Who was Queen Edith?

How did this area become known as Queen Edith’s? What’s the story behind street names such as Godwin Way and Wulfstan Way? The answer takes us back nearly a thousand years, as Jeremy Lander explains.

Calling this area ‘Queen Edith’s’ is a relatively recent invention. The City Council ward of that name only came into being in 1976, and was named after Queen Edith’s Way, which runs through its centre. But Queen Edith’s Way only took on its name early in the twentieth century; before that, the road was known as Trumpington Drift.

Why Queen Edith’s Way? Well, the land around what’s now Wulfstan Way, down to Worts’ Causeway, was (and partially still is, surprisingly) owned by what is now Guy’s and St Thomas’ Charity. This land has been in the same hands since it was given to St Thomas’ Hospital, London in the 16th century. Prior to that, it had been held by a succession of landowners, the most notable being one Edith ‘Swan-Neck’, or ‘Eddeva The Fair’, in the 11th century.

Edith Swan-Neck was a princess of Danish stock. From recent research by historian Bill Flint, we now know her to be the granddaughter of Aethelred the Unready, her mother being Wulfhilda, daughter of Aethelred’s first wife Aelgifu. She was heiress to an enormous amount of land dotted around East Anglia but principally in this area of Cambridgeshire.

In about 1042 she married Harold Godwinson, Earl of East Anglia, in a ‘handfast’ or common-law marriage. This practice was frowned on by the church but common in Danish and Saxon nobility. Harold and Edith had a long and successful union, producing six children. However, although Harold eventually became King Harold II, in 1066, Edith was considered only to be his mistress, and not technically a queen. Harold was killed soon afterwards at the Battle of Hastings.

Edith discovers the body of Harold – Illustration from History of France by François Guizot

When the upper part of Trumpington Drift (leading from Hills Road) was named Queen Edith’s Way in the 1920s it is possible that the connection was misunderstood and they gave it the title ‘Queen’ thinking that the land was owned by a better-known (and true ‘Queen’) Edith, wife of Edward the Confessor (the previous king) and sister of Harold.

After the rest of Trumpington Drift was renamed Queen Edith’s Way in the 1930s, and the area developed for housing after the Second World War, other Saxon names were used for local roads and schools. These had varying degrees of connection to Edith Swan-Neck. So while it’s true that Godwin and Gunhild were two of Harold and Edith Swan-Neck’s children, a much more significant Godwin was Harold’s father, Earl Godwin of Wessex. Wulfstan was Bishop of Worcester, a Christian saint, and a supporter of Harold and the whole Godwin family.  

Queen Emma (who gets a road and a school named after her) has the least connection with the area. She was Aethelred the Unready’s second wife and, with her second husband King Cnut, was a parent of Edward the Confessor. In other words, she was ‘our’ land-owning Edith’s sister-in-law’s mother-in-law!

Does all this matter? Why would we need to be reminded that a Danish princess once owned this land?  Does it help to enrich our experience, knowing that the bones of this story lie just beneath the streets and gardens which at first glance appear so very ordinary?

If nothing else, perhaps knowing a little more about what lies under the surface will remind us that in our landscape nothing appears from nowhere. Look hard enough and there is a story behind everything.

  • Watch Jeremy Lander’s recent online talk The History of Queen Edith’s here: