Post-classical history


Earl Godwin

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IN 1051 EDWARD seems to have decided he was strong enough to seek a decisive settling of accounts with the over-mighty Godwin family; it is possible that the presence of increasing numbers of Norman noblemen, Edward’s kin, in England gave him a sense of security; or he may simply have decided that it was ‘now or never’, that if he did not take a stand against Godwin and his contumacious family he would be reduced to the status of figurehead king or cipher. Edward still blamed Godwin for Alfred’s death and hated him for it, and, although he liked Tostig and was ambivalent towards Harold, he cordially loathed Swein. It is important to be clear that it was Edward who precipitated the crisis of 1051 and that, in the words of his biographer, he ‘provoked Godwin beyond endurance’.1

The trigger for the confrontation between the king and his most powerful earl was religious politics rather than international relations. In October 1050 Eadsige, Archbishop of Canterbury, died, to be followed in January 1051 by the other metropolitan archbishop, Aelfric Puttock of York. These sees, with their extensive benefices, were highly desirable political plums and intense lobbying at once began among the various factions. Godwin, who was the political master of Kent, backed the monks of Canterbury in their desire to see their brother in Christ Aelric, a kinsman of Godwin’s, raised to the archbishopric. Not only did Edward spurn Godwin’s representations on this score but he carried out a superficially very clever ecclesiastical coup d’état by taking the opportunity to pack the key dioceses with his own men. The Norman Bishop of London, Robert of Jumièges, was promoted to the archiepiscopate at Canterbury; Spearhavoc, Abbot of Abingdon, took Jumièges’s place in London; while the king’s kinsman Rothulf filled the vacancy at Abingdon and another royal favourite, Cynsige, was appointed at York.2 It was a clean sweep, leaving Godwin’s reputation as a powerful ecclesiastical patron in tatters; all three of his clerical protégés, Ealdred, Stigand and Aelric, had been passed over.

Edward could scarcely mount the defence that he had promoted the most saintly, the most able or the most popular; indeed the monks of Abingdon and Canterbury expressly and vociferously opposed the men placed above them. In a primitive version of later ‘court’ versus ‘country’ conflicts, he had tactlessly and brutally insisted on the letter of royal patronage, allowing himself the self-indulgent enjoyment of pure power and humiliating Godwin into the bargain. Moreover, Robert of Jumièges, a convinced enemy of Godwin, took the view that his elevation allowed him total freedom of speech and at once denounced Godwin as having usurped church lands in Canterbury. When Godwin tried to swallow the insult, possibly in return for a total royal pardon for Swein, Jumièges took his restraint as weakness and added the malicious slander that Godwin intended to do with Edward what he had already done to Alfred.3

Jumièges was pushing too hard, and even Edward grew alarmed at this point. But there was worse to come. The new Archbishop of Canterbury made a rapid trip to Rome in early 1051 and, on his return in June with his pallium, announced that he no longer recognized Spearhavoc as bishop, as Leo IX had decreed that he could not be consecrated in the see of London. Since the papacy never interfered with Church appointments in England, it was obvious to everyone that Jumièges had put the pope up to issuing this prohibition, possibly by peddling an unverifiable story about simony, known to be one of Leo’s reforming preoccupations. It was also known that Jumièges had canvassed strongly for the Norman clerk William, his protégé, to have the bishopric in London and it was his obvious intention to install William there by fair means or foul. Edward showed his glacial disapproval of Jumièges’s arrogant behaviour by confirming Spearhavoc in his see de facto, pending further investigation, and pointedly staying away from Robert’s investiture at Canterbury.4

The conflict between Edward and Godwin was personal, not ideological, and it is anachronistic to see it as a defender of Saxon modalities ranged against a king determined to make England Norman by granting High-Church rank to his mother’s people, encouraging French-speaking settlers and provocatively planting Norman garrisons in Godwin demesnes. It must be emphasized that what rankled with Godwin was the loss of his ecclesiastical patronage, the blow to his prestige and credibility and the obvious attempts by the king to marginalize him.5 Nevertheless, Godwin can hardly have been pleased by what seemed like a new pro-Norman bearing in Edward’s foreign policy and by the favourites he had surrounded himself with, especially Earl Ralph, son of Edward’s sister and her first husband Drew, count of Mantes and the Vexin, even though Ralph was more French than Norman.6

The presence of French speakers at Edward’s court has to be seen in the context of his subtle and shifting foreign policy – so subtle indeed that it was hard to read his intentions. Edward had a cosmopolitan court, which included Bretons, Flemings, Germans, Lotharingians and non-Norman Frenchmen from all regions, and other Frenchmen were absorbed into Edward’s England in the years before 1066, particularly as thegns in Hampshire, Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset, Surrey and Kent; it is significant, however, that the only man he created an earl was not a Norman. The degree of normal Francophone assimilation was probably obscured by Swein’s paranoid accusations about a Norman conspiracy in his earldom; and the king by foolishly promoting Norman bishops as a counterweight to the Godwins, merely fed that family’s worst suspicions. Particular offence was given by two things: the promotion in 1047 of the king’s nephew Earl Ralph as warden of the Welsh marches, where he established a kind of Norman colony extending through Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire that seemed a deliberate threat to Swein’s earldom; and the guardianship of the harbour at Bosham, hard by Chichester, awarded to Osbern, brother of William Fitzosbern, the right-hand man of Duke William of Normandy.7

