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.
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.
Some Norwood online trees trace their genealogy directly back to Jordanus de Sheppey, and then to Harold Godwineson as his father, basing this on Marion Norwood Callum’s researches – that cannot be true. The chronology does not hold; court documents for Jordan’s wife and children make it clear that he had to have been born long after Harold Godwinson was dead at Hastings, indeed in 1135.
All of the uncertainty surrounding the descendants of King Harold could be removed if, like Richard III, his body could be found. In the case of Richard, apart from the physical description of the body and its location close to the battlefield etc., proof was found through the DNA of modern supposed descendants. There are many branches of the Norwood family who would be very happy to offer their DNA as proof, including our own! There is controversy however over its location. He had been a benefactor of Waltham Abbey where they claim that a body which was originally under the chancel and was moved later to outside of the Church is Harold II. He has a marked grave in the church yard and the town celebrates his presence; there is at least one society that champions him. But academic opinion is not convinced.
The most detailed medieval account of his location comes from the Waltham Chronicle. The author describes how two canons from Waltham, Osgod Cnoppe and Aethelric Childemaister, accompanied Harold from Waltham to Hastings. After the battle, they asked permission to recover Harold’s body, which could only be identified by his “concubine”, (their pejorative term as clergymen- she was his “hand fast” wife, a recognised Anglo- Scandinavian status) Edith Swans Neck, who recognised “secret marks” on it (only known from their intimate relations.) From Hastings the body was brought to Waltham and buried under the floor of the church. This story was related to the author of the Chronicle when he was a boy, by the Sacristan Turketil, who claimed to have himself been a boy at Waltham when Harold arrived en route from Stamford Bridge, and later witnessed the interment of the king. The author himself claims to have seen Harold’s body being disinterred and moved twice during the rebuilding work which started in 1090.
After the defeat at Hastings, Edith was said to have retreated to Minster on Sheppey where she joined, according to some accounts a nunnery. This too has been challenged, as there was no scope for giving sanctuary as a nun to a prominent figure like Edith, and neither was there an existing community of nuns as the Church had been ruined during the actions by Earl Godwine against Edward the Confessor and therefore it was not in a fit state to serve either as a refuge, or a home for nuns who had already moved on by 1050. The site had a very sad history right through the Anglo Saxon period from the location of a monastery there in 664 through to the 11th century as a result of raids by Vikings. The payment of Danegeld did little to alleviate its suffering. As buildings were made of wattle and daub, they had little resistance to pillage, so by the time of Edward the Confessor in 1042, there was little of the Priory left, probably just a rough settlement around the remains of the Church, and even less after Godwine had done his worst. It is the case however that much later the Abbey was restored and became a priory accommodating wealthy “brides of Christ”.
Moreover, although Edith had some land in Sheppey, according to Domesday, and Thanet her major holdings were in Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire and East Anglia which was a more natural retreat – she has been linked for example to the foundation to our Lady of Walsingham in Norfolk. But nothing is known for sure and some have speculated that she joined her sons and her husband’s second wife in the abortive attempts to resist Williams rule at Exeter and Bristol. Harold’s wife Aeditha ended her days in St Omer. Edith is said to have died in 1087 but there is no proof that this was in Sheppey.
The family dispersed after the Conquest. Only two members of the family were allowed to live undisturbed in England under Norman rule. Edward the Confessor’s widow Edith, daughter of Godwin, lived in retirement, remaining in possession of all her private lands, until her death in 1075. She was buried near her husband in Westminster Abbey. Her niece Gunnhild, daughter of Harold Godwinson, was an inmate of the nunnery in Wilton until 1093, when she was abducted by Alan the Red, a Breton who held the lordship of Richmond. She lived with him, and then with his successor Alan the Black, after which she disappears from history. The Alans’ goal was evidently to consolidate their hold on land taken from Edith Swans Neck by marrying her daughter.
In the aftermath of the battle of Hastings Godwin’s widow, Gytha, (mother of Harold II) by then in her sixties, withdrew to the south-west of England, where she held vast estates and where resistance to the Conquest was mounting. William the Conqueror turned his attention to crushing this resistance at the beginning of 1068, and laid siege to the city of Exeter, but Gytha had already fled, probably with her daughter Gunhild and Harold’s daughter Gytha, and taken refuge first on an island in the Bristol Channel, probably Flat Holm, and then at Saint-Omer in Flanders.
The young sons of Harold, Godwine and Edmund, and possibly also their brother Magnus, may have been at the siege of Exeter; certainly they made their way to the court of King Diarmalt of Leinster in Ireland, from where they launched two unsuccessful raids against south-west England. Two of the sons, probably Godwin and Edmund, survived to join their relatives in Saint-Omer. From there the whole party seems to have proceeded to Denmark in the hope that its king, Sweyn II, would help them regain their position in England. Sweyn failed them in this, but after a few years he arranged an advantageous marriage for the younger Gytha with Vladimir Monomakh, Prince of Smolensk and later Grand Prince of Kiev. Their descendants intermarried with royal houses across Europe, and transmitted the blood of the Godwins to, among many others, the present Queens of Great Britain and Denmark.
Harold, the youngest and probably posthumous son of Harold Godwinson, was taken by his mother to Dublin, and later went to Norway, where he was welcomed by the king. In 1098 he was one of the men Magnus III Barelegs took with him on an expedition to Orkney, the Isle of Man and Anglesey; the target of this operation, Dublin, was left untouched as the Norwegians retreated home. No further mention of Harold appears in any source. Before passing to the Jordanus connection, it is worth noting that one historian suggests that Alnod/Ulf stayed on in Normandy after being knighted by Robert and changed his name to Loup Fitz Heraut (Wulf, son of Harold) whose signatures have been found in attestations in late 11C charters. Little is known about this knight.
Assertions have been made that Alnod/Ulf lays buried in the Minster Abbey, Isle of Sheppey. There is no proof of this. There are however many other Norwood burials in the Abbey, beginning with Jordanus’ s grandson, Roger de Northwode, which are less contentious. Roger’s father, Sir Stephen de Norwood (Northwood) born c. 1165 built two manor houses, the manor on the Isle of Sheppey was known as “Norwood Manor” within Sheppey and a manor in the Parish of Milton was known as “Norwood without Sheppey” and also known as “Norwood Chasteners.” Stephen is recorded as a son of Jordan de Sheppey, and lived during the reigns of Richard I and King John, (1189 – 1216). His Isle of Sheppey manor was granted by the crown, his mansion was moated around and encompassed within a park, it was well wooded, and said to be stored with an abundance of deer and wild boars. Hence, he assumed the name of Northwood, which was borne by all his descendants.
There is of course a mysterious tomb in the Minster church which was attributed in the Daly book on Sheppey to Jordanus. According to Daly “ In the reign of Henry 1 about AD 1126, the paramount Lord of Sheppey appears to be one Jordanus de Sheppey, or, as it was spelt then “ Sceapiege”. He resided at Northwood Manor, that is to say, the northern Manor immediately adjoining Minster. He died there and was buried, according to Hasted the historian at the Abbey Church of Sexbugha, where his tomb still remains without any inscription or character, though it once had the coat armour, which this family afterwards bore on it. A life size effigy, however, which is now ascribed to him, has been discovered since Hasted wrote (1776); it is deserving of particular attention and is believed to be unique. Of Purbeck marble, it represents a recumbent knight, and was dug up in the churchyard if Minster Abbey in 1833, from about 5 feet below the surface. The hands of the knight are upraised as if in prayer, clasping within them the unique sculptured figure of a soul in prayer also enclosed in a mysterious oval. The Vicar of Minster, the Rev Bramston, is of the opinion that this memorial was probably buried in the churchyard in the troublesome times of the 16th Century.”
In more recent times, the church is more reluctant to ascribe this figure to Jordanus, suggesting that it could belong to the Cheyne family who intermarried with the Norwoods. Close examination of the “soul” also suggests that it is more likely to represent a sheep, the source of wealth in Sheppey at the time. Interestingly, the figure exhibits none of the usual characteristics testifying to participation in the Crusades, such as crossed feet or appropriate weaponry.
When Jordanus died he left an only son Stephen, who assumed the name of Northwood and who succeeded to his father’s estates in Sheppey. He liked like his father in a manor house on the site of the existing more modern house called Norwood manor.
The first time the surname Norwood occurs, is in a court case in the year 1206. At this time, Stephen is also recorded as Stephen, son of Jordan of Sheppey or Stephen son of Cecily. The earliest dated occurrence of Stephen is in the tax rolls for the years 1198-1202 still existing in the public record office in Chancery Lane, London. He occurs with his mother, Cecily, and his brother William. Since Jordanus is not mentioned, he is assumed to be dead by this time.” Stephen’s approximate birthdate of 1165 is based on the fact that he paid to have King John re-confirm his grants that he received from King Richard I around the year 1185. He would have had to be of age at that time so his birthdate is guessed to be the near 1165 figure. [James Dempsey, “Norwood – Northwood families of Kent Warwickshire and Gloucestershire”, 1987]
Stephen’s name can be found in a variety of ways because before the year 1200, the use of surnames or spelling had not been rigidly adopted. In tax rolls for the years 1214 and 1219, Northwood Manor has become well-known enough for Stephen to identify himself as “Stephen of Norwood”.
By far the best short description of the Northwode/Norwood line out of Sheppey is contained in Chapter V11 of Sheila Judge’s book “The Isle of Sheppey” first published in 1983. Sheila details the line from Sir Stephen de Northwode, son of Jordanus, through to John de Northwode who was Constable of the Queensborough Castle in the reign of Edward IV. He was the last male of that line and the Norwood manor was sold and lost its importance. But according to Sheila “The Norwoods were a noble family with a long history. One of the first was a Crusader with Richard I and over the years different members were Sheriffs of Kent; Knights were sent to Westminster, and all of them undertook willingly the commissions that would be expected of a family of their standing. They were a large prolific family, owning large estates in different parts of Kent, where they continued to live for many years after they left Sheppey .”
In her excellent book “Conquered”, sub titled “The Last Children of Anglo Saxon England”, Eleanor Parker of Brasenose traces the lives of the generation of children from the ruling elite born on the eve of the Conquest whose adult lives would be shaped by the new forces. They were entering adulthood, some might choose to play an active part in rebellion against Norman rule, others chose to leave the country or were forced into submission, some did little but watch. They were the last generation of Anglo-Saxon England but they were also the fathers and mothers of the country England was to become.
It is clear that the raids from Ireland with the support of Diarmait, King of Leinster on Bristol, Devon and Cornwall were the last throw of the dice for Harold’s oldest children, Godwine, Edmund and Magnus. Gytha their sister left Flat Holm in the Bristol channel after her effort at Exeter failed and the three eldest of Harold’s children were eventually reunited at the Danish Court. It is possible that Magnus returned to England at some point because there is a medieval monument at Lewes which commemorates Magnus “of Denmark’s royal race” who became an anchorite there. It is clear that by the end of 1066 the English leaders unwilling to accept William had turned to Edgar Aetheling, not the sons of Harold.
Although as written before, Ulf is mentioned in the records as having come into the power of Robert Curthose who also held Duncan, the son of Malcolm of Scotland, according to Parker the Anglo-Norman records are then silent on Ulf’s subsequent fate. Her book goes extensively into the contemporary myth making that produced the English hero Hereward the Wake and the sanctification of Margaret of Scotland, the granddaughter of Edmund Ironside, whose daughter Matilda married Henry 1. She observes that the almost complete disappearance of the grandchildren of Gytha and Godwine from English history after the Conquest is remarkable – although Harold and his brothers were written about in the run up to the 13th century. These stories propagated the myth that Harold had survived Hastings and had come to terms with Norman rule, thereby showing an interest in a King who had lost his kingdom, strength and status but had acquired spiritual power over his conquerors. But no stories were written about his children.
Parker observes that this is more than a simple lack of information. No one is interested in telling stories because for historians in Anglo-Norman England the question of what happened to these children was an awkward subject. To consider their fates worth of investigation might seem tantamount to recognising Harold’s legitimacy as King which was impossible to reconcile with the dominant Norman narrative that “Harold was a grasping usurper who unjustly seized the throne” To address the issue of Harold’s sons and daughters was a more complicated issue and it was perhaps easier and more comfortable to forget the grandchildren of Godwine and Gytha rather than to acknowledge all that they had lost.
This explains why our knowledge of Ulf derives from the various records that I have cited and not from any broader narrative. It would of course have suited Alnod/Ulf well in his process of normanisation if his Anglo- Saxon heritage was not a subject of myth making; Roger Curthose had set him on a new course that lead to the creation of a new generation of Norman knights in Kent.
We know so much about the history of the Norwoods because their genealogy was recorded between 1385 and 1405 with further additions some years later. It was contained in a roll considered to be the work of Thomas Brumpston working for the family and is a very rare chronicle in the Surrenden collection now in the National Archives. However as Sheila Judge says in her book, it omits the perplexing Jordanus of Sheppey entirely. It is probable that unless some hitherto undisclosed documents are found in a forgotten archive, or the body of King Harold is disinterred and DNA tested, the missing link between the Norwoods and the Anglo Saxon King through Alnod/Ulf will never be established. In the meantime, perhaps members of the extended Norwood family should be content that they have an ancestor who fought alongside King Edward 1 at Caerlaverock, another ancestor who accompanied Richard I, Coeur de Lion in the Third Crusade and participated in the battle of Acre, leading to an eventual agreement with Saladin and yet a third fought alongside Henry V at Agincourt, one of the most famous victories in British History.
Whilst on the subject of DNA, if it is the case that Queen Elizabeth II was descended from Harold through Gytha’s marriage to Vladimir Monomakh, Prince of Smolensk and later Grand Prince of Kiev, then her DNA would provide some kind of verification of the Norwood link to Harold. Or, to put it another way, the absence of any common characteristics in the DNA of the Norwoods and the House of Windsor would suggest that the story of a connection with Alnod/Ulf is regrettably not true. I leave it to more intrepid members of the Norwood Clan to take up the matter with Buckingham Palace. Who knows, King Charles might be more amenable to making his DNA available?
Interested in more about the ancestry of John Norwood?
It has long been the case that members of the Norwood family in its many manifestations, claim descent from King Harold Godwineson, otherwise known as Harold II who was killed at Hastings in 1066, through his son Alnod or Ulf. I followed the convention in my book on John Norwood VC by citing the researches of Marian Callum Norwood, the noted genealogist and family historian who did much to develop the histories of the various branches of the family. I met her in the 1990s when she was already quite old but still full of enthusiasm. In the many years since Marion’s death however, others who have followed her work more critically have taken issue with the absence of a credible connection between Jordanus of Sheppey, the 12th century patriarch of the family from whom the Norwood clan indubitably descended and Alnod or Ulf, the son of Harold.
Marion goes wrong early in Volume Two of the Norwood books by referring to Alnod as the eldest son of Harold and Edith; he was not. The title of eldest son belongs to Godwine who fled to the continent after various attempts post-Conquest to achieve power. That said, her formidable research into heraldry and the translation of the Domesday Book for Kent by Lambert Blackwell Larking which she used, revealed that Alnod had very significant holdings indeed around Kent which after the Conquest fell into the hands either of Odo of Bayeux, or William himself or the Canterbury Archdiocese. We verified these findings ourselves by examining the same document at the Kent Archives in Maidstone in both translations of Domesday. Larking uses “Alnod Cilt” as his translation, but the modern interpretation in a Domesday translation edited by John Morris is “the young Alnod”. He will therefore be identical to Ulf who was a young teenager at the Conquest but who was endowed with significant land.
Also featuring large in the Domesday record is Wulfnoth, born circa 1035, the youngest brother of Harold. He was captured after Hastings, held in Normandy, transferred to Winchester Castle by William Rufus on his release in 1087 by William on his deathbed and then allowed to join a monastery where he died around 1094 in his late fifties – early sixties. His place in the family is often confused with the children of Harold.
According to the book “Harold, the Last Anglo Saxon King” by Ian Walker, the descendants of Harold and his hand fast wife Edith in terms of seniority were; Godwine, Edmund, Magnus, Gytha, Ulf and Gunnhild. He had a son Harold from his conventional second marriage to Aeditha, who was too young to play any role in the Conquest and indeed is thought to have been born after Harold’s death. However, he may well be the son involved years later in the abortive Norwegian attacks on Dublin and Anglesey and must be presumed to have settled in Scandinavia.
Alnod or Ulf was also seized after Hasting (where he was too young to fight) and confined in Normandy. But later, like Wulfnoth, he was released by William on his deathbed, reportedly at the urging of the church, as an act of mercy. There is evidence that William’s estranged son, Robert Curthose, the next Duke of Normandy, took a shine to Ulf and knighted him not long after.
Robert Curthose has been ill served by historians who have failed to look behind tainted contemporary sources all of whom have their own reasons for a critical view. A recent book about him by William Aird, a lecturer in medieval history at Cardiff is more even handed. Aird brings out in particular that his leading role in the First Crusade (1095-99) made him one of the most famous warriors of his time, returning to Western Europe in 1100 as a chivalric hero with a reputation that extended from Palestine to Scotland.
Aird writes that in the 11th century the dubbing ceremony was the granting of weapons to a new Knight who was deemed capable of holding land and bearing arms to defend it; this honour was usually awarded to young men and had connotations of social status partly derived from personal ancestry but also by association with the Lord making the grant. It seems clear that Ulf’s privileged retention in Normandy after Hastings led to a close relationship with Robert which could only be recognised on the death of the Conqueror who evidently harboured a strong antipathy to the Godwins.
It is inconceivable that Ulf would not have remained close to his benefactor and fought with him during the many actions that troubled Normandy from the rivalry between Robert and his siblings, William Rufus and Henry. It is equally improbable that Ulf did not accompany him as a mature warrior when he went on the Crusade. This service would have been the most evident route towards reacquiring and retaining his ancestral lands, the defence of which was an inherent element in the knight’s role.
Ulf’s aspirations to land were associated with Kent, so after his formal release in 1087, and after his belting as a knight, he is likely to have sought restoration. By this time, his Anglo-Saxon identity would have been transformed by 20 years of Norman tutelage. It is clear that Alnod or Ulf once had major manorial holdings in Kent which overlap with the later location of the Jordanus/Norwood family, thereby consolidating the supposed connection. Alnod’s former lands are well laid out from Domesday in Marion’s third book and cover widespread manors in Alnod’s name from Rochester to Dover, embracing Canterbury, Whitstable, Sheppey, Thanet, Norwood, Chart Sutton and many more. These had been held by Alnod /Ulf from King Edward, presumably from childhood, but were subordinated to the feudal over-lordship of Odo of Bayeux, William’s half-brother and the Church after the Conquest. Marian asserts that Alnod recovered some of these and that they continued in the possession of Jordanus of Sheppey and the Norwoods for 300 years.
Aird states that there is no complete record of the knights who served Robert and who participated in the First Crusade which was known to be hazardous but Pope Urban had said that “by the will of God, he absolved all penitents from their sins from the moment that they took the cross of Christ”, which produced a surge of participants. Around 60,000 soldiers took part in the Crusade of which around 6,000 were knights and a further 30,000 provided support. This is not the moment to detail the history of the Crusade but the crowning moment for Robert was in August 1099 when after victory in Jerusalem, the crusaders were confronted by an Egyptian Fatimid army at Ascalon, southwest of Jerusalem. Robert commanded the centre division of the Crusader Army and charging at the heart of the Egyptian camp, personally captured the Viziers banner and his tent. The Emir was lucky to escape leading to a great victory for which Robert’s part was much celebrated. After the battle and before beginning the return home, Robert completed his pilgrimage by immersing himself in the River Jordan. It was this act which encouraged crusaders to give themselves the soubriquet “Jordanus”.
Alnod/Ulf appears to disappear from history after 1087 but the change of name to either Jordanus and/or John of Northwoode may contribute to this apparent obscurity. If Robert was his master, the latter’s continuous attempts to challenge at first William Rufus and later Henry 1 for the throne of England, in between battling with his neighbours in France, eventually lead to ignominy. He was bamboozled by Henry I into taking a very large pension in lieu of his claim, which was soon in arrears leading to conflict in which Robert ended as the loser. Henry invaded Normandy in 1106, defeating Robert at the battle of Tinchebray, he then imprisoned his brother in Devizes Castle for 20 years and later moved him to Cardiff where he ended his life in 1134; he is buried in St Peter’s in Gloucester. Tinchebray is in the Orne region of lower Normandy, the scene of much fighting after the D Day landings.
The obvious conclusions that one draw from this story is that Alnod/Ulf after his release from nominal confinement in Normandy, receiving his knighthood and giving service to Robert, was able to claim back at least some his lands. His 20 or so years in Normandy had “normanized“ him. He would have been required of course to offer continued service to Robert – after all, his knighthood involved obligations, but this did not mean that he had to stay in Normandy. It was timely to pursue land claims in the late 80s in Kent because the Church under Archbishop Lanfranc had initiated proceedings, with William’s blessing to strip Odo of Bayeux of lands that he had misappropriated after the Conquest, especially from the Church but also from previous holders such as Alnod/Ulf.
The Trial of Penenden Heath may well have had a role in restoring Alnod/Ulf’s fortunes, although this occurred when he was still in Normandy, as its effects were far reaching. The Trial occurred in the decade after the Conquest probably in 1076, and involved a dispute between Odo of Bayeux , the half-brother of William and Lanfranc, the Archbishop of Canterbury and others. Odo de Bayeux was previously Earl of Kent and the primary landowner of the region subsequent to his half-brother William the Conqueror’s victory in 1066. In 1070, Archbishop Lanfranc succeeded to Canterbury and requested an inquiry into the activities of Odo (and Lanfranc’s predecessor, Stigand) who had allegedly defrauded the Church (and possibly the Crown) during his tenure as Earl of Kent.
It has subsequently been argued that most of the lands had been lost not to Odo, but to Earl Godwine (Harold II’s father) and his family during Edward’s reign and perhaps even earlier and that Odo had simply succeeded to these encroachments. Therefore the conflict between Archbishop and Earl was to a large extent a reprise of that between Robert of Jumièges and Godwine in 1051-2, the suggestion being that Lanfranc, despite being the Prior of a Norman monastery was attempting to restore the pre-conquest landholdings for the Church of Canterbury.
William I determined that the matter should be settled by the nobles of Kent and ordered that an assembly be formed on the heath at Penenden (near present-day Maidstone) for the purpose. William I ordered that the findings of the inquiry or ‘trial’ of Odo de Bayeux were to be final. Various prominent figures in the country at the time were called, which included Geoffrey de Montbray, Bishop of Coutances (who represented the King), Lanfranc (for the Church), Odo de Bayeux (defending himself), Arnost, Rochester Bishop, Athelric II (former Bishop of Selsey), Richard de Tunbridge, Hugh de Montfort, William de Arsic, Hamo Vicecomes and many others.
Athelric II in particular had been compelled by William I to attend as the authority on pre-Norman law. Described as: “A very old man, very learned in the laws of the land “he was brought by chariot or other carriage to Penenden Heath “in order to discuss and expound these same old legal customs”.
The presence of a contingent of English (or Saxon) witnesses as experts in ancient laws and customs as well as the French-born representation is regarded as a significant indication of the basis of the Church’s claims being grounded in the ancient laws of the land. However it is unclear from the sources which of those laws were cited. Precisely when the inquiry was held is also unclear although many historians have determined it took place between 1075 and 1077. Similarly a number of varying transcripts or records of the trial exist and it is unclear which may be regarded as the definitive version of events. The trial of Odo de Bayeux lasted three days and ended in the partial recovery of properties for the church from Odo and others. Odo of Bayeux was later to be stripped of his properties entirely and imprisoned for five years following further challenges to his wealth and powers in 1082.
By all accounts the Penenden trial occurred prior to the Domesday survey and was an early attempt by the church to reclaim rights and interests from the Crown and its agents. Since the assessments of property and rights which followed the trial were of significance, Domesday Book has come to be seen as a response to a need to have a definitive record of the ownership and administration of Crown property.
The Domesday Book was commissioned in December 1085 by William the Conqueror. The first draft was completed in August 1086 and contained records for 13,418 settlements in the English counties
Alnod/Ulf would have been at least around 40 and possibly older when he challenged for the return of his land. His most likely date of birth is around 1050 and possibly later. As Harold’s older sons, starting with Godwine were of an age to contest the throne, post Conquest, it must be assumed that the hand fast marriage with Edith took place in the 1040s with children appearing at regular intervals. This would have made Ulf a young teenager at the Conquest, in his thirties upon his release by William in 1087 and in his late forties during the First Crusade. What appears to be clear and is suggested by a number of references in Domesday is that Alnod/Ulf successfully reclaimed land that we know is associated with the subsequent Northwode holdings. Marion says that Alnod/Ulf had held 20 manors but at the Domesday Survey, none, as almost half had been conveyed to Odo of Bayeux. At Penenden Heath, Alnod’s name is cited as a recent subtenant of Manors which Odo had assumed. The thesis is that on his release and rehabilitation by Robert Curthose, Ulf seized back two parts of Kings Wood on Sheppey which he was allowed to keep not by feudal but by costumal tenure, which effectively recognized the earlier status of his ownership. The source for this is Henry Bracton (c.1210–c.1268) an English cleric and jurist. These properties were also held by gavelkind, which means that they were sellable and not just held in fealty to an Earl.
Notwithstanding these credible assertions, it stretches probability that Alnod/Ulf was the father of Jordanus of Sheppey, as the latter was born in 1135 making Ulf around 80 at the time of his conception. Not impossible but improbable. However, there is a possibility of a link between Ulf and Jordanus – the honorific title passing through a third person. As some commentators have suggested, Jordanus could be the grandson of Alnod/Ulf through an illegitimate or unrecognised son.
To this day, more than 950 years after the Norman Conquest, many of us are still fascinated by the causes of this pivotal event—and I am one of them. If Harold Godwineson hadn’t been 260 miles away fighting his brother when Duke William landed at Pevensey, things might have gone differently. So where does Tostig come into this? From outlawry to Stamford Bridge, Tostig was on the wrong side of the law. In his last battle, he seems to have been second in command after Harald Hardrada and has been branded as a traitor ever since.
It was thought by many that Tostig himself persuaded Hardrada to invade, thus forcing King Harold to rush north and defend his kingdom against the Vikings. However, this conclusion is by no means certain; nobody was tracing Tostig’s movements in the early part of 1066. It’s entirely possible that the Norwegian King planned the invasion on his own, and Tostig merely fell in with his army when the time came. There is no doubt that Hardrada was the leader of the Viking invasion. What exactly Tostig thought to accomplish is uncertain. Perhaps he only wanted his old earldom back. Or, he might have bargained to rule his old earldom as sub-king to Harald. Maybe he hoped Hardrada would get killed and he could rule in his stead, unlikely though that sounds.
But why was Tostig fighting against his brother, anyway? This was the question that inspired me to write THE SONS OF GODWINE and FATAL RIVALRY. Why was he outlawed? How could Harold allow his brother to go off in such a rage that he would come back with an invading army? Surely Tostig had his reasons; such a devastating turn of events could have not come about arbitrarily.
In a situation like this, matters usually deteriorate over the course of time. Harold and Tostig were only a couple of years apart. Was there rivalry from their boyhood? Did Tostig feel left out? When Tostig became Earl of Northumbria, his brother had already been Earl (first of East Anglia and then of Wessex) for 10 years. What did Tostig do all that time? There was no catching up; by 1055 Harold was practically the “right hand” of King Edward, and frequently took on responsibilities that the king didn’t want to be bothered with. When Tostig helped his brother during the Welsh campaign of 1063, what was his reward? Harold was lauded as a great warrior because of this campaign; Tostig barely received mention, and may well have emptied his coffers to help pay for it. Could this have contributed to the stress between them?
The real trouble started in 1065; up until then Tostig had ruled Northumbria for 10 years without any major disturbance. However, after the Welsh campaign he found himself obliged to impose new taxes on this previously undertaxed earldom. Some have said that Tostig needed to pay for the campaign. Other historians suggested he was urged to do so by Harold, acting in concert with the king who wanted to bring the north more in line with his southern provinces. There were some political assassinations that might have contributed to the unrest, but most historians agree that taxation issues pushed the troublesome thegns to revolt.
