Joanna Courtney: The Queens of 1066

Joanna Courtney: The Queens of 1066

But what of their queens?

What of the women who stood behind the three contenders for the English throne? Few people know much, if anything, of them and yet they were all powerful women from great families and just because they didn’t wield a sword in bloody battle, doesn’t meant that they weren’t a key part of the events of that huge year for English history, 1066. So who were they?

King Harold was married to Edyth of Mercia. Still only 26 in 1066, she had nonetheless, already been Queen of Wales for eight years and had (probably – records are inconclusive) borne two princes and one princess to King Griffin, the only man ever to rule all of Wales as an independent monarch. Griffin was killed in 1063 fleeing an English invasion led by Earl Harold and Edyth was taken back to England where Harold was already being mooted as the future king. Kings in England were elected by the Witan (Council). Royal blood was helpful, but the ability to rule wisely and, above all, strongly, was the critical factor. Earl Harold, England’s lead earl and commander, had all that but he was a southerner and had little direct influence in the northern provinces of Mercia and Northumbria – which is where Edyth came in. By 1065 her two brothers were the earls of these vast areas and their allegiance was vital to Harold. A marriage was almost inevitable but (in my version of events) it was not without great personal cost to Edyth who was close to Lady Svana (Edyth Swan neck), Harold’s handfast (non-church) wife for some twenty years and mother of his five children.

Harold asked Edyth to marry him (in my novel) both to unite England and, more personally, to stand as the queen that free-spirited Svana would hate to be. Edyth agreed to spare her friend but also because, in her secret heart, she loved Harold – a love that carried her deep into the painful heat of Hastings field.

Harald Hardrada was also a man with two wives. Betrothed as a lad to Lady Tora Arnasson, daughter of one of the powerful northern earls, he was forced to flee Norway aged just fifteen when his half brother King Olaf was defeated by Cnut. He sought exile in Kiev – a city settled by Vikings and still a great friend to Norse warriors – and there met and fell for Grand Prince Yaroslav’s eldest daughter, the fiery, restless, ambitious Princes Elizaveta of Kiev.

Together they retook Norway but the northern jarls were far from welcoming, and none less so than Tora, the normally gentle noblewoman who had waited years for Harald. When Harald and Elizaveta – a tempestuous couple – argued, Tora’s father seized the chance to persuade Harald into her bed. The next summer both women produced heirs – Elizaveta’s a girl and Tora’s a boy.

Personal battle lines were drawn across Norway and even if, eventually, the two women settled their differences and learned to rule together, Elizaveta and Harald had always had their eyes on new horizons. When Harald decided in 1066 to invade England, therefore, Elizaveta backed him with all her heart – and lost it as a result.

In contrast to the two Harolds, Duke William was rigidly, almost ferociously monogamous to his wife, Matilda of Flanders. Having had to fight tooth and nail to keep the dukedom he’d inherited aged only seven, he’d grown into a hard man and is unlikely to have been easy husband for the sophisticated and romantic Matilda. As a young teen, she had personally proposed to a handsome English envoy to her father’s court, and adapting to stern, rigidly disciplined William must have been hard.

William had chosen her carefully, for he had ambitions to be part of civilised Europe and required the culture and poise that the princess of Flanders offered in abundance. Brought up in a forward-thinking court at the hub of most of the key trade routes across Europe, she had been highly educated by an enlightened mother and attended court from an early age. She couldn’t have been more different to warrior William – and yet their marriage flourished.

Even the hardest of men have a soft spot and Duke William’s seems to have been first for his mother, the concubine Herleve – whose low birth ensured that he was known, even in his own lifetime, as ‘the bastard duke’ – and then for his wife. William truly loved Matilda and in return, if she could not quite match his feelings, she gave him all of herself.

William provided the will and the might to invade England in 1066, but Matilda offered the credibility and style to help him succeed. She also, with her love and the huge family she gave him, offered the personal support needed to attempt such a vast undertaking – a support that at times, (at least in my novel) drained her far more than a weaker and more cowardly woman could ever have survived. Matilda was every inch the queen long before she won her crown.

I am not going to claim that these women changed the outcome of 1066. They were, however, very much a part, if not of the decisive battles, then of the many years of political and personal interplay that led all three men to the foot of the English crown in that crucial year. History is not lived from battle to battle, but from dawn to dusk of every single day. Edyth, Elizaveta and Matilda shared a bed with their husbands and although Edyth had only been married to Harold for a few months, Matilda had been married to William for 15 years and Elizaveta to Harald Hardrada for 23. There is no way the royal couples would not have talked late at night – not have shared dreams and plans and possibilities.

These women may have had no real power but they were intelligent, educated and politically significant people and they had influence like no other. Their stories deserve to emerge from through the mass of male history and I am honoured to deliver, if not the truth of them (for that will be ever out of our reach), then at least a version that I hope readers can enjoy.

The Chosen Queen by Joanna Courtney is available to order online today as a Hardback or eBook.

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