Harold's family

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The Hermitage in 2014

Chester emerged from the Dark Ages as a place of some importance. Exactly how it did this is a matter of some conjecture, and events at Chester in 900 are discussed in another article. In brief the Vikings raided it, Æthelflæd restored it, Edward the Elder died at Farndon. The Battle of Brunanburh was most likely fought nearby. Edgar the Pacific used it as an important naval base and for his ceremonial boat trip from Edgar's Field. The family of Leofric and his son Ælfgar had an important power-base here.

By 1066 Chester was a prosperous town with a population of perhaps 2,500-3,000. Rendering a farm of £45 and three timber of marten pelts (i.e. 120 skins), together with an additional payment from the moneyers operating the mint, it was assessed as a half hundred including the adjacent townships of Handbridge, Newton by Chester, 'Lee' (Overleigh and Netherleigh), and 'Redcliff', expressly said to be 'outside the city' but taxed with it. The city had its own laws and customs, administered by its hundredal court, over which presided 12 judges or doomsmen (iudices civitatis) drawn from the men of king, earl, and bishop, and liable to fines payable to the king and earl for failure to attend. The judges have been regarded as evidence of Scandinavian influence on the city's institutions and equated with the 'lawmen' (lagemen or iudices) of certain boroughs in the Danelaw. There is, however, no indication that they enjoyed the same status as the lawmen, who had extensive properties and judicial privileges. Indeed the laws of Chester, which were recorded in Domesday Book in exceptional detail, suggest that, as in other western towns dominated by a great local magnate, the status of its citizens was comparatively low. They were obliged to pay 10s. on taking up land in the city, and were also liable to heavy fines for failure to pay gavel or rent and for other misdemeanours.

Harold Godwinson traditionally has an association with Chester through the probable myth that he was the initial hermit who inhabited the Hermitage. Another important link to Chester is that the lands which became associated with the Earldom of Chester were to a significant extent - about 30% - those which had previously belonged to Harold.

The story of the family of Harold Godwinson did not end with the battle fought near Hastings in 1066 and has some actual historical links with Chester. In addition, these various traditions, which are often in contradiction, say something about the process by which the historical record is formed. What history records about the actions of Godwin and his sons has been filtered through later historians and other story-tellers, some of which would have had a pro-Norman bias and others of which would have wished to paint Harold and his relatives in as heroic a light as possible.

Family Background

Harold was a son of Godwin (c. 1001–1053), the powerful Earl of Wessex, and of Gytha Thorkelsdóttir, whose brother Ulf the Earl was married to Estrid Svendsdatter (c. 1015/1016). Estrid was the daughter of King Sweyn Forkbeard (died 1014) and therefore the sister of King Cnut the Great of England and Denmark (and according to tradition Knutsford). Ulf and Estrith's son would become King Sweyn II of Denmark in 1047. It would appear according to some sources that Godwin had earlier been married to another, Thyra Sveinsdottir, an actual sister of Cnut, who died young. This makes Harold half-Danish, or half-Viking, something he probably shared with his country given that there had been extensive Scandinavian settlement in the years leading up to his birth.

Victorian Harold

Following the Industrial Revolution, social and revolutionary changes in Europe, developments of nationalism and the introduction of Marxist and other philosophies there was a transformation in historical thought. Saxons were proposed to be fighters for social freedoms against the tyranny of Norman "feudalism", and history mingled with fiction in heroic literature such as the writing of Charles Kingsley: a typical example being "Hereward the Wake". "Hereward" mixes some elements of actual history with complete fantasy: Hereward is, in Kingsley's novel, the son of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and Lady Godiva. Both of these were actual historical characters, (who had close associations with Chester) but their historically notable son was Ælfgar. There may well have been an actual historical Hereward, but over the years even the original character has been overlaid with layers of myth and folk-tale. Such distortions were later convenient for those interested in social change. This rolled into assertive Victorian mythologies which idealised the Middle Ages and perceived strong Saxon (i.e. Germanic) roots, but also confirmed the right of the monarchy (and other classes) to rule those beneath them.

Victorian historians, especially those writing for a popular audience and trying to do so in wholly positive terms often miss out Harold's father and make Harold's brother Tostig the seemingly aberrant "black sheep" of the family who attempts to betray England to the Scandinavians. In fact, both Harold and others of his family would make use of Hiberno-Norse mercenary forces both against Edward the Confessor and against William the Conqueror. Another aspect of the events around 1066 which the Victorians omitted was the role played by the women in the story (apart from the wife or mistress finding his body). The role of the "Witan" was often over-blown and painted as some kind of prototypical Parliament, whereas in truth dynastic conflict and murder were commonplace.

Woven into the story is the common myth of the "returning king", a heroic figure who escapes near death to go on to victory. Pro-royal historians have made much of these figures, who have included Edwin of Northumbria and Ecgbert. The best known historic example is Alfred the Great who recovered from being beset on a small island in a swamp to regain some territory from the Danes. Oswald of Northumbria is another example of a returning exile to become king: and one whose miracle-spawning relics have been conveniently rediscovered several times, including by Æthelflæd. In British myth, the principal example is King Arthur, who is said to be ready to return when his country needs him most. Harold and his sons pick up some of these myths in part. As well as the folk-tales there are many other cultural depictions of Harold Godwinson but the tendency is always to portray him in a heroic light.

Godwin, Harold's father

Edmund Ironside dies. The traditional version has him being murdered by an assassin who hid in a latrine and did for him with either a spear or a primitive cross-bow. The illustration is taken from the only known copy of an illustrated Anglo-Norman verse Life of St Edward the Confessor, written in England probably in the later 1230s or early 1240s and, as preserved in this manuscript, executed c. 1250-60. The marginalia are notable: that on the first opening shows a semi-erased image of a man and woman kissing, perhaps a subversive reference to the substance of the main text, which stresses Edward's chastity.

Godwin was the son of Wulfnoth, probably a thegn and a native of Sussex. Very little else is known for certain of the ancestry of the Godwins. According to the twelfth-century chronicler John of Worcester, Godwin was the son of a Wulfnoth who was the son of Æthelmær, brother of Eadric Streona, both sons of an otherwise unknown Æthelric. However this appears to be impossible in terms of dates and may be an attempt to link Godwin to Eadric Streona simply because Streona had such a poor reputation. It is from John of Worcester’s chronicle (see link below) that we know a little of what happened to some of Harold Godwinson’s family in the aftermath of the Conquest. Whether there is any bias in John of Worcester's account is an interesting question. John originally worked under the instructions of Bishop Wulfstan the last surviving pre-Conquest bishop, the only English-born bishop after 1075 and had been a confidant of Harold Godwinsson, who helped secure the bishopric for him. John of Worcester is definitely pro-Harold and showers him with praise for his character, for example in his record of events in 1055:

  • "On receiving intelligence of this calamity, the king immediately commanded an army to be levied from every part of England, and on its being assembled at Gloucester, gave the command of it to the brave earl Harold, who, zealously obeying the king’s orders, was unwearied in his pursuit of Griffyth and Algar, and boldly crossing the Welsh border, encamped beyond Straddell [Snowdon]; but they knowing him to be an intrepid and daring warrior, did not venture to wait his attack, but retreated into South Wales."

The House of Godwin is therefore only really related to previous kings of England through marriage to a somewhat distant relative of Cnut. There is no close connection to the line of succession starting from Ecgbert and ending with Edward the Confessor. John of Worcester cannot therefore justify Harold's right to be king based on his ancestry and therefore seeks to justify it based on conduct.

In 1013 the Danes under Sweyn Forkbeard invaded England, forcing Æthelred the Unready into exile in Normandy. Sweyn promptly died leading to a contest for the throne. Sweyn's men supported his son Cnut, but with the help of the later Olaf II Æthelred managed to return and Cnut went overseas. Then Æthelred died in 1016, to be succeed by his son Edmund Ironside. Godwin began his political career by supporting King Edmund Ironside (reigned April to November 1016). The location of Edmund's death is uncertain though it is generally accepted that it occurred in London, rather than in Oxford where Henry of Huntingdon (c.1129) claimed it to be in his version of events, which included Edmund's death from multiple stab-wounds whilst he was defecating on a privy. Geoffrey Gaimar (1130's) narrates a similar occurrence with the weapon being a crossbow; but with a number of other medieval chroniclers, including the Encomium Emmae Reginae (c.1042), not mentioning murder, it is thought Edmund's cause of death may possibly have been caused by wounds received in battle or by some disease. It is certainly possible, however, that he was murdered.

