1066 The Year of the Conquest: Chapter One

 For the nobles of England, gathered in the great hall that Christmas, at King Edward’s palace on Thorney Island, it must have come as a surprise that this monarch who had lived for over sixty years and had reigned for a third of that, was about to die. Despite his current age, he had always been a robust creature in his lifetime, being a man who loved the outdoors and the thrill of the hunt. He had not been a warrior king, this is true; he left that side of his administration to his very capable deputy, Harold Godwinson, his brother-in-law, but he had rarely shown signs of ill health until that Christmas of 1065, and to know their king’s life was coming to an end, must have been a great astonishment to all. Not that people lived much beyond fifty those days. He would have been considered elderly by the standards of the middle-ages, but little seems to have been done, to prepare for the succession, apart from the expedition to bring home Edward’s nephew, Edward the Exile, the son of his long-deceased brother, Edmund Ironside. The process had begun in 1054, when Bishop Ealdred was sent on a fact-finding mission to Europe to investigate the existence and whereabouts of the Exile. The mission finally came to fruition in 1057, when the mysterious son of King Edmund was located, and he and his family were brought back to the country of his origin from a long exile in Hungary. Sadly though, fortune being against him, Edward the Exile died three days later and was buried in London. His young son, Edgar, only five years old at the time, took up the mantle of ætheling, (the throneworthy) but now, as the king lay dying, Edgar was only thirteen years old, and his inexperience in matters of warfare and statesmanship, would not have put him in good stead for what might be coming was coming: the invasion of England.

King Edmund Ironside

At that time, the English would not have known the brutal nature of the terrible events that were about to befall them. Harold’s inner circle, however, would have known that Harold had been a ‘guest’ at his court only just over a year ago, and had spent time with William, with his liberty on the line; made to swear an oath on holy relics, that he would advocate for the duke as his vassal, to become the new king upon Edward’s demise. If we are to believe Eadmer’s version of what occurred on that visit, Harold had not gone to Normandy to offer William the crown of England on that visit, but to secure the release of his younger brother and his even younger nephew who had been secreted away by the Norman Robert Champart, who had fled England taking the boys with him as hostages to guarantee his escape. They fell into the hands of William of Normandy who wrongly believed that they had been sent by his cousin, Edward, to ensure the succession would go to him. This was not how the English succession worked and it was not in Edward’s gift to offer the crown independently of the witan, the king’s council.

Although Harold’s status as dux Anglorum, which was the highest designation before king, he could not possibly become William of Normandy’s liegeman, the duke of Normandy had insisted. It seemed that William’s arrogance and the fact that Harold was far from home on someone else’s turf, made it difficult for the English earl to assert himself and contend the request. It is possible that when the duke of Normandy had made up his mind to something, nothing, no reasoning, would dissuade him. Harold was given arms, and made to bend the knee to the duke, and with the subtle and intimated threat that he would never see his homeland again, the English earl was coerced into submission against his will.

 Thus armed with this knowledge, and the fact that Tostig, Harold Godwinson’s recalcitrant brother, was stirring up trouble with Harald, King of Norway, another with his sights set on England’s throne, the men of this anxious country, were looking now to the only man they knew who could save them from the coming storm. The man who had caused the predicament in the first place; Harold Godwinson.

Harold swearing an oath on Holy relics to William of Normandy
 The Vita Ædwardi Regis is a work that was commissioned by Edward’s queen, Edith, mainly to enhance the reputation of her family. It tells us in detail of Edward’s last days. The king had been ill since November, with a ‘malady’ of the brain, perhaps today we would know this as a ‘stroke’, or an ischaemic attack. He seemed to recover from its initial onset but was beset on Christmas Eve by another episode. Somehow, he managed to attend the Christmas Day service. The day after he was confined to his bed, and by the 28th of December, he was too ill to attend the consecration of his life’s ambition, the great church of Westminster, a monument he built in dedication to St Peter, his favourite saint. And so, on the eve of the king’s death, there had been no established heir ready to step up to the dais and seat the throne by default once the king had drawn his last breath. Although the boy Edgar was the king’s heir, the designated throneworthy ætheling, it did not mean that he had been chosen as the definite heir apparent by the witan. In those last days of Edward’s life as he lay languishing in his death bed, the nobles knew what might come, and decided that a boy of thirteen was not going to cope with the threat of invasion as well as a fully grown experienced man.

In the written record of the Vita, we are given to imagine, the whole of the witan, along with the most important men in the land, gathered in the ante chamber, waiting to hear of the king’s last proclamation befor his passing, the name of his preferred nomination; the man he would bequeath his estate and crown. We are told in the sources and also the visual account of the events, The Bayeux Tapestry, that King Edward, points to Harold and names him as the man he entrusts, upon his death, the care of his kingdom and his wife. According to English tradition, it was not necessarily the king’s oldest son who would naturally follow their father to kingship, as it became customary in later times. And the king’s wishes were not the end of it. Who he nominated was by the by, for it was the Witan to agree and that was how kings were made in Anglo Saxon England.

The king and his witan

At the last moment of the king’s life, everyone must have known already who that man was. It was, surely, a forgone conclusion, given that only one man was powerful enough to keep peace among the earldoms and stave off any would-be attackers.  All that was needed was the final endorsement to make the procedure complete – the king’s approval, the necessary detail that would fortify the decision against other claimants. All that needed to happen was for the king to point to that man; it was what they had been waiting for. His closest companions that were gathered around his bed within the king’s inner chamber, his wife, Edith, rubbing his feet as she had been wont to do throughout their married life; his kinsman, Robert FitzWimarc, a holder of high office in Edward’s court and later the shire-reeve of Essex under William; Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and the king’s primary earl, Harold Godwinson. One can imagine how tense they were, straining their ears every time Edward made a noise; waiting in anticipation for the words to utter from his chapped lips.

