The Handfasted Wife by Carol McGrath

A beautifully spun historical yarn with multiple layers of fact interwoven with just enough fictional adornment to produce an utterly engrossing story.

Handfasted Wife is the script equivalent of the Bayeux Tapestry. It depicts one of the most momentous happenings in British history: the brutal and bloody clash of the Anglo-Saxon and Norman worlds. Harold’s defeat at Hastings marked the end of one era and the beginning of another. Within that rift in the flow of history sits the story of Harold’s handfasted (today: common law) wife, Edith Swanneck. Her personal strife to preserve her pride and her family is compellingly conveyed. McGrath looks at the rapidly unfolding events through Edith’s eyes and responds to them through her actions and ingenious political manoeuvres. Edith comes across as a strong, intelligent and pragmatic woman who nevertheless is possessed of great passion for both her children and her husband. She understands and accepts the demands history places on them and at the same time fights for what she considers to be rightfully theirs. She makes great sacrifices and remains steadfast and faithful to a husband-king who is obliged to reject her in the name of vital political alliances.

McGrath paints a vivid picture of the political intrigue immediately prior to the Norman invasion and thereafter. The cruelty of the victors, their savagery and greed are powerfully conveyed. The conquered nation is also shown are diverse and multi-dimensional: there are traitors aplenty as there are the most devoted servants, loyal to the bitter end. Women in particular hold the centre stage in this fantastic tale. History told from their perspective is no less exciting than its masculine version, but it is much more intimate and intricate.

I loved The Handfasted Wife and will read the rest of the trilogy. I would recommend it to anyone wishing to be swept away in the currents of history populated by living, breathing characters fighting for survival, power and dignity.