When I first moved to St. Leonards-on-sea nearly 8 years ago, I used to pass a dirty statue in a park close to the beach, feeling very sorry for itself and which had obviously suffered the ravages of time and the weather. It was very difficult to see what was going on, but at first sight it looked like a woman astride a man, trying to strangle him. As it seemed unlikely that this was celebrating some form of perverse sexual activity (although anything is possible in St.Leonards), I investigated further.
We are living, of course, in 1066 country (which is impossible to forget, as it is signposted on every road leading into the area) and my strange statue turned out to be that of a distraught woman lifting the head of Harold on the battlefield. The woman in question was Edith Swan-neck and this story is about her, rather than her more famous husband.
Living in the area, you find it impossible to ignore the one date in English history that every schoolboy knows, 1066. However, since my arrival, many of my preconceptions have been upended – I had always been told that Harold had been killed by an arrow in his eye, but this turns out to be unlikely, the story perpetuated by that early purveyor of fake news, the Bayeux Tapestry.
Anyway, back to Edith Swan-neck otherwise known as Eadgifu Swanneshals and Edith the Fair. She was, I have it on good authority, a great beauty with that quality of pale white skin that was so popular in the Middle Ages, hence the swan-neck. She was a wealthy and powerful landowner of Anglo-Danish heritage and was the great love of Harold’s life, having been together for 20 years. They had been been married ‘More Danico’ (in the Danish manner), a pre Christian form of marriage and had six children.
Unfortunately for Edith, in 1065 just prior to the famous battle of Hastings, Harold went through a Christian marriage of convenience to the daughter of a Welsh King, which was obviously bad news for Edith. However, this was all very short lived, for as we all know by October 1066, Harold lay dead on the battlefield and as Harold dies so begins Edith’s fame.
The main source of Edith’s story was from the 12th century Waltham Chronicles, which narrates how the monks at Waltham Abbey in Essex had searched for Harold’s body on the battlefield without success and how they had then enlisted Edith in the search. Together with the monks she trekked barefoot down to the battlefield and amongst the bloodied corpses, she eventually recognised Harold by the teeth mark scars on his shoulder, as a result of a particularly passionate bout of lovemaking. Harold was then transported back to Waltham Abbey by the monks for a Christian burial.
This is the stuff of legend, but it was not until the 19th Century that the legend took flight, under the guiding hands of the Romantics. The themes of battle, gruesome death and undying love were just the sort thing that stirred the romantic soul and the German poet Heinrich Heine was no exception. Heine was famous in his home country, for his lyric poems, which were frequently set to music by those arch romantic composers Schubert and Schumann.
The story of Harold and Edith stirred Heine’s fevered imagination and, as a result, he wrote his epic poem ‘The Battlefield at Hastings’. The poem is quite long and to my mind, a bit overwrought, but that maybe a result of this particular translation. Here are some of the closing lines below, giving a taste of the style:-
“The woman stopped not for the blood;
She waded barefoot through,
And from her fixed and staring eyes
The arrowy glances flew.
Long, with the panting monks behind,
And pausing but to scare
The greedy ravens from their food,
She searched with eager care.
She searched and toiled the livelong day,
Until the night was nigh;
Then sudden from her breast there burst
A shrill and awful cry.
For on the battle-field at last
His body she had found.
She kissed, without a tear or word,
The wan face on the ground.
She kissed his brow, she kissed his mouth,
She clasped him close, and pressed
Her poor lips to the bloody wounds
That gaped upon his breast.
His shoulder stark she kisses too,
When, searching, she discovers
Three little scars her teeth had made
When they were happy lovers.”
So this is the story with all its melodrama and passion, but what of the statue. This was commissioned by famous Hastings resident, Lord Brassey, Liberal MP, Explorer, Philanthropist and much more in the 1870s and completed by the renowned sculptor Charles Wilke in 1875 in white Carrara marble. It has had various homes over the years, but finally came to rest in West Marina Gardens over 60 years ago, since when it has deteriorated due to the weather and pollution. Carrara marble is not made to withstand the elements.
And so this was how I found the statue, when I first set eyes on it. Luckily there were many people in Hastings and St. Leonards who had treasured the statue long before I knew of its existence. In particular, a local Historian Ian Jarman launched a one man campaign to rescue Edith and has, with the aid of volunteers and fundraising, within the last month restored Edith and Harold to almost its original glory .Link to article in Hastings in Focus
These are some recent photographs following the restoration and cleaning plus the addition of a plaque; more work will still be required to protect the statue in years to come, but this is already a great improvement.
Other than this statue, there is no other memorial in Hastings, to one of the defining events in British history. Edith, once a forgotten footnote in the history of England can once more take her rightful place next to the side of Harold, the last Anglo-Saxon king of England.