Earl Godwin

Earl Godwin

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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)

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)

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)

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)

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

Godwin History, Family Crest & Coats of Arms

The name Godwin is from the ancient Anglo-Saxon culture of the Britain and comes from the baptismal name for the son of Godwin.

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Early Origins of the Godwin family

The surname Godwin was first found in Yorkshire where they held a family seat from very early times. Godwin or Godwine (d. 1053) was the Earl of Wessex, chief adviser to King Canute, who held great wealth and lands in those times. His son Harold Godwinson (circa 1022-1066) was Harold II of England, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England, killed on October 14 1066 at the Battle of Hastings. Godwin, or Godwine was also the name of an 11th century Bishop of Lichfield, who died in 1020. [1]

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Early History of the Godwin family

This web page shows only a small excerpt of our Godwin research. Another 165 words (12 lines of text) covering the years 1086, 1219, 1296, 1177, 1273, 1327, 1500, 1517, 1590, 1517, 1562, 1633, 1594, 1665, 1603, 1674, 1641, 1660, 1695, 1677, 1654, 1655, 1659, 1600, 1680, 1605, 1662, 1605, 1719, 1670, 1730, 1670, 1695, 1597 and are included under the topic Early Godwin History in all our PDF Extended History products and printed products wherever possible.

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Godwin Spelling Variations

The first dictionaries that appeared in the last few hundred years did much to standardize the English language. Before that time, spelling variations in names were a common occurrence. The language was changing, incorporating pieces of other languages, and the spelling of names changed with it. Godwin has been spelled many different ways, including Godwin, Goodwin, Goodin, Gooding, Goodings, Goodwyn, Godwyn, Godwine, Goodwine, Goddwin, Goddwyn, Goddywne and many more.

Early Notables of the Godwin family (pre 1700)

Distinguished members of the family include Thomas Godwin (1517-1590), Bishop of Bath and Wells, born in 1517 at Oakingham, Berkshire, of poor parents Francis Godwin (1562-1633), English divine, Bishop of Llandaff and of Hereford John Goodwin (1594-1665), an English preacher, theologian and prolific author John Goodwin (1603-1674), an English lawyer and politician who sat in the House of Commons between 1641 and 1660, supporter of the Parliamentary cause in the English Civil War Peter Gooden (died 1695), an English Roman Catholic priest Thomas Godwin (died 1677), a Virginia politician and landowner, served in the House of Burgesses 1654-1655.
Another 98 words (7 lines of text) are included under the topic Early Godwin Notables in all our PDF Extended History products and printed products wherever possible.

Migration of the Godwin family to Ireland

Some of the Godwin family moved to Ireland, but this topic is not covered in this excerpt.
Another 84 words (6 lines of text) about their life in Ireland is included in all our PDF Extended History products and printed products wherever possible.

Godwin migration +

Some of the first settlers of this family name were:

Godwin Settlers in United States in the 17th Century
  • Reinould Godwin, who arrived in Virginia in 1620
  • Reinould Godwin, who landed in Virginia in 1620 [2]
  • Robert Godwin, who landed in Virginia in 1624 [2]
  • Daniel Godwin, who settled in Virginia in 1635
  • Danll Godwin, who landed in Virginia in 1635 [2]
  • . (More are available in all our PDF Extended History products and printed products wherever possible.)
Godwin Settlers in United States in the 18th Century
  • Tho Godwin, who arrived in Virginia in 1702 [2]
  • Rota Godwin, who arrived in Virginia in 1714 [2]
  • Thomas Godwin, who landed in Virginia in 1715 [2]
  • Germain Casse Godwin, who landed in Louisiana in 1718-1724 [2]
Godwin Settlers in United States in the 19th Century

Godwin migration to Australia +

Emigration to Australia followed the First Fleets of convicts, tradespeople and early settlers. Early immigrants include:

Godwin Settlers in Australia in the 19th Century
  • Mr. Richard Godwin, British convict who was convicted in Essex, England for life, transported aboard the "Calcutta" in February 1803, arriving in New South Wales, Australia[3]
  • Charles Godwin, English convict from Southampton, who was transported aboard the "Arab" on July 3, 1822, settling in Van Diemen's Land, Australia[4]
  • Mr. Thomas Godwin, (b. 1814), aged 15, English tailor's boy who was convicted in Middlesex, England for life for house breaking, transported aboard the "Bussorah Merchant" on 1st October 1829, arriving in Tasmania ( Van Diemen's Land) [5]
  • Mr. John Godwin, British Convict who was convicted in Middlesex, England for 7 years, transported aboard the "Asia" on 5th November 1835, arriving in Tasmania ( Van Diemen's Land)1836 [6]
  • Mr. Thomas Godwin, English convict who was convicted in Gloucestershire, England for 10 years, transported aboard the "Augusta Jessie" on 10th August 1838, arriving in Tasmania ( Van Diemen's Land) [7]
  • . (More are available in all our PDF Extended History products and printed products wherever possible.)