Godwin was probably too young to have been involved in any murder, but the murder followed shortly after Edmund had been betrayed by Eadric Streona at the Battle of Assandun (1016), so even if Godwin was not involved, he was exposed to political treachery at an early age. If fact this was not the first instance of treachery in the young Godwin's life - in 1008, King Æthelred the Unready ordered the construction of a fleet, and the following year 300 ships assembled at Sandwich, Kent to meet a threatened Viking invasion. There Brihtric, another supposed brother of Eadric Streona, brought unknown charges against Wulfnoth before the king, (unjustly according to John of Worcester). Wulfnoth then fled with twenty ships and ravaged the south coast. Brihtric followed with eighty, but his fleet was driven ashore by a storm and burnt by Wulfnoth. After the loss of a third of the fleet the remaining ships were withdrawn to London, and the Vikings were able to invade Kent unopposed. Æthelred almost certainly confiscated Wulfnoth's property as a result. Just what John of Worcester is trying to say when he recites this complex family feud is not clear. The result of this period of rapidly changing rulers was that by the end of 1016 Cnut was now the English king and the sons of Æthelred were in exile in Normandy.

Godwin had switched to supporting King Cnut by 1018, when Cnut named him Earl of a part of Wessex and he became one of the select few signing Cnut's charters. Godwin had survived Cnut's purge of English nobles and remained an earl throughout the remainder of Cnut's reign, one of only two earls to survive to the end of that reign. It appears that Godwin helped Cnut in crushing a rebellion in Denmark (between 1019 and 1023) and was rewarded by being made first Earl of Devon and later, Earl of the whole of Wessex. Eadric Streona was not so fortunate as soon after Cnut gained the throne he was disposed of, permanently.

Another fanciful portrayal of history. Eric Haakonsson takes a rather flimsy-looking axe to the treacherous Eadric Streona in 1017 while Cnut looks on.

On Cnut's death in 1035, Godwin originally supported Harthacnut instead of Cnut's initial successor Harold Harefoot, but managed to switch sides in 1037 — although not without becoming involved in the 1036 murder of Alfred Aetheling, half-brother of Harthacnut and younger brother of the later King Edward the Confessor. Alfred Ætheling had landed on the coast of Sussex with a Norman mercenary bodyguard, possibly at the invitation of Godwin, and attempted to make his way to London. However he was betrayed, captured by Earl Godwin of Wessex, and blinded; he died soon afterwards. In 1929 the remains of 223 soldiers, whom excavators identified as Normans based on their stature, prominent skulls and slender leg bones, were found on the prominent hillside immediately west of Guildford's centre. They were bound and had been executed. The grave has been dated to c. 1040 and is generally believed to provide some physical evidence of the slaughter of the Norman mercenary bodyguard.

When Harold Harefoot died in 1040, Harthacnut became King of England and Godwin's power was imperiled by his earlier involvement in Alfred's murder, but an oath and large gift secured the new king's favour for Godwin. Harefoot had been buried in Westminster Abbey but his body was subsequently exhumed, beheaded, and thrown into a fen bordering the Thames when Harthacnut assumed the throne. After some postumous adventures he was reburied but there are conflicting accounts as to where. There were suspicious circumstances about the death of Harefoot which have been attributed to "a mysterious illness", possibly poison.

Harthacnut's death in 1042 probably involved Godwin in a role as kingmaker, helping to secure the English throne for Edward the Confessor. Harthacnut's death is also not without suspicious circumstances. The young king, aged something like 24, was at a wedding in Lambeth, probably where the Archbishop's Palace stands today. The groom was a wealthy lord called Tovi the Proud while the bride was Gytha, daughter of the courtier Osgod Clapa. The happy occasion, recorded in the Anglo Saxon Chronicles as 8 June 1042, soon turned to tragedy. According to this account, Harthacnut rose to toast the bride and groom but never completed his speech. He:

The sudden and convenient death of Harthacnut.
  • "died as he stood at his drink, and he suddenly fell to the earth with an awful convulsion; and those who were close by took hold of him, and he spoke no word afterwards".

One theory is that he was very possibly poisoned and the person with most to gain from his death was Earl Godwin.

In 1045 Godwin reached the height of his power when the new king, Edward the Confessor married Godwin's daughter Edith. There can be no doubt that it was Earl Godwine’s intention that the marriage of Edward and Edith should produce a boy, his grandson, who would be the next king of England. But there everything did not go according to plan. The marriage of Edward and Edith remained childless. It suited some later religious authors to portray this childlessness as a deliberate policy – a depiction in which the king is pious and unworldly, and in which the marriage is more like a father-daughter relationship. Unfortunately this does not quite fit the facts. When it became clear that his marriage to Edith of Wessex would produce no children, he sent a mission to Germany to negotiate the return of his nephew Edward the Exile. Like Edward, the nephew had gone into exile (as an infant) in 1016. In modern terms, one might say he was next in line for the throne. It is testimony to the power of blood-entitlement that he was recalled after 40 years in a foreign land, just as Edward himself had been recalled after a quarter of a century in Normandy. Unfortunately, the nephew died immediately upon his return without even meeting the king. This was convenient for the Godwins, and murder has again been suggested.

It was around this time that a great rivalry started to grow between the Godwins of Wessex and the house of Leofric of Mercia, who had a major power base at Chester. In several charters, such as one in 1043 (founding Coventry Abbey), Leofric is referred to as the "comes" (count) of Chester. Bradshaw, in his "Life of St Werburgh" refers to him as the Earl of Chester (stanza 176) who made important donations to St Johns (stanza 175) and the "Minster of St Werburgh" (later the Cathedral}.

Like Harthacnut, Edward was never convinced of Godwin’s innocence, a fact which added to the increasing distrust and conflict between the king and his most powerful earl in the first ten years of Edward’s reign. Indeed, when the Godwin family and Edward quarrelled ias part of the crisis of 1051, it was Edward’s demand to have his (dead) brother returned to him that made Earl Godwin realise there would be no rapprochement; the earl sailed into exile in Flanders with his family.

Godwin and Gytha had several children—six sons: Sweyn, Harold, Tostig, Gyrth, Leofwine and Wulfnoth; and three daughters: Edith of Wessex (originally named Gytha but renamed Ealdgyth (or Edith) when she married King Edward the Confessor), Gunhild and Ælfgifu. The birthdates of the children are unknown, but Harold was the second son, Sweyn being the eldest. Harold was aged about 25 in 1045, which makes his birth year around 1020.

To summarise all this, the end of 1051 saw Godwin and his sons in exile. Godwin, along with his wife Gytha and sons Sweyn, Tostig and Gyrth had sought refuge in Flanders, while his sons Leofwine and Harold fled to Dublin, where they gained the shelter and help of Diarmait mac Máel na mBó, King of Leinster.

William Blake's version of the death of Godwin.

Godwin's Death

Godwin and his sons returned to England in 1052 with armed forces, gaining the support of the navy, burghers, and peasants, so compelling Edward to restore his earldom.

One act that Godwin never forgave Edward the Confessor for, was the appointment of Robert of Jumieges as Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1052 he removed him from office and appointed Stigand. An act that was condemned by Pope Leo IX. He was immediately excommunicated for replacing an Archbishop without the express permission of the Pope whilst the incumbent is still alive. Evidently Godwin felt that Robert, along with a number of other Normans, had been the driving force behind his exile. Robert's treatment was later used by William the Conqueror as one of the justifications for his invasion of England, the other being that Edward had named William his heir.

On 15 April 1053 Godwin died suddenly, after collapsing during a royal banquet at Winchester. According to one colourful account by the 12th-century writer Aelred of Rievaulx, the old chestnut of murder came up and Godwin tried to disclaim responsibility for Alfred Ætheling's death with the words:

  • "May this crust which I hold in my hand pass through my throat and leave me unharmed to show that I was guiltless of treason towards you, and that I was innocent of your brother's death!".

