Back to all posts

Women in 1066: the power behind the throne

Posted:
22 July 2016
Posted By:
Rowena Willard-Wright
Categories:
History Uncovered

Whether in fact or fiction, a competition for the crown is usually dominated by men. It is they who seek to be king, who lead and fight in armies and who hold the majority of political power. But, there are times when women come to the fore. Although few women have been crowned, history is filled with examples of them using family connections in the political arena, and the period surrounding the Norman Conquest was no different.

In the chronicles of the time, the Battle of Hastings is dominated by the thoughts and tactics of the men of war. But careful reading reveals that women also played important roles before and after the Battle.

At this time it was rare for individual women to appear in the historical records and where they do, it is in their role as mother, wife, sister etc. of important men. The role of women (particularly queens, who were the best recorded) was as advisors to their husbands, supporters of their sons and the voice of religious moderation.

They had influence and power over men – and the three women profiled below wielded particular power behind the throne in 1066.

Queen Emma – the kingmaker (985-1052)

Queen Emma, mother of King Edward the Confessor, had been dead for 14 years at the time of the Conquest, but she did much to set up the political situation surrounding 1066.

Cnut and Emma of Normandy, the widow of Ethelred. © Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library / Alamy

Cnut and Emma of Normandy, the widow of Ethelred. © Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library / Alamy

She was the second wife of Ethelred the Unready, who already had several sons, so Edward was not expected to become king on his birth. However, Emma campaigned for him to be named heir over his elder half siblings. Following her husband’s death during the Danish invasion of 1016, she negotiated her own marriage to the invader Cnut; keeping her existing children within the royal succession. Edward became king of England far more because of his mother’s position as Cnut’s queen than because his father had been king before him.

So successful was Emma in positioning herself as a conduit for royal kingship, eliminating Ethelred’s other heirs, that Edward the Confessor chose not to name any of his father’s relatives as successor. He turned instead to his wife’s brother Harold, again allowing power to pass through the female line.

Queen Edith – diplomat and patron of the arts (1025-1075)

Wife of King Edward the Confessor and sister to King Harold, she was one of only two women depicted in the Bayeux tapestry and it has been suggested, by the historian Carola Hicks, that she is a strong candidate for being the patron of the tapestry.

Engraving (c.1860) showing the body of King Harold being identified during the battle of Hastings on 14th October 1066. Histoire Populaire de la France, Tome Premier, Ch. Lahure's Publication. The engraving credits Edith of Wessex with the identification, confusing her with Eadgifu Swanneshals - Edith Swan-neck - Harold's former concubine.

Engraving (c.1860) showing the body of King Harold being identified during the battle of Hastings on 14th October 1066. Histoire Populaire de la France, Tome Premier, Ch. Lahure’s Publication. The engraving credits Edith of Wessex with the identification, confusing her with Eadgifu Swanneshals – Edith Swan-neck – Harold’s former concubine.


She was aware that controlling the historical and political narrative was key to her personal survival after 1066. Although the commissioning of the tapestry is debatable, what is not is her role as patroness of a book on the life of her husband, King Edward. In it she presents him as saintly and paralleled her own role as Queen in the same light.

Since at this point all of the male figures who might have protected her, in particular Harold and her other siblings had been killed during the conquest, she was left extremely vulnerable. Edith dealt with the situation by promoting the cult of Edward the Confessor, in effect making God her protector.

This was a shrewd move, as the Doomsday book reveals that she was one of very few English landowners to keep all of their lands, most English nobility having been killed or sent into exile.

Later historians helped to enhanced Queen Edith’s reputation by confusing her with Harold’s lover Eadgifu Swanneshals, known as Edith Swan-neck. In nineteenth century engravings like the one pictured above, mixing up the two Ediths gave extra status to Edith of Wessex, placing her at that important moment when she was really elsewhere.

Queen Margaret – the saint (1045-1093)

Margaret of Wessex was the sister of Edgar Etheling, who had been named King by the English nobles following Harold’s death at Hastings. She and her family had to flee to Scotland following the failed resistance to William in the north of England.

Saint Margaret of Scotland (1045-1093). Known as Margaret of Wessex and Queen Margaret of Scotland. English princes. Engraving by Capuz. Ano Cristiano, 1852. © PRISMA ARCHIVO / Alamy

Saint Margaret of Scotland (1045-1093). Known as Margaret of Wessex and Queen Margaret of Scotland. Engraving by Capuz. Ano Cristiano, 1852. © PRISMA ARCHIVO / Alamy

The Scottish king, Malcolm III, saw political advantage in an alliance with Edgar, as a family connection through marriage would justify intervening in internal English conflict. Therefore, the conquest placed Margaret in a position where she was able to use religion to forward her own agenda. Working with Lanfranc, the future Archbishop of Canterbury, Margaret brought the Scottish church in line with Rome; dramatically altering the history of the church in Scotland.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle argues that her marriage was God’s plan to use her to “direct the king out of the path of error, and turn him and his people together towards a better way”. She was canonised in 1250.


This post was co-authored by Rowena Willard-Wright and Dr Kathryn Bedford, a collections curator at English Heritage with a specialism in High and Late Medieval History.

Editor’s note: This post has been updated to clarify which Edith is said to have identified Harold’s body at the Battle of Hastings.

Discover more about the Norman Conquest

Edith of Wessex (@Edith_1066) is one of eight people from 1066 who are tweeting the events of that momentous year. William’s wife Matilda of Flanders (@Matilda_1066) is another one of the characters.

You can find out everything you need to know about the Norman Conquest from here. And as we draw closer to the time of the battle, it’s time to decide – are you on Team Norman or Team Saxon? Take our quiz and discover your allegiance.

Learn more about Women in History

Women have played an integral role in shaping the course of English history. From the first computer programmer, to fearless monarchs and pioneering scientists, check out our Women in History page to find out more about some of the women who left their mark on society and shaped our way of life today.

Share this Post

Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+0

Share this Post

Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+0
  • About the Author

    Rowena Willard-Wright
    Rowena is the Senior Curator at Dover Castle.

Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. You say that a picture illustrating this article is an “Engraving (c.1860) showing the body of King Harold identified by his sister Edith of Wessex during the battle of Hastings on 14th October 1066.” This is incorrect it was not Queen Edith who identified Harold’s body, but Eadgifu Swanneshals, known as Edith Swan-neck. As The Waltham Chronicle puts it:-
    ‘She had at one time been the king’s concubine and knew the secret marks on his body better than others did, for she had been admitted to a greater intimacy of his person. Thus they would be assured by her knowledge of his secret marks when they could not be sure from his external appearance.’

  2. Hi Tricia,
    Thanks for your comment – yes, you’re absolutely right about which Edith is said to identified his body. I’ve added in a comment to make this clear for other readers.

  3. Pingback: Fact or fiction? The Norman Conquest in Medieval Stories - English Heritage Blog

  4. Pingback: 10 LESSER-KNOWN INSPIRATIONAL WOMEN FROM HISTORY: PART TWO - English Heritage Blog

  5. I assume you illustrated with engravings that were made centuries later that the time period represented, because those illustrations were readily available. Unfortunately, they misrepresent how people were actually dressed in that period. This entry could be greatly improved by using more historically accurate illustrations.

  6. Hi Bobbie, thank you for your comment. I agree, if it had been possible to find and use contemporary representations of the women profiled in this post it would have been better. Where we’ve used later illustrations for this post, we’ve included the dates that they were drawn (where the information was available) – we definitely we don’t intend to misrepresent these women.