Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Godwin (d.1053)

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GODWIN or GODWINE (d. 1053), earl of the West-Saxons, was the son of Wulfnoth, and may probably be identified with the Godwine, son of Wulfnoth, to whom the ætheling Æthelstan [d. 1016? see under Edmund Ironside] left certain land which his father Wulfnoth had held (Codex Dipl. iii. 363). Who this Wulfnoth was is uncertain. Florence (i. 160, an. 1007) makes Godwine the son of a Wulfnoth who was the son of Æthelmær, the brother of Eadric Streona [q. v.] This seems almost impossible for chronological reasons. Another account (Canterbury Chronicle, an. 1008) represents Godwine as the son of Wulfnoth, child of the South-Saxons, who plundered the south coast in 1009. It is possible that Compton, the estate which Æthelstan left to Godwine, Wulfnoth's son, may have been confiscated after this treason; it appears to have remained the property of Godwine the earl or of his son Harold (Freeman, Norman Conquest, i. 641). Some late but independent traditions make Godwine the son of a man of churlish condition, and the ‘Kyntlinga Saga’ (Antiqq. Celto-Scandicæ, p. 131) says that he was the son of a wealthy farmer living near Sherstone in Wiltshire, and that after the battle there earl Ulf met with him, stayed a night and a day at his father's house, and then took him to Cnut's fleet, gave him his sister in marriage, and obtained for him the rank of earl. The widespread story of his low birth is curious, but seems to be of no historical value; it is in flat contradiction to the words of William of Jumièges (vii. 9). On the whole the safest theory is that Godwine was the son of Wulfnoth, the South-Saxon child (Norman Conquest, i. note F, 636–46; Robertson, Essays, p. 188). He had a brother named Alwy (Ælfwine), who was made abbot of Newminster in 1063, and fell in the battle of Hastings (Liber de Hyda, Introd. xxxvii; Monasticon, ii. 428). Early in Cnut's reign he appears as a man of high position, for he is described as ‘dux,’ or earl, in 1018 (Codex Dipl. iv. 3, his name comes last of six earls). It has been supposed (Robertson, u. s.) that he is the Godwine who is said by a charter given before 1020 to have been married to a daughter of Byrhtric, identified apparently with the brother of Eadric Streona. The marriage took place before Cnut and Archbishop Lyfing (Codex Dipl. iv. 10). The Godwine of the charter was apparently a man of high position in Kent and Sussex, but does not seem to have been an earl. If, therefore, the charter refers to the son of Wulfnoth, the marriage must be referred to a date between 1016 and 1018. William of Malmesbury, though making an obvious blunder about Godwine's marriages, probably had some authority for his statement that he was twice married (Gesta Regum, i. 342). A marriage with a niece of Eadric might account for the statement of Florence that Godwine was connected with Eadric by blood; the nature of the connection might easily be confused. If the charter refers to Godwine, son of Wulfnoth, and to the niece of Eadric, the marriage may be considered a political one, Cnut thus placing ‘the heiress of the house of Eadric and Byrhtric in the hands of his firmest supporter in the south of England’ (Robertson). It cannot, however, be said to be at all certain that the charter in question refers to the future earl of the West-Saxons; the name Godwine was very common at this period. Early in Cnut's reign Godwine stood high in the king's favour. He accompanied Cnut on his visit to Denmark in 1019, is said to have commanded a body of English during the king's expedition against the Wends, and to have distinguished himself in the war [see under Canute]. Cnut made him his chief adviser and admitted him to his confidence. He married him to Gytha, the sister of earl Ulf, who was the husband of his own sister, Estrith, and the most powerful of the Danish earls (Florence, i. 202; Adam of Bremen, ii. c. 52; Saxo, p. 196. Gytha is erroneously called the sister of Cnut, Vita Eadwardi, p. 392), and probably on his return to England appointed him earl of the West-Saxons (Norman Conquest, i. 469). Although Godwine was an earl already, there is nothing to show what jurisdiction he had hitherto held, for the title of Earl of Kent which is sometimes given him does not rest on any ancient authority (ib. p. 451). Wessex, the ‘home of English royalty,’ had never before been placed under the government of a subject, the king ruled there in person. This arrangement had been maintained by Cnut; while the rest of the kingdom was divided into great earldoms, he kept Wessex in his own hands (ib. p. 448). He may have found that his plans