I’m giving away my age by admitting this—not to mention the length of time it took to write this book—but my research on this period began before the internet was a twinkle in Al Gore’s eye. Way before. In fact, I began my research in my college years while I was living in St. Louis, MO—a very nice town but far from the libraries I needed. I went to every university library in the city; luckily they were free to all comers. But I could only get so far. If the book I needed wasn’t in the library, I was out of luck. In fact, I didn’t even know what to look for! Imagine, you young ones, not being able to do a search for all available sources. If the book wasn’t in the card catalogue, it might as well not even exist. Even for me, it’s hard to conceive not being able to find what I need, and I went through it.
So, like any warm-blooded researcher who didn’t have a family to take care of, I pulled up stakes and moved to New York. The day I discovered the New York Public Library my life changed forever! The wealth of information at my fingertips had just grown exponentially. Merely thumbing through the card catalogue was enough to make my heart palpitate. You couldn’t browse the shelves and had to request books then wait about twenty minutes, but it was worth the effort. I discovered authors I never knew about, and finally got my hands on my first copy of Edward A. Freeman’s “History of the Norman Conquest of England”. I thought I had gone to heaven! In six volumes he wrote about every aspect of Anglo-Saxon England I could possibly think of. (These days Freeman is somewhat out of fashion, but he’s still my go-to when I need to look something up; he has never failed me yet.) Copy machines were available for ten cents a page, but as much as I needed to copy, I’d be better off buying the books—if I could find them. A couple of years after I moved to New York, I took a book-buying trip to England and discovered Hay-on-Wye. A breakthrough! Those were the days (the late ’80s) when old used hardbacks were still easy to find, and I discovered my very own set of Freeman which I gleefully brought home. That was the original basis of all my research.
I wrote two books (at least the first drafts) before a crushing disappointment and my own thin skin caused me to put my manuscripts on the shelf for twenty years. When the time came for me to blow the dust off my copies, everything had changed. Old books were harder to afford, but search engines had come into their own and the world was at my fingertips. What a difference.
This brings me to my hero Godwine. We know he was a commoner; as for his origins, historians have relied on guesswork and the occasional contemporary document. However, Godwine was a common name as well as Wulfnoth (his father), so we can only assume we have the right man when we put the clues together. Freeman gave us a multi-page assessment of Godwine’s origin in an appendix to Vol. 1 with all the permutations. He favored the story I ultimately used, which was derived from the 13th century Knytlinga Saga (The Saga of Cnut’s Descendants), problematic though it was. It wasn’t until many years after I finished my book that I discovered Ian Walker’s “Harold, The Last Anglo-Saxon King”, where the author concluded that Godwine served first Athelstan then Edmund Ironside before he went over to Canute (or Knut, or Cnut). Both historians’ explanations were pretty convoluted (there were two Wulfnoths in question as far as Freeman was concerned; Walker didn’t go there); nonetheless, these were totally different origin stories. It certainly emphasized the difference between pre- and post- internet. Ultimately, had I known about the other version I still might not have changed anything (I love the saga account), though in essence, I’m glad to be spared the decision!
When it came to Godwine’s marriage to Gytha, I had little to work from. We are told that Canute gave her to him in marriage. That’s about it. As we know, women had little say in the matter, but theirs was an unequal match. This was early in Godwine’s career; he may have been an earl by then, but he couldn’t have moved far beyond his common origins at this point. And she was a noble woman; her brother Ulf was a Danish Earl and her father was a chieftain. I can see the potential for stress! On the other hand, they had lots of children together, so there must have been some attraction between them.
But more to the point for me: why did Swegn turn out to be such a bad egg? Any why did Godwine support him so loyally despite his transgressions? He was the firstborn; the Godwines were wealthy and powerful; his future was guaranteed. I’m not a believer that people are born evil—especially characters in a novel. Something must have happened to sour his personality. Then it came to me in a flash: why not have Swegn be conceived in this environment of stress and antagonism? If he was born before Godwine and Gytha were reconciled, it’s very possible that she could reject her unwanted child. And so the troubled Swegn grew from bad to worse. I could see that Godwine might feel guilty about his neglected son and would feel the need to make up for his unhappy childhood. Thus, all the pieces fell into place.
Other events required more guesswork. Was Godwine responsible for the death of Alfred the Aetheling, or was he a victim of circumstances? That’s a big question. No one has agreed on his guilt, from contemporary writers to the present. That’s where history ends and speculation begins, and of course the historical novelist gets to call the shots!
Born and raised in St. Louis MO, Mercedes Rochelle graduated with a BA in English Literature from University of Missouri. She learned about living history as a re-enactor and has been enamored with historical fiction ever since. A move to New York to do research and two careers ensued, but writing fiction remains her primary vocation. Her first four books are historical novels about 11th century Britain and events surrounding the Norman Conquest. The next series is called The Plantagenet Legacy starting with “A King Under Siege” about Richard II and the first ten years of his reign. Mercedes now lives in Sergeantsville, NJ with her husband in a log home they had built themselves.
The Last Great Saxon Earls series on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/gp/bookseries/B06XP6BGJT
Thank you so much for coming onto my blog to talk about this very favourite era of mine! As you know Mercedes, I am also a fan of the Godwins, though perhaps more favourable to his son, Harold. But its hard to deny Godwin’s achievements which were pretty formidable when you consider he came from obscurity, though I’m not so sure I would consider him a commoner, he was the son of a thegn who was a king’s naval commander, as I believe, and not the ‘other’ Wulfnoth that Mercedes mentioned. But I guess it depends on what you call a commoner in those days. Thegns made up a broad grouping of middle nobility with some holding vast areas of land and wealth and some only the mere minimum.
I have to say that I totally buy your version of why Swegn was a troubled son. We know today that those raised in non-validating dysfunctional environments often have issues when they are older and I’m sure it was the same back then and throughout history. The terminology ‘black sheep’ has often turned up in throughout the historical narrative. I am slightly on the fence here about theories that have been expressed about Swegn, Cnut and Gytha, but I can also see a possibility that perhaps Gytha and Cnut might have had a relationship before her marriage to Godwin and she might have been pregnant at the time of her wedding to Godwin. Perhaps these ‘rumours’ might have been what Swegn, looking for something to blame his behaviour on, might have jumped on when he put it about that he was not Godwin’s son, but the true son of Cnut, which Gytha had to call for supporters to swear for her before a council of important women to prove her innocence. I’m sure that deeply hurt Gytha. Still, we can only speculate and historical fiction writers are allowed to interpret these long dead people’s actions in order to explain them.
As for the Alfred scenario, my feeling is more in line with Godwin being caught between a rock and a hard place. He was Harefoot’s sworn man, he had to obey orders or he was dead meat himself. I think he had to detain him, was probably going to deliver him to Harefoot, when he was intercepted by his henchmen and had to hand him over. However, we wont really ever know, will we? But as an historical fiction writer, looking at Godwin’s career, he was not known for his ruthless treatment of others. If he was more involved than he’d admitted, it was a one off, most likely. And I can’t see Godwin having anything to do with the blinding of Alfred, that does not seem to have been his style.
Thank you again Mercedes for a very interesting post. I’ve read Mercedes book The Sons of Godwine and recommend it to those interested in this family and period.