Medieval(ish) matters #10: are women at the heart of the action in the Norman Conquest?

HistoryExtra content director David Musgrove looks beyond the "priapic predilections" of the Bayeux Tapestry and considers the key role of women in the 11th century

Queen Emma and her sons, miniature in 'Encomium Emmae reginae', mid 11th century, British Library (Photo by Getty Images)

The Norman Conquest of 1066 is essentially a massive, bloody, punch-up of armed men on the field of the battle of Hastings (after some other equally bloody clashes in Yorkshire). This follows a lot of posturing and politicking by two alpha males, King Harold II of England and Duke William of Normandy, and their leading men, over who should succeed to the throne of England after the death of Edward the Confessor in January of that year.

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Study the Bayeux Tapestry, the great artistic record of this martial story, and that’s broadly what you’ll see. It’s pretty much all men. In fact, Professor George Garnett has written about the “priapic predilections” of the Tapestry designer and counted no less than 93 penises on display (though admittedly, most of those are equine). Aside from some nude females in the borders, there are but three women depicted in the whole thing. Only one is named: the enigmatic Aelfgyva, whose identity and meaning in the Tapestry has resulted in many pages of speculative theorising from historians over the years. Another is unnamed, but is surely Queen Edith, wife of Edward the Confessor (and sister of the future King Harold), sitting at his feet in his dying moments. And a third, again nameless, women is seen leading a child away from a burning building shortly before the battle between the English and Norman armies kicks off in October.

Warriors, women and William of Poitiers

So, on that basis we can assume that this isn’t a story in which women have any part to play. There is no evidence of any women fighting in the battle (though of course, we can speculate about the possible place of warrior women in early medieval society, given the Birka Viking female warrior story). Women feature far less frequently in the documentary sources than their male counterparts, except for a handful of the most elite royal and aristocratic women who appear in wills and land transactions. Queen Edith does get some credit – the Norman William of Poitiers describes her “as a lady endowed with the sagacity of a man, and understanding moral rectitude which she honoured by her life”. (He was explaining how she – very wisely in his view – apparently wanted the English to be ruled over by William after Edward’s death). But that sort of description does rather add grist to the mill that this was a man’s business.

Women played an important role in the story

That this is a solely masculine affair is not true of course. Women played an important role in the story, certainly in the build-up and aftermath, and that’s a theme that was brought out by Dr Emily Joan Ward, when I talked to her for our podcast about the book that she has recently edited, with Professor Laura Ashe, called Conquests in Eleventh-Century England: 1016, 1066. This is a splendid collection of essays looking more broadly at the 11th century, and dwelling on what happened in the earlier, oft overlooked, conquest of England in 1016, by Cnut. You can listen to the podcast interview on our main podcast feed, but we have a made a special bonus edition of the interview, with extra material on 11th-century women and 11th-century slavery.

Cnut’s wily marriage dealings

The 1016 conquest is a complicated story, which you can get chapter and verse on if you listen to the podcast and read the book, but to cut to the chase, Swein Forkbeard, Cnut’s father and king of Denmark, invaded England in 1013, forced the incumbent Anglo-Saxon ruler Aethelred (the Unready) to flee to Normandy and took power for himself. Whether he had time to be actually be crowned king is debated, because he died in 1014. After some twists and turns, Cnut followed his father and became King of England in 1016. Part of the reason that Cnut was able to, eventually, succeed Swein, was that the father was wily in setting up a marriage for his son, as Dr Ward explained:

“One of the things that Swein does that is really crucial for consolidating power is betrothing and then marrying his son Cnut to a wealthy landowning family in Mercia, so that Ælfgifu of Northampton becomes Cnut’s wife. That’s a really important point when you see Swein having knowledge of who he needs to forge alliances with in order to cement his power in England and give himself a better chance of securing the conquest.”

This is just one example of women being crucial in the role of political alliance building (and you can read more about Ælfgifu in Professor Niels Lund’s chapter in the book). But Ælfgifu’s role became more far-reaching, notes Dr Ward:

“She goes on to be very important for the rest of Cnut’s reign as well. He sends her off to rule Norway in his stead with their son, Swein in 1030. And she supports her own son, Harold Harefoot, in his claim [for the English throne] in 1036 after Cnut’s death as well. So women like her are very important, not just for political alliance building, but also for supporting their sons, for ruling alongside or in the stead of their husbands.”

