Gytha of Wessex is probably one of the most unique wives of a Rus prince. Originally from England, she eventually became the wife of Vladimir II Monomakh. So what brought about this marriage of two people from opposite sides of Europe?
Gytha was born around 1053, or perhaps a little bit later, to Harold Godwinson, Earl of East Anglia and Wessex and Edith Swanneck. Harold was one of the most powerful noblemen in England at the time. Harold and Edith were not married by the church but joined in a handfasting marriage. These marriages were common at the time, and any children born from them would be considered legitimate. Harold and Edith had six known children, sons Godwin, Edmund, Magnus, and Ulf and two daughters, Gytha and Gunhild.
On 5 January 1066, the English King, Edward the Confessor, died without heirs. The next day, Harold was crowned King of England. However, his right to the English throne was soon contested. In September 1066, William, Duke of Normandy, invaded England. On 14 October 1066, Harold was defeated and killed in battle. His death would change the course of Gytha and her siblings’ lives.
With their father dead and the Saxons conquered, Gytha and her brothers fled England. They spent some time in Flanders, where Gytha probably established close relations with the Church of St. Pantaleon in Cologne, which she supported throughout her life. Gytha and two of her brothers eventually went to Denmark. There they lived at the court of the Danish King, Sweyn II, who was also their cousin.
With their hopes to regain England unlikely, Sweyn planned other options for his exiled cousins. He had Gytha’s brother, Magnus, enter a high-ranking position in the service of Boleslaw II, Duke of Poland. He also wanted to plan an advantageous marriage for Gytha.
After Gytha arrived in Denmark, Sweyn betrothed her to Vladimir Monomakh, one of the Rus princes. The exact reason for the betrothal is unknown, but it was probably made because Sweyn wanted to make an alliance with the Rus. The Rurikid dynasty that ruled there had Scandinavian origins and maintained connections with Scandinavia through marriage and trade. Also, Gytha’s paternal grandmother, who had the same name as her, was Danish.
Neither Vladimir nor his father, Vsevolod, were Grand Prince of Kyiv at the time, but they still held large amounts of land and had a prominent position in the Rus. The exact date of Gytha and Vladimir’s marriage is unknown, but it must have been between 1069 and 1075. At the time of the wedding, Vladimir’s father, Vsevolod, was Prince of Pereyaslavl and Chernigov. Vladimir became Prince of Smolensk in 1073. After Gytha married, she is believed to have settled in Suzdal with Vladimir. Both Gytha and Vladimir would have known Danish, which was probably the language they used to communicate. Gytha would have been raised in the Catholic faith, but Vladimir and his family followed the Orthodox faith. Because of this, Gytha converted to Orthodoxy when she married.
Gytha as a Rus Princess
Gytha and Vladimir were close in age. Not much is known about their marriage, but they seem to have got along. During the marriage, Vladimir would change principalities a couple of times. In 1078, he became Prince of Chernigov. In 1094, Chernigov went to his cousin, Oleg, and Vladimir became Prince of Pereyaslavl. His father became Grand Prince of Kyiv in 1078 and reigned there until his death in 1093. Afterwards, Vladimir’s cousin, Sviatopolk, became Grand Prince of Kyiv. Vladimir himself would not become Grand Prince until 1113. However, Gytha had died by then.
During their marriage, Gytha and Vladimir had between six and thirteen children:
- Mstislav I (1076-1032) Prince of Novgorod and Grand Prince of Kyiv. Also known as Harold.
- Izyaslav (c.1077-1096) Prince of Kursk.
- Svyatoslav (c.1080-1114) Prince of Smolensk and Pereyaslavl.
- Yaropolk II (1082-1139) Prince of Smolensk, Pereyaslavl and Grand Prince of Kyiv.
- Viacheslav I (1083-1154) Prince of Smolensk, Pereyaslavl and Turov, Grand Prince of Kyiv.
- Marina (d. 1146) Married to an imposter claiming to be the Byzantine Prince, Leo Diogenes.
