In the museum at Sint-Salvator Cathedral in Brugge in Flanders, there is an interesting funerary tablet made from black lead and bearing a long inscription in Latin. It tells the story of Gunnhild, the youngest sister of Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king.
After the Battle of Hastings, William the Conqueror started divvying up England, giving all the lands previously possessed by those English who had fought at Hastings (alive or dead) to his Norman-French henchmen. Because Norman control of England was tenuous in the period after the Conquest, William had, at first, allowed some English earls, priests and thegns to remain in place, as long as they submitted to him. In 1068 there was an abortive revolt led by Mercian and Northumbrian earls Morcar, Edwin, Waltheof and Gospatric. Edgar the Atheling, the rightful English claimant to the crown, and the Bishop of Durham were also involved. William reacted fast and marched north, building castle after castle as he went. The revolt collapsed and the earls fled.
In the same year another plot was also being hatched to oust the hated Normans, a plot in which Harold’s mother and children were involved. William got warning of the plot and that it would centre on the town of Exeter in southwest England. He besieged Exeter, whose English defenders caused William’s Normans much grief. Eventually, however, Gytha, Harold’s mother, escaped from Exeter along with many of her kin and found refuge on the small island of Flat Holm in the Bristol Channel. Among Gytha’s kin who fled with her to Flat Holme was her daughter Gunnhild (whose funerary tablet is in Brugge), as well as two of Harold’s daughters – another Gunnhild and another Gytha. Harold’s sons were at the time probably in Ireland, waiting to join the revolt.
The town of Exeter had to capitulate.
From this point onwards, William’s initial willingness to allow some English to remain in possession of their lands evaporated. Earl Edwin was later killed and Gospatric fled to Scotland. William kept Harold’s son Ulf a prisoner in Normandy for twenty years. With a few notable, but minor, exceptions, William now bowed to the wishes of his Norman followers and dispossessed practically all the English of their patrimony. The Anglo-Norman monk Orderic Vitalis wrote that “foreigners grew wealthy with the spoils of England, whilst her own sons were either shamefully slain or driven as exiles to wonder hopelessly through foreign lands”.
William embarked on a regional genocide in the north of England in 1069, misleadingly now known as ‘The Harrying of the North’.
English earls had to flee if they wanted to avoid death or imprisonment. Multitudes of lesser English thegns had grudgingly to submit to the Norman yoke, and be dispossessed, or go into exile. Thousands of them eventually ended up in the Byzantine Empire and served in the Varangian Guard (See here).
The Normans continued to build their castles. The English started to call their conquerors ‘Castlemen’. These castles were at first just quickly thrown-up wooden palisades, but these were soon replaced by the Motte and Bailey type we are so familiar with. These castles provided the Normans with protection from the surly and resentful English, as well as places from which they could sally forth to rape and rob. A thing the new ‘aristocracy’ of the country would continue to do for centuries to come.
The Norman apologist William of Poitiers wrote: “Nothing was given to any Frenchman which had been unjustly taken from any Englishman.” This is blatant nonsense. With, and quite often without, the new king’s consent, the Normans had simply grabbed as much of England as they could. Only in those remote regions into which Norman control had not yet extended, Cumbria and northern Northumbria for example, did any significant vestige of English land possession remain.
William didn’t even know precisely what lands many of his followers had grabbed. It was for this reason that as late as 1086 he ordered the Domesday Survey. To control his lordly vassals he needed to know what they possessed.
As time went on, these Normans, holed up in their castles, wanted to try to legitimize their land grab, and this is where English women come in. English men would no longer be allowed to retain any significant power or land, which might lead to Norman hegemony once again being challenged. But under Anglo-Saxon law English women could, and did, become the rightful inheritors of the lands their fathers, brothers and sons had lost. William was always keen to emphasise his claim to be the rightful successor of King Edward the Confessor – Harold was wherever possible simply airbrushed out of history. Thus William encouraged his followers, particularly those who weren’t great magnates, to legitimize their seizures by marrying English women who had an acknowledged English right to the seized lands.
Historian Eleanor Searle writes:
First, lesser lords and knights legitimised their occupation of Anglo-Saxon manors assigned to them by their lords, through the means of marriage to Anglo-Saxon women, declared to be heiresses. Secondly, among the magnates, legitimisation of membership in their group remained the point, and pattern, of marriage. Norman magnates who employed the first pattern of legitimisation did not marry the daughters of the Anglo-Saxon magnates, but lived with them, in unions accepted by the natives, but not presented to their own group for approval.
The English knew this. One very frequent reaction was to shut up their daughters, sisters and mothers in nunneries. Partly this was to protect their womenfolk from literally being raped or kidnapped by the conquerors, a pretty frequent occurrence. The other, related, reason was to try to prevent the Normans marrying their women and thereby legitimizing their possession of the property and land they had grabbed.
In the 1070s, the Norman Archbishop of Canterbury Lanfranc was asked, “which Englishwomen in nunneries are to remain as nuns and which are to be sent home?”
The answer was that nuns who had made profession or who had been offered as oblates were to remain such. Those women who fell in neither category were to be sent away ad presens until their wishes about living as nuns might be minutely investigated.
Women who had truly ‘professed’ and become nuns were, under Norman as well as English law, not allowed to marry and were, in theory at least, afforded some measure of protection against rapacious Normans. But it was certainly the case, and Lanfranc knew it, that many of these English women hadn’t really professed and thus weren’t really nuns. Rather, they had simply sought safety in the nunneries.
As Searle says, what concerned Lanfranc was that these women were “wanted at home as peace-weavers and channels of inheritance”.
There is much more to tell about the role of these English women in legitimizing Norman property possession. I would highly recommend Eleanor Searle’s Women and the Legitimisation of Succession at the Norman Conquest.