The king drifted in and out of sleep, with periods of restless delirium. On the day of his impending death, which was the 4th day of January, he awoke after many attempts to arouse him, and asked his servants to assemble his household. Some more people entered the chamber, and joined those aforementioned, who had never left his side. Imagine the air of expectation that must have filled the room. Picture the sighs of desperation as the king, according to the Vita, spoke not the words they wanted to hear, but told them of a dream. In this dream, he met two monks he had once known in Normandy and were no longer alive. They told him that God was cursing England because of the wickedness of the churchmen and the earls, and that a year and a day after his death, devils would put the land to fire and sword, and war would plague the country for years to come. The punishment would continue until a tree of green was felled halfway up its trunk and the cut off part taken three furlongs away and join its self together again without the assistance of men, and finally break into leaf and fruit once more. Such a prophetic monologue seems almost to be so insightful, given what was to follow, that one would think it was inserted after the fact and not before. Why or how a man who was gravely ill having had a stroke, was able to speak all these words is perhaps something that should be considered.Stigand the Archbishop of Canterbury turned to Harold and grumbled, as he probably would, being one of those churchmen, whom the king’s complaints were directed at, that the king was raving like a madman. Then the king seemed to be restored to sanity and spoke his last words. “Do not mourn for me but pray for my soul and give me leave to go to God. He who allowed himself to die, will not allow me not to.” Queen Edith was weeping, and he spoke words of comfort to her, and he said, “May God reward my wife for her devoted loving service. For she has been a devoted servant to me, always by my side like a beloved daughter.”It was then, we are told, that he offered his hand to Harold and spoke the words that everyone was waiting to hear: “I commend this woman and all the kingdom to your protection… and do not deprive her… of any honour she has received from me. I also commend to you all those men who have left their native land for love of me and served me faithfully. Take an oath of fealty from them, if they wish… or send them with safe conduct across the Channel to their own homes with all they have acquired in their service from me.”

After giving his instructions for his burial, he became unconscious once more and passed later that night, somewhere between or on the 4th or 5th of January 1066.

Edward the Confessor’s deathbed scenario

We might question the scenario, but the Norman sources do not challenge the reported death scene announcement, so we have no reason to disbelieve certain aspects of it. That Harold was nominated appears to be the case, even if Edith had picked his hand up and pointed it in her brother’s direction! What is certain however, is that the Witan was on board, with the nomination. Bought or not, it seemed to have been the sensible choice – to them at least. Robert FitzWimarc was half Norman, half Breton. He had been brought to England by Edward into his service. It seems he may have kept in contact with his homeland and may have even been enlisted as a spy for William at some point, but in any case, he was there at the scene when Edward died, and could vouch either way that Edward had or hadn’t announced the man who would follow him to the throne. He does not seem to have denied it.

The next day, Edward was buried and Harold was crowned.

Harold is crowned

Primary Sources 

The Bayeux Tapestry

Eadmer: Historia Novorum in Anglia

Vita Edwardi Regis

Further Reading

Barlow F. (1970) Edward the Confessor, Eyre Methuen LTD, Great Britain.

Howarth D. (1978) 1066 The Year of the Conquest, Viking Press, New York.

Ælfgyva: The Mystery Woman of the Bayeux Tapestry – Part VII

Wecome to the concluding part of Ælfgyva: The Mystery Lady of the Bayeux Tapestry.

Imagine someone wants to tell you some gossip about your neighbour Joe Bloggs, something quite scandalous and outrageous. Imagine that person has already heard it from someone else and perhaps that person has heard it from some other person. Imagine that somewhere along the line, facts have become distorted or left out. Perhaps someone has mistaken Joe for a different Joe – or for a John, who looked a lot like a Joe? Imagine that by the time the rumour reaches you, the whole episode has been scrambled into something  slightly different, but with a similar concept? Perhaps the story is entirely the same, but the it is the identities of those involved that are morphed. Well, this is what I believe has happened in the Bayeux Tapestry with the Aelfgyva tale.

After studying the tapestry, the possible candidates and the possible links to the story quite thoroughly, I can come up with no other explanation other than it is a case of mistaken identity where a certain lady’s story has been wrongly attributed to another. One can imagine it would not have been that difficult to mistake one person for another when there were so many women with the same name around at the same time. Especially if you were a Norman, hearing scandalous tales passed from one person to another like a Chinese whisper.

So what are the implications of such a suggestion? This is what I believe, could be… what the Bayeux Tapestry is trying to convey. It is not a hypothesis that can be proven, but merely a suggestion and an interpretation of what this scene might signify. I am not in any way stating that I have cracked the mystery, or that I have finally found the answer. I am however presenting you with a possibility, having been unable to discover any other indisputable explanation for the woman’s role embroidered into the legend with the hints of scandal that have been attributed to a particular woman of that name.

So, here is the story, as I imagine it:

Harold embarks for Normandy from Bosham

The woman in the scene with the cleric, is Ælfgifu of Northampton, and the priest touching her face is doing so to signify some sort of collaboration with her.  In the scene before, Harold and William are discussing the earl’s reasons for coming to Normandy.  The scene in which Ælfgyva and the priest are portrayed is part of their conversation also. Harold is explaining to William that he has come to negotiate the release of his brother and nephew, hence the man that Harold appears to be almost touching with his finger, is presented with a beard in the English style of facial fashion, and not the Norman clean-shaven manner, as all the others in the scene are – apart from Harold, of course. It seems quite reasonable to me that this bearded fellow is Wulfnoth, Harold’s brother who was one of the hostages he has come to negotiate the release of. 
But William, overwhelmed by the earl’s presence and its implication for him, understands some other reason for Harold’s visit. He is convinced that Harold has come to declare his fealty to him and assure him that when Edward dies, he will support him as his successor. Why else would he come with such gifts of wonder to offer him? Could William’s mindset have been so focused on the crown of England that he cannot not hear the words Harold is trying to say to him? 
Harold mentions, carefully – very carefully – because Edward, the king, has told him to be so,  that King Edward has declared his great nephew, Edgar, grandson of the courageous Edmund Ironside, as the atheling, which means that the boy is someone who is throne-worthy, therefore a future candidate to the throne. Harold knows that William has never been named atheling, but he is very careful how he presents his case. William listens, shows interest in what the Englishman has to say, after all he is going to need him when Edward dies. Nonetheless, he is undaunted by what Harold is telling him.  He has already dismissed Edgar, having heard the scandal of Edmund Ironsides’ mother Aelfgyva, who it was said, had tricked her husband into believing her sons were his when they were really the sons of a priest and a workman. He laughs at Harold’s suggestion that the Witan should prefer a boy over a man such as him, a boy descended from dubious lineage. Is he not (the duke) a man who has cheated death many times and earned the respect of his enemies?
Harold tries to put him straight about Ælfgyva, desperately trying to make him understand that he is mistaken and that the woman in the scandal he was referring to was not Edmund Ironside’s mother, but Harold Harefoot’s mother, wife of Cnut. Yes, Aethelred’s wife was also called Ælfgifu, but there was no such scandal about her and Edgar’s lineage is indisputably of the true line of Wessex. 
Still William does not listen. He interrupts, rebuffs and insists – all in the best nature and good spirits, of course. Harold is having problems pressing home his point because William has made his mind up. It is a game that only William can win. Harold, William declares, will support him in his quest for the English throne, and consider allying himself closely to him by marrying a daughter of his. William suggests this proposition in such a way that if Harold should refuse, he may inflict great insult upon his most congenial host, who has saved him from the humiliation and torment of being held as the Count of Ponthieu’s prisoner… and in Harold’s mind, he is thinking that if he wants to leave there alive, he will have to play the game that William has already won. Perhaps it is then that Harold realises what a terrible mistake he has made. Why, oh why, did he not listen to his king when he warned him that “no good will come of it”?

