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Kingmakers - The Story of the House of Godwin

King Cnut and his wife Ælfgyfu (Emma) depicted presenting an altar cross to New Minster cathederal, Winchester. It's called the 'Liber Vitæ', and was written in about 1031AD. We can only wonder if Cnut thought that this image was a good likeness. How does that cloak of his stay on his sholders?
*Cnut and Emma

The sire of the House of Godwin first appeared in the early days of the reign of Cnut. The documents of the time are curiously silent about his origins. It easy to make the assumption that a man that rose to wield such great power must have made strenuous efforts to suppress details of his origin for us to know so little about it. One story is that he was the son of a Sussex Thegn, others that he was related to a noble house. Another tale has it that a Danish Jarl named Ulf got lost during Cnut's invasion and was guided back to his ships by a handsome, well-spoken youth to whom he took such a fancy that he married him to his sister. Whatever the right of it, Godwin was careful to keep his origins secret.

Cnut liked him at any rate. He made him an Eorl and married him to Ulf's sister. Jarl Ulf was Cnut's brother-in-law, so it was an ideal thing. It put Godwin in the heart of the Anglo-Scandinavian power base. Godwin commanded an army for Cnut in Denmark and, although only in his early twenties, became the King's companion and closest advisor. For the rest of his life, Godwin remained the most powerful man in the Kingdom, not always excepting the King. Cnut left him as sub regulus whenever he was out of the country.

When Cnut died at the age of forty in 1035, he was briefly succeeded by his sons Harold and Harthacnut in quick succession. Both were disasters as kings and died young, Harold died in his bed of some illness, but Harthacnut went out in some style. He rose to propose the health of the bride and her groom at a wedding party, fell to the ground in a fit and died without regaining his wits. "Elfshot", the Saxons called it. Good name, too.

It was put about afterwards by the Normans that Godwin was implicated in the cruel death of the hapless Alfred, younger brother of Edward who later became King. The story goes that during the short reign of Harold Harefoot, Edward and Alfred - then living at court in Normandy - ventured back into England. We don't know why. Edward stayed in Southampton, but Alfred and a party of Norman friends visited Eorl Godwin. Although protected by guest law, Alfred was handed over into the care of Harold. It is unclear now (and was then, too) whether Eorl Godwin had any hand in it, or whether it was an idea of Harold's for which Godwin got the blame. He was an powerful and able man, so it is reasonable to assume that if Godwin wanted you gone, you would vanish quietly, without fuss and far away from Godwin! No one knows why, but Harold or a group of Norsemen had him blinded and they made such a hash of the job that Alfred bled to death or died from a resulting infection. Subsequently, Godwin was tried by the Witan and acquitted, not once, but twice!

In 1042, he supported Edward, later called Confessor, and led the Witan against Danish claims. So it was that England had an English King again. The house of Godwin continued to pluck at the strings of power, putting his daughter in Edward's bed as Queen and his brood of largely able sons into positions of increasing power. Every family has a black sheep. The Godwin's were no exception, for they had Swein. He was always in trouble, but only got himself exiled when he seduced an Abbess, an unusual sin, to say the least. As a matter of interest, the fine for seducing a free woman was sixty shillings at a time when the fine for the rape of a female slave was sixty five shillings, at a time when two pence was an average days wages. Anyway, he got sent abroad, but the King soon pardoned him and he came home. He'd not been home long, though, when he murdered his cousin Beorn.

This was more serious. He was exiled and told that he would only be welcome in England again if he made a Pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Typical of a Godwin, he walked all the way there barefoot but died of the plague in Constantinople on the way home, poor chap. One may imagine the mixed feelings of his father, who, at one fell swoop, had lost his eldest son and a difficult man to have in the family!

The Godwins and Edward the Confessor were very different people. Hearty, red faced and able, they had an energy that must have seemed tiresome to the thoughtful, introverted Edward. Harold, now heir to the family fortunes, gradually assumed the reigns of power. He was a man of the table, the hunt and a well-turned ankle. He was hand-fasted (our equivalent would be married in Common Law) to Edith Svannashals (of the Swan Neck) who bore him children. Her house was just a few miles from Waltham Abbey, where - by tradition - his bones lie. It was what is still called in Royal circles a Danish Marriage. It was understood that important men would often marry for love in their youth and for more solid reasons in middle age. Thus, hand fasted relationships could be broken as they were not sanctified by Holy Church, a nasty invidious Norman custom that was just coming in.

