Where did Earl Godwine Live?

These great pre-Conquest Earls, who owned hundreds of estates all over England, must have favored a house or two.  I keep wondering whether a farmer’s field, or a parking lot might be the very site of a lord’s favorite retreat in the country (in the city it would have been better defined).  They had to live somewhere, and since stone castles came later, I guess they must have lived in big wooden structures which of course left no trace.

We know that Earl Godwine was probably the richest man in England after the king (or was he richer than the king?).  But where did he live?  Research about Godwine and Harold II keeps bringing up the name of Bosham, which is a town in West Sussex not far from Portsmouth and apparently their mainstay.

It is said that King Canute even had a house in Bosham (after all, he was friendly with Godwine), and that one of his daughters may have drowned in the mill race at Bosham and was buried in the Cathedral.  It is said that Harold Godwineson’s body was buried there (though most people think he was buried at Waltham).  Godwine’s eldest son Swegn murdered his cousin Beorn at Bosham, and Harold is said to have sailed from Bosham on his fateful trip to Normandy, when he fell into the clutches of Duke William.  The Saxon church is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry.

So there are certainly a lot of associations with Bosham.  I was surprised to find, in A History of the County of Sussex: Volume 4 by L.F. Salzman, that the author was able to trace the Manor of Bosham all the way from the Norman Conquest to the Earl of Iveagh, who owned it when the book was written in 1953. Even William Marshall and clan had a hand in it.

And today, there is still a Manor of Bosham and a Manor of Bosham House, which allegedly stands on the spot of Canute’s residence.  A visit here might be the closest we will get to Godwine’s stomping-grounds, although first you have to get through all the touristy references to Canute Trying to Command the Tide…yep, I forgot to mention that one!

Origin of Earl Godwine

Edmund Ironside and Canute the Dane. CREDIT: Wikimedia

Earl Godwine is one of the delicious mysteries of the eleventh century. Having risen to one of Saxon England’s most powerful positions, as well as father to both a queen and a king, it is a wonder that his origins are so confused.

The most popular story—as written in the Icelandic Knytlinga Saga (written in the 1250s)—is that he was a shepherd, or son of a ceorl, who discovered a Viking Earl wandering lost in the forest after a great battle.  Earl Ulf offered him a gold ring as payment for escort back to his ship, but Godwine decided to forgo the reward and help the Viking as a favor, hoping to earn his fortune in the Earl’s service.  Somewhere along the way he caught the attention of King Canute, who made use of him and eventually raised Godwine up as Earl of Wessex.

Although this story says a lot about Godwine’s abilities, usefulness, or persuasiveness, I can’t help but think it highly unlikely that Canute would notice him at all if he was only the son of a ceorl—much less raise him up to the highest rank in the land after king.

However, there is another explanation that makes more sense.  In some early documents, it is said that Godwine’s father was named Wulfnoth Cild, who was a Thegn in the service of King Aethelred the Unready.  Wulfnoth had command of the Saxon Fleet, and in 1009 he was accused of some unspecified treason. Because of this, Wulfnoth deserted with 20 ships, and resorted to piracy on the Sussex coast.  The king sent his uncle Bithric after him with the rest of the Saxon navy, but the ships foundered in a great storm and Wulfnoth finished them off by burning the fleet.  The destruction of the King’s ships left the way open for that year’s Viking invasion, or, as some suggested, Wulfnoth joined Svein Forkbeard as part of his revenge.

Either way, Wulfnoth was in disgrace.  But could it be possible that King Canute raised up the son in recognition of the father’s aid?  If Wulfnoth was a Thegn, then Godwine’s advancement would seem much less incredible.  No one knows for sure.

