Gytha of Wessex and the Rise of the House of Godwin

Countess Gytha

The day is finally here! Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest is  in the shops!

So I thought I would write a post about the most fascinating woman I came across while writing the book. I have to admit, I expected Emma of Normandy to be the woman who stole the show with this book, but I was pleasantly surprised to discover it was Gytha of Wessex! Gytha completes the triumvirate of remarkable women who presided over the first half of the eleventh century in England; the others being Emma of Normandy and the legendary Lady Godiva. However, unlike Emma and Godiva, Gytha was at the centre of events before, during and after the fateful year of 1066. Her story is far too long to be told in one blog post, so I will concentrate on the lesser known part of the story; the early years of the marriage of Godwin and Gytha.

A woman of impeccable pedigree, Gytha was the mother of a large brood of children that included several earls, the queen of Edward the Confessor and the last Anglo-Saxon king of England. Raised in Denmark, Gytha was the daughter of Thorgils Sprakaleg, a Danish magnate who himself was said to have been the grandson of a bear and a Swedish maiden. Although obviously not true, such a legend serves to weave a sense of mystery and legacy into a family. Little is known of her mother; a later story suggested she was Tyra, daughter of Harold Bluetooth, king of Norway and Denmark, but this has been discounted by historians.

Gytha was probably either born in the last decade of the tenth century or the first decade of the eleventh, and she had at least two brothers. Eilaf who was Earl of Gloucestershire under King Cnut while her second brother, Earl Ulf, was married to King Cnut’s sister, Estrith, and was the father of Swein Estrithson, King of Denmark from 1047 to 1076. Earl Ulf had two other children, Beorn Estrithson and Asbjørn; Beorn spent time with his aunt’s family and was murdered by his cousin, Gytha’s oldest son, Swein Godwinson, in 1049. Ulf acted as Regent of Denmark for King Cnut before he was killed, apparently on the orders of Cnut himself, on Christmas Day 1026.

It was in about 1022 that Gytha was married to Godwin. According to The Life of King Edward, commissioned by Gytha’s daughter, Queen Edith, it was early in his reign that King Cnut took Godwin with him to Denmark, where the king ‘tested more closely his wisdom’, and ‘admitted [him] to his council and gave him his sister [sic] as wife.’¹ Although Gytha was not, in fact, Cnut’s sister, she was still a part of the extended Danish royal family; giving her to Godwin as a wife was a substantial reward and a sign of Cnut’s trust in him. What Gytha thought of being given in marriage to a man below her station, no matter how much a favourite of Cnut’s he was, we can only surmise. We can assume that she probably had little say in the matter; once Cnut had decided on the marriage, who could refuse such a powerful king?

King Cnut and Gytha’s brother, Earl Ulf

Godwin’s background is obscured by time, but it is likely that he was the son of Wulfnoth Cild, a Sussex thegn who fell afoul of the politics and political machinations of the reign of Æthelred II the Unready. The appellation ‘Cild’ denotes a young man or warrior and is usually applied to those of rank in Anglo-Saxon England. In 1009  Wulfnoth had been accused of treason by Brihtric, the brother of the powerful and wily Eadric Streona. What treason he had committed is unclear, and it is likely that the charges were unfounded. The accusations came during the muster of the magnificent new fleet, built on the orders of Æthelred II to counter the incursions of the Scandinavians. Wulfnoth fled to sea, taking twenty of the new ships with him. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Brihtric went in pursuit of him, with eighty ships, but his force was run aground in a heavy storm and then attacked by Wulfnoth, who set fire to Brihtric’s ships. The destruction of the greater part of the fleet was to put an end to any hope of campaigning off the English coast and Æthelred gave up on the project and went home.