of northern conquest made it desirable that he should place a viceroy over the wealthiest and most important part of his new kingdom, and the new earl of the West-Saxons became his representative there, and in his absence from England seems, in some measure, to have acted as governor of the realm (Vita, p. 392). Godwine was thus the most powerful man in the kingdom after the king himself, and from about 1020 his name is almost always written in charters before the names of all other lay nobles, whether English or Danish. He gained vast wealth, and held lands in almost every shire of southern and central England (Green). Prudent in counsel and strenuous in war he had gained Cnut's favour, and the king took delight in his society. With an uncommon capacity for work he combined a cheerful temper and a general courtesy. He was not puffed up by his rapid rise; was always gentle in his manners, and unwearyingly obliging to his equals and his inferiors (Vita). He was an eloquent speaker, and his oratory seems to have been of considerable assistance to him. Norman writers describe him as fierce, cunning, and greedy (William of Poitiers, p. 179; William of Jumièges, vii. c. ii.), and Henry of Huntingdon (p. 758) takes the same line; William of Malmesbury notes the different estimates formed by English and by Norman writers (Gesta Regum, i. 335). Godwine appears to have been a remarkably able man, ambitious, unscrupulous, and eager for the aggrandisement of his house. His marriage with Gytha, and the benefits which he received from Cnut, naturally gave him Danish sympathies, his two elder sons Swegen, or Swend, and Harold were called by Danish names, and though he lived to represent English national feeling, it is not unlikely that at this period ‘he must have seemed to Englishmen more Dane than Englishman’ (Green, Conquest of England, p. 479).

On the death of Cnut in 1035 Godwine supported the claim of Harthacnut, the son of Cnut by Emma. In this he was endeavouring to carry out the plan of Cnut, and to secure a continuance of the connection between England and Denmark. While he and the men of his earldom were in favour of Harthacnut, earls Siward and Leofric and the people north of the Thames and the Londoners declared for Harold. A meeting of the witan was held at Oxford; Godwine and the chief men of Wessex persisted as long as they could, and at last yielded to a proposal that the kingdom should be divided [see under Harold I]. In Harthacnut's absence Godwine acted as the chief minister of Emma, who ruled Wessex for her son, and he thus had the king's housecarls or guard under his command. The division of the kingdom must have materially lessened his power, which was now confined to Wessex. Harthacnut remained in Denmark, and his prolonged absence strengthened Harold. In 1036 the sons of Emma by her first husband, Æthelred the Unready [see under Ælfred the ætheling and Edward the Confessor], came over to England. The death of Ælfred and the cruelties practised on him and his men are attributed to Godwine by name in the Abingdon version of the Chronicle and by Florence of Worcester. In the Worcester version they are put down to Harold; in the ‘Encomium Emmæ’ Godwine decoys the ætheling, while the actual attack is made by partisans of Harold. The biographer of Eadward the Confessor, writing a panegyric on Godwine and his house for Godwine's daughter, asserts that the earl was innocent. William of Poitiers, of course, asserts his guilt. William of Malmesbury did not find the story of Ælfred's death in the versions of the Chronicle with which he was acquainted, and accordingly tells it merely as a matter of common report which ascribed the deed to the ætheling's fellow-countrymen and chiefly to Godwine. Henry of Huntingdon's account, which is more or less a romance, simply shows that in his time there was a strong tradition of Godwine's guilt. A large number of the earl's contemporaries believed, or at least declared, that he caused the ætheling to be put to death. The evidence against him appears conclusive [for the contrary view see Freeman, Norman Conquest, i. 543–59]. It is probable that Godwine, dissatisfied with his own position, and finding that Harold would before long become master of the whole kingdom, was anxious to make himself acceptable to the winning side; and that he set on the ætheling in order to gain Harold's favour, and very likely at his instigation. The next year he openly changed sides, for the West-Saxons forsook Harthacnut, and accepted Harold as their king. It is evident that Godwine was at once admitted to favour with Harold, for Bishop Lyfing, one of the chief men of his party, received ecclesiastical promotion (ib. p. 563).