Godwin migration to New Zealand +

Emigration to New Zealand followed in the footsteps of the European explorers, such as Captain Cook (1769-70): first came sealers, whalers, missionaries, and traders. By 1838, the British New Zealand Company had begun buying land from the Maori tribes, and selling it to settlers, and, after the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840, many British families set out on the arduous six month journey from Britain to Aotearoa to start a new life. Early immigrants include:

Godwin Settlers in New Zealand in the 19th Century
  • Esther Godwin, aged 28, a housekeeper, who arrived in Auckland, New Zealand aboard the ship "S.S. Arawa" in 1884
  • Esther Godwin, aged 28, a housekeeper, who arrived in Wellington, New Zealand aboard the ship "Arawa" in 1884

Contemporary Notables of the name Godwin (post 1700) +

  • Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin (1797-1851), birth name of Mary Shelley, English novelist, short story writer and dramatist, best known for her Gothic novel Frankenstein: or, The Modern Prometheus (1818)
  • Joscelyn Godwin (b. 1945), English composer, musicologist and translator from Kelmscott, Oxfordshire
  • George Godwin FRS (1815-1888), English architect, journalist, and editor of The Builder magazine (1844-1883)
  • Frank Godwin (1917-2012), English Daytime Emmy Award nominated film producer, best known for the film Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957)
  • Francis Godwin (1562-1633), English historian, science fiction author and Bishop of Llandaff and of Hereford, perhaps best known for his book The Man in the Moone, a "voyage of utopian discovery" written posthumously in 1638
  • Edward William Godwin (1833-1886), English architect-designer
  • Professor Sir Harry Godwin (1901-1985), prominent English botanist and ecologist
  • Wayne Godwin (b. 1982), English rugby league player
  • Henry Haversham Godwin -Austen (1834-1923), English topographer, geologist and surveyor
  • Sir Henry Thomas Godwin (1784-1853), British major-general, commanding the troops in the second Burmese War
  • . (Another 30 notables are available in all our PDF Extended History products and printed products wherever possible.)

Historic Events for the Godwin family +

Hillsborough disaster
  • Derrick George Godwin (1964-1989), English account clerk who was attending the FA Cup semi-final at Hillsborough Stadium, in Sheffield, Yorkshire when the stand allocated area became overcrowded and 96 people were crushed in what became known as the Hillsborough disaster and he died from his injuries [8]
HMS Royal Oak
  • William Godwin (d. 1939), British Able Seaman with the Royal Navy aboard the HMS Royal Oak when she was torpedoed by U-47 and sunk he died in the sinking [9]
  • Thomas George Godwin (1913-1939), British Leading Telegraphist with the Royal Navy aboard the HMS Royal Oak when she was torpedoed by U-47 and sunk he died in the sinking [9]
RMS Titanic
  • Mr. Frederick Charles Godwin (d. 1912), aged 35, English Greaser from Southampton, Hampshire who worked aboard the RMS Titanic and died in the sinking [10]

Related Stories +

The Godwin Motto +

The motto was originally a war cry or slogan. Mottoes first began to be shown with arms in the 14th and 15th centuries, but were not in general use until the 17th century. Thus the oldest coats of arms generally do not include a motto. Mottoes seldom form part of the grant of arms: Under most heraldic authorities, a motto is an optional component of the coat of arms, and can be added to or changed at will many families have chosen not to display a motto.

Motto: Fide et virtute
Motto Translation: By fidelity and valour.


Earl Godwin is probably first recorded in 1014, when Godwin, son of Wulfnoth, was left land at a place called Compton in the will of King Æthelred the Unready's son Æthelstan Ætheling. As Earl Godwin was later recorded as holding land at Compton in Sussex it is likely that he was the Godwin mentioned in Æthelstan Ætheling's will. Historians think that he was probably the son of the outlawed South Saxon thegn Wulfnoth Cild. In 1009 Wulfnoth was accused of unknown crimes at a muster of King Æthelred's fleet, and fled with twenty ships a force sent in pursuit was destroyed in a storm. [1] [2]

According to the twelfth-century chronicler John of Worcester, Godwin was the son of a Wulfnoth who was the son of Æthelmær, brother of Eadric Streona, both sons of an otherwise unknown Æthelric, but in the view of the historian Ann Williams this is chronologically impossible. [3] [4] If the relationship were true, the pedigree would result in a significant generational displacement, with two children of Æthelred the Unready marrying the son and great-great-granddaughter of Æthelric. Æthelred's daughter Eadgyth married Æthelric's son Eadric Streona, while Eadgyth's half-brother Edward the Confessor married Godwin's daughter Edith. If Godwin was Æthelric's great-grandson, then Edith was his great-great-granddaughter. David Kelley, however, argues that Edward, being a child of a later marriage, could have been almost a generation younger than his sister, and if both he and Eadric married much younger wives and if Eadric was among the youngest brothers of Æthelmær, this could close up the chronological differences. [5] John of Worcester also stated that Wulfnoth's rebellion was provoked by unjust charges brought by Eadric Streona's brother, Brihtric. [1]

The Life of Edward the Confessor, commissioned by his widow Edith, who was Harold's sister, is silent on her family's origin. In a section designed to eulogise her family, Godwin is described as "blessed in his ancestral stock", but nothing further is said of this stock. In the view of the historian Frank Barlow: "There is massive evasion here." [6] Historians generally discount a later medieval tradition that he was the son of a churl or a farmer. [4] In her Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (ODNB) article on Godwin's son, King Harold Godwinson, Robin Fleming says of Godwin: "The origins of this parvenu are extremely obscure." He was "the quintessential new man". [2] However, Williams says that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle's reference to "Wulfnoth cild the South Saxon" implies a man of rank (cild means child, young man, warrior) his ability to detach twenty ships from the royal fleet suggests a man of at least local importance. [7] Frank Barlow goes further, arguing that Godwin must have been of aristocratic origin, and that the family's massive land holdings in Sussex are indisputable evidence that the Wulfnoth who was Godwin's father was the Saxon thegn. [8]

