My Favourite Historical Figure: Harold Godwinson

Blogtober has been a lot of fun for us at @Histwriters and I’ve met a lot of amazing new characters along the way. It wasn’t hard for me to choose my favourite character for he is at the centre of the saga I am writing, the Sons of the Wolf series.

Most of us know Harold Godwinson as being the chap who usurped the English throne, which should rightfully have gone to William the Conqueror, right? And that he was killed by an arrow that pierced his eye and then hacked down as he was dying? Well, he probably deserved it for stealing another man’s crown, didn’t he? Not only was he a usurper, but he was also a womaniser, a breaker of oaths, betrayer of brothers, and an avaricious, greedy man, who amassed his wealth through deceit. We’re told that he and his troops spent the night before battle carousing and drinking so loudly they heard it in the Norman camp all the way in Hastings! No wonder they lost. So just why am I a Haroldite? What qualities make me ignore all the negative facts about him and put him forward for my favourite character in history?

I am about to tell you.

Many people still buy into the myth that Harold was felled by the arrow in the eye, however I am not one of them. Unfortunately, we have no written account from anyone who was actually present at the battle, and even if they were, how much of the battle would they have been able to see. If we could have had several eyewitness accounts, we might have been able to put them together. As it is, we don’t, and therefore we can only rely on what we have in terms of what was considered contemporary or near contemporary. Nonetheless we can objectively make a study of the primary sources and the Bayeux Tapestry, and then subjectively piece together what we think really happened as best we can. The Bayeux Tapestry is the main contemporary source that appears to portray the arrow in the eye story but written sources tell a different story and I believe that the death of Harold, which more-or-less ended the battle, was far more gruesome than a mere arrow in the eye. Lets taken an overview of Harold’s life.

Harold felled by an arrow on the Bayeux Tapestry, but was this all that it seemed to be?

Harold was born, circa 1022, to parents Gytha Thorkelsdóttir and Godwin son of Wulfnoth. His mother (aforementioned) was of noble Danish blood and Godwin, his father, was the son of a Sussex thegn whose lineage some say might have descended from the Royal House of Cerdic. He was the second eldest of a vast brood of 6 brothers and 2 sisters, one of whom became Queen of England when she married Edward the Confessor. There was also a grandson, Hakon, said to have been the son of Swegn. Hakon plays only a small part in the tale of the Godwinson’s downfall, along with the only son to survive the destruction of his family, Wulfnoth.

Harold’s early career is not known until, like his brother Swegn, he was invested with an earldom. Swegn drew the short straw because he ended up in charge of the troublesome Welsh border lands while Harold got East Anglia which covered a swathe of lands from Norfolk southwards to Essex. Harold went on to command a fleet of ships for King Edward, and was engaged in some conflicts with foreign pirates who were using European coastal regions to launch their raids. Harold would also have been the king’s representative in his earldom, doling out the king’s law and justice in the shire courts of his jurisdiction. He would collect revenue, oversee transfers of land, witness charters, and attend the king on a regular basis.

Harold with William in Normandy

It seems that around this time, he met the rich heiress, Edith Swanneck – her name was actually Eadgifu the Fair, and Edith Swanneck was a misspelling in a later chronicle. She and Harold probably married in an equivalent to a civil ceremony, known as a more danico, or handfasting. She brought Harold much wealth, land, and power and he was also gifted land by those wanting to curry favour with their earl. Land and wealth equalled power in Medieval times and Harold was no different to any other ambitious man wanting to improve his standing in life.

What was life like amongst such a huge brood of boys like back then? One can imagine the household was probably very boisterous and fraught at times. Godwin, their father would have had to have been a strong disciplinarian when at home to keep some sort of order in the household. I suspect poor Gytha was at home managing the family and household on her own quite a lot with Godwin’s responsibilities as Earl of Wessex. They may have employed a strict childemaester, because we know that Godwin and Gytha educated their children; Harold was known to be a keen reader and he and Tostig were referred to as ‘intelligent’ in the Edwardi Vita.

School tools: whale-bone writing-tablet and styluses from the middle Anglo-Saxon period

There are anecdotes about the family, though perhaps not from a reliable source, and 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. Ouch! Later, Harold was to find it difficult to support Swegn when he was in trouble with the king for numerous offences, including carrying off and deflowering an Abbess, and the murder of his cousin, Beorn. Harold retrieved Beorn’s body from where it had been dumped at sea and had him properly buried. Harold was not able to forgive Swegn and called for Swegn’s exile. Godwin disagreed and begged the king for mercy for his eldest, even though Swegn denied he was his father, claiming to be Cnut’s son. Godwin obviously thought the sun shone out of Swegn’s backside and I wonder how Harold felt about that! Swegn eventually died during a pilgrimage in Constantinople.

Harold and Tostig go at each other in front of the king

These insights (if accurate) into the family dynamics make them an interesting bunch, their issues so like today’s. If Swegn, the black-sheep-of-the-family with narcissistic anti-social traits, was alive today, he’d probably have been on drugs, fathered several illegitimate kids, been in prison for domestic violence, and in numerous rehabs before overdosing to death on smack.

