12 November 2018

Book Review: Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, by Sharon Bennett Connolly


Available for pre-order from Amazon UK and Amazon US

Harold II of England had been with Edith Swanneck for twenty years but in 1066, in order to strengthen his hold on the throne, he married Ealdgyth, sister of two earls. William of Normandy’s Duchess, Matilda of Flanders, had supposedly only agreed to marry the Duke after he’d pulled her pigtails and thrown her in the mud. Harald Hardrada had two wives – apparently at the same time. So, who were these women? What was their real story? And what happened to them after 1066?


One of the many things I learned from Sharon Bennett Connolly’s new book is there are six hundred and twenty six people depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry, but only three are women. One is Edward the Confessor’s queen, Edith of Wessex, one is a woman fleeing from a burning house - and the third is an intriguing ‘mystery woman’, who has been the subject of much debate by historians.

I mention this because it touches in the central theme of Silk and the Sword, which is how little is known about the women involved in the build-up to the Norman Conquest. It has taken much detective work to sort out the few known facts from the many myths. It hasn’t helped that even the names of these women are debated and records of the time (including the famous tapestry) focus on the men.

Sharon Bennett Connolly begins with what she calls ‘the triumvirate’ of remarkable women from before the Norman invasion. I knew about Emma of Normandy – but suspected that most of what I know about Lady Godiva was wrong. Although she is arguably the most famous of the Anglo-Saxon women, her name was probably Godgifu. As for her famous naked ride, it’s no surprise that every retelling becomes more embellished in the fashion of the time.

For me, the most fascinating story is that of Gytha of Wessex, mother of an ill-fated dynasty. (Her father, the wonderfully named Thorgils Sprakaleg, was said to have been descended from the union of a bear and a Swedish maiden.) Gytha's life seems to have been an amazing saga of wealth and war, privilege and tragedy. As with all these women, I have the feeling that Sharon could have written a whole book about each of them. I am certainly inspired to find out more. Highly recommended.

Tony Riches

Disclosure: A review copy of this book was kindly provided by Amberley Publishing

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About the Author

Sharon Bennett Connolly was born in Yorkshire and studied at University in Northampton before working at Disneyland in Paris and Eurostar in London. She has been fascinated by history for over thirty years and has worked as a tour guide at historical sites, including Conisbrough Castle. Best known for her fascinating blog History ... the Interesting Bits she began focusing on medieval women and in 2016 her first non-fiction book, Heroines of the Medieval World was published by Amberley Publishing. Sharon is now writing her second non-fiction book, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, which will be published by Amberley in late 2018. Follow Sharon on Facebook and Twitter @Thehistorybits


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