Tuesday, 29 November 2011

A king, an earl and the terrible death of a prince

Edward the Confessor came to the throne after his half brother Harthacnut died in June 1042. Harthacnut had designated him as his heir, however it was not a foregone conclusion and Edward would have needed to rally the support of the English nobility. One of those whom it might have been necessary for him to ingratiate himself with would have been Godwin of Wessex although Edward would most likely have loathed the man. Godwin was a dominant figure in the politics of the time and had control of a large part of what was once Alfred the Great's Kingdom of Wessex. Godwin must have played a large part in rallying the other nobles and thegns to Edward’s cause and for this, Edward may have felt obliged to agree to wed Godwin’s daughter Edith. 
No doubt Edward’s animosity toward Godwin, as we shall see by his attitude later, was driven by Godwin’s part in the death of Alfred, Edward’s younger brother. Alfred’s unpleasant demise had occurred when in 1036, the brothers, living as exiles in Normandy for more than 20 years, had received a letter allegedly written by their mother Queen Emma,  inviting them to England and seeking their help. In 1036, Alfred and Edward had for some reason decided to travel separately to England. The expedition appears to have been a failure for both of them but at least Edward was to escape with his life. Unfortunately for Alfred, he did not. Some sources lay the blame for his death totally at Godwin’s door and others were less inclined to show Godwin in a bad light. What appears to have happened is that Alfred and his party were met by Godwin who was to escort them to meet with Harold Harefoot, then the monarch of the time. At Guildford, however, they were intercepted by Harold’s men and taken from Godwin’s custody. What happened next ended with poor Alfred being blinded and dying of his wounds at Ely.
This is what the Abingdon Manuscript (C) tells us
            “But then Godwine stopped him, and set him in captivity,
             And drove off his companions, and some variously killed;
            Some of them were sold for money, some cruelly destroyed,
            Some of them were fettered and some of them were blinded,
            Some maimed, some scalped,
            No more horrible deed was done in this country
            Since the Danes came and made peace here....
            .....The atheling still lived; he was threatened with every evil;
            Until it was decided that he would be led to Ely town, fettered thus
            As soon as he came on ship he was blinded, and blind thus brought to the monks,
            And their he dwelt as long as he lived,
            Afterwards he was buried as well as befitted him,
            Full honourably, as he was entitled.......
            ....His soul is with Christ.
            It seemed that Edward would forever hold it against Godwin for what happened to Alfred even though he was to be cleared before the court on oath more than once. To Edward, Godwin was like a boil on his backside that would never go away and when one day, the opportunity came for Edward to be rid of the whole Godwin family, he grasped it firmly in his hands. Robert Champart of  Jumi├Ęges was the newly appointed Archbishop of Canterbury and a longstanding enemy of Godwin's. According to the sources he began whispering in the King's ear that Godwin had murdered his brother Alfred and was now plotting to murder him. A visit from Edward's brother-in-law Eustace of Boulogne seemed to fuel the fire that was burning in Edward's heart, when on his way home to Boulogne, he and his men stopped at the town of Dover and caused a fight with the townspeople. some of Eustace's men were killed in the fight as well as an equal number of townfolk. Godwin was ordered by the King to punish the town by razing it to the ground. He refused. Dover was in Godwin's jurisdiction and he may have heard the Doverian townsfolk's side of the sad, sorry tale. In anycase, his refusal to punish them resulted in a stand off between the Godwins and the King and his supporters. They were all consequently exiled and although Edward accepted Godwin back, restored his lands and in his office as Earl after a year in exile, their relationship would always be strained.
            Edward’s unforgiving attitude towards Godwin later shows in his behaviour at the Earl’s death in 1053 at a court reunion with his family and the King. During the feast, Edward is allegedly said to have made acrimonious remarks toward Godwin regarding his involvement in Alfred’s death. It was said that Godwin is so enraged that it causes him to have a stroke and he dies later in Edward’s private apartment. Perhaps Edward felt a pang of guilt and offered him the comfort of his own chamber and doctor.

Barlow F (2002) The Godwins Pearson Educated LTD, Edinburgh.
Barlow F (1970) Edward The Confessor, Yale University Press, London.
Stanton M Translationof the Anglo Saxon Chronicle.


Kathryn Warner said...

Great post, Paula. I remember a few years ago reading Valerie Anand's novel Gildenford, which covers Alfred's return to England in 1036 and his horrible death, the poor man. I find the history of England in the 11th century absolutely fascinating.

paulalofting said...

Yes, Kathryn,it's terrible to think of the irony of his plight when, having left Normandy with such high hopes, he falls into the hands of such treacherous people and suffers such an ignominious death.Although I suspect that Godwin was telling the truth that he had nothing to do with his death,it must have weighed heavily on his mind for years, that his actions culminated in the end of Alfred's life.