A few scholars have put forward a genealogical reconstruction making the Godwins descend from Alfred the Great's elder brother, King Æthelred I of Wessex. The theory was first proposed by the historian Alfred Anscombe in 1913, [10] and advocated by the genealogist Lundie W. Barlow in 1957 [11] and the Mayanist scholar and genealogist David H. Kelley in 1989. [12]

The theory depends in part on tracing the ownership of certain estates, especially Compton in West Sussex, which was probably the Compton left to Æthelred's son Æthelhelm in Alfred the Great's will. [13] It was later in the possession of Wulfnoth, presumably confiscated after his rebellion, and left to "Godwin, Wulfnoth's son" in 1014 in Æthelstan Ætheling's will. [1] [14] Immediately before the bequest to Godwin is one to an "Ælmære". Calling him Ælmær, Anscombe identifies this legatee as Ealdorman Æthelmær the Stout, in his view the father of Wulfnoth Cild. [15] He supports this relationship with two further arguments. He finds significance in the occurrence in documents of an Æthelmær with the same epithet as Wulfnoth, Cild, [16] though another advocate of the theory, Lundie Barlow, found Anscombe's Cild argument "untenable". [17] Anscombe likewise places value in John of Worcester's pedigree that shows Godwin's father Wulfnoth as son of Agelmær, a brother of Eadric Streona. Though the Worcester chronicler gives his Agelmær a different father from the known father of Ealdorman Æthelmær, and Anscombe points out its inherent chronological problems, he argues that, though flawed, the pedigree retains the memory of a father-son relationship between Æthelmær the Stout and Wulfnoth Cild. [18] Æthelmær was the son of the late tenth-century chronicler and ealdorman Æthelweard, whose own writings record that he was descended from Æthelred I, although the exact nature of this descent has been debated. [19]

In his 2002 book The Godwins, Frank Barlow sympathetically examined the arguments put forward by Anscombe and Lundie Barlow. He included a family tree based on their work, showing Godwin's descent from Æthelred I, and at one point described Wulfnoth Cild as the son of Æthelmær the Stout. [20] Elsewhere he was more cautious, describing Wulfnoth as the probable son of Æthelmær, and questioning whether a family which had used names for seven generations almost all starting with Æthel- or Ælf- would suddenly have thrown up a Wulfnoth, particularly as Æthelmær the Stout's known sons continued the tradition. He stated nevertheless that "This pedigree, even if mistaken, is of the right type." [21]

Frank Barlow is almost alone among modern scholars in taking the theory seriously. Peter Rex, in his biography of Harold, describes Godwin as one of Cnut's new men, and dismisses claims that the family had aristocratic ancestry. [22] Emma Mason, in her history of the Godwin family, describes Wulfnoth as a mystery man who was probably a minor figure at court in the late tenth century, [23] and Ian Walker in his biography of Harold gives a similar description of Wulfnoth as "a relatively minor figure who attended court only infrequently". [24] Williams in her ODNB article on Godwin, [1] and Robin Fleming in her ODNB article on Harold, [2] do not mention the theory when discussing Godwin's ancestry, and according to Stenton: "Of his origin nothing can be said with any assurance." [25]

Even if Harold was descended from Æthelred I, it would not have given him a hereditary claim to the throne according to the rules of royal succession in later Anglo-Saxon England. Eligibility was confined to æthelings, that is throne-worthy princes of the royal house. In earlier Anglo-Saxon times, eligibility depended on descent from the fifth- or sixth-century founder of each kingdom, but it later became more restricted. According to David Dumville: "The Anglo-Saxon ætheling in the period from the ninth-century Scandinavian settlements to the Norman Conquest was a prince of the royal house. He shared with the reigning king descent from a common grandfather at least". [26] All known West Saxon æthelings after 900 were the sons of kings except for Harold's rival for the throne in 1066, Edgar the Ætheling, who was the grandson of King Edmund Ironside. Edgar was thus an ætheling according to Dumville's definition, but in the view of Pauline Stafford, only the son of a present or former king could be an ætheling, and when Edward the Confessor gave this designation to his great-nephew Edgar, it was a form of adoption without known recent precedent, because for the first time since the beginning of the ninth century there was no living ætheling in the strict sense of a son of a king. [27]

Godwin's wife, and the mother of his children including Harold and Edith, was Gytha Thorkelsdóttir. Her father was Thorgils Sprakaleg, a Dane whose origin is unknown, although he was probably a Dane from Scania, which was then in Denmark but is now part of Sweden. Gytha was very well connected as her brother Ulf married King Cnut's sister Estrith. Cnut probably arranged the marriage between Godwin and Gytha in about 1022. [28]

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After a hard-fought battle that lasted all day, the Norman force defeated Harold’s army and the King of England lay slain on the battlefield. The Norman cavalry proved the difference – Harold’s force was made up entirely of infantry.

Harold is killed by an arrow through the eye. On the Bayeux Tapestry.

