Gytha and the sons of the Godwin House II

Gytha, grand-daughter of Gytha, given in wedlock by Svein Estrithsson (on Harold’s behalf) to Valdemar the Grand Prince of Smolensk and Koenungagard (Kiev)

Younger Gytha

It was probably from Flanders, where they had accompanied or followed the ladies of the family, that King Harold’s sons, Godwine and Edmund, journeyed to the court of their cousin, Swein of Denmark, accompanied by their sister, Gytha. This is recorded by Saxo Grammaticus, who, although writing much later, seems to portray a not improbable situation and whose account is perhaps confirmed by two independent sources. The latter record an embassy to Denmark by Godwine the younger, mistakenly identified as Harold’s brother rather than his son, which sought King Swein’s aid against William. The brothers may have hoped that their arrival in Denmark would finally secure Swein’s backing for their restoration. If so, they were swiftly disillusioned, as Swein’s own recent invasions of England had proved fairly disastrous and he was in no hurry to repeat them. Thereafter, Swein’s death in 1074 or 1076 ushered in a period of confusion, which was not fully resolved until well into the next century. The final fate of Godwine and Edmund is unknown, but Gytha, according to later Scandinavian sources, was sent by Swein to marry the Russian Prince of Smolensk, Vladimir Monomakh. The date of this event is unclear but it probably occurred in 1074 or 1075. It has been objected that no Russian source records the name of Vladimir’s first wife and Vladimir’s own testament records her only as the mother of his son, George. However, this is not unusual and many women are unnamed in Russian sources, including Vladimir’s own Byzantine mother, and the fact of the marriage appears to be generally accepted.

Prince Vladimir was then around twenty-one years old and ruler of the city of Smolensk in western Russia. He held an important but not key position in the complex hierarchy of Russian princes. At this time, Russia consisted of a series of principalities each based on a major city and each ruled by a member of the dynasty of St Vladimir. The principalities were arranged in a rough hierarchy with Kiev at the summit, usually ruled by the senior prince. Vladimir probably welcomed his marriage as providing him with a royal connection. It also brought with it an alliance with the Danes, which might prove very useful in dissuading the neighbouring Poles from invading Russia.

The marriage proved fruitful and in 1076 Msistislav, the first of a number of sons, was born to Gytha in Novgorod. Two years later, Vladimir was promoted to the position of Prince of Chernigov, following the expulsion of his cousin, Oleg, from that city. He successfully ruled this, the second city in Russia and an important bastion, for some sixteen years, defending it against a series of attacks by the steppe nomads. Finally, in 1094, he was expelled by Oleg with the aid of nomad allies and he moved to his father’s city of Pereyaslavl. It is likely that Gytha accompanied her husband throughout this period and shared his successes and failures. She appears to have provided him with a large number of children, perhaps as many as eight sons and three daughters. In this respect, Gytha appears to have been as fruitful as her mother, Edith ‘Swan-neck’, and her grandmother and namesake, Gytha.

Gytha’s life as a Russian princess may have been relatively pleasant. Although Russia was in many ways a strange land and very different from her own England, some things were familiar. A testament written by Vladimir himself records a great deal about the family. This relates that Vladimir’s father understood five languages, one of which must have been Norse, since Vladimir’s grandmother was a Swedish princess. This implies that Gytha and her husband both spoke Norse and so were able to converse with ease. In addition, Vladimir was a great warrior and hunter very much in the mould of Harold, Gytha’s own father. He was a devout Christian and a founder of churches in a number of Russian cities. He ruled in a similar fashion to an English king through councils, courts and military force. He was very wealthy even by English standards, and Gytha would have lived in some style. He appears to have had very strong feelings for his family, although these are usually only expressed towards his brothers and sons. Thus he records Gytha’s death, though not her name, and among the advice he offers to his sons is ‘Love your wives, but grant them no power over you’. This perhaps sums up their relationship.

