1902 Encyclopedia > Godwine

Anglo-Saxon nobleman
(fl. 11 century)

GODWINE, son of Wulfnoth, earl of tie West-Saxons, is the leading Englishman in the first half of the 11th century, and he holds a special place in English history generally. He is the first Englishman who plays the part of a minister and parliamentary leader, of one high in office under the crown who at the same time sways the assemblies of the nation by his power of speech. Such a position was per-fectly possible before the Norman Conquest; it did not again become possible for some ages. Godwine appears as the chief champion of England against Norman influence, and as the father of the last English king of the native stock. In these two characters he drew on himself the fullest bitterness of Norman hatred; and to this hatred is doubtless largely, though not wholly, owing the extraor-dinary contradiction with which the chief events of his life are told, and the amazing slanders which have been heaptd upon his memory.

His birth and origin are utterly uncertain. The highest authorities, the contemporary English Chronicles, are silent. There are two alternative statements, which are seemingly quite irreconcilable, but either of which alone would have much to be said for it. By putting together certain passages in the English Chronicles, in Domesday, and in the will of the iEtheling ^Ethelstan, son of King iEthelred, a strong presumption is raised that Godwine was the son of Wulfnoth the South-Saxon who was outlawed in 1009, and that his services in the war against Cnut were deemed to entitle him to a restitution of his father's forfeited lands. There is no direct statement to this effect, but a number of undesigned coincidences point towards such a belief. On the other hand, there is a story which appears in various quarters, and which seems to come from more than one independent source, which makes Godwine's father Wulfnoth a churl somewhere on the borders of Gloucestershire and Wiltshire, and which makes Godwine win the favour of the Danish earl Ulf by showing him his way after the battle of Sherstone in 1016. A third account connects Godwine with the family of Eadric the traitor of ^Ethelred's day; but this version seems at once to be impossible to reconcile with either of the other two stories, and to rest on less authority than either.

But, whatever was Godwine's origin, there is no doubt that, according to Cnut's rule of preferring Englishmen to high office, he rose to power very early in that king's reign. He was an earl in 1018. The next year he distinguished himself at the head of the English troops in Cnut's Northern wars, and received in marriage Gytha, the sister of the king's brother-in-law Earl Ulf. In 1020 he became earl of the West-Saxons, that is, of all England south of the Thames, a new office, doubtless connected with Cnut's fre-quent absences from England. All this again is not in the Chronicles, though particular points are incidentally confirmed by them. Still this stage of his history seems to be fairly made out from other sources.

From Cnut's death in 1035 the events of Godwine's life are recorded in the Chronicles, often with great minuteness. Much is also learned from the contemporary biographer of Eadward. He asserted the claims of Harthacnut, the son of Cnut and Emma, to the crown of his father; but he had to consent to a division of the kingdom, and could only secure Wessex for Harthacnut, while Harold reigned in Northumberland and Mercia. He then acted as the chief minister of Emma, while she was regent on behalf of Harthacnut during his first reign. During this time the iEtheling Alfred, son of iEthelred and Emma, landed in England in the hope of winning back his father's crown; but coming into the power of Harold, he was blinded by his order, and died of his wounds. Godwine was said to have betrayed iElfred to Harold, and the charge was eagerly seized upon by the Norman writers. But it was not invented by them. At the beginning of Harthacnut's second reign in 1040, Godwine was formally accused of the death of iElfred, and was regularly tried and acquitted. His guilt is asserted in a poem inserted in one of the Chronicles, but the words which tell against him are carefully altered in another version. The story is told with great confusion and contradiction, and the version unfavourable to Godwine seems to be incon-sistent with his position at the time as minister, not of Harold, to whom he is said to have betrayed iElfred, but of Harthacnut, whose kingship seems to be forgotten in the story. Godwine remained in power during the reigns of Harold and Harthacnut, and on the death of the last-named king in 1042, he was foremost in promoting the election of Eadward, the son of iEthelred and Emma, to the vacant throne. As earl of the West-Saxons he was the first man in the kingdom, but his power was still balanced by that of the other great earls, Leofric in Mercia and Siward in Northumberland. His sons Swegen and Harold, together with Beorn, the nephew of his wife Gytha, were promoted to earldoms (1043-1045), and his daughter Eadgyth was married to the king (1045). We hear much of his good and strict government of his earldom, and of his influence with the king and with the whole nation. He was not, however, all-powerful; in one very remarkable case, which is most instructive as a piece of constitutional history, he was out-voted in the witenagemdt on a question of foreign policy. In 1047, when his wife's nephew Swegen Estrith-son, now king of the Danes, was at war with Magnus of Norway, Godwine proposed to help Swegen with fifty ships ; but the notion was opposed by Leofric, and " all folk " ac-cepted the amendment of the Mercian earl. Godwine had also to strive against the king's fondness for Normans and other strangers, above all in the disposal of ecclesiastical offices. Godwine's policy, in this and in other matters, was opposed to all French connexions of every kind. Next to Englishmen he favoured natives of the kindred Continental lands, and he supported a policy of alliance with the empire and its princes. In all this, at home and abroad, he had specially to withstand the influence of the king's Norman favourite Robert of Jumieges, appointed bishop of London in 1044 and archbishop of Canterbury in 1051. Godwine was supported by the English bishops Stigand of Winches-ter and Lyfing of Worcester. The appointment of Robert to the archbishopric marks the decline of Godwine's power ; the foreign influence was now at its height, and the English earl was to feel the strength of it.

