The Rise of
Earl of Wessex
Hugh Bibbs, B.A.
Scriptorium Series: Volume 2
Northwest & Pacific Publishing
Northwest & Pacific Publishing
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The Rise of Godwine Earl of Wessex
Copyright: Hugh Bibbs, B.A., 1999
All rights reserved
Foreword to the Third Edition
This small contribution to the secondary source discussions concerning the family of the last AngloSaxon King of England, Harold Godwinesson, is significant for two reasons.
Firstly, the mutiny of Wulfnoth in A.D. 1009 is put into its correct historical context for the first time here, and so it is seen to have been very important to the succession of many English Kings. Jo Hanford of Her Majesty’s Naval Base, Portsmouth, wrote that the first edition of this book "…we have gratefully added to our library collection, as not only is it useful for naval history, but local history as well…"
Secondly, the myth of the last AngloSaxon King includes the notion that the royal House of Godwine was the last bastion of English rule to have upheld on behalf of the AngloSaxon people the loyalty of the ancient gold-giver of Beowulf. But, as shown here, the House of Godwine was not founded upon patriotic service. It was raised in treachery, and upheld by an enemy of the Royal family of Alfred the Great. Dr. Simon Keynes of the department of AngloSaxon studies at Cambridge University wrote, "...your book on Earl Godwine... I have read with great enjoyment. You have fastened on a very interesting subject, which has not been properly treated in the past."
Almost one thousand years ago, in the year 1042, King Edward the Confessor acceded to the throne of England. He inherited the English crown indirectly from his own father, king Aethelraed the Unraed (Unwise), but only after it had been used by a succession of Viking kings, beginning with Cnut of Denmark.
King Edward the Confessor also inherited from his stepfather, Cnut, an over-mighty vassal named Godwine. In fact, Edward’s entire reign was oppressed by the presence of this Earl Godwine of Wessex and his great brood of brutish and grasping sons.
Often the story of Godwine’s sons has been told, since it is a good story, ending with the death of most of them at Hastings field in 1066. But the account written here will just be a study of Earl Godwine’s own origins, examining firstly the fascinating solution to the mystery of where he sprang from, and secondly how it was that he became such an over-mighty vassal. This study will test the proposals of such esteemed medievalists as Sir Frank Stenton, Simon Keynes, Frank Barlow and others, pitting their contentions regarding Earl Godwine’s rise to power against the Primary Sources, particularly the contemporary AngloSaxon Chronicle, the Vita Aedwardi Regis, the Encomium Emmae Reginae, and the later twelfth century works Chronicon ex Chronicis, Wendover’s Flowers of History, and Malmesbury’s Chronicles of the Kings.
Part 1: Beginnings of the House of Godwine
It was King Cnut who created the English Earldoms, and it was he who raised up Godwine, and created him Earl Godwine of Wessex. What followed Godwine’s elevation was his great success and fame above all other such laymen of the English middle ages. The Earl was able to turn his Wessex title into the foundation of a new Royal Family. His own sons, including King Harold the Second, failed to build upon his pre-eminence and sire a new royal dynasty only because the Normans killed them all, most at the Battle of Hastings. But that was not Earl Godwine’s fault.
The question remains unanswered, though, as to why Cnut raised this Godwine to such high estate, especially so early in Cnut’s own reign, when Godwine was still such a young man. No account of that period has previously answered this question well.
The historian G.O. Sayles wrote of Cnut’s most valuable fief, the Wessex Earldom, that, "he bestowed it upon Godwine, a Wessex man of no distinguished aristocratic origins, who owed his rapid rise to his own energies and abilities..." However, a quick look at the chronology of Godwine’s story shows that even at the beginning of Cnut’s reign Godwine was already there playing an important role within the royal court. Arguing that Godwine earned Cnut’s trust instantly is insupportable, and proving he did so by using the fact that the new King of England gave it to him is blatant tautology.
