Ealdgyth Swan-neck

Ealdgyth Swan-neck, also known as Edith the Fair, Edith, Aldgyth and most commonly Edith Swan-Neck {1025-1086(?)} is best known as the mistress or common-law wife of King Harold II of England.

She bore him several children and was his common law wife (according to Danish law, by a civil "handfast" marriage) for over 20 years. Though she was not considered Harold's wife by the Church, there is no indication that the children she bore by Harold were treated as illegitimate by the culture at the time. In fact, one of Harold Godwinesson and Edith Swan-Neck's daughters, Gyda Haraldsdatter, (also known as Gytha of Wessex), was addressed as "princess" and was married to the Grand Duke Of Kiev, Vladimir Monomakh. It is through this union that the Godwinesson line would remain in European nobility and would, ironically (given that this line was ended due to the Norman invasion of 1066), reenter English royalty, making the current ruler of England, Queen Elizabeth II the 29th great-granddaughter of King Harold II and Edith Swan-Neck.

Though King Harold II would "legally" marry Edith (Ealdgyth) of Mercia, the widow of the Welsh ruler Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, (who he defeated in battle), in 1064, this is seen by most modern scholars as a marriage of political means. Since at the time Mercia and Wales were allied against England, the political marriage would give the English claim in two very troublesome regions, as well as give Harold Godwinesson a marriage deemed "legitimate" by the clergy of the Church, something his longtime common law wife, Edith Swan-Neck unfortunately could not provide.

Edith Swan-Neck would be remembered in history and folklore for one very important thing: it was she who identified Harold after his defeat at The Battle of Hastings. Harold's body was horrifically mutilated after the battle by the Norman army of William the Conqueror and despite the pleas by Harold's own mother for William to surrender Harold's body for burial, the Norman army refused even though Harold's mother offered William Harold's weight in gold. It was then that Edith Swan-Neck walked through the carnage of battle so that she may identify Harold by markings on his chest known only to her. It was because of Edith Swan-Neck's identification of Harold's body that Harold was given a Christian burial by the monks at Waltham. This legend was recounted in the well-known poem by Heinrich Heine, "The Battlefield of Hastings" (1855), which features Edith Swan-neck as the main character and claims that the 'marks known only to her' were in fact love bites.

Historical fiction

The relationship between Harold Godwinson and Edith Swan-neck is the subject of the novel Harold the King by Helen Hollick.

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

"The Battlefield of Hastings"

by Heinrich Heine, translated by Margaret Armour
 Deeply the Abbot of Waltham sighed
   When he heard the news of woe:
 How King Harold had come to a pitiful end,
   And on Hastings field lay low.
 Asgod and Ailrik, two of his monks,
   On the mission drear he sped
 To search for the corse on the battle-plain
   Among the bloody dead.
 The monks arose and went sadly forth,
   And returned as heavy-hearted.
 O Father, the world's a bitter world,
   And evil days have started.
 For fallen, alack! is the better man;
   The Bastard has won, and knaves
 And scutcheoned thieves divide the land,
   And make the freemen slaves.
 The veriest rascals from Normandy,
   In Britain are lords and sirs.
 I saw a tailor from Bayeux ride
   With a pair of golden spurs.
 O woe to all who are Saxon born!
   Ye Saxon saints, beware!
 For high in heaven though ye dwell,
   Shame yet may be your share.
 Ah, now we know what the comet meant
   That rode, blood-red and dire,
 Across the midnight firmament
   This year on a broom of fire.
 Twas an evil star, and Hastings field
   Has fulfilled the omen dread.
 We went upon the battle-plain,
   And sought among the dead.
  While still there lingered any hope
   We sought, but sought in vain;
 King Harold's corse we could not find
   Among the bloody slain.
 Asgod and Ailrik spake and ceased.
   The Abbot wrung his hands.
 Awhile he pondered, then he sighed,
   Now mark ye my commands.
 By the stone of the bard at Grendelfield,
   Just midway through the wood,
 One, Edith of the Swan's Neck, dwells
   In a hovel poor and rude.
 They named her thus, because her neck
   Was once as slim and white
 As any swan's--when, long ago,
   She was the king's delight.
 He loved and kissed, forsook, forgot,
   For such is the way of men.
 Time runs his course with a rapid foot;
   It is sixteen years since then.
 To this woman, brethren, ye shall go,
   And she will follow you fain
 To the battle-field; the woman's eye
   Will not seek the king in vain.
 Thereafter to Waltham Abbey here
   His body ye shall bring,
 That Christian burial he may have,
   While for his soul we sing.
 The messengers reached the hut in the wood
   At the hour of midnight drear.
 Wake, Edith of the Swan's Neck, rise
   And follow without fear.
 The Duke of Normandy has won
   The battle, to our bane.
 On the field of Hastings, where he fought,
   The king is lying slain.
 Arise and come with us; we seek
   His body among the dead.
 To Waltham Abbey it shall be borne.
   Twas thus our Abbot said.
 The woman arose and girded her gown,
   And silently went behind
 The hurrying monks. Her grizzly hair
   Streamed wildly on the wind.
 Barefoot through bog and bush and briar
   She followed and did not stay,
 Till Hastings and the cliffs of chalk
   They saw at dawn of day.
 The mist, that like a sheet of white
   The field of battle cloaked,
 Melted anon; with hideous din
   The daws flew up and croaked.
 In thousands on the bloody plain
   Lay strewn the piteous corpses,
 Wounded and torn and maimed and stripped,
   Among the fallen horses.
 The woman stopped not for the blood;
   She waded barefoot through,
 And from her fixed and staring eyes
   The arrowy glances flew.
 Long, with the panting monks behind,
   And pausing but to scare
 The greedy ravens from their food,
   She searched with eager care.
 She searched and toiled the livelong day,
   Until the night was nigh;
 Then sudden from her breast there burst
   A shrill and awful cry.
 For on the battle-field at last
   His body she had found.
 She kissed, without a tear or word,
   The wan face on the ground.
 She kissed his brow, she kissed his mouth,
   She clasped him close, and pressed
 Her poor lips to the bloody wounds
   That gaped upon his breast.
 His shoulder stark she kisses too,
   When, searching, she discovers
 Three little scars her teeth had made
   When they were happy lovers.
 The monks had been and gotten boughs,
   And of these boughs they made
 A simple bier, whereon the corse
   Of the fallen king was laid.
 To Waltham Abbey to his tomb
   The king was thus removed;
 And Edith of the Swan's Neck walked
   By the body that she loved.
 She chanted litanies for his soul
   With a childish, weird lament
 That shuddered through the night. The monks
   Prayed softly as they went.


  • 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
  • The German Classics of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries, Volume 06: Masterpieces of German Literature Translated into English in Twenty Volumes by Kuno Francke
  • Great Tales from English History: The Truth About King Arthur, Lady Godiva, Richard the Lionheart, and More by Robert Lacey, 2004 ISBN-10: 031610910X
  • House of Godwine: The History of Dynasty by Emma Mason, 2004 ISBN-10: 1852853891
  • Ancestral Roots of Certain American Colonists Who Came to America Before 1700 by Frederick Lewis Weis, Lines: 176-2, 176A-4, 177-1

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