But we cannot go beyond the subjective feelings of the Godwin family to an objective reality: there is certainly not a scintilla of evidence that Edward had a conscious programme of promoting Normans in England in order to pave the way for an eventual succession by Duke William of Normandy. As in everything he did, Edward was singularly secretive, ambivalent and duplicitous. He was a man divided, who had pulls both towards the northlands and towards Normandy but who also hated and despised both regions: the Normans for their treatment of him in his early years and Scandinavia because of the threat it posed to his kingdom and the fact that its warriors had forced him from England as a young man. At the same time, Edward’s attitude to the realms of the Viking was not simple – nothing ever was in his devious mind. He hero-worshipped the first Christian king of Norway, Olaf Tryggvason, and liked to have the sagas about Olaf recited to his courtiers on the first day of Easter, saying that Easter Day was superior to all other days just as Olaf Tryggvason was superior to all other kings.8

Whatever the reality of Edward’s cynical playing off one side against the other, to Godwin in 1051 the king’s actions looked like persecution. He was already smarting under the humiliation of the ecclesiastical rebuffs, with Swein whispering dark forebodings in his ear, when a head-on crisis between earl and monarch was triggered by the visit to England of Eustace of Boulogne in September 1051. Quite what Eustace was doing in the country has always divided historians. Some say that William of Normandy was now actively angling for a nomination as Edward’s successor to the English throne and sent Eustace over as a plenipotentiary negotiator. Others say, more plausibly, that he was present on his own account or that of his family. There was a very strong faction at court which believed the best claim to the succession was not held by William of Normandy, or Svein Estrithson of Denmark, but by Earl Ralph, or Walter, Count of the Vexin, or even, assuming Eustace had a daughter and she was to be married, the putative grandson of Eustace and Godgifu.9

It seems that when Eustace landed at Dover with a considerable armed retinue, he gave offence to the citizens of Dover by his contumacious behaviour. After conferring with Edward at Gloucester, Eustace returned to his embarkation point at Dover, only to find he and his comrades were not welcome there. Some say the burghers resented the Frenchmen’s depredations on the outward journey, others that Godwin, now in a white heat of fury that the king was making major foreign-policy decisions without so much as a pretence at consulting him, ordered the men of Dover, who were within his sphere of influence, not to offer the French any hospitality or accommodation. The exasperated and fire-eating Eustace ordered his men to don their chain mail, form battle stations and intimidate the burgesses of Dover into giving them what they wanted.10

It was a supremely unwise decision. When Eustace’s troops began rampaging through the town, demanding food and lodging at swordpoint and generally behaving in a high-handed manner, the put-upon citizens hit back. A soldier ran through one of the locals, who retaliated by killing one of them in turn. Eustace then ordered his knights to charge; they cut down men and women with their swords and trampled children and babies to death under their horses’ hoofs. The enraged citizenry then rose up in a formidable armed posse, which expelled the intruders but only after a vicious running battle in which both sides took heavy casualties. When the Frenchmen were finally put to flight, at least twenty burghers of Dover lay dead and an unknown number of women and children; Eustace’s men had lost nineteen dead and an unknown number of wounded.11

Eustace stormed back to Gloucester to report the grievous insult that had been offered to the king’s ‘guest’ and doubtless talked up the role of Godwin in the affair. Without waiting to hear both sides of the story, Edward ‘deemed’ that Dover must have been to blame and ordered Godwin to punish the town. Godwin flatly refused, now more than ever convinced that Edward was seeking pretexts for a showdown. There is much justice in Edward Freeman’s scathing judgement: ‘The crime of Eustace was a dark one; but we may be inclined to pass a heavier judgement still on the the crime of the English king who, on the mere accusation of the stranger, condemned his own subjects without a hearing.’12

Godwin countered the king’s demand by seeking a legal trial for the people of Dover, in which the full facts could be heard. Edward, goaded by Eustace and Osbern Pentecost, was enraged by this ‘impertinence’ and, egged on by hardliners like Robert of Jumièges (who continued his campaign of slander against Godwin), summoned his council or witan at Gloucester to consider charges of treason against the Earl of Wessex. For his part, Godwin was now disposed to listen to the most apocalyptical warnings from his hot-headed son Swein and to be convinced that Edward wanted war to the knife. He began to mobilize his forces and meanwhile demanded the surrender of Eustace and the expulsion of the French garrisons in Herefordshire. From the beginning of September 1051, when Edward summoned the witan, events escalated with the speed of a bushfire.13

Godwin, Swein and Harold summoned their armies to a rendezvous at Beverstone, fifteen miles south of Gloucester, on the Bristol-Oxford road, a handy position for menacing Edward’s lines of communications. At Gloucester Ralph arrived with his levies to stiffen the king’s military arm, and some of the French party advised an immediate attack on the ‘rebels’, but the ever-cautious monarch demurred, seemingly not totally convinced that the interests of the hardline war party were necessarily his. He played for time, meanwhile sending urgently to Earls Leofric and Siward to bring their power; he was well aware that it was on their attitude that the outcome of the crisis would turn.14

As long as the military power of the Godwins was formidable, and his own weak, Edward continued to stall, resisting the siren calls of the French party for a pitched battle. Before acting he needed to be sure of the attitude of the northern earls, especially as they seemed suspicious of the motives of Robert of Jumièges and the other ‘hawks’: Leofric was known to feel that an all-out military struggle with the Godwins would leave England unacceptably weak, whatever the outcome, and an easy prey for an invader. The obvious middle way (between battle or bowing to the Godwins) was to use legal machinery, especially as this was the course most favoured by the witan; it was accordingly decided that the Godwins be summoned to London to answer before a full council of the greatest in the realm, to take place on 21 September.15