Sir Frank Stenton suggested that Godwine had been created Earl by Cnut before the end of 1018, and directly afterwards married Gytha, the King’s sister-in-law: "His marriage...was the basis of his fortunes." This interpretation is putting the cart before the horse, surely, since a suitor proposing his own marriage into the Royal family had to already be a great man to gain permission for such a match.
In fact, Godwine did not rise to such heights from obscurity, as suggested by such brief explanations as these. But, in order to find out the reason why was he brought into Cnut’s circle of advisors while still a young man, and just who he was to Cnut, it is useful to inquire whether Godwine’s father and the King’s father had previously done business together. This line of inquiry produces interesting results.
As to who Godwine’s father was, the writer D. Fisher suggests that Godwine may have been the son of an English thegn of Wessex named Wulfnoth. Backing him up, and having more scholarly enthusiasm for this tidbit of intelligence, Frank Stenton asserts without reservation that Godwine’s father was Wulfnoth. They are both supported in this view by Frank Barlow.
John of Worcestor’s Chronicon ex Chronicis additionally states that Wulfnoth was himself the son of Aethelmaer. That connection is interesting, since this Aethelmaer was a brother of King Aethelraed’s ealdorman (Overlord) of Mercia, a man named Eadric Streona, who figures largely in Cnut’s succession, as we will see. Additionally, as Frank Barlow points out, there is something of interest concerning Wulfnoth and Godwine in the last will of King Aethelraed’s son, the Aetheling (Prince) Aethelstan who died sometime between 1012 and 1015. According to that will, the dying prince made a bequest of land to our man Godwine Wulfnothsson.
Although he is now always thought of as connected with Wessex, Godwine had probably been raised in Sussex, not Wessex, since the land left to Godwine by the Aetheling Aethelstan was none other than the estate in Compton, Sussex, which had once belonged to Godwine’s father, Wulfnoth. How the prince had come to possess Godwine’s family estate is interesting. The chronicles indicate that Wulfnoth was probably deprived of his estate for high treason.
Part 2: Wulfnoth’s Crime
Wulfnoth’s story concerns a great treachery on his part, during his service as a Commander in the English navy. What we know of his behaviour would indicate either that he was a bold and innovative leader, or that he was simply a stupid and reckless conspirator.
As it happened, Wulfnoth was not the only man of his time connected with tales of high treason. In addition to Wulfnoth’s story, there were also other, perhaps coincidental, acts of betrayal occurring during King Aethelraed’s reign. Other names which keep pace with Wulfnoth’s story are those of his two uncles, Brihtric and the previously mentioned ealdorman of Mercia, Eadric Streona. As well as betrayals involving all these Englishmen, there was similar double-dealing behaviour by Thorkell the Tall, the commander of the Danish army of 1010-12 which for those three years ravaged England. Each of these men were probably fighting sometimes for Cnut or his father, the Viking King Svein Forkbeard of Denmark, and sometimes for the English King Aethelraed, during those years when King Aethelraed was defending his English realm from the Vikings.
Wulfnoth’s story begins with the naval preparations of king Aethelraed for the season of 1009. The King’s informants knew that the Vikings were amassing an invasion fleet. When they did invade, the Vikings almost always made landfall off the Humber, preparatory to a massive landing of troops and horsemen. The reason for this was that the Humber inlet let them into the heart of the Danelaw, their customary pale of settlement, where they had supporters on the ground inside England. Due to this threat, Aethelraed anchored his fleet at Sandwich in 1009.
While waiting there, prepared to engage the Viking fleet at sea if necessary, something happened to alarm the English North Sea Fleet Command, and a serious accusation was leveled against Commander Wulfnoth. In our source, The AngloSaxon Chronicle, this accusation was left unspecified. For this reason, we cannot say what exactly Wulfnoth did to arouse suspicion. However, since he subsequently engaged in the most egregious mutiny against the fleet, their doubts about him were fully justified.
Simon Keynes, a current lecturer in medieval studies at Cambridge, goes as far as accusing another fleet Commander, Wulfnoth’s uncle Brihtric, for the debacle which ensued.