He swallowed the crust, but it stuck in his throat and killed him. However, this appears to be no more than Norman propaganda, contemporary accounts indicating that he just had a sudden illness, possibly a stroke. According to the Abingdon version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, under the year 1053:

  • "On Easter Monday, as he was sitting with the king at a meal he suddenly sank towards the footstool bereft of speech, and deprived of all his strength. Then he was carried to the king's private room and they thought it was about to pass off. But it was not so. On the contrary, he continued like this without speech or strength right on to the Thursday, and then departed this life."

Other versions of events, such as that of Aelred of Rievaulx, put a slightly different slant on things:

  • "The king watched him die in misery, and realising that divine judgment had come upon him, called to the bystanders: “Take this dog out,” he said. Godwin’s sons ran in, removed him from under the table and brought him to a bedroom, where soon afterwards he made an end fitting for such a traitor."

Given the number of sudden deaths associated with the royal household the possibility that Godwin was poisoned cannot be excluded. However, the story of his sudden death shortly after displacing Archbishop Robert could also have been used by later Norman chroniclers as a convenient way of "proving" that William was in the right to invade England.

Godwin's times were violent and dynastic struggle was frequent. However he does appear to have a remarkable knack of being associated with sudden and violent deaths. Whether he was just a typical earl of the times, or was prepared to climb up the ranks of aristocracy on a pile of corpses it certainly seems like he was prepared to take action to advance the position of himself and his sons. These elements of his character may well have been influenced by his formative years as part of a family which had dubious loyalties and he no doubt passed much of his ambition and ruthlessness onto his sons. Godwin was later portrayed unfavourably by the church: the late 12th century wax seal of Westminster Abbey shows Edward the Confessor trampling on Earl Godwin (with St Peter trampling on Nero on the other side).

Links with Chester

St Olave, and the mysterious "passage" beneath.

The rivalry between Wessex and Mercia goes back to at least the time of Ecgbert in around the year 829. Ecgbert was another returning exile having been driven out at the zenith of Mercia's power under its notable despot Offa. Mercia effectively fell apart after the death of Offa allowing the rise of Wessex initially under the rule of a returned Ecgbert. The Viking incursions of the time of Alfred of Wessex and his brothers forced a truce between Wessex and the remains of Mercia, and Alfred, who also endured a brief period of effective exile. Alfred married his daughter Æthelflæd into the Mercian ruling house and while there were a few sudden deaths of kings and those who claimed to be kings over the years which followed Wessex managed to keep someone who had Ecgbert as an ancestor on the throne, if sometimes only briefly.

While Wessex managed to recover much of the Scandinavian ruled territory, eventually England collapsed to Scandinavian rule following the reign of Edmund Ironside. As noted above Godwin was raised to a position of power by Cnut. The same is true of Leofric. During the reign of Cnut the tension between Wessex and Mercia crystallised into the rivalry between the houses of Wessex-based Godwin and Mercia-based Leofric. The rise of a local or at least Mercian ealdorman and the Mercian particularism fostered by Ælfhere and his like already meant that increasingly Chester lay on the fringes of royal authority. Leofric managed to avoid exile, but not so his son Ælfgar who was banished in 1055. The Godwin's had set a precident for what to do if exiled, and Ælfgar followed this, returning with foreign support, forcing Edward the Confessor to restore him and dying soon afterwards.

Ælfgar's alliance with the Welsh king Gruffudd ap Llywelyn led to the latter's acquisition of lands west of the Dee, near Chester, and when in 1063 Earl Harold attacked Gruffudd's palace at Rhuddlan in Flintshire he perhaps made Chester his base. Although with Gruffudd's defeat in the same year the lands beyond the Dee returned to English control, the main beneficiary was not the king but Ælfgar's youthful son and heir, Earl Edwin, who had gained his title around 1062. By then the king had relinquished all his Cheshire lands to the earls of Mercia, leaving them in a position not so very unlike that of their Norman successors at Chester. The wars in Wales during the middle years of Edward the Confessor can almost be seen as a "proxy war" between the Godwins and the House of Leofric which Edwin and Harold seem to have largely resolved. Harold's brother Tostig was apparently involved in the Welsh campaign, bringing his troops overland, possibly via Chester.

There are few details known of the "alliance" between Edwin and Harold, but the key to it may well have been Ealdgyth, daughter of Ælfgar, widow of the Welsh prince Gruffydd ap Llywelyn and sister to Edwin. The political situation was certainly complex: Ælfgar had been the ally of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn and cemented their relationship with the marriage of his daughter. Tostig was to support Harold by possibly bringing his Northumbrian army through Cheshire, which might also have been intended to send a message to Edwin not to interfere. John of Worcester describes the events as follows:

  • "When Christmas was over, Harold, the brave earl of Wessex, by king Edward’s order, put himself at the head of a small troop of horse, and proceeded by rapid marches from Gloucester, where the king then was, to Rhuddlan, [Flintshire] with the determination to punish Griffyth, king of Wales, for his continual ravages on the English marshes, and his many insults to his lord, king Edward, by taking his life. But Griffyth, being forewarned of the earl’s approach, fled with his attendants, and escaped by getting aboard a ship, but not without extreme difficulty. Harold, finding he was gone, ordered his palace to be burnt, and setting fire to his ships and all their rigging, began his march homeward the same day. But about Rogation days [20 May] he sailed from Bristol with a naval force, and circumnav1gated a great part of Wales. His brother met him, by the king’s command, with a body of cavalry, and uniting their forces, they began to lay waste that part of the country. In consequence, the Welsh were reduced to submission, and, giving hostages, engaged to pay him tribute, and they deposed and banished their king, Griffyth."

Harold and Edwin share a common feature that neither is of the royal blood, both have had their father exiled by Edward the Confessor and both families have been restored to power by the force of arms and foreign support. Harold comes out of the campaign with Llywelyn's head as a trophy and (somewhat later) a new wife. It is Edwin and his brother Morcar who are involved in the 1065 revolt against Harold's brother Tostig. Historians have concentrated on the events in Northumbria which led to Tostig's downfall, but perhaps the seeds of his replacement by Morcar were sown in the Welsh campaign.

Another possible link between the Godwins and Chester is St Olave. A case can at least be made for the Godwin family endorsing the traditions of Olaf II. Their association with St Olave's church in Exeter is demonstrable: it was founded in 1053 by Gytha, the mother of King Harold. St Olave's church in Southwark is highly likely to have been a Godwin-related foundation: the church’s probable beginning is as a private chapel of Godwin, Earl of Wessex from at least 1018. St Olave's church in Chichester is also likely to have been so: the Godwins owned land there and nearby Bosham (two miles away) is mentioned by name in the Bayeux Tapestry:

  • "Ubi Harold Dux Anglorum et sui milites equitant ad Bosham ecclesia[m]" (Where Harold, Earl of the English, and his army ride to Bosham church)

Harold's strong association with Bosham and the discovery of an Anglo-Saxon grave in the church has led some historians to speculate that King Harold was buried there, at Holy Trinity Church. Curiously, there is a tradition that a daughter of King Cnut drowned in a nearby millstream and was also buried in the church and it is intriging that Harold's father is said in some sources to have been married, or perhaps betrothed to a sister of the same king who died young.

Harold and his Brothers

The death of Edward the Confessor (January 1066) is depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry in a curiously out-of-sequence section (although the same out of sequence occurs in the Vita Ædwardi Regis). Edward's funeral is shown first, followed by his death-bed scene and then Harold's coronation. This is followed by the apparition of Halley's comet. Harold is depicted as being present at Edward's death apparently touching his body. Some English sources claimed that on his deathbed, King Edward designated Harold as his heir. The Bayeux Tapestry makes it clear that there is some sort of conversation and promise taking place, but whether Harold is promising to take over the kingdom or to cede it to William is unclear, and one of the primary reasons that the allegiances of the Tapestry’s makers is so ambiguous. Other writers have speculated that Harold may have hastened the elderly King's death by choking him, but they are in a minority.