And what a revolt it was! Tostig was in the south hunting with King Edward when thegns from all over Yorkshire and Northumberland gathered in York and attacked the Earl’s housecarls, catching them totally unprepared. Although Tostig’s 200+ troops tried to fight back, they were unable to mount an organized defense and were killed almost to a man. The rampaging rebels broke into the armory, destroyed Tostig’s manors, and raided the treasury, making off with all the carefully gathered taxes.
Next on the agenda was to call a witan and elect a new Earl: Morcar, younger son of Earl Aelfgar of Mercia—who just happened to be standing by. This was a totally illegal move and the rebels knew it, so they proceeded to rampage their way south and force the issue with the king. Enter Harold, who was delegated to mediate for Tostig. King Edward and Tostig had every reason to believe Harold would get what they wanted, so they were more than horrified when their negotiator came back with rebels in tow. Morcar and his supporters didn’t trust Harold and insisted that the king be confronted personally with all their demands. A second round of negotiations ensued, and Harold was still unable to budge the rampaging Northumbrians. They declared that Tostig had to go and that Morcar be officially declared Earl, or else they would continue their depredations into East Anglia.
Tostig went into a rage and accused Harold of fomenting the rebellion himself. In self-defense, Harold offered his sworn oath that he was not responsible but Tostig was having none of it. Edward wanted to raise the fyrd and teach his errant subjects a lesson, but the late season and poor support for Tostig’s cause were enough to foil the king’s empty threats. Edward eventually backed down and gave into the rebel demands, though the loss of royal prestige was a blow the king never recovered from. Just over a month later, King Edward was dead.
Tostig left the country voluntarily enough, loaded with gifts from the king but still swearing revenge against his brother. Apparently Harold washed his hands of the whole situation, for he is not recorded attempting to offer Tostig any compensation until the battle of Stamford Bridge. Even after he became king, Harold supported the wily sons of Aelfgar (his former rivals) and even married their sister to prove that Tostig was not coming back. Tostig may have found this doubly insulting. By the time they faced each other on the battlefield, Harold is said to have offered back the earldom if Tostig would lay down his arms. When Tostig asked what Harold was prepared to offer Hardrada, we hear the famous line “Seven feet of English ground, or as much more as he may be taller than other men.” At this response, Tostig righteously refused his brother’s offer. (I still find this episode a little implausible; it came from Snorri Sturluson, whose account may be somewhat apocryphal.)
So his sense of betrayal was surely a driving force for Tostig’s attempted return. But there is another factor to remember: there were plenty of precedents for an Earl to rampage his way back into favor. Earl Godwine did it in 1052, and Harold himself was part of that reunion; his bloody encounter at Porlock left behind 30 dead thegns and countless others. Even Aelfgar, Morcar’s father, wreaked havoc on two occasions (the first causing the destruction of Hereford in 1055); both times he was restored to his earldom. So Tostig was just following suit; of course, his allies were a bit more powerful than Aelfgar’s!
The fate of Ulf is of great interest to the Norwood family who claim descent from Harold through him. The researches of Marian Callum Norwood, the noted genealogist and family historian who did much to develop the histories of the various branches of the family, is the source of these claims. In the many years since Marion’s death however, others who have followed her work more critically have taken issue with the absence of a credible connection between Jordanus of Sheppey, the 12th century patriarch of the family from whom the Norwood clan indubitably descended and Alnod Cilt or Ulf, the son of Harold.
Ulf was seized after Hastings (where he was too young to fight) and confined in Normandy. But later, like Wulfnoth, the youngest brother of Harold, he was released by William on his deathbed, reportedly at the urging of the church, as an act of mercy. The record shows that William’s estranged son, Robert Curthose, the next Duke of Normandy took a shine to Ulf and knighted him not long after.
It is inconceivable that Ulf would not have remained close to his benefactor and fought with him during the many actions that troubled Normandy from the rivalry between Robert and his siblings, William Rufus and Henry and the activities of other unruly knights. It is equally improbable that Ulf did not accompany him as a mature warrior when he went on the Crusade. This service would have been the most evident route towards reacquiring and retaining his ancestral lands, the defense of which was an inherent element in the knight’s role.
Ulf’s aspirations to land were associated with Kent, so after his formal release in 1087, and after his belting as a knight, he is likely to have sought restoration. By this time, his Anglo-Saxon identity would have been transformed by 20 years of Norman tutelage. It is clear from Domesday that Anod/Cilt/Ulf once had major manorial holdings in Kent which overlap with the later location of the Jordanus/Norwood family properties. This link is said to consolidate the supposed connection. Alnod’s former lands are well laid out from Domesday in Marion’s third book and cover widespread manors in Alnod’s name from Rochester to Dover, embracing Canterbury, Whitstable, Sheppey, Thanet, Norwood, Chart Sutton and many more. These had been held by Alnod /Ulf from King Edward, presumably from childhood, but were subordinated to the feudal over-lordship of Odo of Bayeux, William’s half-brother and the Church after the Conquest. Marian asserts that Alnod recovered some of these and that they continued in the possession of Jordanus of Sheppey and the Norwoods for 300 years.
There is no complete record of the knights who served Robert and who participated in the First Crusade which was known to be hazardous but Pope Urban had said that “by the will of God, he absolved all penitents from their sins from the moment that they took the cross of Christ”, which produced a surge of participants. Around 60,000 soldiers took part in the Crusade of which around 6,000 were knights and a further 30,000 provided support. This is not the place to detail the history of the Crusade but the crowning moment for Robert was in August 1099 when after victory in Jerusalem, the crusaders were confronted by an Egyptian Fatimid army at Ascalon, southwest of Jerusalem. Robert commanded the centre division of the Crusader Army and charging at the heart of the Egyptian camp, personally captured the Vizier’s banner and his tent. The Emir fled and was lucky to escape, leading to a great victory for which Robert’s part was much celebrated. After the battle and before beginning the return home, Robert completed his pilgrimage by immersing himself in the River Jordan. It was this act which encouraged crusaders to give themselves the soubriquet “Jordanus”, the title held by the founder of the Norwood family.
The obvious conclusions that one draw might from this story is that Ulf after his release from nominal confinement in Normandy, receiving his knighthood and giving service to Robert, was able to claim back at least some his lands. His 20 or so years in Normandy had “Normanized“ him. Ulf would have been at least around 40 and possibly older when he challenged for the return of his land. His most likely date of birth is around and possibly before 1050. As Harold’s older sons, starting with Godwine were of an age to contest the throne, post Conquest, it must be assumed that the hand fast marriage with Edith took place in the 1040s with children appearing at regular intervals. This would have made Ulf 16 at the Conquest, 37 upon his release by William in 1087 and in his late forties during the First Crusade. What appears to be clear and is suggested by a number of references in Domesday is that Alnod/Ulf successfully reclaimed land that we know is associated with the subsequent Northwode aka Norwood holdings.