In the course of 1051 a series of outrages committed by the king's foreign favourites led to a breach between the king and the earl. The king's brother-in-law, Eustace count of Boulogne, returning with his followers from a visit to the king, tried to obtain quarters by force in the houses of the burgesses of Dover. An Englishman who withstood them was killed; a fight followed, in which the count and his company were driven out of the town. The king, hear-ing the tale from Eustace, bade Godwine inflict military chastisement on the townsmen; the earl refused, and demanded a fair trial of the charge before the witan. About the same time men's minds were stirred by the outrages of several Normans who had received estates in Herefordshire. The influence of the archbishop was used against Godwine, and he was summoned to appear before the witan at

Gloucester as a criminal. He and his sons now gathered the whole force of their earldoms, and marched towards Gloucester in arms. They demanded the surrender of Count Eustace and of the other strangers who had done outrages, whether at Dover or in Herefordshire. The king called the other earls to his help; war was hindered by the mediation of Leofric, and matters were adjourned to another meeting in London. There the king appeared with an army; Godwine and his sons were arraigned as criminals, and, on refusing to appear without a safe-conduct, were outlawed. Godwine and his whole family now left the kingdom, except his daughter, the Lady Eadgyth, who was banished from court to the monastery of Wherwell. The foreign favour-ites of the king were now supreme.

The next year the tide turned; the feeling of the nation showed itself in favour of Godwine. When his petition for a removal of his outlawry was refused, he came back from his shelter in Elanders at the head of a fleet. In most parts of England he was welcomed; he sailed up the Thames to London; the army gathered by the king refused to fight against him; and, in a great meeting outside the walls of London, he and his family were restored to all their offices and possessions, and the archbishop and many other Normans were banished. Godwine's friend Stigand succeeded to the archbishopric. The next year Godwine was smitten with a fit at the king's table, and died three days later, April 15, 1052. His death was worked up into a fabulous tale by his Norman enemies.

The patriotism and good government of Godwine are un-doubted ; but it is plain that he accumulated vast wealth for himself. Sometimes, it was said, he showed little regard to the rights of the church; but in the only case where we hear both sides, that of some lands in Kent disputed between him and the Norman archbishop, it appears that he had a legal claim. It is much more certain that he was unduly bent on the promotion of his own family. His eldest son Swegen gave great and deserved offence by the seduction of Eadgifu, abbess of Leominster, and still more by the treacherous murder of his cousin Beorn. He was out-lawed, but was afterwards restored to his earldom. He accom-panied his father to Flanders, but did not come back, having gone on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, on his return from which he died. Of his other sons, the second, Harold, succeeded Godwine in his earldom and Eadward in his kingdom; Tostig, Gyrth, and Leofric, all earls, play a part in the later history; Wulfnoth, the youngest, was a captive of William. Of his daughters the Lady Eadgyth survived her father, husband, and brother, and lived in great honour under the Conqueror. The others were Gunhild and .ZElfgifu, the latter of whom appears in the story of Harold's oath to William.

See the Euglish Chronicles and Florence of Worcester, 1035-52 ; the Life of Eadward, published in the Chronicles and Memorials ; the Encomium Emmas or Gcsta Gnutonis, published by Pertz, and elsewhere; various notices in Domesday, and in the writers of the time generally. All the passages, historical and legendary, bearing on Godwine's life, are collected and examined in the appendices to Freeman's History of the Norman Conquest, vols. i. ii. (E. A. F.)

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