The Brothers

The murder of Beorn Estrithson by Sweyn, as depicted by Matthew Paris in his Chronica Majora, II, fol. 52r (56r).


Sweyn Godwinson (Old English: Swegen Godƿinson) (c. 1020 – 1052), also spelled Swein, was the eldest son of Earl Godwin of Wessex. There is some evidence suggesting that Sweyn claimed to be a son of King Canute, but his mother indignantly denied this and brought forth witnesses to his parentage.

Sweyn was much involved in Welsh politics. In 1046, he joined in on an invasion of Deheubarth. On his return from this campaign Sweyn abducted Eadgifu, the Abbess of Leominster, apparently intending to marry her and gain control of Leominster's vast estate. However, King Edward refused permission and Eadgifu returned to her abbey. Late in 1047 Sweyn left England to take refuge with Baldwin V, Count of Flanders. During his exile he travelled first to Flanders, then to Denmark before returning to England in 1049 to beg for forgiveness. As John of Worcester writes:

  • "Meanwhile, earl Sweyn, son of earl Godwin and Githa, who had left England and gone to Denmark, because he was not permitted to marry Edgiva, abbess of the monastery of Leominster, whom he had debauched, returned with eight ships, alleging falsely that he would now remain loyally with the king."

In his absence, his land had been divided, between his brother Harold and his cousin Beorn Estrithson (a viking and the son of Cnut’s sister). Beorn, accompanied by only three men, was attacked by Sweyn (at Bosham), bundled into a boat and later brutally killed either at Dartmouth or at sea nearby. John of Worcester records it as follows:

  • "During these occurrences earl Sweyn went to Pevensey, and perfidiously requested earl Beorn, his cousin, to go with him to the port of Sandwich, and make his peace with the king, according to promise. Beorn, relying on his relationship, accompanied him with only three attendants; but Sweyn conducted him to Bosham, where his ships lay, and, taking him on board one of them, ordered him to be bound with thongs, and kept him on board until they reached the mouth of the river Dart. There they slew him, and threw him into a deep trench, and covered him with earth. They then sent away six of the ships, two of which were soon afterwards taken by the men of Hastings, who, having killed all on board, carried them to Sandwich and presented them to the king. Sweyn, however, escaped to Flanders with two ships, and remained there until he was brought back by Aldred, bishop of Worcester, who reconciled him with the king."

Beorn's body was left on the riverside, although Harold would later seek it out and give it a proper burial. The scandal was immense, and Sweyn was bestowed with the title "niðing", meaning “man of no honour”. Once more, he was exiled. Next, while returning from a pilgrimage to Rome, an English archbishop (Ealdred) bumped into Sweyn in France, and was so convinced by the change of character he saw that he was prepared to vouch for Sweyn to the king. Sweyn, against all odds, was returned to England an acquitted man. In 1051 the Godwins were exiled en-masse - and as this was Sweyn's third exile it was made permanent. He then embarked on a barefoot pilgrimage to Jerusalem, as was to die on the way back. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states his death occurred at Constantinople, John of Worcester records it at Lycia, Asia Minor (from cold). According to William of Malmesbury, he was ambushed by Saracens almost at the start of his trip home and mortally wounded.

Sweyn, although he claimed to be descended from Cnut and was undoubtedly a bold actor and able soldier had effectively put himself out of the line of possible sucession.


Tostig Godwinson (c. 1023/1028 – 25 September 1066) was an Anglo-Saxon Earl of Northumbria. When Siward, the long-term Earl of Northumbria died in 1055, his only surviving son was still a child, and King Edward awarded the earldom to Harold’s inexperienced younger brother Tostig. Although the King was no fan of of the late Earl Godwin, there is evidence that Godwin's third son was a favorite at court. Since he was half Danish, Tostig didn’t seem like a bad choice for the region inhabited by Norsemen, and he served as Earl of Northumbria for ten years before he had serious trouble. He was never popular with the Northumbrian ruling class, a mix of Danish invaders and Anglo-Saxon survivors of the last Norse invasion. Tostig was said to have been heavy-handed with those who resisted his rule, including murdering several members of leading Northumbrian families. However, his rule does not appear to have been too unstable as in 1061 he accompanied the well-travelled archbishop Ealdred to Rome.

In late 1063 or early 1064, Tostig had Gamal son of Orm and Ulf son of Dolfin assassinated when Gamul visited him under safe conduct. There has acutually been a suggestion that Gamul was a member of the same family of the Gamul's of Chester, who lived at Gamul House. Another death at the time was that of Gospatric. The latter assassination has been pinned on Queen Edith, Tostig’s sister, and it has been said that she ordered this killing in her brother’s interest.

The Tide Sundial at Kirkdale, Yorkshire. The panel containing the actual sundial above the church doors is flanked by two panels, bearing a rare inscription in Old English, the language of the Anglo-Saxons. The sundial, discovered during a renovation in 1771, commemorates the rebuilding of the ruined church, in about 1055. The inscription reads: "Orm son of Gamal bought St Gregory's Minster when it was all ruined and collapsed and he caused it to be made new from the ground for Christ and St. Gregory in the days of Edward the king and in the days of Tosti the eorl." Gamul, is though to be the same Gamul (himself son of another Orm) who was murdered by Tostig.

In March 1065 the supposed bones of St Oswine were dug up and put on display in Durham, possibly in an attempt to proke a revolt. His grave (at Tynemouth) had been lost for years and was revealed in a vision to a monk named Edmund. Oswine had succeeded Oswald of Northumbria in c644. Oswald had been killed at the Battle of Maserfield (near Oswestry) and his head and hands made into a sort of scarecrow. Some of his relics then had many adventures, including being "rediscovered" in part by Æthelflæd (909) when dedicating "St Werburgh and St Oswald" in Chester. Oswine was later betrayed (by Hunwald) and murdered by his own relatives in 651. In Anglo-Saxon culture, it was assumed that the nearest kinsmen to a murdered person would seek to avenge the death or require some other kind of justice on account of it, and as a consequence he is the patron saint of betrayal victims. This may therefore have been an oblique reference to the murder of Gospatric. If it was a reference it was a particularly sharp one, as Edith was known to be somewhat obsessed with relics: the monks of Evesham alleged that she had the relics of many monasteries brought to Gloucester so that she could select the best for herself. An Evesham Abbey legend goes even further:

  • "A curious story relating to the remains of this saint is told in the monastic chronicles. Edith, the queen of Edward the Confessor, being anxious to acquire some precious relic for purposes of her own, called upon a number of the religious houses of England to send their treasures to Gloucester, there to be inspected by her, and, among others, the convent of Evesham sent the remains of Saint Odulf and Saint Egwin. As the queen was examining the shrine of the former, she was suddenly struck with a peculiar form of blindness, and not until she had invoked the saint's intercession, and declared her intention of restoring the sacred relics to the monks, did she regain her sight!"

On 3 October 1065, the thegns of York and the rest of Yorkshire descended on York and occupied the city. John of Worcester writes:

  • "Soon after the feast of St. Michael, the archangel, on Monday, the fifth of the nones [the 3rd] of October, the Northumbrian thanes, Gamelbearn, Dunstan, son of Athelneth, and Glonicorn, son of Heardulf, entered York with two hundred soldiers, to revenge the execrable murder of the noble Northumbrian thane, Cospatric, who was treacherously killed by order of queen Edgitha at the king’s court on the fourth night of Christmas, for the sake of her brother Tosti; as also the murder of the thanes Gamel, the son of Orm, and Ulf, the son of Dolfin, whom earl Tosti had perfidiously caused to be assassinated in his own chamber at York, the year before, although there was peace between them."

They killed Tostig's officials and supporters, then declared Tostig outlawed for his unlawful actions and sent for Morcar, younger brother of Edwin, Earl of Mercia. The northern rebels marched south to press their case with King Edward. They were joined at Northampton by Earl Edwin and his forces. There, they were met by Earl Harold, who had been sent by King Edward to negotiate with them and thus did not bring his forces. Harold persuaded Edward the Confessor to agree to the demands of the rebels. Tostig was outlawed a short time later, possibly early in November, because he refused to accept his deposition as commanded by Edward. Tostig had not only been a favorite of the King, but also the favourite brother of the King's wife. According to William of Poitiers in his Gesta Guillelmi, she is said to have loved Tostig and hated Harold, although that may be Norman propaganda. The loss of Tostig, seems to have broken Edward and, as expounded by the Vita Ædwardi Regis, he:

  • "became so ill, his mind was affected until his death".