It is possible that Godwin was married to a lady called Thyra, before he married Gytha.  According to William of Malmesbury, Thyra was Cnut’s sister, and a quite unpleasant lady. She is said to have had a son who, while out riding a horse ‘was carried into the Thames, and perished in the stream: his mother, too, paid the penalty of her cruelty; being killed by a stroke of lightning. For it is reported, that she was in the habit of purchasing companies of slaves in England, and sending them into Denmark; more especially girls, whose beauty and age rendered them more valuable, that she might accumulate money by this horrid traffic.’²

Godwin appears to have accumulated considerable lands during the reign of Cnut. Although only one charter survives from the period, in which Cnut granted him Polhampton in Hampshire, Godwin also possessed manors in Kent, Sussex and Hampshire, some of which had previously belonged to the royal estates in the reign of Æthelred II. Although we don’t hear of Gytha at this time – the chronicles rarely mention the women – we can assume that she enjoyed and benefitted from the favour her husband received from King Cnut. It is likely that she spent the majority of her time in the 1020s and 1030s giving birth to, and raising, her large brood of children. Gytha and Godwin had a large family of at least ten – possibly eleven – children.

Their daughter Edith was probably born within a year of the marriage and would become Queen of England as the wife of King Edward the Confessor. Although we cannot be certain of the order of birth, the eldest son seems likely to have been Swein, who was born in about 1023, with Harold – the future King Harold II – probably arriving the year after. Five more sons may have followed; Tostig, Gyrth, Leofwine, Wulfnoth and possibly Alfgar.

Death of Leofwine at the Battle of Hastings, depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry

Tostig, Gyrth and Leofwine all became earls under Edward the Confessor and were deeply involved in the events of 1066, although not all on the same side. While still only a child, Wulfnoth was taken to Normandy as a hostage in about 1052, with his nephew, Hakon (the son of Wulfnoth’s older brother, Swein). Wulfnoth died sometime after 1087, but whether in England or Normandy is unclear. It is possible that young Hakon died whilst still a hostage in Normandy; however, there is some suggestion that he was released following Harold’s visit to Normandy in 1064 and fought – and died – alongside his uncles at the Battle of Hastings on 14 October 1066. Little is known of Alfgar; if he existed, he may have been a monk at Reims in France.

As well as Edith, Gytha and Godwin are thought to have had two or three more daughters. Little is known of Eadgiva (or Eadgifu), but for her name and that she held the comital estate of Crewkerne in Somerset; she is also on a list of women in confraternity with the New Minster at Winchester but may have been dead by 1066. A younger daughter, Gunhilda, is believed to have been a vowess from an early age and became a nun after the Conquest, either at St Omer in France or Bruges in Flanders. Gunhilda died at Bruges on 24 August 1087 and is buried in Bruges Cathedral.

When Edward the Confessor came to the throne in 1042 the support of the powerful Earl Godwin was essential to the success of his accession. Among the lands acquired by Godwin during the 1040s was Woodchester in Gloucestershire, which he bought for Gytha. The manor was intended to support her when she stayed at Berekely, for ‘she was unwilling to use up anything from that manor because of the destruction of the abbey.’¹

As Godwin’s star continued to rise; so too did that of his family. In 1043 an earldom, centred on Hereford, had been created for his eldest son, Swein, and in 1044 Harold, the next oldest, was made Earl of East Anglia. Gytha must have been proud to see her husband and sons rise so high, and surely was overjoyed as she became the mother of a queen when her eldest daughter, Edith, married King Edward on 23  January 1045. The family must have appeared unassailable to their fellow and rival nobles.

For Gytha, it was mostly a time for pride in her children, although one of her sons would disappoint and humiliate her. Swein Godwinson was, by most accounts, a rather unpleasant character. Although a notable fighter, he was ruthless and determined. One source suggests that  Swein had, at some point, impugned his mother’s reputation, claiming that he was not the son of Godwin, but of the former king, Cnut. The claim was indignantly refuted by Gytha, who gathered together the noble ladies of Wessex to witness her oath that Godwin was Swein’s father. It is impossible to imagine what must have gone through Gytha’s mind when Swein made this claim. To be so blatantly accused of infidelity by her eldest son, someone who should have had a care for his mother’s reputation, must have been heartbreaking. Whether it was a political move – to pursue a claim to the throne as Cnut’s heir – or not, Swein effectively rejected Godwin as his father and called his mother an unfaithful wife.