Upon the fleet Commanders’ apparent falling out, Wulfnoth deserted the English fleet, while maintaining himself in command of twenty rebel ships. The chronicler states that Wulfnoth turned to piracy along the south coast. Apparently then, Brihtric gave chase with his eighty ships loyal. However, a storm raged throughout the pursuit, and Brihtric managed to cause his entire fleet to founder, an astonishing defeat of seamanship for a Sea Commander.
As a result of the English fleet’s distress, Wulfnoth came about and closed on the royal warships. His own ships’ crews set upon those in trouble, putting all of Brihtric’s vessels to the torch, a remarkable feat. This sorry tale is the official explanation given by the Sandwich fleet Commanders to King Aethelraed for the total loss of his royal fleet. Because of Wulfnoth’s treachery, the Vikings were able to install themselves at Sandwich later that year, preparatory for the raiding of England.
Part 3: A Pack of Traitors
The Vikings were commanded by Thorkell the Tall, his brother Hemming, and a chieftain named Eilaf whose brother, Ulf, was married to King Svein’s daughter, Estrith (Cnut’s sister). For three successive years Thorkell ravaged England successfully, on King Svein’s behalf.
In 1012, Eadric Streona of Mercia was raised to the top of the English secular hierarchy to become Aethelraed’s most trusted vassal. Eadric may have been rewarded for obtaining Thorkell’s apparent defection, since the Viking fleet was suddenly disbanded. At that juncture, Thorkell remained in England with forty five ships. Then, he actually went into the service of the English King. King Aethelraed accepted Thorkell’s services on the unraed advice of Eadric Streona.
That same year, Svein Forkbeard, the King of Denmark, himself led the Viking invasions of England. As soon as they landed in 1013, Uhtred, the ealdorman of Northumbria, submitted with all the Northumbrians, as expected. This was a great betrayal of King Aethelraed, since Uhtred was the King’s own son-in-law. It must be admitted that the King, who fled England with his Queen and children when the Vikings invaded, hardly merited the loyal defence of his crown. Nevertheless, many of his vassals dealt him disloyalty beyond measure.
At that moment, Thorkell the Tall was supposed to have fought with the English against Svein, but no record of his continued service exists. Instead, he reappeared again two years later in the service of Forkbeard’s son, Cnut. That same year, 1015, Edmund Ironside took over the English defences and recovered Uhtred’s northern county. The traitor Uhtred fled.
One further treachery remains to be told. In 1015, a new man was in the service of the Danish. It was none other than Wulfnoth’s uncle, the ealdorman of Mercia, Eadric Streona. He had deserted Aethelraed, and all his own estates, taking forty ships over to the Danish. Those forty ships were almost certainly Thorkell’s small fleet.
Streona was now manifestly guilty, like others in his family, of high treason. What possible reason could there have been for the head of this family clique, and a man holding such responsibility of the King, to have turned out to be so unfaithful a subject? For a crime such as this treason of Streona’s, there must have been both motive and opportunity. The motive appears to be revealed in a story told by the twelfth century chronicler, Roger of Wendover, in his Flowers of History.
Back in 1006, according to Roger of Wendover, Eadric Streona had already been for three years an ealdorman of Aethelraed’s Witan. There was another ealdorman, Ethelstan, for whom Streona had that year developed a murderous intent. As part of his plot against Ethelstan’s life, during a festival at Shrewsbury attended by both men, Streona invited the other hunting. Wendover’s account:
While the rest were intent on the sport, a certain murderer, named Godwine, whom Eadric had bought with his gifts, suddenly leaped forth from his concealment, and wickedly slew Ethelstan. In revenge for this King Aethelraed ordered Eadric’s two sons to be deprived of their sight.
The blinding of his sons roused Eadric’s hatred of King Aethelraed. So, violence done by the King against Eadric’s own sons was eventually the biggest motive for his later treason against the King. Provided with the motive for his treason, we do not have to look far for his opportunity to have planned it.
In fact, opportunity to revenge himself against Aethelraed was ample. The Viking army always demanded payment from King Aethelraed of silver and gold coin to ransom his kingdom from attack. It is likely that Streona conspired with Svein’s Viking force sometimes when the Danegeld was demanded, negotiated, and delivered into the Viking camp.