Here I’d like to return to where we started, to Harold’s mother, sister and daughters escaping from Exeter and fleeing to the safety of Flat Holm. Just before Exeter surrendered to the besieging Normans, John of Worcester tells us that Gytha, Harold’s mother, had “escaped with many in flight from the city”. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is more cutting. It says that Exeter surrendered “because the thegns had betrayed them”; adding that Gytha “was accompanied by many other distinguished men’s wives”. As Marc Morris puts it in The Norman Conquest, “Gytha sailed into the Bristol Channel and took refuge on the tiny island of Flat Holm. Presumably these pro-Godwine women remained hopeful that their husbands and grandsons would soon be crossing from Ireland” where they had previously fled.
Some of these Godwine men, including Harold’s sons Edmund, Godwine and Magnus, did then raid the coast of southwest England with Irish help, but it was a failure, any remaining chance for Harold’s family had passed.
A book could be written on what became of Harold’s family, many of whom had been either in Exeter or in Ireland. His daughter Gunnhild was one of those English women put away in a nunnery, in her case at Wilton in Wiltshire. She would later become the mistress of William’s Breton follower Alan the Red, and thereby helped him and his successors legitimize their vast land holdings in the east of England. Son Magnus probably died in the brothers’ unsuccessful invasion following the capitulation of Exeter. Most of the rest sought refuge with Count Baldwin in Flanders. The Flemish court had already been a place to where some members of the Godwine clan had fled in pre-Conquest days. Baldwin’s aunt Judith, the bereaved widow of Harold’s brother earl Tostig, would also find sanctuary there.
And so somehow Harold’s mother Gytha, his sister Gunnhild, his daughter Gytha and his two sons Godwine and Edmund all ended up in Flanders. Exactly how long they stayed with Baldwin is unknown. What we do know, from Saxo Grammaticus and two other sources, is that sons Edmund and Godwine, together with their sister Gytha, then moved to Denmark, to seek the protection and possible help of their kinsman, the Danish king Svein. Gytha would later be married off by Svein to the Russian Prince of Smolensk and Kiev, Vladimir Monomakh, with whom she would have several children. Following Svein’s death in 1074, no more is heard of the two brothers.
Harold’s mother Gytha and sister Gunnhild had stayed in Flanders and both became nuns in the convent at St. Omer.
And so, finally, we come back to the funerary tablet/plaque in the Belgian museum. After being a nun for almost twenty years, Gunnhild, King Harold’s sister, died in 1087. She was interred in the cathedral of Sint-Donaas in Brugge. The lead plaque was placed under her head, where it was discovered in 1786. “The plaque was immured again with her remains, but it came to light a second time in 1804 during the demolition of the cathedral of Sint-Donaas”, from where it was taken to the museum.
This is the Latin text of the tablet laid under Gunnhild’s head in 1087, followed by my own English précis:
Pater noster: Credo in Deum Patrem, et cetera quae in Simbolo Apostolorum sunt scripta.
Gunildis nobilissimis orta parentibus, genere Angla, patre Godwino Comite, sub cujus dominio maxima pars militabat Angliae, matre Githa, illustri prosapia Dacorum oriunda, Hec, dum voveret adhuc puella virginalem castitatem, desiderans spiritual conjugium, sprevit connubial nonnullorum nobelium principum. Hecque, dum jam ad nubilem aetatem pervenisset, Anglia devicta a Willelmo Normannorum Comite et ab codem interfecto fratre suo Rege Anglorum Haroldo, relicta patria, apud Sanctum Audomarum aliquot annos exulans in Flandria. Christum quem pie amabat, in pectore sancte simper colebat in opera, circa sibi famulantes hilaris et modesta, erga extraneos benivola et justa, pauperibus larga, suo corpori admodum parca; quid dicam, adeo ut omnibus illecebris se abstinendo, per multos annos ante sui diem obitus non vesceretur carnibus, neque quidquam quod sibi dulce visum est gustando; sed vix necessaria vitae capiendo cilicio induta ut nec etiam quibusdam pateret familiaribus, conflictando cum viciis vicit in virtutibus. Dehine transiens Bruggas, et ibi transvolutis quibusdam annis et inde pertransiens in Dacia, huc reversa, virgo transmigravit in Domino, Anno incarnationis domini millesimo LXXXV11, nono kalendas Septembris, luna XX11.
Here is my own inadequate summary of the Latin inscription. It’s not intended to be a literal translation, just to give the gist:
Having professed Gunnhild’s belief in ‘God Our Father’ and the teachings of the Apostles written in the scriptures, the table then states the Gunnhild came from a noble family of the English race. Her father was Godwin, who had gained dominion over most of England. Her mother was Gytha, who came from illustrious Danish stock. When she was still a child she had taken a vow of chastity and, having rejected several offers of marriage by noble princes, had sought a spiritual life. When she became of marriageable age, Count (Duke) William of Normandy conquered England and killed her brother Harold, the king of England. Gunnhild had fled the country and found sanctuary in St. Omer in Flanders, where she lived for some years as an exile. She loved Christ devotedly and all her works showed that the Holy Spirit was in her heart. She was cheerful and modest in His service. She was just and benevolent with others and towards the poor. Her body was thin and she abstained from all worldly temptations. For many years before her death she hadn’t eaten meat or tasted anything that was sweet. By putting on the ‘hairshirt’ she had only the necessities of life, and even among family and friends virtue always won over vice. She had then moved to Brugge (Bruges), where she lived for some years before going to Denmark, before returning to Brugge. She was taken to the Lord in the year of the Lord 1087 – on the 9th September at 10 in the evening.