Thursday, 19 September 2013


 The Handfasted Wife is the story of the Norman Conquest from the perspective of Edith (Elditha)
Swanneck, Harold's common-law wife. The story begins with King Edward, the Confessor's demise. She arrives with her younger children at court for the Christmas celebrations only to find that the King, who has been on the throne for more than twenty years, is gravely ill. Edward has not even until now, proclaimed his successor but there is a name on everyone's lips - Elditha's husband, Harold, Earl of Wessex is ready to take the crown with the support of the Witan. Elditha dreams of being Queen, but Harold has other ideas. Although he professes to love her and only her alone, Elditha is shocked when her lifelong love chooses to put her aside, despite their marriage being legal in the eyes of the law, in order to marry Aldgyth, sister of the Northern earls, thus ensuring their greatly needed support. Elditha accepts this terrible slight with the resignation of a proud noble lady. She will always be loved, her husband tells her and sends her to one of his estates, Reredfelle, where she can live out her life with her children in peace and he will come to her when he can. Then something terrible happens that means that Elditha's life will never be the same again. 

The opening chapters of this book entice the reader in through the gateway to another world, a world in which it is very much a man's world but told from the women's point of view. Women in 11thc England  were not necessarily the pawns and chattels they later came to be after the Norman invasion. They were permitted to own land and property, independently from their husbands or menfolk, could bequest that property to whoever they so wished and could not be forced against their will into undesirable marriages. And yet the acts of men shaped their lives and because of this,  their destinies would lay beyond their control as we see when Elditha's beloved Harold is killed upon the battlefield and she is forced to identify his body. From this awful tragedy, Elditha emerges a strong and determined woman, forced to flee the clutches of the Norman invaders and leave her precious youngest child in their grasp and her other children exposed to their designs for them. But Elditha will not give up her quest to ensure that they are given the freedom to determine  their own lives.  She conducts herself bravely and without a thought to her own safety, throws herself into the face of danger, fulfilling her instincts as a mother to protect her brood. 

Elditha is a truly tragic heroine of her time. Based on the scant evidence there is for her, her story is surrounded in myth and legend and we can but only catch glimpses of her  through the writings of chroniclers some years later.  The Waltham Chronicle written in the late 12thc, describes Edith Swanneck as being forced to search for the body of her beloved Harold through the wreckage torn and dismembered bodies on the battlefield. Imagine her distress. No doubt she would not have been alone in her torment. Women searching for their husband's bodies, would have filled the blood soaked field in the aftermath of that awful battle. It would have been enough to drive a woman insane to find her husband's body, bloodied, mutilated in the most horrific way and to be recognisable  by  'marks' known only to her. This is the poignancy of her story. The fact that she couldn't identify him any other way. What kind of trauma would that cause to the mind? It affects one so deeply and yet it 's true meaning cannot be comprehended by anyone who has never experienced such horror. 
‘May my lord’s soul rest in peace .’ She took a cloth from her belt and carefully wiped away the blood from around the marks. 

And yet, this noble lady is determined not to waver. She keeps her sanity and her dignity as life  heaps  more indignities upon her.
This book is full of courageous characters that throughout Elditha's story continue to support her and aid her in her quest for deliverance from the terrible fate that awaits her.  Padar, her husband's own skald, who was Harold's most precious gift to her before he died,  swears to keep her safe and never fails her; Connor, the Irish Earl of Meath, an old ally of Harold's too is there when she needs him; Alfred and his faithful wife Gertrude are simple folk who risk their own lives to save her, and there are many more. Above all, this is a book dedicated to the women of the day. For their men, their suffering ended on the battlefield, but for the women, their suffering and trauma continued as England is spun into turmoil after that fateful day on October 14th 1066. 

These are strong women, raised in an England so alien to the Norman's sensibilities of what womanhood was. It is a combination of their strength and humility that makes the characters human, capturing the readers hearts immediately. But the character who stands, aside from Elditha Swanneck, to the fore is Gytha, Harold's tragic and unfortunate mother. She will not let go of her city, Exeter, where she has built a safe haven from the Normans. When they are besieged by William and his army, she refuses to give up. Even when the merchants, worried for their livelihoods after William has seized their goods and ships, urge for peace and negotiations, does she stand strong against those that would betray her. 

‘There will be no more of this. No agreement with the enemy. No talk with William. No fealty oaths. He’ll give your trade to his own. Your daughters will be raped and married off to common soldiers . Your sons will be pressed into their army, like those foolish traitors in their camps out there. The bastard son of a bastard mother will hang you all. And, if he doesn’t, when my grandsons arrive to relieve us come sailing time, if even one of you betray this town, you will all be dead men.’

For a time, her rousing cry convinces them and this formidable old lady, probably likely nearing 60, old for those days, remains stoic in her determination. The story increases in its excitement as the townspeople contemplate their futures and William and his army continue their onslaught.

The Handfasted Wife is a remarkable tale of courage, well researched and written by Carol McGrath. An epic tale of adventure, heartache and courage. Most of all, it is a tale about the aftermath of war seen through eyes of the women who it affected most, as rarely written about before. Men create their destinies, women create their future. Men die with their swords in their hands, women live with the consequences. 

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1 comment:

  1. This book has an interesting take on Edith Swanhals and is a good read, especially as the author has two other novels out that follow the fate of two of Edith & Harold's daughters that round out the story. There is an alternative view of Edith in Joanna Courtney's "The Chosen Queen", which is about Harold's Church blessed wife, Ealdgyth. Up till now King Harold's family has been sadly neglected.
    My own novel about the Norman Conquest (now in print again via Amazon or in e-book deals with the effect of the Conquest on those of lower rank, another neglected area.