King Harold’s children

womanfleeingHarold Godwinson became King of England on 6th January 1066.  He was married to Edith, the daughter of Earl Alfgar of Mercia.

Edith didn’t have much luck with husbands.  Her first one was a welsh king who died in 1063.  Three years later she married Harold in March 1066.  Nine months after that a bouncing baby boy was born in Chester – Harold of Chester.  Other sources say he was born early the following year.  In either event Edith and Harold sought shelter in Ireland before heading to Europe in the aftermath of the Battle of Hastings.  Nothing further is known of them although there is some suggestion that they may have been given sanctuary in Norway. It is also possible that Edith went to the nunnery at St Omer where his mother and one of his daughters fled after an abortive uprising against the Conqueror. History once again provides tantalising hints but not the full story.

Edith was possibly the mother of Ulf, another  of Harold’s sons – although it is equally likely that rather than twins Uf was the son of Harold’s lover Edith Swan-neck.  It has been suggested that the unknown woman on the Bayeux Tapestry fleeing with a child from a burning building could be Edith swan-neck and Ulf.  The pair could just as likely be representative of the innocent citizens of Hastings who found their buildings burning around their ears.  Somehow or other Ulf  found himself safely secured in Normandy.  History doesn’t say what happened to him although he was alive according to Weir (Britain’s Royal Families) in 1087.

Harold’s lover, Edith Swan-neck was the woman who searched the battle field for his body in the aftermath of Hastings. It was she who’d provided Harold with at least five children who were, in 1066, a threat to William’s quiet enjoyment of his new kingdom.

King Harold’s mother, Gytha held out against the Norman invaders in Exeter.  She chose 1067 when William returned to Normandy to make her presence felt.  Exeter fell after eighteen days but their determination gave Harold’s mother, his sister Gunnhild and his daughter Gytha time to escape to the Island of Flatholme in the Bristol Channel before following in the sails of other English refugees to the continent and the nunnery at St Omer which was in the domain of Count Baldwin VI of Flanders.  Harold’s mother and sister remained there for the rest of their lives.

Harold’s daughter Gytha on the other hand married, through Swedish diplomacy, the Russian Prince of Smolensk, Vladimir II.  He went on to become the Grand Prince of Kiev and she mothered somewhere in the region of eight sons and three daughters.  Her descendants became kings of other nations and one of her descendants was a Queen of England  – Edward III’s wife, Queen Philippa of Hainault- which means somewhat bizarrely that the blood of the last Anglo-Saxon King of England flowed in the veins of the Plantagenets and indeed of every monarch since: an unexpected twist to the tale that we don’t learn at school.

Harold’s sons Godwin, Edmund and Magnus went to Dublin after the Conquest.  They returned in 1068 with their swords in their hands and a force of Norse mercenaries from the Kingdom of Dublin. They weren’t warmly received in Bristol so made for Taunton – by sea- where they were seen off by a Saxon who’d submitted to William and who no doubt knew which side his bread was buttered.  The unfortunate Saxon,Eadnoth, died during the ensuing battle but so possibly did Harold’s son Magnus.

Then again may be Magnus didn’t die.  There is a curved inscription in the church of St John in Lewis, Sussex that details the presence of a Prince Magnus of Danish royal stock who became an anchorite there.  Could the Danish reference be a red herring to hide Magnus?

Of Godwin and Edmund more is known.  Although defeated in 1068 they were back the following year with sixty ships.  They attempted to take Exeter but were seen off by the Norman  garrison in their shiny new motte and bailey castle so they settled on causing trouble in the South West but were seen off once more.  They are last heard of in the court of King Swein of Denmark.

Another of King Harold’s daughter, Gunnhild, was a nun at Wilton or at least a woman seeking shelter from the Normans in the nunnery where she’d received her education.  Alan the Red, Earl of Richmond, made off with Gunnhild in August 1093 and that is the subject of a previous blog as well as a topic of Norman Scandal since she refused point blank to take herself back to Wilton when the Archbishop of Canterbury suggested that she should do so.


10 thoughts on “King Harold’s children

  1. Very good summary, but a couple of minor corrections are in order.

    (1) Harold’s handfasted wife/mistress’s epithet was Swann hnesce (“Gentle Swan”).

    (2) As far as we know, Alan Rufus wasn’t *de jure* Earl _of_ anywhere: his title of Count was a courtesy extended to him and his brothers (and presumably sisters) because of a political arrangement made by his father Count Eozen with the latter’s brother Alan III, Duke of Brittany (deceased October 1040 or 1039).

    (3) Alan probably died on 4 August 1093, on what Keats-Rohan calls “the morning of an impenetrably obscure adventure”, so Gunnhild almost certainly left Wilton before August of that year. Richard Sharpe surmises that she left some years or even decades earlier than that.

    Alan R. was Tenant-in-Chief of 782 vills, of which 430 were in his personal demesne. He could be viewed as *de facto* Earl of East Anglia, East Midlands, York and Richmond, and toward the end of his life perhaps Earl of Kent. He was also Lord of Richemont in far Upper Normandy. (He apparently was in royal service at Southampton and maybe in East London – something to do with the English fleet?)

    Some additional pertinent details:

    The Grand Prince of Kiev’s territory comprised much of European Russia: he was in fact an emperor (or tsar).

