Gyrth Godwinson

Gyrth Godwinson, the son of Earl Godwin of Wessex, and and his wife, Gytha, was born in about 1030. (1) 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. (2)

Gyrth's father 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. (3)

Godwin had married Gytha, in about 1020. She gave birth to Gyrth, Swein, Harold, Tostig, Leofwine and Wulfnoth and three daughters: Edith, Gunhild and Elfgifu. (4)

Gyrth and Edward the Confessor

During Gyrth'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. (5)

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." (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) Leofwine and Harold 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)

Death of Earl Godwin

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. (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. 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. (13)

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. (14)

Gyrth was given estates in Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire, Sussex, Hertfordshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire and by 1059 became the Earl of East Anglia. (15)

Stamford Bridge

Gyrth was a member of the English army that marched 190 miles from London to York in just four days. On 24th September Harold's army arrived at Tadcaster. The following day he took Harald Hardrada and Tostig by surprise at a place called Stamford Bridge. It was a hot day and the Norwegians had taken off their byrnies (leather jerkins with sewn-on metal rings). Harold and his English troops devastated the Norwegians. Both Hardrada and Tostig were killed. The Norwegian losses were considerable. Of the 300 ships that arrived, less than 25 returned to Norway. (16)

While celebrating his victory at a banquet in York, Harold heard that William of Normandy had landed at Pevensey Bay on 28th September. Gyrth, offered to lead the army against William, pointing out that as king he should not risk the chance of being killed. "I have taken no oath and owe nothing to Count William". (17)

David Armine Howarth, the author of 1066: the Year of the Conquest (1981) argues that the suggestion was that while Gyrth did battle with William, "Harold should empty the whole of the countryside behind him, block the roads, burn the villages and destroy the food. So, even if Gyrth was beaten, William's army would starve in the wasted countryside as winter closed in and would be forced either to move upon London, where the rest of the English forces would be waiting, or return to their ships." (17a)

Harold rejected the advice and immediately assembled the housecarls who had survived the fighting against Hardrada and marched south. Harold travelled at such a pace that many of his troops failed to keep up with him. When Harold arrived in London he waited for the local fyrd to assemble and for the troops of the earls of Mercia and Northumbria to arrive from the north. After five days they had not arrived and so Harold decided to head for the south coast without his northern troops. (18)

Battle of Hastings

Gyrth served with his brothers, Harold and Gyrth, against William of Normandy at Senlac Hill near Hastings. Harold selected a spot that was protected on each flank by marshy land. At his rear was a forest. The English housecarls provided a shield wall at the front of Harold's army. They carried large battle-axes and were considered to be the toughest fighters in Europe. The fyrd were placed behind the housecarls. The leaders of the fyrd, the thanes, had swords and javelins but the rest of the men were inexperienced fighters and carried weapons such as iron-studded clubs, scythes, reaping hooks and hay forks.

William of Malmesbury reported: "The courageous leaders mutually prepared for battle, each according to his national custom. The English, as we have heard, passed the night without sleep in drinking and singing, and, in the morning, proceeded without delay towards the enemy; all were on foot, armed with battle-axes... The king himself on foot stood with his brother, near the standard, in order that, while all shared equal danger none might think of retreating... On the other side, the Normans passed the whole night in confessing their sins, and received the Sacrament in the morning. The infantry with bows and arrows, formed the vanguard, while the cavalry, divided into wings, were held back." (19)

There are no accurate figures of the number of soldiers who took part at the Battle of Hastings. Historians have estimated that William had about 5,000 infantry and 3,000 knights while Harold had about 2,000 housecarls and 5,000 members of the fyrd. (20) The Norman historian, William of Poitiers, claims that Harold held the advantage: "The English were greatly helped by the advantage of the high ground... also by their great number, and further, by their weapons which could easily find a way through shields and other defences." (21)

At 9.00 a.m. the Battle of Hastings formally opened with the playing of trumpets. Norman archers then walked up the hill and when they were about a 100 yards away from Harold's army they fired their first batch of arrows. Using their shields, the house-carls were able to block most of this attack. Volley followed volley but the shield wall remained unbroken. At around 10.30 hours, William ordered his archers to retreat. (22)

Norman Knights attack the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Hastings
Norman Knights attack the Anglo-Saxons at the Battle of Hastings, Bayeux Tapestry (c. 1090)

The Norman infantry then charged up the hill. The English held firm and eventually the Normans were forced to retreat. Members of the fyrd on the right broke ranks and chased after them. A rumour went round that William was amongst the Norman casualties. Afraid of what this story would do to Norman morale, William pushed back his helmet and rode amongst his troops, shouting that he was still alive. He then ordered his cavalry to attack the English who had left their positions on Senlac Hill. English losses were heavy and very few managed to return to the line. (23)

