Cnut is foiled again...

an excerpt from the Vita Haroldi

Translated by
Walter Birch
of the British Museum

An even earlier source than Malmesbury, which has been largely ignored by historians due to its problematic version of the death of King Harold II, is the Vita Haroldi manuscript of Waltham Abbey, now in the British Museum. This manuscript also contains an account of Godwine’s trip to Denmark. The account is also problematic, contradicting as it does the later sources from which we take the orthodox history. The Vita Haroldi version of events is a very charming tale of subterfuge and wit. According to this source, he travelled not with, but on behalf of Cnut. The intention of Cnut, according to the Vita Haroldi, was that Godwine should be executed in Denmark. Cnut provided Godwine with secret papers, sealed for complete protection, which Godwine was to have delivered to the Regent, Thorkell the Tall, and others.

    For when the above mentioned King of Denmark had usurped the diadem of England, and he saw that Godwine, a man endued with incredible cunning, and no less audacity, was gradually rising to a high position, he himself, a foreigner, began to fear the bold spirit of this young native, armed as it was with power and craft. And although he had found his industry useful to him on many occasions, yet conceiving in his mind something of the spirit of Saul, he determined to ruin by trickery this most strenuous despoiler and champion, since it was not easy to crush him openly except by spiteful malice. Having thought out, therefore, a plan, he sends Godwine into Denmark, as if on important business concerning both kingdoms, having in his heart some such thought as this:

    ’Let not my hand be upon him, but the hand of the Danes.’

    Now as he was sailing along in mid-ocean, in a vessel fitted with the most lavish appointments, a suspicion began to agitate the mind of the youth. For he was bearer of letters sealed with the King’s signet, one for each of the chief men of that country, the contents of which he was quite ignorant. Breaking, therefore, carefully one of the seals, he learnt from the brief enclosure that he would be shortly given over to the punishment of death, when he arrived in port, if he were to discharge any further his duty as letter-carrier. For the tenour of the writing was that whoever should first learn the contents of the letter, was immediately to strike off the head of its bearer, Godwine by name.

    This new Uriah grew pale when he found that his destruction was being compassed by the King, and prepares (to make a long story short) to escape the trick by another trick. This is what he did: he broke open and took out each letter from its seal, and substituted a fresh letter written by the clever hand of a clerk, the substance of which was that Godwine was to be received with great and universal rejoicings; to receive in marriage the King’s sister, and that they all were to yield him obedience in what concerned the King’s business, as they would the King himself if he were present.

    Thus the King’s command was changed to the King’s advantage. Thus the soldier changes his soldier’s pay; Thus an undeserved punishment is unaccomplished, and a glory that is deserved accrues to him who earned it; thus at length the King receives as a brother him whom had had hitherto found but a useful soldier, and making his soon after a state officer, found in him for the future an ever-watchful and prudent minister.

Well, however his elevation was first accomplished, Earl Godwine of Wessex grew comfortably secure in his high estate during the long years of Cnut’s reign.

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