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.


2 thoughts on “What happened to Earl Godwine’s family?

  • Sarah Hutchinson says:

    I have studied & researched the Godwine family for over 30 years & hold a lot of original research, such as the true burial place of Harold & his brothers, & what happened to the Godwinesson brothers’ children. We know Swegen had at least a son, Haakon, Harold had at least 5 sons & 2 daughters, & Tostig had at least 2 sons. Re Harold’s sisters, the only certain one is Gunhilde. Re your statement Ed the Confessor was forced into marriage with Eadgyth & he hated her & avoided the marriage bed – it is very doubtful that this would have been the case. As Earl Godwine was the most powerful Earl in England it is much more likely he married into the House of a powerful ally. Although Eadgyth was ordered into a nunnery when the Earl & his family were exiled, he took her back soon afterwards once cordial relations were restored. It is far more likely that Ed himself was infertile. There is no reason why Eadgyth would be as she came from a very fecund family. Anyway, as I say, I have researched the House of Godwine for over 30 years, was Ealdor of Da Engliscan Gesipas (the Anglo-Saxon Society) for 7 years & Chairman of the Godwine Society for over 10 years, & as such I have a huge amount of research I have access to if anyone has any questions.

    • Hello Sarah,
      Thanks for introducing yourself; I am thrilled to discover an enthusiast on the subject. All my research comes from secondary sources, and of course we can only speculate based on the scraps of information that have survived. I didn’t know there was a Godwine Society! I have many questions and will send you an email once I sort them all out.

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