The handling of the great Danegeld ransom payments, each of which exceeded several years gross national revenue from all English estates throughout the realm, would have involved untold temptations for graft, bribery, theft, conspiracy, and secret agreements paid for with cash. It is incredible if the Danegeld silver coin did not utterly corrupt an unfaithful soul such as Eadric Streona.
When Streona conspired with the Vikings, he must have involved his own sons, as well as his brothers and nephews. Evidence that Wulfnoth’s treachery of 1009 against the English Fleet may have been in concert with his uncle Eadric is provided by the AngloSaxon Chronicle. The entry for that year also tells of a Viking raid on English soil which nearly ended in disaster for the raiders.
In 1009, the Vikings made a quick hit-and-run raid near Kent. That raid went badly. Towards the end of it, the English had one good chance to destroy the Vikings on the ground. As the Vikings were escaping towards the shore, "Aethelraed surrounded the Danes before they could take to their ships, everybody was ready to fall upon them; but as was always the case, it was ealdorman Eadric who prevented it." Eadric and Wulfnoth both did great service for the Viking King Svein in 1009. After that year, it was breathtakingly unwise of King Aethelraed to have continued trusting the ealdorman of Mercia.
Seven years since, in the year 1016, when Edmund Ironside was leading the English defenders against Cnut’s force in the north, Eadric Streona defected from the Viking side back into Edmund’s service. This ploy was short term, a trick of the Danes. When the two armies faced off at Assandun, both Thorkell and Eadric Streona fought for Cnut, who defeated the English and won his crown. So, Thorkell and Streona were partners in conspiracy for a very long while.
Cnut and Ironside together worked one of the noblest contests in history, when they eventually fought man to man for the prize of the English crown. Unable to overcome the Viking army, but able to overcome Cnut himself, Ironside then made the great gesture of peacefully dividing the kingdom with Cnut. Wise enough to accept this peace, Cnut legally inherited the whole kingdom upon Ironside’s death from natural causes the next year.
Part 4: Cnut and Godwine
Cnut was a cautious King, and so must have had what he considered sound reasons to trust completely Wulfnoth’s son. There was possibly something about the circumstances of Wulfnoth’s actions which mitigated the problem of his behaviour in Cnut’s eyes. Whether or not Eadric’s brother, Fleet Commander Brihtric, who allowed that the royal fleet could be burned by the rebel English force, was in on Eadric’s conspiracy with Thorkell the Tall, it can be assumed without altering the outcome that both Godwine’s father, Wulfnoth, and grandfather, Aethelmaer, were involved in the plot.
When Cnut’s father was the King in Denmark and seeking Aethelraed’s throne, Godwine’s father was sabotaging the English royal fleet. From 1009 until 1016, there was active treachery and double-dealing amongst Godwine’s family clique, high in the ranks of England’s armed forces.
How Cnut viewed his English supporters depended upon how each dealt with his own duty. When Cnut was in absolute control of Northumbria, the English traitor Uhtred returned home to claim his former Northumbrian title and paid homage to Cnut. Uhtred was poorly rewarded for his troubles. Cnut hated traitors, even those foreigners who worked in his own service. The noble manner in which Cnut acceded to the English crown was no accident of history. The man held his simple ethical code, the old germanic noble values of Beowulf, dearly. So, he had Uhtred executed.
Upon gaining the English crown, Cnut raised Thorkell the Tall to the highest estate in England. After securing his English support and marrying the dowager English Queen, Emma of Normandy, Cnut began the replacement of noble English vassals with able Danes from his old army. In 1017, he created the four earldoms.
Wessex he kept for himself.
Thorkell was made Earl of East Anglia.
Eric of Hlathir, the provisional Viking overlord of Uhtred’s land, was confirmed in his possession of Northumbria.
