Swegn Godwineson, Evil or Tragic?

Matthew Paris, Chronica Majora, II, fol. 52r (56r) – Wikipedia

Swegn was the eldest son of a prolific family. His father, Godwine of Wessex, worked his way up from relative obscurity to the most powerful Earl in the country. Swegn’s future could have been assured if only he had behaved himself and not acted like a rogue and an outlaw. He was the only one of his brood who seemed totally evil from the first. What happened?

We know very little aside from the basic events which look very bad indeed. Initially Swegn held an important earldom which included Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, and Somerset. In 1046, as he was returning from a successful expedition into Wales, he is said to have abducted the abbess of Leominster, had his way with her then sent her back in disgrace. For this deed he was exiled and lost his earldom.

Swegn eventually submitted to the King and asked to be restored his lands. At first Edward agreed, but his brother Harold and cousin Beorn, who were given parts of Swegn’s divided earldom, refused to turn over their possessions. King Edward decided to accept their refusal and gave Swegn four days safe conduct back to his ships, anchored at Bosham.

At the same time, England was threatened by a Danish fleet; there was a lot of back and forth as Godwine and sons moved their ships to defend the Kentish coast. Threatened by severe weather, Godwine anchored off Pevensey and Beorn apparently searched him out there (to defend his actions?). Swegn did as well, and I assume there was some heated discussion before Beorn agreed to accompany his cousin back to the king and make amends. Reluctant to leave his own ships unsupervised any longer, Swegn persuaded Beorn to return to his home base at Bosham, from whence they would continue to King Edward at Sandwich.

Poor Beorn never made it to Sandwich. Once at Bosham, he was allegedly seized, bound, and thrown into a ship, where he was murdered by Swegn and his body dumped off at Dartmouth. Or possibly, Beorn and Swegn quarreled before the killing, which undoubtedly happened no matter what the cause. This time, Swegn had gone too far. Declared nithing (or worthless) by king and countrymen, Swegn was deserted by his own men and took refuge in Flanders.

King Edward enthroned from Bayeux Tapestry. Source: Wikipedia

Amazingly, the next year he was reinstated in his old earldom with the help of Bishop Ealdred, known as the peacemaker. But trouble was on the horizon (nothing to do with Swegn this time). In 1051 Eustace of Bologne created a huge ruckus in Dover then fled to the king complaining that he lost 21 men to the vicious townspeople. Taking advantage of the opportunity to assert himself, King Edward ordered Godwine to punish the offenders. The earl refused, putting himself on the wrong side of the law. The crisis escalated into an armed confrontation, with Godwine and Swegn cast as rebels. But no one wanted civil war, so Godwine backed down and was eventually driven into exile along with his family. Swegn accompanied his father to Flanders once again, but, overcome with remorse, continued to Jerusalem on a pilgrimage from which he never returned.

It’s easy to dismiss Swegn as the black sheep of the family. But perhaps his story goes a little deeper than that. First of all, consider the circumstances of Godwine and Gytha’s marriage. King Canute gave Godwine—a commoner—in marriage to this high-ranking Danish woman whose brother had recently been killed by Canute’s orders. This doesn’t sound like an auspicious beginning, and I wonder if the early years of their marriage weren’t a bit tempestuous. Perhaps their first son was born in the midst of bitter recriminations? This might explain Godwine’s stubborn defense of his wayward son in face of almost universal disapproval. It was reported that during his second banishment, Swegn put it about that King Canute was his real father, which caused Gytha to strenuously and very publicly object. What was the motivation behind this outrage?

The abbess of Leominster story has a possible explanation. There is circumstantial evidence Eadgifu may have been related to the late Earl Hakon, nephew of King Canute. She may possibly have been childhood friends with Swegn, and perhaps more; it doesn’t make sense for him to have kidnapped a high-profile total stranger. The Worcester tradition states that he kept her for one year and wanted to marry her, but was forbidden by the church and commanded to return her to Leominster, which caused him to leave the country.

As for Beorn, there seems little defense. It has been said that it was Harold rather than Beorn that stubbornly refused to release the territory to Swegn, and this is why Swegn was able to persuade Beorn to accompany him to the king in Sandwich. Perhaps Beorn wanted to please Godwine, his uncle-by-marriage, and agreed to negotiate. Regardless, Beorn must have been the victim of Swegn’s bad temper (at best) or revenge (at worst). Swegn’s decision to go on pilgrimage seems to have been the last attempt to redeem himself.

It is said that Swegn died on his way back from Jerusalem exactly fourteen days after Godwine’s successful return to England.  By all reports, Swegn was mourned by no one except his father. No one was to know it yet, but this was the beginning of the end for Earl Godwine; he fell into decline and didn’t last out the year.

You can read more about this in my novel, GODWINE KINGMAKER.


Book Review for GODWINE KINGMAKER by E. Thomas Behr, Ph.D., author of Blood Brothers: Courage and Treachery on the Shores of Tripoli

A wonderfully executed, richly-developed historical novel!

Readers who enjoy tightly written, compelling story-telling with deeply engaging characters are in for a real treat with Mercedes Rochelle’s Godwine Kingmaker: Part One of The Last Great Saxon Earls. This is historical fiction in the grand tradition of Hope Muntz’s The Golden Warrior and Mary Stewart’s and T. H. White’s Arthurian sagas.

Godwine, an18-year-old Saxon sheepherder, accidentally meets and then befriends a marauding Danish nobleman whom he finds lost and wandering in the thick forest near his Wiltshire home. That friendship changes forever not only Godwine’s life, but the history of England as well.
Mercedes Rochelle takes us back into the dim past, almost before recorded history, when the nation we now know as England was being forged in the fiery crucible of war and treachery. Six hundred years before, invading Saxons had overrun England when the Roman Empire collapsed. Now the Saxons had gone from being conquerors to conquered as incessant waves of ferocious Danes and Norwegian Vikings attacked, plundered, and eventually settled in England, carving out a new kingdom for themselves in blood.

Godwine’s father, Wulfnoth, Thegn of Sussex, former commander of the Saxon King Aethelred’s fleet. had been wrongly betrayed and disgraced. Absent a father’s influence, Godwine’s ambition causes him to pledge his loyalty to his new Danish friend, Ulf, and to Ulf’s lord, the Danish king Canute the Great. Through his skill in war and politics, Godwine rises steadily in authority. Within 20 years he has become Earl of Wessex, one of the richest and most powerful men in England. Lacking royal blood, he cannot aspire to the kingship. But he does dream of the time when one of his fiercely competitive sons, Swegn, Harold, or Tostig, might unite England under a Saxon king.

In Godwine Kingmaker, the past becomes alive. Rochelle lets you walk around London and Winchester a thousand years ago. And for many readers, this is our distant past. Here’s the account of the Winter Solstice celebration that has now become our Christmas.

Inside the great hall … the carved Jul log was sprinkled with mead and decorated with dry sprigs of pine and cones. As it was lit, musicians plucked the strings of their harps and started the singing. Soon the hall was echoing with laughter … the children filled their shoes with straw, carrots, and sugar lumps and set them out by the fire to feed Odin’s flying eight-legged horse Sleipnir. … In return, Odin wold leave the children small gifts and sweets as a reward.

Click here for more…

Review of GODWINE KINGMAKER by Stephanie Hopkins

I’d like to first say that this period in English history is probably without a doubt my favorite. I am quite the critic when it comes to reading historical fiction during this extraordinary time…when I saw this book tour available for this book, I knew that I had to read this story. I wanted to know how seriously Rochelle takes her history and how she will portray this period and the people. I’d have to say I was thoroughly fascinated with her look into this time. She gives you a really good sense of it if you will. That’s what I want in a story. To be transported back.

This story centers on Harold Godwineson’s Father, Godwine. He became Earl of Wessex under King Canute. For those of you who don’t know, Canute is Danish by birth. He and his father conquered England. I highly recommend you read up on King Canute.

Anyhow, I really have never had an opinion about Godwine. I knew he was powerful and how he got his power. I have always been more interested in his son Harold-the last king of the Saxon rule. They were both two powerful men in their own right. Although what Godwine built for his families power was amazing! It really is extraordinary how he rose from his commoner status and how his family rose even further with Harold. This story shows Godwine’s power and intelligence-I think-perfectly. The story begins with him as a young boy who was befriended by the Danes. By chance really and was befriended by King Canute. This is that story and more. A brilliant story at that. Gosh there is so much to this story and I could go on and on about it. But instead of me doing that, I really encourage you to read the book.

