Harold 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.