Very early medieval weddings were not sanctified by the Church. Handfasting was the traditional marriage form by which the families concerned agreed property transfer on marriage. The bride and groom were usually handfasted in a ceremony by the whetstone at the entrance to the bride’s father’s great hall. They made promises to each other and their hands were bound together during the marriage ceremony. Generally, these marriages were lasting and legal. However, during the eleventh century, marriage ceremonies involved a priest and became church weddings and marriage by handfasting was not recognised by the church. This allowed a get out, particularly for kings who might seek new political alliances. Harold and Edith Swan-Neck had been married for nearly twenty years before he married the sister of England’s Northern Earls and, though History suggests that he loved her, Harold set Edith aside for political reasons. The historian, Frank Barlow says in The Godwins, she may not have been ‘top drawer’ now he was king. As this also was a political move to appease the north and protect England from outside invaders, I wondered to what extent Edith might have accepted it. I took any facts I could find in Chronicles and various analysis of The Bayeux Tapestry and constructed a possible scenario. I fictionalise Edith’s life on an estate in Sussex, the growing threat to her family before October 1066, and her imagined escape from an arranged marriage after Harold’s slaughter. In the novel, I link her fate to this of Dowager Queen Edith, Harold’s sister and that of his mother, Countess Gytha. The novel tells of a woman’s experience, and I believe that as well as being a story of love and loss it presents a reader with a fresh perspective on the consequences of the Norman Conquest.
I began wondering about how the Conquest affected the noble Saxon women especially after I discovered that Edith Swan-Neck allegedly identified King Harold’s body parts on the battlefield at Hastings (Senlac). My great interest was tapestry especially The Bayeux Tapestry. I had a hunch that the vignette depicting a woman and a child fleeing from a burning house was Edith Swan-Neck (Elditha as there are several Ediths in the story) and her son Ulf who was taken as a child hostage to Normandy and not released for decades. This theory is supported by tapestry historians such as Andrew Bridgeford. I researched women’s lives during this period and consulted academics such as Henrietta Leyser who wrote Medieval Women. I read ‘what happened’ in original chronicles in Oxford’s Bodleian Library and explored life in the medieval period, looking at costume, jewellery, food, furniture, art, architecture, trade and so on. The more I researched the more fascinated I became. I read everything I could find on this period of change, even how the Victorians viewed the period romantically as they looked for a pre-Conquest English identity. Then I wrote The Handfasted Wife.
Since you tell a familiar story from an unfamiliar view point do you consider yourself a feminist writer?
Women should understand how they evolved as a political and social force through history, how they found a voice, and appreciate what life was like for them in a past era. I believe that in looking back we understand women’s position in a contemporary western world better. My mother was a feminist and so feminism is ingrained in me. However, I see myself, as first of all, a writer. Medieval women are the footnotes of history. I am interested in their hidden stories and I try to tease them out. Writing, for me, is most of all about discovering and revealing past existences through fiction and so I put out an idea or two but I see these ideas as ‘collaborative’ between author and reader and never a given. I would like my readers to think about historical possibilities. Also, I hope my stories appeal to both men and women readers.
My new novel is the second book in this trilogy. It is very romantic as it is about a real historical love triangle. After much agonising about a title, it is to be called The Swan-Daughter’s Tale and is a story about Edith Swan-Neck’s daughter Gunnhild’s elopement from Wilton Abbey in the last quarter of the 11thC. I won’t give any spoilers here but shall say that some great characters from the first novel do reappear in the sequel.
Thank you, Carol, and best of luck with The Handfasted Wife.
Thank you, Lisa, for having me on Unusual Historicals. I am offering a free copy of The Handfasted Wife, either an Apple download of the novel for IPhone or IPad or a paperback copy. Leave an email address in the comments section if you wish to enter this draw, which is available internationally. Say which version you are interested in too!
The Handfasted Wife is published by Accent Press and is available an e book for all e readers and as a paperback from Amazon, USA and UK. It can be bought from Accent Press’s online bookstore.
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