I will caution those who are critical of authors for taking liberties regarding the historical aspects of a story. I will say this with a firm voice, “This is Historical Fiction!” I did spot some of that in this story and even asked the author about one particular scene via social media. How she explained it to me worked perfectly in her story. Matter of fact there is a part of history about a piece of land that Canute and Godwine was viewing and where Canute was telling Godwine about it is where she took some liberty. Still she kept it believable and I actually want to do further study on it. So thank you, Rochelle for including the scene in your story. Readers, I can’t tell you what it is because I don’t want to give spoilers….so go read it and find out!

I adore the authors writing style, premise, how she brought it all together. She knows how to write historical fiction and I can’t WAIT for the second book to come out. I hope it will be soon! I’m rating this book five stars. Thank you, Rochelle for a fine story. We readers of history do appreciate it.

Oh, and one last thing….I pretty much agree with Rochelle’s portrayal of the Normans! Ha! 🙂

Stephanie M. Hopkins

[spider_facebook id=”1″] [Widget_Twitter id=”1″]


Review of “The House of Godwine” by Emma Mason

The House of Godwine: The History of a DynastyThe House of Godwine: The History of a Dynasty by Emma Mason

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read this book some months ago, and today, as I was looking up a detail for more clarification, I realized that this volume was full of paper slips marking important passages. Then I realized I never reviewed this book which I keep on hand while working on my historical fiction projects. Well, I suppose this is a classic case of taking a book for granted, since I’m still actively using it.

I find “The House of Godwine” to be a clear, detailed and useful history that goes farther than merely recording pertinent details. Emma Mason skillfully puts “two and two” together and ventures to explain how certain events occurred or why people did what they did. For instance, when Harold launched his lightning attack on the court of Gruffydd ap Llewelyn in 1062: “It has been suggested that Aelfgar died in the Christmas season, possibly while attending court, and that this opportunity was seized to attack his ally Gruffydd ap Llewelyn before he learned of the earl’s death and could reinforce his own position.” Now, I knew about the Christmas campaign for years but never thought to associate it with Aelfgar’s death. This may or may not have happened as suggested, but the explanation is compelling.

In case you are wondering, yes, Emma uses extensive Notes to support her work. In fact, out of 281 pages, the Notes and Index start on page 203. As far as I can tell, she used her sources to best describe an event (such as the Battle of Hastings), then gave references every step of the way. So at Hastings, for instance, she gave us a depiction of the battle with notes every few sentences referencing many different sources. All total the battle description was thorough and it made a lot of sense. The same technique is used throughout the book.

I would say The House of Godwine is not an ideal history for beginners. It is not light reading, but for someone versed in the basics, the details here are welcome and useful. I picked up many things I hadn’t run across before. Another for-instance: “Harold knew that Norman plans for invasion of England were now well under way. William of Poitiers wrote that he sent spies to report back with more detailed information. One of these men was captured and his cover story was blown. He was taken before the duke, but instead of condemning him William seized the opportunity to send a message intended to demoralize his rival…” That’s the kind of detail I just gobble up!

The book starts with a good overview of England’s culture and politics before and during Aethelred’s reign, and ends with how the survivors after Hastings dealt with the new regime. This is where I discovered that Count Alain le Rouge, who led the Breton contingent at Hastings, carried off Edith Swanneck’s daughter Gunhild from her exile at Wilton abbey. Since Alain held much of the land previously owned by Gunhild’s mother, the daughter’s presence presumably calmed his Anglo-Danish tenants. She stayed with him until he died then became his brother’s partner in turn. I learned this tidbit just in time to incorporate it into my debut novel. Needless to say, I was thrilled. This is one book I will have to read more than once.

View all my reviews

What is Trial by Compurgation?

Joseph Strutt from Kings and Queens of Britain
Joseph Strutt from Kings and Queens of Britain

While researching my manuscript, GODWINE KINGMAKER, I bumped into a comment dropped by E.A. Freeman.  He was talking about King Harthacnut’s accusation that Godwine was responsible for the murder of Alfred Aetheling. Speaking of the trial, Freeman mentioned “compurgation…was looked on as the most effectual proof of innocence.” I glanced over this passage then stopped short and had to go back. Compurgation? What is that?

