The Children of Harold Godwineson

by Horace Vernet
Edith Swanneck discovering King Harold’s corpse on the battle field of Hastings by Horace Vernet…Credit: Wikimedia

Like much of the eleventh century, the fate of Harold’s children is somewhat vague. We have a pretty good idea about the immediate years after the Battle of Hastings, but with the exception of Harold’s daughter Gytha we don’t exactly know what happened to them.

Harold’s long relationship with his handfasted wife Edith Swanneck produced five or six children. Godwine, the eldest, was named after Harold’s father. Then we have Edmund (named after Edmund Ironside?), Magnus, Gunhild and Gytha. The youngest son, Ulf, was probably from this marriage, but some historians think he was the twin brother of Harold from his father’s second marriage to Ealdgyth, sister of Edwin and Morcar and (uncrowned) Queen of England.

From the first, we don’t know what happened to Edith Swanneck. Legend has it that she was brought to the battlefield to identify King Harold’s mangled corpse, based on marks that only she would know. After that, she presumably accompanied the body to Waltham Abbey for burial, but we know nothing further after that. Where were the children all this time?

We know that Gunhild took refuge in Wilton Abbey, a favorite establishment of her aunt Editha (Edward the Confessor’s wife). Perhaps Gunhild was already settled at the Abbey for her education and thus remained there after the battle. Years later, she left the Abbey in the company of Count Alain le Roux, Lord of Richmond, who was the recipient of many estates belonging to her mother. It seems that she had little vocation for the veil and took advantage of an opportunity to go back to her own lands. She and Alain lived together until his death, and afterwards she took up with his brother, Alain le Noir who inherited the estates. After le Noir’s death, she disappears from the records.

Alain le Rouge, source: Wikipedia

The three eldest sons of Edith may well have accompanied their mother to Ireland. Diarmaid of Leinster, the same King who sheltered Harold Godwineson back in 1051, is said to have welcomed Harold’s sons in their exile. It’s also possible that they went to Exeter, a stronghold of the Godwine family where their grandmother Gytha resided. Exeter became a focal point of local rebellion; King William took this threat seriously enough to lay siege to the city for 18 days in the winter of 1068. Apparently the besieged were not in agreement, for they capitulated to William while Gytha, accompanied by her allies, fled to the island of Flat Holm in the Bristol channel and stayed for many months.

The Irish King permitted the sons of Harold to recruit a fleet of mercenaries and invade England on two separate occasions; the last invasion proved a costly disaster in manpower and Magnus was probably killed. It’s possible that Gytha waited until it was clear that her grandsons’ cause was hopeless before leaving Flat Holme for good and traveling to Flanders. She may have entered a convent at St. Omer. Or she might have gone back to Scandinavia, where the presiding King of Denmark was her nephew.

It was thought that Godwine and Edmund probably went to Scandinavia as well, along with their sister Gytha. If they thought King Swegn would help militarily, they were destined to be disappointed. Our knowledge of their fate disappears after this, but Swegn was able to use his influence to set young Gytha up in a royal marriage. Her new husband, Vladimir Monomakh, prince of Smolensk was said to be handsome and rich, and she lived, in apparent contentment, until 1107.

Ulf, surprisingly, ended up a hostage in William the Conqueror’s court. Whether he was captured after the Exeter siege (which would make him a son of Edith Swanneck) or captured as a baby in Chester (which would make him a son of Ealdgyth) is unknown. He stayed in captivity until King William’s death in 1087, when he was released into the custody of Duke Robert, who knighted him and set him free. By all indications Ulf wisely stayed on the continent and has been identified as Loup Fitz Heraut (Wulf son of Harold) whose signature has been found in charters.

This leaves us with young Harold Haroldson, son of Queen Ealdgyth and heir to the throne if all had gone differently. Ealdgyth was heavily pregnant by the battle of Hastings, and afterwards her brothers Edwin and Morcar whisked her off to Chester for safekeeping. It is thought that the child’s uncles might have had it in mind to use him as a figurehead in a future bid for the throne, but they never got that far. When Ealdgyth found herself with no defenders, she is said to have fled to Ireland with her son. After he grew up, Harold apparently found his way to Norway.  In 1098 he accompanied King Magnus III Barelegs on an expedition to Ireland, but all traces are lost after this point.