It has been suggested that, with Tostig’s outlawing, Edward was to suffer what may have been the first of a series of strokes that would lead to his death. After being exiled on the advice of his elder brother Harold (but loaded down with parting gifts from a soon to be dead Edward the Confessor) it is hardly surprising what happened next. Tostig at first went to Flanders, but may have been prompted by Halley's Comet to chance an invasion, for John of Worcester writes:

  • "The same year a comet was seen on the eighth of the calends of May [24th April], not only in England, but, as it is reported, all over the world : it shone with excessive brilliance for seven days. Soon afterwards earl Tosti returned from Flanders, and landed in the Isle of Wight; and, having compelled the islanders to give him pay and tribute, he departed, and plundered along the sea-coast, until he arrived at Sandwich. King Harold, who was then at London, having been informed of this, ordered a considerable fleet t1nd a body of horse to be got ready, and prepared to go in person to the port of Sandwich. On receiving this intelligence, Tosti took some of the boatmen of the place, willing or unwilling, into his service, and, departing thence, shaped his course for Lindsey, where he burnt several vills and slew a number of men. Thereupon Edwin, earl of Mercia, and Morcar, earl of Northumbria, flew to the spot with some troops, and drove him out of that neighbourhood; and, on his departure, he repaired to Malcolm, king of the Scots, and remained with him during the whole summer."

Tostig later supported the Norwegian king Harald Hardrada's invasion of England, and was killed along with Hardrada at the Battle of Stamford Bridge in 1066. There are things about the battle of Stamford Bridge which do not make sense: the traditional tale is that at a parley prior to the battle, Harold offered Tostig his earldom back if he would lay down his arms and join him, Tostig asked what English lands Harald Hardrada could expect if he dismissed his Viking army. Harold's reply was that "he would offer Harald seven foot of good English soil, or as much as he needed as he was taller than other men". If there was time for these discussions, then why are the Scandinavians also portrayed as being caught by surprise with their army divided on two sides of a river? In any event Tostig chose not to take up Harold's offer and died in the subsequent battle.

The "Vita Haroldi" - is it a fake or not?


Gyrth Godwinson (Old English: Gyrð Godƿinson; c. 1032 – 14 October 1066) was the fourth son of Earl Godwin, and thus a younger brother of Harold Godwinson. He went with his eldest brother Sweyn into exile to Flanders in 1051, but unlike Sweyn he was able to return with the rest of the clan the following year. Along with his brothers Harold and Tostig, Gyrth was present at his father's death-bed.

Gurth is traditionally said to have died at the Battle of Hastings, and indeed his death is shown in the Bayeux Tapestry. The Carmen de Hastingae Proelio written around 1967 by Guy of Amiens even goes so far as to have him personally killed by Duke William. However, the Vita Haroldi suggests that he survived. The Norman poet Robert Wace (c. 1110 – after 1174) wrote:

  • "Gurth, Harold's brother, who also survived the battle of Hastings, confidentially confirmed Sebricht's statement that the canons of Waltham were deceived as to the body of Harold, which had been interred at Waltham."

The Vita is an extremely suspect text, but the 13th Century author is aware his account differs from most others but insists he is not writing fiction, criticising other chroniclers for believing what they are told rather than seeking out the truth. He claims the rumours of Harold’s death were started as an attempt to protect the king while he was recovering from his wounds.


Leofwine Godwinson (c. 1035 – 14 October 1066) was the fifth son of Earl Godwin. When the Godwin family was exiled from England in 1051 he went with Harold to Ireland, where they were sheltered and helped by Diarmait mac Máel na mBó, King of Leinster. He would have returned with the rest of the family the following year, but was not present at the death-bed of his father in April 1053.

The Godwinsons managed to retain their hold on England. Harold inherited the Earldom of Wessex and became second in power only to the king. Leofwine was made Earl of Kent, Essex, Middlesex, Hertford, Surrey and probably Buckinghamshire some time between 1055 and 1057. Together with his brother Gyrth's Earldoms of East Anglia, Cambridgeshire and Oxfordshire the Godwinsons now controlled the entire east of England.

Traditionally his fate is that he was killed alongside his brothers Harold and Gyrth in the Battle of Hastings. His death is depicted in scene 52, which places it very early in the battle. According to William of Poitiers:

  • "Victory won, the duke returned to the field of battle. He was met with a scene of carnage which he could not regard without pity in spite of the wickedness of the victims. Far and wide the ground was covered with the flower of English nobility and youth. Harold's two brothers were found lying beside him."

William of Poitiers Gesta Guillelmi provides the traditional narrative of the Battle of Hastings. His work is biased: as William is made to be a paragon, so Harold is vilified. His victory at Stamford Bridge is ignored and Harold portrayed as duplicitous ingrate, an impious usurper, a tyrant, and a perjurer (William of Jumièges was content simply to denigrate Harold for his perjury).

Harold gets captured by the French. Was he on a fishing trip, or trying to buy back the freedom of his younger brother?


Wulfnoth Godwinson (1040-1094) was the sixth son of Godwin. Wulfnoth was given as a hostage to Edward the Confessor in 1051 as assurance of Godwin's good behaviour and support during the confrontation between the earl and the king which led to the exile of Godwin and his other sons. Upon Godwin's return to England at the head of an army a year later, following extensive preparations in Ireland and Flanders, Norman supporters of King Edward, and especially Archbishop Robert of Jumièges fled England. It is likely at this point that Wulfnoth (and Hakon, son of Svein Godwinson, Godwin's eldest son) were spirited away by the fleeing archbishop, and taken to Normandy, where they were handed over to Duke William of Normandy. According to the Norman chronicle of William of Jumièges (no relation), Robert of Jumièges then made the assertion that the hostages were being handed over as a guarantee that King Edward wished William to be his successor.

According to Historia novorum in Anglia by English historian Eadmer, the reason for Harold's excursion to Normandy in 1064 or 1065 was that he wished to free Wulfnoth as well as his nephew Hakon. To this end he took with him a vast amount of wealth, all of which was confiscated by Count Guy I of Ponthieu when Harold and his party were shipwrecked. However, Harold's reasons for travelling to the continent are not clear, and there are other reasonable explanations, not the least of which was a sounding out among continental magnates of a response to his own intention to ascend the English throne at one point, given Edward's advanced age and lack of heir. Some medieval historians suggested that Harold was on a fishing trip, but he seems to have taken considerable sums of money with him. Only Hakon returned to England with Harold, and nothing more is known of him after this point.

Wulfnoth was not released until 1087, by the dying King William I in an amnesty. He was only freed briefly, before King William II Rufus took him to confinement in England. Of course, there are many other explanations of Wulfnoth's enduring captivity. Even following William's victory at Hastings (1066) over Harold and crowning as King of England in London later that year, England's pacification remained uncertain. William may have held Wulfnoth as hostage against a resurgence of a remnant of Godwinson power. Wulfnoth stayed in sometimes comfortable, if not enviable, captivity in Normandy and later in England, and died in Winchester in 1094, still a prisoner.

The Sisters

The death of Edward the Confessor. If we take the Bayeux Tapestry literally, there were only four witnesses: Queen Edith of Wessex, Harold, Archbishop Stigand, and Robert the Staller, Edward’s Norman friend who held the King in his arms. There is more on Robert here.

Harold had four sisters according to the various histories. Three were Edgiva, Elgiva (died c. 1066), and Gunhilda, a nun (who died 24 August 1087). Very little is known about these three, but the fourth, Edith, left a significan mark on events.

Edith of Wessex

Edith was Queen of England from her marriage to Edward the Confessor in 1045 until Edward died in 1066. Unlike most English queens in the 10th and 11th centuries, she was crowned. The principal source on her life is a work she herself commissioned, the Vita Ædwardi Regis or the Life of King Edward who rests at Westminster, which is inevitably biased. Edith has been suggested as the possible "author" of the Bayeux Tapestry, but other origins have been proposed.