When Harthacnut came to the throne in 1040 he sent Godwine with other great officers to disinter and dishonour the body of Harold (Florence). The earl was regarded with suspicion by the king. His enemies accused him and Bishop Lyfing of the murder of Ælfred, who was the king's uterine brother. Lyfing lost his bishopric for a time, and Godwine was compelled to clear himself of the charge by oath. A large number of earls and thegns joined with him in swearing that it was by no counsel or wish of his that the ætheling was blinded, and that what he did was done by order of King Harold (ib.) If these words are a fair representation of the oath, they go far to prove that the earl was a principal agent in the attack on the ætheling. He purchased peace of the king by presenting him with a ship with a gilded beak, manned with eighty warriors splendidly equipped. In 1401 he was sent by the king, along with Earls Leofric and Siward and other nobles, to quell an insurrection in Worcestershire, and punish the rebels. The earls burnt Worcester on 12 Nov. and harried the neighbouring country, but evidently took care not to slay or make captive many of the people, for the insurrection was not unprovoked.

When Harthacnut died in 1042 Godwine appears to have at once proposed, at an assembly held in London, that Eadward should be chosen as king, and he probably with others crossed over to Normandy and persuaded him to accept the crown. He came back to England with Eadward, and urged his right at a meeting of the witan held at Gillingham. It is evident that he met with some opposition, and it is not unlikely that this proceeded from a party in favour of Swend Estrithson, his wife's nephew, and the nephew of his old master Cnut. Godwine, however, used all his influence and his power of eloquent speech on the side of the representative of the old English line. Men looked on him as a father as he thus pleaded the cause of the ætheling of their race (Vita, p. 394), and followed his counsel. It may be that he saw that the election of Swend would have been bitterly opposed, and would have entailed a war. This would have been grievous to him, for there is no reason to doubt that, selfish as he was, the lives of his countrymen were dear to him. It is also reasonable to suppose that he saw that the election of Eadward was likely to lead to a perpetuation of his own power; for it is said that he bargained with Eadward that he and his sons should be secured in their offices and possessions, and that the king should marry his daughter (Gesta Regum, i. 332). From this time forward he was the head of the national party in the kingdom. He had to contend with the prejudices of the king and with the foreigners whom Eadward promoted to offices in church and state, as well as with the jealousy of the Earls Leofric and Siward and the great men of middle and northern England. Yet he was not unequal to the conflict. His earldom was by far the wealthiest and most important part of the kingdom; it was also the part which was especially under the king's control, and for some years his influence with the king was supreme. Already immensely wealthy, he had now abundant opportunities of adding to his possessions. He appears to have been grasping, and is accused, not without some reason, of enriching himself at the expense of ecclesiastical bodies (Norman Conquest, ii. 543–8); he neither founded nor enriched monasteries or churches. During the early years of Eadward's reign, not only was Wessex under his government, but his eldest son, Swegen, was earl of the Mercian shires of Hereford, Gloucester, and Oxford; his second son, Harold, held the earldom of East Anglia; and his wife's nephew, Beorn, an earldom which included Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire. His daughter Eadgyth [see Edith or Eadgyth (d. 1075)] was married to the king in 1045. Godwine was also strong in the affection of the men of his own earldom, for he kept good order and enforced a respect for law. Indeed, as he became identified with the national cause of resistance to the government of foreigners he gained the love of the nation at large. At Eadward's coronation in 1048 he is said to have presented the king with a magnificent ship (Vita, p. 397; this, Mr. Luard suggests, is probably a confusion with the ship which he undoubtedly gave to Harthacnut). He was sent by Eadward along with Earls Siward and Leofric to Winchester on 16 Nov. to confiscate the possessions of Emma, the king's mother. In 1044 he joined Eadward in a plan for securing Archbishop Eadsige [q. v.] in the see of Canterbury by allowing him to appoint a coadjutor bishop.

