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Godwin of Wessex
Seal of Godwin the thane, first half of 11th century. British Museum.
Reign 1019 - 1053
Spouse Thyra Sveinsdóttir
Gytha Thorkelsdóttir
Sweyn, Earl of Herefordshire
Harold II, King of England
Tostig, Earl of Northumbria
Edith, Queen of England
Gyrth, Earl of East Anglia
Leofwine, Earl of Kent
House House of Godwin
Died 15 Apr 1053

Godwin of Wessex (Old English: Gōdwine; d. 15 April 1053), also known as Goodwin, was one of the most powerful lords in England under the Danish king Canute the Great and his successors. Canute made him the first Earl of Wessex. Godwin was the father of King Harold Godwinson and Edith of Wessex, wife of King Edward the Confessor.


Rise: support of Edmund, then Canute

Godwin's father was possibly Wulfnoth Cild who was a thegn of Sussex, although later documents describe his father as a churl. Wulfnoth led a section of the royal fleet into piracy and as a consequence had his lands forfeited, and was exiled. In his day, Earl Godwin was seen as very much of a new man, who had been "made" by two advantageous marriages to Danish noblewomen.

Godwin was a major supporter of Edmund Ironside, the son of King Ethelred the Unready. While Edmund was in rebellion against his father, Canute and his army invaded England. Edmund was killed, along with many of his supporters, but Godwin survived and pledged his loyalty to Canute. He befriended Canute's brother-in-law, Earl Ulf, and became one of Canute's advisers, accompanying him to Denmark to suppress a rebellion there. By 1018 he was an earl, becoming Earl of Wessex in about 1019.

Height of power: support of Harold

On 12 November 1035, Canute died. His kingdoms were divided among three rival rulers. Harold Harefoot, Canute's illegitimate son with Aelgifu of Northampton, seized the throne of England. Harthacanute, Canute's legitimate son with Emma of Normandy, reigned in Denmark. Norway rebelled under Magnus the Noble. In 1035, the throne of England was reportedly claimed by Alfred Aetheling, younger son of Emma of Normandy and Ethelred the Unready, and half-brother of Harthacanute. Godwin is reported to have either captured Alfred himself or to have deceived him by pretending to be his ally and then surrendering him to the forces of Harold Harefoot. Either way Alfred was blinded and soon died at Ely.

In 1040, Harold Harefoot died and Godwin supported the accession of his half-brother Harthacanute to the throne of England. When Harthacanute himself died in 1042 Godwin finally supported the claim of his half-brother Edward the Confessor to the throne. Edward was another son of Emma and Ethelred, having spent most of the previous thirty years in Normandy. His reign restored the native royal house of Wessex to the throne of England.

Later conflicts, decline, and death

Despite his alleged responsibility for the death of Edward's brother Alfred, Godwin secured the marriage of his daughter Edith (Eadgyth) to Edward in 1045. As Edward drew advisors, nobles and priests from his former place of refuge in a bid to develop his own power base, Godwin soon became the leader of opposition to growing Norman influence. After a violent clash between the people of Dover and the visiting Eustace II, Count of Boulogne, Edward's new father-in-law, Godwin was ordered to punish the people of Dover (as he and Leofric, Earl of Mercia had done in Worcester, in Leofric's own earldom). This time, however, Godwin refused, choosing to champion his own countrymen against a (visiting) foreign ruler and his own king. Edward rightly saw this as a test of power, and managed to enlist the support of Siward, Earl of Northumbria and Earl Leofric. Godwin and his sons were exiled from the kingdom in September 1051. However, they returned the following year with an armed force, which gained the support of the navy, burghers, and peasants, so compelling Edward to restore his earldom. This however set a precedent to be followed by a rival earl some years later, and then by Godwin's own son in 1066.

