Edith the Fair (c1025-c1086)

Edith discovering the body of Harold Godwinson
Born c. 1025
Died c. 1086
Spouse Harold Godwinson
Children Godwin

Edith the Fair (Old English: Ealdgȳð Swann hnesce, "Edyth the Gentle Swan"; c. 1025 – c. 1086), also known as Edith Swanneck,[note 1] was the first wife of King Harold Godwinson.[1] "Swanneck" (or Swan-Neck) comes from the folk etymology which made her in Old English as swann hnecca, "swan neck", which was actually most likely a corrupted form of swann hnesce, "Gentle Swan" .[2] She is sometimes confused with Ealdgyth, daughter of Earl Ælfgar of Mercia, who was queen during Harold's reign.

Consort of King Harold[]

She may be identical with Eadgifu the Fair, who was one of the wealthiest magnates in England on the eve of the Norman conquest. Their children included Gunhild of Wessex, who became the mistress of Alan Rufus, and Gytha of Wessex, who was taken by her grandmother to Denmark in 1068.[1] Gytha was addressed as "princess" and married the Grand Duke of Kiev, Vladimir II Monomakh.[3]

Though King Harold II is said to have lawfully married Ealdgyth, the daughter of Earl Ælfgar, the widow of the Welsh ruler Gruffydd ap Llywelyn whom he had defeated in battle, that marriage in spring 1066 is seen by most modern scholars as one of political convenience.[4] Mercia and Wales were allied against England, and the marriage gave the English claim in two very troublesome regions, and also gave Harold Godwinesson a marriage deemed "legitimate" by the clergy, unlike his longtime common law marriage with Edith the Fair.

Edith the Fair was remembered in history and folklore chiefly because it was she who identified Harold's body after the Battle of Hastings.[5] The body was horribly mutilated after the battle by the Norman army of William the Conqueror, and, despite pleas by Harold's mother, Gytha Thorkelsdóttir, for William to surrender Harold's body for burial, the Norman army refused, even though Harold's mother offered Harold's weight in gold. It was then that Edith the Fair walked through the carnage of the battle so that she might identify Harold by markings on his chest known only to her. It was because of Edith the Fair's identification of Harold's body that Harold was given a Christian burial by the monks at Waltham Abbey.[6] This legend is recounted in the well-known poem by Heinrich Heine, "The Battlefield of Hastings" (1855), which features Edith the Fair (as Edith Swan-Neck) as the main character and claims that the "marks known only to her" were love bites.

In his 2015 monograph investigation into the identity of the visionary of Our Lady of Walsingham, Edith the Fair, the historian Bill Flint identifies Edith Swanneshals as the Walsingham visionary who has been known colloquially in history as "Rychold" or "Richeldis de Faverches". In this work, Flint overturns many of the previous assumptions made about Edith's relationship with Harold Godwinson, including the fidelity of the couple's marital union and Christian devotion. Flint argues that Edith and Harold were almost certainly married under the Danish hand-fast marriage custom, the mos danicus. As evidence for this, he cites a number of dowry bequests that were made at the time of Edith's union to Harold. Flint notes that the bequests made included Walsingham Manor, making Edith in all probability "the lady of the manor" during the year of 1061, which was identified by Tudor historian Richard Pynson as the year of the foundation of the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.

Flint claims that the union more danico of Edith and Harold is legitimate from a Catholic perspective, arguing that "The changes confirming the Sacramental nature of Christian marriage had only recently been promulgated from Rome. Throughout the Danelaw and widespread among the nobility of England who now had many such Scandinavian bloodlines, the hand-fast marriage, which was customary and widely accepted throughout northern Europe, should not be referred to as an illegitimate union." (p. 9). In fact, the Anglo-Saxons had practiced hand-fast marriage long before Danish conquest.