A figure is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry as being killed at the Battle of Hastings by an arrow in the eye. Although some scholars dispute whether this is Harold, the writing above the figure states Harold Rex interfectus est,

Cnut and the Rise of Earl Godwin

One of Cnut’s first tasks following his coronation at Christmas 1016AD, was to strengthen his grip on the new realm. He divided England into four parts with himself in Wessex, Thorkil the Tall in East Anglia, Eadric Streona in Mercia and Eric Hlathir in Northumbria.

Eric Hlathir or Hakonarson had been Regent in Norway, ruling on behalf of Cnut’s father Forkbeard until 1015AD, when the Norwegians threw off Danish rule at the Battle of Nesjar and Olaf Haraldsson regained the throne.

With these lieutenants in charge, Cnut hoped to quell any opposition before it could become established. He later granted a number of lesser Earldoms on the borders of Wales, Scotland and Cornwall to protect these regions from raiders. One such new Earl was Godwin, the son of Wulfnoth, a Suffolk thane who had turned to piracy during Ethelred’s reign, had been exiled and his estates forfeited. Godwin became a supporter of Edmund Ironside in his battles against Cnut, but following Edmund’s death, had sworn fealty to the Danish king. His support for Cnut in crushing a rebellion in Denmark was rewarded by being made Earl of Devon and later, Earl of Wessex.

He was further advanced when he married Cnut’s sister Thyra Sveinsdottir, who died without issue shortly after. He was later to marry Gytha Thorkilsdottir, sister of Ulf Jarl, later Earl of Denmark and great granddaughter of the old Danish King Harald Bluetooth. She was to bear him six sons and four daughters, the most famous being Harold who was to take the English throne on the death of Edward the Confessor.

Cnut’s faith in the scheming Eadric Streona (the name is thought to mean “Grasper”) was soon seen to be misplaced and at Christmas 1017AD, while playing chess together, Cnut became angry at losing and demanded that the rules be changed. Eadric refused, and the king in his rage asked how he could trust Eadric in any matter in view of his previous defections. Eadric replied, also in anger, that he had killed Edmund Ironside on behalf of Cnut and deserved better treatment. Cnut had been supposedly unaware of Eadric’s hand in Edmund’s death and had him executed on the spot with an axe by Eric Hlathir.

There have been a number of different stories concerning the death of Edmund. The consensus is that he died from natural causes or from wounds received at the battle of Ashdon. The chronicler Geoffrey Gaimar however, tells of Edmund being murdered on the privy by the sons of Eadric Streona using a crossbow positioned in the midden pit to fire through the toilet seat. He states that the missile passed so far into his body that it could not be extracted.

This is disputed by some historians who claim that the crossbow was unknown in England until the Battle of Hastings in 1066AD when records first show wages for crossbowmen being paid. This version is again disputed by some who claim that a primitive crossbow known as a Skane Lockbow was used in 985AD in the Battle of Hjorungavgr, a battle at which Thorkil the Tall was present and proves at least that the weapon was known and used during the period.

Eadric’s head was cut off and placed on a spike on London Bridge and his body thrown into the Thames, thus fulfilling Cnut’s earlier promise to “raise Eadric higher than anyone else”. The Chronicle states that Eadric’s execution was “rightly done” and William of Malmesbury writes “Eadric was the refuse of mankind and a reproach unto the English”.

Cnut replaced Eadric with Leofwine, an Anglo Saxon survivor of Ethelred’s reign. When he died in 1030AD, his son Leofric took over and is chiefly remembered in history as the husband of the legendary Lady Godiva.

Normandy at this time was a Dukedom in feudal subordination to the French king and after some years of baronial feuding in Brittany, began to view England as a potential target for expansion. They were, after all, only one remove from the Vikings who had been carving England up for the previous 200 years and had already successfully laid claim to parts of southern Europe, why not England?

With Cnut’s succession, Ethelred’s sons Edward and Alfred by his wife Emma fled to their kin in Normandy and Cnut became aware of the need to keep the Normans “onside” and promptly married Ethelred’s widow, thus linking his line to that of Duke Richard of Normandy. Cnut already had a consort Aelgyfu, married in the Danish custom, but not recognised by the English church. The marriage had produced two sons, Harold Harefoot and Swein. A precondition of the marriage to Emma was that the sons of their union would stand in line for the English throne before Cnut’s older sons or Emma’s sons by Ethelred.

The marriage produced two children, Harthacanute (sometimes called Hardicanute) and Gunhilda, Cnut was later to pledge that Harthacanute would inherit both his English and Scandinavian kingdoms, another move designed to keep the aggressive Normans content. Gunhilda was later to marry Prince Henry of Germany. Emma’s marriage was not popular with sections of the clergy who refused to recognize her as queen and did not want any offspring of Emma and Cnut to succeed to the throne, preferring Ethelred’s sons, be they Aelgifu’s or Emma’s. She was frequently referred to as Emma Aelgyfu, taken to mean lesser or second.

In 1018AD, Cnut received his last payment of Danegeld which, according to the Chronicle, amounted to seventy two thousand pounds, plus eleven thousand pounds being paid by London. He sent a large part of his army, mainly mercenaries, home to Scandinavia, leaving just forty ships in England which would indicate that he now felt secure in his new realm. He retained a force of 3000 soldiers as an elite bodyguard to keep the peace in his new realm and stationed them at strategic points around the country.

