New College of the Humanities

The Rebellion of Earl Godwin

September 8th, 1051

Earl Godwin of Wessex was the most formidable figure in Edward the Confessor’s England. He had first come to prominence as a henchman of Canute and by his well-connected Danish wife he had strong-minded sons to support him. The vicious eldest son, Swein, and the second son, Harold, were both earls themselves and in 1045 they became the king’s brothers-in-law when the Confessor married Godwin’s daughter Edith. The king, however, resented the Godwin family’s dominance and showed a partiality for Norman and French advisers which angered them. In 1051 Edward’s insistence on appointing a Norman, Robert of Jumièges, as Archbishop of Canterbury against Godwin’s wishes raised the temperature and tensions came to a head at the beginning of September when there was a violent affray at Dover between some of the townsfolk and the retinue of Count Eustace of Boulogne, who was on a visit to King Edward. The King ordered Godwin to punish Dover by harrying the town.

The earl flatly refused and with Swein and Harold assembled an army and threatened Gloucester, where the Confessor was holding court, demanding action against the foreigners for the disgrace brought on the king and his people. The King was taken aback, but two other earls, Siward of Northumbria and Leofric of Mercia (Lady Godiva’s husband), brought him enough men to counter Godwin’s army. Neither side really wanted to fight and it was agreed that there would be a meeting of the Witan, the royal council, in London at Michaelmas, at which Godwin and his sons would speak their piece.

The King now turned the tables on Godwin by calling out the militia of all England, which meant that even in the Godwins’ own earldoms many men were duty bound to join a force opposing them. By the time the Godwins arrived at Southwark in readiness for the council meeting, their army had melted away. The King pressed his advantage home by outlawing Swein and ordering Godwin and Harold to explain themselves before the Witan, while refusing to give them hostages for their safety. Godwin took to his horse and made for his manor of Bosham on the Sussex coast while the king declared him and his family outlaws and gave them five days to leave the country. The earl and his wife with Swein and two of the younger sons, Tostig and Gurth, took ship from Bosham for Flanders. Harold and another brother, Leofwin, left for Ireland from Bristol. The King confiscated the Godwins’ estates and completed his deliverance from the family by sending his wife away to a nunnery.

Edward had acted with unaccustomed decisiveness, but his deliverance did not last long. He brought in more Norman advisers and, it seems, promised the succession to the English throne to Duke William of Normandy. English hostility to Normans mounted and when Godwin arrived on the coast of Kent with a fleet of warships in the summer of 1052, the south-east rallied to him. With Harold returning from Ireland in support, Godwin was able to move on London and force the King to restore him to power. The earl and his sons were put in an unassailable position (Godwin himself died in 1053) and there was never again any realistic possibility of William of Normandy obtaining England except by force.

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