066: Carol McGrath Considers Female Survival During Regime Change

Carol McGrath

Early Medieval embroidered book binding.

Early Medieval embroidered book binding.

After the Battle of Hastings, the flower of the fighting English nobility was dead or exiled. Their wives were widowed and their daughters were fatherless. English noblewomen had few choices as to how to live following regime change.

Legal land rights were of great interest to King William, who liked to think that his conquest of England was a crusade to bring England into the fold of the reforming church and honour his legal right to be England’s king. Women could marry with the enemy, disappear into a convent, or choose exile. The Godwin noblewomen provide examples of the choices for survival facing aristocratic English women after conquest.

Dowager Queen Edith, Harold’s sister, pragmatically chose to support the new regime, yet she had a biography scribed, The Vita Edwardii, that praised her husband, King Edward, and did not allow her brothers to be forgotten. When William arrived in Winchester, an ancient royal city, Edith handed over the keys and its treasury without a whimper. William’s biographer, William of Poitiers, called Edith more man than woman on account of her good sense. She lived with honour for the remainder of her life, spent between Wilton Abbey and Winchester.

Edith had been highly educated at Wilton and was respected for her intellect and conversation. Known throughout Europe for her embroidery skills, Carola Hicks makes a convincing argument that Edith was involved in the creation of The Bayeux Tapestry, suggesting that panels of the tapestry were embroidered in Wilton’s workshops.1 Edith’s pragmatism paid off. When she died, William granted her a state funeral in Westminster Abbey, and The Domesday Book indicates that she had retained her full household and most of her lands.

Wilton also features in the story of Gunnhild, King Harold’s younger daughter, who eloped from Wilton with Alan of Richmond, William’s second cousin. After Alan’s death, she formed a relationship with his half-brother, who inherited Alan’s wealth, including lands belonging to Gunnhild’s mother, Edith Swan-Neck. In 1090, Archbishop Anselm ordered Gunnhild back to the abbey. Their correspondence exists to this day, although the outcome is unrecorded.

Harold’s mother, the aged, indomitable Countess Gytha, retired to her dower city of Exeter in 1066. By 1068, Exeter refused to pay King William’s tax, and for three weeks Normans tunnelled under the Roman walls, created blockades on the river and attacked with siege weapons. The city capitulated. The countess and her noblewomen departed for Flanders and Denmark, with a great Anglo-Saxon treasure.

Harold’s elder daughter, Gita, also sailed into exile, and King Sweyn of Denmark brokered her marriage to one of the wealthiest princes in Europe, Vladimir of Kiev. Three of their sons became Russian Grand Princes.

Edith Swan-Neck, Harold’s hand-fasted wife, as recorded in The Waltham Chronicle, identified Harold’s body after The Battle of Hastings by marks known only to her. Hand-fasting was a legal form of marriage, but Harold set Edith aside in 1066, when he married a northern noblewoman for political reasons. Their youngest son, Ulf, was taken as a child hostage into Normandy and not released until after William’s death, by which time he was knighted and more Norman than English. It is probable that, after 1066, Edith, like many other noblewomen, retired to a nunnery.

Much changed for women following the conquest. Anglo-Saxon women could own property and make wills. After conquest, a woman’s property became that of her husband. However, Anglo-Norman inter-marriage contributed to the fact that the English language continued to be widely spoken.


  1. Carola Hicks, The Bayeux Tapestry: the Life Story of a Masterpiece, 2006.
  2. Of further interest, the Opus Anglicanum embroidery exhibit is currently on now through 5 February at the Victoria & Albert Museum.

About the contributor: Carol McGrath’s debut novel, The Handfasted Wife, first in a trilogy about the royal women of 1066, was shortlisted for the RoNAS 2014. The Swan-Daughter and The Betrothed Sister followed to complete this best-selling trilogy. Carol was the co-ordinator of the Historical Novel Society Conference, Oxford in September 2016.


Published in Historical Novels Review  |  Issue 78, November 2016

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