King Edward seems to have been content for the Godwin's to run his Kingdom for him, something that they did with fairness and skill for the most part. He does seem to have taken a silent glee in being difficult with Harold. It was probably his only diversion. There were Godwin's everywhere. They filled four of the six great Earldoms, Edward was married to Harold's sister (not that he seems to have taken much advantage of her, so to speak) and there were young Godwins lurking around every corner of his palace, waiting to be noticed. Nonetheless, in 1051 Godwin and Edward fell out badly.

Edward had spent a lot of years in Normandy and his particular friend was Count Eustace of Boulogne who was also his brother-in-law. After visiting the king, Eustace and his retinue were on their way back to Normandy via Dover. The Normans rode into the town and demanded accommodation. One householder refused to admit some armed foreign stranger into his house and was attacked and wounded for his trouble. The fight spread until nearly forty people had died, many of them Normans. Count Eustace rode back to the King and demanded revenge. The King was furious that his friend had been attacked and sent for Godwin, demanding that the town - which was in Godwin's Eorldom - was punished. Godwin replied reasonably enough that he would not do so before the case had been heard, which drove the King into one of his rare blind rages, during which he was beyond all reason. Incited further by his Norman friends around the court, Edward again accused Godwin of the murder of his brother Alfred of which the Witan had twice acquitted him, twelve years before.

Civil war was only just averted, with the King and his foreign advisors on one bank of the Thames and Godwin on the other. In the end, the assembled armies never struck a blow, as all the Eorls who were not directly involved refused to allow Englishmen to fight each other over such a thing.

Harold and that curious response to Halley's comet
*Harold from the Bayeux Tapestry

Dover remained unpunished, but Godwin and his sons were given five days to leave the country. This they did, the King sending his wife to the nunnery at Wherwell and deprived her of all she possessed.

It couldn't last. Word spread of the King's actions and public opinion rose against him. Englishmen had had the two things for which they were prepared to fight denied to them: the right to live in peace in their houses and the right to the protection of the law. And by a foreigner, too.

The following year, 1052, Godwin returned without the King's permission. He landed in the Isle of Wight and sailed along the southern boundary of his Eorldom. He was well greeted and provisioned and given whatever he asked for: ships, men and hostages. The Eorls Odda and Aelfgar fled before him, but he followed them into the Thames and, waiting for the tide, lowered his masts and drifted under London bridge on the rise. He anchored along the south bank next to Thorney island in that land which had been part of his Eorldom. He sent to the King, not with an ultimatum, but with expressions of loyalty and support, asking that what had been his should be restored to him and his family.

The King refused and Godwin's men said they would fight cheerfully against him. Godwin sent again to the intractable King, but he was adamant. In the ensuing stalemate - no doubt while men looked to their war gear and ate a meal - the Witan, led by Stigant, the Bishop of Winchester, crossed the river to seek a solution that would not involve the shedding of blood.

Archbishop Robert and Bishop Alf, with the King's Norman and French advisors took fright and made a run for the coast. They had to fight their way out of the Eastgate of the city "..... killing or wounding many young men." as the Chronicle tells us. They fled the country from Bristol " ...... in a crazy ship."

Hobson's choice for the King. A Folk gemot was assembled, during which Godwin made a speech declaring that he and his family were innocent of any crime. The King gave in with poor grace, gave back the lands and privileges, recalled his wife from her nunnery and agreed with the Witan, who made a public statement blaming the King's foreign advisors for all the trouble. Stigant, who had forged the peace, was made Archbishop of Canterbury.

At Easter in 1053, Eorl Godwin died of a stroke at the King's table at Winchester. Norman propagandists made much of the tale, but it isn't likely that the King really believed the old tale about his brother's murder, or perhaps he did, but thought better of it. In any event, Godwin's lands passed intact to his second son, Harold, who took up the reigns of power so successfully, that he ran the country with increasing efficiency and the peoples respect and goodwill. In due time, the King recognised Harold's efforts and he was declared Dux Anglorum, a title created for him. Sometimes, he was even described as Dei Gratia, Dux (by the grace of God, Duke). No-one had ever said before that anyone except the King ruled by the grace of God.