Ulf would have been at least around 40 and possibly older when he challenged for the return of his land after the Penenden Heath trial. His most likely date of birth is around and possibly before 1050. As Harold’s older sons, starting with Godwine were of an age to contest the throne, post Conquest, it must be assumed that the hand fast marriage with Edith took place in the 1040s with children appearing at regular intervals. This would have made Ulf 16 at the Conquest, 37 upon his release by William in 1087 and in his late forties during the First Crusade. What appears to be clear and is suggested by a number of references in Domesday is that Alnod/Ulf successfully reclaimed land that we know is associated with the subsequent Northwode holdings. Marion says that Alnod/Ulf had held 20 manors but at the Domesday Survey, none, as almost half had been conveyed to Odo of Bayeux. At Penenden Heath, Alnod’s name is cited as a recent subtenant of Manors which Odo had assumed. The thesis is that on his release and rehabilitation by Robert Curthose, Ulf seized back two parts of Kings Wood on Sheppey which he was allowed to keep not by feudal but by costumal tenure, which effectively recognized the earlier status of his ownership. The source for this is Henry Bracton (c.1210–c.1268) an English cleric and jurist. These properties were also held by gavelkind, which means that they were sellable and not just held in fealty to an Earl. It is not clear which other properties Ulf recovered.
Notwithstanding these credible assertions, it is most unlikely on the face of it that Ulf was the father of Jordanus of Sheppey, as the latter was born in 1135 making Ulf around 85 at the time of his conception. This is not impossible but it is improbable. However, there is a possibility of a link between Ulf and Jordanus if we postulate that the honorific title acquired by Ulf after Ascalon passed to Jordanus of Sheppey though a third person. As some commentators have suggested, Jordanus could be the grandson of Ulf through an illegitimate or unrecognised son.
Some Norwood online trees trace their genealogy directly back to Jordanus de Sheppey, and then to Harold Godwineson as his father, basing this on Marion Norwood Callum’s researches – that cannot be true. The chronology does not hold; court documents for Jordan’s wife and children make it clear that he had to have been born long after Harold Godwinson was dead at Hastings, indeed in 1135.
Finally, there is the intriguing reference to Loup Fitz Heraut (Wulf son of Harold). It is regrettable that more is not known about this knight. An area worthy of research.
Tostig left England in November of 1065 after the disastrous Northumbrian rebellion. While waiting for Harold to set everything straight, it soon became clear that his brother was not going to stand up for him, fight for him, or even defend him in counsel. Harold gave in to every rebel demand including Tostig’s exile from the earldom and even the country. Tostig felt betrayed, Edward was despondent, and the queen shed a great many tears. Although the king did not agree with the outlawry—he even insisted they call out the Fyrd to put down the rebellion—his wishes were disregarded. In the end Edward acquiesced to the forces set against him, and he unwillingly sent Tostig off with gifts and words of regret.
Historian Ian Walker tells us that Tostig was outlawed “apparently because he refused to accept his deposition as commanded by Edward”. However, historian Emma Mason said “Tostig did go into exile, but this was his own decision.” So from the very beginning of his exile, Tostig’s actions were debated.
He may have paid a farewell visit to his mother in Bosham, but by Christmas he had landed in Flanders with his family and close associates. Earl Baldwin, his brother-in-law, received them graciously and settled Tostig at St-Omer with a house and an estate, revenues, and even a contingent of knights to command. This wasn’t such a bad state of affairs for an exile, but it was only temporary, used as a base to gather information and collect mercenaries.
King Edward’s rapid decline has been associated with Tostig’s exile; he may even have had a stroke when he discovered that his rule was breaking down in the north. I would imagine that Tostig was shocked by the king’s death, but was he shocked also to learn that Harold took the crown? Did this alter his plans any, or did he always intend to force his way back? After all, Godwine was successful in doing this very thing in 1052 (with Harold’s help); Earl Aelfgar regained his earldom twice by invasion. Tostig was just following a successful strategy to retrieve his fortunes; perhaps he would have expected Edward to acquiesce. On the other hand, with Harold as King his motives took on a more sinister cast.
In the opening months of 1066, King Harold had much on his mind, not the least of which was the unrest in Northumbria. He was even obliged to travel to York (in the winter), to convince the recently pardoned rebels that his motives were unchanged. It’s entirely likely that he chose this high-profile visit to marry the sister of Edwin and Morcar at York Cathedral. Apparently the new king won over the suspicious Northumbrians, and by spring he returned to Westminster for Easter Court. Harold was famed for his diplomacy, but in all this maneuvering I can find no mention of any effort to reconcile with Tostig. Nonetheless, if Harold thought to hold England together by accepting Edwin and Morcar’s control over the north, he was destined to find that losing his brother’s support made things infinitely worse.
What was Tostig doing all this time? It is possible that his first step was a visit to Duke William, who was probably already deep into his plans to invade England. I can’t image what he could have offered the Duke aside from a small fleet supplied by his father-in-law, but it does seem like the most onerous insult he could have offered Harold. Whether he made this visit early in the year or in late spring, it seemed that Duke William didn’t have any particular use for him (though perhaps he encouraged Tostig to cross over in May as a kind of forward movement).
Conversely, Tostig may not have visited Normandy at all. It’s not impossible that he used the winter months to cultivate likely allies in the north. As the popular story goes, Tostig first went to Sweyn Estridsson’s court in Denmark and tried to talk his cousin into invading England. After all, the Danish King was the grandson of Sweyn Forkbeard, so he was in line to the throne of England. But after 15 hard years of conflict with Harald Hardrada, Sweyn was exhausted and so was his treasury. He offered Tostig an earldom in Denmark, but Tostig spurned his suggestion and the two parted company with hard feelings on both sides.
Disappointed, Tostig went on to Norway and gave Harald Hardrada such a pep talk that the formidable king was chomping at the proverbial bit. According to Snorri Sturleson in HEIMSKRINGLA, Tostig assured Harald “If you wish to gain possession of England, then I may bring it about that most of the chieftains in England will be on your side and support you.” This sounds a little delusional considering recent events, but how was Hardrada to know the difference? But Tostig wasn’t finished; he had some diplomatic skills of his own. He added: “All men know that no greater warrior has arisen in the North than you; and it seems strange to me that you have fought fifteen years to gain possession of Denmark and don’t want to have England which is yours for the having.” What self-respecting Norseman could resist that line of reasoning?
Snorri has this conversation take place in the winter, which gave Hardrada the spring and summer to raise his army. However, not all historians agree with this scenario. The venerable Edward A. Freeman concluded that there wasn’t enough time for Tostig to make the voyage and for Hardrada to raise an army. He concluded that Hardrada had planned the campaign on his own and Tostig joined up with him after he made his move. It has also been suggested that Tostig sent Copsig, his right-hand man in his old earldom, as an ambassador to Norway to plan the invasion and didn’t meet Harald in person until later.
Regardless, Tostig was ready to make his own move in May. Was his purpose to draw Harold out before he was fully prepared? Or was he simply making his own bid for power? The timing seems odd, but he certainly caused a stir. Gathering his little fleet of Flemish and possibly Norman mercenaries, he sailed across the Channel and landed on the Isle of Wight. Here he collected supplies and is said to have forced many of the local seamen to join him with ships. Thus reinforced, he proceeded to plunder eastward along the coast as far as Sandwich, where he expanded his fleet to sixty ships, either voluntarily or by coercion. But by then, King Harold was on his way to stop him, so Tostig made haste to sail off and try his luck farther north along the coast.