The great English traitor Eadric Streona was granted the dignity of the earldom of Mercia, cancelling all debts, and then he was executed as an example to all, "so that soldiers may learn from this example to be faithful, not faithless, to their Kings." The chronicler Roger of Wendover eulogised Streona as "the very scum of mankind, the disgrace of England, double tongued, crafty, a betrayer of secrets, a practiced dissembler, ready in inventing falsehood..." and so on.
Wulfnoth was never mentioned again. He probably died before the bequest of Aetheling Aethelstan around 1012, in which the prince returned to Godwine Wulfnothsson the confiscated estate at Compton.
Godwine’s father may have been dead, but Cnut owed a debt to that man who was most responsible for the early security of the Viking fleet. From the evidence, it looks as though Godwine Wulfnothsson began reaping the rewards of his family’s great service to the Danish royal house. Cnut came to the throne in 1017, and the next year Godwine was definitely confirmed in his estates as ealdorman, and was already one of the select few signing Cnut’s royal charters.
At some point Thorkell lost favour with the King, and Cnut began to rely more upon Godwine. As evidence of this, he gave Godwine the Wessex earldom.. There is no consensus on when this happened. G. O. Sayles says that "...apparently in 1018 (Cnut) bestowed it upon Godwine..." That statement cannot be correct. Thorkell is the prime signatory as an Earl on the royal charters in 1018, but Godwine does not appear on royal charters as an Earl that year. Well down on the list of signatories, he is one of the ealdormen.
While it is true that he moved up the list in 1019, he is only the first of the ealdormen, not yet an earl. He has been noticed, though, and is advancing quickly. Some historians claim that it was on returning from an expedition to Denmark in 1019-20 that Godwine was raised to the Earldom of Wessex. This assertion is also incorrect. The actual year that Godwine was made Earl of Wessex is found by matching the royal charters with the best of the information provided by the chroniclers.
While there are conflicting accounts of when Godwine was made Earl of Wessex, there is consensus on one aspect of his rise. It was due to his loyal service on a journey into Denmark he made with Cnut, in which he was personally responsible for the success of Cnut’s enterprise.
The twelfth century chronicler, Malmesbury, wrote in his Chronicles of the Kings of England that the trip in question was made to quell Ulf’s rebellion in 1026, but since Godwine signs the English royal charters as first Earl from 1023 on, the expedition in which he proved himself to Cnut must have been the one they made to Denmark together in 1022.
King Harald of Denmark had died childless in 1018. Inheriting that throne also, Cnut found himself the Overlord of a North Sea empire. He required a regent in both England and Denmark if he was to rule both countries. He already had Thorkell as his best Dane, and he was grooming young Godwine as his best Englishman.
Astonishingly, in 1021 Thorkell was outlawed and returned with his family to reside in Denmark. Had Thorkell developed too much the treacherous habit of independence, or did he commit an overt act against Cnut’s order? Probably, Thorkell was jealous of any favour accorded young Godwine. But, the great Earl may have acted independently to confound Cnut’s will in something important. Whatever it was, Florence of Worcester recorded that "Cnut ...expelled from England Thorkel, the oft mentioned Earl, with his wife Edith".
The following year, Cnut and Godwine travelled to Denmark together. During their visit Thorkell was installed as regent of Denmark, the highest dignity available to a layman in Cnut’s service. It was on the return from that trip that Godwine was made Earl of Wessex. From the Vita Aedwardi Regis:
Godwine was his inseparable companion on the whole journey. Here the King tested more closely his wisdom, here his perseverance, here his courage in war ...found out how profound he was in eloquence, and what advantage it would be to him in his newly acquired kingdom if he were to bind him more closely to him by means of some fitting reward. Consequently he admitted the man, whom he had tested in this way for so long, to his council and gave him his sister as wife.
Sources such as Malmesbury agree that the journey mentioned in the Vita Aedwardi Regis was made for the purpose of quelling a rebellion. Working from that, a connection has been made with the fact that during the royal visit of 1022, Thorkell was reportedly "reconciled" with Cnut. The idea that Thorkell was in open rebellion has since been put forth. Given Cnut’s hatred of treachery, it is hard to imagine Thorkell surviving it.
