The Handfasted Wife
‘Moving, and vastly informative, a real page turner of a historical novel.’ Fay Weldon
The Handfasted Wife is the story of the Norman Conquest from the perspective of Edith (Elditha) Swanneck, Harold’s common-law wife. She is set aside for a political marriage when Harold becomes king in 1066. Determined to protect her children’s destinies and control her economic future, she is taken to William’s camp when her estate is sacked on the eve of the Battle of Hastings. She later identifies Harold’s body on the battlefield and her youngest son becomes a Norman hostage.
Elditha avoids an arranged marriage with a Breton knight by which her son might or might not be given into his care. She makes her own choice and sets out through strife-torn England to seek help from her sons in Dublin. However, events again overtake her.
Harold’s mother, Gytha, holds up in her city of Exeter with other aristocratic women, including Elditha’s eldest daughter. The girl is at risk, drawing Elditha back to Exeter and resistance. Initially supported by Exeter’s burghers the women withstand William’s siege. However, after three horrific weeks they negotiate exile and the removal of their treasure. Elditha takes sanctuary in a convent where eventually she is reunited with her hostage son. This is an adventure story of love, loss, survival and reconciliation.
Carol McGrath taught History and English for many years in secondary schools and the private sector. She left teaching to work on a MA in Creative Writing at Queens University Belfast and went on to enrol for an MPhil at Royal Holloway, London. There she developed expertise in the middle ages. The idea to tell the story about the death of King Harold told from the viewpoint of his common law wife, Edith Swanneck, first came to her on a visit to Bayeux with the Launton/Gavray Twinning Society, which she chaired. She is married with two children and runs a business with her husband. She also reviews books for the Historical Novels Review.
Her women clutched each other, weeping. They could hear people dragging trestles across the flagstones in the hall. Soldiers began banging on the great front door.
Ulf clung to his mother’s hand.
Elditha said, ‘I’m going down.’
He snatched at her skirt with his other small hand. For a moment she froze, afraid for them all. Determination crept back into her voice, ‘Margaret, hold on to Ulf.’ She handed him to the nurse and pulled her cloak about her shoulders.
The calls continued. ‘Putain, putain!’ And in English, they bellowed, ‘Harold’s whore, come out.’ Holding her head high, she walked down the staircase into the crowd of servants, men, women and children who had already sought the shelter of the hall.
Children huddled behind pillars. Others clung to their mothers. Everyone turned to watch her pass. She saw her linen table covers in a heap amongst rushes on the flagstones. Wooden bowls had toppled from trestles which had been dragged away to make barricades. Dogs whimpered and cowered in corners.
Again and again, their chant penetrated the great door, ‘Concubine, concubine, come out.’ Guthlac ordered the men to pull more trestles against the door. Brother Francis sank against a pillar crying, shaking and sweating and holding aloft a great wooden cross that hung around his neck. There wasn’t a fighting man left in the hall.
‘Are they all out there?’ she said.
‘There’s none of them in here!’ Guthlac exclaimed. ‘Go back up to your women, my lady.’
She pushed him aside. ‘Let me through, Guthlac, and Brother Francis, too.’
Guthlac glanced past her to the priest. ‘Some luck that one will bring!’
A firebrand of rushes was shot into an opening; another and another and another. Hangings caught fire. Everyone began running. They tried to beat out the fire with linen cloths. More and more burning torches flew through window openings. The villagers ran along the wall beating at flames but to no avail. The flames took hold and snatched at banners, devouring them in a red-and-gold blaze.
‘Look out for the shields!’ Guthlac yelled and pulled Elditha towards him.
A shield with a great dragon painted on it came crashing down. The fire raced, eating into tapestries and hangings as it flew. Children were pulled from chests and clasped close to their mothers. Hounds went mad, barking and growling, snapping, wildly shaking the bells on their collars. Everyone coughed and spluttered as smoke rose in the hall. Those who could lay their hands on a ladle or a pitcher ran back and forth from the vat that stood by the central hearth. They hurled water at the flames. It was hopeless.
Flames grasped at Elditha’s swan pennant and Harold’s warrior, swallowing feathered bird and fighting man. Small fires began to flare up, catching at the straw strewn over the flagstones. Smoke thickened in dark, suffocating plumes.
Elditha’s ladies hurried down the stairway clutching veils over their faces. They ran with the crowd to the entrance. Elditha screamed at Guthlac. ‘Let my ladies out.’ Then she cried, ‘Where is my son?’
An assured debut...
McGrath’s research into the medieval quotidian is superb, and beautifully translated into a pastoral fiction in the tradition of Hardy.
Like Hardy, she manages, with deceptive charm, to convey a brutal message about women’s lot.... much more than a good read.
"This is an era and a family that I can't get enough of reading and the author surely did them justice... Carol McGrath has done impeccable research and is so very knowledgeable on these troubled times."
"Carol McGrath has done a fabulous job of bring this important time in English history to life. Through her vivid and excellent writing she transports the reader back to the tumultuous clash of two very different societies and cultures, Saxon and Norman." - 5*