Earl Godwine of Wessex was one of the great power-players in 11th-century England. In that time of wild monarchal regime changes, Godwine was able to thrive. He navigated, sometimes with difficulty and bloodshed, between the various conquerors, usurpers and successors who claimed the throne of England. Godwine was appointed Earl of Wessex by King Canute the Great around 1018, after the Danish nobleman had outlasted the Anglo-Saxon monarchs Æthelred the Unready (d. 1016) and Edmund Ironside (d. 1016) in a war over the throne of England. Godwine watched as Canute spread his domain out from England to encompass Denmark and Norway, a kingdom for each of Canute’s three known sons: Harold Harefoot, Sweyn and Hardecanute. Hardecanute was reportedly the only legitimate heir of the brothers, yet Canute gave the other brothers governance roles. Sweyn was sent to oversee Norway and Hardecanute was appointed to rule Denmark, while Harold Harefoot remained behind in England, where he became quite close with the English nobility. When King Canute suddenly died in 1035, with succession not fully clear, savvy nobles such as Earl Godwine must have known the following years would be apt for intrigue.
Hardecanute easily maintained control over Denmark after his father’s death, but politics in England would prove much more difficult. In particular, Harold Harefoot was rallying English support in his own bid to seize the throne. Immediately after the death of Canute, Earl Godwine joined the faction that supported Hardecanute for the throne of England. During this time, the earl worked closely with Hardecanute’s mother Queen Emma, the twice-widowed Norman noblewoman who had been married first to Æthelred the Unready and, second, to King Canute. Together, Godwine and the queen were able to quarantine Harold Harefoot’s power to the position of co-ruler with Hardecanute, or possibly regent. Yet, Earl Godwine could sense that he was on the losing side in England, and before 1036, he defected to the faction of Harold.
After joining the camp of Harold Harefoot, Earl Godwine quickly showed that he was willing to get his hands dirty. He was unfortunately implicated in one of the most gruesome events of the power struggle between Queen Emma and Harold Harefoot—in 1036, Alfred, one of Queen Emma’s sons by the late Æthelred, was kidnapped in England by Godwine and other members of Harold Harefoot’s faction. While in their custody, Alfred was allegedly tortured and mutilated to such an extent that he died of his wounds. The horrible death of Alfred showed the growing advantage of Harold Harefoot in England, and, by 1037, Harold was able to proclaim himself sole king of England, forcing Queen Emma to seek shelter in Flanders.
Unfortunately for Harold Harefoot, fate gave him very little time to enjoy his victory in England. Harold died in 1040 and was succeeded by Hardecanute. Upon arriving in England, Hardecanute was apparently so irate at his late brother’s successes, that he had Harold’s body dug up and rudely tossed the remains into a wetland, a sewer, or the Thames.
Although Hardecanute cared little about the death of Harold Harefoot, he was more protective of his other half-brothers, especially those born to his mother, Queen Emma. This put Earl Godwine in an awkward situation, as he had personally played a role in the torture and mutilation that had led to the death of Hardecanute’s half-brother, Alfred, in 1036. In order to apologize to the new king, Earl Godwine pulled together a mixture of showmanship and wealth in hopes of gaining Hardecanute’s forgiveness. The gift-giving feat of Earl Godwine was described in fine detail by the Chronicle of Florence of Worcester:
“Godwin, to obtain the king’s favour, presented him with a galley of admirable workmanship, with a gilded figure-head, rigged with the best materials, and manned with eighty chosen soldiers splendidly armed. Every one of them had on each arm a golden bracelet weighing six ounces, and wore a triple coat of mail and a helmet partly gilt, and a sword with gilded hilt girt to his side, and a Danish battle-axe inlaid with gold and silver hanging from his left shoulder; in his left hand he bore a shield, the boss and studs of which were also gilt, and in his right hand a lance” (Florence of Worcester, AD 1040).
After this floating gift-basket was presented to Hardecanute, Earl Godwine reportedly gave the king a typical ‘I was only following orders’ excuse for his part in the death of Alfred. King Hardecanute apparently accepted the apology, and Earl Godwine was allowed to continue building his family’s power in England, ultimately setting up his son, Harold Godwinson, to eventually participate in the famous multi-pronged power struggle for the throne of England in 1066.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Scene showing Walter Espec and William of Albemarle, illustrated by James William Edmund Doyle (1822–1892), [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by Benjamin Thorpe in 1861 and republished by Cambridge University Press, 2012.
- The Chronicle of Florence of Worcester translated by Thomas Forester. London: Petter and Galpin, originally published 1854.