Tostig would probably have been the jealous, resentful, secretive one, who reckoned his problems had nothing to do with himself and everything to do with Harold. He would have seen Harold as his enemy, and no amount of persuading him otherwise would have shifted him from that view in 1065 when Harold’s failure to support him against the Northerners, was seen as betrayal. He probably felt he’d long lived in Harold’s shadow, despite being his sister’s apparent favourite. Towards the end of his life, he must have despised his brother, and I can’t help but wonder what they had fought about, if true, that day at court when they were younger.

The Godwinson brothers, Leofwin and Gyrth, are depicted being killed on the Bayeux Tapestry

We know very little of Gyrth and Leofwin, though the Vita suggests they were considerably younger. There is evidence that Harold and Leofwin may have been close, as they were in Ireland together when the family were exiled in 1051/2. Godwin, Gytha, Tostig, and Gyrth fled to Flanders whilst Harold and Leofwin went to Ireland to drum up support from the Irish king. Later on, Gyrth apparently offered to lead the troops into battle at Hastings, so that Harold could wait in London for the rest of his army, which suggests that along with their differences there was also great loyalty.

Godwin must have been a huge influence on his sons, especially Harold, who stepped into Swegn’s shoes when he died in 1052, and then succeeded his father as Earl of Wessex. Godwin was a formidable administrator who had served six kings. He was loyal to Edmund Ironside, and after his death, joined Cnut’s service. Godwin had little choice but to accept the new king, as there was no real English contender. Cnut favoured Godwin over men like Streona who had switched sides and betrayed Edmund at the battle of Assandun, suggesting that Cnut valued loyalty

Cnut has Eadric beheaded

Godwin was not as loyal to the kings who followed Cnut and Edmund, his allegiance wavering between Cnut’s two sons, Harthacnut and Harold Harefoot. During Harefoot’s reign, Godwin handed over Prince Alfred, Edward the Confessor’s brother, to Harefoot’s henchmen who had him blinded. Godwin swore an oath that he did not cause his death, but when Edward the Confessor burst onto the scene in 1042 as king, Godwin for the first time, found himself at odds with a reigning monarch and the death of Alfred seems to have been an important factor in Edward’s dislike for Godwin.

In 1051, Godwin rebelled against King Edward when the monarch, his father-in-law, demanded that he punish the men of Dover for their not so friendly behaviour towards Edward’s brother-in-law, Eustace of Boulogne and his French retinue on their way home after a visit to the king. Godwin was not about to harm his own people by burning their homes and was prepared to risk the wrath of the king for their sakes. Because of this, the whole family was sent into exile. In the summer of 1052, Godwin returned to England, reunited with his sons and took back his lands and titles. The following year, Godwin died and Harold became Earl of Wessex

Attack on Dover, llustration by Edouard Zier from a History of England, 1903

Harold might have inherited Godwin’s characteristics: determined and single minded, ambitious and wily; patient, compassionate, forgiving, loyal, and honourable; but also ruthless when necessary. Orderic, the chronicler, wrote of Harold that he “was distinguished by his great size and strength of body, his polished manners, his firmness of mind and command of words, by a ready wit and a variety of excellent qualities. But what availed so many valuable gifts, when good faith, the foundation of all virtues, was wanting?” Where Orderic got his information is not known. Given that he had been born in 1075, it was not possible that he had ever met Harold, although he may have met somebody who had.

We can only glimpse historical personages, especially in preconquest England where much of what was known has been lost. The chronicles are often written as propaganda, or very subjectively. Sometimes, we can imagine what a man was like by what we know of his deeds. It seems to me that many of the negative accounts of Harold’s character come from Norman propaganda and outside of that, it is hard to judge. Harold appears to have been amiable, much liked, fair and just, although he could also be ruthless, as his actions in Wales have proven. Then again, Gruffudd, King of Wales, caused havoc in English border lands and gave harbour to recalcitrant English earls.

Harold had been involved in negotiating with the Welsh king and was very patient, even after Gruffudd broke the treaties time and time again. Eventually Harold lost his patience and made a spectacular lightning strike with mounted troops into Wales, bringing death and destruction to the countryside. It took a second, large scale two-pronged invasion along with Harold’s brother Tostig to finally defeat the Welsh, who handed over their king, minus his body.

A few years later, Harold, by then in his forties, was to repeat the impressive feat of covering territory at speed when he marched his huscarls 200 miles northwards, gathering an army on the way, to surprise Tostig and Harald Hardrada and to defeat them at Stamford Bridge. It required strength and stamina to carry out such fatigues and to then march back to fight a battle at Hastings within three weeks was remarkable, not only for Harold but for his huscarls who must have been powerful, strong, fit men. One can’t help but think of Orderic’s description of Harold’s strength of body and his singlemindedness.

