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 – Godfrey of Cambrai, prior of Winchester Cathedral (1082-1107)
Edith of Wessex was born c. 1025, the eldest daughter of Godwin, Earl of Wessex, and his wife Gytha. Her family was a formidable one: Godwin was one of the most powerful men in England, while Gytha was the sister-in-law of Cnut.
She was raised at Wilton Abbey, which she later had rebuilt as a sign of gratitude. There she learned Latin, French, Danish, and some Irish as well as grammar, rhetoric, arithmetic, weaving, embroidery, and astronomy. There is little else we know about her early life apart from her education, but she seems to have been especially close to her brother Tostig.
Edith’s father, Godwin, had a troubled relationship with King Edward the Confessor because Edward believed that Godwin was responsible for the death of his brother. Even so, Godwin was the most powerful man in England and Edward needed his support, and so married Edith at Godwin’s behest on 23 January 1045.
The relationship does not seem to have been a particularly romantic one. They were 20 or so years apart in age and he disliked her family, but all the same she had some influence and it was said that she always advised Edward wisely, and did a lot to improve his kingly image.
In 1051, Godwin and Edward’s relationship significantly deteriorated. Rather than risk arrest, Godwin fled the country with his sons. Edith was sent to a nunnery and all her lands confiscated, perhaps because he didn’t like her, thought they had little hope of conceiving together and wished to remarry, or simply wanted to get revenge on her father. The next year Godwin returned to England and civil war looked likely, but Edward lacked support and was forced to restore Godwin’s lands to him and reinstate Edith as Queen.
Though the two were still unable to have children (probably not because Edward had taken a vow of chastity, as is often said), Edith’s influence as Queen grew, as is shown by the increase in the amount of charters she witnessed, and she joined the circle of Edward’s most trusted advisers.
In 1055, Edith’s brother, Tostig, became Earl of Northumbria but his rule was hugely unpopular and 10 years later the local Northumbrian population rebelled, killing Tostig’s officials and outlawing him, asking instead to be ruled by a member of the leading Mercian family. There is some evidence that many of the Northumbrian people viewed Edith as complicit in Tostig’s tyranny, and indeed it’s likely that she herself had one of Tostig’s political enemies assassinated. Finally, one of Edith’s other brothers, Harold was sent to deal with the matter. He agreed to the rebels demands, depriving Tostig of his earldom, and Tostig, who fled to Flanders, never forgave Harold, nor did Edith.
On 5 January 1066, Edward the Confessor died, leaving Edith’s brother as King Harold II. The main chronicle on Edward’s reign, commissioned by Edith herself, actually attempts to discredit Harold’s claim, showing the extent of the rift between the siblings. Some historians, such as James Campbell, even believe that Edith was in personal danger from Harold, who wanted to placate the still restless Northumbrians by treating Edith harshly.
Harold successfully fought off Norwegian invaders that year at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, in which Tostig died fighting on the side of the Norwegians. Edith’s reaction is not recorded, but it is easy to imagine that she must have been heartbroken. Harold’s next major battle, the Battle of Hastings, was fought against William, Duke of Normandy. Harold and 2 of Edith’s other brothers died that day, and William was proclaimed King.
William sent men to Winchester to demand tribute from Queen Edith and she willingly complied. As a result, William allowed her to keep all her estates and income. Following this, Edith lived a comfortable life and when she died on 18 December 1075, she was recorded as the richest woman in England. She was laid to rest next to her husband in Winchester Cathedral and given a funeral befitting a queen.
As with so many women in history, Edith is often overlooked, but we have much to thank her for. Because she commissioned the Vita Edwardi Regis, she is responsible for much of the information we have on this period, and art historian Carola Hicks even suggests that she commissioned the Bayeaux Tapestry. Regardless of whether this theory is true, Edith is a person worth remembering. She was strong, determined, and loving, though some of her more corrupt actions are utterly deplorable. Nonetheless, her influence and contribution to Edward the Confessor’s reign is not one that should be forgotten.