Earl Godwin

Earl Godwin
 The Man behind the Character
by James Hanna

Earl Godwin was the 11th century, Anglo-Saxon, “New Man".  In a time where station of birth largely fixed where you were in society, Godwin pulled himself to the highest rungs of power.  His daughter was crowned Queen (to Edward the Confessor) and his sons would become powerful and respected earls, while his eldest, Harold was also crowned as King.
Godwin was an accomplished warrior and politician. And he was clever - his cleverness brought him and his children to the summit of power.

His exact birth date is unknown but we can reasonably put it in the 990's.  The son of Wulfnoth, a minor Thegn (a freeborn minor nobleman) and grandson to Thorkell (grandmother unknown). His descent was more from the Scandinavian orb than the “English” sphere, perhaps with as little as two generations in England itself. {note from Helen: Is it possible that his ancestors came over with the Viking invasions that gave Alfred the Great, King of Wessex such trouble?]

His early life was shaped by watching the incompetent King, Æthelred II (known as the Unready) fight a losing battle against the raiding led by King Sven Forkbeard of Denmark.  Æthelred’s major mistakes were trusting unreliable advisors, who sought power and status for themselves, and in paying the Vikings to go away. The initial huge sum doubled, then trebled with each new invasion.

Æthelred took in marriage Emma of Normandy, probably little more than 13 years old to his mid-thirties, the alliance intended to put a halt to the raiding. Norman is a corruption of the word “North Man” (i.e. Viking) – for the Normans were indeed of Viking descent.
The intention failed, nor, it seems was the marriage a happy or successful one. Their firstborn son was Edward – who as a boy was sent to Normandy for safety. He was to remain there until his early thirties. There, he would have met and known William, the illegitimate son of Emma nephew, Duke Robert. William – known to us as William the Conqueror - defeated the English, and Godwin’s son, King Harold II, at the Battle of Hastings in October 1066.

After Æthelred and Sven Forkbeard had passed the mantle of leadership onto their sons, Godwin makes his first appearance on the world stage fighting against Cnut alongside Æthelred’s illegitimate son, Edmund Ironside, in 1016. (Edmund was born to a concubine “common law” wife, but in English law he was not seen as illegitimate, although the crowned and anointed Queen Emma’s two sons took precedence. They were still young children in 1016, however.)

England became divided by the "Danelaw" as a result of the stalemate that ensued.  By 1017 Edmund was dead, possibly of wounds received in battle, and Cnut was the King of all England, as well as Denmark and later Norway and Sweden.  In a shrewd political move, Cnut became a Christian and took the widowed Queen Emma as wife. It was remarked by his contemporaries that he very quickly “became more English then the English”.
Recognizing talent, even in one who was previously an enemy, Cnut elevated Godwin to Earl of Wessex and permitted marriage to his Danish half-sister, Gytha. 

Opponents of Godwin and his son Harold like to point out that they had no royal blood in them -  English blood from the line of Alfred the Great, no, but Godwin was married into Scandinavian nobility – therefore Harold had Danish royal bloodlines.
[note: in Helen Hollick’s novel Harold the King – US title I Am The Chosen King – she writes that Godwin claimed a watered-down blood line from Alfred the Great, a small touch of poetic licence.]

Holy Trinity Church, Bosham
Until his untimely, though natural, death of a heart seizure in 1053, Godwin was Cnut's most trusted advisor, presiding over the most powerful Earldom, Wessex. Cnut gave Godwin  a wealthy manor house on the south coast near Chichester – situated opposite to one of his own manors. Bosham (pronounced Bozzum) remains an evocative place to this day, and parts of the church that Godwin built remain standing.  
Cnut’s young daughter, believed drowned in the mill race was buried in the church. A stone marks her grave and a there is a statue dedicated to her.


Queen Emma & King Cnu

Cnut died unexpectedly of natural cause in 1035 at Shaftesbury in Dorset, still a relatively young man. During the chaotic months that followed, it was uncertain if Cnut's son by Emma, Harthacnut, would return to England from Denmark to claim the crown, meanwhile, Cnut's firstborn son, Harold "Harefoot" positioned himself as the next King.

