Earl Godwin of Wessex

Earl Godwin of Wessex was one of the most important men in Anglo Saxon England

Death of Earl Godwine

Earl Godwin(e) of Wessex was one of the most powerful men in England before the Norman Conquest and his life is inextricably bound to Wessex and Hampshire.

  • He was born around 1000 and his father was possibly a ruler in Sussex, known as Wulfnoth, who was a powerful  and influential man. He was a commander of the fleet against the Vikings. His lands  were seized from him when he was accused of treachery against Ethelred the Unready, in which he sabotaged the English fleet in their battles against the Vikings. 
  • Wulfnoth’s greater family were also tied up in conspiracies of various sorts. They had also aligned themselves with the Viking invaders. 
  • It resulted in Godwin being in a powerful position from a young age and a large land owner. He was left land in Compton Sussex, previously seized from his father by Ethelstan son of  Æthelred.

In 1016 Cnut , seized power. He collected around him those who had shown loyalty to the royal household. Godwin was among their number.  Loyalty was of great importance to Cnut and the positioning of Godwin so close to him, bolsters the argument that there had been a previous relationship between Godwin’s family and the Danes. Mentally astute and certainly charismatic, Godwin was a supremely confident individual. By 1018 he was one of the select few signing Cnut’s Royal Charters.At some point in this period, probably 1022, Godwin accompanied Cnut to Denmark. On his return, Cnut makes him Earl Godwin of Wessex. By 1023 he is appearing on Royal Charters as such. Earl Godwine’s position grew after Cnut gave him his sister Estrid in marriage. She herself was a powerful and forceful woman, apparently  trading slaves to Denmark, especially young women. No wonder then, that the offspring of these two determined and masterful people should turn out to be brutish individuals.

  • Cnut died in 1035 and Godwine, who by this time had amassed more land than any other Earl in England, decided to flex some muscle.
  • Cnut had left no heirs residing on English soil and Godwine was keen to begin his charge to grab the throne of England for his own family.

There were two actual contenders for the English throne. In exile in Normandy were the heirs to Aethelraed, the eldest being Aetheling Edward (Edward the Confessor), supported by Robert of Normandy and his brother Afred.  

  • Emma, wife of Cnut and formerly wife of Ethelred the Unready was the aunt of Robert. Cnut’s son Hardecnut heir apparent but trapped in Denmark by threats of invasion by Norwegians.
  • Meanwhile his half brother Harold Harefoot who was in England was installed as regent over all of England, much to the upset of his step mother Emma and of course Earl Godwine, who considered himself ‘King’ of Wessex and wanted no regent to be master over him. He retained the treasury in Wessex and was ready to confront the young regent.
  • Emma turned coat and threw her support behind Edwards claim and Godwine was furious.

The scene was set for the forthcoming conquest but none was yet to know about the implications this would have on the whole of England.

  • When the Aethelings Edward and Alfred arrived in England under separate escort, Godwine managed to ambush Alfred. Here the Earl acted purely in his own interest.
  • Having already acted in defiance of Harald’s regency, he now defied the dowager Queen Emma. Godwine ultimately had to maintain his allegiance to the Danish faction because he wisely feared the Normans.
  • Having taken the Aetheling Alfred prisoner, Godwine wiped out the large escort reportedly inflicting terrible injuries upon them, blinding them, cutting off hands and feet, he killed 600 men in Guildford Surrey.
  • Godwine must have been a man under extreme pressure. He reported to Harald that all this was done in loyal support of the regency but he was in fact acting for himself.

Earl Godwine then decided to up the game and murdered Alfred, brother to Edward. Meanwhile in Normandy, Robert died leaving an illegitimate heir, William.

  • Earl Godwine meanwhile was doing what he did best, serving himself and he aligned himself with Harald Harefoot and persuaded him to grant him independence.
  • Harald Harefoot was declared King in his own right. But he died in 1041.Hardecnut was able to reach England by that time, and peacefully ascended the English throne.
  • He now ruled over his father’s old empire. He was trouble for Godwine, however. Remembering the murder of his half-brother, Aetheling Alfred, “he burned with great anger against Earl Godwine.”
  • The new King invited his mother, Emma, and his half-brother, Aetheling Edward, back to England and Godwine set eyes upon Edward for the first time seeing him as a weak person and someone whom he could manipulate.

Conveniently for Godwine, Hardecnut died soon afterwards. His death though was in extremely suspicious circumstances being seized with convulsions after out drinking with companions. He was very possibly poisoned and the person with most to gain from his death was Earl Godwine.

  • Edward however, was racked with indecision and fear and wanted to return to exile, he sought the counsel of Godwine.
  • Godwine took this weak man and promised him support and protection and the hand in marriage of his daughter Edith.
  • Godwine must have thought that at last he had secured the crown of England.
  • Godwine though, overstepped the mark when he refused to support Edward in the punishment of the people of Dover when they attacked Edwards brother in law, the Count of Bologne.
  • Edward discovered some mettle and exiled Godwine and his sons, Godwine’s star was beginning to fall.
  • 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.

Godwine died suddenly in 1053, whilst dining at Winchester, legend has it that he choked whilst denying his role in the murder of Edward’s brother Alfred.

His son Harold succeeded him as Earl of Wessex, and  later succeeded Edward the Confessor and became King of England in his own right in 1066. It looked as if Godwine  might achieve his goal and inaugurate a new royal dynasty but it was not to be and instead, Harold was overthrown and killed in the Norman Conquest.

Before 1066 Earl Godwine held the overlordship in Warblington, Chalton and Headley in Hampshire along with masses of land in other parts of Southern England.