Well, it turns out that Trial by Compurgation was the most common method used in the Middle Ages to determine the innocence of an accused. Also called “Wager of Law”, this method was actually used in some forms of civil cases all the way into the 19th century. Here’s what it entails: the accused party takes an oath of innocence. Then he calls forth a predetermined number of “oath-helpers” (or compurgators), usually 11 or 12 friends or neighbors, who are prepared to declare that they believe he is telling the truth. These oath-helpers aren’t required to have any specific knowledge of the crime; they are more like character witnesses who could be held responsible if the accused profited from his freedom. The higher the status of the oath-helper, the more weight their opinions held.

According to Freeman, “Godwine asserted his own innocence on oath, and his solemn plea of Not Guilty was confirmed by the oaths of most of the Earls and chief Thegns of England…Godwine’s acquittal was as solemn as any acquittal could be. All the chief men of England swore to their belief in his innocence.” (Vol. 1 p.510, History of the Norman Conquest.)

If a defendant did not have access to compurgators, he could be required to submit to an old-fashioned Trial by Ordeal: Ordeal of Fire (remember Emma of Normandy and the burning ploughshares), Ordeal of Boiling Water, Ordeal of Cold Water, and of course plenty of variations depending on the will of the arbitrator.  These make Trial by Compurgation rather tame by comparison!

In the end, it would seem that Godwine’s innocence was not believed by everyone, as the stigma of Alfred’s death dogged him until the end. In fact, during his last meal with the King, the story goes that Godwine declared that he should choke on a piece of bread if he was guilty…and of course, that’s just what happened.  (No, Godwine is my  hero and I don’t believe this propaganda!)


Gytha, wife of Godwine


Gytha Thorkelsdottir from St Nectan’s Church Source: Wikipedia

Overshadowed by their husbands or subject to their fathers’ ambitions, noble medieval women had to be pretty plucky to carve out a niche in the history books. Still, Gytha Thorkelsdóttir was related to so many famous (and mostly tragic) figures that it is amazing we know so little about her.

Raised in Denmark, she was the sister of Earl Ulf who served Canute as Regent of Denmark before his unfortunate death (reportedly killed by Canute’s order). Her father Thorkel (also known as Torkel, Torgils, or Thorgil) was said to have been the grandson of a bear and a Swedish maiden. Of course, having a bear as an ancestor is only mentioned when referring to a male (like Ulf), but I can only assume that a female of the line would absorb the same characteristics?

Ulf was married to Canute’s sister, which made Gytha part of the royal family. So it may have been a great surprise to Gytha when King Canute married her off to his favorite, Godwine. Probably from a less than stellar background (his father was an out-of-favor Thegn in England), Godwine’s rapid rise to power was destined to make him the most important man in England after the king. But he hadn’t achieved this status yet, though he may have been Earl of Wessex when they married. I doubt whether Gytha was given a choice.

They did have a large family: at least 10, possibly 11 children.  Among their brood was Harold Godwineson (last Saxon King of England), Edith Queen of England (married to Edward the Confessor), and three earls. However, it was her misfortune to outlive at least six of them; she lost three in one day at the Battle of Hastings, for Harold died alongside his brothers Gyrth and Leofwine. And of course this was only two weeks after the death of Tostig at the Battle of Stamfordbridge. How a mother felt seeing two sons face each other as enemies across the battlefield can only be surmised. There was never any indication that she had a falling out with Tostig; in fact, it is rumored that he visited her on the way out of the country when forced into exile. 

It was written that Gytha petitioned William the Conqueror to let her take Harold’s body after Hastings and even offered to pay him its weight in gold. But William refused, fearing the Saxons would turn Harold’s burial site into a shrine. However, local legend at Bosham declares that the unidentified bones beneath the floor of Holy Trinity Church belong to Harold who was secretly buried there after the fact. The estates around Bosham were confiscated by William the Conqueror, and if he did take pity and let Gytha bring the body there, it would have been possible to keep the event a secret. Regardless, she had to leave her home in Bosham and it was probable that Gytha went to live in Exeter.