Harold seems to have been Edward’s chief negotiator and a loyal servant of the crown. He was referred to as Dux Anglorum which meant that he was Edward’s number one man and the second most powerful man in England, bar the king. In fact, he appears to have had more power than even the king, and was able to influence Edward’s decisions. For example, he refused to back Tostig when the northern thegns, fed up with Tostig’s harsh rule in the north, wanted him out in favour of Morcar, brother of the Mercian earl, Edwin. Such a move was unprecedented around this time and Edward was not having it. He ordered his general to force them to cease their demands using military might. But Harold overruled the king, and Tostig, his own brother, had to go.

Was Harold jealous of his brother because he was the king’s favourite, or was he simply able to put aside brotherly love in order to avert a civil war? I cannot discount the first; Harold was human and may have been concerned for his own position, but with Hardrada and William of Normandy both watching the crown, one would not want to incite a rebellion that would divide the kingdom and make her vulnerable. Ultimately, Harold’s actions, whether those of an angry, jealous brother or not, showed that he would put the interests of the country and the people above that of family and even the king.

And what of Harold’s faithlessness which Orderic refers to? Historians are divided over the two versions of Harold’s trip to Normandy, the Norman and the English. In both versions, Harold is said to have made an oath to William that he would become his loyal vassal in England, and that upon Edward’s death, Harold would support William’s claim to the crown and ease the way for William succeeding to the throne of England. Orderic is not specific when he accuses Harold of faithlessness, but it is reasonable to assume that he was referring to this oath. Orderic, of course, was half-Norman and supported William’s claim.

Eamer, a writer of English history, states that Harold did not go to Normandy to bend the knee to William but to secure the release of the English hostages, his brother and nephew, who had been taken there by the Norman Archbishop of Canterbury in 1052. This seems much more likely than the story he had gone to offer his support to William. Why would he agree to become his vassal in England? Harold was the equivalent to a duke, a Dux Anglorum, second to the king. His status was as high as William’s. Furthermore, Harold could not be William’s vassal whilst Edward still lived.

Eadmer claims that the oath Harold made to William was made under duress, and could honourably be broken. I don’t think Harold betrayed William at all. I think William used his local power to hold Harold hostage in a strange land and to coerce Harold into making that oath. This meant Harold did nothing wrong in using Church law to break an oath that was made under fear for his life and those of his companions and relatives. William had a reputation of making people disappear. Harold was not in any position to refuse him.

Harold making his oath in Normandy to William, swearing on holy relics

Looking at the available evidence, Harold may have been one of the best kings of the era, and possibly one of England’s most promising kings, had he been given that chance. He was ambitious, like many men of his time. He was confident, wily, and not afraid to put himself forward. When Edward lay dying, he would have discussed his manifesto with the other nobles who would have weighed up all their concerns especially the threat to England from other shores. They knew that to safeguard the English people’s interests and way of life, a strong, experienced leader would be needed. Edgar, the atheling, had been Edward’s intended heir, but Edward would have known that the kingdom needed someone like Harold, not an inexperienced boy in his early teens. I believe that is why in the end, he named Harold as his successor and why the witan agreed to elect him as king.

When Harold’s star began to rise in the 1040s, it was plain to see that he was a capable, loyal, general. He did what he could to avoid conflict within the realm on Edward’s behalf as if he had the foresight to conserve what energy England had for the really big event that was to come.

Harold was not just a warrior, diplomat and a king’s administrator, he was a husband and father. He remained loyal to Edith, his first handfasted wife until he wed the sister of the northern earls to bind them to him. It was customary in the 11th century for men in power to wed unofficially, so that they could make political alliances when they needed them. If the story that Edith was on the battlefield looking for his body after Hastings is true, then they must have still remained close enough for her to be there. His other heavily pregnant wife, Ealdgyth, who had been King Gruffudd’s first wife, had been taken to Chester for her safety by her brothers.

Edith Swanneck looking for Harold’s body

Harold could have been a great king if he had lived. It was said, when he became king, that he made laws that would curb the unlawful doings of men and had been making changes in the kingdom for good. When Harold was told that William had landed on the Sussex coast and was ravaging his lands, he wanted to engage the invaders as soon as possible for it was his people’s lands that were being ravaged as well as his own. William would have known the psychological effect this would have had on Harold. William and Harold had been friends and William probably knew his weaknesses. Harold had saved men from drowning when on campaign with William in Normandy, William knew he would not stand by and watch people die.

Some people believe that in taking the throne from Edgar, Harold showed his greed and ambition, and yes. he was ambitious and to be able to make a bid for the throne, a man had to have power. Wealth was power, as I have already said. But why should Harold not be king? Why should he have just settled for regent and perhaps fought the battle for Edgar on his behalf? Over the years, he’d certainly earned it. It should have been his time and when he died at Hastings, set upon by the Normans determined to see him dead, that chance was stolen from him. He died fighting for his land, his people and to keep England free of Norman enslavement. For me that is the epitome of kingship, and that is why he is on my favourite historical character list.