Historians are divided when it comes to her character, some make her a supporter of Tostig and have her (ineptly, in hindsight) arrange the murder of Gospatric which in part precipitated Tostig's downfall. Others have her conspire with Harold to falsify the last wishes of her husband Edward the Confessor. When her father and brothers Harold and Tostig Godwinsson were banished from England in 1051 by King Edward, he packed her off to a nunnery and confiscated all her lands. These were restored when the Godwins returned. On Edward's death, the Domesday Book reveals Edith was the richest woman in England.

Edith was, according to the traditional view, the only senior member of the Godwin family to survive the Norman conquest on English soil, the sons of Harold having fled to Ireland and or to Scandinavia. William sent envoys to Winchester to request tribute from Edith to which she complied and thereby retained her estates, thus being the sole figure among the earlier English royalty to prosper during the reign of the Norman William I. She died at Winchester on 18 December 1075 and was buried near her husband's tomb. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records:

  • "Edith the Lady died seven nights before Christmas in Winchester, she was King Edward's wife, and the king had her brought to Westminster with great honour and laid her near King Edward, her lord."
Edith of Wessex, Harold's sister, as illustrated by Matthew Paris.

Late medieval tombs list say that she was re-buried on the left side of the new Shrine. Nothing marks her grave. In medieval times a lamp was burned in her memory by the High Altar.

Wives and Children

William the Conqueror departed from the practice of the previous English rulers in not engaging in the murder or mutilation of the surviving male members of any prior dynasty which could have been presented as potential rivals. Several survivors of the House of Godwin were held captive, but none died under mysterious circumstances. While this clemency was extended to the major players, William was less kind to others who "he ignominiously punished by the loss of their eyes or hands".

Harold's Wives

For some twenty years Harold was married "More Danico" (Latin: "in the Danish manner") to Edyth Swannesha ("the fair") and had at least six children with her. She was considered Harold's mistress by the clergy, but this may have been only in hindsight. It was not until the mid-twelfth century that church courts were universally acknowledged as the arbiters of legal marriage, or indeed that the church developed a universal doctrine of what constituted a legally binding marriage. Therefore statements about whether Harold was legally married to Edyth probably date from much later than Harold's own time.

Edyth the fair

Edyth is sometime called "Edyth Swan-neck", but this could be an error in translation of swann hnesce, "gentle swan" as swann hnecca, "swan neck". "Hnesce" is the origin of the dialect term "nesh".

Harold probably met Edyth at about the same time as he became Earl of East Anglia, in 1044, which makes it possible that Edyth and the East Anglian magnate, Eadgifu the Fair, are one and the same. Eadgifu the Fair held over 270 hides of land and was one of the richest magnates in England. The majority of her estates lay in Cambridgeshire, but she also held land in Buckinghamshire, Hertfordshire, Essex and Suffolk; in the Domesday Book, Eadgifu held the manor at Harkstead in Suffolk, which was attached to Harold’s manor of Brightlingsea in Essex, and some of her Suffolk lands were tributary to Harold’s manor of East Bergholt.

According to folklore, Edyth identified Harold's body after the Battle of Hastings. The body was horribly mutilated after the battle by the Norman army of William the Conqueror, and, despite pleas by Harold's mother, Gytha Thorkelsdóttir, for William to surrender Harold's body for burial, the Norman army refused, even though Harold's mother offered Harold's weight in gold. It was then that Edith the Fair walked through the carnage of the battle so that she might identify Harold by markings on his chest known only to her. Of course, if she picked-out a badly damaged (or even partially decayed) body which had been stripped of anything valuable then this might not have been Harold. The whole story of two noble women turing up just after the battle to identify the body is also somewhat suspicious. Given the range of ages to be found among Harold’s "bastard" children, it seems plausible to accept that he had a number of mistresses and that Edith was simply the one known to the canons at Waltham because she lived near their abbey.

Edyth has also been identified with Richeldis de Faverches a devout English noblewoman who is credited with establishing the original shrine of Our Lady of Walsingham following a series of visions. However there is some debate as to whether Richeldis actually lived at that early date. Walsingham became a major pilgrimage location on the back of the legend.

Aelfgyva in the Bayeux Tapestry


According to Orderic Vitalis, Harold was at some time betrothed to Adeliza, a daughter of William the Conqueror; if so, the betrothal never led to marriage. The story occurs in many different versions. Orderic may have confused Adeliza with another daughter, possibly Agatha. Both daughters were very young when the supposed betrothal would have taken place. Some historians have suggested that the woman in the Bayeux Tapestry titled "Aelfgyva" is in fact Adeliza (there are many other contenders). The Malmesbury Chronicle says that William’s daughter died before she could be married to Harold and this added to Harold’s justification for breaking his oath to support William.


About January 1066, Harold married Edith (or Ealdgyth), daughter of Ælfgar, Earl of Mercia, and widow of the Welsh prince Gruffydd ap Llywelyn. Edith had one son, named Harold, probably born posthumously. Another of Harold's sons, Ulf, may have been a twin of the younger Harold, though most historians consider him a son of Edyth Swannesha. Both these sons survived into adulthood and probably lived out their lives in exile. It was presumably in the year of her father's appointment (c. 1057) that Ælfgar's daughter Ealdgyth married his political ally, King Gruffudd ap Llywelyn. Gruffudd, had actually defeated and killed Leofric's brother at the battle of Rhyd-y-Groes (near Welshpool) in 1039, but this did not seem to be an objection to Eadgyth marrying her father's uncle's killer. William of Jumièges describes her as a woman of considerable beauty. Walter Map also wrote of a beautiful lady much beloved by the king and so he may have had Ealdgyth in mind. On her marriage, she was given a modest amount of land in England, though the only estate which can be certainly identified as having belonged to her is one at Binley, Warwickshire. The alliance between Ealdgyth's father and husband was of great significance in resisting the growing power of the Godwins - the death of Edwin (Leofric's brother) appears to have been overlooked as a matter of political expediency. On the death of Earl Ralph ("The Timid") in 1057, Hereford was added to Harold's earldom. The following year, Ælfgar was outlawed for a second time, but he was restored to office before long. Ælfgar is last heard of in 1062 and seems to have died by 1063.

After her husband's death, Ealdgyth fled for refuge to her brothers, Edwin, Earl of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria, but both men made their peace with King William initially before rebelling. Traditionally she is said to have given birth to Harold's postumous son, another Harold, in Chester.

The eventual fate of Ealdgyth, widow of both the Welsh and the English king is unknown. However, in 1770 (according to Lysons' Magn. Brit. vol. ii) two skeletons were discovered near St Johns in coffin-shaped cavities, scooped out of the rock. Legend has it that Harold's queen, Aldgyth, became a nun in Chester and when she died, she was said to have been buried in the grounds of St Johns. Two bodies - perhaps Harold and his queen together again at last or just wishful thinking?

A panorama of the Suspension Bridge and the Hermitage at Chester. The bridge is decorated with the arms of the Norman Earls of Chester - which Harold seems to have cursed because they are mixed-up. For a short detour if you visit, enter Grosvenor Park to the left and have a look at Jacobs Well and the other ancient relics.

Harold's Children

Harold Godwinson's defeat and death at Hastings were a disaster for his family, especially since the surviving Anglo-Saxon Witenagemot in London responded by electing as king not one of Harold's sons but Edgar Ætheling, a great-nephew of Edward the Confessor and son of Edmund Ironside. Edgar's brief "reign" – he was never actually crowned – ended when William the Conqueror reached London in December 1066. The new regime thus established was dominated by the most powerful surviving members of the English ruling class: Stigand, Archbishop of Canterbury, Ealdred, Archbishop of York, and the brothers Edwin, Earl of Mercia and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria. The commitment of these men to Edgar's cause, men who had so recently passed over his claim to the throne without apparent demur, must have been doubtful from the start. The strength of their resolve to continue the struggle against William of Normandy was questionable, and the military response they organised to the continuing Norman advance was ineffectual. There are probably some elements of truth in the story of what happened to Harold's surviving relatives, but they have also had various legends associated with them. Some of these legends seem to confuse the various actors, which is perhaps unsurprising given the similarity of the names of Harold's mother and his two wives.

