The aftermath of 1066 – and the transport of princes and princesses

Published 04th Aug 2008

Professor Niels Lund tells us more about the ousted English royal family and their options with regard to crossing the North Sea.

Harold Godwinson was King of England in 1066 from January to October. When he lost to William the Conqueror at the battle of Hastings, his family sought refuge and help from the Irish king Diarmait mac Máel na mBó of Leinster in the south-eastern corner of Ireland. His father had also sought refuge here when he was driven out of England in 1051. His mother, Gyda, entrenched in Exeter at first, but was ousted from there and ended in St Omer in Flanders.

His sons tried to resist William for some years, but ended in Flanders too. From there, two sons and a daughter travelled to Denmark, where Sven Estridsen sent fleets to England in support of William’s opponents in both 1069 and 1075. We hear nothing more of the sons, but the daughter, Gytha, married Vladimir Monomach, Grand Duke of Kiev. They had a son, known both under the name Mstislav and in Norse sources as Harald; he married Christina, daughter of the Swedish king Inge the Elder and sister to King Niels’ queen, Margareta. Mstislav and Christina’s daughter Ingeborg married Knud Lavard and was mother to Valdemar the Great. Her sister, Malmfred, was first married to the Norwegian king, Sigurd Jorsalfar (1103-30), and later to the Danish Erik Emune (1134-37).

With this in mind, when it was discovered that the big warship from the Skuldelev blockage had probably been built in Ireland and had been in service at the time, the thought immediately suggested itself that this might have been the very ship in which Harold’s two sons and his daughter came from Flanders to Denmark – and once such a possibility has been named often enough with no mention of alternatives, most people end up accepting it as a fact.

The Sea Stallion, the reconstruction of that Irish warship, has now sailed a couple of long trips to and from Dublin, and the experience gives us reason to ask: Would they really have used this type of ship for the transport of prices and princesses, no matter how fatherless they were. The accounts of the crew give the impression that it is first and foremost perishingly cold on board and that the level of comfort bears comparison with that of a submarine. Surely they could find a more comfortable ship for such transport!

The Skuldelev-2 ship might, of course, have been a part of the convoy, for they would hardly have sent just one ship – if they chose the sea route from Flanders at all. But Harold’s children were not the only English people who ended in Denmark after the defeat in 1066. One Eadric, who was helmsman on Edward the Confessor’s ship, also fled to Denmark. He was a thane in Norfolk and a benefactor of the St Benet’s Abbey, Holme, which probably provided the royal ship and whose abbot, Aelfweald, had served in King Harold’s coast guard against William and also had to seek refuge in Denmark. Could it be the English royal ship itself that ended in the channel at Skuldelev?

Created by Professor Niels Lund at the SAXO Institute, University of Copenhagen