Godwin now found himself in an unpalatable position. Failure to heed the summons to London would mean that he placed himself unquestionably in the wrong at the bar of élite opinion and would therefore have to undergo the perils of being dubbed rebel and traitor; Edward, on the other hand, seemed more uncompromising than ever, insisting that the ‘rebels’ must give sureties to him, while he was not obliged to give anything to them. There were protracted negotiations about hostages, but Godwin realized that, as the king was childless, the giving of hostages presented no such emotional wrench as it did to him or to Swein. And what charges would Godwin and his sons face? There was much loose talk about rebellion, but was it possible that the long-brooding Edward intended to raise the question of Godwin’s complicity in Alfred’s death?16

Edward’s tactic of playing for time was triumphantly vindicated. Even as Godwin’s army commenced the weary trek from Beverstone to London, a number of his thegns deserted, at the very moment news from London suggested Edward’s forces were being daily augmented with troops sent by Leofric and Siward. A further blow came with the royal outlawry of Swein, on the grounds that he was doubly accursed, having forfeited a recent pardon for egregious crimes by his current treason. By the time both sides reached London, the king on the north bank of the Thames, Godwin in Southwark on the south bank, Edward held a clear numerical superiority in military force.16

Having the whip hand so clearly, Edward was in vengeful and vindictive mood. He curtly summoned Godwin to attend his trial, but the earl countered by asking for safe-conduct guaranteed by hostages. Edward made no direct reply to this but added the further demand that Godwin surrender all his thegns. When Godwin complied with this, Edward brusquely informed him he should attend his trial with a retinue of no more than twelve men. Only a fool would have walked into such an obvious trap, so Godwin again made the rational request for a safe-conduct and an exchange of hostages. Edward refused bluntly: his position was that he neither would nor could give any assurances to men accused of heinous crimes. The result was a stand-off. Godwin was never going to cross the river, on the mere say-so of the king, to attend a trial where the counts in the indictment had not even been specified. It was clear that his rebuttal of the charges by an unsupported oath was not going to be enough; perhaps Edward intended to assassinate him as soon as he appeared before the council, or perhaps he favoured judicial murder by forcing Godwin, now a man of advanced years, to submit to one of the notorious medieval ordeals. At all events Godwin absolutely refused to cross the river on the king’s terms.17

Seeking a way through the impasse, Godwin employed the good offices of his friend Bishop Stigand, a man from an Anglo-Norse family who was first appointed a royal priest in 1020. The problem was that Stigand was already out of favour with Edward through too close an association with Queen Emma, who had secured his appointment as Bishop of Elmham.18 Predictably, Stigand got nowhere with the king, whose sudden sensation of being more powerful than Godwin seemed to have affected his judgement and even his reason. He told Stigand, when the bishop passed on Godwin’s offer to submit to ordeal to prove that he had no part in the murder of Alfred, that he was not interested in Godwin’s spurious attempts at purging; he would grant him the king’s peace only when Godwin restored his brother Alfred to him, alive, together with all the men killed in 1036, and also all the land and possessions the Godwins had acquired since that time. Faced with this almost psychotic example of ‘impossibilism’, Stigand broke down in tears before conveying the uncompromising answer to Godwin.19

Godwin now knew there was no dealing with the king, who had become a purblind fanatic. His own weak position was both cause and effect of his inability or unwillingness to confront Edward either on the battlefield or before a council. After hearing what Stigand had to say, the earl saddled up and rode away, an outlaw in all but name (the formal sentence was pronounced by a jubilant Edward next morning), having failed to heed the third and final summons to his trial.

The Godwin family split into two groups: Godwin, his wife Gytha, Tostig and Swein made haste to Bosham, where they embarked at Thorney Island for Flanders; Harold and Leofwine held on for Bristol, there to board a ship to take them to Ireland. Archbishop Robert led the pursuit after Godwin, riding hard to try to overhaul them; another divine, Bishop Ealdred, a Godwin sympathizer, played the laggard when on the trail of Harold and Leofwine. Some said that initially Edward granted the outlaws five days’ grace to leave the kingdom, then, rather like Pharaoh with the Israelites, broke his word by despatching pursuit parties immediately.20

While Baldwin of Flanders was a known enemy and had sheltered Swein before, and thus his support for the Godwins occasioned Edward no surprise, the king was extremely angry that Harold and Leofwine had found sanctuary in Ireland, since he claimed the east coast of Ireland as part of his domain de jure. Some commentators have opined that Harold’s flight to Ireland shows him typically mercurial and headstrong, forever looking for violent solutions to problems. But there was method in Harold’s apparent madness, for his father already enjoyed close relations with the Irish monarch Diarmait Mac Mael-na-Mbo, king of Leinster (1042–72). Godwin had spotted Diarmait as a rising star in Erin, and he reciprocated the gesture with exceptional kindness to the two Godwinsson exiles. It was Harold who inspired Diarmait to his most signal exploit yet, the capture of the Viking town of Dublin.21