His brother Harald, King of Denmark died that year and Cnut returned home to claim the kingdom, proclaiming that as king of both countries, Danish raids against England would now cease. This did not please many of the Danes who looked upon such raids as their right. It was in the ensuing rebellion that Godwin aided Cnut and was later rewarded.

While in Denmark Cnut wrote a letter to England explaining that he had to deal with dissenters to ensure that Denmark was free to assist England and promised to uphold English law. He goes on, “if anyone, ecclesiastic or lay, Dane or Englishman is so presumptuous as to defy God’s law and my royal authority or secular laws, I then pray and also command Earl Thorkil, if he can, to cause the evil doer to do right and if he cannot, then it is my will that with the power of us both, we shall destroy him in the land or drive him out of the land”.

With Denmark now safe, he appointed Thorkil the Tall as Regent of Denmark and returned to England and began a programme of reconciliation. In 1020AD, he held a great council at Cirencester with Danes, Englishmen and clergy, confirming that English law would be upheld. He re-instated a number of laws that had lapsed during the years of turmoil, notably those concerning Inheritance, Intestacy and Relief.

He strengthened the currency and introduced new coinage of equal weight to that in use in Denmark and other areas of Scandinavia. This resulted in the growth of English trade markets and benefit to the economy. He began a programme of rebuilding and repairing churches and monasteries that had been destroyed or looted by his forces and made many fine gifts to them. Among the problems he faced in England was the conflict between his Christian and pagan followers. He wished to rule as a noble Christian king and ordered his followers to submit to the Christian religion.

This did not suit the solidly pagan Thorkil who refused and in 1021AD, was exiled by the king. Cnut appointed his brother-in-law, Ulf Jarl as Earl of Denmark and placed his son Harthacanute in Ulf’s care to learn Danish customs in preparation for his role as the future king of Denmark. He also appointed Sweyn, his son by Aelgyfu, regent although the real power lay with Ulf. With Cnut in England the Swedish king Anund Jakob together with the Norwegian king Olaf Haraldsson, began to make raids on Denmark. This suited Ulf Jarl who used the attacks to incite Danish freeman to support Olaf and later to declare Harthacanute as king, a ruse designed to place royal power in his hands as caretaker and protector.

Cnut was determined to regain control of Norway and began making plans for war stating that, if Olaf wished to remain a king, he would do so as a vassal of Cnut’s. He then forged an alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor Conrad the Salic. This alliance gained Cnut some disputed territory to the south of Denmark and also ensured that Conrad would not intervene should Cnut invade Norway. In 1021AD, Cnut raided the Baltic fortress of Jornsborg, signalling his intention of taking back the lost parts of his father’s old empire. It was at this time that he was reconciled to Thorkil although the old warrior was never to return to England.

Cnut and the Rise of Earl Godwin

Ulf’s rebellion was growing and in 1026AD, Cnut was back in Denmark to suppress the rebels and press the war with Norway. Having accomplished the former, even forgiving Ulf, the two met a combined force of Swedes and Norwegians led by Olaf Haraldsson and Anund Olafsson at the Battle of Helgea or Holy River. Although Cnut was defeated it was the enemy who retreated and were forced to flee to Sweden, leaving Cnut free to take control of Scandinavia.

Despite Ulf’s help in the battle, Cnut was still not totally convinced of his loyalty and when the two met at Roskilde at Christmas, an argument broke out between them over a chess game. You would think that Ulf would have been aware of the similar circumstance in which Eadric Streona was killed on Cnut’s order years before and perhaps try to placate Cnut, but the two parted in anger. The next day one of Cnut’s house-carls murdered Ulf in the church of the Holy Trinity, probably on his master’s order.

Clearly feeling that he now had everything under control, Cnut made a visit to Rome to the coronation of the new Holy Roman Emperor. It is thought that he also wished to seek forgiveness for the killing of Ulf in a holy place. In an audience with the Pope he negotiated a reduction in the costs of the pallium for English Archbishops as well as arranging for lower taxes on English pilgrims travelling through Europe and a promise of better protection for them in the region. On his return to England he again sent out a letter to his subjects giving details of his negotiations, this time signing himself as “King of all England and Denmark and the Norwegians and some of the Swedes”.

The Scots had, in his absence, began raiding south again and in 1027AD, Cnut travelled north with a large army, forcing King Malcolm and Earls Macbeth and Ichmarc to bow and render homage to him. This oath of fealty to the English throne made by many Scottish rulers, was just as regularly broken. A year later Cnut was back in Norway fighting Olaf and, as the Chronicle relates, “drove him from the land and secured his claim on it”. He was crowned in Trondheim, confirming the rather grand title he had taken for himself.

In 1032AD, the Chronicle reported, as it often did in times of unrest, that, “wildfire appeared, such as no man remembered before. It did damage everywhere, even in many holy places”.

Cnut died on the 12th of November 1035AD at Shaftsbury in Dorset. He was buried in the Old Minster which, following the Norman invasion, was knocked down to make way for Winchester Cathedral. His remains, along with Emma’s and Harthacanute’s, were placed in mortuary chests. During the English Civil War in the 17th century, plundering soldiers scattered all the bones on the floor. They were later gathered and replaced among the various chests, together with the remains of king Edwy, queen Elgiva and William Rufus.