It is ironic that Godwine and his clan, once the most powerful force in England, should be reduced to historical footnotes in two generations. And it’s even more ironic that through his daughter Gytha and her son (Mstislav I Vladimirovich the Great), Harold’s blood still flows through the royal houses of Europe all the way to the present day.

20 thoughts on “The Children of Harold Godwineson

  • Dennis Burkholder says:

    I was not familiar with this era of Britain’s history. My field of study was more Roman Imperial and the Cromwellian Commonwealth. But lately I have come to enjoy studying this era and hope to learn more.

  • Yes, this is good and I would go with most of what you have here. I am pretty sure that Ulf and Edith Swan-Neck are the characters on the burning house vignette on The Bayeux Tapestry as is Andrew Bridgeford. 1066 Secrets of the Bayeux Tapestry. I do not think despite what was written in the Waltham Chronicle that Harold’s body ever reached Waltham. I go for Bosham . I think initially The Carmen though a praise poem got that right. He was buried by the sea and that actually could be Bosham. William Mallet is named in the poem as being responsible for that burial. It is also the earliest account. Circa 1068.

    • Hi Carol. Thanks for responding! I’ll have to take a look at Bridgeford, as I never thought about the Ulf/Edith angle regarding the burning house. BTW I kind of favor the Bosham resting place as well, but I find it hard to negate the Waltham legend. I was surprised, in Emma Mason’s “The History of Godwine” that the author stated, matter of factly, “In any event, the king was buried at Waltham, as he had intended.” (p.179). She refers to William of Malmesbury’s report that William gave Gytha the body without ransom. That seems to fly against what everyone else said! Or was that propaganda?

        • Ah, but only part of a skeleton. This picture comes from a little pamphlet I picked up at the Bosham church, written by Geoffrey W. Marwood: THE STONE COFFINS OF BOSHAM CHURCH. Kind of a sad little collection of bones, but I still ascribe to the story! (right-click to increase the size of the image)
          Bones of Harold Godwineson in Bosham Church

          • The lead coffin of William the Conqueror’s paternal grandmother (and Alan Rufus’s great-aunt), Judith of Brittany (982–1017), has survived.


            “The skeleton in the sarcophagus was that of an important woman of small body height with a congenital deformation of the haunch. Deformations of this kind were common among women of Brittany, sometimes, but not always, making it impossible for them to give birth to children.”

  • s of LetharEdmarr I will never understand why the countrymen of the British Isles would not fight for a Family that made them Great, that gave their Royal Blood time & time again, to be ruled by a bastard son from France whose kin people were robbers & rapists of wherever they went & were given Normandy to make them stop pillaging off of Christians & their countries. William did not even keep his rear end in England to rule the country. He gave it to a Scot. Nowadays they think the Prince of Wales means something. The last true Prince of Wales was the son of Harold & his 2nd wife, born shortly after the Battle of Hastings. Being Prince of Wales was not a requirement back then, but Harold did fight The King of Wales, defeated him & asked for the Welsh Queen’s hand in marriage & she became with child, one story says twins, before Harold’s death. Either way Harold had heirs to the Crown by both of his wives. If that was not good enough his sister the former Queen, married to Edward the Confessor, had a young son too young to rule. Harold’s grandfather, Wulnoth was of royal blood & his wife, Edgiva was the daughter of the last King & Queen of Lethar, before being murdered by the Danish “black strangers” who were yellow-brown & from a different Norwegian tribe than the fair descenda

  • An article I submitted here about the late Bill Flint’s thesis that Harold’s first (and, he claimed, only) wife Edith the Fair was the founder of Walsingham Abbey, seems to have disappeared into the aether.

    Flint followed William George Searle’s 1897 contention, supported by Frank Barlow, that, based on contemporary documents, Edith the Fair’s parents were likely Ulfcytel Snillingr, Ealdorman of East Anglia, and Wulfgyth, a daughter of King Aethelred II and his first wife Aelfgifu of York.

