Authors: Ian W. Walker
Tags: #Harold: The Last Anglo-Saxon King
We do not know why Brihtric made accusations against Wulfnoth. Perhaps it was a personal rivalry; perhaps Brihtric resented Wulfnoth’s influence with the fleet as an experienced sailor, compared with his own inexperience – a notion ironically borne out when he lost eighty ships in the storm while Wulfnoth’s twenty escaped unscathed. John of Worcester claims the accusations were ‘unjust’. Whatever caused the dispute, Wulfnoth fled to avoid being taken into custody – the fate of
Aelfhelm and his sons in 1006 had demonstrated clearly what became of those who crossed King Aethelred and
Eadric. Wulfnoth was subsequently sentenced to exile, as is confirmed by the loss of his lands at Compton, although these were restored in 1014 to his son, Godwine. As the Chronicle entry cites, the former responded to his expulsion by taking twenty ships and raiding along the south coast, perhaps seizing provisions from his own confiscated lands in Sussex. Brihtric pursued him, eager for glory and rewards to match those of his brother, but instead was caught in the storm and his ships lost.
The loss of a total of 100 ships in this incident meant the English fleet could no longer oppose the Danes at sea and indeed the latter subsequently landed unopposed at Sandwich. This disaster is clearly laid at the door of Brihtric by the chronicler. It was he who caused the initial dissension and, whether by poor seamanship or bad fortune, lost eighty ships of the fleet. Indeed, King Aethelred may have endorsed this view himself as Brihtric disappears from the record in this same year.
Wulfnoth also disappears at this time. It is possible that he raided independently or even joined the Danes, but whatever happened it appears that he was dead by 1014. Although Wulfnoth was exiled and his lands forfeited, his son, Godwine, seems to have remained in England perhaps in an attempt to salvage the family fortune. In this he seems to have done well as, by 25 June 1014, he was a sufficiently valued member of the entourage of
Athelstan, the king’s eldest son, to feature prominently in his will alongside such important persons as Athelstan’s younger brothers and foster mother.
In his will, Athelstan made the following bequest: ‘I grant to Godwine, Wulfnoth’s son, the estate at Compton which his father possessed’. It was very unusual for a son not to inherit land once held by his father, and Athelstan’s statement confirms that Wulfnoth must have been dispossessed of his land. There are a number of Comptons in England, but given Wulfnoth’s Sussex origins the one referred to is probably one of the two in that county and most likely that in Westbourne Hundred, still listed as held by Godwine in Domesday Book. This bequest shows that despite Wulfnoth’s exile his son had, within five years, established himself among the close followers of the king’s eldest son and begun the recovery of his patrimony.
If Godwine was to maintain this recovery of fortune after Athelstan’s death in 1014 it would be necessary for him to seek the patronage of another great lord. Fortunately for Godwine such an alternative patron was available in the person of Edmund, the elder of Athelstan’s two full brothers. It would appear that Athelstan and Edmund were close. This is supported by the fact that Edmund is named as the second lay beneficiary after the king in his brother’s will, receiving both lands and treasures, including a valuable sword which once belonged to King Offa, and acting as executor for some of the bequests. In contrast, Athelstan’s younger full brother, Eadwig, receives only a sword.
In addition to this personal closeness, the two brothers also shared a similar political outlook which may have facilitated Godwine’s transfer of allegiance. Thus Athelstan and Edmund, the sons of Aethelred’s first marriage, had a common interest in ensuring that they were not superceded in the royal succession by the sons of his second marriage. This was a fairly common phenomenon, the sons of Cnut in England and of Louis the Pious in the Carolingian Empire providing the most notable examples. In this context it may be significant that Athelstan’s will includes bequests to both of his full brothers, Edmund and Eadwig, but nothing for his half-brothers, Edward and Alfred. Edward, the elder of these, was now reaching maturity and being shown considerable favour by his father. Indeed, the later
even suggests that the English swore an oath he should succeed his father, although the context it presents for this is unlikely. Therefore Athelstan, and Edmund after him, may have been recruiting supporters for the day when they might have to enforce a claim to the throne against their half-brother Edward.