At about 12.00 p.m. there was a break in the fighting for an hour. This gave both sides a chance to remove the dead and wounded from the battlefield. William, who had originally planned to use his cavalry when the English retreated, decided to change his tactics. At about one in the afternoon he ordered his archers forward. This time he told them to fire higher in the air. The change of direction of the arrows caught the English by surprise. The arrow attack was immediately followed by a cavalry charge. Casualties on both sides were heavy. Those killed included Harold's two brothers, Gyrth and Leofwin. However, the English line held and the Normans were eventually forced to retreat. The fyrd, this time on the left side, chased the Normans down the hill. William ordered his knights to turn and attack the men who had left the line. Once again the English suffered heavy casualties.

William ordered his troops to take another rest. The Normans had lost a quarter of their cavalry. Many horses had been killed and the ones left alive were exhausted. William decided that the knights should dismount and attack on foot. This time all the Normans went into battle together. The archers fired their arrows and at the same time the knights and infantry charged up the hill.

It was now 4.00 p.m. Heavy English casualties from previous attacks meant that the front line was shorter. The Normans could now attack from the side. The few housecarls that were left were forced to form a small circle round the English standard. The Normans attacked again and this time they broke through the shield wall and Leofwine, Harold, Gyrth, and most of the housecarls were killed. The Bayeux Tapestry shows him wielding his axe before falling to the Norman cavalry. (24)

According to William of Poitiers: "Victory won, the duke returned to the field of battle. He was met with a scene of carnage which he could not regard without pity in spite of the wickedness of the victims. Far and wide the ground was covered with the flower of English nobility and youth. Harold's two brothers were found lying beside him." (25)

Primary Sources

(1) Anne Williams, Gyrth : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

Gyrth was one of the younger sons of Godwin, earl of Wessex, and his wife, Gytha, and accompanied his parents to Flanders when the family fled into exile in 1051. Unlike his brothers (Swein, Harold, Tostig, and Leofwine), Gyrth does not attest the early charters of Edward the Confessor, but he may nevertheless have been older than Leofwine, for he seems to have been promoted before him.... There are no charters for the years 1055–8, and Gyrth first attests as earl in 1059.... A series of royal writs addressed to Gyrth show that his authority covered East Anglia generally and particularly Norfolk, Suffolk, and also Oxfordshire... Cambridgeshire, where Gyrth possessed the large manor of Whittlesford, may also have been part of his earldom. Gyrth seems to have had a close relationship with his brother Tostig, whom he accompanied to Rome in 1061, attending the papal synod held at Easter (15 April) of that year. He also held the large (and probably comital) manor of Kempston in Bedfordshire, which lay within Tostig's earldom. Gyrth's landed wealth can be estimated from Domesday Book. Among the estates probably inherited from his father is the huge manor of Washington in Sussex, the shire from which his family originated, and he and his mother, Gytha, had land at Chaddleworth, Berkshire. Most of his manors, naturally, lay in Norfolk and Suffolk, but even here he is overshadowed by his brother, Earl Harold, who retained some of the comital estates even when he ceased to be earl. Gyrth's standing is shown by the number of men, of varying rank and wealth, who chose to commend themselves to him, not only in the shires of his own earldom (Norfolk, Suffolk, and Cambridgeshire) but also in Berkshire, Bedfordshire, and Hertfordshire.

Student Activities

The Battle of Hastings (Answer Commentary)

William the Conqueror (Answer Commentary)

The Feudal System (Answer Commentary)

The Domesday Survey (Answer Commentary)

Thomas Becket and Henry II (Answer Commentary)

Why was Thomas Becket Murdered? (Answer Commentary)

Yalding: Medieval Village Project (Differentiation)



(1) Anne Williams, Gyrth : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

(15) Anne Williams, Gyrth : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(16) Frank McLynn, 1066: The Year of The Three Battles (1999) page 201

(17) Ordericus Vitalis, Ecclesiastical History (c. 1142)

(17a) David Armine Howarth, 1066: the Year of the Conquest (1981) page 163

(18) Frank M. Stenton, Anglo-Saxon England (1989) page 592

(19) William of Malmesbury, The Deeds of the Kings of the English (c. 1140)

(20) David Armine Howarth, 1066: the Year of the Conquest (1981) page 169

(21) William of Poitiers, The Deeds of William, Duke of the Normans (c. 1071)

(22) David C. Douglas, William the Conqueror: The Norman Impact Upon England (1992) page 199

(23) William of Malmesbury, The Deeds of the Kings of the English (c. 1140)

(24) Anne Williams, Leofwine : Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (2004-2014)

(25) William of Poitiers, The Deeds of William, Duke of the Normans (c. 1071)