Intent on plunder, Tostig entered the Humber and ravaged the coast of Lindesey in Edwin’s earldom of Mercia. But the northern earls were ready for him and drove his little fleet away. At this juncture, most of his allies (volunteers or impressed into service) melted away, and he limped off with only twelve of his original sixty boats in tow. Apparently this setback took the heart out of Tostig’s enterprise—for the moment—and he took refuge with his good friend and sworn brother Malcolm Canmore of Scotland. Always happy to cause trouble on his southern border, Malcolm offered Tostig his protection for the whole summer of 1066. Presumably Tostig sent messages back and forth from there to Hardrada, and he may have attracted some Scottish mercenaries to his cause.
Whether Tostig went to Norway in 1066 or not, historians agree that he spent the summer at King Malcolm’s court in Scotland and joined up with Hardrada after Harald dropped off his queen in the Orkneys and came south with the Orkney Earls. Some think Harald stopped at Dunfermline where Malcolm and Tostig waited. William of Malmesbury thought that Tostig joined Hardrada and pledged his support when the Norwegians reached the Humber, which is very late in the story. Regardless, by that point Harald Sigurdsson was clearly in charge of the expedition, and Tostig was his subordinate.
The first resistance was from Scarborough, North Yorkshire, a town built into the hills that faced the ocean. The locals put up a stout resistance and seemed to drive the invaders away. False hope! Hardrada landed farther down the coast and made his way to the top of the cliffs overlooking the town. The Nowegians put together a huge bonfire and began tossing flaming brands onto the roofs of the houses. Before long many of the buildings were on fire, and the populace surrendered, to no avail. It’s possible that this and other coastal incursions triggered the messages for help that made their way to King Harold; the timing would have been around the second week of September.
The Battle of Fulford was fought on the 20th of September. At this late date (right before the battle) it’s also possible the first messages were sent south. By then, presumably, Tostig’s presence in the Norwegian force was detected, and Harold would have been informed of his brother’s treachery. I wonder how he took the news? Or was Tostig’s behavior a forgone conclusion? Only the historical novelist is free to make that guess, and I am tackling this scenario in my upcoming novel, FATAL RIVALRY.
Harold, The Last Anglo-Saxon King by Ian Walker, 1997
Heimskringla: The History of the Kings of Norway by Snorri Sturluson, 1964
History of the Norman Conquest of England by Edward A. Freeman, 1875
The House of Godwine: The History of a Dynasty by Emma Mason, 2004
Tostig reminds me, in a way, of Judas Iscariot, the perennial traitor. No matter what his motivations, our villain’s reputation is blackened forever by future generations. But like Judas, Tostig had his reasons for what he did, and once in a while a closer look might serve to mitigate the circumstances. This is why I chose to write THE SONS OF GODWINE and FATAL RIVALRY in first person. I don’t think there is any better way to interpret what is going on inside his head.
I think that from the first, Tostig grew up in the shadow of his older brother. They were only a couple of years apart, but it’s widely accepted that Harold was his mother’s favorite. And Swegn was his father’s favorite. Still, if you can believe Editha’s Monk of St. Bertin who wrote the Life of King Edward (Vita Edwardi Regis), Tostig was every bit the heroic figure that Harold was: “Both had the advantage of distinctly handsome and graceful persons, similar in strength as we gather; and both were equally brave…And Earl Tostig himself was endowed with very great and prudent restraint—although he was occasionally a little over-zealous in attacking evil—and with bold and inflexible constancy of mind…And to sum up their characters for our readers, no age and no province has reared two mortals of such worth at the same time.” As this book was completed after 1066—and before the death of Queen Editha—it’s hard to reconcile this description of Tostig with the traitor everyone loves to hate. Throughout his life, Tostig was apparently Edith’s favorite—and the king’s, as well. When Tostig was forced to go into exile, King Edward parted with him most reluctantly and loaded him with gifts.
Tostig really didn’t come into his own, so to speak, until 1055 when he was made Earl of Northumbria. By then, Harold had been an earl since c.1045. As we know, the Northumbrians were a tempestuous bunch and apparently old Siward, Dane though he was, ruled with an iron fist. Tostig was both an outsider and a southerner, and it’s amazing that he even lasted ten years. He was criticized for his own harsh rule, but the real trouble didn’t start until taxes were raised precipitously in 1065.
So what went wrong between the two brothers? By all accounts, relations between Harold and Tostig were civil until the Northumbrian rebellion of 1065. But I think there were other factors at play that might have caused stress between them. What about the Welsh campaign of 1063? Historians tell us that it was a joint invasion between Harold (who came by sea) and Tostig (who came overland). They met somewhere around the island of Anglesey and pushed south, driving everyone before them until they captured and decapitated Gruffydd ap Llewelyn. Many historians laud Harold’s genius and point to this successful venture, but who gives Tostig any credit? I can’t see how there was much plunder to be had, and indeed, it is suggested that the infamous tax hike was needed to pay for this campaign.
There’s another possible reason to explain the new taxes. Historian Peter Rex (Harold II, The Doomed Saxon King) suggests that reform in the royal household in the 1060s extended to “a move, possibly inspired by Earl Harold, to require that the north pay more towards the upkeep if its own government.” Since the Witan was dominated by Harold, it “would explain why Tostig blamed Harold for the revolt and accused him of conspiring against him.”
The Northumbrian rebellion precipitated a crisis in more ways than one. While Tostig was in the south hunting with the king, his disgruntled thegns banded together and totally wiped out more than 200 of the earl’s housecarls, raided his treasury, murdered his supporters, and declared Morcar, son of Aelfgar, to be their new earl. They then proceeded to march south, devastating Tostig’s lands on their way to confront King Edward with their demands. Harold was brought in to mediate, but the rebels declared they would never take Tostig back, putting Harold in an impossible position. Negotiations went back and forth as the rebels became more and more unmanageable. King Edward wanted to raise the fyrd and chastise the offenders, but Harold urged restraint, considering the time of year (October) and the difficulty of forcing Tostig’s rule on unwilling subjects.
And what of Tostig through all this? He must have chafed while his brother negotiated for him, and when it was clear that Harold was not going to support him, he flew into a rage and accused his brother of fomenting the rebellion. As the Vita Edwardi Regis said, “But Harold, rather too generous with oaths (alas!), cleared this charge too with oaths.” I doubt that Tostig believed him, especially as things went from bad to worse and the king was eventually obliged to accept the rebels’ terms. Not only did Tostig lose his earldom, the rebels insisted that he be outlawed from the county. Was that the best his brother could do for him?
King Edward took the loss of royal authority very badly, and he soon fell into a decline that precipitated his death two months later. By then, Tostig was long gone, nursing his wounded pride and probably contemplating the means by which he would return. I imagine he had every reason to assume that King Edward would find a way to bring him back. The king’s death must have been a terrible blow; Tostig may not even have realized he was ill. Once Harold took the crown, did Tostig assume his brother would finally help him? That was less certain, and once his brother married the sister of Earl Morcar, his hopes must have been dashed altogether.
So in reality, Tostig only had one option open to him: the same option taken by his father and his own brother in 1052—the option used successfully at least twice by Aelfgar, Morcar’s father. He would have to recover his earldom by force of arms. This was almost to be expected, and I don’t know why Harold was surprised when it happened. Was the new king so obsessed with Duke William that he forgot to consider Tostig’s claim? Or did he simply underestimate his little brother? Assuredly, Tostig’s aborted invasion in May of 1066 was easily repulsed; perhaps Harold thought he had dealt with this nuisance once and for all. Alas for him and all of England, he was sorely mistaken. Harald Hardrada and Tostig’s invasion of the north drew the king and his indispensable housecarls away from the coast they had guarded so rigorously. If only Harold could have found a way to compensate Tostig for his lost earldom, perhaps things would have been much different when William the Bastard landed unopposed at Pevensey.