It is ironic that a man who had accomplished so much, had successfully invaded England and made it a vassal state, held Denmark, regained Norway and part of Sweden and established dominion over it all as king and who was cruel enough to spitefully maim and disfigure hostages at Sandwich and casually order the murders of Eadric Streona, Uhtred of Northumbria and Ulf Jarl, yet could negotiate with Popes and Emperors, elevate the clergy and rebuild places of worship, and be mainly remembered for a legendary occasion at Bosham when some sycophantic courtiers suggested that his worldly power was limitless and he supposedly commanded the incoming tide to retreat to disprove the notion.

A great meeting was held in Oxford following Cnut’s death, attended by many Earls, counsellors and clergy to discuss the accession. Harthacanute, now King of Denmark, was unable to attend the meeting due to renewed invasion threats from Magnus of Norway and Anund of Sweden. Earl Godwin and the nobles of Wessex, in accordance with Cnut’s wishes, wanted Harthacanute to take the English throne. Leofric and other northern thanes however demanded that the crown be given to Harold Harefoot, Cnut’s son by Aelgyfu. The cognomen “Harefoot” is thought to be a reference to his skill and speed while hunting.

Godwin took Emma and the royal treasure into his “safe keeping” and began to promote Hathacanute’s cause. Godwin and queen Emma tried to persuade the meeting to elect Harold as regent until Harthacanute could return, but the northern faction won the argument and Harold was duly installed as king. He did not make much of a mark in history and his mother Aelgyfu was thought to be the real power in England during his reign.

The once united kingdoms were now riven with Harold ruling England, Harthacanute in Denmark and Magnus of Norway taking the opportunity to raise rebellion and reclaim his throne.

Emma was taken to safety in Winchester, guarded by Godwin, but Harold was swift to visit her and demand the royal treasures. In 1037AD, she escaped to Bruges and found refuge there.

To make matters worse, Alfred Atheling, the son of Ethelred and Emma, chose to visit England in the same year. The visit was supposedly to see his mother, but it is thought that he also wanted to test the mood of the people for his own, or his brothers bid for the throne. He was met and entertained at Guildford by Godwin but, was then attacked by Godwin’s men and handed over to Harefoot. The Chronicle reports that his followers were”killed wretchedly, some were chained, some blinded, some mutilated and some scalped”.

Alfred himself was put on a ship and taken to Ely where he was cruelly blinded and mutilated by Harold Harefoot’s men. He died from these wounds shortly after and it was this episode which caused much enmity later between Harold Godwinson and Edward the Confessor who blamed Godwinson for his brother’s death.

Harold Harefoot died at Oxford on the 17th of March 1040AD at a time when his half brother Harthacanute, also known as Hardicanute, having made peace with Magnus of Norway was preparing an invasion to take the English throne which, in accordance with his father’s wishes, he believed was rightly his. Harthacanute landed at Sandwich on the 17th of June 1040AD, with a fleet of sixty two warships. His reception was peaceful and he assumed the English throne later that year. One of his first acts was to have Harold exhumed, beheaded and thrown into a fen bordering the Thames. Harold’s supporters later rescued the body and reburied it in a London church now known as St Clement’s Dane.

With Harold dead, the opportunist Godwin quickly gave his support to Harthacanute. The new king was far from popular however, due to his increases in taxation to pay for his fleet and when in 1041AD, two of his housecarls were killed in Worcester while collecting taxes, he retaliated by burning the town. He is also thought to have ordered the murder of the northern Jarl Edwulf, who he believed was plotting against him. It is thought that the Lady Godiva legend of her riding naked through the streets of Coventry to persuade her husband, Leofric, Earl of Mercia, to lower taxes stems from this time.

The Chronicle dismisses Harold with a rather bald statement that, “He never accomplished anything kingly for as long as he ruled”, and goes on to say, “Then were alienated from him all that before had desired him. He ordered the dead Harold to be deagged up and thrown in a ditch. He was king over all England two years, wanting ten days. And his mother, for his soul, gave New Minster the head of St Valentine”.

Harthacanute never married although he was thought to have fathered one illegitimate son, William. With the succession probably in mind, he invited his half brother Edward the Confessor back from exile in Normandy to join his household and, according to the Chronicle “was sworn in as future king”. Godwin, described in the Chronicles as “a man of ready wit” quickly moved to ingratiate himself to Edward and became his mentor. Harthacanute died at the wedding of a daughter of one of his thanes, Osgod Clapa, on the 10th of June 1042AD, “while standing at his drink and suddenly fell to earth with an awful convulsion”, and those who were close took hold of him and he spoke no word afterwards”.

This would indicate either a stroke or perhaps poison. He was buried at Winchester and Edward assumed the throne, thus restoring the Saxon royal line of Wessex.

Height of power: support of Harold [ edit | edit source ]

On 12 November 1035, Cnut died. His kingdoms were divided among three rival rulers. Harold Harefoot, Cnut's illegitimate son with Ælfgifu of Northampton, seized the throne of England. Harthacnut, Cnut's legitimate son with Emma of Normandy, reigned in Denmark. Norway rebelled under Magnus the Noble. In 1035, the throne of England was reportedly claimed by Alfred Ætheling, younger son of Emma of Normandy and Æthelred the Unready, and half-brother of Harthacnut. Godwin is reported to have either captured Alfred himself or to have deceived him by pretending to be his ally and then surrendering him to the forces of Harold Harefoot. Either way Alfred was blinded and soon died at Ely.