To see the rest of the blog posts that came before Harold’s, just check out these sites! You can also find links to these other participants on our Historical Writers Forum Blog Hoppers Page

The above article relates to research done for my Sons of the Wolf series

Christmas 1065: A Brother’s Betrayal, A King Lays Dying and a New King is Chosen.

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– I am proud to add my contribution to this year’s wonderful Christmas Blog Hop Event from the Historical Writers Forum. See more participants future and past below –

King Edward, later coined as The Confessor king,  and although he does achieve a canonization, he is awarded the nomenclature ‘Confessor’ rather than a sainthood, more due to his supposed piety rather than any martyrdom. For Edward, the early ‘winter’ months that we would now refer to as autumn or fall, was a time for hunting, eating well, and pursuing more leisurely sports rather than the serious business of running a kingdom, time off which he deserved as a hardworking monarch. After all, he had spent all year dealing with various administration issues and the petty squabbles of the lesser nobles in his kingdom even sometimes having to endure a conflict or two along the Welsh borders. But in September of the year 1065, the king who’d  hitherto reigned for twenty three years, was beset by a northern rebellion, resulting in the exile of Tostig Godwinson, reputed to be the king’s favourite. It would be important to note that Tostig was also the queen’s favourite brother, she being a Godwin also, with many siblings.

King Edward's funeral

It was Tostig’s brother, Harold Godwinson who had forced Edward’s hand in exiling his beloved champion. Harold had been sent on king’s orders to deal with the northern rebels. These men had never really wanted a southerner as Earl for their realm of Northumbria, and Tostig had met much opposition in his ten years as their lord, often complaining and revolting at his harsh line in taxes and his dealings with them, but now the excrement had really hit the fan and they wanted him out and instead were demanding as their new earl, Morcar, the son of the late Alfgar of Mercia. Morcar, just a young teenager at the time, would be an easier piece of clay to mold to their ways than Tostig had been. Edwin, Morcar’s  older brother, the Earl of Mercia, also young and pliable, was enlisted to support his brother’s cause. They marched south, causing havoc in their wake and here is where Harold played his hand,  in getting rid of his brother, Tostig. Not willing to see the kingdom ripped asunder on behalf of his brother, Harold  chose the Mercian brothers cause instead of Tostig, after a scene where he accuses his brother of betrayal, leaves the kingdom, an outcast.

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Harold and Tostig fighting at Edward’s court when they were boys

Edward was devastated. He was shattered by his counsellors’ refusal to use arms to restore Tostig to his office.  Harold’s refusal to help Tostig must have felt like perfidy, though to Harold, it would have been the sensible thing to do. To encourage a civil war at such a time when Harald Hardraada was looking to expand his Norwegian empire by adding England to it would have been pure folly. The loss of Tostig, seems to have broken Edward and,  as expounded by the Vita Ædwardi Regis, he ‘became so ill, his mind was affected until his death’.  With Tostig’s outlawing, Edward was to suffer the first of a series of strokes that would lead to his death.

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There must have been a strange tinge of unease and trepidation to the Christmas preparations of those following weeks that Edward took to his sick bed. Up until the Tostig episode, Edward, though aged, had been quite robust and still able to go hunting in his favourite hunting ground, the Forest of Dean. Harold had been building a hunting lodge in Archenfield, the land he had conquered from Gruffudd as a result of  his and Tostig’s joint incursion into Wales two years before. It was said that Harold had been intending to gift the hunting lodge to the king, therefore Edward had at that time, been of stout heart and mind. But an unfortunate incident was to foil Harold’s attempts to ingratiate himself with the king: in August, 1065, Welsh raiders burned the lodge to the ground and slaughtered all the workers there.

There are a number of theories that we could speculate upon as to what might have influenced Harold in his decision making when he mediated for the king with the Mercian brothers, one that Harold might have believed that Tostig, jealous of Harold, had paid the Welsh to burn the lodge. Harold, jealous of his brother in return, might have felt that he needed to usurp his brother as king’s favourite and wanted to gift the king this lodge in order to do so. Therefore when a month later the northern rebellion occurred, Harold might have seen an opportunity for revenge and thereby backed the earls instead of Tostig, getting rid of a possible obstacle in Edward’s favour. This is all speculation of course. The Godwin brothers were renown for squabbling. Perhaps Harold felt he deserved better, perhaps the evidence is just circumstantial. Who knows. But it is interesting none the less. I must say that Harold’s refusal to back Tostig, his own brother, is very telling and you may make of it what you will.

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Tostig’s removal from the kingdom, coincided with the start of Edward’s illness which seems to have been the trigger. The king began to worsen as the following weeks went by. As Christmas approached, it must have been clear that Edward was not going to recover from such a serious illness. He was on his way out and not coming back. And something had to be done.

