Tostig, Earl of Northumbria

Tostig fighting Harold in front of Edward, Cambridge University Library MS. Ee.iii.59
Tostig fighting Harold in front of Edward, Cambridge University Library MS. Ee.iii.59

When Siward, Earl of Northumbria died in 1055, his only surviving son was still a child, and King Edward awarded the earldom to Harold’s inexperienced brother Tostig.  Although the King was no fan of of the late Earl Godwine, there is evidence that Godwine’s third son was a favorite at court.  Since he was half Danish, Tostig didn’t seem like a bad choice for the region inhabited by Norsemen, and he served as Earl of Northumbria for ten years before he had serious trouble.

Although he was accused of being overzealous in enforcing law and order, tempers did not rise to the boiling point until he imposed a new substantial tax burden – possibly to help pay for the Welsh campaign he had just waged with Harold in 1063.  Suddenly, all the Northumbrian thegns united against him.  On October 3, 1065, while Tostig was hunting with the King, the rebels descended on York and raided the treasury, killing two housecarls and more than 200 officials.  They declared Tostig outlaw and sent for Morcar, younger son of Aelfgar  who represented the most powerful rival of Godwine’s family (Morcar’s elder brother Edwin was already Earl of Mercia).  Then they sent to the King to confirm their decision and rampaged their way south, gaining support along the way.

Harold Godwineson was chosen to mediate, and met the rebels at Northampton; he had the backing of the King and of Tostig, who had every reason to believe that he would get his earldom back one way or the other.  Alas, Harold was in a big predicament.  He soon learned that Tostig had lost all support in Northumbria; in fact, the only way the Northumbrians could be compelled to accept Tostig back was by force.

Still plundering the area around Northampton, the rebels sent Harold back to the King along with their own envoys, demanding the election of Morcar and outlawry of Tostig.  Harold reluctantly complied, and advised the King against using military force.   Everyone was shocked, and an irate Tostig accused Harold of complicity.

Although Edward initially sought to raise the fyrd against the northerners, his subjects had a horror of civil war – especially for a lost cause – and the King met so much resistance he was soon obliged to accept the rebels’ terms.  He reluctantly sent Harold back with orders to depose Tostig and elect Morcar, pardoning the thegns and reinstituting the laws of Canute.

Swearing vengeance, Tostig went into voluntary exile and Edward’s health slipped into decline the following month, possibly in grief and shock at his loss of authority.  The natural allegiance of Harold and Tostig was broken forever, and the next time they were to meet would be on the battlefield.


11 thoughts on “Tostig, Earl of Northumbria

  • To Mercedes Rochelle,
    Ooh! Those few crucial years between, 1063 – 1065 that, in my opinion changed the course of English history. What a sad time it was, so sad it brings tears to my eyes. We can see it today so, so plainly, step by step to the terrible events of 1066.
    *Tostig, backed by King Edward, raises the Northumbrian taxes by (50%).
    *Gospatric plans to murder Tostig and is killed before he carries out the deed… who sent him I wonder?
    *Two thegns meet with Tostig in York (possibly to descuss the high taxes) under a pledge of peace!!! what follows is unclear never-the-less the thegns are killed by Tostig’s guards in order to defend him?
    *While Tostig is away hunting with the king in the west, the Northumbrian thegns rise up and take over and ransack York, killing tostig’s supporters.
    I don’t need to go on but by the time the King’s represntitive, earl Harold meets with the rebels at Northampton, the rebels, including earl Edwin of Mercia’s forces, have evolved into a great Northern army and to force them to disband and retreat would only amount to a bloody civil war.
    How did all this came about?
    Firstly by Tostig’s mismanagement, you have to know your people and listen to them.
    And the King’s initial traitorous behavour,by making a deal with William and by allowing the Northumbrian taxes to be raised so high and so sudden.
    Ending in, the Tragedy of the age.

    • Roy, you are SO, SO right! I have been wracking my brain trying to figure out the whole Gospatric scenario (with the invaluable help of William Kapelle), and after months of thought I pieced together what I hope is a rational chain of events. I uncovered a suggestion along the way that perhaps Harold badgered Tostig into raising taxes (together with Edward), which might account for Tostig’s accusation that Harold was responsible for the uprising. Luckily I am writing fiction, so I can connect the dots in my own way, as you know (I just checked out your webpage!). I will be covering this sequence in my upcoming FATAL RIVALRY, which I hope to finish by this fall (Part 3 of THE LAST GREAT SAXON EARLS). It’s been quite a challenge!

      • Dear Mercedes,
        I look forward reading your book and seeing, how you have connected the dots. Of course we only have the spars, Saxon cronicles to go by and the very bias Norman records.
        To bring you up-to-date… my latest novel is written and is being edited with an eye for publication before Christmas. It covers Edward’s return to England after twenty odd years as an exile in Normandy, the fiasco in Northumbria, Harold’s coronation, to the eve of the battle of Hastings.
        I do wish you all the very best.

    • Hi Bob. If you look it up on Google, you would see that Earl Godwine’s name is spelled both ways. I chose to use Godwine because this is the spelling used by Edward A. Freeman, whose exhaustive six-volume history inspired me to write the books in the first place. I understand that there was no consistency to spelling in the middle ages anyway.

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