Monday, September 22, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Swan-Daughter by Carol McGrath

Over this past Christmas break, my family went to England on vacation and one of the sights we saw was Battle Abbey and the fields at Battle where King Harold fell to William the Conqueror in 1066. On the plane ride home, I read Carol McGrath’s transportive novel, The Handfasted Wife. This was the story of Harold’s first wife Edith (Elditha) Swanneck. It is first rate historical fiction and I recommend it highly. I’ve been waiting for McGrath’s follow-up novel, which was recently released.

The Swan-Daughter follows the life of Gunnhild, daughter of Elditha and King Harold. Following
Harold’s defeat, his young sons scattered to various foreign courts while the noble ladies (wives, widows, daughters, mothers) took refuge in convents. Gunnhild was brought up in Wilton Abbey. The church is anxious to keep her there, to keep hold of the lands that were once her mother’s and might, conceivably come to her as an inheritance. However, Gunnhild has no calling and dreams of escaping.

An opportunity arises from an unlikely corner. Count Alan, a powerful knight from Brittany, an enemy of her father who once courted her very beautiful and wealthy mother, appears with a proposal and a plan. He wants her to elope with him.

There are definite risks. It will anger the church and most likely the king, who has not given the count approval for the politically risky wedding. But Count Alan has always been a strong supporter of the king and believes his continuing loyalty will win over the king in the end.

Gunnhild is desperate enough to agree. They elope. He whisks her off to Brittany, wooing her along the way. She is taken with him. At first. Until reality begins to set in. The more she learns about her husband, the more she questions his reasons for wedding her. He wants her lands. He wants an heir. But does he love her? She wants to be loved–and that is something he has no time or inclination to provide.

Gunnhild is the lady of the castle. She is the one who presides while her husband is off serving the king during his never-ending wars. She grows into her role, finding her strength and power within the confines of her own domain, a subtle rebellion against the husband who wants complete control.

Again, McGrath has brought to life a forgotten woman from a distant time and place. Facts from this period may be sparse, particularly facts about women, but the author uses what information is known to weave an emotionally gripping love story and very satisfying tale.

The Swan-Daughter is book two of The Daughters of Hastings trilogy, so now I’m eagerly awaiting book three.

This is my 17th book for the Historical Fiction Challenge hosted by Historical Tapestry.


  1. So my question is: did this really happen? Not the feelings and details of dialog and incident, but did Harold have a daughter named Gunnhild who eloped from a convent with Count Alan from Brittany? I assume so?

    1. The author's note at the end delves into what is fact in the story. Harold did have a daughter named Gunnhild who was sent to Wilton and she did elope with Count Alan. The details are sketchy and the author's note elaborates on the little known from the historical record. I think the author does a really nice job of creating a plausible story out of the little that is actually known, but it's probably pretty loosely created- just because there is so little recorded about women from those times.

  2. Yes it really did happen. I researched in the Bodlean in Oxford extensively. I explain the documentation in the editorial note. Now of course it did not necessarily happen as I wrote it. But there were letters between Archbishop Anselm and Gunnhild suggesting she took up with Alan's brother after his death. There is also the Domesday Book that shows Alan got many of her mother's lands. He was cousin to King William. And yes Gunnhild was in Wilton Abbey. Also Christina is a real person who ended up in Romsey Abbey as Abess. I hope this helps.