Again this was a case of a son born to a concubine common-law wife taking precedence over a son born to a Church Blessed union. Both Harthacnut and Harold Harefoot were legal contenders for the throne. The strongest man would claim the title – but for some reason, Harthacnut remained in Denmark.

Queen Emma was in a most precarious position, though as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states, "...Earl Godwin was her most faithful man."  During this time, the blackest mark on Godwin's career occurred; he handed Alfred, one of Emma's sons by Æthelred to Harold Harefoot.

Emma had written to her two sons who were exiled in Normandy, and were, by this time, grown men, pleading for their assistance. Edward arrived in Winchester (the Queen’s Dower Town) with only one or a few ships. Alfred headed for London with a small following. He was refused entry into the capitol so continued on a march southward – where he met with Godwin and his men.

Did Godwin hand the young man over to Harold in all innocence, believing he would be treated with honour as befitted a King’s son? Or tired of waiting, had Godwin already changed sides from supporting Emma and her son Harthacnut? England was in a fragile state, and Æthelred had been a despised King – his sons would not have been welcomed.

Edward fled back to Normandy, and Alfred was subsequently blinded so cruelly that he died.  This event would subsequently haunt Godwin until his death, but to have conspired with Emma and Alfred would have amounted to treason; he was truly in a no win situation.

With Harthacnut adamant that he had no interest in England, Emma fled to Bruges, and Harold was crowned as Harold I of England.  He did not reign long, for  died at Westminster in 1040, the circumstances are lost but it is believed he choked on a fish bone. 

This time, Harthacnut returned to England, arriving in triumph with his mother, Emma, and his half brother, Edward.  Godwin continued to be the closest advisor to the King until Harthacnut died, just two years into his reign, resulting from what might have been a congenital disease or simply from over-drinking at a wedding feast

Thus, in 1042 Godwin was to see his fifth King, Edward – later, in the twelfth century to be canonised and known as 'The Confessor' - take up the English crown.  

Although Godwin was no longer the "trusted advisor" as he had been, but he was too powerful for Edward to ignore.  His two eldest sons Swegn and Harold were made Earls, and his daughter, Edith, became Edward’s Queen. Simply put, by 1050 Godwin was the most powerful man in England.

The blame for Alfred’s death sat between Godwin and the King, however, and an uncomfortable situation came to a head in 1051 when King Edward had Godwin and most of his family exiled on a basis of treason.
There had been an unpleasant incident at Dover (the port was under Godwin’s jurisdiction) when men of Count Eustace of Boulogne, a Norman who had been visiting Edward, got into a brawl with local men. Houses were burnt, there were several deaths.
Godwin was ordered to punish those English who had been responsible, but he refused, saying Boulogne’s men had started the hostility.

The argument escalated and siding with his Norman friends, Edward released Godwin and his sons of their earldoms. With the intention of gathering aid, Godwin, his wife and younger children sailed to Bruges, Harold and his brother Leofwin went to Dublin, while Swegn went on pilgrimage to Rome (he died on the journey home) Edith was set aside and incarcerated in a nunnery.

It was during this time that proponents claim that William of Normandy visited Edward in England. Childless and therefore heirless, Edward promised him the succession crown, giving him two of Godwin's family members as hostage. There is no historical evidence to support or argue against this visit, although two members of Godwin's family were indeed transferred to Normandy - an event that would have implications later on.
[ from Helen:
1.      It was not in Edward’s power to grant the succession. At this time, Kings were elected – chosen – by the Governing Council. It was not necessarily the eldest firstborn son who inherited, but the man most suitable for the job. Again – implications for the future.
2.      It is possible that William came to England. With the Godwin’s gone the way was open for him. His great Aunt, Emma, was now elderly and dying – through her he claimed his entitlement to Kingship, so he very probably wanted to be seen. Also he was attempting to bargain an agreement of Marriage with Matilda, the daughter of Count Baldwin of Flanders. The marriage had been forbidden by the Pope, but William was determined to gather support. As his first cousin – and with his relationship to Emma, William would have very much wanted Edward and Emma on his side. I see no reason to doubt that he did NOT come to England. H.]