Queen Emma at the centre of political legitimacy

She continues, drawing attention to the chapter on English royal genealogies by Peter Sigurdson Lunga:

“The other prominent women we’re seeing are queens, in particular. Anglo-Saxon queens have shared in royal power as consorts, and that’s a practice you can see throughout the Anglo-Saxon period. So we have Queen Emma, who is wife of Aethelred first and then wife of Cnut, and her role is important both in uniting a sort of Anglo-Norman alliance, but also in her own right as queen. She’s at the centre of political legitimacy in that core 11th century period, and William justifies his own claim to the throne through his blood claim to her as well. She carries on being very significant. And there’s an awareness post-1066 of the debt owed to royal women in particular since royal genealogies, when they’re recording the names of the Kings of England, shift to incorporating women as well.

“That’s a really key shift: this idea that actually there’s a debt owed to succession through the female line, or at least that it’s providing the legitimacy at times of conquest. Women are also very important in patronage and securing ecclesiastical support, in giving gifts to monasteries and abbeys. They move quite freely across Europe because of their marriages, because of exile. And the conquest has a real impact on the lives of women in particular as their husbands, their sons are killed. You see them moving in exile, being banished.”

The woman hiding in the shadows

These women that I’ve talked about above, and the roles they played in the conquest story, are probably reasonably well known to those familiar with the events of 1066 (contrary, of course, to my sensationalist opening paragraphs), but maybe there is one woman hiding in the shadows who hasn’t really been talked about much: Agatha/Agafia, the daughter of Iaroslav I of Kiev (c978-1054). You might think that’s not surprising – why would someone from the easternmost reaches of Europe have anything to do with this story?

Well, she was the mother of Edgar Aetheling, or at least that is what has been argued fairly recently. Edgar Aetheling was the grandson of Edmund Ironside, who himself was the son of Aethelred. Edmund Ironside reigned briefly and jointly in England with Cnut in 1016 (I did say that there were some twists and turns on Cnut’s road to the throne).

Edgar Aetheling was probably born in Hungary sometime in the 1050s. His birthplace was so far removed from England because his father (Edmund Ironside’s son), Edward the Exile, had fled there (or been banished) after Cnut’s accession, and that is where he lived for many years in exile with, if you follow the theory, his mother the Kievan princess. Dr Ward, in her chapter in the Conquests book entitled ‘Child Kings and the Norman Conquest’ considers the role of Agatha, who in her words is “possibly the daughter of Iaroslav I” though she notes, “it is very hard, if not impossible, to trace Agatha’s heritage with any certainty”.


In this lecture recorded at BBC History Magazine’s 2019 History Weekends – and available exclusively on HistoryExtra – art historian and broadcaster Janina Ramirez examines the lives of medieval women who were warriors, rulers, writers, mothers and merchants

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Edgar Aetheling was a contender for the throne of England in 1066. He was, in fact, according to quite a few historians, Edward the Confessor’s chosen successor. He did not succeed Edward in January 1066 however, and nor indeed did he succeed Harold after the battle of Hastings (though one version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle does report that leading nobles and churchmen did recognise Edgar as king after the battle).

Did Agatha’s absence hold Edgar back from the throne?

And this is where we get to the fascinating bit. We don’t know where Agatha was at this point. We are “entirely uninformed of any location or itinerary for Agatha throughout 1066”. We do know that Agatha left the English court in 1068 and went to Scotland, but we don’t know for sure if she was with her son in the crucial invasion year. Dr Ward in her article, outlines several European examples that had “shown that a child king’s initial succession and rule was usually mediated by his mother”. So this was a guardian role that Agatha might have played for Edgar, but one that might have been challenging for her given her lack of connections in the Anglo-Saxon hierarchy. Dr Ward does goes on to mull on the thought that if Agatha had not been in London with Edgar in 1066 when the English magnates raised him as a king, “did her absence ultimately make it impossible for Edgar to succeed, or make the claim too hard to pursue?”

That would put one woman right at the heart of the action in 1066, and serve as a firm reminder that, in the words of Dr Ward, “The conquest is not just about the men on horseback with their swords in battle. It’s also about women and children. It’s about contacts with the continent. And it’s about placing England into a far wider continental context.”

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As a coda, and on that continental context, it’s worth remembering that Anglo-Saxon emigres after the Norman Conquest did pitch up in Europe after 1066, as Dr Caitlin Green pointed out on this website. Also, Elizabeth M Tyler in ‘England in Europe: English Royal Women and Literary Patronage, c.1000–c.1150’ has a great chapter following the lives of the women of 1066 and their connections around Europe. Finally, it’s worth noting that King King Harold’s daughter Gytha married Vladimir Monomakh (d. 1116/1125), prince of Smolensk and (later) of Kiev. So this story of women and Europe stretches both before and after the great battle year of 1066.

David Musgrove is content director at HistoryExtra. He tweets @DJMusgrove. He has written a book, with Professor Michael Lewis, about the Bayeux Tapestry, out in Spring 2021. Read the latest in his medieval matters blog series here