Meanwhile Edward revelled in the unwonted luxury of what seemed like perfect freedom. At the urgings of Robert of Jumièges, who knew well enough what to expect should the Godwin sept ever be restored, the king redistributed the vacant earldoms. All of Swein’s lands except Somerset – that is to say, Herefordshire, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire – went to Ralph of Mantes, while on Aelfgar, Leofric’s son, was bestowed Harold’s earldom of East Anglia. Godwin’s Wessex earldom was subjected to the most complex subdivision: Odda of Deerhurst was given Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and Somerset, Jumièges got Kent to go with his see at Canterbury, while Edward himself retained Surrey, Sussex and Hampshire. Robert of Jumièges capped his triumph by getting Spearhavoc expelled from the bishopric of London and having him replaced by his protégé, William; in retaliation Spearhavoc first picked his diocese clean of all money and portable property and then vanished.22

Since the Godwin males were physically beyond his reach, Edward indulged his vindictive rage by meting out disgraceful punishment to his wife Edith. While announcing officially that his wife was merely going into retreat until the current disturbances were over, in fact he confined her in the very nunnery at Wilton where she had received her unusual education, stripping her of all land, movables and money, allowing her just one maid and no marks of royalty or even normal aristocratic distinction. Following his usual instinct to temporize, Edward kept the queen in seclusion until he could come to a final decision about her. There is no doubt that he was angry at the discovery that, when it came to the inevitable conflict of loyalties, Edith had unhesitatingly plumped for her family over her husband. Always prone to paranoia, the king would have been reinforced in a mentality described by his biographer as ‘rootless, discontented, mean and irascible’. Misogyny may also have played a part, for the parallels between the disgrace of Queen Emma in 1043 and Queen Edith in 1051 are unmistakable; it cannot have helped the self-lacerating Edward to reflect that the two women supposedly closest to him had both, when it came to the push, preferred other claimants to supreme power rather than him.23

Edward was now supreme ruler of England in fact as well as name. How had he achieved what a year before all observers would have said was impossible? Did he set a trap for the Godwins or was the crisis of 1051 a happy (for him) accident? Was it essentially caused by Edward’s pro-Norman policy, his entanglement in the general European system of alliances? Was it connected with his desire to solve the succession problem? Or was there some other factor at play?

We can, I think, discount the idea that the crisis was caused by Godwin’s resentment at the increasing influence of the Norman faction in England. Godwin had noticed their encroachment and was irritated by it, but this alone would not have precipitated an inchoate civil war. It has sometimes been alleged that Edward made a serious offer of the succession to Duke William of Normandy in 1051, but this event, if it happened at all, clearly occurred after the flight of Godwin and his family.24 Nor is it plausible that Edward would have precipitated a confrontation with the Godwin clan if he had merely wished to divorce Edith, his queen. It has been suggested that a childless Edward was becoming impatient with the lack of a clear successor,25 but this would imply that Edward was both sexually active and convinced he could sire children – which in the nature of things would mean he had fathered offspring by other women. If this were the case, it is passing strange that we hear nothing of such women either from the Confessor’s friends or his enemies. In any case, if the problem was Edith’s barrenness, Edward would not have needed to become embroiled with Godwin because of the ‘insult’ to the family’s honour connoted by a divorce petition; canon law allowed for papal dissolution of regal marriages in such cases. In short, Edward could have sheltered behind the pope, whose good opinion he was so anxious to foster.

The more one looks at the evidence, the more it seems as though the visit of Count Eustace of Boulogne really was the trigger for the crisis and not just a pretext used by a machiavellian Edward. The key precipitant towards the upheaval of 1051 was Edward’s foreign policy, designed, as we have seen, to isolate and marginalize Baldwin of Flanders, the traditional provider of sanctuary for enemies of England; in this respect, his championing of the exiled Godwins shows a clear line of continuity. By 1050 Edward had made remarkable progress: he was on good terms with Henry III, the German emperor, Henry I King of France, Pope Leo IX and Eustace of Boulogne; his enemies at the time were Flanders and Normandy, who had just been bound closer together by the marriage (initially prohibited by papal interdict) of Duke William and Baldwin’s daughter Matilda, and for this reason Edward also recruited into his network of alliances Hugh II of Ponthieu, and the Counts of Mantes, Charmont and Ponthieu.26

But the system of alliances in Europe contained many contradictions. Svein Estrithson of Denmark had also built up an entente with the pope and the emperor, yet he was at the time probably an even more dangerous enemy to Edward: Svein continued to feel that Edward had condoned or connived at the murder of his brother Bjorn by Swein Godwinsson. Cynics, who thought the Confessor one of the least saintly men in Europe, opined that he had not lifted a finger for Bjorn out of ‘revenge’ for the failure of the rest of Europe to protest vociferously about the murder of his brother Alfred. In any case, early in the 1050s Denmark fell out of step with Emperor Henry on ecclesiastical matters, and there were suspicions that Svein was trying to displace the German emperor as principal ‘defender of the faith’ in northern Europe. Possibly an even more glaring ‘contradiction’ was the way Duke William of Normandy, allied to Flanders, made overtures to Emperor Henry in 1050 to seek support against Geoffrey Martel of Anjou at the very time Baldwin was once again raising the banner of revolt against the Holy Roman Empire.27

The system of European alliances, then, was remarkably fluid and mutable and it was never beyond the bounds of possibility to reverse the pattern of allies altogether. Godwin was known never to have been happy with the main currents of Edward’s foreign policy: he wanted friendship with Flanders and with Denmark, the two nations the Confessor regarded as his most deadly foes. It seems clear that what brought Eustace of Boulogne across the Channel in 1051 was not some chimerical errand undertaken on behalf of William of Normandy – a man who never trusted him and collaborated with him only after the exchange of the kind of hostages Eustace would not dare to forfeit by perfidy – but a desire to preserve his alliance with Edward which he thought to be in danger from the machinations of the Godwins. The one truly salient event that seemed to portend a new order in Europe was the marriage of Tostig Godwinsson to Judith, Baldwin’s half-sister. With both William of Normandy and the Godwinssons apparently now allying themselves with Baldwin, Eustace felt singularly vulnerable and sought reassurances from Edward that he would not be abandoned to be eaten up by these powerful neighbours.28