Sadly, Gytha died on 7 May 1107 before her husband attained the pinnacle of his career by becoming Grand Prince of Kiev in 1113. The eldest of her sons, Msistislav, born in Novgorod in 1076, was widely known in the Norse world by her father’s name, Harold. He went on to succeed his father as Grand Prince of Kiev in 1125, ruling the city until his own death in 1132. This Russian Harold, according to Norse sources, had a daughter called Ingibiorg, who later married Cnut Lavard of Denmark and bore him a son who became King Valdemar I of Denmark, from whom the current queens of both Denmark and Great Britain are ultimately descended. In this way, the blood of King Harold Godwineson, runs again in the veins of the rulers of England.

Godwine Family Survival

The Norman-French writers assure us of a conspiracy, so that may well have been the tale told to William by his half-brother Odo, in order to excuse his absence from Dover. Meanwhile the Godwines were certainly sending envoys to the Danes and invitations to other towns to join the insurrection: they needed allies, which in itself tells us they did not have English support. King William imposed a heavy geld on England and set about raising an army. This army also included the English fyrd, so it was an Anglo-Norman army that marched on rebellious Exeter in 1068 in order to save the English settlers of the West Country and a few Norman nobles.

Other members of King Harold’s family also survived the Conquest. Harold, his son by Queen Alditha, born early in 1067 at Chester, and named after his dead father, probably became a pawn in the political struggles against William after 1066. This young Harold was probably used by his uncles, Earls Edwin and Morcar, as a threat to King William in their attempts to secure their own position in England. Although this is not stated in any of the sources, it is probable that when Edwin and Morcar, disappointed with William’s treatment of them, rebelled in 1068 and again in 1069, they used the potent threat of young Harold’s claim to the kingdom against William. This was also probably the reason for the failure of Edwin and Morcar to join the other English rebels until 1071, when it was too late. The others supported Atheling Edgar as king, but the northern earls wanted their young nephew Harold on the throne. The response to this threat was William’s dramatic winter march across the Pennines in 1069–70 to occupy Chester, and finally to crush the two earls in a battle near Stafford. As a result, Harold and his mother fled, probably to Dublin, with which, as a former wife of Gruffydd of Wales, she would have been familiar. Ultimately, the young Harold apparently journeyed to Norway, where William of Malmesbury plausibly suggests that he was well received by Olaf Haraldsson, in return for the merciful treatment he himself had earlier received from King Harold, after Stamford Bridge. Young Harold is next found among the followers of King Magnus Olafsson off the Isle of Anglesey in 1098 when a battle was fought against the Norman earls of Shrewsbury and Chester, during which, by one of history’s ironies, Earl Hugh of Shrewsbury was struck from a distance with a fatal arrow. Thereafter, young Harold disappears from the records.

King Harold’s remaining daughter, Gunnhild, seems to have been stranded in England at the time of the Conquest and she is first recorded in the Vita Wulfstani as a nun at Wilton. She was perhaps already there in 1066, as part of her education, like her aunt Queen Edith. Initially, she remained there as a refugee from the Normans, using the protection afforded to those who had taken the veil as her safeguard. She shared her comfortable confinement there with another royal lady, Edith, the daughter of Malcolm and St Margaret of Scotland and the niece of Atheling Edgar. Subsequently, she was probably virtually imprisoned there in order to prevent her posing a threat to King William by marrying a rival and thus transmitting a claim to the throne. Indeed, she became the centre of just such a controversy after King William’s death. In August 1093, in the reign of William Rufus, in her late thirties or forties, Gunnhild was abducted by Alan the Red, Earl of Richmond. She lived with Earl Alan, sinfully according to Anselm, until his death soon after, perhaps in late 1093 or early 1094. Perhaps in an attempt to preserve her freedom, she then sought to marry the dead earl’s brother and successor, Alan the Black.