    The commander of the army that defeated Harold’s sons in the field in 1069 was Count Brian, a brother of Alan Rufus. Brian then rushed north because there was rebellion in the West Midlands, fanned by Eadric the Wild, and the English and Welsh there had joined against the Normans. Brian met an army of King William’s heading west and joined forces to fight the rebels. The very bloody and hard-fought Battle of Stafford ensued, in which it seems Brian was so seriously injured that he subsequently retired to Brittany (“as an invalid”, to quote Keats-Rohan).

    Harold and his mistress were joined in a handfast ceremony around the time that King Edward the Confessor made him Earl of East Anglia (early 1040s), and he set her aside after Edward died. This suggests some relationship between the Gentle Swan and King Edward.

    Several prominent historians of the period think it very likely that the prominent landowner Eadgifu (aka Edith the Fair and Edith the Rich) is the same person as Harold’s mistress. Of her manors in Cambridgeshire, the richest one was appropriated by King William; most of the rest went to Count Alan, plus some to Alan’s men Hardwin, Joscelin and Mainou. Alan also received a goodly portion of Eadgifu’s manors in Essex and Suffolk.

    Edward the Confessor was a maternal first cousin to Eozen – so, same mitochondrial DNA. (So if Eadgifu was related to Edward, then she may have been to Eozen as well.)

    Eozen is also known to history as Count Eudes, as Odo of Penthievre, and in the “Norman” version of the “Song of Roland” as Eudon the Lord of Brittany. Also mentioned in the Song are Geoffrey of Anjou, who contributed ships and men to William’s invasion of England, and the 10th century Richard the Fearless of Normandy. What these three have in common is that they are all connected with the west wing of the army: the men of Anjou served beside the Bretons, and Richard was an ancestor of Eozen’s. (Bishop Odo of Bayeux also was placed on the west wing.) So it seems plausible that it was among the Bretons and Angevins that this variant was sung.

    (“Norman French” is actually a dialect of Gallo, the common language of eastern Brittany, western and southern Normandy, Maine and Anjou. It’s Gallo that “gallicised” medieval English.)

    “Roland” is a variation on the Breton “Riwallon”, the name of William’s (and Eozen’s) ally who was Lord of Dol during the 1064-1065 Breton-Norman War that Earl Harold (willingly or not) participated in.

    The elder Ralph de Gael et de Montfort, known as “Ralph the Staller”, was well-known to King Edward the Confessor, whom he served as a royal constable in East Anglia, and to Eozen (as a witness to family charters which he signed as “Ralph Anglicus”, i.e. “Ralph English”). So it’s likely that Eadgifu the Fair and Count Alan knew _of_ each other before Hastings.

    In King Edward’s time, an “Alan” was the Lord of Wyken in Suffolk: this is a farm that is still operating, albeit expanded to encompass a vineyard. There are circumstantial reasons (the pattern of land ownership in 1086) to believe this Alan may have been Alan Rufus.

    Quite a few “Normans” were either ethnic Bretons or had longstanding Breton connections. The 1086 owner of Wyken farm was Peter of Valognes, whose sister had the Breton name “Muriel”. Bishop Odo of Bayeux’s (and Count Robert of Mortain’s) known sister was also “Muriel”; both their parents also have suspiciously Insular Celtic sounding names. Hugh, Earl of Chester, was from Avranches which then was nestled in a corner of Normandy but used to be inside Brittany. Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury was born in Aosta in Italy, but his family, the House of Candia, had originated in the town of Candé in Anjou which in the 11th century was near the Breton border, but in the 9th had been part of Brittany.

  2. Yesterday I went to the place where Magnus was buried. English historians should be utterly ashamed of themselves, as Gallus Anonimus, chronicler of Polish history, makes detailed references to Magnus’ career as a great statesman.
    What are reliably believed to be Magnus’ remains were unearthed in 1966 in an archaelogical dig in the ruins of his chapel in his castle at Czersk, just south of Warsaw.
    He has been written on extensively in Polish, but English historians seem completely oblivious.
    He died 1109. Through him the heraldic crest of the Principality of Mazowsze (Mazovia) bears the Wessex dragon to this day.

    • Crikey! Thank you. Having never been to Poland this particular piece of the jigsaw completely eluded me. I love the information that the Wessex dragon is still in use today. I think part of the problem is that in the past historians of British History have been interested in the key players and once they cease to have any discernible impact on British History they drop into the footnotes or into obscurity. Equally there are plenty of fascinating stories which have been left in the margins and which are now being re explored. Certainly when I was at university no one was too bothered about Elizabeth I’s relationship with the Ottoman Empire for example but history isn’t a static thing, revisions are always being made and emphasis shifts. No conflation for omission I know but certainly in my case it was a question of not knowing what I didn’t know until you sent your comment. I shall be adding Magnus to my ever expanding list of future posts. Many thanks.

    • It was but my spell checker has a mind of its own and when it changes spellings I can’t always see the change even with proof reading. Many thanks for saying, I shall amend when I go on line.

  3. is it possible to get a Russian translation of this article to send to my mother-in-law in Moscow, thank you, Paul Middleton

    • You could try it on Google translate which is a free service. Simple copy the text and paste it into the translator. It works well for phrases – not sure how good it is for longer texts.

  4. I am fascinated by the possibility that Gunnhild left the convent much earlier. Do you have a possible birth date for her and a date for when she might have been at Wilton.

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