The appointment of Robert, abbot of Jumièges, to the see of London in this year was the first step towards the overthrow of the earl's power. Robert had unbounded influence over the king, and never ceased whispering accusations against Godwine and his sons, urging especially that the earl was guilty of the death of Ælfred. It may fairly be assumed that the appointment of certain Lotharingian clergy to English sees and abbeys was due to Godwine's desire to keep out the Frenchmen, whom the king would naturally have preferred (Norman Conquest, ii. 79–85). His position must have been weakened by the disgrace of his eldest son, Swegen, who after seducing the abbess of Leominster left England in 1046, and was outlawed. The next year a request for help from Swend Estrithson, the king of the Danes, the nephew of Gytha the earl's wife, was laid before the witan. He had lost nearly all his kingdom, and asked for an English fleet to act against his enemy, Magnus of Norway. Godwine proposed that fifty ships should be sent to his succour, but Leofric objected, and his arguments prevailed with the assembly (Worcester Chronicle, sub an. 1048; Florence, i. 200). In 1048 Swend, who had meanwhile got possession of his kingdom, again asked for help. Again, unless the story is a repetition of the events of the previous year, did Godwine plead his cause, and again he was unsuccessful (Florence). The earl's influence seems to have been on the wane, but it was still strong enough to prevent Swegen's earldom from passing from his family; it was divided between Harold and Beorn. Later in the year, while he was with the fleet which he and the king had gathered for the defence of the coast of Wessex against the attacks of some northern pirates, his son Swegen returned to England and slew his cousin Beorn [q. v.] The crime excited general indignation, and can scarcely have failed to injure Godwine's position. He soon, however, gained a conspicuous advantage. Swegen found shelter in Flanders. About this time some hostile measures were taken by Eadward in alliance with the emperor against Baldwin V. The amicable relations which followed were almost certainly brought about by Godwine. He probably desired to secure the friendship of the Count of Flanders as a counterpoise to the power and influence of William of Normandy, who was already seeking to marry the count's daughter, Matilda. Before long Godwine arranged a marriage between his third son Tostig and Judith the sister (Vita, p. 404) or daughter (Florence) of Baldwin. The alliance with Baldwin was connected with the return of Swegen, whose outlawry was reversed. His reinstatement was a triumph for his father, but it was an impolitic measure, for, as later events showed, it outraged public feeling (Green, Conquest of England, p. 524). On the death of Archbishop Eadsige in 1050 Godwine sustained a serious defeat from the French party, which was now becoming all-powerful at the court; the claim of his kinsman Ælfric [q. v.], for whom he had tried to obtain the see of Canterbury, was rejected by the king, who gave the archbishopric to the earl's enemy Robert of Jumièges. The new archbishop used every means in his power to destroy the earl's influence, and his hatred was increased by the fact that the lands of the earl and of the convent of Christ Church, Canterbury, lay side by side. Disputes arose about their respective rights, and Robert declared that Godwine had taken into his own possession lands which belonged to his church (Vita, p. 400). The earl is said by his panegyrist to have tried to keep the peace, and to have restrained his men from retaliating on the archbishop. Eadward listened willingly to the archbishop's complaints against Godwine, and above all to the accusation, which seems to have been renewed at this time, that he had slain the ætheling.