It may be that Edward felt that he was on a winning streak, that he had already humiliated Godwin and his family over the promotions to archbishoprics and over Swein Godwinsson, and that he was steadily gaining the upper hand anyway; then came the fracas at Dover, the snapping of Godwin’s already tested patience and the realization by the king that he suddenly had an unlooked-for opportunity for dealing a knockout blow. However, even if we discount the factor of the Normans in England as a major element in the crisis of 1051, it can scarcely be denied that Robert of Jumièges and the other senior French-speaking nobles were imbued with a sense of triumphalism and used their influence to nudge Edward towards rapprochement with Normandy. Yet here we confront the greatest mystery of all attaching to the year 1051: what were Edward’s relations with Duke William at the time; did he make any promises to him; and if so, what exactly did he pledge himself to and how seriously?

The basic proposition all historians of the last days of Anglo-Saxon England have to contend with is this: did Edward promise the throne to William in 1051? Naturally, at the time, Norman propagandists asserted that he did, but their inadequate grasp of the precise historical context of 1051 makes their evidence not so much suspect as risible. Some later historians have swung to the other extreme and argued a priori that the whole idea of Edward’s Norman alliance makes no sense: if the king was trying to forge an alliance with the emperor, and both he and the emperor regarded Baldwin of Flanders as a primary enemy, how could Edward have promised the throne to Duke William, an ally of their joint enemy?

The attempt to dismiss the persistent stories of an Edward-William entente in 1051 by this would-be syllogism is, however, specious. There can be many explanations of Edward’s apparent volte-face. His attempt to conciliate the emperor may have been temporary and there may have been salient factors, on which the exiguous sources are silent, which induced him to change his mind by 1051. The years 1051–52, which saw the titanic struggle with the Godwin family and the negotiations with William, were notable for a number of virtually simultaneous events that may have played some part in Edward’s thinking: Baldwin renewed his rebellion against the emperor; William defied the papal interdict and married Matilda; Edward’s mother Emma died at Winchester; and Henry I of France and Geoffrey Martel were reconciled and began to make common cause against Normandy. A plausible interpretation for the new pro-Norman policy, given our knowledge of Edward, is that he was angered by the papal excommunication of Eustace for marrying Edward’s sister Godgifu; since this marriage seems to have taken place in September 1051, Eustace’s visit to England immediately afterwards, and the unintended consequences of the visit, would make perfect sense. Edward might also have been trying to detach Duke William from Baldwin or he might have felt exposed when the Godwins fled to Flanders and so tried to entice William away from Baldwin’s web.29

His arguments would presumably have been twofold: William’s alliance with Flanders was no longer important and certainly not unique now that the anti-Norman Godwins had built their own kinship link with Baldwin through Tostig’s marriage to Judith; and since both of them lay under papal interdict (William for his marriage to Matilda and Edward for his sister’s marriage to Eustace), their common interests were in an alliance with the papal/imperial axis. It is also possible that William himself wanted a closer relationship with the emperor and, as a first stage, tried to conciliate Henry’s most reliable ally, Edward; it is certainly significant that one of the main reasons King Henry I of France turned against his Norman vassal was his anger that William had gone behind his back to make overtures to Emperor Henry.30

If the idea of serious negotiations between William and Edward in 1051 seems well grounded, we need to ask two further questions: did William come to England in person, as is often alleged; and did Edward offer him the English throne as his successor? The visit to England remains a possibility and certainly some of the arguments used by the sceptics, particularly the absence of all mention of this event in Norman sources, are not conclusive: it is a convincing rebuttal to point out that William of Jumièges and William of Poitiers, the duke’s principal hagiographers, never show their hero as a suppliant – which he would have to be if he came to Edward’s court – and for this reason could well have suppressed all reference to the visit. But against the visit is the powerful and, in the end, irrefutable objection that William was fighting for his very existence in Normandy then and would hardly have left the duchy on a foreign embassy at such a critical time.31

The most likely sequence of events is that ambassadors were exchanged between the two courts in late 1051, initially in connection with a problem of hostages, but William hoodwinked Edward into making him some kind of vague promise of the English throne. When the Godwins fled after Stigand’s failure to mediate, they left behind the two family hostages who had originally been exchanged with Edward, namely Wulfnoth, Godwin’s youngest son, and Hakon, natural son of Swein Godwinson from one of his many amatory conquests. It is known that Robert of Jumièges urged Edward to take precautions lest the unlikely happened and the Godwin sept managed to return from exile, and it is a moral certainty that Jumièges suggested Normandy as the one place from which Godwin would be unable to secure the return of his son and grandson. Nothing would be more natural for the supremely cunning William than to extract from Edward as a quid pro quo for his guardianship of the hostages the king’s personal nomination as his heir.32