Exeter became a focal point of local rebellion, led by her Gytha and her three grandsons Godwine, Edmund, and Magnus (Harold’s sons); King William took the threat seriously enough to lay siege to the city for 18 days in the winter of 1068. As usual, William overcame their resistance and Exeter capitulated, while Gytha, accompanied by her allies, fled to the island of Flat Holm in the Bristol channel. There she stayed for many months while waiting for her grandsons to return, aided by King Diarmaid of Leinster. Unfortunately, their last invasion was a disaster and, conceding defeat, they all left England for good and traveled to Flanders. She may have entered a convent at St. Omer. Or she might have gone back to Scandinavia, where the presiding King of Denmark was her nephew. It is thought that Gytha died four years later.

Return of Earl Godwine, 1052

Cambridge Univ. Ee.3.59 The Life of King Edward the Confessor 12v

Earl Godwine may have had a humiliating experience finding himself exiled in the fall of 1051, but by many accounts his absence made the Saxons appreciate him like never before.  King Edward the Confessor, ever more at home in Normandy than England, surrounded himself with Nobles and Prelates from his adopted land who proceeded to lord it over the Saxons as though they were a conquered people.  Before the following winter was over, Godwine was encouraged by many requests for his return, and by summer he concluded that the time was right to reclaim his earldom.

Most likely he sent messages to Harold and Leofwine in Ireland, who finally set sail in nine borrowed ships loaded with mercenaries.  Landing at Porlock  in the Bristol channel for supplies, Harold met with fierce local resistance and a battle ensued that killed 30 Saxon thegns and their troops.  Harold plundered the immediate area then boarded again, rounding Land’s end and heading for the Isle of Wight to meet up with his father.

Meanwhile, Godwine was headed across the Channel, keeping an eye out for the King’s fleet that he had been warned about. At the same time, one of  those wicked Channel storms blew up, dispersed the Royal fleet and pushed Godwine back to Flanders.  As it turned out, this was a lucky break because the King was unable to reassemble his ships and crews. So Edward’s undermanned fleet stayed in London while Godwine reunited with Harold and made his triumphant way up the Thames.  Since Wessex was his own earldom, men flocked to his standard, and by the time he reached London at low tide and dropped anchor on the Southwark side, Godwine’s enthusiastic following had taken the spirit out of the King’s defenders.  No one wanted a civil war just to support the overbearing Normans surrounding the King.

When the tide came in, Godwine’s party weighed anchor and traveled under London Bridge unopposed, making their way to Westminster where the King was waiting.  Godwine sent messengers to Edward, asking him to return everything that had been taken from him and restore his rights legally.  Hoping to find a way out of this mess, Edward prevaricated until Godwine’s followers became restive and the Earl had great difficulty keeping them under control. This was no good! Bishop Stigand finally came out and negotiated with his old friend; it was agreed that the King and the Earl of Wessex would meet at a great Witan Gemot the following day and restore peace.

As soon as the Normans saw which way the wind was blowing, they decided to make a run for it.  I have this vision of Norman soldiers bursting out of the city in every direction, among them Archbishop Robert of Jumièges, Godwine’s bitter enemy.  He and his followers were said to have cut their way through the crowd and out by the east gate of London, leaving a trail of dead and wounded victims.  Worst of all, it appears that they abducted Godwine’s son and grandson, which might be the explanation why their departure was so violent; perhaps the Earl’s men were trying to stop the kidnapping.  Alas for poor Godwine, the hostages given in good faith ended up as pawns in Duke William’s hands, and Godwine would never see his youngest son again.

Regardless, the great gathering was held the following day outside the walls of London, where the people and the other Earls gathered to welcome the return of their hero.  Godwine laid his axe at the King’s feet and declared his homage, and while the crowd cheered their acclaim he and Edward exchanged the kiss of peace.  Godwine was restored all that had been taken from him, the charges were put aside, and amnesty was declared for any ills that had taken place the last three months.  Archbishop Robert was deprived of his post and declared outlaw. And lastly, “Good law was decreed for all folk” (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle).

Death of Earl Godwine by William Blake: Wikimedia

Alas, Godwine was not destined to enjoy his triumph for long.  The events had taken their toll on his health and he soon fell seriously ill.  Within the year he was dead; while feasting at the King’s table he was seized by a powerful convulsion and fell insensible, never to waken again.