In 1040, Harold Harefoot died and Godwin supported the accession of his half-brother Harthacnut to the throne of England. When Harthacnut himself died in 1042 Godwin supported the claim of Æthelred's last surviving son Edward the Confessor to the throne. Edward had spent most of the previous thirty years in Normandy. His reign restored the native royal house of Wessex to the throne of England.

The Rebellion of Earl Godwin.

EARL GODWIN of Wessex was the most formidable figure in Edward the Confessor's England. He had first come to prominence as a henchman of Canute and by his well-connected Danish wife he had strong-minded sons to support him. The vicious eldest son, Swein, and the second son, Harold, were both earls themselves and in 1045 they became the king's brothers-in-law when the Confessor married Godwin's daughter Edith. The king, however, resented the Godwin family's dominance and showed a partiality for Norman and French advisers which angered them. In 1051 Edward's insistence on appointing a Norman, Robert of Jumieges, as Archbishop of Canterbury against Godwin's wishes raised the temperature and tensions came to a head at the beginning of September when there was a violent affray at Dover between some of the townsfolk and the retinue of Count Eustace of Boulogne, who was on a visit to King Edward. The King ordered Godwin to punish Dover by harrying the town.

The earl flatly refused and with Swein and Harold assembled an army and threatened Gloucester, where the Confessor was holding court, demanding action against the foreigners for the disgrace brought on the king and his people. The King was taken aback, but two other earls, Siward of Northumbria and Leofric of Mercia (Lady Godiva's husband), brought him enough men to counter Godwin's army. Neither side really wanted to fight and it was agreed that there would be a meeting of the Witan, the royal council, in London at Michaelmas, at which Godwin and his sons would speak their piece.

The King now turned the tables on Godwin by calling out the militia of all England, which meant that even in the Godwins' own earldoms many men were duty bound to join a force opposing them. By the time the Godwins arrived at Southwark in readiness for the council meeting, their army had melted away. The King pressed his advantage home by outlawing Swein and ordering Godwin and Harold to explain themselves before the Witan, while refusing to give them hostages for their safety. Godwin took to his horse and made for his manor of Bosham on the Sussex coast while the king declared him and his family outlaws and gave them five days to leave the country. The earl and his wife with Swein and two of the younger sons, Tostig and Gurth, took ship from Bosham for Flanders. Harold and another brother, Leofwin, left for Ireland from Bristol. The King confiscated the Godwins' estates and completed his deliverance from the family by sending his wife away to a nunnery.

Edward had acted with unaccustomed decisiveness, but his deliverance did not last long. He brought in more Norman advisers and, it seems, promised the succession to the English throne to Duke William of Normandy. English hostility to Normans mounted and when Godwin arrived on the coast of Kent with a fleet of warships in the summer of 1052, the south-east rallied to him. With Harold returning from Ireland in support, Godwin was able to move on London and force the King to restore him to power. The earl and his sons were put in an unassailable position (Godwin himself died in 1053) and there was never again any realistic possibility of William of Normandy obtaining England except by force.

Edward the Confessor, King of England

Edward the Confessor was the last Anglo-Saxon king who could trace his ancestry back to King Alfred the Great and King Cerdic of Wessex. He was the great-great-great grandson of Alfred and he died childless, leaving England open to conquest from overseas.

Edward’s father was Aethelred the Unready, the hapless king who was besieged by the Vikings on all coasts. In 1002, he was widowed and contracted a marriage with Emma of Normandy, the sister of Richard, Duke of Normandy. Edward was born at Islip in Oxfordshire within the first two years of his parents wedding. Edward’s mother was a formidable woman but his father was not someone he could look up to and he may even have been ashamed of him. Aethelred was in an impossible situation with all the attacks and when Edward was about ten, his father was deposed and the whole family had to go into exile under the protection of Edward’s uncle in Normandy.

Aethelred was restored to the throne of England in 1014 and Edward was given a chance to serve his future subjects. Instead of appearing in England himself, Aethelred sent Edward to represent him at great risk to Edward’s life. Edward carried out the mission well and the Witan (council) banned any future Danish kings due to his model behavior. But two years later, Aethelred had died and Edward and his brother Alfred were back in Normandy. Their half brother, Edmund Ironside was fighting to keep the throne from the Danish King Cnut. By the end of 1016, Edmund was dead and Cnut convinced the Witan to elect him King of England.

In order to keep her place of power, Edward’s mother Emma married King Cnut. Emma made Cnut swear no sons by any other wife or mistress could inherit the throne other than her sons, in essence abandoning Edward and Alfred. She was to have a son Harthacnut in 1018 who was to become her favorite. Edward and Alfred were in exile and in limbo and the only one keeping them from possible assassination was their mother.

Edward and Alfred grew to manhood in the custody of their uncle who didn’t want to risk sponsoring their return to the throne. Cnut died in 1035 and their prospects turned a little brighter. Cnut’s illegitimate son, Harold Harefoot had seized the throne but Emma was fighting to get her son Harthacnut on the throne. Harthacnut was in Denmark and was taking his time coming back. In 1036, Edward and Alfred both returned with forces to England. Edward turned back realizing he was outnumbered. Alfred landed with larger forces but was greeted by Godwin, Earl of Wessex. Godwine was the most powerful earl in the kingdom and an alliance between the sons of Aethelred and King Harold Harefoot was a threat to his position. Godwin attacked and decimated Alfred’s forces and took custody of Alfred. He had Alfred’s eyes gouged out, unmercifully mutilating him. Alfred was taken to the monks at Ely and left to die of his gruesome wounds. This may have deterred Edward from trying again to gain the throne and he may have felt guilty about the death of his brother. One thing is certain, he never forgave Godwin for murdering his brother.