One would hardly imagine that a kingdom’s administration would have been totally unprepared for such an event such as the king’s demise. With possible war on the horizon, it would barely seem rational that plans for the aftermath of Edward’s passing had not been made. The speed with which Harold was crowned Edward’s successor was obviously a fait accompli. So, whilst Edward lay sick in his bed in those weeks after Tostig’s departure, the wise men of the kingdom, the witan, must have come up with a plan. Most likely this would also have included the queen, who, according to Poitiers in his Gesta Guillelmi, was said to have loved Tostig and hated Harold. Because of the nature of Tostig’s downfall and Harold’s perceived refusal to help him, she probably did hold a grudge against him and may not have been happy with the decision to enthrone him,  but he was her best chance of surviving as an influential player in this Anglo-Saxon Game of Thrones. She would have been able to remember what had happened to her predecessor, Emma of Normandy, whose power greatly diminished when her second husband died.

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During this time, Harold would have been garnering support amongst the most significant members of the nobility. With Earls Leofric, and  Ælfgar now passed, it was now up to Harold to curry favour with Ælfgar’s teenage sons, Edwin and Morcar. To some extent he’d already done so by support in Morcar’s appointment to Northumbria. It seems likely that they must have been in some sort of negotiation with Harold regarding a marriage alliance with their sister, Aldith, the widow of the deposed Welsh King, Gruffudd. This meant Harold would have had to put aside his long time wife Edith Swanneck. One must wonder how this felt for both of them. It does appear though, that perhaps they did continue their relationship, as the story goes that Edith was his go to when he stopped in Waltham on his way back to London from Stamford Bridge.

How the young earls  felt about Harold, whose clan was often at odds with their own, we cannot know, but they might recall that Harold’s negotiations during the Welsh problems had always led to their father being reinstated and back in power. I suspect that if Edward had had his way, Ælfgar wouldn’t have been. Harold’s main gripe seems to have been against Gruffudd, and once Ælfgar was dead, he and Tostig piled into Wales and devastated it from south to north and probably encouraged the ousting and execution of Gruffudd by his own men! Of course that was in the good old days when they were friends – Harold and Tostig that is.

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Its quite likely that Morcar and Edwin would have supported Harold in his quest for the kingship that Christmas, and perhaps thrown in their sister, Aldith, as part of the deal. Of course, all the other earls were Godwins too – Leofwine and Gyrth – who were Harold’s younger brothers after Tostig. There can be no doubt who they would have supported. But as an aside, we must not forget young Waltheof, a fledgling earl, whose father had been Siward the Strong, Earl of Northumbria before Tostig was appointed.  He had been too young to take up his father’s mantle in Northumbria when the old man left this world. Now he was around fifteen, sixteen, and had been given some responsibility as Earl of Northamptonshire and Huntingdonshire, perhaps in preparation for higher status. Amongst the other members of the witan would have been archbishops Stigand and Ealdred, both Godwin supporters, not to mention the leading bishops and abbots, and abbesses also, and other leading wealthy and powerful noblemen from the shires up and down the kingdom. With the witan’s seal on the table, all Harold really needed now as a stamp of approval was for Edward to express his consent, something that would be needed when the time came to argue the case against William.

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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 Edward was dying, for he had always been quite 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,  but he had never shown signs of serious weakness of health issues unto then, and to know that their king’s life was coming to an end, must have been a great astonishment to all for although he’d been in ill health since that fateful day in October when Tostig was exiled, it would have taken some time for the news to reach the length and breadth of England before Christmas.

At first, Edward had seemed to recover from the initial onset of illness but was beset on Christmas Eve by another episode. Somehow he managed to attend the Christmas Day service, attending the celebrations though quite unwell. 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 Abbey of Westminster, a monument he built in dedication to St Peter, his favourite saint. And so on the eve of the king’s dying, there had been no proclaimed heir apparent who would take the throne by default once the king had drawn his last breath.

One might have thought that the Aetheling Edgar would have been a contender, but he seems to have been out of sight and mind, not listed as being at court that Christmas. He may have been finishing his education elsewhere, perhaps in Winchester in the household of the queen in her dower lands. It is not known, but he might have been put forward at the witanemegot, but it was hardly likely that he would have won their vote, for he was only young, somewhere between twelve and fourteen years old. Harold could have acted as regent , much in the way he’d acted as Edward’s first minister. If it was considered, it was obviously not the outcome anyone wanted. England’s powers that were, wanted a strong, experienced man and not an untried boy in charge, regardless of who was pulling the strings. Harold may have felt he deserved the crown, after his loyalty and hard work to attain precedence over all others during his career. To save England from what was coming, the crown may have been the deal.

It seems sad now to think that poor Edward was approaching his death right when he needed to stay alive to see his precious church of St Peter – Westminster Abbey – at last consecrated. The church had been his life’s work. His darling. His precious. And now there he was – dying. They say that when people are at the end of their lives, they somehow find the strength to stay for that special arrival, or occasion. My own father had been more-or-less unconscious all week until my brother flew in from Australia to see him and then he perked up for a day before sadly taking his leave from us the next day. This could be said of Edward, who managed to find the strength to see Christmas through in his new Romanesque-style church but not the final consecrated on the 28th December. He certainly must have struggled those last days, for evidently he was unable to partake much of his food, and after Christmas day, he took to his bed and never arose again. By the time the twelve days of Christmas was over, he was gone from this world and the Kingdom of England had a new king, one not chosen because he had the blood of Wessex, but because he was the most competent man at the time.

