After Me, Conquest
Edward the Confessor, a model of medieval piety, was a surprisingly effective ruler.
Godwine, a man who had risen to become Earl of Wessex during the reign of Cnut (d. 1035), sailed up the Thames in 1052. Having paused in Southwark to recruit Londoners, Godwine took advantage of a rising tide to continue upriver, his ships sticking to the southern bank. After his exile from England the year before, Godwine’s aim was clear: to threaten Edward the Confessor with war so that he (and his children) could be restored to their former positions of power.
This is the story as told in two versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, an annual record of events. A third version of the Chronicle offers a rather different account. Rather than concentrating on Godwine’s military forces and aggressive tactics, it says that he and his son, Harold, ‘sent to the king and asked him legally to return to them all those things of which they had been unjustly deprived’. Edward is depicted as being reluctant to give any response, leaving Godwine’s men so angry that they wanted to attack the king. It was only through great effort that Godwine was able to calm his men and prevent them from advancing against Edward.
The differences are striking. In this version of the story, Godwine is much less hostile towards Edward than in the first. In fact, this version of the Chronicle is noticeably more favourable towards the Godwine family than are the other versions. The Chronicle constitutes a major source for early medieval English history. It survives in seven principal manuscript versions, produced in different places around the country, each with its own bias and agenda. But the accounts of the 1051 52 crisis are remarkable not only in the extent and tone of their differences, but also in the high level of detail that they contain. These facts alone demonstrate that this moment was considered extraordinary by contemporary chroniclers. They also take us to the heart of the politics of the mid-11th century and the major conflict that was taking place between Edward and the most powerful secular family in the land, the Godwines.
The conflict had been long in the making. When he became king in 1042, Edward was returning from some 25 years in exile in Normandy and needed quickly to cultivate support. Godwine was the highest-ranking secular official, making him a vital ally, and the king made many attempts to gain his allegiance. By 1045 Edward had married Godwine’s daughter, Edith, and two of Godwine’s sons, Swein and Harold, had been granted earldoms.
The relationship between Edward and the Godwines, however, had a fraught history. In 1036 Edward and his brother, Alfred, had attempted to return to political life in England from their exile. While Edward was forced to retreat back to the Continent, Alfred was at first welcomed by Godwine. But the earl subsequently betrayed Alfred by handing him over to the then king, Harold Harefoot. Alfred was tortured and blinded and later died of his wounds.
By the late 1040s Edward was feeling sufficiently secure in his own position as king that he was beginning to explore other options, including favouring a new group of supporters, many of whom were Norman, over the Godwines. The nadir of the relationship between Edward and the Godwines was reached in 1051 and would lead to the exile of Godwine and his sons. Contemporary sources describe two events in particular that sparked a crisis, and one of these, its consequences and its aftermath are described in surviving versions of the Chronicle.
This event was the arrival of Count Eustace II of Boulogne, Edward’s brother-in-law, in Dover in 1051, where his men, in trying to find lodgings in the town, got into a fight with the locals, resulting in deaths on both sides. Since Dover was within Godwine’s control, Eustace’s presence constituted a personal threat to him. As Eustace was related to Edward and subsequently sought his protection, it was natural that contemporaries would view them as allies. The two versions of the Chronicle that describe this episode are sufficiently different in their accounts that it is impossible to recreate precisely what happened and for what reasons. One version has Godwine and his sons mustering armies to threaten Edward, unless Eustace were surrendered to them; in the other, Godwine is depicted less as an aggressor against the king than acting nobly to protect his people in Dover.
The differences are irreconcilable. But the outcome of the crisis was clear and agreed: Godwine and his sons were outlawed and exiled. Edith, Godwine’s daughter and Edward’s wife, was removed from the centre of politics by being placed in a nunnery. This was one of the most astonishing falls from grace recorded in the 11th century. One version of the Chronicle remarked:
It would have seemed remarkable to everyone in England if anybody had told them that it could happen, because he [Godwine] had been exalted so high, even to the point of ruling the king and all England, and his sons were earls and the king’s favourites, and his daughter was married to the king.
In 1052, the very next year, Godwine and his sons sailed back to England, where, astonishingly, they were able to recover their former positions of power and Edith regained her position as queen. Godwine himself died in 1053, but his sons continued to be powerful, Harold eventually becoming king in 1066 on Edward’s death. The vivid and dissenting detail of the annals for 1051-52 highlights how deeply riven were the political divisions in England. But they also indicate just how complex it must have been for Edward to maintain his position as king. He had overcome a long period of exile to become king in the first place. He then had to deal with the difficulties of establishing himself as the new ruler, without a natural base of supporters. The outlawing of the Godwines in 1051 represented an attempt at a major political coup, as Edward tried to change political direction. Although the Godwines managed to force their way back into England the next year, Edward was nevertheless able to remain on the throne until his death in January 1066. The political chaos that followed Edward’s death, leading ultimately to the Norman Conquest, is testament in its own right to how well Edward had done to remain as king for almost a quarter of a century in the face of such strong political contenders.
David Woodman is Fellow in History and Senior Tutor at Robinson College, Cambridge and author of Edward the Confessor: The Sainted King (Penguin, 2020).