How will these resources help you?

Anglo-Saxon and Norman England are often taught as the struggle for control of England between powerful men, with women appearing almost exclusively as bargaining chips in the alliances between warring families. This is usually explained with reference to the lack of available sources (for example, the Bayeux Tapestry features 626 human figures, of which just three are female). However, sources are scarce and problematic for this period in general, not uniquely for women, which suggests the issue is exclusion rather than lack of evidence. I’ve found that putting women back into the narrative has given me (unsurprisingly) a much better and fuller understanding of key events in Anglo-Saxon and Norman England. To take just one example, the motivation behind Tostig’s promotion to Earl of Northumbria became much clearer when I discovered that he was his sister Edith’s favourite brother – that’s Edith the wife of Edward the Confessor, who gave Tostig the job...

Introducing the individuals

Silk and the Sword: The women of the Norman Conquest

by Sharon Bennet Connolly, published by Amberley, (2018), 9781445678757

A useful introduction to some of the influential women in late Anglo-Saxon and Norman England, Silk and the Sword tells the story of twelve women who played important roles in the Norman Conquest. The chapters on Gytha of Wessex and Edith of Wessex, in particular, provide lots of valuable evidence of the figures’ significance in promoting the image of the monarchy, in negotiations and in navigating the in-fighting between the powerful families of Anglo-Saxon England, Denmark and Normandy. The author skilfully unpicks the complications of Harold Godwinson’s love life, introduces the student-friendly Danish concept of ‘handfasting’, and re-attests the romantic story of Edith Swanneck’s search for Harold’s body amongst the dead at Senlac Hill, near Hastings.

Developing the theme

Matilda: Wife of the Conqueror, First Queen of England

by Tracy Borman, published by Vintage, (2012), 9780099549130

An in-depth but very readable account, with plenty of fascinating details that bring the Norman Conquest to life, Matilda is the first major biography of the wife of William the Conqueror. The author starts by rejecting the idea that a shortage of source materials justifies historians’ neglect of Matilda, referencing instead the ‘staggering array of contemporary records’ that informed this account. As the first woman to be crowned Queen of England, Matilda deserves much more attention than she currently receives. Borman’s book also demonstrates just how important (and interesting) she is as a powerful female figure in Normandy and Norman England: ruler, regent, property owner, patron and fundraiser – William’s invasion could not have got off the ground without her adroit use of spectacle to get Normans to pay up. The portrayal of William’s adoration of Matilda provides students with an essential element of his character, and Borman makes the convincing case that we should admire her precisely for the reasons William did – in Matilda, the Conqueror knew he had met his match!

Discussion focus

'English Women and Norman Men' in The English and the Normans: Ethnic Hostility, Assimilation, and Identity 1066–1220

by Hugh M. Thomas, published by Oxford University Press, (2002), 9780199278862

This chapter of Hugh Thomas’ fascinating book explores the important role of women in the cultural assimilation between the Normans and their English subjects (Thomas refers to ‘queens, wives and mistresses’), which gives us the opportunity to consider with our students an important aspect of the Norman conquest: the willingness of Normans to marry English women. Whether this was because it made it easier for Normans to take control of land or perhaps because of a deliberate policy to help win over the English, it makes for interesting discussions when considering the atmosphere in Norman England and resistance to Norman control.

Audiovisual clip

A History of Britain by Simon Schama - A successful Viking invasion and an introduction to Edward the Confessor

published by BBC, (2008)

This video clarifies some contextual features of the times analysed by the list.
Quiz - student's copy
Test your students' knowledge with these questions on the above clip.
Quiz - teacher's copy
Test your students' knowledge with these questions on the above clip (with answer key).

Further Materials

Why Were Women Written Out of History? by An Interview with Bettany Hughes, published by English Heritage, (2016) Read the interview
Silencing Medieval Women's Voices – Nevertheless, She Persisted by Vanessa Corcoran, published by The Public Medievalist, (2018) Read the blog
Women & Power: A Manifesto by Mary Beard, published by Profile Books, (2017), 9781788160605 Find this book
Medieval Women and War by Sophie Harwood, published by Bloomsbury, (2020), 9781350150409 Find this book
Rob Bircher is an author of KS3, GCSE and A-level History resources. His publications include Pearson’s Anglo-Saxon and Norman England textbook and revision guides for Edexcel GCSE. He works in a school in Hereford.

Text © Rob Bircher, 2020.