When, early in September 1051, Godwine was celebrating the marriage of his son Tostig, he received orders from the king to harry the town of Dover, which lay within his earldom [see under Edward the Confessor]. He refused to inflict misery on his own people for the sake of the king's foreign favourites. If they had just cause of complaint they should, he urged, proceed against the men of Dover in a legal court; if the Dover people could prove their innocence, they had a right to go free, and if not they should be punished in a lawful manner (Gesta Regum, i. 337). Then he went his way, taking little heed of the king's rage, which he believed would soon pass away. Robert, however, seized the opportunity of stirring up the king against him, and Eadward summoned the witan to meet at Gloucester, to receive and decide on all the charges which might be brought against him. Godwine and his party had a further grievance against the king's foreign favourites, for one of them had built a castle in Swegen's earldom, and was doing much mischief. Godwine and his sons gathered their forces together at Beverstone in Gloucestershire, though ‘it was hateful to them to fight against their lord the king’ (Peterborough Chron. an. 1048), and Godwine sent to the king, who was then at Gloucester with the witan and the forces of Mercia and Northumberland, to demand a hearing, offering to clear himself by compurgation. When this was refused, he demanded that the Frenchmen who had caused the troubles at Dover and in Swegen's earldom should be given up. This was refused, and the earl and his sons marched on Gloucester. War was averted by mediation, and the witan was ordered to meet again in London at Michaelmas. When the witan met, Godwine was at his own house in Southwark (Vita, p. 402), and many men of his earldom were with him. Eadward had now a strong army at his back, and it was soon evident that the earl's case was prejudged. Swegen's outlawry was renewed, and had probably been reimposed at Gloucester, but the earl seems to have disregarded the sentence and kept his son with him. He was summoned to attend the assembly, and demanded hostages and a safe-conduct. The king bade him attend with not more than twelve companions, and appears to have ordered those of his thegns who were with the earl to come over and join his army. Godwine let them go, and his forces dwindled gradually. Stigand, bishop of Winchester, one of his friends, did what he could to delay the final decision in the hope that the king would be better advised, but he was at last forced to bring the earl a message that he was to expect no peace from the king until he gave him back his brother and his brother's men safe and sound. The bishop wept as he gave the message. When the earl heard it he pushed over the table which stood by him, mounted his horse, and rode hard seawards to Bosham. Next morning the king and his host declared him and his sons outlaws, and gave them five days to get out of the land. He and his wife, and his son Swegen, Tostig and his bride, and Gyrth and his younger children embarked with all the treasure which they had at hand, and sailed to Flanders. They were made welcome by Baldwin, and abode there that winter.

Godwine's fall ‘seemed wonderful to every man that was in England,’ his power had been so great, his sons were ‘earls and the king's darlings,’ and his daughter the king's wife. Before long men sent him messages, and some went over to him in person, assuring him that if he would come back they would fight for him, and people said that it would be better to be with him in exile than to be in England without him. He sent to the king asking that he might come before him and purge himself loyally of all charges. Moreover Henry, the French king, and the Count of Flanders urged his recall. But it was of no avail, for the king's evil counsellors kept him from hearkening. At last in June 1052 the earl determined to resort to force; he gathered his ships together in the Yser and set sail on the 22nd, intending to fall in with his sons Harold and Leofwine, who were making a descent on the west coast with ships from Ireland. When he was off Dungeness he found that the coast there was well defended, and so sailed to Pevensey, pursued by the king's ships from Sandwich. A storm arose which separated the pursuers and the pursued, and the earl returned again to Flanders. Then the king's fleet dispersed, and in the beginning of September Godwine sailed to