William knights Harold

So any attempt that Harold might make to put right the error that William has made in identifying the correct scandal with the incorrect Ælfgifu, is from then on thwarted. Wiliam will change the subject or offer a distraction. He does anything not to talk about the subject again. And by the time he gets home, with only one of the hostages being released, Harold is ridden with anxiety, having been made to swear an oath on holy relics, that he has basically handed the English crown on a plate, to the Norman duke. The first thing he does is seek out his relative, Ælfric, who was once a monk at Canterbury, and in earnest, divulge to him what he has done. It is then that Harold learns that according to canon law, a man who gives oath under severe duress, can later recant without detriment to his soul. With this knowledge, Harold can later go on to forgo the oath he made to William, to take the crown for himself. Which he does, indeed, later in 1066.
Did the artist who designed the tapestry know the secret of the conversation that happened between Harold and William? Were they trying to convey the story that led to the mis identity of Ælfgifu and coerced oathtaking that meant the end of Anglo-Saxon rule? We shall never know, but this is the possibility that I have come to believe. How I wish I had a time machine, so that I could take you back with me to that year, 956 years ago when it all happened. 


*

I believe that this is the basis for the artist’s insertion of the scene with Aelfgyva and the priest. Whether or not my theory is right, the creator wanted to convey to the viewer that this particular scandal had some link to the conversation that William and Harold are having. The small, crude images in the border further enforces the story of Aelfgifu of Northampton’s scandal leaving me with no doubt that they represent the labourer and priest who were supposed to have fathered the children said to be Cnut’s sons. I cannot, although I have tried to, locate any other evidence that would identify a believable rationale for this scandal to have been placed in the tapestry.  
If I were a contemporary of it, I may have been privy to the tittle-tattle and also that perhaps William had wrongly identified the woman and would not have had to use my imagination to work out the innuendo of the illustration. But this is my interpretation. Unfortunately I have no way of knowing I am right, however I do not think this has been a pointless study, for it has identified the woman and shed some light on some other mysteries of the tapestry also. I hope that you all have not been disappointed.                                                 I would love to know what you think.

References

Bridgeford A. (2004) 1066 The Hidden History of The Bayeux Tapestry, Harper Perennial, London.

Eadmer Eadmer’s History of Recent Events in England

Eadmer  Historia Novorium in Anglia 

Harvey Wood H, (2008) The Battle of Hastings: The Fall of Anglo Saxon England, Atlantic Books, Chatham. 

McNulty J.B. (1980) The Lady Aelfgyva in the Bayeux Tapestry, Medieval Academy of America, vol 55 (4) pp 659-688.

Ælfgyva: The Mystery Woman of the Bayeux Tapestry – Part VI

In this final examination of this mystery, I do not aim to prove,what the image of Alfgyva and the priest represents. It would be impossible, because there is no evidence to draw on – at all – that is irrefutably connected to the scene. Mind you, if there was, I’m sure it would have been discovered years ago. So, my mission is to explain, and perhaps persuade,  my theory of who she is and what the scene could be portraying. We will never know the full truth behind the image and what the artist was trying to convey, the real message has been lost down the tunnel of time and has died with those who have long since lived those events.

I imagine that in the same way one might glance at the front page of a modern newspaper, read the first line of a headline story and know exactly what the author was referring to, so the contemporaries of the Tapestry would also know about the well-known scandal of the time. The people of the 11thc may not have needed any more explanation than the image of Alfgyva and the priest for them to know who the artist was referring to – or – it might be that there was some secret underlying message linked to the woman and the priest contained within the borders of the tapestry that reports something else only known to certain people. No one can be sure. One could also say (and some have), that the images in the borders could be there for decorative purposes only, and have nothing whatsoever to do with the message the Tapestry is trying to send.

So to summarise, we discovered earlier on who the lady in question is and to my mind this is as indisputable as it can get. She was Ælfgifu of Northampton, handfastened wife of King Cnut, and it was J Bard McNulty (1980) who first identified her. She was sent by Cnut to Norway to govern there with their eldest son Swein, however her heavy handed rule did not endear her to the Norwegians and they eventually ousted her and her son. Poor Swein died in Denmark where they had both sought refuge. Nothing was heard about her after 1040, but she had become the subject of a scandal years before, when she was accused of presenting Cnut with two sons that were actually neither hers nor his. One was rumoured to be the son of a priest and a serving maid and the other was the son of a workman and perhaps herself or the same servant maid.

William secures the release of Harold from the Count of Ponthieu and brings him to his palace where they discuss the woman in the next scene

Regarding her connection to the Bayeux Tapestry, what could she possibly have had to do with the story of Harold’s sojourn in Normandy? As I explained previously in  Part V, J.McNulty Bard (1980) states in The Lady Ælfgyva in the Bayeux Tapestry that the scene depicting Ælfgyva and the priest is not what happens next in the story, but what Harold and William are  discussing in the previous scene. This is highly possible, for it is the only scene that doesn’t follow the previous one. But with the absence of speech bubbles, it is still pretty much conjecture, though I can say with confidence that of all the theories, this one has substance to it.

