Monday, January 6, 2014

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: The Handfasted Wife by Carol McGrath

I don’t recall where I first saw mention of The Handfasted Wife by Carol McGrath, but I’m grateful to whoever it was that made me aware of the book. This is a novelized account of the life of Edith Swanneck, the wife (first wife, hand-fasted according to old custom, but not recognized by the Church because they were cousins) of Harold Godwin (or Godwinson). Harold was the unfortunate short-term king of England who was defeated by William the Conqueror at Hastings in 1066. It sounded right up my alley and, at the time, it was available on kindle for the delightfully low price of $2.99 so I couldn’t resist downloading it onto my ipad. (It is currently a steal on kindle at $0.99! I don’t know how long that will last.)

I had my ipad with me on my trip so that I wouldn’t have to pack extra books. When I finished Oliver Wiswell I still had a couple hours of flying to go. Inspired by our trip to Battle Abbey and the fields of Battle near Hastings, I knew it was time to read The Handfasted Wife.
My son at the memorial where Harold fell in Battle.

My son, my husband and me in front of the battlefield at Battle.

Edith (Elditha) and her husband, Harold, along with their brood of children, meet up at King Edward’s Christmas court at Westminster in 1065. It’s not a happy time. Edward is dying. He has no son, so whispers abound about the succession. The most prominent name is Harold’s. However, it is also known that Harold has sworn on holy relics to support Duke William of Normandy (William the Bastard) who claims the throne should be his. Harold did swear to support him, but he’s a bit vague on what he meant by "support." And there are other claimants as well, perhaps with more valid claims, but too young to be a real threat.

Elditha is worried. She doesn’t particularly want her husband to push himself forward as king. They are comfortable as they are. Mainly, she recognizes the precariousness of her own situation. She is a handfasted wife. They made their vows according to an old custom. The Church would not marry them because they are cousins. They have had a long, loving, passionate marriage. She has given him many healthy, strong sons and daughters. She is wealthy and beautiful. But there is a young widow from the north, with brothers whose political support Harold will need. This woman is also attending Christmas court and Harold is paying far too much attention to her.

Edward dies. Harold is chosen for successor. Harold confesses that he has arranged to marry the northern widow and put Elditha aside. He offers her an estate, Reredfelle, as a retreat where he can still come to her. His new wife will be a political expedient only. Elditha is the woman he loves.

Despite her broken heart, she tries to maintain her dignity and do what is best for her children. She moves to Reredfelle and rebuilds it into a fine estate. Harold’s visits are infrequent, but they are able to retain something of their past relationship. Of course, it doesn’t last.

This is the setup for what we know must come next.

Duke William invades England. Harold is killed at the Battle of Hastings. Elditha, along with the other noblewomen of the extended family, have to do what they can to survive and accommodate to the new regime. The Normans are ruthless and determined to stamp out any resistance and to absorb the wealth of the English nobility for themselves.

Although there is little factual information about what happened to Elditha, McGrath takes the snippets that are known and weaves a richly satisfying story about a brave, determined woman, loyal to the warrior king she loved. The characters are well developed. The plot is engrossing. The historical detail is transportive. I love books like this, and highly recommend The Handfasted Wife.

This is book two for the Historical Fiction Challenge. Check out the 2014 challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this lovely review which I have just discovered. Oh, that battlefield! So familiar and I must say there were many director cuts in this story. The Swan-Daughter is currently in the editing phase and should be out in May. Take a peep at Daughters of Hastings on facebook too. Lots more there. I am so glad you enjoyed the story.