Godwin, Earl of Wessex

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"Earl Godwin" redirects here. See also Earl Godwin (radio newsman).
Godwin of Wessex
Reign 1020–1053
Spouse Thyra Sveinsdóttir
Gytha Thorkelsdóttir
Issue Sweyn, Earl of Mercia
Harold II, King of England
Tostig, Earl of Northumbria
Edith, Queen of England
Gyrth, Earl of East Anglia
Leofwine, Earl of Kent
Wulfnoth
Alfgar
Edgiva
Elgiva
Gunhilda
House House of Godwin (founder)
Father Wulfnoth Cild
Born 1001
probably Sussex[1]
Died 15 April 1053
Winchester, Hampshire, England

Godwin of Wessex (Old English: Godƿin) (1001 – 15 April 1053) was one of the most powerful earls in England under the Danish king Cnut the Great and his successors. Cnut made him the first Earl of Wessex. Godwin was the father of King Harold Godwinson and Edith of Wessex, wife of King Edward the Confessor.

Rise to power[edit]

Godwin's father was probably Wulfnoth Cild, who was a thegn of Sussex. His origin is unknown but 'Cild' normally refers to a man of rank. In 1009 Wulfnoth was accused of unknown crimes at a muster of Æthelred the Unready's fleet and fled with twenty ships; the ships sent to pursue him were destroyed in a storm. Godwin was probably an adherent of Æthelred's eldest son, Æthelstan, who left him an estate when he died in 1014.[2] This estate in Compton, Sussex, had once belonged to Godwin’s father.[3] Although he is now always thought of as connected with Wessex, Godwin had probably been raised in Sussex, not Wessex[3] and was probably a native of Sussex.[1]

After Cnut seized the throne in 1016, Godwin's rise was rapid. By 1018 he was an earl, probably of eastern Wessex, and then by around 1020 of all Wessex.[2] Between 1019 and 1023 he accompanied Cnut on an expedition to Denmark, where he distinguished himself, and shortly afterwards married Gytha, the sister of the Danish earl, Ulf, who was married to Cnut's sister, Estrid.[4]

Height of power: support of Harold[edit]

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.

Later conflicts, decline, and death[edit]

Despite his alleged responsibility for the death of Edward's brother Alfred,[5] Godwin secured the marriage of his daughter Edith (Eadgyth) to Edward in 1045.[6] As Edward drew advisors, nobles and priests from his former place of refuge in a bid to develop his own power base, Godwin soon became the leader of opposition to growing Norman influence. After a violent clash between the people of Dover and the visiting Eustace II, Count of Boulogne, Edward's brother-in-law, Godwin was ordered to punish the people of Dover (as he and Leofric, Earl of Mercia had done in Worcester, in Leofric's own earldom). This time, however, Godwin refused, choosing to champion his own countrymen against a (visiting) foreign ruler and his own king. Edward saw this as a test of power, and managed to enlist the support of Siward, Earl of Northumbria and Earl Leofric. Godwin and his sons were exiled from the kingdom in September 1051. However, they returned the following year with an armed force, which gained the support of the navy, burghers, and peasants, so compelling Edward to restore his earldom. This however set a precedent to be followed by a rival earl some years later, and then by Godwin's own son, Tostig, in 1066.

On 15 April 1053 Godwin died suddenly, after collapsing during a royal banquet at Winchester. Some colourful accounts claim that he choked on a piece of bread while denying any disloyalty to the king.[7] However this appears to be later Norman propaganda. Contemporary accounts indicate that he just had a sudden illness, possibly a stroke.[8]

His son Harold succeeded him as Earl of Wessex, an area then covering roughly the southernmost third of England. With the death of Earl Siward (1055) and later Earl Ælfgar (1062), the children of Godwin were poised to assume sole control. Tostig was helped into the earldom of Northumbria, thus controlling the north. The Mercian earl was sidelined, especially after Harold and Tostig broke the Welsh-Mercian alliance in 1063. Harold later succeeded Edward the Confessor and became King of England in his own right in 1066. At this point, both Harold's remaining brothers in England were earls in their own right, Harold was himself king and in control of Wessex, and he had married the sister of Earl Edwin of Mercia and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria (who had replaced Tostig). Godwin's family looked set to inaugurate a new royal dynasty, but instead Harold was overthrown and killed in the Norman Conquest.

