Edith Swan-neck’s 2020 Vision
In Community (HIP Issue 154) we learned that there’s a new group on the block, called the ‘Friends of Edith’ and they are determined that this should be Edith’s year – a year in which she finally gets the recognition that she deserves.
The group is chapioning Edith Swan-neck, the consort of King Harold II who died at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Her statue – and that of Harold – is a local landmark in West Marina Gardens on the St Leonard’s seafront, although few know the story behind the woman tending the dying man. The story is largely her story and is one the new group believes should be more widely appreciated, especially these days, when the meaning of statues is very much under the spotlight following the toppling of the Coulston statue in Bristol and the relegation of Churchill into a wooden fridge.
PICTURE: Dave Young
“She was a lady of great character and strength,” says Ian Jarman, the group’s founder, “whose story demonstrates the hidden influence and key contribution she and women like her made to our history. So much so that we believe by looking at – and telling – history from a woman’s perspective will give us profound insights into our understanding of events and, indeed, change how we think about it and its meaning for today.”
There are many echoes today of aspects of Edith’s life: she was Harold’s long-term partner, but not married to him in the eyes of the Church (today we might say they were in a common-law relationship); they had six children over their 20 or so years together which speaks of an unusually harmonious and nurturing family life. (One of their daughters, Gytha, subsequently married in to the Russian royal line and, through them, passed their blood to a 31x Great-grand-daughter alive today – Queen Elizabeth II). Yet, shortly after Harold became King in January 1066, he set Edith aside so that he could marry a lady of a Northern dynasty (the grand-daughter of Lady Godiva) in order to cement a political alliance. Edith’s treatment is poignant, even today, though it is not known the exact form her banishment took: there is some evidence that she removed herself to Harold’s estate in Crowhurst.
When Harold died on the battlefield later that year, cut to pieces by Norman knights and stripped of all his regalia, it was Edith who was called upon to pick through the fallen and identify his body parts. This famous act is what is represented in the statue in West Marina Gardens, though presented more romantically in a Victorian but nevertheless evocative manner. It was made by Charles Wilke in 1875 to the commission of Thomas (later Lord) Brassey, who was MP for Hastings at the time, who subsequently donated the sculpture to Hastings Corporation (the fore-runner of Hastings Borough Council). Since then it has been in various inside locations, including the Brassey Institute in Claremont and Hastings Museum in John’s Place. Since 1953 it has been in its current location outside at the mercy of the elements in the West St Leonards Park. It is eroding badly (its original inscription, for example, has completely disappeared) and one of the key aims of the new group is to find ways of preserving it for future generations to enjoy.
Edith was called upon to pick over the fallen and identify Harold’s body parts
The ‘Friends of Edith’ were formed last year after a plaque was affixed to the statue (unveiled by the then MP Amber Rudd and the Mayor, Nigel Sinden) to replace the missing inscription, paid for by funds raised by CARE: Campaign for A ‘’Roof” for Edith, which was founded in 2017, also by Ian Jarman, and with the help of the Hastings Local History Group.
Among the projects the group hopes to initiate this year are: the cleaning and sealing of the statue (in fact, the initial cleaning, which took just over two weeks, was completed on 19th June this year); installing CCTV and running a Statue/Neighbourhood Watch scheme for the community; providing better signage to and around the statue, including story and interpretation information boards; creating a better ambience at the site through murals on adjacent walls; enhancing visitor experience through virtual reality facilities to bring the statue alive on smart phones in animated 3D, music and voice; providing educational resources by developing a 1066 Garden and Wildflower Meadow planted with historical indigenous flora, including wildlife ‘hotels’ to encourage diversity of local fauna and play some small part in re-wilding and greening of our environment – all with the help of local schools and other educational establishments. In this way the group hope to harness Edith’s legacy in a meaningful way.
“As much as it is our desire to protect the statue from further decline,” states Ian Jarman, “we want it to be a trigger or focus for real actions and activities for the now and in the future. We don’t want it to be a museum piece: we want it to provide the impetus or force for good in the community today – that is Edith’s real legacy: the practical enabling and nurturing of understanding and collective endeavour for the betterment of our community, by channelling our heritage in positive ways.”
PICTURE: Dave Young
The group are currently in discussion with HBC and others about many of the proposals, and are pleased to have learned that HBC will shortly be granting them a licence to undertake their garden project, but this will all inevitably take considerable resources and funds – there is no public money available – thus, the group are reliant on fund-raising activities, grant schemes and donations.
If you are interested and would like to help (for example by becoming a member of ‘Friends of Edith’ for £10 a year) you can find further information on their website at friendsofedith.org.uk and on Facebook and Twitter. They hold regular local meetings/informal chats in the form of Drop-bys/Drop-ins every first Thursday of the month, 12-2 at the statue and 2–4 in the Marina Fountain (when it re-opens), Caves Road, St Leonards (opposite the statue): all are welcome, whether members or not, no booking required.
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