Tostig, Harold's younger brother, seems to have been a pious man. He made up for his good points, though. He was not a man who handled power well, repressing the common folk and not flinching from murder to get his way. He was fifteen when Edward came to the throne and there is some reason to believe that he was the King's favourite. Be that as it may, in 1065, whilst the King was out hunting, he met a southbound Northumbrian army. Tostig's Eorldom was in popular revolt against him. Harold was dispatched to look into it. Tostig had over taxed the people, despoiled their churches and bent the law to his own ends.

The Northumbrian Thegns convinced Harold they would not have his brother back at any price and marched further south to Oxford to make their point more clearly. The King was incensed, but when he sent for an army to crush the revolt, none arrived. Like his father before him, Harold had governed the country by and with the consent of the people and the King was made to see for the second time in his life, that the English people considered that the law was for all and not even the King could defy it. The King reluctantly banished Tostig and Harold made an implacable and somewhat paranoid enemy.

Tostig toured all the courts of Europe, looking for support. He found none until he came to the court of Harald Hardrada, king of Norway. Harald had fought unsuccessfully against Harold Godwins son's cousin Ulf, king of Denmark, in a twelve year long campaign. He now had a large standing army who had done nothing for two years. Tostig probably told Harald of an impending division in the English state. Perhaps Hardrada could see that if he got his foot in the Northumbrian door before William got across the channel, he might even divide the Kingdom of the English with him. The possibilities must have seemed endless. He sent Tostig back to England to see how the land lay whilst he gathered his army and shipped them oversea.

Tostig appeared in the Isle of Wight briefly to bully provisions out of the people there and sailed to the Humber where he got a bloody nose for his pains from the Mercian Eorls Morkere and Edwin. Ever a popular leader (!), all Tostig's shipmen forsook him and he escaped to Scotland with twelve small ships.

But help was on the way. Coming via Shetland and Orkney, the Orkney Jarls and King Harald Hardrada - an ex Varangian guardsman and the most famous Viking of his age - met Tostig and together they came to England, landing at Riccal in September of 1066 with around four hundred ships. It was to be the last try at a Scandinavian take-over of the English state.

William at the battle of Hastings ensuring that his troops realised he was still alive
*William raises his helmet

Led into the delusion that the English Earls would support his tenuous claim to the throne, Hardrada harried the east coast of England with perhaps as many as four hundred ships. He arrived in the area of York in September, 1066. He immediately marched on York and easily beat the hastily gathered local army at the Battle of Fulford Gate, just south of York. The gates of that city were thrown open to him and he did not enter it, merely demanding that fifty of the city's most important men should be brought to meet him as hostages at Stamford Bridge in five days time. He then retired to his fleet at Riccal.

He set out to meet them at Stamford Bridge as arranged and arrived at the appointed place first. He was not expecting trouble and a lightly equipped token force accompanied the King, their shields, spears and mail shirts were mostly left at the ships. They were surprised by King Harold, arriving with a fully equipped army that he had brought from the south in only five days.

In the field later called Battle Flat, the two armies fought a most bitter battle, in which both Hardrada, several of his sons and other important men, including Tostig were killed. The English army lost many men but had the best of it, destroying the Viking army with such effectiveness that as few as forty ships could be manned by Harald Hardrada's youngest son for the homeward journey.

It was to be the last attempt by a Scandinavian country to take over England and, in a real way, broke the power of Viking arms in the west forever.

A feast was held in York a few days later and it is said that King Harold was actually at meat when the news of William's landing at Pevensey reached him.

Harold gathered his men and set out for London the next morning. The house of Godwin and that of the Eorls of Northumbria had never been on especially good terms and this feeling was exacerbated by Harold's apparent unwillingness to share the battle spoil with them. Some accounts say that he took all the booty from Stamford Bridge southwards with him. Others say it was buried secretly and still awaits discovery to this day.

Whatever the right of it, few of the fighting Northumbrian thegns marched away to face William in the south. Who knows, if Harold had been more generous with the northern Eorls, the Battle of Hastings may well have had a different outcome.

Harold was five days on the road and another two days in London, gathering whatever other forces he could command. It was probably at this time that word was brought to him that William had a Papal Banner and the Pope's blessing. Any that fought against him would be automatically excommunicate. If so, it would go a long way to explaining Harold's uncharacteristic haste in Bringing William to battle. Once his men knew of the Banner, they may well have refused to fight.


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