The main evidence for this episode comes from two letters written to Gunnhild by Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, at some time after his consecration on 4 December 1093. According to the first of these, Gunnhild, who was now living with Alan the Red, claimed she was not bound to her position as a nun because she had never made a formal profession before a bishop, and that a promise made to her of an abbacy had not been honoured. This argument would have been accepted by Archbishop Lanfranc, Anselm’s predecessor, and perhaps provides confirmation of her status as a refugee later forced to remain at Wilton rather than a nun. Anselm accepted these facts, but because of his stricter views he urged her to return to the cloister, although she was no longer a virgin. He suggested that Alan the Red would repudiate her. In spite of its stern message, his letter is written in tenderness to an errant princess and in it Anselm refers to Gunnhild as his ‘dearest and most longed for daughter’. He had already met her, probably when he visited England in 1086, and developed a close platonic relationship with her. In a subsequent letter following Alan the Red’s death, when Gunnhild had taken up with Alan the Black, Anselm predicted that his death also would follow if she remained with him. Anselm was now aware that Gunnhild had worn the veil willingly and, as a result, his second letter is much colder in tone, as he attempts to disgust Gunnhild with the world and compel her to return to the cloister, but it nevertheless remains respectful.

This episode indicates Gunnhild’s continued status and importance despite the passage of nearly thirty years since King Harold’s death and the long campaign of villification directed against the latter. The Breton earls desired links with her, probably to legitimize their usurpation of her mother’s lands in the Midlands. The Norman kings attempted to keep her in seclusion for fear of her potential threat as an heiress, not merely of these lands, but of a kingdom. The head of the English Church behaved with the respect due to her nobility and royal lineage even when offended by her conduct.

Two other relatives of King Harold remain to be considered, both of whom spent most of their lives in prison. Wulfnoth, his younger brother, had been taken hostage as a boy aged around fifteen, and imprisoned in Normandy. He was to suffer greatly, spending the rest of his life in prison. Harold had failed in his attempt to have him released in 1064, and although his release was ordered by a dying King William in 1087, he was instead taken to England by King William II Rufus and imprisoned in Winchester. The latter probably considered his own hold on the English throne too weak to permit Wulfnoth, brother of the last Anglo-Saxon king, to be released to provide a focus of dissent. Therefore, Wulfnoth languished in captivity, produced on occasion for inspection, until his death, an old man of fifty-eight, in 1094 at Winchester.

King Harold’s son Ulf also ended up in Norman custody. It has been suggested that he was another son of Harold and Queen Alditha, perhaps a twin with young Harold, but this seems unlikely and there certainly exists no evidence for it. It is more likely that he was another son of Harold and Edith, and if this is the case he would have been a youth, aged somewhere between thirteen and nineteen in 1066. This makes it more feasible that he could have been captured separately from his brothers, perhaps during the chaotic period immediately after Hastings, and taken to Normandy. Whatever the case, he too languished in prison during William’s reign but was to prove more fortunate than his uncle Wulfnoth. When released in 1087, as part of the dying King William’s amnesty, he fell into the hands of Robert ‘Curthose’, who as Duke of Normandy and excluded from the English throne had no fears about Ulf’s claim. He not only released Ulf, but knighted him as well, after which he also departs from the pages of history.

Thus in spite of the fall of King Harold and his brothers at Hastings, his remaining family, scattered and increasingly powerless as they were, remained a real and dangerous threat to William’s occupation of the English throne. This was particularly the case in the period 1067–8, when they threatened to develop a rival power base in south-west England. A fearful William dealt ruthlessly with this resistance and thereafter, the direct influence of the family gradually declined. However, although King William’s position in England was militarily secure by around 1070 and remained so in spite of further external threats, notably from the Danes in 1086, the legitimacy of his dynasty remained in a sense uncertain. Thus members of King Harold’s family, even those in close custody of one form or another, remained a real threat and possible focus of opposition not only to King William I but also to his son and successor, William II. This surely is testimony to the insecurity of the original Norman claim to the throne and perhaps also to its lack of foundation. Indeed, it was only really in 1100 when William’s younger son, Henry I, married Edith, daughter of St Margaret of Scotland, that the Norman hold on the throne gained wide acceptance among the English. She was a niece of Atheling Edgar of ‘the true royal line of England’, and brought with her the legitimacy bestowed by descent from King Alfred. This legitimacy in the end neither King Harold’s descendants nor his Norman conquerors could match.


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