We need only compare this plausible reconstruction of the events of late 1051 with the absurdities in the accounts by the Norman apologists for William. According to William of Poitiers, Edward named William his heir for three clear and transcendent reasons: Edward was his kinsman, the king was grateful to Normandy for the help it gave him to win his throne, and from his early knowledge of the peerless William he realized that the duke was the most suitable person to help him in life and the best qualified to succeed him after his death. In a further layering of absurdity, we are told that Godwin, Leofric, Siward and Stigand all took an oath to accept William as king on the Confessor’s demise.33

To take the most absurd part of the story first, it is evident that the Norman propagandists had no clear idea of the sequence of events in 1051–52, nor of the many nuances in Anglo-Saxon politics. Whatever transpired between Edward and William took placeafter Godwin and his family had been expelled; any request from Edward to Godwin to confirm a Norman succession before that time would certainly have precipitated the anti-Norman rising some historians have assumed the revolt of 1051 actually to have been. The circumstantial details are also hopeless nonsense: Siward was uninterested in affairs in southern England and scarcely cared who succeeded as long as he was not disturbed in the north; he would certainly not have travelled down to Winchester to make common cause with his enemy Godwin on what he would have considered a fatuous errand. And why is there no mention of Harold? In 1051 he was a major earl, who would certainly have been privy to such a situation. The overwhelming likelihood is that later Norman propagandists, unaware of the true situation in England in 1051, simply plucked likely names out of a hat but in so doing exposed their own unreliability as sources. The story makes no sense anyway, for the banishment of the Godwin family later in the year and the humiliation of Stigand would have left William without his major guarantors.

Even more devastating to the Norman version of history is a study of the mentality of Edward the Confessor himself. We are asked to believe that the charisma of William, who was just thirteen when Edward last saw him, was such that the king stored the memory of the duke in his mind and then nominated him as his successor. The idea of such an ‘attachment’ is absurd even if we were not dealing with a person who notoriously made and discarded friends easily. Far from Edward’s retaining fond memories of Normandy and its rulers and being suffused with gratitude for all the Normans had done for him, he was in reality livid with anger about the way the same people had, as he saw it, failed him at every point and treated him with contempt. Edward did not love William as a son and brother, as the Francophone hagiographers contend; he was not grateful to the Norman court for its generosity and assistance; he was quite manifestly no devoted son of a Norman mother and had no interest in his maternal kin. Besides, even if we grant for argument’s sake that Edward was pro-William and pro-Norman, why did he wait nine years before repaying his ‘debt of gratitude’? Why in the meantime did he take an English wife, who could have borne him children and blocked this ‘favoured heir’? But the greatest implausibility is the idea of a one-sided exchange of oaths and hostages, purely from Edward to William; that was not how rulers operated in the eleventh century, even when they dealt with equals, and in this case there is the further difficulty that a duke is made to appear the senior partner in his dealings with a king.

The story of a visit by William to England in 1051 and of solemn oaths taken by the king, naming the duke as his successor, witnessed by the luminaries of Anglo-Saxon earldom, can safely be discarded. Let us assume, though, that Edward, having jettisoned the Godwins and his wife Edith, and, knowing that he was sterile, wished to nominate an heir to the throne. Let us assume, further, that he discounted the merits of those with claims to the throne superior to William’s in point of blood kinship, most notably Eustace of Boulogne and Ralph of Mantes. Edward might have opted for William to detach him from Baldwin and bribe him into an alternative alliance, or because he felt isolated and vulnerable to the possible incursion of Svein Estrithson; either way, he was actuated by simple pragmatism and ad hoc opportunism. It is not wholly implausible, then, in the context of late 1051 that he might have made some informal, unbinding promise that William would be the ‘inside candidate’ for the throne if he died childless, provided he fell in with Edward’s designs involving Baldwin of Flanders. This is a long way short of a formal oath. And to Edward such a promise would have meant nothing: he had already made a similar pledge to Svein Estrithson and would do so again to two further pretenders to the English throne. In any case, English kingship was not hereditary and Edward could not force the witan to do his will.

The entire elaborate edifice which Norman propaganda erected around the alleged ‘oath’ of 1051 is thus revealed as a house built on sand. The principal mistake of William’s naïve apologists was to assume that Edward’s promise, if there was one, was a unique, special and indefeasible pledge, instead of a conventional response to the many claimants who lobbied him about the succession. As Edward’s biographer well says: ‘I doubt whether anyone, at least on the English side, expected the promise to be honoured. Edward was still on the right side of fifty; William was in the hazardous early twenties, frequently on campaign. Much could happen before Edward died. . . . If William had come over to see for himself what were his chances of succeeding to England, he must have returned discouraged.’34

While Edward plodded along his obscure, Byzantine and machiavellian diplomatic pathways in the winter of 1051–52, the Godwin family was regrouping. The two halves of the family, one in Ireland, the other in Flanders, kept in touch by means of couriers, and concerted plans for a return to their homeland. Godwin, an astute politician, thought that the threat of force alone might do the trick, if once he and his sons could effect a landing on English soil, for through his spies he had become aware of a change of attitude in England. A general consensus was forming that Edward was no saint, that the Godwins had been unjustly treated, and that Godwin was a kind of David ranged against Edward’s Saul.35

Other factors seemed to make it unlikely that Edward would be able to reassemble the mighty host that had faced down Godwin and his family the year before. Leofric and Siward had already gone as far as they were going to go on Edward’s behalf; whether the king realized it or not, they had no intention of risking their lives and those of their men in any future armed clash with the outlawed family. Moreover, public opinion had been alienated by the arrogant triumphalism of Robert of Jumièges and the Norman faction after their victory in 1051, and distaste was compounded by irritation and anger that the same forces which had obliged the Godwins to bow the head had not been able to prevent the Welsh king Gruffydd ap Llywelyn raiding deep into Herefordshire.36

