Did King Edward give the crown to Harold Godwinson, his most powerful earl, as he lay dying on 6 January 1066? The sources disagree, although most do aver that Edward did give rule of the kingdom into Harold’s hands. However, the life of Edward, commissioned by his queen, tells us who was with him on that fateful day: Edith herself, her brother Harold, the archbishop of Canterbury and the steward of the palace. The Bayeux Tapestry reproduces this scene. But what exactly did Edward say? Again, according to the Vita (Life) of Edward, the king commended the queen and the kingdom to Harold’s protection. Not exactly a ringing endorsement of Harold’s kingship – although admittedly the king was dying at the time. But, in England, the king’s wish did not determine his successor; in the end, that was a matter for the magnates of the country. And Harold had spent many years cultivating his contacts with them carefully. So it was no surprise that they chose Harold as king, and saw him crowned the same day as Edward died. The king was dead, long live the king. Or so they hoped.
Swein Godwinson, the eldest son of Earl Godwin and Harold’s elder brother, led a tumultuous life. According to the man himself, he was the son, not of Earl Godwin but of King Cnut. However, his mother denied the claim vehemently. In 1046, Swein abducted Eadgifu, the abbess of Leominster, intending to marry her and claim the Leominster estates. When the king refused to agree to the marriage, Swein released Eadgifu, who returned to Leominster. But her abbey was disbanded, which suggests Eadgifu may not have been an entirely unwilling abductee. Swein fled to Flanders. In 1049, Swein returned, hoping to reclaim his territories, which had been split between Harold and a cousin, Beorn. Beorn eventually agreed to help Swein, but Swein ended up abducting Beorn too. The end for his cousin was worse than for the abbess: Swein murdered him. As a result, Swein was outlawed again. However, Earl Godwin engineered his forgiveness, but when the Godwins were exiled in 1051, Swein left the rest of the family to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem and atone for his sins – these being so heinous that he went barefoot. But Swein, purged of his sin, died on the way back before he could sin again.
Harold’s mistress, Edith Swanneck, may have been Eadgifu the Fair, one of the largest landholders in England before 1066.
The estates of the Godwinsons produced an income of £8500 a year in the 1050s; the king’s estates gave him £6000 per year.
Harold’s mother, Gytha, was Danish, the daughter of one of Cnut’s nobles. When Swein, her eldest son, claimed that Cnut was really his father, Gytha assembled the noblewomen of Wessex to swear her faithfulness to Earl Godwin.
Harold’s sister, Edith, the wife of King Edward, commissioned a biography of the king after his death which served to commemorate him and exonerate her from blame for the disaster that befell her family in 1066.
Wulfnoth, the hostage Godwinson, remained William’s prisoner until William freed him in a general amnesty on his deathbed, only for William’s heir, William Rufus, to promptly imprison him again. Wulfnoth died in 1094. By then he had been a prisoner for 43 years.
William knew Edward, future king of England, from his boyhood. For when William was born, Edward was a young prince living in exile with his mother’s relatives in Normandy. William was in his early teens when Edward returned to England, the unexpected king. But Edward retained close links with the court where he had grown up and after the expulsion of the Godwine family in 1051, Edward sent across the Channel for William to come visit. According to one of the versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, William did just that, visiting Edward in October or November of 1051. The Duke came as the king’s vassal, but the king had a great gift to impart to his new vassal: the promise of the throne. With Edward rid of the Godwines, he felt himself able to promise the throne to whomever he wished, and William was the son of the people who had sheltered and helped him through his long exile. So William returned to Normandy convinced that, if Edward remained childless, then the throne of England would come to him. But did Edward have the authority to promise the crown to William? There were no hard and fast rules of succession; the king’s wish was important but it was not paramount, for the succession depended also on the assent of England’s magnates, and they were certainly not keen on a Norman king, and even less so once the Godwines returned to power in 1052.
According to Edith, Edward’s queen, the king had taken a vow of chastity, thus explaining their lack of children. Historians are dubious, taking this as Edith’s attempt to excuse herself from the calamity that befell her family in 1066.
