The House of Godwine: The History of a Dynasty 1472598903, 9781472598905

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The House of Godwine: The History of a Dynasty
 1472598903, 9781472598905

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The House of Godwine The History of a Dynasty

Emma Mason


and London

London and New York


and London

Gloucester Avenue London, NWI 8HX


175 Fifth Avenue

New York NY 10010

First Published


Copyright © Emma Mason


The moral rights of the author have been asserted. All rights reserved. Without limiting the rights under copyrights reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of the book. A description of this book is available from the British Library and from the Library of Congress. Typeset by Carnegie Publishing, Lancaster, and printed in Great Britain by Cambridge University Press. Distributed in the United States and Canada exclusively by Palgrave Macmillan, a division of St Martin's Press.








The Kingdom of England 2

Threats from Abroad



Earl Godwine



Struggle at Court






Harold Godwineson



William of Normandy



Before Hastings









Further Reading





Illustrations Between pages





Queen Emma receives the Encomium Emmae Reginae, British Library, MS Add. 33241, fol. 4. (British Library)


Edward the Confessor accuses Earl Godwine of murdering the aetheling Alfred (above); Godwine (furthest right) prepares to undergo the ordeal. (Public Record Office)


Silver penny of Harold II (obverse and reverse), Wallingford. (British Museum)


Scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry. Harold sets out from Bosham. (City of Bayeux)


Harold, touching two shrines, swears an oath of allegiance to William. (City of Bayeux)


Edward the Confessor, on his death-bed, addresses Harold (above); the king's body is prepared for burial (below). (City of Bayeux)


Harold is crowned at Westminster.


Duke William sets sail from Normandy. (City of Bayeux)


The English shield-wall at Hastings withstands the Norman attack. (City of Bayeux)


(City of Bayeux)

The death of Leofwine and Gyrth. (City of Bayeux)


The death of Harold. (City of Bayeux)


Altar or processional cross, third quarter of eleventh century. (Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen)

Acknowledgements The lives of the men and women of the House of Godwine have fascinated readers for almost a thousand years. There is a timeless appeal in the story of the richest and most powerful aristocratic family in mid eleventh-century England. The resourcefulness of its members was abetted by sexual intrigue, violence, greed and treachery. Their story combines the ingredients of a blockbuster novel with the challenge of a whodunit, as the reader sifts the contrasting spin put on events by chroniclers of differing backgrounds and successive generations. The gripping tale combined with the challenge of the conflicting source materials to inspire me to write an account of this extraordinary family. The book stems from a documentary-based course on perspectives of conquest in eleventh-century England that I taught over several years in Birkbeck, University of London. My views on this subject were enriched by discussions in the stimulating context of the annual Battle Conference on Anglo-Norman Studies. Individuals, both there and elsewhere, who have given me advice on bibliographical items, or on points of detail, include Bill Aird, Bernard Bachrach, Lennart Carlie, Clare Downham, Robin Eaglen, Alison Finlay, Richard Gem, John Grassi, John Hayward, Paul Hayward, Muriel Heppell, Charles Insley, Amanda Martin, Patrick McGurk, Jackie Mountain, Ian Short, Alan Thacker, Elisabeth Van Houts, Jennifer Ward and Ann Williams. Tony Morris invited me to submit a proposal for a book on the House of Godwine. Jane Dobson expertly word-processed the text to professional standards, and when sh~ was temporarily immobilised her sister Elizabeth Silk resourcefully ensured the return of completed copy. Martin Sheppard gave meticulous editorial advice and Elizabeth Stone read the proofs carefully and incisively. I am grateful to the British Library for permission to reproduce plate 1; the British Museum for plate 3; the city of Bayeux for plates 4-11; the Nationalmuseet, Copenhagen, for plate 12; and the Public Record Office for plate 2. The dedication commemorates a wise and supportive head of department during my early years on the teaching staff of Birkbeck.

Prologue Godwine, earl ofWessex, and his family have always been seen as dominating figures thanks to their ambitions and to their colourful personalities. Their central role in English political life in the years leading up to the Norman Conquest ensured that their memory would be kept alive. Even those who know nothing else of medieval history will confidently say that King Harold Godwineson died after being hit in the eye by an arrow at the battle of Hastings. Even as the drama of their lives unfolded, so the facts surrounding Godwine and his sons were fictionalised, and they were quickly turned into heroes, anti-heroes or even downright villains. The reputation of the family was at its lowest in the generation or two after the Norman Conquest, but then, as the conquering French slowly merged with the native English, perspectives began to shift throughout the twelfth century and beyond. Historians in every generation interpret the events and the people of the past through their own perception of life, so that ideas about historic characters are constantly changing. In the middle of Queen Victoria's reign, E. A. Freeman wrote of Godwine and his son Harold as though they were champions of nineteenth-century parliamentary democracy.! Hard facts about the house of Godwine survive to some extent in record materials, more especially in Domesday Book, so that the landed wealth of the family members has been studied in depth.2 It can also be stated, with some confidence, which religious houses enjoyed their patronage, in return for prayers for their wellbeing, even though, after 1066, some establishments deleted their names from the lists of benefactors.3 In reconstructing the events surrounding Godwine and his sons, historians have to rely on narrative sources, all of which have some inbuilt bias, whether of omission, of exaggeration, or of wilful misrepresentation. This applies even to the source closest to events, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, probably begun in the court circle of King Alfred (977-99) but later kept up in several versions at religious houses in different parts of the country. At times their narratives are largely interdependent, but at others they vary