William returns to his palace in Normandy

In order to reach the point where we can deliberate the conversation between Harold and William, we need to discuss the scene with the two men in detail. This is the one before the Aelfgyva scene. William and Harold have just arrived at William’s court from having ridden from Ponthieu where Harold had been kept, probably for ransom, by the young Count after washing up on his shore with his personal guard. According to Eadmer, somehow, a huscarle of Harold’s, escaped and called upon William for his help in releasing his lord from the clutches of Count Guy. William was the count’s overlord and demanded that Guy hand Harold over immediately, which he did. 
Now, we move on, William sits on his throne in his hall with a Norman guard standing behind him with a spear. This man appears to be pointing at Harold. The viewer can differentiate between the Normans and the English by their hairstyles. There is little disparity with the English and Norman clothing of the day, but their hair styles are very different with most Normans wearing their hair short and shaved at the back to just above the ears. The artist has obviously marked these out to give a clear distinction between the two races. The image of Harold is shown with his hair covering his ears and just above collar length. Curiously, the guard standing directly behind him as he converses with William, is not shown as a Norman. 
This man is also sporting an English style hair cut and a beard. The Normans are generally shown as being clean shaven. The English either have beards or moustaches. As we can see, the rest of William’s household guards are looking very Norman-like in contrast to the one that Harold appears to be indicating to. 

Harold and William discuss the purpose of his visit

As stated by Eadmer in his History of Recent Events in England, Harold had travelled to Normandy with the intention of negotiating the release of his brother Wulfnoth and his nephew Hakon. These two particular Godwinsons had been taken into Edward’s care as hostages to ensure the good behaviour of their patriarch, Godwin, in 1051, when had Godwin found himself in trouble with Edward. His refusal to punish the people of Dover for their ‘maltreatment’ of the king’s brother-in-law, Count Eustace of Bologne and his retinue, had been the cause of this discontent between the earl and his king (Barlow 2002). 
Godwin had rallied his supporters to side with him against the king. At that time, the great nobles of the day were reluctant to support a civil war and so Godwin had no choice but flee into exile, leaving his son Wulfnoth and grandson Hakon behind as hostages. It is not exactly clear how Wulfnoth and Hakon, both young boys at the time, came to find themselves in Normandy, but it was quite possible that the Archbishop, Robert Champart took them with him when Godwin forced his way back to England from exile a year later. Champart had helped to engineer Godwin’s fall from grace and so feared for his life and fled back to Normandy. 
It is believed that he used the boys to shield him from those who would stop him leaving the country and brought the boys with him to present to William as surety for Edward’s promise of the crown. This might have been with Edward’s agreement, but must have been a decision that Edward later wished to forget, for he was eventually to sanction a mission by Bishop Ealdred to go abroad to look for Edward’s nephew, known as Edward the Exile, son of his brother, Edmund Ironside. 

Edmund Ironside

So, Eadmer, a monk and chronicler of Canterbury, has in his writings, Harold travelling to Normandy on a mission to secure the release of his kin with a stark warning from Edward that this may not be a good idea and that he will be inviting trouble for himself and ‘the whole kingdom’ if he does indeed embark on this journey.  Edward warns Harold that the duke is ‘not so simple’ as to give the hostages up without getting something in return. Edward apparently also states, as Eadmer tells us, that he wanted no part in Harold’s plan. 
And yet Harold still went, frivolously, one might think, considering Edward’s warning about the nature of his second cousin. This story reveals that not only was Harold possessed of a stubborn nature, it also shows that the king’s power over his subordinate was weak, for he was unable exert his kingly influence over him and persuade him not to go. But whatever Harold’s determination to ignore his king’s advice, he must have been disturbed by the plight of his brother and nephew, languishing in Normandy long after the need for them to be hostages. The original purpose for their detention had been to ensure Godwin’s good behaviour and the patriarch of the family had long been dead. Harold, I am sure, wanted only to bring them home. 
The Norman sources tell a totally different tale. They insist that Harold had been sent by Edward to confirm the succession upon him (Harriet Harvey Wood 2008). I prefer Eadmer’s version, for it holds more weight. He was said to have had access to people who might have had first hand information about Harold’s intentions when he went to Normandy. It is a plausible suggestion and upon studying the images of the Tapestry, I have not seen anything that might not support this idea; having said that, the Tapestry does support both the Norman and Eadmer’s version. 


So now, what are my conclusions? Well, you will have to wait until tomorrow to hear the rest of the story in the final concluding episode of this long, twisted journey back to the past.

Historical Writers Blog Hop: Swegn Godwinson, an 11th Century Scandal

The story of the Godwinson brothers is a well-known one but there is one brother that is often overlooked as he doesn’t figure in the story of 1066 as Harold and Tostig do. Swegn. I have to confess that despite his shortcomings, I have a soft spot for this, the most colourful son of the House of Godwin, as I’m sure that had he been paid more attention to, or perhaps given the thing that was missing in his upbringing, whatever that was that made him the way he was, his life might have been as successful, if not more so than that of his brothers.

It was not surprising that in a family so prolific for producing male species, that there would be at least one who, if he was alive today, would have been up for an ASBOs, would have had several illegitimate children by the time he was nineteen, been involved with drugs and alcohol problems, and likely to have served time in prison. And the very fact that Swegn, the eldest, of the brood, was convinced he was not a Godwinson from an early age, would suggest that this lad would definitely have been diagnosed with an anti-social personality disorder at some point in his life.

Godwin, the father of this large gaggle of children, was in the service of the athelings, Aethelstan and Edmund Ironside, and went on to serve Cnut after Edmund’s untimely death. Godwin’s career went from landholding thegn to much greater things once he’d got his foot in Cnut’s royal door and his relatively low, but noble status, grew into an Earldom, with Cnut awarding him the lands of Wessex and Cnut’s brother-in-law’s sister, Gytha thrown into the package.