 

6th Dec Jen Black a Viking Christmas

8th Dec Derek Birks: The Christmas Lord of Misrule

9th Dec Jennifer C. Wilxon: A Very Kindred Christmas

11th Dec Janet Wertman: Christmas at the Tudor Court

12 Dec  Margaret Skea: Britain’s Little Ice Age

13th Dec Sue Barnard: A Light in the Darkness

14th Dec Cathie Dunn: Charlemagne – A Political Christmas

15th Dec Lynn Bryant: Colby Fair: A Manx Christmas

16th Dec Samantha Wilcoxson: The Giving of Gifts

17th Dec Nicky Moxey: Christmas Giving in 1181

18th Dec Nancy Jardine: AD 210 25TH December Worship

19th Dec Wendy Dunn: Christmas at the Tudor Court – Excerpt from A Light in the Labyrinth

20th Dec Judith Arnopp: A Tudor Christmas

21st Dec Tim Hodkinson: A Viking Christmas

22nd   Vanessa Couchman: The Unofficial Truce of Christmas 2014 

23rd Christine Hancock: A Meeting in the Snow

24th Paula Lofting https://paulaloftinghistoricalnovel.worpress.com

25th Alex Marchant https://alexmarchantblog.wordpress.com

 

Writers of Anglo-Saxon Literature: Mercedes Rochelle – Researching Godwine

 

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.

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New York Public Library Reading Room. Source: Wikipedia

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.

BoshamChurch
Holy Trinity Church in Bosham, home of the Godwines

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.

GodwineEmbracesAlfred.gif
Godwine embraces Edward’s brother Alfred; Alfred is brought before King Harold Harefoot, Cambridge University Library, Ee.3.59, fo. 11v

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!

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About Mercedes

MercedesTapestrySQUARE

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
Links:
Blog: http://www.HistoricalBritainBlog.com
Facebook: http://www.MercedesRochelle.net
Webpage: http://www.MercedesRochelle.com
Twitter: http://www.Twitter.com/authorRochelle

 

Paula says: 

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.

Writers of Anglo Saxon Literature: Judith Arnopp

I’d like to welcome Judith Arnopp, to the blog who has written many a grand story about Medieval          women. Here she talks about what drew her to her  characters.           

The Women in my Fiction

I started writing Peaceweaver about fifteen years ago, at a time when strong female leads were few and far between in the historical fiction genre. The motivation to write both Peaceweaver and The Forest Dwellers was to illustrate historical events from a woman’s perspective, something that continues to inspire my writing today.

Eadgyth is barely mentioned on the historical record but we know she was queen to both Gruffydd ap Llewelyn of Wales and Harold II of England. It is likely she played a traditional domestic female role. Although some women in history led men into battle, few actually fought, most remained at home, ‘holding the fort’ so to speak. There are even instances where a queen stepped in as regent and governed the country in the king’s absence. Unfortunately, even when women assumed a greater role they were often side-lined by chroniclers, even those like Aethelflaed who defended her lands during the Viking incursions and influenced the shaping the country.

In the years leading up to the Battle of Hastings, Eadgyth played a key part in events, both marriages sealing a political treaty between her father, Earl Aelfgar of Mercia and Gruffydd ap Llewelyn, and later between her brothers, Morcar and Edwin, and Harold Godwinson. She could easily be written off as a pawn but I think to do so would denigrate the female role, which although different to that of her male counterpart, was equally vital.

Endurance requires a great deal of courage. To travel as a child into a foreign land where few people speak your language also requires courage. To bind yourself in marriage to a man you’ve been raised to despise, to share his bed and bear his children is little short of valiant. Medieval childbirth in itself was as risky as riding into battle yet women are given little credit for it. Then, as now, children of the period were loved and valued; think of the angst we experience when our teenagers leave home for university, and then imagine the terror of negotiating them through pestilence, war and politics (unfortunately, thinking about it, many people still know that pain today). The majority of our children reach adulthood but in the 11th century child mortality was unimaginably high and death is never easier because it is commonplace

In Peaceweaver, Eadgyth begins her journey as a spoilt twelve year old sent into the wilds of Wales (and it was pretty wild then) to marry her father’s former enemy, Gruffydd ap Llewellyn who was then the leader of all Wales. She is head strong and unlikeable but as the story unfolds she matures into a brave and intelligent woman. She ends the story as a twenty four year old mother to five children, widow of the recently defeated King of England, Harold II. Defeated, dispossessed and desperate to escape the clutches of the Norman king she goes into hiding but she doesn’t give up. She has sons to defend, boys to shape into warriors who will continue the fight in their father(s) names. I see nothing of the pawn in Eadgyth at all.