- Gleb, existence uncertain
There is debate if it was Gytha or a second wife of Vladimir who was the mother of these children:
- Roman (d. 1119) Prince of Volhynia
- Yuri (c. 1090/95-1157) Prince of Rostov and Suzdal, Grand Prince of Kyiv
- Euphemia (c. 1096-1139) Married Coloman, King of Hungary
- Agafia (d. bef. 1144) Married Vsevolod Davidovich, Prince of Gorodno
- Evpraxia (d. 1109) Not mentioned in most sources
- Andrew (1102-1141) Prince of Volhynia and Pereyaslavl
Gytha seems to have taken an active role in cultural life. She is believed to have brought some books from England. Perhaps she was trying to take these books to safety when she fled following the Norman Conquest. Her father-in-law spoke five languages, and Old English might have been one of them. If so, Gytha would have taught him English. Vsevolod might have wanted to learn this language so he could read the books Gytha brought.
Scholars have noticed some similarities between Anglo-Saxon texts and the texts from the time of Vladimir Monomakh, such as his teachings and The Russian Primary Chronicle. It is believed that these first Russian chronicles were inspired by the Anglo-Saxon ones. It has been suggested that perhaps Gytha took part in editing the chronicles herself.
Another cultural legacy of Gytha is the veneration of Saint Pantaleon in Rus. Saint Pantaleon was a Greek martyr from the third century who was praised for his healing powers. Gytha seems to have had ties with the church dedicated to him in Cologne; she may have spent some time there soon after she was exiled from England. For the rest of her life, she maintained close ties to this church and made generous donations to them. One of the frescoes in the Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv contained an image of St. Pantaleon. It may have been Gytha herself who commissioned this image.
In the 1120s, Rupert, an abbot of a Cologne monastery, gave the monks at St. Pantaleon Cologne a sermon that mentioned Gytha and her oldest son. According to Rupert, Mstislav was attacked by a bear while hunting and seriously wounded. Gytha then prayed to St. Pantaleon that he would survive. The saint eventually appeared to Mstislav in a vision, telling him that he would be healed. Gytha was told about this vision, and when Mstislav recovered, she vowed to take a pilgrimage to the Holy Land in thanks for this miracle. The date of these events is not mentioned, but it is believed to have occurred around 1097. Mstislav and his son, Izyaslav, continued to venerate St. Pantaleon and maintained ties with the church in Cologne.
Later Years and Death
There is debate about when Gytha died. The two dates usually given are 1098 or 1107. For the earlier date, it is said that Gytha made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and even joined the First Crusade, which was happening at that time. She is believed to have not survived the journey and died in the Holy Land in 1098. The date is believed to have been 7 or 10 March, based on records from St. Pantaleon, Cologne.
However, it is said that she was unlikely to have joined the First Crusade, and if she indeed did make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, it was probably after the crusaders took the city in 1099. By then, it would have been safer for Christians to make the journey to Jerusalem.
The second date is 7 May 1107. This date comes from Vladimir’s writings, where he mentions that the mother of his son, Yuri, died on that day. It is sometimes thought that this referred to Vladimir’s second wife rather than Gytha. However, it is likely that Gytha was Yuri’s mother. Furthermore, Yuri was old enough to marry in 1107, so he must have been born before 1098.
Currently, it looks like the 1107 date is more accepted. The burial place of Gytha is not known. She did not live long enough to become Grand Princess of Kyiv, for Vladimir did not become Grand Prince until 1113 when his cousin, Sviatopolk II of Kyiv, died.
Interestingly, the blood of Harold Godwinson would eventually make its way back into the English royal family via Gytha. Her son Mstislav’s 5th great-granddaughter was Isabella of France, who married Edward II of England, and was the mother of Edward III, who was the ancestor of all subsequent English monarchs.
Connolly, Sharon Bennett; Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest
Evgenievna, Morozova Lyudmila; Great and Unknown Women of Ancient Russia
Lewis, Stephen; “Gytha of Wessex, an Anglo-Saxon Russian Princess”
McGrath, Carol; “Gytha, Princess of Kyiv” (video)
“Gytha of Wessex” on the website The Court of the Russian Princesses of the XI-XVI centuries
The Russian Primary Chronicle: Laurentian Text