Edith Swan-Neck needs a roof
Jo Marks reports
If you didn’t know it was there, you could be forgiven for missing the statue of Edith Swan Neck altogether as you drive along the West Marina in St Leonard’s. Looking somehow too small for her grassy location, she seems oblivious to the rolling sea at her back, intent as she is on the corpse of her husband Harold lying prostrate beneath her. People who don’t know the story might be forgiven for thinking it depicts a woman strangling her husband. For those who do, she seems a picture of stoicism as she endures the added insults of wind and weather, which are visibly damaging this beautiful and typically Victorian statue, the work of artist Charles A W Wilke in 1875.
The statue of Edith Swan-neck, or Edith the Fair as she was also known, commemorates the history and folklore surrounding the rescue of King Harold’s body after he was slain at the Battle of Hastings in 1066. Bexhill historian Ian Jarman, who is co-ordinating a Campaign for a Roof for Edith, agrees that hers is a story of myth and romance, but it is also the story of a courageous and heroic woman – a woman for our times. Accounts of the battle record that Harold’s body was dismembered by Norman soldiers after his death, and Edith, his ‘handfast’ wife of twenty years, toured the battlefield in search of his various body parts. Accompanied only by two monks, she eventually succeeded, aided by marks on his body – some say tattoos, others teeth marks – that were known only to her. Accounts describe Harold’s head, his torso, and one of his legs, collected by Edith after a long search among the dead and dying.
The statue depicts Harold’s body conveniently reassembled to suit Victorian romantic sensibilities. Its journey around Hastings, Bexhill and St Leonards, while not as momentous as Edith’s journey from Waltham Abbey to Hastings (as featured in Andrew Kotting’s haunting 2017 film ‘Edith Walks’), has probably notched up just as many resting places. Originally commissioned by Lord Brassey, MP for Hastings, for Hastings Town Hall, it has variously been displayed at the Brassey Institute, Cambridge Halls (a public space on the site now occupied by ESK) and Bexhill Museum, where it was placed on the lawn. Finally donated to Hastings Borough Council, the statue has been situated on its current spot since 1953.
It’s a hard job for the present-day tourist to identify it because, as Ian points out, there is simply no information at the site about its subject or provenance. The inscription around the base, which once read ‘Edith Finding the Body of Harold on the Battlefield of Hastings’, has long since worn away. But Ian believes that Edith is a well-loved landmark and should remain where she is. Her weathered state after 93 years would look incongruous indoors, and restoration is not a priority. His campaign is to preserve her current condition by sheltering it from the further effects of wind and weather and to provide signage and information so viewers can learn who Edith was and how the statue came to be there. ‘She came out of the shadows of history’, he says. ‘I would like her statue to be around still in 2066.’
Currently over 600 people agree, and have signed the Campaign’s petition for a Roof for Edith. When the target of 1066 signatures is reached, Ian will present it to Hastings Borough Council and hope to persuade them to contribute to the maintenance of the piece of heritage they own. He estimates that the cost for design and build of canopy plus information stands within would be in the region of £10,000. He told me he would be happy with a match-funding arrangement with HBC. Realistically there will have to be some private fundraising too: to this end he would want to give local residents a say in the design of the shelter. Meanwhile English Heritage at Battle Abbey have been supportive of Ian’s idea to incorporate an ‘Edith Trail’ into the tourist experience there as well as pointing them towards the West Marina end of St Leonards.
• To sign the petition, go to you.38degrees.org.uk/campaign-for-a-roof-for-edith or go to Facebook.
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