Swein Godwinson, the eldest son of Earl Godwin, and his wife, Gytha, was probably born in about 1020. There is some evidence to suggest that Godwin was the son of the late tenth-century renegade and pirate Wulfnoth Cild of Compton, West Sussex, who had rebelled against Ethelred the Unready. (1)
Godwin was a strong supporter of King Cnut the Great, and in 1018 he was given the title of Earl of Wessex. Cnut commented that he found Godwin "the most cautious in counsel and the most active in war". He took him to Denmark, where he "tested more closely his wisdom", and "admitted him to his council". Cnut introduced him to Gytha. Her brother Ulf, was married to Cnut's sister. (2)
Godwin married Gytha, in about 1020. She gave birth to a least six sons: Swein, Harold, Tostig, Gyrth, Leofwine and Wulfnoth; and three daughters: Edith, Gunhild and Elfgifu. The birth dates of the children are unknown. (3)
During Swein's childhood his father held an important positioned, helping, along with Earl Siward of Northumbria and Earl Leofric of Mercia, to govern England during the king's extended absences. In 1042, Godwin helped to arrange for Edward the Confessor, the seventh son of Ethelred the Unready, to become king. (4)
In 1043 Swein, became Earl of the South-West Midlands. The area included Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, and Somerset. In 1045, Godwin's 20-year-old daughter, Edith, married 42-year-old Edward. Godwin hoped that his daughter would have a son but Edward had taken a vow of celibacy and it soon became clear that the couple would not produce an heir to the throne. Christopher Brooke, the author of The Saxon and Norman Kings (1963), has suggested that this story might have been made up as a part of the legend of royal piety, and as a delicate compliment to a queen who suffered from the common misfortune of failing to bear children." (5)
It is claimed that in 1046 Swein abducted Eadgifu, abbess of Leominster, apparently intending to marry her and gain control of her Leominster's estates. The king withheld permission and Eadgifu returned to her abbey. Some sources claim that as a result of this action he was sent into exile. (6)
Swein took refuge with Baldwin V, Count of Flanders. By the summer of 1048 he was in Denmark, where his cousin Swein Estrithson was trying to establish himself as king. This ended in failure and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle stated he "he ruined himself with the Danes". (7)
Some of his estates were given to his cousin, Beorn Estrithson. Swein returned in 1049 and according to Ian W. Walker, the author of Harold the Last Anglo-Saxon King (2000) Swein took Estrithson captive in Bosham and was later murdered. (8) He was again exiled and condemned as a "man of no honour". (9) He returned to Flanders but was pardoned and reinstated through the mediation of his father's friend, Ealdred, bishop of Worcester. (10)
Edward the Confessor became concerned about the growth in power of Earl Godwin and his sons. According to Norman historians, William of Jumieges and William of Poitiers in April 1051, Edward promised William of Normandy that he would be king of the English after his death. David Bates argues that this explains why Earl Godwin, raised an army against the king.
The earls of Mercia and Northumbria remained loyal to Edward and to avoid a civil war, Godwin and his family agreed to go into exile. (11) Swein's son, Hakon, was held as a hostage as assurance of Godwin's good behaviour. Tostig moved to mainland Europe and married Judith of Flanders in the autumn of 1051. (12) Harold and Leofwine went to seek help in Ireland. Earl Godwin, Swein and the rest of the family went to live in Bruges. (13)
Edward appointed a Norman, Robert of Jumièges, as Archbishop of Canterbury and Queen Edith was removed from court. Jumièges urged Edward to divorce Edith, but he refused and instead she was sent to a nunnery. (14) Edward also appointed other Normans to official positions. This caused great resentment amongst the English and many of them crossed the Channel to offer Godwin their support. (15)
Earl Godwin and his sons were furious by these developments and in 1052 they returned to England with a mercenary army. Edward was unable to raise significant forces to stop the invasion. Most of the men in Kent, Surrey and Sussex joined the rebellion. Godwin's large fleet moved round the coast and recruited men in Hastings, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich. He then sailed up the Thames and soon gained the support of Londoners. (16)
Negotiations between the king and the earl were conducted with the help of Stigand, the Bishop of Winchester. Robert left England and was declared an outlaw. Pope Leo IX condemned the appointment of Stigand as the new Archbishop of Canterbury but it was now clear that the Godwin family was back in control. At a meeting of the King's Council, Godwin cleared himself of the accusations brought against him, and Edward restored him and his sons to land and office, and received Edith once more as his queen. (17)
Earl Swein did not return and instead set off on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, "to look to the salvation of his soul". John of Worcester says that he walked barefoot all the way and that on the journey home he became ill and died in Lycia on 29th September 1052. (18)
In 1043 Swein was raised to an earldom which included Gloucestershire (once held by his maternal uncle Eilaf), Herefordshire, Oxfordshire, Berkshire, and Somerset. In 1046 he campaigned successfully against the south Welsh in alliance with Gruffudd ap Llywelyn of Gwynedd. On his return he abducted Eadgifu, abbess of Leominster, apparently intending to marry her and gain control of Leominster's vast estate in northern Herefordshire. The king withheld permission and Eadgifu returned to her abbey, which was subsequently disbanded. The ultimate beneficiary was Swein's sister, Queen Edith, who held the manor of Leominster with all its appurtenances in 1066.