Earl Godwin

Godwin, the son of the late tenth-century renegade and pirate Wulfnoth Cild of Compton, West Sussex, who had rebelled against Ethelred the Unready, was born in about 1001. In 1009 Wulfnoth was accused of unspecified crimes at a muster of the fleet; he fled with twenty ships and a force sent to pursue him was destroyed in a storm. (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)

Earl Godwin and Edward the Confessor

During Harold'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. The following year Godwin's eldest son, Swein, became Earl of the South-West Midlands. (4)

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)

Harold's older brother, Swein, lost support from his father and the king, when in 1046 he was sent into exile for seducing the abbess of Leominister. At this time Harold became Earl of Eastern England. The area extended across East Anglia, Essex, Huntingdonshire, and Cambridgeshire. During this period that Harold doubtless took as his concubine Edith Swanneck. Such relationships, in spite of increasing pressures from Church leaders were common. Harold and Edith had at least five children. This "Danish marriage", as contemporaries called it, "must have bound Harold closely through ties of kinship and marriage to many Anglo-Scandinavian lords settled in his earldom". (6)

William of Normandy

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. (7) Tostig moved to mainland Europe and married Judith of Flanders in the autumn of 1051. (8) Harold and Leofwine went to seek help in Ireland. Earl Godwin, Swein and the rest of the family went to live in Bruges. (9)

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. (10) 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. (11)

Purge of the Normans

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. (12)

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. (13)

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. Earl Swein did not return and instead set off from Bruges on his 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. (14)

Godwin now forced Edward the Confessor to send his Norman advisers home. Godwin was also given back his family estates and was now the most powerful man in England. Earl Godwin died on 15th April, 1053. Some accounts say he choked on a piece of bread. Others say he was accused of being disloyal to Edward and died during an Ordeal by Cake. Another possibility is that he died from a stroke. His place as the leading Anglo-Saxon in England was taken by his eldest son, Harold. (15)

Primary Sources

(1) Anne Williams, Godwin, Earl of Wessex : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

The Life of King Edward, a work originally commissioned by Godwin's daughter, Queen Edith, as a history of her family, records Godwin's gradual rise to power under Cnut. Of all his English adherents, Cnut 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".... This picture is confirmed from other sources. Although Godwin attests as earl from 1018, he can have held only eastern Wessex before 1020, when Æthelweard, ealdorman of the western shires, was banished. The visit to Denmark was probably in 1022–3, when Cnut fell out with his regent, Thorkell the Tall, earl of East Anglia. Thorkell vanishes from sight after 1023 and Godwin takes his place at the head of the earls signing Cnut's charters; it was probably then that he became earl of all Wessex, the first man to hold such authority. It is easy to see why Godwin was valuable to the new king. Sandwich, Kent, was the usual assembly place for the English fleet at the beginning of the campaigning season, as London was its permanent base and arsenal; and a man whose land and influence lay in the south-east would be of particular use to a king whose ambitions included Scandinavia as well as England.

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(1) Frank Barlow, The Godwins: The Rise and Fall of a Noble Dynasty (2002) page 25

(2) Anne Williams, Godwin, Earl of Wessex : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(3) Peter Rex, Harold II: The Doomed Saxon King (2005) page 31

(4) Robin Fleming, Harold of Wessex : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(5) Christopher Brooke, The Saxon and Norman Kings (1963) page 140

(6) Robin Fleming, Harold of Wessex : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(7) David Bates, William the Conqueror : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(8) William M. Aird, Tostig of Wessex : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(9) Anne Williams, Swein of Wessex : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(10) Christopher Brooke, The Saxon and Norman Kings (1963) page 141

(11) John Grehan and Martin Mace, The Battle of Hastings: The Uncomfortable Truth (2012) page 12

(12) Anne Williams, Godwin, Earl of Wessex : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(13) Ian W. Walker, Harold the Last Anglo-Saxon King (2000) pages 50-51

(14) Frank Barlow, Edward the Confessor (1997) page 120

(15) Douglas Woodruff, Alfred the Great (1974) page 107