It seems that many messages were passed along the sea lanes of the Channel and the Irish Sea before Godwin and Harold finally concerted their measures, which involved a rendezvous near Bosham, conjecturally established as meaning either in Spithead or the Solent. The year 1052 saw the elevation of Harold Godwinson as Godwin’s right-hand man to take the vacancy left by Swein, who, in yet another amazing turn in his already astonishing career, suddenly announced that he would set out from Bruges to walk barefoot on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He reached the Holy Land but died on the return journey, either in Constantinople or somewhere near the city.37

The Godwin family, though deprived of its estates, still had wealth enough to finance a substantial expedition, much more imposing than Osgod Clapa’s raid three years earlier. The military objective was neither mere tip-and-run raiding nor bringing Edward to a pitched battle, but a descent in force that would overawe the Norman faction under Jumièges and oblige Leofric, Siward and other half-hearted supporters of the king to consider where their best interests lay. Godwin’s authority was still undiminished among his own supporters, as we can infer from his well-authenticated rebuke to the hotheads in his party who wanted to wage guerre à outrance in England. He had also lost none of his organizational and administrative talents, since he must have conveyed considerable sums of money across the Irish Sea to Harold, who was able to pay for the recruitment of Irish–Norse warriors and marines and the loyalty of nine ships’ crews; meanwhile in Bruges Godwin fitted out at least twice that number.38

In the early summer of 1052 Godwin considered that he had weakened Edward’s prestige sufficiently in England – constantly portraying the Godwin family as innocent victims – to be able to commence military operations. Harold and Leofwine crossed from Ireland with their nine ships and sailed up the Bristol Channel. Putting in at Porlock, near the Devon–Somerset border, to reprovision, they were surprised by one of Edward’s armies and forced to fight for their lives. Harold won a victory of sorts, killing more than thirty thegns, before being compelled to re-embark. The two Godwinsons then sailed round Land’s End and up the English Channel, making for the rendezvous with their father.39

Godwin had stiffer opposition to deal with, for Edward had assembled a formidable fleet of forty ships at Sandwich under Earls Ralph and Odda. The patriarch sailed from Nieuwpoort on 22 June, apparently without Tostig and Gyrth – it is thought he did not want to give (literal) hostages to fortune in case of a defeat – evaded the defending fleet at Sandwich and made landfall at Dungeness. Ralph and Odda responded by trying to catch him in a pincer movement, putting the levies of Kent on the march by land while they moved in with the fleet. Godwin re-embarked and stood away towards Pevensey; a sea battle seemed imminent. Then the elements took a hand in the form of a ferocious storm which dispersed the pursuing fleet and drove Godwin back in disarray to Flanders. Soon the outlawed earl was back in Bruges and Ralph and Odda in London, where they had to brave the wrath of Edward, who was bitter at their failure and wanted to replace them as commanders. In the ensuing confusion, the fleet, already impaired by losses in the storm and low morale, was allowed to disperse and so Edward lost the initiative.40

The dauntless Godwin refitted his ships and set sail again, this time directly to the Isle of Wight to rendezvous with Harold and Leofwine. It took time for the two flotillas to find each other, and in the meantime Godwin laid waste the island. At last, probably late in August, Godwin and Harold made contact; according to some sources the meeting was further west than originally planned, at Portland. Both father and son were full of aplomb and sanguine that events were moving their way. They slowly held their course up the Channel, landing to revictual at Sandwich, Pevensey, Hythe, Folkestone and Dover, being enthusiastically received by their old vassals in Kent and Sussex, collecting volunteers, and pressing ships and hostages from those clearly of the king’s party. By the time they turned into the Thames estuary, they had assembled a host large enough to deal with any army Edward might throw at them. To keep up the morale of his recruits, Godwin loosened the strict discipline he had imposed since the Isle of Wight and allowed his men to ravage the Isle of Sheppey and sack the royal manor of Milton.41

Edward decided to make a stand at London, which was already showing dangerous signs of declaring for the Godwins. The response to the king’s pleas for military help were slow and half-hearted, but Leofric and Siward dared not leave their own fate and that of the kingdom to chance by failing to heed the royal summons. Grudgingly they made their way to London with their picked troops so that, on the face of it, by mid-September, Edward again had a considerable force ranged against the Godwins, including a notional complement of fifty ships. As he lined the north bank of the Thames, waiting for Godwin to arrive at his old berth in Southwark, he must have been conscious of rerunning the events of the year before, except that this time his position was nothing like so favourable.42

Godwin reached Southwark on 14 September and was immediately encouraged when the citizens of London raised no difficulties about allowing him safe passage past London Bridge. Still on the south bank, the earl moved his forces within the city walls, so that soon the two armies stared at each other across the river. As in a similar position the year before, tough bargaining then commenced. Godwin began by demanding a full and unconditional pardon for himself and his family and the restitution of all their estates and worldly goods. When the stubborn Edward predictably refused, Godwin drew first blood by outwitting the monarch’s naval commanders and encircling the royal fleet. In yet another instance of history repeating itself, Stigand crossed the river on Godwin’s behalf as intermediary.43

