Friday, 9 October 2020

Helen Hollick chats about Alditha, wife of Harold II.

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

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Saturday, 3 October 2020

A Princely Lodging: the history of Sheriff Hutton Castle by Alexander Hill


In March 2020, my first academic year at the University of York, where I am currently studying a BA in History and English and Related Literature, was abruptly cut short following the outbreak of the Covid.19 pandemic. As was the case with most students, this was a personal blow. Consequently, I found that numerous exams and essays were completely cancelled, thus crucial aspects to my learning programme were permanently removed. I would not resume study until I returned to university in October. 

Having now found myself in a situation in which I had more disposable time to kill, I decided to spend this wisely an embark on a short writing exercise on a topic of my choice, the goal being to retain a level of writing which would enable to be resume my next year of study with greater ease. As an avid Medievalist, I decided to write a piece on Sheriff Hutton Castle, a ruin close to where I live which, despite being mentioned in several books, is lacking any sort of recent analysis solely based on its own historical merit. 

The more I read on the castle’s illustrious history, the more I found this to be unusual; indeed, the castle itself was built by the formidable Nevilles in the late 14th century, after which it passed to the Crown and thus into the possession of King Richard III. During the Wars of the Roses, many notable historical figures graced Sheriff Hutton as the country remained embroiled in brutal and bloody civil war. These included Edward, Earl of Warwick and Margaret Plantagenet – the children of George, Duke of Clarence, and Elizabeth of York who was strategically incarcerated at Sheriff Hutton on Richard’s orders after it came to light that a betrothal existed between Elizabeth and Richard’s nemesis, Henry Tudor, the future King Henry VII. There were even rumours that the former king, Edward V and his brother Richard – now remembered as the ‘princes in the tower’ were kept alive and hidden at Sheriff Hutton, although this remains a subject of ongoing debate.

Under the Tudor monarch’s Sheriff Hutton retained its royal links. In 1525, King Henry VIII sent his illegitimate son Henry Fitzroy to be raised and educated by the finest humanist scholars from Sheriff Hutton, where he was to establish his own court. Given that King Henry still lacked a legitimate male heir, it was rumoured that he was intend on naming Fitzroy his successor. Fitzroy remained at Sheriff Hutton for 4 years, where he was taught alongside Henry Howard, now regarded as one of the finest poets of the age, who, alongside Sir Thomas Wyatt, was responsible for introducing the sonnet to the English language. 

During the later 16th century, plans were drawn up for a Royal Progress north, which were to include Sheriff Hutton. Thus, the arrival of Queen Elizabeth I was expected, and the gardens were restructured under the orders of Robert Dudley, who was responsible for similar renovations at Kenilworth, which was regarded as one of the ‘wonder houses’ of the age; it is possible that Sheriff Hutton was just as grand. 

Nevertheless, by the turn of the century, Sheriff Hutton Castle had fallen into ruin, as the grand age of the castle drew to a close. Consequently, the walls, towers and roofs were plundered and pillaged, and little of the once mighty fortress remains. The more I read and gathered information about the history of the castle, the greater I felt a duty to retell its story, which appears to have been eclipsed by other greater fortresses, such as Middleham and Bolton. Equally, the history of Sheriff Hutton Castle is fragmented, and thus open to interpretation. This allowed for a greater creative licence, inducing me to retell the story from a unique perspective based on my own prior knowledge of the age. 

Subsequently, what was initially a short essay turned into a 200-page book. As I became engrossed in my research I spent more and more time at the ruin, speaking with locals and other historians, in order to piece together an accurate portrayal of the castle’s history and its impact on the surrounding 21st century landscape. I found that it remains a staple mark upon the community, physically and metaphorically dominating the area which, although much changed, is still intrinsically tied to its regal heritage and past. This makes the lacking of any recent information on the castle all the more tragic; indeed, so little of it remains that its future is still uncertain despite the best efforts of English Heritage to preserve the remaining four towers of the inner ward which, in 2001 were near collapse. 

Therefore, the aim of this book is not only to retell the story of one of Yorkshires most overlooked castles, but to encourage the restoration and preservation of our historic sites which are threatened by an ever-changing climate, which, if necessary steps are not taken to ensure their care, will be lost to us forever. 

Please feel free to follow my Facebook page @PrincelyLodgingBook, where I regularly update information on my work and share interesting facts about Sheriff Hutton Castle.

‘A Princely Lodging: A History of Sheriff Hutton Castle’ will be released later in 2020 is available via Feedaread, Amazon or through me directly.