This theme of resilience persists through all my books. The Forest Dwellers follows several women through the minefield of early Norman rule; Aelf utilises the skill of the bow while Alys employs different, more feminine means but both require intelligence and subtlety. Often, my protagonists find themselves disempowered but they all endure, and ultimately all wield real power, utilising diplomacy and stealth rather than a sword. Before her fall, Anne Boleyn employs her sharp wit and intelligence to manipulate Henry VIII; Katheryn Parr withstands the last years of Henry’s reign, like her predecessor Catherine of Aragon, standing regent over England and running the country efficiently while he embarks on an expensive and misguided war with France. After the defeat of her house, Elizabeth of York puts aside inbred prejudice to blend her blood with that of Tudor to create the new dynasty. And you can be sure Margaret Beaufort never picked up a sword in her life but I’d defy anyone to stand before her and denigrate her influence on English history.

The male role is not and has never been superior to the female. Deny it all they like, masculine strength and valour depended on the foundation of strength and resilience provided by their wives and mothers.

Author Bio

Judith as a Tudor Lady

When Judith Arnopp began to write professionally there was no question as to which genre to choose. A lifelong history enthusiast and avid reader, Judith holds an honours degree in English and Creative writing, and a Masters in Medieval Studies, both from the University of Wales, Lampeter. Judith writes both fiction and non-fiction, working full-time from her home overlooking Cardigan Bay in Wales where she crafts novels based in the Medieval and Tudor period. Her main focus is on the perspective of historical women from all roles of life, prostitutes to queens.

Sisters of Arden

The Beaufort Chronicles: the life of Lady Margaret Beaufort (three book series)

A Song of Sixpence: the story of Elizabeth of York

Intractable Heart: the story of Katheryn Parr

The Kiss of the Concubine: a story of Anne Boleyn

The Winchester Goose: at the court of Henry VIII

The Song of Heledd

The Forest Dwellers

Peaceweaver.

Her non-fiction articles feature in various historical anthologies and magazines.

For more information:

Webpage: http://www.judithmarnopp.com

Author page: author.to/juditharnoppbooks

Blog: http://juditharnoppnovelist.blogspot.co.uk/

Leofgar – Death in the Valleys

 

 

October 1055 saw Earl Ralph’s magnificent defeat by the allied forces of Alfgar of Mercia and Gruffudd, self-proclaimed King of Cymru (Wales). The Battle took place 2 miles out of Hereford and during the aftermath of the English’ defeat, Hereford was razed to the ground. Ralph, otherwise known as Ralph de Mantes, and after this unmitigated disaster, Ralph the Timid, was Edward the Confessor’s nephew by his sister Goda. He may have fancied himself as the king’s heir, seeing as in 1055, the king and queen had failed to produce one and there were none likely to appear on the horizon, soon. Gruffudd had been causing trouble along the Welsh border for decades and was to provide Ralph with an opportunity to show what he was made of, so, having been granted the Earldom of Herefordshire, he set up a Norman-style defence along the marcher lands. This involved motte and bailey wooden castles, palisaded around a tower on a mound within a courtyard.

hereford1055_large
Having fought his way to supremacy in the north of Wales, Gruffudd ap Llywellyn decided to consolidate his power by embarking on a mission to exterminate his opponents in the south of Wales. This came at a very good time for the Mercian lord, for having been outlawed for unknown treason(1), Alfgar was in need of a powerful ally that would aid him in his restoration to power in England. And Gruffudd, having found the south of his kingdom the hardest battle to win, was obviously happy to have an ally against his arch enemy, Gruffudd ap Rhydderch of Deheubarth.

Earl on horse
How one of Ralph’s English cavalrymen may have looked

Ralph may have upset Alfgar in some way, perhaps had something to do with his exile (though I might add that this is just conjecture). Or it may have been that Ralph just happened to be in the place Alfgar wanted to use as a springboard back into England. Whatever the case, Ralph’s Norman-style English cavalry forces were destroyed, with Ralph earning the insulting nomenclature of ‘Timid’ for running away with his Norman retainers and leaving his men to be slaughtered.

The ensuing result was that Harold Godwinson was to lead the negotiations with Bishop Ealdred, conceding the diocese of Archenfield, Ergyng in Welsh, to Gruffudd. Alfgar was permitted to return from exile, picking up his former earldom of East Anglia and all that he had owned before, which seems very lenient to me, but Harold Godwinson always was very keen to quell problems with diplomacy, rather than to give battle. He was not too young to know the perils of a divided kingdom and was born not long after the troubled years of Æthelred the Unready, and would know that a divided kingdom is a vacuum for invaders.