the Isle of Wight, where he landed and harried the island until the people paid him what he demanded. Thence he went to Portland, and there did all the mischief he could. On returning to Wight he was joined by his son Harold with nine ships. All the men of Kent, Surrey, and Sussex rose in his behalf, and especially the seamen of Hastings and the other ports, declaring that they ‘would live and die’ with Earl Godwine. The earl sailed round the coast by Hythe, Dover, and Sandwich, taking all the ships he needed, and receiving hostages and provisions. He sailed up the Thames with a large fleet, some of his ships passing inside Sheppey, where the crews did much harm, and burnt King's Middleton. He lay off Southwark on 14 Sept., and while he waited for the tide held communication with the Londoners, who were almost to a man in his favour. Then he sailed up the river, keeping by the southern shore, which was thickly lined with the local forces gathered to support him. Eadward's ships were on the northern side of the river and his land forces on the shore. While the king delayed to reply to the earl's demand for restoration, Godwine addressed his men, declaring that he would sooner die than do any wrong to the king, and urging them to restrain their wrath. It was agreed that matters should be deferred until the morrow, and Godwine and Harold and some of their men landed and stayed on shore. At the great assembly which was held outside London on the next day, Godwine declared his innocence of all that was laid to his charge. His enemies, the Frenchmen, had already fled, and the king restored to him, his wife, his sons, and his daughter all that had been taken from them. The earl returned with the king to the palace, and there Eadward gave him the kiss of peace (for other particulars see under Edward the Confessor, and Edith, Queen, and for an exhaustive examination of authorities Freeman, Norman Conquest, ii. 598–602). Soon after his restoration the earl fell sick. At Easter the next year (1053) he was with the king at Winchester, and on 11 April, while he and his sons Harold, Tostig, and Gyrth sat at meat with the king, he fell from his seat speechless and powerless. His sons bore him into the king's chamber, where he lay in the same state until he died on Thursday the 14th. He was buried in the Old Minster. This is the simple account given of his death by the chronicle writers and Florence of Worcester. An illness of some months evidently ended in a fit of apoplexy. Florence, indeed, adds that after his seizure he suffered miserably, which seems unlikely. His death became the subject of legends, the earliest of which relate how while Godwine sat at meat with the king they talked of the death of Ælfred (Gesta Regum, i. 335) or of past treason against the king (Henry of Huntingdon, p. 760); Godwine prayed that if he was guilty the next morsel he ate might choke him, and he was accordingly choked and fell dead. Of about the same date is the well-known embellishment of the cupbearer who slipped, and remarked as he recovered his footing ‘So brother helps brother’ (Ailred of Rievaulx, col. 395). The tale is repeated and developed by later writers (for an examination of the growth of the legend see Norman Conquest, ii. 608, and Fortnightly Review, May 1866).

Godwine seems to have had seven sons by Gytha: Swegen d. on pilgrimage 1052, Harold d. 1066, Tostig d. 1066, Gyrth d. 1066, Leofwine d. 1066, Wulfnoth living in 1087 (Florence, ii. 20), and probably Ælfgar, a monk at Rheims (Orderic, p. 502), and three daughters, Eadgyth, the queen of the Confessor [see Edith], Gunhild d. at Bruges in 1087, and perhaps Ælfgifu (Norman Conquest, ii. 552–5, iii. 221, 228, iv. 159, 705).

[Freeman's Norman Conquest, vols. i. and ii. contains a full account of Earl Godwine, to which all later accounts must necessarily be indebted; his view of the earl is perhaps too favourable. Green's Conquest of England, which contains some valuable remarks, especially on the earl's political aims, takes the opposite view. Kemble's Codex Dipl. iv. and v.; Anglo-Saxon Chron. and Vita Eadwardi, cited as Vita, in Lives of Eadward the Confessor (both Rolls Ser.); Florence of Worcester and William of Malmesbury, Gesta Regum (both Engl. Hist. Soc.); William of Jumièges, William of Poitiers, and Orderic, in Hist. Normann. Scriptt., Duchesne; Henry of Huntingdon, Mon. Hist. Brit.; Saxo, Hist. Danica, ed. 1644; Encomium Emmæ, in Pertz, Monumenta Hist. Germ.]

W. H.