It is true that Thorkell disappears from the record after 1022. Perhaps, as he had done with Eadric Streona, Cnut cancelled his great debt to Thorkell the Tall by honouring him with the Regency of Denmark, before executing royal justice upon him. Fisher suggests that Cnut’s brother-in-law, Ulf, was made regent of Denmark after Thorkell sometime between 1023 and Ulf’s rebellion in 1026. If Thorkell had to be removed, the raising of Godwine to take his place makes more sense.
In 1023 then, Godwine was rewarded with the position of "totius pene regni...dux et baiulus (over all the kingdom, Earl and Office Bearer)."
Earl Godwine of Wessex grew into his high estate during the long years of Cnut’s reign. He had plenty of time to develop the taste and skill for power, and Cnut had given him the position from which to wield it. Even his wife, the King’s sister-in-law, was known to enjoy the exercise of absolute power over others. Power, in those days, meant owning slaves. Malmesbury has a telling story concerning Godwine’s wife, "a sister of Cnut", whom he reports "was in the habit of purchasing companies of slaves in England, and sending them into Denmark; more especially girls, whose beauty and age rendered them more valuable, that she might accumulate money by this horrible traffic." With such an example and inheritance, Godwine’s many sons could not help but become overbearing young lords.
As long as Cnut lived, Godwine served the King as a faithful vassal ought to. In 1035 Cnut died. Godwine was the prime magnate in the land, and there were no heirs to the throne on English soil. It was at this point in his life that Godwine began to act independently of royal authority. His own position was at stake, so Godwine flexed his political muscle.
Part 5: Godwine the Kingmaker
There were two actual contenders for the English throne.
In Normandy dwelt, in exile there, the eldest heirs of Aethelraed, and the once again dowager Queen, Emma. Robert, the Duke of Normandy, wanted to see the eldest of these young exiles, Aetheling Edward (Edward the Confessor), on the English throne. So did many of the English people.
In Denmark was the appointed heir, Cnut and Emma’s son, Hardecnut, who was trapped in Denmark by Norwegian invasion threats.
But, in England was Cnut’s other son, the Danish prince, Harald Harefoot. In order to preserve their own estates from Norman interference, Cnut’s former Witan (council) assembled at Oxford, led by Leofric of Mercia. With the support of the magnates of the Danelaw and shipmen of London, they installed Hardecnut’s half-brother Harald Harefoot as regent over all England.
Since Harald was not her son, Queen Emma opposed this move.
Godwine wanted no regent lording over him in Wessex. Acting in alliance with the magnates of Wessex, Emma and Godwine held on to both Wessex and the royal treasury, ostensibly for Hardecnut, and retained a body of houscarls to defend it from Harald Harefoot.
Theirs was a short lived alliance.
In 1036, Emma conspired with her nephew Robert of Normandy to place Aetheling Edward on the throne. Godwine broke with her over this.
When the Aethelings Edward and Alfred arrived in England under separate escort, Godwine managed to ambush Alfred. Here the Earl acted purely in his own interest. Having already acted in defiance of Harald’s regency, he now defied the dowager Queen Emma. Godwine ultimately had to maintain his allegiance to the Danish faction because he wisely feared the Normans.
Emma "sent her son Edward, who remained with her, back to Normandy with great haste."
Having taken the Aetheling Alfred prisoner, Godwine wiped out the large escort. He reported to Harald that all this was done in loyal support of the regency. From the chronicle of Florence of Worcester:
...some he put in fetters and afterwards blinded, some he tortured by scalping and punished by cutting off their hands and feet; many also he ordered to be sold, and he killed by various and miserable deaths 600 men at Guildford.
But, it was what he did next which most sealed the future, for Earl Godwine decided then to murder the English prince. The chronicle of Florence continues:
...the Aetheling Alfred was taken tightly bound to the island of Ely; but as the ship touched land, immediately, on board ship, his eyes were very cruelly torn out; and he was led thus to the monastery...a short time afterwards he departed from this world...