After attacking various King’s manors along the south coast – Harold was doing likewise in the west Country (Devon, Somerset, Gloucestershire) in 1052, Godwin sailed up the Thames, with supporters from Wessex swelling the ranks, to meet with a stand-off with Edward and his other Earls. 

In a moment that could have changed the course of English history forever, King Edward demanded that his army should attack Godwin.
His Earls refused. Civil war was a step too far, and maybe Edward’s blatant over-indulgent friendship with Normandy was a step too far. Edward had to capitulate and re-instate Godwine and Harold as earls of Wessex and East Anglia. He also had to take Edith back as wife and Queen. If there was any doubt who was the true power in England before, now there was none.

On April 12th, 1053, during a royal feast (the close of Easter)  Godwin had a seizure that would take his life three days later.  Popular narrative claimed that this happened just after he swore an oath to the King that, as God was his witness, he’d had nothing to do with the death of  Alfred. 

From obscure origins Godwin Wulfnothsson climbed the ranks to the pinnacle of power in the late Anglo-Saxon England  to become the father of five Earls, father to the Queen of England: father -in –law to the King, and father to the man who was crowned king after Edward died – Harold Godwinsson, Harold II, who died at Hastings fighting the invading army of the Normans led by Duke William.

History takes many views on Godwin, indeed he can be seen in many different lights depending on what view to take of his various actions. Was he a man who would stop at nothing to gain power? Or was he a man who held his responsibility to King and Country  in high esteem and honour?
His meteoric rise to greatness, political impact and military power were all to have a significant effect on the last years of Anglo-Saxon England. That, and the fact that he was a remarkable man, is beyond question. 

Earl Godwin is to be played by UK actor Lewis Collins in the 1066 movie.


Collins is mainly known for  playing "Bodie" in the UK TV 1970's drama series "The Professionals"


You can read more about Earl Godwin in Helen Hollick's historical novels
The Forever Queen (US title) A Hollow Crown (UK title)
and
Harold the King (UK title) I am the Chosen King (US title - published in the US March 2011)


Helen is co-scriptwriter of the UK movie 1066 - and it was Helen who originally suggested that Lewis Collins could be just right for part of Earl Godwin.


Comments taken from original blog post :


comments:


from JAMES
Helen is dead on with this book, with the exception of William the Bastard meeting King Edward in the early 1050's; they probably never met but "probably" indicates that there is a chance... and a little artistic liberty in making them meet adds to the story line. As an avid student of this period in time - I have read dozens of books on this period of time and the significant people involved (Godwin, Harold Hardrada, William the Bastard, the various Earls of England and their blood feuds etc... the politics of this ear rivals that of 1st century Rome) - I can say with certainty that while this is "Historical Fiction", Helen does an outstanding job in representing history as we best know it beyond the Norman "Propaganda Machine" - her words that I agree with . On that note, what is historical fiction? It is taking what we know, or what we think we know, and filling in the blanks... that is all. 1,000 years after the fact, centuries of lies and distortions (history is written by the winners and political slants to justify our actions after the fact are as alive today as they were back then) and ignoring the popular view - Helen uses hard and fast history as the backbone for her story. With that as the skeleton she does a first rate job filling in the blanks to make a story. Again, this is a novel - based on real historical facts - but still a novel. You are not reading a history book, but a story. And here too Helen succeeds in telling her story in an engaging manner that never misses a beat. You will be engaged from page one the the end... and the final pages will leave a tear in your eye and a picture in your mind that will not soon leave. I highly recommend "Harold the King" to anyone interested in history for it's own sake, those who want an alternative view (and very accurate) to what we have been "fed" about how 1066 happened or those who just want a good read. You will NOT be disappointed. -JNH Long Island, New York
Helen said...
It is possible that William met with Edward in 1052 - that would have been the only opportunity for Edward to have "promised" him the English throne (as William claimed)- but I had a no choice situation. In the interest of writing a readable book, the meeting had to take place. Thank you for the support James!
Anonymous said...
COMMENT MOVED FROM ORIGINAL POST made by - ANNE GILBERT William may have met Edward "the Confessor" in 1052. Or some have suggested he sent Odo over. I don't know. I do know, however, that Edward more or less promised the throne to anybody suitable who more or less stood around and listened long enough. William wasn't the only "candidate". So was Magnus of Norway. But that's another story. Ninety percent of the eventual tragedy of Hastings was Edward's fault. And it's just too bad the Good Dr. Freud wasn't around in the 11th century, because if he had been, Edward should have been "on the couch". Because, IMO, the guy was a definite "case". So was William, in his own way, as you have indicated, but that's another story. Anne G
Helen said...
The very fact that Edward did (suposedly) promise the throne to William seems to me that he DID come to England. Like a child Edward was so easily swayed. The person who had the savvy to visit him in person, talk prettily and flatter him got the job. Godwine's mistake... he wasn't a backside licker! As for Bill & Eddie - Freud would have had a field day with the pair of them! :) 
Anonymous said...
COMMENT MOVED FROM ORIGINAL POST made by EDWARD I think you write well, Helen, on a fascinating era. I also think that the 'Anglo-Saxon' propaganda machine is currently going into overdrive today- part-driven by the extremist elements who enjoy hijacking 1066-era history for their own 'political' ends and street thuggery, despite not knowing much about history, which gets forgotten. But that's current flag-waving and 'nationalism' for you. Duke William probably didn't even meet Edward in England in either 1051 or 1052 (when Godwin returned to power), the Normans (William of Poitiers and even duke/king William himself) never stated this was the case, and were strangely silent on the matter. Only one strand of the ASC says he did visit in 1051, but which was oddly quiet for another, related, vital year- 1064?
Bookworm said...
I just finished reading Chosen King and I absolutely loved it! It was so well written that it pulled me in and I couldn't put it down. I love how the story was told from the English perscpective and gave the reader the other side of the story. I don't know much about this period in history but after reading this book I am looking for more to read on the subject. I have also read Forever Queen and loved it as well. I look forward to any new books that will be written during this time period.


Helen said...
comment from Facebook post .... Hi Helen was just reading your blog about Godwin and was wondering about his genealogy. I have read a book by Frank Barlow on the house of Godwin and he seems to be of the impression that Godwin's grandfather was an 'ealdr man of the western province's called Aethelmaer Cild and furthermore, their lineage could be traced bac k to Aethelred 1, Alfred the greats elder brother.He also lists Godwin as having a brother , Aelfiwg, the abbot of New minster and a sister Aethelflaed. Is this somethign you turned up in your research or did you discount this after further research? regards Paula
Helen said...
I actually agree with you Paula - the evidence for Godwin's family being English in origin is stronger than a Danish connection. Sorry James!
Helen said...
P.S from Paula.... if Barlow is right, Harold had a greater claim than ever to the throne, than William. Do you think the family would have known about this? It is never mentioned in the chronicles anywhere
Helen said...
Is this a case of later chroniclers removing the evidence I wonder? After all - all evidence of Harold being legitimately crowned was removed (he as only mentioned as Earl, not King) It has often struck me as odd that there isn't any cntemporary cries of "but he wasn't of royal blood" Noticable by its absence?
Helen said...
From Paula .... well there were some pages missing from Edith's encommium wasnt there, from the pat where she was talking about her family. Perhaps that is one of the basis the witan used for chosing Harold in the first place. Goodness we have stumbled onto something havent we!
Orphelin said...
I'm just curious to know why you thought of Mr. Collins for this role. I think he's a brilliant choice (but I am very biassed).
Helen said...
Hi Orphelin - I will ask the producer to answer you, but he's unavailable at the moment. I think the main reason is because the producer is looking for known actors who can make the part their own. From what I gather, Mr Collins is very interested in Saxon history, and I agree - he's perfect for the part! (And as an aside, it was me who originally suggested him to the producer *grin* - I'm biased too!)
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