On 15 April 1053 Godwin died suddenly, after collapsing during a royal banquet at Winchester. Some colourful accounts claim that he choked on a piece of bread while denying any disloyalty to the king.[1] However this appears to be later Norman propaganda, contemporary accounts indicate that he just had a sudden illness, possibly a stroke.[2]

His son Harold succeeded him as Earl of Wessex, an area then covering roughly the southernmost third of England. With the death of Earl Siward (1055) and later Earl Ælfgar (1062), the children of Godwin were poised to assume sole control. Tostig was helped into the earldom of Northumbria, thus controlling the north. The Mercian earl was sidelined, especially after Harold and Tostig broke the Welsh-Mercian alliance in 1063. Harold later succeeded Edward the Confessor and became King of England in his own right. At this point, both Harold's remaining brothers in England were earls in their own right, Harold was himself king and in control of Wessex, and he had married the sister of Earl Edwin of Mercia and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria (who had succeeded his brother Tostig). Godwin's family looked set to inaugurate a new royal dynasty.


Godwin married a woman named Gytha who some, speculating that she was a daughter of Thorgil has called Gytha Thorkelsdóttir. If she was a daughter of Thorgil than she may also have been the granddaughter of the legendary Viking Styrbjörn Starke and great-granddaughter to Harold Bluetooth, king of Denmark and thus also ancestor to King Canute. Whomever she was, the marriage resulted in the birth of many children:

  1. Sweyn Godwinson, Earl of Herefordshire (c. 1023-1052). At some point he declared himself an illegitimate son of Canute the Great but this is considered to be a false claim.
  2. Harold II of England (c. 1022-14 October 1066)
  3. Tostig Godwinson, Earl of Northumbria (c. 1026-25 September 1066)
  4. Edith of Wessex, (c. 1030-19 December 1075), queen consort of Edward the Confessor
  5. Gyrth Godwinson (c. 1030-14 October 1066)
  6. Gunhilda of Wessex, a nun (c. 1035-1080)
  7. Ælfgifu of Wessex (c. 1035)
  8. Leofwine Godwinson, Earl of Kent (c. 1035-14 October 1066)
  9. Wulfnoth Godwinson (c. 1040)
  10. Marigard of Wessex (6 February 1033 – 6 August 1083)

Family Trees

In popular culture

Godwin has been portrayed by Torin Thatcher in the film Lady Godiva of Coventry (1955) and by Bill Wallis in an episode of the British educational TV series Historyonics entitled "1066" (2004).


  • Mason, Emma. The House of Godwine: The History of Dynasty. Hambledon Press, 2003.
  • Stenton, F.M. Anglo-Saxon England (Oxford History of England), 2001.
  • Thorne, J.O. and Collocott, T.C. Chambers Biographical Dictionary, Revised Edition. (Edinburgh: Chambers, 1984) ISBN 0-550-16010-8
  • Walker, Ian. Harold: The Last Anglo-Saxon King, 1997.
Peerage of England
New title Earl of Wessex
c. 1019–1053
Succeeded by
Harold Godwinson
New title Earl of Kent
Succeeded by
Leofwine Godwinson


  1. ^ According to Three Men in a Boat: "Old Windsor (sic) is a famous spot in its way. Edward the Confessor had a palace here, and here the great Earl Godwin was proved guilty by the justice of that age of having encompassed the death of the King's brother. Earl Godwin broke a piece of bread and held it in his hand. 'If I am guilty,' said the Earl, 'may this bread choke me when I eat it!' Then he put the bread into his mouth and swallowed it, and it choked him, and he died."
  2. ^ According to the Abingdon version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: "1053: In this year the king was at Winchester at Easter, and with him earl Godwin and earl Harold, his son, and Tostig. When on the second day of Easter he (i.e. Godwin) sat at table with the king, he suddenly sank down against the footstool, speechless and helpless: he was carried into the king's chamber and it was thought it would pass off, but it was not to be; yet he lingered on like this, unable to speak and helpless, until the Thursday, and then gave up his life.

External links


Up to date as of January 14, 2010

From Wikiquote

Godwin, Earl of Wessex (c.1001 – 15 April 1053) was one of the most powerful lords in England under the Danish king Canute the Great and his successors.


  • Sir king, I have been often accused of harbouring traitorous designs against you, but, as God in heaven is just and true, may this morsel of bread choke me if even in thought I have ever been false to you.
    • The Chronicle of Henry of Huntingdon (trans. Thomas Forester), Book VI
    • Godwin supposedly said this just before he choked to death on a piece of bread at the table of King Edward "the Confessor", but the story is very doubtful.

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