With his newfound status, a no-doubt puffed up Godwin must have strutted around with a spring in his step after his wife, Gytha, whose noble pedigree could not be denied, (she was the daughter of the chieftain Thorkil Sprakalegg and granddaughter of Harold Bluetooth) gave birth to their first son, Swegn. Little did the young couple realise that this charming little bundle of joy would turn out to be the bane of their lives.

I don’t know under which ill omen this black sheep, latter-day wild boy was born, but scandal would thence follow him throughout his life. How his parents, who obviously loved him, coped with the embarrassment of a son who continuously behaved badly one cannot imagine. But just as today, childhood experiences formulate a person’s character and I wonder what encounters in his early life Swegn might have had that shaped his personality the way it did.

Following him, were several other offspring, Edith, Harold, Tostig, Gyrth, Leofwin, Gunnhild, and Wulfnoth. There have been claims of another female and male, but I think that they have been made in error. Another male who joined the family for awhile was Beorn Estridson, who was the nephew of Cnut and son of Gytha’s brother, Ulf, who was married to Cnut’s sister Estrid. He may have been fostered into the family judging by the closeness between Harold and Beorn.

As one might expect there must have been a lot of chaos in the House of Godwin and there is a little story where Tostig and Harold were once chastised as boys, for fighting at the dinner table in front of the king. Tostig was said to have grabbed Harold by the hair. I wonder if Swegn is represented in this picture as the boy trying to break them up – perhaps after stirring up trouble!

Tostig and Harold brawling before the king.

Why it was Swegn that was to become the bad boy of the family is not recorded, and was possibly unusual for the first-born child. We know from events in the autumn of 1065 that Tostig, the fourth born child if we are to accept that their sister Edith was one of the top three, grew up resentful of his older brother Harold. But what were the aspects of Swegn’s upbringing that could have affected the eldest and heir of the Godwin household so badly that it created such a monster?

Maybe, to get a better picture of the man’s chatacter, we don’t need to look much further than where Swegn saw himself within the Godwin household. Possibly one of the most hurtful shameful things that Swegn could have done to Mama and Papa Godwin was to publicly accuse his mother of lying about his paternity. Sometime probably before 1047, he took it into his head to declare himself the son of Cnut which would have meant a few scandalous things. 1) That Gytha had been having an affair with Cnut whilst he had his other two wives, Emma and Ælfgifu on the go. 2) That she was married to Godwin at the time when Cnut fathered Swegn, and Godwin was not aware of this. 3) That she was given to Godwin by Cnut after the Danish king thought two women already were enough to handle. And 4) That Swegn hated his parents so much that he would do anything to embarrass them in public because he felt different from the others in his family.

Did his parents expect too much of him as the older son and then chastise him for his failings? Often we see this has been the case with many children growing up who had a sense of being outside the nucleus of their biological family. Could this have been the issue with Swegn? Or was it simply that he was the result of a well-kept secret that somehow wreaked havoc once it came to light by whatever means.

Of course Swegn may have convinced himself that his own suspicions that he was not a Godwinson were true, but his mother was not having it. She adamantly denied this on oath at an assembly of Wessex noble women she convened as Hemming’s Cartulary testifies.

One wonders about the breach that this must have caused within the family. Its interesting though that Godwin himself did not come out publicly to challenge this himself, though in no way should this be seen as the great earl acknowledging any truth in the claim. The old man might have felt he had enough to deal with without getting embroiled in an errant son’s lies against his own family. Behind the scenes though, it might have been quite different. Mercedes Rochelle in her novel The Sons of Godwin gives an excellent portrayal of the family dynamics in the household and treats Swegn’s character most sympathetically that one can really empathise with him and understand what shaped his sense of self and his outsider syndrome.

Whatever Swegn had hoped to gain, it obviously did not help his familial relations. I rather like to think that his mother gave him a right old slap around the face the next time she saw him. Nor did he evoke any loyalty with sister Edith, the queen, who failed to name him in her biography (the Vita Edwardi ) of the family, though she does allude to the rot within the family and this could plainly be him. Having said that, nor does she name her mother. I wonder why.

 In 1047 Swegn had hardly settled down in his office as Earl of lands in Mercia and Wessex, when he decided to forge an alliance with another like-minded soul, Gruffudd of Llewellyn of Gwynedd and Powis. Perhaps jealousy of his brother Harold and their cousin Beorn’s closeness or better treatment, was the reason, who knows. But he had made up his mind that he was going his own way. This Welsh man was a rival of Earl Leofric of Mercia whose family’s enmity with Gruffudd may have stemmed further back than the slaughter of Leofric’s brother Eadwin. This could point to some conflict between Swegn and Leofric’s family which prompted Swegn to join with Gruffudd to help him win a campaign in the south of Wales. Nonetheless it was indeed a goading that would not have been taken well by the House of Mercia.

But that was nothing. The most scandalous of Swegns doings were about to come and this next anecdote would be the one that would kickstart the beginning of Swegn’s demise.

On the way back from his trip, Swegn decided to stop by the Abbey of Leominster. He seems to have already known the Abbess and had taken a fancy to her. He ordered Lady Eadgifu be brought to him and he rode off with her, knowing full well that this was not going to go down well with not only the church but society in general. To kidnap a noble woman, and an abbess at that was not something that could just be brushed under the rush-mats. Although it is not clear in what capacity Swegn knew her, it is unlikely it was a random stop where he thought he’d take a look at the nuns and see which one took his fancy. Most agree he already knew her, that there may have been something between them once. Perhaps that was why Eadgifu was put in a nunnery well away from the rogue son of Godwin! One can imagine the look of horror on the faces of the girl’s kin when they knew their little darling and Swegn were hooking up.

Whatever the case, he went on to keep her for a year until the threat of excommunication issued by the archbishop of Canterbury forced him to give her up, although some sources indicate that he’d already had enough of her by that time anyway after she had given birth to his son, Hakon. Of course he was outlawed for such a deed and he went off to Bruges then Denmark to catch up with his Danish relatives whom he might have felt more at home with, seeing as he believed himself to be the son of Cnut.

But it seems that Swegn couldn’t behave himself in Denmark either and despite helping out his cousin, namesake King Swein, in his campaigns to keep Denmark from invasion by Norway, he seems to have caused some ‘crimes against the Danes’. One can imagine what he might have done there, but it’s a shame the records aren’t more specific.

