Saturday 23 June 2018

Embroidery as an Inspiration for Medieval Stories by Carol McGrath #History #Embroidery #amwriting @carolmcgrath

Embroidery as an Inspiration for Medieval Stories by Carol McGrath

The Handfasted Wife, published in 2013 by Accent, was my debut novel. It was closely followed by The Swan-Daughter and The Betrothed Sister. The Trilogy tells the story of The Battle of Hastings and its aftermath from the point of view of King Harold’s common-law wife, romantically known as Edith Swan-Neck, and it also explores his daughters’ stories- Gunnhild and Gytha. Embroidery plays a part in the stories including an investigation of Viking and Rus embroideries for the third novel in the series.

The first story was inspired by The Bayeux Tapestry, in particular a vignette depicting a richly-clad woman fleeing from a burning house just before the battle. Some historians think that this shows Edith Swanneck, and Ulf, King Harold’s youngest son who, as is documented, was taken as a child hostage to Normandy after the Battle of Hastings. Edith’s desire to reunite her family is one of the novel’s themes.

The Burning House from THE BAYEUX TAPESTR

Since embroidery is important throughout the Trilogy and I am thrilled that Accent have relaunched the books with beautiful new covers that have the texture and detail of medieval embroidery. The covers are gorgeous.

A year ago, I visited an exhibition in the V & A showing Opus Anglicanum, medieval embroidery that was valued throughout the Middle Ages in Continental Europe. Opus work features in The Handfasted Wife as well as The Bayeux Tapestry. Opus embroidery has its roots in Anglo-Saxon textiles produced with ornamentation for public ceremonial events, religious and secular and for ecclesiastical copes, stoles, altar hangings, orpheys and panels. Valuable imported silks, velvets and gold threads were used in this embroidery. The term Opus Anglicanum was used to describe such work as it was originally produced in England. During the later medieval period, extensive Opus Anglicanum workshops existed in Flanders and in France. English embroideries were making their way to Continental Europe. As the Norman biographer, William of Poitiers, wrote during the late 11th century, ‘everyone attests to the great needle-craft of English women in gold embroidery.’

Opus Anglicanum was used when binding expensive books and this one depicts The Announciation.

 This contained a seal belonging to Edward III. It is worked with silver and gold threads. 

This is a religious garment worn by an Archbishop or Bishop during the 14th Century. Religious vignettes are embroidered on it with gold and silver thread.

The embroidery style was used to enhance secular garments, as well as for Church glorification. The embroidery theme continues throughout my new trilogy, The Rose Trilogy, which set during the 13th century in the reigns of Henry III and Edward I. Opus work was at its height of perfection during this magnificent century and a secondary character in my first new novel is an embroideress.  The Silken Rose, is now at the editing stage.

The original Opus Embroideries created by Anglo-Saxon women, were executed by very upper class women, some of whom who were later regarded as royal saints. These included St Eadgyth, daughter of King Edgar (943-975), and St Elthelreda of Ely, who in the seventh century made a stole and maniple for St Cuthbert of Lindisfarne, commissioned by Aelflead, the second wife of King Edward the Elder. The stole has a background of gold thread and perfectly depicted figures of prophets and saints.

The Bayeux Tapestry is not opus work but it is the most famous surviving Anglo-Saxon inspired English embroidery.  It was probably commissioned by Bishop Odo, King William’s brother, to recount the narrative of 1066. It was most likely, as related in The Handfasted Wife, designed in Canterbury and embroidered in England in several embroidery workshops with stitches worked in wool set on a linen background. It is ambitious and complex in construction, incorporating aspects of medieval drama, warnings, fables, strange creatures and named characters. The Tapestry can be read from a dual perspective, English and Norman. The Bayeux Tapestry has long intrigued me. It has inspired my passion for the inclusion of embroidery in most of my historical novels.


The Handfasted Wife

‘Moving, and vastly informative, a real page turner of a historical novel.’ 
 Fay Weldon 

The Handfasted Wife is the story of the Norman Conquest from the perspective of Edith (Elditha) Swanneck, Harold’s common-law wife. She is set aside for a political marriage when Harold becomes king in 1066. Determined to protect her children’s destinies and control her economic future, she is taken to William’s camp when her estate is sacked on the eve of the Battle of Hastings. She later identifies Harold’s body on the battlefield and her youngest son becomes a Norman hostage.

This is an adventure story of love, loss, survival and reconciliation. Based on the historical story of Edith Swan-Neck, The Handfasted Wife tells the story of 1066 from the perspective of the royal women.

Carol McGrath
From a young age my passion was reading historical novels and biography. Now I am writing them. My debut novel, The Handfasted Wife was published by Accent Press in May 2013. The Handfasted Wife is the first novel in a trilogy about the Norman Conquest from the point of view of the royal women. Its subject is Edith Swan-Neck, King Harold’s common-law / handfasted wife. The Swan Daughter and The Betrothed Sister followed in 2014 and 2015.

I studied for an MA at Queens University Belfast’s Seamus Heaney Centre for Creative Writing. Later I worked on the MPhil in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. Life is not all about academic pursuits and writing books. I travel extensively, enjoy photography and love spending time with my two children, husband and our home and garden. Moreover, visits to a location here and in Europe that features in my books is the greatest excuse of all to lose oneself in the past.

Carol loves to hear from readers, you can find her: Website  Twitter  


  1. Carol, what a fascinating piece. I really enjoyed it, especially the illustrations. And how wonderful that your books are coming out with those beautiful new covers. I remember seeing the Bayeux tapestry in 1985 when I first visited France - it's amazing in real life! Good luck with the new story.

  2. The new book is about Ailenor of Provence and involves an embroiderer. It is called The Silken Rose. Out next year.

  3. Such a wonderful post, so interesting!

  4. Oh my gosh, your book looks so beautiful. I have just put it on my 'to-read' list. Thank you for writing such a fascinating post, a well. Embroidery can tell you so much about a period. Especially the Bayeux Tapestry — even if it may be slightly biased!


See you on your next coffee break!
Take Care,
Mary Anne xxx