Whereas in 1051 the northern earls and the Norman party had stood shoulder to shoulder, this time Leofric and Siward made it clear to Edward they would not fight kith and kin to protect Norman privileges. When he realized that the troops he had counted on to defeat Godwin were like so many toy soldiers, Edward flew into an apoplectic rage – his habitual reaction to being crossed. By his reluctance to be reconciled, Edward was playing a more dangerous game than he knew, for Godwin found it difficult to prevent his troops from attacking the king and deposing him. The Normans were much quicker to realize the parlous position in which they stood and, without waiting for the deliberations of the assembly, decamped at speed; Robert of Jumièges, together with his protégés Bishops Ulf of Worcester and William of London, fought his way out of the city and fled to Essex, there to take ship to the Continent. Godwin held all the cards and had it in his power to usurp the throne had he been so minded; but he merely asked that he be purged of all charges against him, especially the accusation that he had compassed the death of Alfred. With great reluctance Edward accepted that the game was up and he would have to make peace; as his chronicler put it: ‘He gradually calmed the boiling tumult of his mind.’44

On 15 September Godwin and Harold, taking with them a large escort to guard against possible treachery, crossed to the north bank to attend a meeting of the gemot, where Godwin was allowed to declare his own and his family’s innocence of all charges brought against them. The assembly voted for his restitution by spontaneous acclamation. Edward, doubtless fuming secretly, gave Godwin the kiss of peace, condoned all alleged offences and restored him and his sons both to the royal favour and to their estates. As a logical corollary to his acceptance that the charges against the Godwins were false, Edward announced the outlawing of all the Normans and French-speaking nobles who had perjured themselves and perverted the law. Most signally of all, he restored Edith to her royal dignities and place at court; if ever he had contemplated divorcing her, he no longer had the power to do so. But the rumours of marital strife between king and queen never went away, to the point where, many years later, Edith on her deathbed thought it necessary to clear herself of charges of adultery.45

Godwin’s triumph was total but he showed himself remarkably free of vindictive spirit, once his Norman accusers had fled. He did not even seek to avenge himself on Ralph and Odda but contented himself with restoring his family fortunes. Edward made no attempt to undo the settlement into which he had been dragooned by events and may even have reflected later that he had been foolish to try to oust the Godwins. However, he persevered with his ill-starred policy of exiling those who displeased him. It is worth pointing out that, every time he banished a major personage during his reign, that person returned to plague him and often to humiliate him; so it was with Osgod Clapa in 1046, with Swein Godwinson in 1047, and with Godwin in 1051, and so it would be with Aelfgar in 1055 and 1058 and Tostig in 1065.46

One obvious consequence of the return of Godwin and the Godwinsons was that the Norman succession project, if it had ever existed, was dead in the water. This had been so totally predicated on the exile of the Godwins that only an unrealist, a cynic or his apologists could pretend it was still in being. Yet the myth of Edward’s promise of the throne to Duke William dies hard, to such a point that it has even been suggested that the Godwins were allowed to return only after they had agreed to the Norman succession.47This is the most incredible of all the theories purporting to show a valid claim to the English throne by Duke William. To begin with, since the Godwin family so manifestly had the upper hand in September 1052 and forced their return on Edward virtually at sword point, what possible meaning can attach to the statement that they were ‘permitted’ to return solely on acceptance of the Norman succession? And how could the flight of Archbishop Robert and his Norman acolytes be explained on this basis: this would involve Normans fleeing in terror from a man who had sworn – nay, been forced – to accept their suzerainty.48

The flight of the Norman bishops cleared the way for Godwin’s ecclesiastical protégés and especially for Stigand. This most worldly of clerics was now appointed to the archbishopric of Canterbury, in defiance of canon law on two counts: first, that the man who had received a valid papal commission, Robert of Jumièges, was still alive; and, secondly, that Stigand blatantly held on to the see at Winchester as well, out of sheer avarice. The tenure of plural dioceses was never likely to recommend Stigand to the papacy, but a brief opportunity presented itself in 1058, when the short-lived pontiff Benedict X granted him the pallium. This apparent seal of legitimacy suffered a boomerang effect the following year when Benedict was deposed for simony, thus leaving Stigand with a doubly tainted title to Canterbury. The venal divine comforted himself with the enjoyment of his vast wealth from Church lands and benefices: between his own private holdings and those of the see at Canterbury he was worth by the end of the 1050s about £3,000 – a staggering sum for those times and inferior only to that of the king and Harold Godwinson.49

Godwin did not enjoy his triumph long, for on 15 April 1053 he died suddenly while attending the king’s Easter court at Winchester. He seems to have been seized by a stroke on the twelfth of the month and to have lingered for three days before expiring. Some later historians have seen his death as suspicious, but his own family, including Harold, Tostig and Gyrth who were with him and carried him from the banqueting hall to the royal chamber, do not seem to have shared these suspicions.50 Poisoning does not appear likely, and still less can we credit the absurd anti-Godwin allegation later spread by Norman propagandists that he challenged God to strike him dead if he had had any part in Alfred’s death, whereupon the Almighty duly obliged him. None the less, it was in many ways a highly convenient death, and it doubtless allowed Edward to reconcile himself more easily to the hegemony of Godwin’s sons. That Godwin was a kind of de facto king seems underlined by the quasi-royal funeral obsequies: he was buried alongside Cnut and Emma in the Old Minster, and his widow, Gytha, made the kind of lavish endowments for the repose of his soul that were normally associated with departed monarchs. So passed away the last of Cnut’s earls and yet another link to Scandinavia and the north. Increasingly, it seemed, the England of Edward would be a Wessex-based kingdom, with its interests in the south and its orientation towards continental Europe.51

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