The English soon grew tired of the antics of Harthacnut and Harold Harefoot. Harthacnut had finally prevailed and ruled as King from March 1040 until his death at a drunken wedding celebration in June 1042. Edward was in Normandy when he got the news. He returned to England and the Witan elected him King. He was enthroned at Canterbury and later crowned at the Old Minster at Winchester on April 3, 1043.

Edward needed Godwin of Wessex and his power base to shore up his own power. Godwin had escaped being punished for Alfred’s death by giving gifts to Harthacnut and insisting that Harold Harefoot had made him do it. At the very least, Edward knew Godwin was responsible for this brother’s death. Edward needed all the help he could get to fight a looming threat of invasion by Magnus of Norway. Edward strengthened the naval fleet and was on alert every year until Magnus died in 1047. In the meantime, Edward’s mother Emma may have conspired with Magnus. This was a massive betrayal by Emma and in mid- November 1043, Edward and the most important nobles rode to Winchester to take the treasury keys away from Emma who had guarded the treasury since Harthacnut’s death. Edward let her live out the rest of her life in relative peace but with no authority.

From 1046 to 1051, Edward was in a continuous power struggle with Godwin. His only saving grace was the family was divided amongst themselves. Edward detested Godwin but knew that civil strife was the only answer to the struggle and he didn’t want to risk starting a war. Earl Godwin’s ambition knew no bounds and he set about carving out earldoms for his many sons and persuaded Edward to marry his daughter Edith.

In 1051, Eustace of Boulogne, brother-in-law to Edward, made a state visit and started a brawl in Dover with the townspeople. Eustace’s motives are a mystery. Edward ordered Godwin to ravage Dover and the surrounding area. He refused and actually brought his army to defy Edward. Edward raised a larger army and Godwin’s support began to waiver. Godwin and his sons refused to come before the Witan and explain themselves. Edward gave them five days to leave the country. They left for Flanders and Edward banned Edith to a nunnery. Edward’s victory seemed complete but there was now a power vacuum in the South which Edward had a hard time filling. Also in 1051, it’s possible that young William, Duke of Normandy visited England and Edward may have promised him the throne at this time.

In 1052, Godwin and his sons returned and invaded. Edward was forced to negotiate, restoring Godwin and all his sons and recalling Edith from the nunnery. Seven months later Godwin collapsed and died of a stroke while dining with Edward. Edward never fully recovered from this invasion and seizure of his power by Godwin. After the great Earl’s death, his son Harold Godwinson stepped in to fill the void.

In the last ten years of Edward’s reign, Harold Godwinson became the foremost general in the kingdom, mostly by fighting the Welsh. Edward withdrew more and more into religious life and concentrated on building his legacy, West Minster on the north bank of the Thames. He cultivated a reputation for sanctity and may have initiated the practice of the king touching and healing people with “the king’s evil”, scrofula, a form of tuberculosis. Kings were to follow this practice until the 18th Century.

He recalled his nephew Edward the Exile from Hungary, who mysteriously died shortly after arriving in England leaving a young son, Edgar Aetheling and daughter Margaret, who was to become Queen of Scotland. Edward sent Harold Godwinson to Normandy, possibly to assure William of Normandy he would inherit the throne. William possibly made Harold swear he would act as regent until he could come to England to claim his inheritance. This saga is told in the Bayeux Tapestry.

Edward managed to prevent Godwin and his power hungry sons from seizing total power but was able to use the best of their abilities to his advantage. He was upstanding and pious, making him a cut above some of the ruthless and treacherous men around him. He came to the throne in his forties, ruled for 24 years and managed to consecrate his beloved West Minster on December 28, 1065. He died in his sixties on January 5, 1066. Harold Godwinson exploited the reality of the situation on the death of Edward with the country facing invasion by the Norwegian king and William of Normandy. He had himself declared king by the Witan. The new West Minster saw the funeral of Edward and the crowning of Harold. Harold was to lose the throne to William of Normandy at the Battle of Hastings in October of 1066.

Rumors of miracles attributed to Edward began before he died. It was believed by many he was celibate due to his childless marriage. “The Life of King Edward” commissioned by his wife Queen Edith was instrumental in recording his holy life. There was scant evidence of miracles before his death and even scantier proof and downright fabricated miracles after his death, such as cures at his tomb and visions by others. More evidence of miracles does not appear until 1134. Canonization was sought in 1138-1139 but the Pope was not convinced. After 36 years, the body of Edward was disinterred and said to be intact with his long white beard curled upon his chest. This was a convincing sign of a Saint. In 1161, King Henry II and Westminster requested canonization from Pope Alexander III and he approved Edward as a Saint and Confessor. In 1269, King Henry III translated the remains of Edward to his new tomb in the newly rebuilt Westminster Abbey.

Shrine of Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey

Further reading: “Edward the Confessor” by Frank Barlow, “Saxon Kings” and “The Fall of Saxon England” by Richard Humble, “1066: The Hidden History in the Bayeux Tapestry” by Andrew Bridgford

Watch the video: Earl Godwin 2