Harold dies - or does he? - a Chester legend has it that he later lived in the Hermitage near St Johns Church. Harold in the Bayeux Tapestry is probably meant to be the figure being stabbed in the groin, as Duke William appears to have repremanded his knights for mutilating the body.

Gytha Thorkelsdóttir, the widow of Earl Godwin, retreated to the south-west of England to consolidate her power in that still unconquered part of the country. At the time (1067) William had travelled to Normandy and when he returned he found several revolts in England. Gytha was the first to be dealt with and at the beginning of 1068 William led his army against her, and besieged her in Exeter. William, followed by his army, approached the city from the north east by fording the Longbrook and riding up a track that would become Longbrook Street. At East Gate, after the citizens refused to open the gates, he had one of the hostages blinded, to show what to expect. The citizens of Exeter lined the wall and gave obscene gestures to William and his army. William determined to take the city and prepared for a long siege. His engineers dug tunnels under the East Gate and wall to undermine it. While there are still underground tunnels at Exeter these are medieval and the story that Gytha used them is probably a myth.

The mid winter siege lasted 18 days and a large part of the Norman army perished in the process. The city finally capitulated when the gate collapsed and the expected support from local thegns did not appear. According to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, Gytha fled before the end of the seige and left England, together with the wives or widows and families of other prominent Anglo-Saxons, all the Godwin family estates having been confiscated by William. She is said to have travelled via the island of Flatholm, or possibly Steepholm. Little else is known of Gytha's life after that time, although it is possible that she went to Scandinavia where she had relatives.


Godwin or Godwine (fl. 1066 – 1069) was probably the eldest son, of Harold Godwinson. He is the only one recorded in Domesday Book as holding land in 1066, he was named first by the chronicler John of Worcester when listing Harold's eldest sons, and he was the one named after Harold's father. Godwin's adventures after Hastings closely follow those of his brother Edmund (see below).


Edmund's precise date of birth is unknown, but can be estimated from the fact that his elder brother is thought to have been born in the mid- or late 1040s. Edmund is not specifically mentioned in contemporary sources as being part of the failed south-western rebellion, but it is very likely that he and his brothers Godwin and Magnus were there, asserting their claim to be leaders of the Anglo-Saxon opposition. Harold's older children were back in 1068 with the support of Irish king Diarmait mac Máel na mBó and a force of Dublin Norse mercenaries. They attempted to make Bristol their base, but the locals proved to be unsympathetic, so they were forced to try and take it by storm. The reason for the resistance may have been a fear of William's known wroth, or a dislike of the Hiberno-Norse mercenaries rather than disloyalty to the Godwin family. The city held, and the brothers sailed off with the booty they had taken from the surrounding countryside.

They next landed in Somerset near land that had been held by the Godwins for years, they might have intended to raid the Taunton mint. The local Fyrd led by Eadnoth Staller met them. Eadnoth had been a loyal supporter of their father but after his death at Senlac had submitted to William. The battle was hard fought with big casualties on both sides and Eadnoth's death. The failure of the Haroldsons to re-establish a base in England caused Gytha and the family to seek refuge with Count Baldwin VI of Flanders. Baldwin and the Godwin kin were tied by the marriage of Tostig Godwinson to Baldwin's aunt, Judith. Whilst, according to some accounts, Gytha and her daughter Gunnhild entered the nunnery of St Omer, where Gunnhild died in 1087 after performing many good works.

Harold's sons, Godwin and Edmund, fled back to Ireland and the following year invaded Devon, but were defeated by Brian of Brittany and his brothers Alan the Red and Alan the Black would both apparently be the partners of their sister Gunhild of Wessex. After defeating Harold's sons, Brian's forces went north to counter the rebellion by Eadric the Wild, while William the Conqueror's army travelled west; the two armies joined and won the Battle of Stafford (late 1069) where the rebel forces included Welsh allies from Gwynedd, as well as other English rebels from Cheshire. The brothers Godwin and Edmund journeyed to the court of their cousin, King Sweyn of Denmark. Sweyn sent a force to attack king William in 1069. John of Worcester blames this for the death of Ealdred:

  • "Before the Nativity of St. Mary [8th September] Harold and Canute, sons of Sweyn, king of Denmark, and their uncle, earl Asbiorn, with earl Thurkill, arriving from Denmark with two hundred and forty ships, landed at the mouth of the river Humber, where they were met by Edgar the etheling, earl Waltheof, Marlesweyn, and many others, with a fleet they had assembled. Aldred, archbishop of York, was so distressed at their arrival, that he fell dangerously sick, and departed this life..."

However, after capturing York, the Danes accepted a payment from William to desert Edgar Ætheling, who then returned into exile in Scotland. Sweyn was apparently furious. Whether the sons of Harold were involved in this failed venture is not clear, as their presence is not mentioned by John of Worcester who had recounted their earlier raids on the south-west. Sweyn failed another attempt in 1074/1075. In the confusion following Sweyn's death in 1074/75 all track of the brothers is lost and they are heard of no more. However, their battle standard apparently remained in Ireland and was later (1071) presented to Toirdelbach Ua Briain.


Inscription over anchorite's cell, relocated to east wall of St John-sub-Castro, Lewes (Wikipedia}.

Magnus (fl. 1068) appears to have been named after Magnus the Good, king of Norway and an illegitimate son of the same Olaf II that St Olave is dedicated to. He was, in all likelihood, driven into exile in Dublin by the Norman conquest of England, along with two of his brothers, and from there took part in one, or perhaps two, expeditions to south-western England, but with little military success. They probably cost him his life. However there is a legend that he too survived. Remarkably, the legend is quite similar to that of Harold and the Hermitage at Chester. A set of inscribed stones now built into an outer wall of the Church of St John sub Castro, Lewes has a Latin inscription which reads:

  • "Clauditur hic miles Danorum regia proles Mangnus nomen ei mangne nota progeniei; deponens mangnum se moribus induit agnum, prepete pro vita fit parvulus anachorita" ("There enters this cell a warrior of Denmark's royal race; Magnus his name, mark of mighty lineage. Casting off his Mightiness he takes the lamb's mildness, and to gain everlasting life becomes a lowly anchorite.")

The first description of the monument is given by Camden in 1610, who tells us of a very neglected church:

  • "..in the walls thereof are engraven in arched worke certaine rude verses in an obsolete character which imply that one, Magnus, descended from bloud roial of the Danes, embracing a solitary life, was there buried"

The tradition about Magnus being the son of Harold is generally considered a myth, and it unclear whether the similar legend at Chester has influenced its development. Associated with the inscribed stones is a medieval grave slab which is rather incongruously displayed up-ended. This features a "floriate cross" similar to that which can be seen near the HQ building in Chester. Whether there is any real association between the slab and the arch, and even with Magnus Haroldsson, is unknown.

An altogether different second legend about Magnus is incompatible with the Lewes legend. In this case he stayed in Denmark for a while and then went off to Poland, where he married an otherwise unrecorded sister of Bolesław II the Generous. This is a suggested explanation for the appearance of a Wyvern in the the flag and coat of arms of the later Duchy of Masovia.


Gytha of Wessex (born c. 1053/1061 - died 1098 or 1107). According to the thirteenth-century chronicler Saxo Grammaticus, Gytha and two of her brothers (probably Magnus, son of Harold Godwinson and one of Godwin and Edmund) escaped to the court of their first cousin once-removed, King Sweyn Estridsson of Denmark. The two brothers were treated by Sweyn with hospitality, Magnus entering into high-level service with Bolesław II the Generous while their sister was married to Waldemar, King of Ruthenia, i.e. Vladimir II Monomakh, one of the most famous rulers of Kievan Rus. Gytha was the mother of Mstislav the Great, the last ruler of united Kievan Rus. In the Norse sagas, Mstislav is called Harald, after his grandfather. During her lifetime Gytha, as Vladimir's spouse, was Princess of Smolensk, however she died before her husband became Grand Prince of Kiev (in 1113), so she never was Grand Princess of Kiev. Problems exist in that none of the sources citing this are contemporary, and none of the Russian sources cite the name of his first wife as the daughter of Harold Godwinson.