On the evidence of the bequests in Athelstan’s will these supporters included, apart from Godwine himself, Sigeferth, Morcar, and Thurbrand, three leading
of the Danelaw. The brothers Sigeferth and Morcar were related to that
Aelfhelm of York murdered by Eadric
on Aethelred’s orders in 1006, and Thurbrand was a rival of Uhtred, whom Aethelred had chosen to replace Aelfhelm. Thus we can see Athelstan building up supporters among those
under threat from or out of favour with the king and his party. When Athelstan died in 1014, it seems probable, although largely unproven, that Edmund provided all these disaffected men with an alternative rallying point. Indeed, as regards Sigeferth and Morcar the family’s link to Edmund is further confirmed by the latter’s eventual marriage to Sigeferth’s widow, and his occupation of both of the brothers’ lands. The link to Thurbrand is not similarly established and must certainly have been severed by 1016 when Edmund sought support from the former’s rival, Uhtred. If we accept Edmund as leader of a party opposed to the policies of Eadric and the king, then we should consider the likelihood that in summer 1014 Godwine, son of Wulfnoth and rival of Eadric, also joined his following. One piece of evidence for this link may be the later naming of Harold Godwineson’s second son (that is, Godwine’s grandson) as Edmund, probably in honour of the
and possibly in memory of his support for Harold’s father.
In 1015 King Aethelred reacted to the build-up of this party by having its chief representatives, Sigeferth and Morcar, murdered by Eadric
and their lands seized. The king also seized Sigeferth’s widow, no doubt intending to prevent her marriage to anyone who could then claim the brothers’ inheritance through her. The king, it is likely, felt threatened by this rival power base and decided to eliminate it. There exists the alternative possibility that Sigeferth and Morcar were killed for submitting to the Danish raider Cnut in 1013. The Chronicle in that year relates the submission of the
of the Five Boroughs to Cnut, although Sigeferth and Morcar are not specifically named. (At some time during this period also, Cnut married Aelfgifu of Northampton, daughter of
Aelfhelm of York, the relative of Sigeferth and Morcar slain in 1006.) Whatever the true version of events, the fact remains that King Aethelred’s actions, however motivated, effectively removed two of Edmund’s main supporters.
Edmund’s response to this was decisive. He freed Sigeferth’s widow, Ealdgyth, from royal custody at Malmesbury and in direct defiance of his father, married her and seized control of the lands of her late husband and his brother. Edmund was now effectively in rebellion against his father and all the men of the Five Boroughs submitted to him. This may have been an attempt by Edmund to force his father to recognize him as heir, or an attempt to seize the throne as his father may already have been suffering from what was to prove a fatal illness, leaving Eadric
in command of the royal army. In the midst of this crisis, and indeed while the king was lying sick at Cosham, the Danes under Cnut invaded, and the two rival camps in England each raised an army to oppose them. Unfortunately, the two English groups proved unable to put aside their differences and combine against the Danes. The climate of suspicion between Edmund and Eadric was too great and as a result both armies disbanded. It seems likely that throughout this period Godwine supported Edmund against Eadric and the king.
As King Aethelred’s illness became more serious, Eadric’s position became perilous for if the king died he would be left unprotected from Edmund’s vengeance. In anticipation of this, Eadric attempted to save himself by deserting to Cnut with forty ships of Aethelred’s fleet, probably those of Earl Thorkell. This volte-face effectively deprived the West Saxons of leadership, since Aethelred was now lying gravely ill in London, and hence they submitted to Cnut and his army. This left England divided into three contesting zones: Cnut and Eadric controlled Wessex and Western Mercia; Edmund held the Five Boroughs and East Anglia; and the much weakened King Aethelred clung on to London. Cnut may have ravaged Warwickshire at Christmas 1015 because its
were considering defecting to Edmund. Although Edmund gathered an army in 1015 from ‘the north’ it is unlikely that this included the Northumbrians, who only appear to have joined him in the following year when he sought
Uhtred’s support. This situation must have posed problems for Godwine, as a West Saxon landowner. However, it is likely that he remained with Edmund, although probably temporarily losing control of his Sussex lands. The alternatives for Godwine were, after all, not very attractive. King Aethelred was a dying man who could offer him little hope, while Cnut was now supported by Eadric
, Godwine’s enemy.
