Anglo-Saxon Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Godwin | History Hit

Anglo-Saxon Dynasty: The Rise and Fall of the House of Godwin

Michael John Key

22 Feb 2022
Harold Godwinson (King Harold II) places the crown on his own head. 13th century artwork.
Image Credit: Cambridge University Library via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

The House of Godwin was an Anglo-Saxon dynastic family that rose to become the dominant force in 11th-century politics after the Danish invasion by Cnut in 1016.

It would fall dramatically when William of Normandy defeated Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings. What is perhaps less well known is the part Harold’s father, Earl Godwin, had played previously in Anglo-Saxon history and how significantly the Godwinson family impacted developments over the 50 years between the invasions of Cnut and William.

Here’s the story of the House of Godwin, from the dynasty’s rise to power to its dramatic demise.

Godwin and Cnut

Godwin is believed to have fought for King Edmund Ironside during Cnut’s invasion of 1016. Cnut, impressed by Godwin’s loyalty and honesty in contrast to his peers, later promoted him into his Anglo-Danish court.

Further impressed by his courage in battle, Cnut promoted Godwin to Earl. Godwin’s marriage to Gytha, the sister of Cnut’s brother-in-law, then contributed to him becoming the king’s senior advisor, a position he held for more than a decade.

For 600 years the Anglo-Saxons came to dominate England. This period of English history has sometimes been perceived as one of little cultural development and the Anglo-Saxons as an unsophisticated people. However, there is plenty of evidence to negate this view, as Dr Janina Ramirez explains.
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Godwin and the Anglo-Danish succession

Upon Cnut’s death, Godwin had to choose between Cnut’s two sons, Harthacnut and Harold Harefoot, to succeed to the throne. This was further compounded by the arrival in England of the two sons, Edward (later ‘the Confessor’) and Alfred, from Cnut’s second wife Emma’s earlier marriage to Æthelred II (‘the Unready’).

Godwin initially choose Harthacnut in preference to Harefoot, but would switch allegiances after Harthacnut was delayed in Denmark. He was accused of being involved in Alfred’s murder, and after Harefoot’s death Godwin was able to placate Harthacnut, and then in turn Edward, to retain his position as senior earl.

Godwin and Edward the Confessor

As seen in the Anglo-Danish succession, Godwin possessed political skills that were unmatched during the 11th century. He brokered a marriage of his daughter Edith to King Edward and aided the promotion of his sons Swegn and Harold to earldoms of their own.

The relationship between Godwin and Edward is much debated. Was Godwin able to easily persuade Edward to his will, or was Edward happy to delegate in the knowledge that Godwin was a reliable, effective and loyal subject?

A modern depiction of King Edward the Confessor.

Image Credit: Aidan Hart via Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 3.0

Swegn Godwinson

Godwin’s eldest son Swegn was unlike any of his siblings. After being promoted to earl he abducted an abbess, was exiled, but then pardoned. He then killed his cousin Beorn in cold blood and was exiled again.

Incredibly, Edward pardoned Swegn a second time. Whilst the Godwinsons were in exile, Swegn went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to repent his actions, but died on the return journey.

The exile and return of the Godwinsons

King Edward may have grown to resent Godwin. With the aid of his cousin, Eustace of Boulogne, Edward appears to have engineered an encounter at Godwin’s estate at Dover which forced Godwin to either punish his own vassals without a trial or to refuse to obey a royal command.

Godwin considered Edward’s ultimatum unfair and refused to comply, likely playing into the king’s hands, and the whole Godwinson family were exiled. In perhaps the most extraordinary development since the Danish invasion, the Godwinsons returned the following year, gathered support across Wessex and confronted the king at London.

The level of support was proof of Godwin’s standing amongst his vassals and the king was forced to concede and pardon the family.

The return of Earl Godwin and his sons to the court of Edward the Confessor. 13th-century depiction.

Image Credit: Cambridge University Library via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Harold Godwinson’s trip to Normandy

After Godwin’s death, Harold Godwinson replaced his father as Edward’s right-hand man. In 1064, Harold journeyed to Normandy to negotiate the release of his brother Wulfnoth, used as a hostage during the crisis of 1051 and passed on to Duke William by Edward.

William detained Harold in Normandy and refused to release Wulfnoth, and only released Harold after he had sworn on holy relics to support William’s claim to succeed Edward. Norman propagandists made much of this, although logic suggests that Harold had to comply to regain his freedom.

Harold and Tostig

Tostig Godwinson would also become a favourite of the king, who seems to have delegated most royal responsibilities to the family during his final years. Following a rebellion in Tostig’s earldom of Northumbria in 1065, the king, with Harold’s support, negotiated peace with the rebels.

However, the agreed terms deprived Tostig of his earldom and he accused Harold of betrayal in the negotiations. Edward banished him, and Tostig vowed revenge on his brother and sought support from Normandy and Norway to return in force.

Battle of Stamford Bridge

Tostig joined the Norse invasion of Harald Hardrada the following year, but both he and Hardrada were killed at the Battle of Stamford Bridge near York against Harold’s army.

Harold had famously gathered an army to march north in record time to surprise the Norse.

Battle of Hastings

William of Normandy’s fleet landed in Sussex while Harold was dealing with Hardrada and Tostig in the north. It is likely that word had reached William of the Norse invasion and he had timed his own invasion knowing that Harold was not able to defend the south coast at that moment.

Recent research has opened up renewed debate over the landing site of the Norman fleet and the location of the battle, suggesting other potential locations for the battle other than the traditional site based on assessments of the 11th-century topography and sea and groundwater levels around the Hastings peninsula.

The Battle of Hastings was fought on 14 October 1066 between the Norman-French army of William, the Duke of Normandy, and an English army under the Anglo-Saxon King Harold Godwinson, beginning the Norman conquest of England. It took place approximately 7 miles (11 kilometres) northwest of Hastings, close to the present-day town of Battle, East Sussex, and was a decisive Norman victory.
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Harold’s death and the end of the dynasty

A fascinating aspect is Harold’s demise as shown in the Bayeux Tapestry. The image of the arrow in the eye is a familiar story but the next image in the tapestry – both jointly have the name ‘Harold’ above them – shows a Saxon warrior being cut to pieces by a Norman knight.

This may be the image of Harold instead: research has identified that the needlework around the arrow has been altered since the tapestry was first made. Post-1066, Harold’s sons failed to raise enough support to replace the Norman conquerors, and within fifty years every one of the known direct descendants of the Godwinsons was all dead.

Michael John Key took early retirement from his professional career to devote his time to his interest in history, in particular the Anglo-Saxon period. With the aim of having his research published he subsequently completed his higher history honours degree. His work on Edward the Elder was published in 2019, with his second hardback work, The House of Godwin – The Rise and Fall of an Anglo-Saxon Dynasty, published by Amberley Publishing in March 2022. He is currently working on a book about the early Kings of Wessex.

Michael John Key