Historical Fiction Author Helen Hollick has dropped by to tell us all about Alditha, queen to Harold II, a facinating character whom I've also written about.
Alditha: Wife. Widow. Mother.
by Helen Hollick
Yes, the words of the title are in the correct order. In 1066, when Harold Godwinson, Earl of Wessex, was chosen by the council of England to become the next king after Edward the Confessor had died, he had to make a difficult choice. He had to prove to the northern earls that he would not let them down, as his younger brother, Tostig had spectacularly done. There was, on the surface, a simple way to achieve this. Take the sister of these two important earls as his wife.
The only thing that made this obvious alliance not quite so simple, was that Harold already had a common-law wife, Edyth of Nazeing, also known as Edyth Swannhæls, Edith Swanneck or Edith the Fair. But as King of England he was obliged to make a Christian-blessed marriage, and so Edyth* was set aside, and Alditha*, the sister to Edwin and Morkere, the Earls of Mercia and Northumbria, became his wife.
(*Note: there are variations regarding the spelling of these two ladies’ names – this is the spelling I use in my novel.)
We do not know how the two women felt about all this, history rarely makes mention of the women, even the basic facts, let alone things like feelings. It does not take much imagination to assume that neither of them were particularly impressed by the decision, though.
It is probable that Edyth expected to be set aside, for when she ‘married’ Harold he was Earl of Essex, and as the years passed it was an odds-on bet that he would eventually become Earl of Wessex, which in practicality meant second-in-command beneath the king, which in turn meant the necessity of political alliance somewhere along the line. Edyth was with Harold as his ‘wife’ for over twenty years, however, and bore him at least six children. The blow when it came must have fallen hard.
Alditha was already the widow of the Welsh Prince, Gruffydd, who had been defeated by Harold in 1063. Alditha and her young daughter, Nest, were escorted back to her own family in Mercia. 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 into Wales.
For Harold, this alliance, apart from reassuring the two northern earls, ticked all the boxes. The marriage took place soon after King Edward’s death on the 5th or 6th of January 1066, possibly occurring towards the end of January or early February – or maybe even coinciding with Harold’s coronation directly after Edward’s death. The hurry would have been to ensure the support of the North, and to provide assurance that Harold would not return the exiled Tostig to favour. It is not known whether Alditha was crowned as Queen, but it is logical that she was, in order to totally secure her brothers’ allegiance. The marriage was not to last long, for across the English Channel, Duke William of Normandy became incensed that he had not been crowned as king of England and that Harold had betrayed him. In consequence, William, having the ultimate of a hissy-fit, decided to invade England and take what he wanted by force.
On October 14th 1066, Alditha became a widow for the second time when Harold died on the battlefield at the place now known as Battle, in Sussex, seven miles inland from the coast. Alditha was pregnant. Had William managed to capture her she would have either been incarcerated within a secure nunnery or killed. Her child, were it to be a boy would have been slain. She fled, probably into Wales, her route and destination no doubt pre-arranged by Harold. Whether she stayed there or fled onward, abroad, we do not know. She did, however, give birth to a son born in late 1066 or early 1067. She named him Harold.
Her two brothers attempted rebellion against William in 1068 and again in 1069. The Norman response was a winter march across the Pennines in 1069-70 to occupy Chester and then to crush the two earls in battle near Stafford, and to devastate the north so thoroughly and terribly that it took many years to recover. Arguably, it never did.
William of Malmesbury suggests that the young Harold, as an adult, 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. But ‘Harold’ was a very common name back then, it is doubtful that this was Harold Haroldsson. It is more likely that the legitimate, and true heir to the English throne, died as a young child.
These ‘don’t knows’ of history are a delight for fiction writers, because we can make up the missing bits, add in our own thoughts, ideas and beliefs – and although others may not agree, there is no proof as to who is wrong or who is right.
I admire Edyth Swanneck, for she must have been a remarkable, loyal and loving woman, but I also admire Alditha. She never had the chance to shine, was bargained off to suit the menfolk’s needs, and then had to flee for her life. What eventually happened to her, no one knows.
I hope she eventually found comfort, peace and the love she deserved.
© Helen Hollick
Helen Hollick is the author of Harold the King (UK edition title) / I am the Chosen King (US edition title) the story of the events that led to the 1066 Battle of Hastings
Available via Helen’s Amazon Author Page:
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Main Blog: www.ofhistoryandkings.blogspot.com
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