• Laurel A. Rockefeller

Margaret of Wessex: 1066 from her point of view

1066. Say that date and for most people one event instantly comes to mind: The Battle of Hastings (actually fought near a village called "Battle"). Thanks to the Bayeaux Tapestry depicting the first ten months of 1066, most of us learn, at some point, how the death of King Edward the Confessor of England triggered a succession crisis whose ultimate resolution came when William Duke of Normandy invaded England with his Norman knights to defeat King Harold II Godwinson on 16 October, 1066. It's an exciting and very male-dominated tale of battles and English heroism leading to tragedy, tyranny, and the rise of the legendary folk hero, Robin Hood.

But men alone did not live these events nor did they primarily affect men's lives. As with so much history, the experiences of women, even royal and noble women, get left out of the narrative. What is the place of women in stories filled with gory medieval battles where two handed swords are chopping off limbs in desperate melees?

Margaret did not personally fight at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire on 25 September against the invading Norwegian forces of King Harold Hardada and his brother Tostig. She was not part of King Harold II Godwinson's defenders who, fresh from their victory in Yorkshire, marched nearly 300 miles to meet Duke William of Norman forces. As a woman, she had a different experience from the soldiers who bled and died on the battlefield -- unlike her granddaughter Empress Matilda of England who personally led men into battle in the civil war remembered to us as "The Anarchy." English women in the 11th century rarely took up arms themselves except in personal self-defense of their homes.

This does not, however, invalidate Margaret's experiences -- or that of any other woman for that matter.

In fact, simply by being a direct descendant of King Æthelred II the Unread and his first wife Ælfgifu of York (a Saxon, unlike the king's Norman second wife Emma), put Margaret in grave danger. Margaret, along with older sister Cristina and younger brother Edgar were the last of the Saxon royal family to hold entirely Saxon blood. As shown in the early chapters of "Margaret of Wessex," the rival Earls of Wessex derived their power from Danish King Sweyn Forkbeard and his son, King Canute III in their struggle against King Æthelred II and eldest son (and Margaret's grandfather), King Edmund II, that would consume the last 50 years of "Saxon" English rule. Margaret's direct descent from King Alfred the Great made her politically dangerous to each of the men who claimed, by blood or conquest, the crown of England.

This then is where her story really picks up. The half-Norman King Edward the Confessor discovered the survival of his half-brother Edmund's line and summons Prince Edward (the Exile), his German/Hungarian wife Agatha, and their three precious and politically dangerous children to his capitol in Winchester in January, 1057. Though offered great hospitality, the three children become de facto political hostages. When the Witan chooses King Harold II Godwinson as Edward the Confessor's heir (over Prince Edgar "Ǣtheling," a title meaning "prince and heir"), the now adult girls are retained as hostages in addition to Edgar Ǣtheling for his direct claim to the throne and potential to challenge Harold for the throne. Though unlikely to be chosen queen sovereign by the Witan, both Harold Godwinson and Duke William of Normandy treated Margaret as an equal threat to their power. Being a woman didn't spare Margaret this cruelty. If anything, she suffered more for being female.

Despite the Code of Chivalry espoused by William and his Norman nobles in England, women were not safe from sexual harassment and sexual violence. As a Saxon princess and valuable political hostage, Margaret was always in danger of being raped or married off to a man of the king's choosing who would not bother to ask for her consent in sexual matters. It was a vulnerable position that would make any woman afraid for her life. Fortunately for Margaret, her early love of learning and passionate Roman Catholicism armored her with the knowledge and political skills needed to defend herself. Margaret could not defend herself with a sword, but she could, as so many noblewomen did, defend herself with diplomacy, and with a keen intelligence sharpened through education.

Margaret's experiences and her point of view provide for us a very different experience of the Norman Conquest and of the years leading up to 1066. Through Margaret we see the complexities of life in 11th century Europe and realize that this was a time of great transition across many spheres of life. It was a very dangerous time for women and men of all nationalities, places of birth, social classes, economic positions, and religions. This was the time where Celtic Christianity was replaced by Roman Catholicism -- in large part due to Margaret herself. Languages were blending. English was moving to a language we recognize and speak today. The languages of Dalriada in Argyll and the Picts of Alba were merging too. And because of Margaret of Wessex, English was heard in Alba's capitol, Dunfermline.

Margaret was a witness if not direct participant in all of this. She experienced the great events of 11th century England and Alba (Scotland) as few did. Her life is a window into the complexities of a time we usually gloss over and simplify. I for one prefer the real story with all its many colors and dynamics. It's one more reason why we need to learn more about history-changing women, the Legendary Women of World History.

Read more about Margaret in "Margaret of Wessex: Mother, Saint, and Queen of Scots."

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