Plantagenets, Tudors, Stuarts. All famous and memorable English dynasties. The Godwins? You’d be forgiven for forgetting them as their rule was short-lived.
The Godwin family were a powerful noble family from Wessex who came from humble beginnings. The patriarch Earl Godwin of Wessex had gained his earldom under the rule of King Cnut who ruled from 1016 – 1035 . Cnut regarded Godwin as “the most cautious in counsel and the most active in war”, and gave Godwin his sister-in-law Gytha as a wife. The couple would go on to have many children including: Sweyn, Harold, Edith, Tostig, Gyrth, Leofwine and Wulfnoth.
The succession crisis that developed after Cnut’s death between his sons Harthacnut and Harold Harefoot put Godwin in a tricky position. He would want to support the victor, and with Harthacnut remaining in Denmark, he eventually supported Harold Harefoot. He went from being Harthacnut’s mother Emma of Normandy’s “most faithful man” to betraying her and her son. This betrayal wasn’t just political, it was personal. When Emma of Normandy’s other son (Harthacnut’s half-brother) Alfred Ætheling travelled to England in 1036 he was taken, blinded and consequently died, with Godwin implicated in this violence. It was reported in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle like so…
“Alfred, the blameless atheling, King Aethelred’s son, came here, and meant to go to his mother, who was in Winchester; but Godwine did not allow it, nor other men who wielded great power, because much was spoken in favour of Harold, though it was unjust. But Godwine hindered him, set him in captivity, and drove away his friends…The prince lived yet, but was threatened with evil, until it was advised that he be led to the town of Ely, so bound. As soon as he arrived on ship he was blinded, and so blind they brought him to the monks. There he dwelt for the while he lived. After, he was worthily buried…”
This horrendous incident would have repercussions for Godwin and his family later on. Harold Harefoot died and Harthacnut succeeded him peacefully, but Harthacnut’s rule wasn’t long either and he died in 1042 with his other half-brother Edward becoming king. Earl Godwin was too powerful to ignore, and he assisted Edward despite Edward’s personal antipathy towards the family due to their involvement in his brother Alfred’s death.
It was during Edward’s rule that Godwin and his family’s star continued to rise, with his daughter becoming Queen of England and many of his sons having their own earldom. Godwin’s family dominated English politics for years, but it wasn’t all plain sailing. The biggest test came in 1051 when Godwin refused one of the king’s orders, the order being to make war in Kent following an incident. This set off a chain reaction which led to Edward publicly charging Godwin’s for his brother Alfred’s death. The family fled into exile, except Edith who Edward repudiated and sent to a nunnery. It could have been here that the Godwin family finally fell, but they were to rise to more dazzling heights still.
Eventually the family was restored to grace, Edward didn’t have much of a choice as they had rallied an army. Godwin’s eldest son Sweyn died in 1052, and his father followed not longer after in 1053. This left Harold Godwinson as head of the family and their prospects. Over 10 years later his time finally came as his childless brother-in-law the king lay dying with no formally named heir. Harold took his moment and said that the king had bequeathed the kingdom to him on his deathbed. His sister Edith supported this version of events. Whether this is true only the people in that room would ever know. Harold Godwinson was crowned Harold II on the 6th January 1066. In just 3 generations the family had gone from relative obscurity to the highest office in the land, it was an amazing feat that made the Godwin family a new royal dynasty.
Alas for them, it didn’t last long. Harold and his brothers Tostig, Leofwine and Gyrth all died that same year. Tostig, as his family’s foe, in the Battle of Stamford Bridge and the other brothers in the famous Battle of Hastings. The dynasty was in ruins, with the next generation fleeing for safety. Edith chose a different path, succumbing to Norman rule and living out the rest of her life relatively peacefully although never holding the power she once did. She commissioned the Vita Edwardi Regis in 1065 or 1066 which cast her and her family in a very sympathetic life. The majority of her relatives scattered and never regained the positions they had once held, although some went on to have success elsewhere.
The Godwin family were ultimately an incredibly ambitious bunch, and this fuelled the course of their lives. The following quote from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle was written during their temporary downfall 1051, conveying the power they had and would then continue to hold until 1066:
“It would have seemed remarkable to everyone in England if anybody had told them that it could happen, because [Godwine] had been exalted so high, even to the point of ruling the king and all England, and his sons were earls and the king’s favourites, and his daughter was married to the king”
What are your thoughts on the Godwin family? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments below!
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Oxford DNB: Godwine [Godwin], earl of Wessex by Ann Williams
Oxford DNB: Harold II [Harold Godwineson] by Robin Fleming
Oxford DNB: Gyrth, earl of East Anglia by Ann Williams
Oxford DNB: Leofwine, earl by Ann Williams
Oxford DNB: Edith [Eadgyth] by Ann Williams
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: The Authentic Voices of England From the Time of Julius Caesar to the Coronation of Henry II. Translated and Collated by Anne Savage.
Rex Factor Podcast S3.16 Edith of Wessex
England’s Queens: From Boudica to Elizabeth of York by Elizabeth Norton
Kings & Queens: The Story of Britain’s Monarchs from Pre-Roman Times to Today by Richard Cavendish and Pip Leahy
Wikipedia: House of Godwin, Godwin Earl of Wessex, Cnut the Great, Sweyn Godwinson