Monday, 10 November 2014

1066 and all that

I think it's time for a post about history. This week, we're going way further back than the Napoleonic Wars that feature in my books about James Burke, or the mid-19th century of The White Rajah. Instead, my guest blogger, Carol McGrath, takes us back to 1066 and the Norman Conquest.

Two Noble Women of 1066

As we know women are often the footnotes of history. When a writer sets about telling their stories she has set herself a demanding investigative task. My thought is that for a writer of serious historical fiction it is necessary to excavate the facts where these exist and then embed these within the story she is telling.  I wanted to bring these women’s lives to life and to recreate a semblance of the world in which they dwelled. What did they eat? How did they clean their teeth, where did they go to the loo, how did they raise their children, to what spiritual beliefs did they adhere and, importantly, how did they cope with dramatic change. The Norman Conquest did bring turmoil and change to England. How did noble women cope not only with the loss of their men but with changes imposed on them in the immediate aftermath of Conquest? After all, the noble women were the survivors. They were also, importantly, heiresses.

As I wrote The Handfasted Wife and latterly The Swan-Daughter, I had to do much research in chronicles to find snippets about these noble women’s actual lives. I also had to reconstruct the day to day realities of women’s lives through much further reading to disperse any big sense anachronism creeping into the novels. Of course, I am a modern woman looking back to the eleventh century so modern sensibility some must creep in. I also hoped that these heroines would be feisty enough to appeal to today’s women. I was taking them out of their domestic comfort zone in a world that had been turned upside down by conflict.

By creating both a pacey adventure narrative and female personalities whose story a reader wants to follow, I hoped to hoodwink that reader into believing that that he/she was immersed in the experience of the eleventh century. I do care about historical integrity but admit that where fiction is concerned there will be imaginative invention.

The Handfasted Wife takes place in the year 1066. Edith Swanneck is set aside for a political marriage when her husband Harold is crowned king. According to Chronicle it is she who recognises his broken body after the battle according to marks only known to her. We all know the story of the Battle of Hastings but little is known about Harold’s true love and mother of his six surviving children, four boys and two girls. Researching this book enabled me to discover that women, before The Norman Conquest, owned property separately from their husbands and that they made wills. They could, in theory, do what they liked with their own possessions. When this came to land, in reality, pressure was often put on women by male relatives. After the Norman Conquest a woman’s property became his property. If she became a widow she received a third of their possessions as the widow’s portion until she remarried. Edith Swan-Neck, called so because to possess white skin and a long neck like a swan’s neck was a sign of great beauty, had title to lands in Kent, Essex and Cambridgeshire. She owned properties in Canterbury. We know all this because it is recorded in The Domesday Book of 1086.

Although this novel stands alone, The Swan-Daughter picks up the theme of land ownership by women which was introduced in The Handfasted Wife

Gunnhild, King Harold’s daughter, was in Wilton Abbey for her education at the time of Conquest, 1066. After the Conquest, many heiresses took refuge in abbeys as King William encouraged inter-marriage between English and Normans. It was one way to make the take-over easier. It provided reward as it gave unmarried Norman knights the opportunity to claim legal tenure to English lands.

Gunnhild was a child in 1066, but as her aunt, Edith Godwin, had been the wife of Edward the Confessor, thus a queen, and also the patron of Wilton Abbey, it may have been that Aunt Edith hoped that one day Gunnhild would become a novice, take vows and rise in time to the top job , that of Abbess. Gunnhild clearly had other ideas. She did apparently elope with Alan of Richmond, a Breton cousin of King William, who may have through his marriage gained title to her mother, Edith’s lands. When Count Alan married Gunnhild the fact is that the lands came into his possession. I posit in the story, that Wilton Abbey also claimed some of Gunnhild’s wealth. It makes for an interesting historical fiction. The story becomes even more fascinating because after Alan’s death Gunnhild took up with his younger brother. The evidence for this comes from a correspondence between Gunnhild and Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury dating to 1092/3. She would have been in her mid-thirties by then.

We do not really know what happened but Anselm clearly disapproved of her relationship with Alan’s brother. The Anglo-Saxon heiress was a valuable woman, a woman of substance in her own right and after the Battle of Hastings there were many of them, widows and daughters to whom land rights reverted as well as what they may have already had title to.

All this is great material for stories and an important inspiration for The Daughters of Hastings Trilogy. 

Finally, I would like to thank Tom for hosting me on his blog. It is a wonderful opportunity to explain the history behind my novels. Well, as far as I could unearth it! The novels are stories of historical adventure and if you read them I hope you enjoy them.  

Follow me on Twitter @carolmcgrath


  1. Great blog- I love this sentence- 'I do care about historical integrity but admit that where fiction is concerned there will be imaginative invention.'
    That is precisely how I feel about history in fiction. - Jenny Kane (Kay Jaybee) x

  2. Absolutely and for some novels where history is expected to be very serious then author's notes take care of the fact and fiction. I know from my reviews that these are appreciated in both the 1066 novels. I loved writing these especially The Swan-Daughter which owes more to the imagination than The Handfasted Wife.