Godwine probably participated in
Edmund’s joint raid with
Uhtred of Northumbria against Eadric’s lands in West Mercia during 1016. The chance to avenge the loss of his own lands by raiding Eadric’s must have been a pleasant prospect. When Cnut responded by attacking York and executing Uhtred, Edmund moved on London to secure the succession, and Godwine probably accompanied him. There Edmund succeeded to the kingship following his father’s death on 23 April 1016 and, escaping Cnut’s besieging forces, regained control of Wessex, including perhaps Godwine’s own lands in Sussex. It was possibly during the many battles between Edmund and Cnut, which took place in the summer and autumn of 1016, that Godwine gained his later reputation for being ‘most active in war’. The submission of his enemy Eadric
to King Edmund in the autumn of that year, although all too temporary as it turned out, must have posed a dilemma for Godwine, which only his loyalty to Edmund could have overcome. At the Battle of Ashingdon soon afterwards, this difficulty was resolved when Eadric
betrayed King Edmund, who was defeated with the loss of many of his greatest supporters. King Edmund himself escaped the disaster and Godwine, if present, must also have done so. The king was now forced to come to terms with Cnut and divide the kingdom with him. Edmund retained Wessex, where Godwine’s lands lay, while Cnut took control of Northumbria and Mercia, including London. This political arrangement ended soon afterwards with King Edmund’s death on 30 November 1016, perhaps as a result of wounds received at Ashingdon.
Godwine now found himself bereft of his royal lord and protector and was compelled like the rest of the English nobility to submit to Cnut, Edmund’s great rival. This might have been expected to be the end of his career, if not in death at least in disgrace. This was indeed the case for the majority of the late King Aethelred’s senior nobles between 1016 and 1020, when Cnut carried out what amounted to a purge of the English nobility. During this period, Cnut removed all of the surviving
appointed by King Aethelred, even including those who had switched allegiance to him during the struggle for the kingdom, most notably Eadric
of Mercia. In the period 1016–17
Uhtred, Northman and Eadric
were executed, as were the sons of
Aethelmaer and Aelfheah. In 1020
Aethelweard was outlawed, while an
Godric also disappeared at about this time. Indeed, Eadric
and Aethelweard were both removed despite retaining their posts initially at Cnut’s accession. In fact, only
Leofwine is known to have survived the purge. In place of these men, Cnut appointed Scandinavians who were either related to him or among his close followers: Earls Erik and Eilaf were Cnut’s brothers-in-law; Earl Hakon was a son of Erik; Earl Thorkell may have been Cnut’s foster-father; and Earl Hrani was among his followers. The object of this policy was undoubtedly to place in power men the new king felt he could trust and who owed their positions directly to him.
Perhaps surprisingly, Godwine also appears among these favoured Scandinavians, as the
says, as one of the ‘new nobles . . . attached to the king’s side’, in spite of the lack of any known link between him and Cnut. He is recorded as an earl in the witness list of a diploma of King Cnut dated to 1018. At first sight, it is difficult to explain this sudden acceptance and elevation of Godwine. However, a source composed for Cnut’s widow, Queen Emma, perhaps provides the key. There it is stated that Cnut ‘loved those whom he had heard to have fought previously for Eadmund faithfully without deceit, and . . . hated those whom he knew to have been deceitful, and to have hesitated between the two sides’. Thus Godwine’s steadfast loyalty to Edmund through many vicissitudes may have proved to Cnut that he was a man to be trusted in contrast to the treacherous Eadric, who had been executed in 1017 lest he betray Cnut as he had done Edmund. Indeed the execution of Eadric itself must have eased Godwine’s transfer of allegiance.
Nevertheless, it seems likely that Cnut must have required some concrete evidence of Godwine’s loyalty and indeed ability, before raising him to the rank of earl by 1018. The occasion for this may have been Cnut’s collection of an immense tax during 1018, with which to pay off most of his Scandinavian mercenary troops. The cooperation of English administrators in the collection of such a large tax would have been essential and perhaps Godwine was one such cooperative agent, rewarded for his contribution when Cnut appointed him earl over the area of central Wessex. This position had fallen vacant with the death of the previous incumbent,
Aelfric, at Ashingdon in 1016 and it was an apt appointment given Godwine’s lands in nearby Sussex. This office also must have brought with it an increase in his lands in the central Wessex shires of Hampshire and Wiltshire. This promotion was probably intended by Cnut to secure Godwine’s loyalty to him personally and at the same time provide him with a trustworthy subordinate to control this area. If so, it was a successful move, and Godwine responded to Cnut’s trust by providing him with loyal service thereafter. Indeed, Godwine’s first appearance as earl in a diploma of 1018 appears to seal his transfer of allegiance, as he witnesses Cnut’s confirmation of a grant made to Bishop Burhwold of Cornwall by his previous lord, King Edmund.