Flint's identification of Edith as the Walsingham visionary is rooted in his belief that the earlier date of shrine's foundation, given by Richard Pynson as 1061, is credible. Pynson's history, which is given in a narrative poem known as the Pynson Ballad, had been previously thrown out by historians on the grounds it was unreliable as an oral narrative, but Flint defends the ballad on the grounds that Pynson was a respected historian, employed by King Henry VII, who also collaborated with John Leland. Flint contests the theories of J.C. Dickinson (1959) on the grounds that the 1131 Norfolk Roll, which Dickinson claims refers to the foundation of the shrine, actually refers to the foundation of the Priory of the Austin Friars, which preceded the foundation of the Walsingham Shrine (see p.xxii). He also notes that Edith Swanneshals was known within the court as "Rychold", meaning "fair and rich", and the appellatory title given by Pynson could therefore refer to the Anglo-Saxon Queen—a reference which is consistent with the original date given in the Pynson Ballad as 1061, for Edith Swaneshals was the Lady of the Walsingham Manor in this period (p.xxvii). Flint therefore establishes Edith Swaneshals as a Christian Queen and the legitimate spouse of Harold Godwinson; as well as defending her Christian character as the probable visionary of the Shrine of Walsingham. In defending Edith's Christian character Flint cites her friendship with Wulfstan of Worcester.

Historical fiction[]

  • Helen Hollick - Harold the King
  • G. A. Henty - Wulf the Saxon (1894)
  • Julian Rathbone - The Last English King (1997)
  • Edward Bulwer-Lytton- Harold, the Last of the Saxons (1848)
  • G K Holloway - 1066: What Fates Impose (2013)
  • Carol McGrath - The Handfasted Wife (2013)
  • Judith Arnopp - Peaceweaver (2009)
  • Elizabeth Alder - The King's Shadow (1995)

The German poet Heinrich Heine wrote Schlachtfeld bei Hastings (published 1851, in Romanzero).[7] In this poem, Edith and two monks (Asgod and Ailrik) search the battlefield for the body of King Harold.


  1. ^ Her first name is also spelled Ealdgyth, Aldgyth, Edeva or Eddeva, and sometimes appears as Ēadgȳð and Ēadgifu. (Compare Godgifu which was modified to Godiva in Latin texts.)


  1. ^ a b Williams, Ann (2004). "Eadgifu [Eddeua the Fair [the Rich] (fl. 1066), magnate"]. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/52349.,12360. Retrieved 19 March 2014.  (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  2. ^ Ardagh, Philip. Philip Ardagh's Book of Kings, Queens, Emperors and Rotten Wart-Nosed Commoners. 
  3. ^ Poole, Russell Gilbert (1998). Old English Wisdom Poetry. Boydell & Brewer Ltd. p. 238. ISBN 978-0-85991-530-4. 
  4. ^ Jones, Kaye (2011). 1066: History in an Hour. p. 32. 
  5. ^ Jones, Kaye (2011). 1066: History in an Hour. p. 33. 
  6. ^ Mason, Emma (2004). The House of Godwine: The History of a Dynasty. p. 178. 
  7. ^ "Schlachtfeld bei Hastings". 


  • A History of Britain: At the Edge of the World, 3500 BC - 1603 AD by Simon Schama, BBC/Miramax, 2000 ISBN 0-7868-6675-6
  • Edith the Fair, Bill Flint, 2015, Gracewing Press ISBN 978-0-85244-870-0
  • The German Classics of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Volume 06: Masterpieces of German Literature Translated into English in Twenty Volumes by Kuno Francke
  • Great Tales from English History: The Truth About King Arthur, Lady Godiva, Richard the Lionheart, and More by Robert Lacey, 2004 ISBN 0-316-10910-X
  • House of Godwine: The History of Dynasty by Emma Mason, 2004 ISBN 1-85285-389-1
  • Ancestral Roots of Certain American Colonists Who Came to America Before 1700 by Frederick Lewis Weis, Lines: 176-2, 176A-4, 177-1
  • 'Who Was Eddeva?' by J.R. Boyle, F.S.A.; Transactions of East Riding Antiquarian Society, Volume 4 (1896); pages 11–22
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