So, by 1048 Swegn had forged quite a reputation for himself. The wanna be Dane is kicked out of Denmark, but with a crew of seven to eight ships, he sails into his home port of Bosham. You can imagine the hue and cry!
“Quick! Swegn is here! Lock up the women!”
“And the nuns!”
Godwin must have held his head in his hands and Gytha, resigned to the fact that there was going to be trouble, must have done what most mothers did in these times and put the equivalent of the eleventh century kettle on.

Swegn, knowing he’d burned his bridges in Denmark decided to see if he could enlist the support of his brothers. Beorn and Harold had been given a share of the renegade’s lands. He appeals to them to support him in his plea to the king to be reinstated. Beorn might have agreed at first but then Harold comes along and outright refuses, causing Beorn to abandon the idea. Harold must have been disgusted at his brother’s behaviour. If he’d been able to forgive his brother his transgressions, he might have agreed to give them back but there was clearly a dislike of his brother, and who could blame him?

Edward wasn’t very keen either. He orders him out of the country with four days to leave but Swegn is not for giving up and he sought out his cousin once again, perhaps relieved to find him without Harold breathing down his neck at Pevensey. This time Beorn agrees.

Here I want to rewind and shout at Beorn. “No! Stop! Don’t!” But who am I to get in the way of a good soap opera storyline? And let’s face it, it is a fabulous tale!

So silly Beorn, who never had a gut feeling in his life, takes just three men with him and agrees to go with Swegn to Bosham where he had left his ships. There must have been an argument between he and Swegn and perhaps Beorn then felt he could no longer agree to support him. The temperamental outlaw then had Beorn bound and dragged on to his ship. They sailed west to Dartmouth where Beorn was murdered and dumped/buried on shore.

Harold and Beorn must have been close as he made sure that Beorn’s body was rescued and taken to rest in the Old Minster in Winchester next to his uncle Cnut. When the king found out he was not happy as one can imagine. He and the whole army declared Swegn a nithing –basically a nefarious fellow and an outlaw which meant he could be killed on the spot. Even Swegn’s own men deserted him leaving him with no more than two ships. Fearing that he had completely stitched himself up, he decided to sail to Bruges where he was welcomed by Count Baldwin who, by his actions must have liked him for some reason.

So how does one come back from this? Surely now he will never be forgiven.

Dad Godwin, seems to have kept well out of Swegn’s affairs. I doubt he didn’t have an opinion on his eldest son’s deeds but whatever they were, no one has made any mention of them. At this stage, when Swegn made the accusation against his mother is not clear. It is not certain if it was before he went off the rails or during? I would imagine that this idea he was not Godwin’s son, but the son of that famous Danish king, Cnut, was a seed planted in the young Swegn’s mind, perhaps by someone who knew/suspected an affair between Cnut and the sister (Gytha) of his one time friend, Ulf. Whether or not Godwin was party to the rumour, or knew nothing about it until Swegn brought it to light many years later, it is not known. But I would imagine with or without the knowledge, this would have been a terrible hurtful blow for Godwin. But he seems to have forgiven his son all the same.

Ian Walker states that Godwin put pressure on Edward to return him to power although doesn’t name his source, but in 1050, the Bishop of Worcester met with him in Flanders, heard his confession and gave him absolution. He brings him back to England and supports Swegn to plead of the king his mercy and forgiveness. It does not seem unreasonable that this time Godwin, who was getting on a bit now, might well have also gone to Edward and begged for his son to be brought back. With this pressure put upon him from all sides, Edward caved in and I’m certain it was against his chagrin that Swegn is given his office and his lands back.

The bad boy of Wessex doesn’t appear to have learned his lesson. It was not long before he was building up resentment against the king’s nephew Ralph de Mantes and his Norman colony in Herefordshire where they were building castles in the manner of the French on the continent. He might also have been resentful toward Harold who was on good terms with Ralph. Harold was said to have been a Godfather to Ralph’s son, also named Harold.

Then the final nail in Swegn’s coffin was banged in.

In the Summer of 1051, the whole Godwin family were to come under scrutiny after they rebelled against King Edward. The incident in Dover that set king and earl against each other seems to have been engineered by the king’s French household members at least one of whom was Godwin’s nemesis and arch rival for the king’s counsel.

The king called upon Godwin to punish the town of Dover severely after his brother-in-law, Eustace of Boulogne was supposedly attacked by the townsmen on his way back home to France. Godwin refused and he, Harold and Swegn were called to account when they refused to harm the town. Swegn and Godwin had to give up hostages on the 8th of September and on the 21st of that same month, they were to meet with the king in London. Word came through that if Swegn turned up on the 21st, he would be in serious trouble because he had been outlawed again without even having seen the king. The whole family were worried as men began to desert them, not keen to be part of a civil war. None of them went to London on the 21st and the whole family were given just days to get out of England or be killed on site.

They split. Swegn offered Harold his ships that were waiting in Bristol and Harold took Leofwin with him and went off to Ireland to recruit mercenaries in Dublin. The rest of the family fled to Bruges in Flanders, Swegn going with them.

Swegn knew he had no more cards to play. No more lives to throw away and no more bridges to burn. The only way out of the mess he had made was to go on a pilgrimage – yes in medieval times, this is what the bad boys did – and he was said to have walked all the way to Jerusalem barefoot, only to die of the cold somewhere in Constantinople or thereabouts as he was returning home only ten days or so after the rest of his family had returned to power from their exile in a blaze of glory. Malmesbury though, has him attacked by Saracens.

Whatever the circumstances, he must have cut a sad figure, alone, barefoot, wearing the clothing of a pauper, shivering on a hill top with only a thin blanket for comfort as the freezing rain soaks him, completely stripped of his hubris and his arrogance. Of course this is my imagining, however it cannot be hard to visualise this sad reckoning and its hard not to feel a pang of regret for the once colourful, but self destructive son who came into this world with such promise, and left it completely bereft of his integrity.

He left behind one son, Hakon, who was still, at his death, a hostage in Normandy and who was said to have died at Hastings as a teenager not long after setting foot in his home with his uncle Harold in 1064.

