The nobility of your forbears magnified you, O Edith,
And you, a king’s bride, magnify your forbears.
Much beauty and much wisdom were yours
And also probity together with sobriety.
You teach the stars, measuring, arithmetic, the art of the lyre,
The ways of learning and grammar.
An understanding of rhetoric allowed you to pour out speeches,
And moral rectitude informs your tongue.
The sun burned for two days in Capricorn
When you discarded the weight of your flesh and went away.
Godfrey of Cambrai, prior of Winchester Cathedral (1082-1107)
We would like examine the life of a woman who was a contemporary of Emma of Normandy, Matilda of Flanders and mentor of Saint Margaret of Scotland. She was Edith of Wessex and the wife of King Edward the Confessor.
Edith’s grandfather Wulfnoth and father Godwin were English nobles of the South Saxons. Godwin was a military man in the entourage of King Aethelred the Unready’s son, Athelstan. But he really made a name for himself under King Cnut by suppressing a rebellion in Denmark. When he returned, Cnut gave him Gytha, his sister-in-law by marriage, as a wife.
Godwin and Gytha had a least 9 children. Edith was more than likely their eldest daughter and born around 1025. Godwin wanted Edith to be well bred and prepared for an important life so she was sent to be educated at the royal abbey of Wilton with other noble women. Wilton had a reputation for being rich, aristocratic and exceedingly cultured. Historians in her time described Edith as displaying piety, good manners, adept at embroidery, weaving and other arts. She spoke Latin, French, Danish and Irish and was accomplished at grammar, rhetoric, arithmetic and astronomy. She would forever be grateful to Wilton and later rebuilt the abbey in stone so it wouldn’t burn down like other abbeys built with wood.
During years of turmoil when the English throne was being taken over by Danes and other Anglo-Saxon heirs, an incident occurred where Godwin sanctioned the murder of the future King Edward’s brother, Alfred. Edward and Alfred were the sons of Aethelred the Unready and Queen Emma. Edward eventually returned from exile in Normandy to become King of England. Edward owed Godwin a debt of gratitude for his allegiance in helping him gain the throne but they never had a strong bond. They spoke different languages, Edward blamed Godwin for his brother’s murder and Godwin was always to remain more powerful than Edward. Edward paid Godwin large amounts in gifts and lands to maintain his loyalty. Godwin demanded Edward marry his daughter Edith. Edward, needing Godwin’s military support and fidelity, agreed. Edith was the main pawn in Godwin’s game to rule England. He wanted his future grandson to be King.
Edith and Edward were married on January 23, 1045 when Edward was forty and Edith was approximately twenty-two. Edith was consecrated Queen. It is said she always advised Edward wisely. She began a program to improve Edward’s image by dressing him regally and adorning their private apartments with decorations and Spanish carpets. She had a staff made for him to carry that was encrusted with gold and gems. The great tragedy of the marriage was the lack of children. Historians have argued over the years about why. Perhaps one or the other was infertile. Edward didn’t have any illegitimate children which was unusual for the time. Edward may have resented Edith’s family being more powerful than he and just didn’t have sex with Edith in retaliation. Perhaps Edward was pious and felt he must be celibate. Modern historians are now proponents that they did have sex and just didn’t have any children. This barrenness in the marriage was to have a forceful and direct impact on the history of England.
In 1051, for many reasons, a colossal quarrel broke out between Edward and Godwin. Godwin was accused of misconduct and was to be put on trial. Godwin chose to flee the kingdom instead, taking several of his sons with him. Edward banished Edith to a nunnery and all her lands were confiscated. Godwin returned to England in 1052. Edward was ready to fight him but lacked the support needed to make a stand. Godwin begged for forgiveness and asked for his lands back. Edward gave in and Edith returned to court.
After Edith’s banishment, she appeared to increase her loyalty to her father and brothers, including Harold. Edward’s power waned and hers increased. After 1055, her brothers guarded the north and the south of the Kingdom, allowing Edward to hunt and do pious works. Edith witnessed many charters. It is said she became fond of confiscating saintly relics and precious treasures from other cathedrals and abbeys and giving them to her abbey at Wilton.
In 1057, Edward and Edith welcomed to court Edward the Exile from Hungary, a surviving grandson of King Aethelred and son of King Edmund Ironside. Edward came with his wife Agatha, eldest daughter Margaret and son Edgar Atheling. Edith adopted Edgar as her son and placed Margaret at Wilton to be educated. She taught Margaret many things about being a Queen which she later adopted when she married Malcolm, King of Scotland.
Edward was to become ill and died in January 1066. Edith’s brother, Harold was elected King by the council but immediately had to fight off invasions by the Norwegians and eventually William of Normandy. Harold was killed at the Battle of Hastings in October of 1066 and William the Conqueror became King of England. William sent men to Winchester to demand tribute from Queen Edith and she willingly complied and allied herself to William. William, in turn, respected her and allowed her to keep all her estates and income. Edith commissioned a book to be written about her family, herself and her marriage to Edward, later known as The Confessor. The book, Vita Edwardi Regis, “Life of King Edward Who Rests at Westminster” was written by an unknown monk from Flanders and is the main source of information we have about Edith’s life. Edith was to keep an entirely English entourage until her death on December 18, 1075 in her mid-fifties. She was buried with Edward in Westminster Abbey.
Postscript: Queen Edith is one of only three women who are depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry, an 11th C. embroidered panorama that tells the saga of William, Duke of Normandy’s conquest of England. It is one of the primary narratives we have of the history of this great adventure.
Further reading: “The Godwins” by Frank Barlow, “Queen Emma & Queen Edith: Queenship and Women’s Power in Eleventh-Century England” by Pauline Stafford, “Life of King Edward who Rests at Westminster” by an anonymous monk, “1066: The Hidden History in the Bayeux Tapestry” by Andrew Bridgeford