Across Devon Lands Looking towards Literature post Saxon Queens

Across Devon Lands 
Looking towards Literature post Saxon Queens

Exeter Castle
from Rougemont Gardens

       It's the height of the events following the Norman invasion and Gytha, widow of Earl Godwin of Wessex, mother of King Harold, accompanied by her younger daughter Gunhild, and possibly also her other daughter Edith, along with 'many distinguished man's wives',[i] is being rowed away from Exeter's water-gate, down the river Exe and away from the town. Gytha’s party may include other escapees, such as Edith of Swanneck (who was, effectively, Harold’s widow), who'd gathered to Gytha’s support in defence against William. Escaping William the Conqueror's attacking army, and said to be 'focus of resistance to the Normans at Exeter',[ii] Gytha's party eventually reach Flatholm, or Steepholm, in the Bristol Channel and from there, are soon launched into France. From there on, their trail goes cold.

     Gytha Godwin's connections with Devon and, especially with Exeter, have left a contrail of rumour and intrigue and, though some believe that following her escape she reached Flanders and stayed there for years, Gytha’s fate remains unknown. One theory has her escaping with a hoard of treasure, and another suggests that she returned to the place where so much of the family estate remained, the South West. 

     Gytha must have revelled in her extensive lands lying spread-eagled over Devon, including some in mid-Devon, around North and South Tawton; reaching out west from Exeter, they were the Godwin's dynasty Westcountry base.[iii] As with so many other royal Saxon women linked with Devon’s history, Gytha’s life has descended into one of the dark ‘Her/storical’ holes, although there are glimpses of her movements transcribed within the manuscripts of contemporary texts, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. Though repetitive, these tell of her escape from the besieged town. Sometimes she steps boldly out of the page. Occasionally, another, later historian brings her alive: 

Where the prosperous town of Weston now stands the sad eyes of Gytha must often have dwelt on the long line of hill and sea that stretched on – on into the unknown void where none then dreamed of America[iv]

       Accounts of Gytha's associations with the South West focus on the more dramatic events of the Exeter siege, Gytha’s founding of several important churches, or on her extensive land holdings in the region. They don't mention literature. But, like her royal predecessors Elfrida, Emma and Edith, Gytha's origins were from within kin-group networks of richly literary minded people. I picture her with a circle of kinswomen actively engaged in contemporary literary activity, such as the reading circle gathered around The Exeter Book's texts.[v] In my imaginary virtual Saxon reinvention, unlike those of Gunhild, her youngest daughter, who it is known ended her life as celibate nun in Bruges, Gytha's bones rest in a graveyard on land which was at the heart of her Devon estates.[vi]

Exeter Castle
from Rougemont Gardens

     Gytha Godwin's entrance to the Devon story by means of her hasty departure from Exeter, symbolically handed over her rights (and w/rites) to the powerful new royal regime. Nevertheless, the long-line of female consorts holding Devon land continued during the Anglo-Norman period. Following the conquest, and some-while after Gytha had slipped out of Exeter to find freedom, William the Conqueror’s consort Matilda of Flanders (nicknamed Countess Godeva), was presented with many acres of Devonshire ground, including Sandford manor.[vii] Matilda's association with Devon territory not only marked her status, but also established the turning-point transition from royal Anglo-Saxon to Norman women. 

     Following the ancestral lines and traditions of her foremothers, Queen Matilda’s goddaughter and daughter-in-law (another) Matilda of Scotland, Matilda II (1080-1118) (also known as Edith of Dunfermline) and first wife of Henry I (son of William I and Matilda of Flanders), kept a close association with Exeter.[viii] Celebrated after bestowing the town's freedom on its citizens, she

instantly laboured the kyng’s grace and gate the libertez of the citie to the maire, balifs and commualtie agayne: for that good dede your suppliants kepe a obbite yerely for the said quene.[ix]

      Descended from the ancient royal Wessex family through her mother Margaret, the great great granddaughter of the legendary Aelfthryth/Elfrida, whose family had founded Tavistock Abbey, Matilda II kept up her foremothers' passion for learning and culture; from a very early age she was famed for understanding her letters and later became an exemplary literary patron. She filled her court with musicians and poets and commissioned a biography about her mother Margaret, in which Margaret is depicted as pious and highly literate.[x] It is said that Matilda expressed curiosity about her family history and commissioned a genealogical chart from the monks of Malmesbury. I like to picture this queen as curious about the western district near the moors; she may even have visited the homelands of her forefathers and foremothers[xi]...

[i] Richard Huscruft, The Norman Conquest; A New Introduction (Routledge, 2009). 282.
[ii] Ibid., 282.
[iii] Gytha had founded a community of canons at Exeter dedicated to St Olaf, and several churches such as Hartland Abbey, in the north of the county, following the tradition of other of her age's earlier women royal consorts.
[iv] Mrs Clay-Finch, A Mother of Men; The Countess Gytha, Transactions of the Devonshire Association, 46, 1914, 346-358.
[v] The queen consorts' vast estate holdings would have necessitated various manuscript transactions, with concomitant land charters to watch over and write.
[vi] Gunhild, Gytha’s daughter, probably escaped from Exeter with her mother, in 1067. Relics of Gunhild left at Bruges cathedral included a Psalter, later named Gunhild’s Psalter, the Latin of which had been glossed over with Anglo-Saxon. Gunhild, probably sufficiently proficient at Latin may have been able to translate her own manuscripts. One can picture the young noblewoman seated somewhere within the Godwin’s Exeter residence, or in a local convent, as she read such texts, accompanied by other women of her family.
[vii] Her land included Sandford manor, which Matilda is said to have presented to a confidante or servant named Muriel upon her marriage to Roger of Bully, Winkleigh (Wincheleie); Bichentone (High Bickington); the manor of Morcet (Morchard Bishop), and Northam.
[viii] Two thirds of Exeter’s tolls were a major source of Matilda II's income, as were the ‘monies’ and ‘customaries’ of Lifton. One Tavistock charter records that she granted the church of Tavistock the ‘odditriew’ and ‘one arm of rye', which were revenues from her income at Lifton.
[ix] Lois L. Huneycutt, Matilda of Scotland: A Study in Medieval Queenship (Boydell Press, 2003), 86.
[x] Matilda II reigned during a period of supreme high learning, a period some call the 'Twelve Century Renaissance'.
[xi] During a time-span when a crash-course outlining the historical milestones, confirms that events, even for the era following the Norman invasion, were turbulent, daughter of Matilda II (yet another named Matilda), became figurative ‘pig in the middle', or 'queen in a king's world', of power struggles between rival male factions. With the background constant strife that purveyed her times (when literary ventures went below the radar), I don't see Empress Matilda as having had time or energy to devote to learning in the way some of her foremothers evidently did. However, with her valid claim to the throne this Matilda did take central stage for a while, after the death of her father Henry I, and down in Devon Matilda always had great support from her Exeter citizens, whilst the Earl of Devon garrisoned Exeter castle in her name. Meanwhile, others of her family kin had homes in the vicinity, so, Matilda, like her mother, might have had a soft spot for the family's ancestral lands down in Devon.


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