Edith the Fair

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Edith the Fair
Edith discovering the body of Harold.jpg
Edith discovering the body of Harold Godwinson
Born c. 1025
Died c. 1086
Spouse(s) Harold Godwinson
Children Godwin

Edith Swannesha (Old English: Ealdgȳð Swann hnesce, "Edith [the] Gentle Swan"; c. 1025 – c. 1086), also known as Edith Swanneschals or Edith the Fair,[note 1] was the first wife or mistress of King Harold II of England.[1] She is also commonly known as Edith Swanneck (or Swan-Neck), but this comes from the folk etymology which made her in Old English as swann hnecca, "swan neck", which was actually most likely a corrupted form of swann hnesce, "Gentle Swan" .[2] She is sometimes confused with Ældgyth, daughter of Ealdorman Ælfgar of Mercia, and Harold's Queen consort.

Consort of King Harold

She may be identical with Eadgifu the Fair, who was one of the wealthiest magnates in England on the eve of the Norman Conquest. Their children included Gunhild, who became the mistress of Alan Rufus, and Gytha, who was taken by her grandmother to Denmark in 1068.[1] Gytha was addressed as "princess" and married the Grand Duke of Kiev, Vladimir Monomakh.[3]

Though King Harold II is said to have lawfully married Ældgyth Edith of Mercia, the widow of the Welsh ruler Gruffydd ap Llywelyn whom he had defeated in battle, that marriage in spring 1066 is seen by most modern scholars as one of political convenience.[4] Mercia and Wales were allied against England, and the marriage gave the English claim in two very troublesome regions, and also gave Harold Godwinesson a marriage deemed "legitimate" by the clergy, unlike his longtime common law marriage with Edith the Fair.

Edith the Fair was remembered in history and folklore chiefly because it was she who identified Harold's body after the Battle of Hastings.[5] The body was horribly mutilated after the battle by the Norman army of William the Conqueror, and, despite pleas by Harold's mother, Gytha Thorkelsdóttir, for William to surrender Harold's body for burial, the Norman army refused, even though Harold's mother offered Harold's weight in gold. It was then that Edith the Fair walked through the carnage of the battle so that she might identify Harold by markings on his chest known only to her. It was because of Edith the Fair's identification of Harold's body that Harold was given a Christian burial by the monks at Waltham Abbey.[6] This legend is recounted in the well-known poem by Heinrich Heine, "The Battlefield of Hastings" (1855), which features Edith the Fair (as Edith Swan-Neck) as the main character and claims that the "marks known only to her" were love bites.

In his 2015 monograph investigation into the identity of the visionary of Our Lady of Walsingham, Edith the Fair, the historian Bill Flint identifies Edith Swanneshals as the Walsingham visionary, who has been known colloquially in history as "Rychold" or "Richeldis". In this work, Flint overturns many of the previous assumptions made about Edith's relationship with Harold Godwinson, including the fidelity of the couple's marital union and Christian devotion. Flint argues that Edith and Harold were almost certainly married under the Danish mores danico or hand-fast marriage custom. As evidence for this, he cites a number of dowry bequests that were made at the time of Edith's union to Harold. Flint notes that the bequests made included Walsingham Manor, making Edith in all probability "the lady of the manor" during the year of 1061, which was identified by Tudor historian Richard Pynson as the year of the foundation of the shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham.

Flint claims that the mores danico union of Edith and Harold is legitimate from a Catholic perspective, arguing that "The changes confirming the Sacramental nature of Christian marriage had only recently been promulgated from Rome. Throughout the Danelaw and widespread among the nobility of England who now had many such Scandinavian bloodlines, the hand-fast marriage, which was customary and widely accepted throughout northern Europe, should not be referred to as an illegitimate union." (p. 9). In fact, the Anglo-Saxons had practiced hand-fast marriage long before Danish conquest.

Flint's identification of Edith as the Walsingham visionary is rooted in his belief that the earlier date of shrine's foundation, given by Richard Pynson as 1061, is credible. Pynson's history, which is given in a narrative poem known as the Pynson Ballad, had been previously thrown out by historians on the grounds it was unreliable as an oral narrative, but Flint defends the ballad on the grounds that Pynson was a respected historian, employed by King Henry VII, who also collaborated with John Leland. Flint contests the theories of J.C. Dickinson (1959) on the grounds that the 1131 Norfolk Roll, which Dickinson claims refers to the foundation of the shrine, actually refers to the foundation of the Priory of the Austin Friars, which preceded the foundation of the Walsingham Shrine (see p.xxii). He also notes that Edith Swanneshals was known within the court as "Rychold", meaning "fair and rich", and the appellatory title given by Pynson could therefore refer to the Anglo-Saxon Queen—a reference which is consistent with the original date given in the Pynson Ballad as 1061, for Edith Swaneshals was the Lady of the Walsingham Manor in this period (p.xxvii). Flint therefore establishes Edith Swaneshals as a Christian Queen and the legitimate spouse of Harold Godwinson; as well as defending her Christian character as the probable visionary of the Shrine of Walsingham. In defending Edith's Christian character Flint cites her friendship with St. Wulfstan of Worcester.

Historical fiction

Ealdgyth was portrayed by Janet Suzman in the two-part BBC TV play Conquest (1966), part of the series Theatre 625.

The German poet Heinrich Heine wrote Schlachtfeld bei Hastings (published 1851, in Romanzero).[7] In this poem, Edith and two monks (Asgod and Ailrik) search the battlefield for the body of King Harold.


  1. Her first name is also spelled Ealdgyth, Aldgyth, Edeva or Eddeva, and sometimes appears as Ēadgȳð and Ēadgifu. (Compare Godgifu which was modified to Godiva in Latin texts.)


  1. 1.0 1.1 Williams, Ann (2004). "Eadgifu [Eddeua] the Fair [the Rich] (fl. 1066), magnate". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/52349. Retrieved 19 March 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles> (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  2. Ardagh, Philip. Philip Ardagh's Book of Kings, Queens, Emperors and Rotten Wart-Nosed Commoners.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. Poole, Russell Gilbert (1998). Old English Wisdom Poetry. D.S.Brewer. p. 238. ISBN 978-0859915304.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  4. Jones, Kaye (2011). 1066: History in an Hour. p. 32.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Jones, Kaye (2011). 1066: History in an Hour. p. 33.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Mason, Emma (2004). The House of Godwine: The History of a Dynasty. p. 178.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. "Schlachtfeld bei Hastings". Projekt Gutenberg-DE. Retrieved 27 October 2014.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>


  • A History of Britain: At the Edge of the World, 3500 BC - 1603 AD by Simon Schama, BBC/Miramax, 2000 ISBN 0-7868-6675-6
  • Edith the Fair, Bill Flint, 2015, Gracewing Press ISBN 978-0-85244-870-0
  • The German Classics of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Volume 06: Masterpieces of German Literature Translated into English in Twenty Volumes by Kuno Francke www.gutenberg.org/etext/12473
  • Great Tales from English History: The Truth About King Arthur, Lady Godiva, Richard the Lionheart, and More by Robert Lacey, 2004 ISBN 0-316-10910-X
  • House of Godwine: The History of Dynasty by Emma Mason, 2004 ISBN 1-85285-389-1
  • Ancestral Roots of Certain American Colonists Who Came to America Before 1700 by Frederick Lewis Weis, Lines: 176-2, 176A-4, 177-1
  • 'Who Was Eddeva?' by J.R. Boyle, F.S.A.; Transactions of East Riding Antiquarian Society, Volume 4 (1896); pages 11–22