Harold Godwinson, King of England

In the national theater, moreover, the year 1051 brought a crisis that threatened the family’s very position in English society. Edward the Confessor, unhappy at the apparently unassailable position of the Godwin family, sought to curb the Earl of Wessex’s strength and influence. Both sides raised their retainers, intending to defend their positions with force, if necessary. Civil war loomed.

The two sides came back from the brink, with Godwin called before the king to answer for his actions. The king, however, offered to take the earl back into his peace ‘when he gave him back his brother alive.’ Earl Godwin’s involvement in the death of Edward’s brother, Alfred, had come back to haunt him. Godwin would have known, at that moment, that there was no chance of reconciliation. The earl rode away from London, returning to Bosham. John of Worcester takes up the story:

… but his army gradually dwindling away and deserting him, he did not venture to abide the judgment of the king’s court, but fled, under cover of night. When, therefore, the morning came, the king, in his witan, with the unanimous consent of the whole army, made a decree that Godwin and his five sons should be banished. Thereupon he and his wife Gytha, and Tostig and his wife Judith, the daughter of Baldwin, count of Flanders, and two of his other sons, namely, Sweyn and Gyrth, went, without loss of time, to Thorney, where a ship had been got ready for them. They quickly laded her with as much gold, silver, and other valuable articles as she could hold, and, embarking in great haste, directed her course towards Flanders and Baldwin the count.³

Godwin and Gytha’s two other sons, Harold and Leofwine, headed west; arriving at Bristol, they took Swein’s ship, which had already been prepared and provisioned for him, and sailed to exile in Ireland. The couple’s youngest son, Wulfstan, and Swein’s son, Hakon, may already have been in the custody of King Edward as hostages. Queen Edith, therefore, was the only Godwin who remained at liberty in England, although not for long. She was banished to the nunnery at Wherwell, where Edward’s half-sister was abbess; her land, jewels and possessions were taken from her and Edward may have started divorce proceedings, though they were never completed.

Godwin and Gytha, along with Swein, Tostig and the family’s retainers, spent the winter in Bruges from where Swein, looking to the salvation of his soul, set out on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. According to John of Worcester, Swein walked the whole way, barefoot, but caught a cold on the way home and died. In the spring of 1052, the family set about orchestrating their return to England. After some initial setbacks,  Godwin attacked the Isle of Wight and was reunited with his sons, Harold and Leofwine, newly arrived from Ireland. They proceeded, along the Sussex and Kent coasts, to London, unopposed, and anchored on the south bank of the Thames, opposite the forces of the king and his earls who were waiting on the north bank with fifty ships.

Queen Edith of Wessex

Godwin sent to the king, requesting the restoration of his lands and the lands of his sons, but Edward flatly refused. However, public opinion had turned against the king; his strong support for his Norman advisers and the visit of William of Normandy soon after the Godwin’s exile, had soured public opinion which turned to favour Godwin and his family. The Norman contingent of Edward’s administration, seeing events were turning against them, and that Godwin would be welcomed back into the fold, mounted their horses and fled London, some going north, some west; presumably with Godwin and Gytha’s son, Wulfstan, and their grandson, Hakon, as hostages.

The following morning Godwin met the king in a council outside London. The Earl begged forgiveness of the king, declaring that he and his sons were innocent of the charges laid against them. Despite his underlying fury, Edward had no choice but to grant Godwin a pardon and restore the lands and titles of the whole family. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Gytha is even mentioned in the agreement, whereby the council ‘gave Godwin fairly his earldom, so full and so free as he at first possessed it, and his sons also all that they formerly had; and his wife and his daughter so full and so free as they formerly had.’ Soon after, their daughter, Edith, was fetched from her incarceration in the nunnery and reinstated as queen.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle also mentions that Godwin fell sick shortly after the conclusion of negotiations with Edward. Given that the earl died at Easter 1053, we can imagine that Gytha spent the winter nursing her ailing husband. On Easter Sunday (12 April), Godwin was dining with his sons, Harold and Tostig, and King Edward, at Winchester, when ‘he suddenly sank towards the foot-stool, deprived of speech and of all his strength; he was carried to the king’s chamber, and it was thought it would pass over, but it was not so; but he continued like this unspeaking and helpless, through until the Thursday and then gave up his life. And he lies there in the Old Minster; and his son Harold succeeded to his earldom.’ [ASC]