As if writing a trilogy of historical novels about one of the most important epochs of the western world wasn’t a large enough task, Mercedes Rochelle in Sons of Godwine adds an additional challenge: Various members of the Godwine family each tell the story in their own voices.
Godwine was the founder of a dynasty in Anglo-Saxon England. Perhaps the most famous member of the family was his son, Harold, who in 1066 A.D. was barely defeated by William the Conquerer. The Anglo-Saxon loss to the Normans changed the course of history for both England and the world.
The first book in the series, Godwine Kingmaker, followed Godwine from when he was a child to become one of the most powerful men in England. Sons of Godwine continues the story of the family past his death toward the fatal battle at Hastings.
Harold, appropriately, is one of the most important voices. He comes across as a natural leader of men: charismatic, clever, and strong. As with all of us, however, he did not live in a vacuum. He had family, friends, and enemies. In this book, we see the bonds and tensions common to all families. This is especially the case with Tostig, who has ambitions of his own and, as we find out, is envious of his brother. The voices of other family members, such as brothers Leofwine and Gyrth, are also heard.
Capturing a character’s voice is one of the difficult jobs of a writer. When a character tells the story in his own words (first person), the voice must be consistent throughout, the events must be only what the character himself observes, and be unique so that, as when hearing a friend, the identity is instantly recognizable.
Rochelle has taken pains to differentiate the characters, from Harold’s strength to Tostig’s growing dissatisfaction with his brother. She does so not with melodramatic flourishes, but with subtle phrasings and the events that each character tells about. One good example is when Tostig, who is desperate to show he is in charge of his earldom, orders the hands of a group of brigands to be cut off. Is this the best option to show his authority? He thinks so. Other members of the family may have reservations.
And there is this comment from Tostig:
“I would guess the high point of Harold’s early career came when he conducted his Welsh campaign against Gruffydd ap Llewelyn. It was an altogether different kind of offensive: fighting against wild men who didn’t understand the first thing about real warfare. Harold would have had a difficult time of it, if I wasn’t there to help him.”
As always, Rochelle captures authentic history,. She shows how politics works in a time where violence, murder, and warfare are all acceptable tools for advancement. Where “natural rights” are nonexistent and entire communities can be killed for little or no reason. Where cruelty is common and accepted.
After one of his victories, Harold orders the enemy dead to be remembered by mutilating their bodies and “the men became accustomed to chopping off Welsh heads, and even made a gruesome game of it, tossing those trophies to each other rather than walking them over to the pile.”
Experiences of love and tenderness, such as many of us have known, also exist in this world. Times such as when you spend the night with a woman you love and “dawn came too quickly.” Or upon separation and one’s face shows “such a strange look” of love and pain.
And speaking of history…
One of the great unresolved questions of history is whether Harold or William had the best claim to the kingship of England. A related question concerns what was in an oath made by Harold on a trip to Normandy. Did he agree to support William?
Rochelle provides plausible answers to these questions, which I will not reveal here. The reader can form his own conclusion, as history continues its inevitable way in this continuing series.
This is the third and final novel in Mercedes Rochelle’s Last Great Saxon Earls trilogy, completing the story begun in Godwine Kingmaker and The Sons of Godwine. Set in 11th century England, just before the Norman Conquest, Godwine Kingmaker told the story of Godwine, the powerful Earl of Wessex, while in The Sons of Godwine the focus switched to the Earl’s children – sons Harold, Tostig, Gyrth, Leofwine and Wulfnoth, and daughter Editha. Fatal Rivalry picks up where that book left off, describing the events leading up to the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
As the novel opens in 1064, Edward the Confessor, Editha’s husband, is still on the throne of England, but the question of his successor is on everybody’s minds. Editha’s brother Harold, who has inherited his father’s earldom of Wessex, has recently returned from Normandy, where he was made to swear an oath to support the claim of Duke William – not an oath Harold intends to keep, because he believes there is a better candidate for the throne: himself. History tells us that Harold will become king in 1066, only to be defeated by William at Hastings later that same year. Fatal Rivalry explores one theory as to why things went so disastrously wrong.
In The Sons of Godwine, we saw how Harold and his younger brother Tostig had been rivals since they were children; in this book the rivalry intensifies. As Earl of Northumbria, Tostig has become very unpopular with his people, particularly after attempting to raise taxes on Harold’s orders. When Tostig’s Northumbrian thegns rebel against him, King Edward sends Harold to negotiate with them. Seeing that the situation is hopeless, Harold agrees to their demands and Tostig is sent into exile. Unable to forgive his brother for siding against him, Tostig searches for new alliances overseas, finally joining forces with the Norwegian king, Harald Hardrada, and setting in motion a chain of events which contribute to Harold’s downfall.
Like the previous novel, this one is presented as the memoirs of the Godwineson brothers, with each one given a chance to narrate his own parts of the story. Leofwine and Gyrth have smaller roles to play, while Wulfnoth, held hostage at Duke William’s court in Normandy, makes only a few appearances – until the end, when he takes on the very important job of concluding his brothers’ stories. Understandably, it’s Harold and Tostig who get most of the attention. I’ve never read about Tostig in this much detail before and I did have some sympathy for him. I’m sure Harold was doing what he thought was in the best interests of the country, but to Tostig it must have seemed like an unforgivable betrayal, particularly when he learned that Harold had married the sister of Morcar, his replacement as Earl of Northumbria.
Fatal Rivalry is an interesting read and probably my favourite of the three books in this trilogy. Because the novel covers a relatively short period of time, it allows the author to go into a lot of detail in exploring the relationship between Harold and Tostig, the motivation behind their actions and how their rivalry could have been the reason why Harold was fighting a battle in the north of the country when William invaded from the south. I am not really a lover of battle scenes, but although there are two major battles which take place in this book – Stamford Bridge and then Senlac Hill (Hastings) – this is only one aspect of the novel and plenty of time is also spent on the more personal lives of the characters, such as Tostig’s relationship with his wife, Judith, and Harold’s marriages to Edith Swanneck and Ealdgyth of Mercia.
I think the Norman Conquest is fascinating to read about and, like many periods of history, there is so much left open to interpretation and debate. I will continue to look for more fiction set in this period and will also be interested to see what Mercedes Rochelle writes about next.
In 1066, the rivalry between two brothers brought England to its knees. When Duke William of Normandy landed at Pevensey on September 28, 1066, no one was there to resist him. King Harold Godwineson was in the north, fighting his brother Tostig and a fierce Viking invasion. How could this have happened? Why would Tostig turn traitor to wreak revenge on his brother?
The Sons of Godwine were not always enemies. It took a massive Northumbrian uprising to tear them apart, making Tostig an exile and Harold his sworn enemy. And when 1066 came to an end, all the Godwinesons were dead except one: Wulfnoth, hostage in Normandy. For two generations, Godwine and his sons were a mighty force, but their power faded away as the Anglo-Saxon era came to a close.