Historical Writers Summer Blog Hop: The Last Battle of Edmund Ironside

Today I am hosting the Historical Fiction Writers Summer Blog Hop in which we choose a momentous event or epoch in time. October 18th 1016 was a date that stands out because it was the first time and only time we would have a Danish king on the English throne.

England in the early 11th century was one of turmoil. At the turn of 1000 AD, Æthelred the II was on the throne and had been there since 978, coming to power under undesirable circumstances at the age of 12, following the death of his brother Edward who was assassinated. At this time, England had been experiencing a period of peace and prosperity having restored the north under the rule of what was now England. But in the 980’s, the Danes began raiding again.

In 985, Æthelred first married Ælfgifu, daughter of Thored, Ealdorman of York. He ruled over the southern half of the old kingdom of Northumbria. He and Æthelred had several issue of which Edmund was his third son. Its likely Edmund was born somewhere between 988 and 992. Like his brothers, he would have grown up to be educated and trained to be a warrior leader. His older brother, Ecgberht, died in 1005 which made him Æthelred’s second surviving eldest son. The oldest son, Æthelstan, died in 1014, which left a teenage Edmund as the principle heir to the throne.

Somewhere between approximately 995 and 1001, Ælfgifu, who does not appear to have had an official crowning, may have died, or been put aside, paving the way for Æthelred to enter into an alliance with Normandy by marrying Emma of Normandy in 1002. Throughout much of his reign Æthelred was beset by problems with the Danes and having to pay geld to them to make them leave. Despite the hefty payoffs, the Danes continued their incursions into the English kingdom.

Depiction of Emma of Normandy and sons Edward and Alfred

By 1013, Sweyn of Denmark was confident enough to make a bid for the English throne and he invaded with a huge army. The English militia were forced to capitulate and Æthelred and his new wife, Emma of Normandy and their young children, sought sanctuary at the court of his wife’s brother, Duke Richard of Normandy.

Records suggest that Edmund and his older brother Æthelstan were close and this is confirmed by Æthelstan’s will (he died in 1014) in which he leaves various items as well as land to his younger brother. (It is interesting to note that a certain Godwin is also mentioned in the will intimating that there was also a relationship of friendship there too, with the man who was to become famous as the Earl of Wessex, father to Harold Godwinson and a brood of robust sons.) The brothers must have felt threatened by their father’s marriage to Emma, especially if, as declared in the Life of Edward the Confessor, England had promised that they would accept any male off-spring of theirs as the heir to the throne before any others. Whether or not this is true, this was never put to the test as Edmund was to become king before the male heirs of Emma were old enough to contest.

Æthelred II

Whilst his father was in exile, Edmund and Æthlestan did their best to garner support and managed to gain a friendship with brothers Morcar and Sigferth, two influential thegns in the East Midlands. When Sweyn died, Æthelred was invited back and he returned, promising that he would be a better king to his people as they asked.

On Æthelred’s return, he set about showing he would be true to his word to be a better king and recaptured London from Olaf, one of Cnut’s supporters. Edmund joined his father in the retaking of London, initially showing support for him. Æthelred then launched an expedition to attack the Danes, now led by Sweyn’s son, Cnut, but instead of winning the support of those people whose lands he savaged, Aethelred lost them to Edmund, almost undoing a lot of the good that Edmund and Aethelstan had done. But in any case, Cnut and his supporters were driven out. But he was not gone forever and returned in 1015 and began pillaging England once more.

Edmund Ironside

During this addendum to Æthelred’s reign, Edmund and Æthelred’s relations became further strained when he fell out with his father, who, with encouragement of Eadric Streona, known as the ‘Grasper’ the ealdorman of Mercia, executed Edmund’s friends, Morcar and Sigferth, two influential thegns from the Seven Boroughs in the East Midlands who had previously given their allegiance to the Danes. Here I feel I should mention the hypocrisy of Streona, who had supported Cnut recently himself and only just returned to the fold.

Naturally, Edmund was incensed at these deaths. He had after all, managed to win their support back for his father. Setting himself up as Ealdorman of the East Midlands, he revolted against his father and defied him by rescuing the widow of Sigferth, Ealdgyth. Æthelred had locked her up, hoping to get his hands on her land and property. Edmund married her totally against his father’s will, which did not please him. This rift in the family now completely divided father and son and the marriage strengthened Edmund’s position, for Ealdgyth’s family was one of the strongest in the Midlands.

When Æthelred became sick, it was left to Edmund to fight the Danes and win back England for the English Royal House. Streona went over to Cnut once more, and Edmund went north to meet with Uhtred of Northumbria hoping he would join him in an alliance but Uhtred was intercepted by Cnut and Uhtred gave Cnut his allegiance. Edmund went to join his father in London, failing to gather the support he needed and Cnut had Uhtred killed. Æthelred died in April 1016 and the Witan declared Cnut king but London declared for Edmund and he was crowned in St Paul’s Cathedral. This was when the real fighting started.

Eadric Streona, Edmund’s brother-in-law, gathered a substantial army that he led himself. The ASC stated that he had ‘intended to betray Edmund.’ Streona should have been loyal to Edmund, after all he was married to Edmund’s sister Eadgyth. But Eadric was not a man to keep faith and switched allegiances throughout his career. Eadric ended up in Cnut’s camp once more which meant that Cnut’s already substantial army was now augmented with English militia.

After a hasty coronation, Edmund left London which was being besieged by the Danes in the care of the citizens and went West where the fyrd rallied to him. Battles and skirmishes were fought, two of which were in Penselton in Somerset and Sherston in Wiltshire, the outcomes of which were neither victorious or lost, but ended with the Danes retreating. With this army he returned to London raising the siege that had been resisted by the people of London and then defeated the Danes at Brentwood. This exercise was repeated, with Edmund riding off into Wessex to gather more men, returning to London once more to find it again besieged and raising it once more. Then defeated the retreating army at Otford this time. Edmund pursued Cnut and the Danes into Kent; he had them on the run. It was then that Eadric decided to hedge his bets one more time and met with Edmund at Aylesford, fifteen miles from where Cnut’s army had taken refuge at the Isle of Sheppey. Streona had been Æthelred’s good friend and adviser but he could not even commit himself unconditionally to his beloved king’s son, which showed how much of a cunning swine he was.