Earl Ralph must have been taken ill or so disturbed by his embarrassing defeat, that he does not seem to have shown much of himself for the next two years, and although he seems to have kept the title of earl, the responsibility fell naturally to Harold Godwinson.
So, with all the other responsibilities that he must have had, Harold needed to appoint a strong man to protect and oversee this important town. Also, Hereford was an ecclesiastic see, and so who better than his doughty mass priest, Leofgar, who had once been a warrior before taking up the cloth, for the position of Bishop of Hereford. Part of the treaty that had been made in Billingsley after the Battle of Hereford, was that the diocese must relinquish control of Archenfield to the bishopric of Glamorgan (2). Harold wanted a man who was strong, as well as pious, who was able to look after the new church’s interests, reminding the Welsh that they had burned the old one down and that they needed to pay recompense for the deaths of the canons who had tried to defend the church during the attack. Purely conjecture on my part, but perhaps they were supposed to have help rebuild it and return all the treasures they had stolen from it, and Leofgar, enraged that nothing had been forthcoming, decided to take on the Welsh individually, without consulting his masters.

Ralph's men
How Ralph’s men might have looked

Leofgar was in his position as bishop for 3 months before he decided to ride out with an army from the town, and attack Gruffudd in a place called Glasbyrig. It is not known what prompted this impulsive act, but as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle suggests, he swapped his chrism and cross for his sword and spear not long after his conscecration and was killed by Gruffudd’s army along with all the priests he had taken and Ælfnoth, the shire-reeve as well as many other good men. No doubt, among the ‘many good men’ would have been survivors of the terrible battle the year before, eager for revenge. But it came to nought, for Gruffudd was victorious and Leofgar and his men were slaughtered.
Glasbury-on-Wye, where the battle is said to have taken place, lies between Brecon and Hereford, on a bend in the river of Wye. Behind it, stood the majestic back drop of the mountain range known as the y Mynyddoedd Duon, or the Black Mountains in English, and the Brecon Beacons. Considering that Gruffudd had only just come to power in the South of Wales after his defeat of that other King Gruffudd in Deheubarth, it might have been pertinent to him to have kept a presence there, to consolidate his hold and ensure that the terms of the treaty with the English were kept to.

Glasbury on wye 3
The River Wye in Glasbury, perhaps the battle was fought on those fields to the right

The fact that Leofgar’s defeat was so decisive shows the Welsh king’s power in establishing a disciplined army that could easily travel by land or river and disappear in to the mountains quickly if needed. The local Herefordshire levies were certainly no challenge to them as their defeat shows.

This was a turning point in the Welsh king’s reign, for the peace deal included lands beyond the river Dee that had been long disputed over, and Edward acknowledging Gruffudd as ‘King of the Britons’, albeit a subregulus or an under-king. That a nation significantly larger in size as England was to Wales, should be so pressured into ceding a considerable amount of land to the Welsh shows the power Gruffudd possessed in resisting English rule. Despite his reduction in status to the English king, he was never compelled to attend the English court at any time.

Lost kingdoms of Wales
A map showing the area called Ergyng to the Welsh and Archenfield to the English

As a consequence of Leofgar’s actions, England had conceded ‘all the lands beyond the river called Dee’ except for a narrow strip along the estuary to the Welsh to add to their gains of 1055 in the Ergyng. According to Davies, these were lands that had been in English control since the days of Offa. There is a story as told by Walter Map, but cannot be verified historically, that the two kings, Edward and Gruffudd had a stand off on opposite sides of the banks of the Severn, one on the Welsh side and one in Gloucestershire. Gruffudd had agreed to bend the knee to Edward, who was his overlord in name only, but had refused to cross the river to meet with Edward, and Edward was refusing to cross to meet with Gruffudd. After all, why should he? It was preposterous that he, Edward, whose lineage went back to the days of Cerdic who conquered England from Gruffudd’s ancestors, the Britons, should have to play the subservient to that Welsh upstart who thought himself as entitled a king as he. With each king protesting that their lineage was better than the other, arguments for whom should cross first went back and forth for much of a day until eventually, Edward conceded and allowed himself to be politely rowed across the river where Gruffudd is said to have avowed himself on bent knee to recognise Edward as his overlord. In some ways, there was an agreeable outcome for both not to lose all of their integrity; Edward received Gruffudd on bent knee, however Edward was the one who had to cross. Whether this is how it happened is not confirmed by any contemporary source, but makes for a good story.
Gruffudd may not have bent his knee completely; like one who makes an oath with fingers crossed, he may have kept at least one of his knees slightly off the ground, because it would not be long before he was back at it again, causing trouble and getting mixed up with that rebellious English Lord, Alfgar once more.

 

Notes

1 Most likely the cause was that he had upset the king and his courtiers for not being elected to the Earldom of Northumberland, which was given to Tostig Godwinson.
2 Davies, in his his book, Gruffudd ap Llewllyn, The Last King of Wales, suggests that the evidence for this is in the Book of Llandaff, which points to the Bishop of Glamorgan having been concecrated in 1056 by Archbishop Cynesige in the presence of King Edward. The document also attests to Bishop Herewald’s activities in the area which indicates that the English had ceded the diocese at the time of the peace treaty.

 

Primary Sources

References
Davies S & Davies W (2012) The Last King of Wales: Gruffudd ap Llywelyn c. 1013-1063 The History Press

Petts, D. The Early Medieval Church in Wales (Stroud 2009) p.170