Mastodon The Writing Desk: Guest Post by Sharon Bennett Connolly, Author of Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, by

14 December 2018

Guest Post by Sharon Bennett Connolly, Author of Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, by

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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?

The Kievan Connection: First Wife of Harald Hardrada

When I started writing Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest I discovered that there are several Kievan links to the story of 1066. The baby sons of England’s short-lived king, Edmund II Ironside, who reigned and died in 1016, were given sanctuary and protection in Kiev, saving them from the clutches of Edmund’s successor, King Cnut. And after the Conquest, Harold II Godwinson’s own daughter, Gytha, would make her life in Kiev as the wife of Vladimir II Monomakh and was the mother of Mstislav the Great, the last ruler of a united Kievan Rus. Vladimir was the nephew of Harald Hardrada’s first wife, the Russian princess, Elisiv.

Harald Hardrada’s story had been one of almost-constant conflict since he was a teenager. At the age of 15 he had fought alongside his half-brother, King Óláf, at the Battle of Stiklestad, in an unsuccessful attempt by Óláf to regain the throne. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded: ‘This year returned King Óláf into Norway; but the people gathered together against him, and fought against him; and he was there slain, in Norway, by his own people, and was afterwards canonized.’ [1]
Following Olaf’s death, Harald Hardrada first fled to Sweden before moving on to Kievan Rus. Harald spent 3 or 4 years at the court of Yaroslav I the Wise, Prince of Kiev, husband of Óláf’s sister-in-law, Ingergerd (sister of Óláf’s wife, Queen Astrid). At only 15, Harald’s military skills were already impressive and Yaroslav made him a captain in his army; the young Norwegian fought alongside the Kievan prince on his campaigns against the Poles in 1031.

Having gained a reputation that spread throughout eastern Europe, in 1034 or 1035, Harald and his force of 500 men moved on to Constantinople, where he joined the ranks of the Varangian Guard, in the service of the Byzantine emperor, Michael IV (reigned 1034–1041). A formidable warrior and commander, Harald eventually became leader of the whole Varangian guard, seeing action against Arab pirates, and the towns of Asia Minor that supported them. Throughout his adventures in Byzantium, Harald sent his plunder back to Prince Yaroslav in Kiev; treasure which, given the number of towns he had taken, must have been quite considerable.

On the death of Michael IV Constantinople proved a less friendly place for the Scandinavian and after a brief imprisonment and daring escape from his cell, Hardrada decided that it was time to return home. It is said that the new empress, Zoe, refused him permission to leave, but the Norwegian managed to escape Constantinople with two ships and his most loyal supporters. One of the ships was destroyed by the iron chains which blocked the seagoing entrance and exit to Constantinople, but the other made it through by shifting the weight in the ship so that it effectively jumped over the chain. Harald returned to his friend Yaroslav I in Kiev, to whom he had sent his vast amounts of plunder. In 1044, whilst still at Yaroslav’s court, Harald married the Kievan prince’s daughter, Elisiv (also known as Elisiff, Elizabeth or Elizaveta).

Elisiv was born around 1025 and would probably have met Harald when he first appeared at her father’s court as a 15-year-old fugitive from Cnut’s conquest of Norway in 1034–5. Elisiv was probably the oldest daughter of Yaroslav’s eleven children with his wife, Ingegerd. Through her mother, Elisiv was the granddaughter of Sweden’s king, Olof Stötkonung. Her father, Grand Prince Yaroslav, was responsible for the rise in power and influence of Russia in the 11th century; his court was considered modern and cultured. Yaroslav’s children were well-educated and able to read and write, including the girls; Elisiv’s sister, Anna, who married King Henry I of France, demonstrated her superior level of education when she signed her marriage contract with her full name, in her own hand; KingHenry, her new husband, could only manage to write a cross. Although we have no description of Elisiv, we know that Anna was renowned for her ‘exquisite beauty, literacy and wisdom’ and we can assume that Elisiv, having shared in her sister’s upbringing, was no less accomplished. [2]

It is possible that marriage between Harald and Elisiv had been discussed during the Norwegian’s first visit to Kiev in 1030. However, given that she would have only been nine or ten years of age when Harald left for Constantinople, it seems hard to believe the claims that Elisiv had refused him on the grounds that he was not wealthy enough to marry her; her father, on the other hand, may well have done so. This may also explain Harald sending his plunder back to Kiev for safekeeping, as proof of his increasing wealth and eligibility as a husband for Elisiv, even if he still held no princely title and was exiled from his homeland. In 1044, therefore, there was no financial objection to Harald and Elisiv marrying and there is evidence that Harald was genuinely in love with his Russian bride; Harald wrote poetry to his Russian princess:

Past Sicily’s wide plains we flew,
A dauntless, never-wearied crew;
Our Viking steed rushed through the sea,
As Viking-like fast, fast sailed we.
Never, I think, along this shore
Did Norsemen ever sail before;
Yet to the Russian queen, I fear,
My gold-adorned, I am not dear. [3]

With the treasure Harald amassed during his sojourn in Constantinople and Elisiv’s dowry, Harald now had the means to return home. He initially made for Sweden, arriving there in 1046. By the end of the year, he was co-king in Norway, under Magnus the Good, who left Harald to rule Norway while he concentrated on Denmark. The two kings had kept separate courts, Harald’s court in Norway was presided over by his queen, Elisiv. Within a couple of years of arriving in Norway, the couple had two daughters, Ingegerd and Maria Haraldsdóttir. Ingergerd was probably born in 1046, with Maria arriving a year of two after.

Married life, however, was about to get more complicated, when Harald took a second wife, without setting aside Elisiv. According to Snorri Sturluson, in the ‘winter after King Magnus the Good died, King Harald took Thora, daughter of Thorberg Arnason, and they had two sons; the oldest called Magnus, and the other Olaf.’ [4] 

Sharon Bennett Connolly

Footnotes: [1] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; [2] Prominent Russians: Anna Yaroslavna (article),; [3] Quoted in Fulford: The Forgotten Battle of 1066 by Charles Jones; [4] Heimskringla. The Chronicle of the Kings of Norway, by Snorre Sturluson.

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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. Follow Sharon on Facebook and Twitter @Thehistorybits

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