Cnut eventually left Sheppey and Edmund went to attack him in Assundun in Essex, on the 18th of October, 1016. The battle was long, drawn out and ferocious on both sides. It is not sure how the battle was conducted, but we can assume that both sides fought on foot in their respective shieldwalls, though there is nothing to say that at least one side might have ridden into battle and cut the other side down in surprise. No one thought to record the battle details back in the day, and all we have from the English ASC was that the cunning swine, “Eadric fled the field, betraying his natural lord and all the people of England.” Thanks, Mr Streona.

The ASC refers to Edmund as acquiring the nomenclature of Ironside through his valour on the battlefield. It is tempting to imagine a powerfully built man, dressed in all the trappings of a warrior-king of the 11th century, swinging his Sword of Offa, riding into battle like a god on a horse. Sadly due to Eadric’s actions, Edmund could not fight on. Having lost much of his army in battle, he left with his life intact and the remnants of his force, wondering what might have happened if Streona had not so wickedly double-crossed him. Although Cnut’s army held the field, there was no total victory for Edmund still held Wessex.

Edmund’s story is tragic. Eadric’s deceit was inevitable, for he had already showed he was in it for himself, and later he was to pay for this ultimate betrayal later in the early days of his leadership Cnut, loathing oathbreakers, turned on him and executed him, having him beheaded. And Streona, who may well have been jealous of Edmund, was to go down in history as a grasping ‘little shit’ (as Jamie Jeffers of The British History Podcast refers to him) *

Eadric gets his comeuppance

Edmund, despite the possibility of him being wounded in battle, did not give up. He was not called Ironside for nothing. Unlike his father, who only ever led his men into battle three times, Edmund then rode into the West again to raise another army. Cnut could not understand why Edmund was so determined to fight on and not submit. Surely there was only so many times a man could come back again! Edmund had been relentless in his energy in fighting back, had Cnut on the run for some time. Cnut was battle-weary and wanted to put an end to the fighting and get on with the business of being king (Susan Abernethy).

Edmund and Cnut were eventually to meet up in Athelney where many years ago Edmund’s great ancestor had planned his own latter day D-Day invasion against the Danes. Needless to say, Streona was there to play his part and mediate! That must have stuck in Edmund’s gullet. If I had been Edmund I would have wanted his guts on a platter! (Only in the context of the time of course!)

A peace pact was made and England was once again divided. Cnut would have the Danelaw, Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia. Wessex was Edmund’s. It is said that whomever should die first would inherit the other’s kingdom so the two men became ‘brothers’ symbolically.

At this point, both men were in their prime but young by today’s standards at around 26 or 27 years old, having achieved much in their short lifetime. Edmund had a brother, Eadwig, who did not seem to have been a man of note as he does not emerge in any of this as such. Edmund’s wife Ealdgyth had given him a son in 2015 and another child was on its way. He had lost many of his thegns and ealdormen in battle though perhaps he had one loyal subject that we know of, Godwin Wulfnothson, who we know had been in his circle of friends from Æthelstan’s will. I like to think that Godwin had stayed by his side and was still supporting him. As a historical fiction author, we are allowed to make assumptions. However, it was thought that Godwin’s prior loyalty to Edmund was what Cnut admired in him.

Cnut had the bigger territory and was known to be a cunning, though honourable man, who did not like oathbreakers. It is thought that he admired, maybe even loved his adversary, Edmund. It’s sad to think the two men might have been great rulers together. By this time, Cnut’s own three sons by Ælfgifu may have been born. He had Streona and many other influential strong men in his counsel. And the pact that whoever died first would inherit the other’s kingdom was open to abuse. If Cnut, or anyone in his employ wanted to have Edmund murdered, they could make it happen for the right price. And with Streona in Cnut’s camp it’s quite credible.

Sadly, Edmund did die about 5 weeks after Assundun and not long after the meeting between the two men. We don’t know for sure why Edmund died. There are thoughts that Streona had a hand in it and as we can imagine from his treacherous behaviours this is plausible that someone in his pay could have crept in to Edmund’s camp, bribed a guard or two to do the deed. Even Cnut, though seems to have been honourable throughout his reign, was not above murder if the story about Edmund’s sons being sent away to have an accident was to be believed. Most historians however seem to have accepted that Edmund died of festering wounds after Assundun. Even a minor wound could become easily infected and cause fatal blood poisoning in those days. It could have happened suddenly if the infection was systemic. There are of course stories that Edmund was murdered and in not very savoury circumstances, which might or might not be doubtful.

Whatever the cause of Edmund’s untimely death, Streona did, in my view, have a role to play in it. His betrayal seems to have played a huge part in Edmund’s difficulties in beating back Cnut. Edmund’s tireless efforts to wrest England back from the Danes is to be admired and is largely forgotten because heroes like Edmund don’t get lauded in history because ultimately he lost his last battle too early.

Cnut seems to have gone on to be a ‘great’ king, bringing peace to this land for almost twenty years. Unfortunately his sons failed him and the crown was eventually to come back to the House of Wessex through Edmund’s younger brother, Edward, known as the Confessor.

I wonder if Edmund would have been proud of his son Edward the Exile who became a soldier in Europe and perhaps even prouder of his grandson Edgar, who seems to have inherited something of his grandfather’s determination?

Although we don’t know much about Edmund as a person, he was afforded the name Ironside in his time, I believe, and this gives us a glimmer of his character, that he was brave, committed and true to himself and what he believed in. In this current climate where we are looking back at our past and scrutinising every symbol that was ever put up to commemorate our so called heroes, I for one would be willing to put up a statue to this brave, fearless man who did his best to keep the wolves from the door and never gave up till his last days.

References

Abernethy, Susan (2014) King Edmund Ironside

Barlow, Frank (1997) Edward the Confessor. London: Yale University Press.

Jamie Jeffers The British History Podcast as quoted by Patricia Bracewell on Edmund Ironside

Whitlock, Ralph (1991) Warrior Kings of Saxon England Barnes and Noble.

See below the previous and future Authors and their blog posts !