Children[edit]

  1. Sweyn Godwinson, Earl of Mercia (c. 1021 - 29 September 1052)
  2. Harold II of England (c. 1022 - 14 October 1066)
  3. Tostig Godwinson, Earl of Northumbria (c. 1026 - 25 September 1066)
  4. Edith of Wessex, (c. 1026 - 18 December 1075), queen consort of Edward the Confessor
  5. Gyrth Godwinson, Earl of East Anglia (c. 1032 - 14 October 1066)
  6. Leofwine Godwinson, Earl of Kent (c. 1035 - 14 October 1066)
  7. Wulfnoth Godwinson (c. 1040 - died after 1087)
  8. Alfgar, possibly a monk in Rheims
  9. Edgiva
  10. Elgiva (died c. 1066)
  11. Gunhilda, a nun (died 24 August 1087)[9]

Family Trees[edit]

In popular culture[edit]

Godwin has been portrayed by Torin Thatcher in the film Lady Godiva of Coventry (1955) and by Bill Wallis in an episode of the British educational TV series Historyonics entitled "1066" (2004). Lewis Collins was set to portray him in upcoming movie 1066 (2011). Godwin is also the lead character of Justin Hill's novel, Shieldwall (2011).

Notes[edit]

  1. ^ a b  Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Godwine". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. 
  2. ^ a b Ann Williams, Godwine, Oxford Online Dictionary of National Biography, 2004
  3. ^ a b Bibbs, Hugh (1999). "The Rise of Godwine Earl of Wessex". Retrieved 17 January 2013. 
  4. ^ Pauline Stafford, 'Edith, Edward's Wife and Queen', in Richard Mortimer ed., Edward the Confessor: The Man and the Legend, The Boydell Press, 2009, p. 121
  5. ^ Weir, Alison (1996) Britain's Royal Families: The Complete Genealogy. London: Random House. ISBN 0-7126-7448-9, p. 24
  6. ^ Weir, p. 33
  7. ^ According to Three Men in a Boat: "Old Windsor (sic) is a famous spot in its way. Edward the Confessor had a palace here, and here the great Earl Godwin was proved guilty by the justice of that age of having encompassed the death of the King's brother. Earl Godwin broke a piece of bread and held it in his hand. 'If I am guilty,' said the Earl, 'may this bread choke me when I eat it!' Then he put the bread into his mouth and swallowed it, and it choked him, and he died."
  8. ^ According to the Abingdon version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: "1053: In this year the king was at Winchester at Easter, and with him earl Godwin and earl Harold, his son, and Tostig. When on the second day of Easter he (i.e. Godwin) sat at table with the king, he suddenly sank down against the footstool, speechless and helpless: he was carried into the king's chamber and it was thought it would pass off, but it was not to be; yet he lingered on like this, unable to speak and helpless, until the Thursday, and then gave up his life.
  9. ^ Weir, pp. 34–36

Sources[edit]

  • Mason, Emma. The House of Godwine: The History of Dynasty. Hambledon Press, 2003.
  • Stenton, F.M. Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford History of England), 2001.
  • Thorne, J.O. and Collocott, T.C. Chambers Biographical Dictionary, Revised Edition. (Edinburgh: Chambers, 1984) ISBN 0-550-16010-8
  • Walker, Ian. Harold: The Last Anglo-Saxon King, 1997.

External links[edit]

Peerage of England
New title Earl of Wessex
c. 1019–1053
Succeeded by
Harold Godwinson
New title Earl of Kent
1020–1053
Succeeded by
Leofwine Godwinson