Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Carol McGrath - guest post

Today we're welcoming to the blog Carol McGrath, author of The Handfasted Wife. I read this, her first novel, a short while ago and found it an engrossing story bringing the Norman Invasion of 1066 to light from the women's perspective. I was left wondering though, what exactly inspired Carol to pick this period of history..... and here's her answer...

 Inspiration for a Novel about the Noble Women of 1066

1066 is a date known to every school child, the promise made in Bayeux, the death of Edward the Confessor and the Witan’s choice of Harold of Wessex as King of England. We all know about the attack on
England from Norway, the Battle of Stamford Bridge and Harold’s victory and epic march south to confront the Norman horde at Hastings. What is rarely told is the women’s story, the story of Harold’s handfasted wife, Edith Swan-neck (Elditha in my novel), his sister Edith widow to Edward the Confessor and of Gytha, the matriarch, Harold’s indomitable mother who may have been sixty years old when events unfolded, a grand old age in those days.

What inspired me to tell these women’s story? The first reason is because ever since I watched thrilling historical serials on TV as a small child and later read Henty, Rosemary Sutcliff and Jane Lane and even later Jean Plaidy, Anya Seton and Campbell-Barnes to name just a few writers who wrote women’s historical novels, I was hooked on the past and how it affected women. Passionately in love with history, I studied medieval history at University and later taught it.

The second reason is because on a visit to Normandy I was intrigued by The Bayeux Tapestry. Three women are depicted on the Tapestry. The first is a mysterious nun early in the story when Harold is visiting Duke William’s court. There are many theories as to who she could be and why she is on the Tapestry. It may be a reference to an older story or event connected with another Godwin woman who was a nun at Wilton Abbey. She does not enter my novel. The second is Edith Godwin, wife of Edward the Confessor placed by his feet as he is dying. The third woman is the inspiration for The Handfasted Wife. She is fleeing from a burning house on the eve of the Battle of Hastings and some Tapestry Historians suggest that it is possible that she represents Harold’s first wife, Edith Swan-Neck, running from a Norman attack on her hall near Hastings, in flight along with her youngest child Ulf. I came to this conclusion through much research. In addition a short video accompanied the Bayeux Tapestry viewing. It showed Edith Swan-Neck searching the battlefield for Harold’s broken body. According to the Waltham Chronicle, written in the early 12th century, she identified him, by marks only she could have known. How intriguing! The image of a woman searching a battlefield for her husband was poignant and I realised that we only know about how the Conquest affected men and wanted to explore her story.

 What about the women? Women are the footnotes of history, the shadows in the corners of our island’s story. They had a presence which I was determined to discover and write into a fiction that whilst it was, of course, a story, still maintained a strong degree of historical integrity and accuracy. 
Further research in The Bodlean Library in Oxford led me to The Carmen de Proelio de Hastingae, (a delicious mouthful). It is simply The Song of Hastings and was probably written for Queen Matilda’s coronation in May 1067, by a Norman monk who got his information from noble relatives who fought in the
great battle. The beautifully written poem tells us that Gytha offered William Harold’s weight in gold for the return of his body to her keeping for burial. She was refused and the poem says that Harold was buried on the seashore nearby so that a funeral did not attract martyrdom status for the dead king. Two of Harold’s brothers died at Hastings and the third Tostig, who famously turned traitor, died at the Battle of Stamford Bridge. So, I felt that Gytha must have faced great loss. It is written in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and in Oderic Vitalis’s Chronicles that she sought safety in Exeter, her dower city, refused to pay tax in 1068 and was besieged there for three long weeks. Eventually she was given safe passage out and she left Exeter with a great number of noble ladies and treasure. This is a crucial event in The Handfasted Wife.

Edith the Queen was pragmatic. The chronicles say that she handed over the keys of Winchester and the treasury there to William a few weeks after the great battle. She stood on the fence. I see her as a survivor, and an educated brilliant woman.

Edith Swan-Neck disappears from the historical record after 1066 except for one possible mention which I am not going to reveal as to do so would be a spoiler. However, hers and Harold’s son Ulf was taken as a child hostage into Normandy (according to John of Worcester) and not released for many years. I imagine that she wanted to reunite her children and recover her missing son.  I also imagine her loss as she is set aside by Harold in 1066 for a political marriage that would unite north and south in the face of great danger from abroad. She was a wife handfasted in the Danish tradition, outside of the Church.

These are the historical ingredients for The Handfasted Wife. The story I ended up writing is filled with adventure and I loved researching and crafting it. I always wanted to write novel but life got in the way. I gave up teaching, studied for an MPhil in Creative Writing and English at Royal Holloway and wrote The Handfasted Wife. If you read it I hope you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the writing of it. Moreover, there is a sequel on the way!

Carol McGrath August 2013

 Many thanks to Carol for that and much to think on. We look forward to reading the sequel.

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