Edward also had a sister, Godgifu, who married Drogo, count of the Vexin, and then, when Drogo died, Eustace, count of Boulogne.
When Swein Forkbeard died in 1014, Æthelred sent his ten-year-old son Edward back to England to help negotiate Æthelred’s return.
Edward began to rule in his late 30s. Only his father, Æthelred, among recent English kings had reached such an age. Edward would rule for another quarter century.
Edward, according to contemporary accounts, was a particularly tall man with rosy cheeks – no doubt kept ruddy by his favoured past time, hunting.
Keeping it in the family, William appointed his half-brother, Odo, bishop of Bayeux when Odo was still a teenager. After Hastings, William gave Kent to Odo.
William made his other half-brother, Robert, count of Mortain. Robert was one of his key lieutenants, before and after Hastings, when he became one of England’s greatest landowners.
William nicknamed his eldest son, Robert, ‘Curthose’, which can be translated as ‘Shortypants’. Relations between father and son were strained.
William had a passion for hunting that, after the Conquest, would translate into the creation of huge new hunting grounds in England such as the New Forest.
William’s third son, also called William and later king of England, was nicknamed ‘Rufus’ either for his red hair or his red complexion.
A short but thorough, within the limitations of the space, introduction to Suleiman, tenth sultan of the Ottoman Empire and the man who raised it to the height of its power and prestige. While the European princes of the Renaissance, Charles V, Francis I and Henry VIII, vied for prestige and power, Suleiman brooded in the east, exquisitely aware of his power and even more exquisitely, indeed excruciatingly, aware of the lack of his family’s prestige with respect to the ancient monarchies of Europe. By the high point of his reign, all that had changed: the crowns of Europe glanced nervously eastwards to the brooding sultan in his Sublime Porte. Indeed, it is quite likely that Suleiman’s presence made possible the enduring split in Christendom that produced the Reformation: Charles V could never devote all his forces to defeating the Reformation due to the ever-present threat of Suleiman – a man who regared Charles’ imperial title as Holy Roman Emperor as a direct personal insult for there can only be one emperor and, so far as Suleiman was concerned, that emperor was him. A well written gallop through a most important reign.
Every generation faces a crisis.
Our grandparents had to deal with World War II, which they won through courage and sacrifice.
Our parents had to face the Cold War, which they won by patience and perseverance.
Now we face the coronavirus, which we can defeat by sitting in front of the telly.
We can do this.
Geoffrey of Monmouth, a Welsh cleric (although possibly his family came from Brittany), wrote his Historia Regum Britanniae around 1135 and, almost immediately, it was dismissed by other chroniclers and historians as almost complete nonsense. It tells the story of the Kings of Britain, that is the native kings before the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, finding the origins of the Britons in the fall of Troy and another princely Trojan refugee, Brutus in this instance. Virgil, the poet of imperial Rome, had of course mined a similar seam of history in his Aeneid, linking the origins of Rome to Prince Aeneas. So by linking the history of the Britons to that of Troy, Geoffrey was also implicitly making them cousins to Rome. It was a bold stroke for a marginalised people. He then went on to tell the stories of the kings of ancient Britain: in these pages you will find King Lear and his daughters, Old King Cole and, of course, Arthur. Geoffrey expands the few nuggets about Arthur that had appeared in previous works hugely, adding in the key figure of Merlin to the mix.
Despite the book being treated as nothing buy fantasy by historians such as William of Newburgh, it quickly became famous and widely read, introducing these kings into the folklore and folk memory of Britain. Having read the History of the Kings of Britain I can now see why. It is simply such great fun to read. Geoffrey breezes through the centuries, sometimes spending just a sentence on a king, at other times opening up the story to a chapter length or more. It’s a great piece of storytelling, dressed up as history.
The All About History bookazine on the Anglo-Saxons is out now and most of it is written by me. It covers the whole of the Anglo-Saxon era, from the Romans leaving to the Normans arriving, with lavishly illustrated articles on the Heptarchy, King Alfred and the Conquest among much else. It’s available in larger newsagents and bookshops or you can order it here.