Thus did the Earl of Wessex decide his conscience. Godwine would ever afterwards remain an over-mighty vassal answerable to no lord, but only to himself.
Meanwhile, the Norman Duke Robert died leaving only an illegitimate heir. So, when Emma fled she went to Flanders, Normandy being in an uproar over the irregular accession of William, a "deserted orphan", to the Ducal seat. Young William, the bastard, was fully supported in his claim by the King of France, who himself wanted to prevent some other over-mighty vassal from seizing Normandy, too.
With the English Aethelings and their Norman mother removed from Britain, Earl Godwine now had to tender his support to his overlord, Harald Harefoot. So, he curried the favour of the Danish Regent who in turn granted the Earl of Wessex his independence.
Secure in his position as Overlord of England and having the support of his entire Witan, Harald Harefoot was declared King in his own right. But he died in 1041.
Emma’s son Hardecnut was able to reach England by that time, and peacefully ascended the English throne. He now ruled over Cnut’s old empire.
He was trouble for Godwine, however. Remembering the murder of his half-brother, Aetheling Alfred, "he burned with great anger against Earl Godwine."
The new King invited his mother, Emma, and his half-brother, Aetheling Edward, back to England. They came to him from Normandy, bringing many trusted Norman companions. To the court of Hardecnut they were all welcomed, and it was only then did Godwine set eyes upon Edward for the first time and know him for what he truly was: an utter weakling.
Conveniently for Godwine, his nemesis the new King died soon afterwards. It was a very curious death, as well as untimely. The chronicler’s account of Hardecnut’s death has the ring of foul play to it, for it hardly sounds natural. During a wedding feast in 1042, he "...lost his life amid his cups at Lambeth nigh London..." having been seized by convulsions on his feet while drinking with his companions. He never spoke again, dying soon afterwards. It really sounds as if a strong toxin were running through his blood. Someone, such as our Earl Godwine who had the motive, the opportunity, and a previous history of killing the heir to the throne, may have poisoned the new King.
On the death of Hardecnut, Godwine was faced with a choice. King Magnus of Norway and Denmark claimed the English throne from afar. This claim was a result of the mutual succession pact (if childless) between Hardecnut and King Magnus. His rule would have been that of an imperial overlord such as Cnut had been, and Godwine would have been obliged to serve him well. There was a more pleasant alternative available, however. The weak middle aged man named Edward who "knew not how to be angry."
When Hardecnut died, according to Malmesbury:
Edward...was lost in uncertainty what to do, or whither to take himself. While he was revolving many things in his mind, it occurred as the better plan to submit his situation to the opinion of Godwine... When Edward came to him and endeavored to fall at his feet, he raised him up...and begging his assistance to effect his return to Normandy, Godwine made him great promises. He said, it was better to live with credit in power, than to die ingloriously in exile... if he thought fit to rely on him, there could be no obstacle; for his authority so prepondered in England, that wherever he inclined, there fortune was sure to murmur... let him then only covenant a firm friendship with himself; undiminished honours for his sons, and a marriage with his daughter, and he who was now shipwrecked almost of life and hope... should shortly see himself a King.
Edward and Godwine had found each other, and used one another’s assets to advantage. Edward had a protector. Godwine had control at last of the throne itself, or so he must have thought. This is how the new King, Edward the Confessor, came to have an over-mighty vassal.
Earl Godwine acted his entire life out of self-interest alone. He benefited from what appears to have been a family trait, natural leadership ability founded upon an impressive personality and physical courage rather than upon loyalty to others. Unlike Cnut’s career, Godwine’s career did not appear to follow strict rules of conduct, but instead was riddled with actions taken and decisions made to seize merely personal advantage from great circumstances.
Godwine was made an over-mighty vassal by an imperial Overlord who needed a strong Regent in England. After Cnut died, the powerful Earl Godwine had the opportunity to control who reached the throne in England, and finally, he had the chance to place a weakling upon the throne of England. He jumped at that chance, making himself England’s master in the process.
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Stenton, Sir Frank. Anglo-Saxon England. London: Oxford University Press, 3rd Ed., 1975.
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