    This identification with Ealdgyth, daughter of Wulfgyth (who in her will signed her name “Wolgyth”), makes Edith a blood relative of the ill-fated Waltheof of Northumbria and many other prominent figures of the time.

    Interestingly, very many of the names in this Ealdgyth’s immediate family recur among Alan’s favoured tenants, raising the possibility that he honoured them with land grants in East Anglia and Yorkshire.

    The only quibble I have with Searle’s, Barlow’s and Flint’s idea is why Domesday calls Edith “Edeva” and “Eadgifu”, not “Ealdgyth”. Did the Anglo-Saxons not distinguish the two names?

  • If Ulfcytel died in 1016, that would make Edith Swanneck older than Harold Godwineson and at least 30 years old when they were handfasted. Of course, that’s possible, but old for someone destined to give birth to 6+ children.

    • From Geoffrey (lost in the ether again):

      Suppose Edith was born after Ulfcytel died. The first mention of Harold as an Earl is dated 1044. Perhaps they married before Edward wed Harold’s sister? Perhaps even before Edward became king? But for now let’s suppose 1044: then she would have been 27 or 28. Medieval couples in north-west Europe often seem to have married (for their first time) between the mid-teens and the mid-twenties.

      Alternatively, if, as I’m assuming, Wolgyth/Wulfgyth is Wulfhilda, then she married three times (as would Countess Adelaide of Aumale and Countess Lucy of Chester). For, Wolgyth’s will (dated 1045 x 1052) in which she bequested gifts to King Edward, Earl Godwin, Earl Harold and five of her children mentions “her lord”, a medieval term used by many an aristocratic lady to refer to her husband. This man was neither of Wulfhilda’s earlier, now deceased husbands. So Edith could have been a daughter of Wolgyth’s second or third marriage and thus quite young when she and Harold tied the (Danish) knot.

      Wolgyth calls the daughter in question “Ealdgyth” whereas Domesday consistently calls Edith the Fair “Eadgifu”. Is the latter a (very stubborn) mistake?

      I wish we could confidently identify people by name, but there are so many Ealdgyth’s, Eadgifu’s and Aelfgifu’s! For example, Emma of Normandy’s English name was Aelfgifu, Harold may have had a sister named Aelfgifu, Aethelred II’s first wife was Aelfgifu (of York), King Cnut’s first wife was also named Aelfgifu (of Northampton, daughter of Aelfhelm of York).

      Of course it’s on the cards that Edith “Swannesha”, Ealdgyth daughter of Wolgyth, and Eadgifu the Fair may be three different women. A strong temptation in historical analysis is to link obscure people with famous ones, in particular to conflate persons with similar names. In the milieu of the 11th century, when a few names were exceptionally popular, this is definitely perilous. So we need to examine, every more critically, the little solid evidence we have, and especially what we think we know of their lives.

      Talking again of names, perhaps Earl Godwin was named after Saint Godwin? “Saint Godwin of Stavelot was a Benedictine abbot of the monastery of Stavelot-Malmedy, Belgium, who died in 690. His feast day is October 28.” Stavelot is in the Walloon, i.e. French-speaking, area of Belgium. “The town [of Stavelot] grew up around the Abbey of Stavelot, founded ca 650, out of what had been a villa, by Saint Remaclus (Saint Remacle). The villa’s lands occupied the borderland between the bishoprics of Cologne and Tongeren.” Remaclus was appointed as abbot by Saint Eligius, who was a Gallo-Roman born in the villa of Chaptelat six miles north of Limoges. On the Continent, the Roman, Gallic and Germanic cultures were evidently profoundly mingled by Saint Godwin’s time.

  • Geoffrey, you are so right about the names! I think Edith and its variants are the equivalent of my generation’s Debbie. I like the theory that she might be the daughter of Wolgyth by a later husband.

    By my research, Harold apparently married her shortly after becoming Earl of East Anglia to gain the support of a powerful local thegn. Apparently she had an estate in Cambridge, and it’s possible that she was a young widow when Harold married her.

