Book review: The House of Godwin by Michael John Key

The House of Godwin by Michael John Key

It was so nearly so different. Having risen from relative obscurity, Earl Godwin had married his eldest daughter to Edward, the king of England, and raised his sons to the most important earldoms in the country. When Godwin died, his surviving sons, Harold and Tostig, slipped smoothly into the positions of command and influence that Godwin had earned during his life, becoming the effective rulers of the kingdom as Edward slowly released the reins of power.

With Edward childless, the question of the succession increasingly dominated the last years of his reign. Tostig, who Key argues might have been Edward’s favourite among the four Godwinson earls, was banished in 1065 following a revolt by the northern nobility, with Harold’s connivance. A furious Tostig, nursing his sense of betrayal, went looking for foreign backers to help him reclaim his inheritance and found a backer in Harald Hardrada, the king of Norway and the most famous warrior of the age.

Harold, who by this time had been crowned king following Edward’s death, was concentrating on the threat from Normandy: Duke William claimed that Edward had promised the crown to him. Hearing of his brother’s invasion, Harold rushed north, killed Tostig and Harald at the Battle of Stamford Bridge, only to hear that William had landed in Sussex…

In this fascinating book, Michael John Key recounts the extraordinary rise and the even more dramatic fall of the House of Godwin and successfully argues that, if Harold had prevailed at Hastings (and it was a very close-run thing) he would have gone on to be regarded as one of the great kings of English history, and Earl Godwin as the founder of one of the great royal dynasties. But Harold’s exhausted men, having fought one battle 19 days earlier, were unable to hold out to nightfall in the second. William won, and history took one of its sharpest turns.


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