Another explanation, less colorful but very sensible, states that Godwine was mentioned in the Aetheling Athelstan’s will (the son of Aethelred the Unready). Aethelstan is said to have granted him his father’s confiscated estate in 1014. On Aethelstan’s death, Godwine is said to have transferred his allegiance to Edmund Ironside, and fought with him against young Canute. He supposedly stayed with Edmund until the end, after which he swore allegiance to Canute along with the rest of Edmund’s supporters. It is said that Canute favored Godwine because he rewarded those who proved loyal to his predecessor.

This latter story promotes Godwine as a warrior rather than a politician, but I tend to favor the former version of the great Earl of Wessex. If you are interested in a further discussion of Godwine’s origins, you can find a long dissertation in the Vol. 1 Appendix of Edward A Freeman’s “History of the Norman Conquest of England”. Or, you can read more in my historical novel GODWINE KINGMAKER.

What happened to Earl Godwine’s family?

Edward the Confessor accuses Earl Godwin of the murder of his brother, Alfred Aetheling, National Archives, UK

Godwine, Earl of Wessex was one of the most powerful Saxons of his day.  At the height of his career, it looked like he was positioned to found a powerful dynasty.  He had six strapping sons: Swegn, Harold, Tostig, Gyrth, Leofwine, and Wulfnoth, and his daughter Edith was married to the King of England.  It is sad and ironic that by the battle of Hastings, his family was either dead or scattered, and of course all the English Earldoms were dissolved by William the Conqueror, who divided the spoils among his followers.

Godwine’s eldest daughter Edith, Queen and wife to Edward the Confessor, survived until 1075—probably restricted to her Winchester estates—although it is difficult to find any reference to her after the Norman Conquest. King Edward is said to have hated Earl Godwine and resented being obliged to marry Godwine’s daughter; he needed the great earl’s support and may have agreed to wed the girl as one of Godwine’s conditions. Nobody knows for sure, but it is rumored he avoided her bed as much as possible (this adds to his saintly repute), though they seem to have had cordial relations.  She never gave birth to an heir, and hence the field was wide open after Edward died in 1066.

Swegn, the oldest son, was a constant source of trouble to his father.  He eventually committed the crime of abducting a nun, and later murdered his cousin Beorn, which precipitated the Witan’s declaration that he was nithing (wretch, coward; good-for-nothing). By the time of his father’s outlawry, he repented his sins and went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem from which he never returned.

The second son Harold succeeded Edward the Confessor, and was crowned King on Jan. 6, 1066.  His reign only lasted nine months, and he was killed at the Battle of Hastings on Oct. 14 in the same year.  His brothers Gyrth (Earl of East Anglia, Cambridgeshire and Oxfordshire) and Leofwine (Earl of Kent, Essex, Middlesex, Hertford, Surrey and probably Buckinghamshire) were also killed at Hastings.

Gyrth and Leofwine’s death at the Battle of Hastings, scene 52 of the Bayeux Tapestry. Source: Wikipedia

Tostig, the third son, was fiery and quick to anger.  When his brother Earl Harold was forced to side with his enemies and persuade King Edward to depose him as Earl of Northumbria, Tostig swore to come back and wreak revenge.  He accomplished this retribution by convincing Harald Hardraada to invade England in September 1066, where both the King of Norway and Tostig Godwineson met their deaths in battle at Stamfordbridge. Ultimately, this brought King Harold Godwineson north, leaving the coast unguarded at the moment William the Bastard crossed the Channel; Harold’s absence proved fatal to his kingship and the Saxon cause.

This left poor Wulfnoth, the only surviving son after the Battle of Hastings.  He had been a hostage in Normandy as long ago as possibly 1052, when the Normans fled England upon Godwine’s return from exile.  After Hastings, King William kept him confined, and on his death William Rufus brought him back to England and detained him at Winchester. It was possible Wulfnoth was permitted to join the monastery there, but regardless he was a comfortable prisoner all the way until his death in 1094.

Earl Godwine and Gytha had three other daughters: Gunhilda of Wessex, a nun who died in 1080, Aelfgifu, and Marigard.  It is probable that Gytha returned to her native Denmark after the Norman Conquest.