    As for Godwine’s name, I read somewhere that this was also a common name at the time. But I still haven’t bumped into anywhere else (aside from your remark)!

  • From Geoffrey:
    Another item of evidence: Aelfgifu of York’s father may have been Thored, Ealdorman of York: Another form of his name is “Thorth”.

    There’s a rumour of sorts that Alan’s “brother” Bardolf, Lord of Ravensworth, was a son or grandson of the previous Lord, Thorfinn. If there were anything in that, it would have to imply that Eudon (or one of his two or more mistresses?) was getting around rather more than any recent historian has considered.

    Orderic Vitalis hinted that he knew volumes about Eudon’s “seven” (legitimate) sons and their adventures, so chances are that he could have enlightened us on Eudon’s illegitimate sons (and one daughter) that Alan publicly acknowledged as siblings.

    Another possibility that comes to mindis that some of Alan’s “brothers” may have been the husbands of his sisters. (Although his half-sister’s husband Enisant Musard is explicitly described as exactly this.)

    Thurstan’s will is evidently an important primary document for historians of mid-10th century England. A search on “Thurstan, son of Wine” finds a plethora of books that discuss his will, bequests and witness lists. One example is “The Empire of Cnut the Great” by Timothy Bolton. Another is “Slavery in Early Mediaeval England”, by David Anthony Edgell Pelteret, which discusses the wills of Wulfgyth and Ketel in the same geographic and political context as Thurstan’s. Pelteret then mentions the wills of Thurketel (a male landowner in Suffolk) and Siflaed (a female landowner in Norfolk).

    • Hi Paul. I understand that the name Godwine was very common in Anglo-Saxon days, which naturally makes identification more difficult. Add to that, surnames as we know them weren’t in common use. So we see Harold Godwineson as the son of Godwine (Danish use, I suppose). Harold’s son would have been Haroldson (or maybe Haroldsson). I’m no expert in this. However, to answer your question, Harold’s youngest son Ulf was made prisoner by William the Conqueror, and after William’s death he was released but chose to stay in the service of Robert Curthose. History kind of loses track of him after that, but he presumably stayed in Normandy.

  • John Fletcher says:

    It’s worth mentioning that Edmund and Godwin actually spend some time as raiders out of Ireland, following in their father’s and grandfather’s footsteps. They raid the SW of Britain, including attempting to force entry to Bristol and pillage it. As the Chronicle records:

    During these things one of Harold’s sons [the singular has been identified as a copyist error by Plummer, 1899] came with a fleet from Ireland unexpectedly into the mouth of the river Avon, and soon plundered all that neighbourhood. They went to Bristol, and would have stormed the town, but the inhabitants opposed them bravely. Seeing they could get nothing from the town, they went to their ships with the booty they had got by plundering, and went to Somersetshire, where they went up the country. Ednoth, master of the horse, fought with them, but he was slain there, and many good men on both sides; and those who were left departed thence.

    9 Estates in South Devon are also recorded as ‘having been burnt by men from Ireland’ in a footnote of the Exon book, suggesting the raiders may have been active all around the coast.

    Eventually they would try again around 1068 by landing in Northam, North Devon and be decisively defeated by Brian of Brittany. As William of Jumieres records:

    Meanwhile two sons of King Harold had separated themselves from the company of these rebels and accompanied by their father’s household troops went to the king of the Irish, called Dermot, to ask his support. After a short but favourable stay in Ireland, where they gathered a large army, they returned to England with sixty-six ships to a site which they considered most strategic, for an attack, where, like most dangerous pirates, they laid waste by robbery and fire to the country’s population. Forthwith Brian, son of Odo, count of the Bretons, came up against them and in the course of two battles fought in one day he defeated them.

    One thousand and seven hundred warriors, some of whom were magnates of the realm, perished, others fled from the battlefield and somehow escaped death by fleeing with their ships. With deep mourning they reported the loss of their dear brothers to the Irish. It is even said that if night had not put an end to the battle, all would have been cut down by death’s razor.

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