You can read more about this in GODWINE KINGMAKER.


Exile of Earl Godwine, 1051

Cambridge MS Ee.3.59 The Life of King Edward the Confessor

By the middle of the eleventh century, Earl Godwine might have seemed pretty much at the height of his power.  His daughter was married to King Edward, Godwine himself held the most important Earldom in England and his second son Harold was Earl of East Anglia.  He had more strapping sons awaiting their turn for the next vacant earldoms.

But on closer inspection, things were not quite right.  By 1051, it was apparent that Queen Edith was not likely to give birth to an heir, thus reducing her own and Godwine’s influence.  Swegn, Godwine’s eldest son, had shamed the family by his outrageous behavior, then committed the heinous crime of murdering his own cousin.  And to make matters worse, King Edward was surrounding himself with powerful Norman allies and churchmen. This culminated in the appointment of Robert of Jumieges as Archbishop of Canterbury against Godwine’s and the local monks’ approved choice.  Archbishop Robert immediately launched into a campaign against Godwine, accusing him of stealing church property. Then he moved onto the old accusation of Godwine’s alleged role in the tragic death of the King’s brother Alfred. It didn’t take much to stir up Edward’s simmering resentment.

Things came to a head when Eustace, Count of Boulogne, visited King Edward in September, 1051.  On his return trip, he and his men attempted to force the residents of Dover to give them lodging in their homes, just as they were used to in their native country. The stout Dover townsmen resisted, one was killed in his home, a Frenchman was killed in return, and the intruders mounted their steeds and plunged through the town, slashing and maiming whoever got in their way.  The townspeople resisted, turning the incident into a full-fledged skirmish. When all was done twenty English and nineteen Frenchmen lay dead on the streets.

Attack on Dover, llustration by Edouard Zier from a History of England, 1903

Eustace turned around at full gallop and took his remaining men back to King Edward at Gloucester, demanding  justice.  Enraged, the King summoned Earl Godwine and insisted that he immediately chastise the offending town with fire and sword. This was putting the king above the law, and Godwine refused, insisting on a full trial.  Then, having had his say, he retreated to his estate,  leaving the King securely in the hands of the Normans.  It didn’t take long before Godwine’s refusal to obey the King was construed as traitorous.

One thing led to another, and by the end of the month the tide was turning against Godwine.  Edward summoned the other great earls of the land to support him against Godwine’s family; ultimately the King commanded Godwine and Harold to appear and answer charges.  Godwine only agreed to do so if the King issued a safe-conduct.  Edward refused.

Godwine knew there was no hope for his cause, at least for the moment.  He had apparently been preparing for such an eventuality, because much of his treasure had already been loaded on a ship, and he quickly left the country along with most of his family.  Their destination was Flanders, a common refuge for English exiles and home of Count Baldwin, brother of Tostig’s new bride.  On a different ship, Harold and his younger brother Leofwine took sail for Ireland, where they were well-received by Dermot, King of Dublin and Leinster.

Poor Queen Edith, caught between father and husband, was quickly trundled off to a convent and deprived of all her goods, real and personal. Did Edward think this was going to be permanent?  Elated at his successful coup, apparently he wanted to make the most of it.  But his freedom from Godwine was destined not to last.


Death of Alfred Aetheling

Emma and sons Alfred & Edward from 13th c. Life of King Edward the Confessor by Matthew Paris

When Queen Emma (widow of Aethelred the Unready) married Canute around 1017, they agreed that the sons from their own marriage would take precedence over any previous children. Things didn’t entirely work out that way, but for the duration of Canute’s reign, her first two sons, Edward and Alfred, remained exiles in her native Normandy.

The second son Alfred’s story is a pitiful one, though it has come down to us full of contradictions. The part we are certain of tells us that during the reign of Harold Harefoot, while Emma lived at Winchester, Alfred landed on the Kentish coast with a band of followers. On orders of the King he was seized, his followers either killed or sold into slavery, and Alfred had his eyes put out, soon dying of his wounds. What we don’t know was why he came to England in the first place, and who exactly was responsible for the dastardly deed, looked upon with disgust even by the Anglo-Saxons hardened to such violence.