Writing later, with a flair for the dramatic, William of Malmesbury had Godwin’s last words to Edward before he collapsed as; ‘May God not permit me to swallow if I have done anything to endanger Alfred or to hurt you.’² Contemporary chronicles do not mention such a declaration, so while it makes Godwin’s death appear as divine justice, it is more than likely untrue.

King Harold’s coronation in the Bayeux Tapestry

Following his death the House of Godwin continued it inexorable rise. Harold had succeeded to his father’s earldom of Wessex and in 1055 Tostig was given the earldom of Northumbria; Earl Siward had died at York, leaving only a young son, Waltheof, to succeed him. It was thought too dangerous to leave a county which bordered Scotland in the hands of a child, and so the earldom was awarded to Tostig. When Ælfgar succeeded to his father Leofric’s earldom of Mercia in 1057, he had to relinquish the earldom of East Anglia, which was given to Gyrth, one of Gytha’s younger sons. Another son, Leofwine, appears to have succeeded to part of the earldom of Ralph, Earl of Hereford, on his death in 1057, gaining lands in the south Midlands.

Gytha’s movements in the years immediately after Godwin’s death have gone unrecorded. The widow of the great earl probably spent most of her time in retirement on her estates, possibly visiting her family on occasion and spending time at King Edward’s court, with her daughter, Queen Edith. One can imagine she would watch the success of her son’s with pride, unaware of the looming storm clouds that would see 4 of her sons lying dead on battlefields at Stamford Bridge and Hastings within the short space of 3 weeks in the autumn of 1066.

*

Footnotes: ¹Godwine, earl of Wessex (d. 1053) by Ann Williams, oxforddnb.com; ²The History of the Kings of England and of his Own Times by William Malmesbury; ³The Chronicle of John of Worcester, translated and edited by Thomas Forester; [ASC] The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram

*

Sources: The English and the Norman Conquest by Dr Ann Williams; Brewer’s British Royalty by David Williamson; Britain’s Royal Families, the Complete Genealogy by Alison Weir; The Wordsworth Dictionary of British History by JP Kenyon; The Norman Conquestby Marc Morris; Harold, the King Who Fell at Hastings by Peter Rex; The Anglo-Saxons in 100 Facts by Martin Wall; The Anglo-Saxon Age by Martin Wall; Kings, Queens, Bones and Bastards by David Hilliam; The Mammoth Book of British kings & Queens by Mike Ashley; The Oxford Companion to British History Edited by John Cannon; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles translated and edited by Michael Swaton; The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle translated by James Ingram; Queen Emma and the Vikings by Harriett O’Brien; The Bayeux Tapestry by Carola Hicks; oxforddnb.com.

*

Out Now!

Tracing the fortunes of the women who had a significant role to play in the momentous events of 1066, Silk and the Sword: the Women of the Norman Conquest will be released in the UK on 15 November 2018 and is available for pre-order on Amazon UK,  Amberley Publishing and Book Depository. It is scheduled for release in the US on 1 March 2019 and is available for pre-order from Amazon US.

Also by Sharon Bennett Connolly:

Telling the stories of some of the most incredible women from Medieval history, Heroines of the Medieval World,  is now available in hardback in the UK from both Amberley Publishing and Amazon UK, in the US from Amazon US  and worldwide from Book Depository. It will be released in paperback in the UK from 15 March 2019 and is available for pre-order on Amazon.

*

You can be the first to read new articles by clicking the ‘Follow’ button, liking our Facebook page or joining me on Twitter.

*

©2018 Sharon Bennett Connolly