Godwine (d. 1053), Earl of Wessex, was a schemer who was the most powerful noble in England during the reigns of several kings and whose machinations changed the course of English history.

He was the son of a Saxon thegn named Wulfnoth and worked as a pirate along the south of England during the reign of Ethelred the Unready. Upwardly mobile, he married a woman from an aristocratic Dane family, Gytha, and gave his sons Danish names as to better fit into the reigning Danish power structure. Ingratiating himself with King Canute, who needed Saxon allies and intelligence to consolidate his hold on the kingdom, he became the Earl of Wessex in 1018, the most powerful and prominent of the earls.

The sons of Canute, Harold I Harefoot and Hardicanute, were squabbling over the throne. When it looked like Harold was going to come out on top because Hardicanute was spending all his time in Denmark, Godwine gave Harold his support.

During this time of high royal turnover, the sons of Ethelred the Unready, Alfred and Edward, sailed to England separately to test their claims to the throne. Alfred had the misfortune of sailing into the hands of Godwine, who entertained him as his guest and made noises about swearing allegiance to him, then handed him over Harold’s men. They slew Alfred’s men, tore out his eyes, and mutilated him so badly that he soon died.

Harold died in 1040, and Godwine immediately sucked up to his brother and successor Hardicantue. He gave the new king the gift of a warship, and Godwine was promptly acquitted of any responsibility in the death of Alfred at a show trial.

Hardicanute was as short lived as his brother, and there were no more Danes to be found in England to take the throne, though plenty in Scandinavia wanted the prize. Instead, Godwine threw his support behind Edward and the nobles went with him. The calculating Godwine apparently believed a weak Saxon was better than a strong Viking in terms of holding on to his significant power base.

During the entire reign of Edward the Confessor, the political cold war was between the power of the Earl and the legitimate rule of Edward. Edward took Godwine’s daughter Edith in marriage, but she bore no children. It’s been said that Edward took a vow of chastity, but perhaps the king did not want to reward his brother’s killer with a royal grandchild.

Edward, who grew up in Normandy, had strong ties to the Normans. When a retinue of Norman knights arrived in Dover in 1051, a dispute over lodgings turned into a bloody fight with a body count of 20. Edward used this opportunity to make his move against Godwine. He demanded that Dover be sacked in retaliation for the affront, and the man to do it was the man responsible for the territory – Godwine. Choosing between alienating his power base and defying the king in a lose-lose situation, Godwine refused, and the king exiled him and his family and stripped him of his title and holdings. Edith was shut up in a convent.

Godwine didn’t take this lying down. The other earls were displeased that Edward seemed to favor the foreign Normans over them, so they supported Godwine. He also had support from Flanders since his son Tostig had married a daughter of the Flemish count. His fleet sailed right up to London, and Edward was forced to capitulate. Godwine and sons were returned to Wessex, he got his title back, and was declared innocent of all crimes.

But in 1053, he suddenly died. One story says during a feast, when Edward accused Godwine of murdering his brother, Godwine swore a traditional oath - "May this bread choke me if I am guilty!" - and promptly choked to death on that bread. More likely, it was just a stroke.

The sons of Godwine still ruled the countryside. The eldest was Sweyn, a psychopath who once raped an abbess and killed his own cousin. He died on his way back from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. The next oldest would become King Harold II. On his climb to the throne, he exiled his brother Tostig, a fatal mistake since the forces of Tostig and Harald Hardradi invaded England a few days before William the Conqueror, and without the distraction of battling and defeating them, Harold might have won the day against the Normans. Harold and his brothers Gyrth and Leofwine died in battle at Senlac Hill during the Battle of Hastings and, of course, William the Conqueror became king and the Normans ruled England.

Thanks to Gritchka for the info on the death oath story.

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