One of the rumors was that Emma, discouraged by the non-appearance of Harthacnut, sent a letter to Edward and Alfred encouraging them to invade England and claim the crown. Others conjectured they were testing invasion plans on their own volition. Some say King Harold forged a letter in their mother’s name, intending to lure them to their deaths. Still others said that her sons were simply paying her a visit.

It was said that Edward landed with 40 ships at Southampton and Alfred landed at Dover; the Norman account numbered Alfred’s followers at 600, though other accounts said he came with less than a dozen friends. It has even been stated that Edward fought a battle and defeated the English with great slaughter (considering Edward’s later peaceable reign, I tend to doubt this). However, on hearing of Alfred’s fate, Edward made a hasty retreat back to the safety of Normandy.

It seems relatively certain that Alfred’s capture came as a surprise, and Earl Godwine of Wessex has invariably been linked with his arrest. It is alleged that Godwine wined and dined Alfred, lodged his men throughout the town, then in the middle of the night, either Godwine’s men or Harold’s men raided the town, capturing, torturing and killing the Aetheling’s companions. Whether Godwine followed direct orders from King Harold or whether he acted on his own recognizance is total conjecture. Or he simply might have stepped aside and refrained from interfering with the King’s business.

Death of Earl Godwine: Joseph Strutt from Kings and Queens of Britain

Did Godwine turn the Aetheling over to Harold’s soldiers, or was he personally responsible for taking Alfred to the island of Ely and blinding him? Nobody really knows, but Godwine was blamed by many of  his contemporaries. Even though he later cleared himself in court, he was never able to rid himself of the stigma attached to the murder. In any event, the brutal circumstances gave Godwine’s enemies a great deal of ammunition to fling at him. Even at the end of his life, the legend persists that during a feast, Godwine made an oath to Edward that he should choke on a piece of bread if he was responsible for Alfred’s death. Then suddenly, the great Earl was taken with a seizure and collapsed at the table, thus confirming his guilt for all eternity. Do I believe this? Absolutely not!


Bosham, home of the Godwine clan

A visit to Bosham reveals a very pretty coastal town with firm connections to the Godwine clan.  In an earlier post, I conjectured that Earl Godwine may have used Bosham as one of his main residences.  It makes sense, since it is one of the only places in England actually drawn in the Bayeux Tapestry; Harold departed from Bosham before his fateful visit to Normandy.

The Holy Trinity church is said to date back to the 10th century on the site of a Roman Basilica, and there is a gravestone under the Anglo-Saxon arch marking the spot believed to hold the bones of an unnamed daughter of Canute who drowned in the millstream. There is no proof that the child’s skeleton belonged to Canute’s daughter, but the position of importance in the church combined with local legends makes a strong case. I find the Canute connection very interesting, since he and Godwine were close throughout Canute’s reign.  It is thought that Canute actually had a residence in Bosham as well, and may have built it on the foundations of Emperor Vespasian’s palace; tradition has it that the Romans established an encampment there. Oh, and this is the place where Canute allegedly tried to Command the Tide, to demonstrate to his followers that even the king’s powers were limited compared to the supreme power of God.

Canute’s daughter’s marker

Even more interesting, in 1954 an unmarked coffin was discovered under the floor stones, just a few feet from the royal princess.  Although the skeleton was not intact, they did identify the “thigh and pelvic bones of a powerfully built man of about 5 ft 6 in. in height aged over 60 years with traces of arthritis” (see John Pollock, “Is King Harold II buried in Bosham Church?”). Its proximity to the princess denotes a person of importance, and local tradition has long believed that the bones belonged to Earl Godwine himself.  However, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states that Godwine was buried in Winchester, and John Pollock believes that the bones could have belonged to Harold Godwineson. A headless one-legged skeleton would certainly be consistent with the condition of poor Harold after he was hacked to pieces at the Battle of Hastings! Also, it was said that William the Conqueror wanted to make sure that Harold’s resting place would not become a shrine, and he insisted that his conquered foe would be interred somewhere in secret. He even promised to bury him on the seashore, overlooking the land he tried to defend. Hence, the unmarked grave? Godwine’s manor was reportedly the only territory William took possession of in Sussex.

Although I couldn’t find a “Harold Slept  Here” marker, it was clear that Bosham claimed him as one of their own, and were very proud of their heritage.