Tuesday, 26 January 2016

PAULA'S PEOPLE: A New Home for King Harold's Daughter by Carol McGrath

After 1066 and his defeat in The Battle of Hastings, the survivors of King Harold II’s family were exiled to foreign lands, with the exception of Gunnhild, his younger daughter who took up with King William’s cousin, Alan of Richmond. Surviving supporters were also scattered to lands as far apart as Byzantium and Denmark. There were, and had been for some time, English communities in Russian Kyiv (Kiev) and Novgorod.

King Harold

 Princess Gyda (Gita/Gytha/Thea in The Betrothed Sister) was King Harold’s elder daughter. She travelled with her brothers to King Sweyn’s court in Denmark. Sweyn was King Harold’s mother’s nephew. It is likely that he arranged this brilliant marriage for his aunt’s grand-daughter to Vladimir Monomarkh, son of the third prince in line for the grand throne of Kyiv and since at this time Kyiv was possibly the richest and largest city in Europe it was a coup.

Janet Martin, Russian Medievalist, writes in her book Medieval Russia 980-1584 ‘Prince Iarslav Vladimirovitch arranged the marriage of his daughter Elizaveta to the King of Norway; when widowed, she married the King of Denmark…Vladimir Monomarkh’s marriage to Gyda, the daughter of King Harold II of England reflected the prince’s ties with the king of Denmark more than England.’ There were already established historical links between Scandinavian and Rus lands. Only the odd snippet can be discovered in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and The Russian Primary Chronicle; the latter an early twelfth century document from Kyiv, concerning Gyda’s marriage. The Russian Primary Chronicle suggests that the marriage took place in the 1070s

Vladimir, Grand Prince of Kiev

So what do we know about Princess Gyda’s new home? Her feelings as written in The Betrothed Sister are speculative, as is her lengthy betrothal. As a novelist we try to create a character and world for our historical protagonists. It was impossible to discover much about her character although I discovered that she cared deeply about religion and possibly through either devotion or illness or both, ended her life in a convent. It was easier to research the atmosphere and life of medieval Kiev and Novgorod and how life may have been for a dispossessed princess married into the wealthy Riurikid dynasty.

The Golden Gate of Kiev

Rus lands were inhabited by Slavs and Vikings during the ninth century. By the late eleventh century the Russian Orthodox Church, not dissimilar to the Greek Orthodox Church, influenced Rus culture. For instance, a written language had evolved and many throughout society were educated as is evidenced by the discovery of everyday messages scribed on birch bark during this period. Some scholars suggest that the seclusion of noble women in a part of the palace called a terem dates from the eleventh century rather than the later medieval period of Mongol invasions. The concept may have come from Frankish lands or from Byzantium, and is not to be confused with that of harem since Russians were strictly monogamous. The Russian Primary Chronicle documents the construction of Cathedrals and monasteries, influenced by Byzantine art, each decorated with frescos and icons, provided with liturgical books and sacerdotal robes.

Medieval Diorama of Kiev

The damp environment of the northern area around Novgorod proved conducive to preserving the layers of a medieval city. When teams of archaeologists began systematic excavations in Novgorod in the 1940s they discovered an immense trove of items from the old medieval city.Implements used in daily life were usually fashioned from wood. Ploughs and harrows used in the fields depended on wood, sometimes in a near natural state. Wooden houses from the period have partially been returned to life in Novgorod’s museums because of these excavations. Dwellings were set out in courtyards that lined streets made of logs split lengthways. Their houses were constructed of logs built on decks to protect them from the low damp ground characteristic of the region. Decaying refuse was overlaid with twigs and inhabitants built log pathways across their yards. In the south around Kyiv, wood was less important. The Prince of Kiev inhabited palatial buildings atop a central hill whilst the working population dwelled primarily in wooden homes in separate sections of the city, located on outlying hilltops at the base of bluffs in the area known as Podol. Red slate from an area north west of Kyiv was used in Cathedrals and presumably in palaces.

 Thousands of artisans and artists were employed in Kyiv and Novgorod the two major cities of the Rus. The wealthy, such as Thea (Gyda), who could afford more durable materials than wood would own a bone salt box, bone combs, dice and ornamental eating utensils. Byzantine craftsmen filled an increasing demand for luxury items generated by the Kyivan elite, the Riurikid princes and the Church hierarchy. Goods including nuts, spices, amphorae containing olive oil and wine were transported throughout Russia. Glass objects produced in Kyiv using Byzantine techniques were widely used. Kyiv became famous for beautiful jewellery decorated with inlaid enamel and fine pottery.The sense I have from my thorough investigation into early medieval Kyiv and Novgorod (I read Russian Studies at University) is that it was a wealthy and often an educated society. I aimed to recreate a general image of medieval Kyiv as a bustling cosmopolitan centre sustained by lively commerce and craft production. It was a stable complex society that was threatened during this period by internecine conflict between brothers and cousins who fought to control the central throne.The prince was the apex of social structure. His military retainers formed a layer under him. On a par with them were the Hierarchs of the Church. The bulk of Kyiv’s residents were merchants, tradesmen, artisans, unskilled labourers and the lowest strata of slaves and dependent labourers. Foreigners, such as Earl Conor and Padar in The Betrothed Sister, often held a special status within this society.

Prince Matislav (Harold)
Gytha's eldest son

This was the strange, exotic world into which King Harold’s daughter married. Sadly, however, she never lived long enough to see her husband become the Grand Prince of Kyiv, and, interestingly, three of their sons in turn also became Grand Princes. King Harold’s daughter was, in fact, an ancestress of the Romanovs. Therefore, it can be said that although King Harold II did not found a new dynasty in England, his elder daughter by Edith Swan-Neck was a significant and fascinating, if often forgotten historical woman, who indeed continued Harold’s lineage and dynastic ambitions through her sons, a woman who apparently embraced life in her land of exile, and what a life she must have lived. I hope that in The Betrothed Sister I allowed her a possible life.


  1. Thank you, Louise. Now I want to edit it a tad. Ouch. I saw a repetition though you may not have noticed.

  2. Now that we are in the year of the 950TH anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, I hope that authors, such as Carol, can continue to explore the aftermath of that event, and the people who were directly affected by it. As can be seen in my Norman Prince trilogy, the House of Normandy was riven by intrigue, treachery, fratricide, and regicide, and was virtually destroyed within seventy years of William's victory.

    1. It certainly was. I am writing the next novel about a woman from a later period and signed a contract for three medieval queens. There just is not enough writing time. I take eighteen months to write a book.