Alan the Red from a larger 14th century illumination, swearing fealty to William the Conqueror.


Gunild of Wessex (ft 1066-1093) remained in England after the Norman conquest and received her education at Wilton Abbey. She once met Anselm of Canterbury and afterwards wrote to him that she intended to follow a religious life. Initially she remained there as a refugee from the Normans, using the veil as her protection. With her was Matilda, Edgar Æþeling's niece, later to be the wife of King Henry I of England. Gunnhild may have sought refuge from the Normans, but later they seem to have used the nunnery as a prison to prevent her from being involved in any threat to their power.

However in 1093 she eloped with (or was abducted by) Alan the Red, a companion of King William, then in his middle 50s, who was probably present at the Battle of Hastings, and had fought against her own brothers when they launched a counter-invasion from Ireland. According to the Bayeux Tapestry, Alan was also William’s emissary to Count Guy of Ponthieu for Harold’s transfer, and he was present when Harold supposedly swore his infamous oath. Alan features in one of William the Conquerors more amusing treaties:

  • "Ego Wil(el)mus cognomine Bastardus Rex Anglie do et concedo tibi Nepoti meo Alano Britannie Comiti et heredibus tuis imperpetuum omnes uillas et terras que nuper fuerunt Comitis Edwyni in Eboraschira cum feodis Militum et ecclesiis et aliis libertat(ibus) et consuetudinibus ita libere et honorifice sicut idem Edwinus ea tenuit. Dat(um) in obsidione coram Ciuitate Ebor(aci)." (I William surnamed Bastard, King of England, doe give and grant unto thee my Nephew Alane Earle of Britaine, and to thine heires for ever, all and every the manour houses and lands which late belonged to Earle Eadwine in Yorkeshire, with the knights fees and other liberties and customes, as freely and in as honorable wise as the said Eadwin held the same. Given at our leaguer before the City of Yorke.)

Alan and Gunild did not marry and there is speculation as to whether they had a child. After Alan the Red's death shortly after the elopement in 1093, Gunild settled with his brother Alan the Black, who was heir to his brother's vast estates and had also fought against Gunild's brothers. Anselm wrote to her again to refute her previous arguments and urge her again to return to Wilton.


Ulf or Wulf (fl. 1067 – 10??/11??) may also have been born in Chester as the twin of Harold (see below), although there is some debate about this and other historians place his birth in the period 1047-53. According to some versions, at some point in William the Conqueror's reign, Ulf was taken prisoner and moved to Normandy, where he remained until 1087. When William was on his deathbed he was persuaded by the church dignitaries in attendance on him to release all of his political prisoners, Ulf among them. Apparently the terms of Ulf's imprisonment had been loose enough to allow him to learn the skills of a mounted warrior, since William's successor as Duke of Normandy, Robert Curthose, knighted Ulf. He also allowed Ulf to leave Normandy, but it is not known whether he did so since there is no further record of Ulf's career. It is just possible he may have died at the Battle of Tinchebray in 1106 when Henry I invaded Normandy and most of Robert's army was captured or killed. Interestingly, Edgar Ætheling took part in the same battle (and survived).


Harold (fl. 1067 – 1098) was born after the death of his father and his mother was Ealdgyth, daughter of Ælfgar, Earl of Mercia, and widow of the Welsh prince Gruffydd ap Llywelyn. Harold was probably born posthumously in Chester, where his mother had fled to escape the advancing army of William the Conqueror. The myths surrounding a "Widow's son", in this case doubly so, are complex (and occur both in the Grail Legends and elsewhere), and will occur again in the English royal line in the case of Arthur of Brittany, later stepson of Ranulf de Blondeville and born six months after the death of his father, Geoffrey Plantagenet. It is always possible that a little "myth engineering" has crept into the legend of Harold Haroldsson.

Harold was taken into exile by the Norman conquest of England, and probably first found refuge in the Norse-Irish city of Dublin, which had previously sheltered other members of Harold's family. He later appears at the court of the king of Norway, Magnus Barefoot. Here he was welcome with gratitude because of Harold Godwinson's generosity in allowing Olaf III, son of Harald Hardrada, to return home after the disastrous battle of Stamford Bridge.

The younger Harold's link with Chester involves Hugh of Avranches and his conquests in Wales. Magnus may have been approached by half-Viking Gruffudd ap Cynan, King of Gwynedd, who had been driven to Ireland by the Norman earls Hugh of Montgomery and Hugh of Avranches. With six ships (according to Orderic Vitalis), Magnus steered towards Anglesey in Gwynedd, Wales. Appearing off the coast at Puffin Island, he interrupted a Norman victory celebration after their defeat of the Gwynedd king — for the Welsh, "so opportunely it was ascribed to divine providence" according to historian Rosemary Power (although Magnus had not necessarily intended to side with them). In the ensuing battle (known as the Battle of Anglesey Sound, according to Power "the most widely reported event in the history of Magnus"), on or about 31 July 1098, Magnus shot Hugh of Montgomery dead with an arrow through his eye and brought about the defeat of the Norman forces. Contemporary non-Norse sources all agree that Magnus Barefoot himself was responsible for the shot, while the Norse sagas are somewhat less inclined to attribute the decisive shot to Magnus alone, noting that his shot hit Hugh almost simultaneously with that of another of his men. In one of history's great ironies, Harold, son of Harold, is said to have been with Magnus when the Norman lord was shot through the eye.

Some sources indicate that Magnus regretted killing Montgomery, suggesting that he may have been interested in an alliance with the Normans, having even sailed up displaying a red shield as the customary peace symbol. He abruptly returned to Mann with his men, leaving the Norman army weak and demoralized, and soon to retreat back to England. The defeat of the Normans allowed for the return of the exiled Gruffudd ap Cynan, King of Gwynedd, who thereby regained control of his former lands. The story appears to be repeated in a garbled form by Bradshaw in his life of Werburgh from about 1513. Yet another version of the battle associates it with Magnus Erlendsson, Earl of Orkney.

It may well be the hermit "King Harold" that Henry I supposedly spoke to was in fact Harold Haroldsson, who as the only child of Harold Godwinsson by his "legal" wife and could have a valid "in principle" claim to the crown.

What came next?

Earl Hugh and King William in the porch of Chester Town Hall they have aged a bit and each grown a mustache.

By the spring of 1070, having secured the submission of Waltheof and Gospatric in Northumbria, and driven Edgar the Outlaw and his remaining supporters back to Scotland, William the Conqueror returned to Mercia, where he based himself at Chester and crushed all remaining resistance in the area before returning to the south which had been raided by a Danish fleet. At times William's own troops were close to revolt as when William set out across the Pennines, in "rain and hail", to deal with "the Welsh and the men of Chester". For more on this see: Devastation of Cheshire.

Many tales relate that the first Norman Earl of Chester was Gherbod the Fleming, but he was soon replaced by Hugh of Avranches. A footnote in Gerald of Wales tells it thus:

  • "The first earl of Chester after the Norman conquest, was Gherbod, a Fleming, who, having obtained leave from king William to go into Flanders for the purpose of arranging some family concerns, was taken and detained a prisoner by his enemies; upon which the conqueror bestowed the earldom of Chester on Hugh de Abrincis or of Avranches, "to hold as freely by the sword, as the king himself did England by the crown."

The earls of Chester from 1070 to 1232 were guaranteed a prominent place in English history by their landed estates, which placed them among the leading aristocracy of the realm whatever roles they chose to play, whether as faithful or rebellious subjects of their lord the king, or as peaceable friends or ruthless enemies of their neighbours the Welsh. The heart of the earldom was the city of Chester, which gave the earls the dignity of their title and contained the abbey of St. Werburgh, their first monastic foundation in England and usual place of burial.


Harold Godwinson's connection with Chester includes far more than the legend associated with the Hermitage. Chester was a power center of the most important faction opposing the House of Godwin, that of Leofric, count of Chester and his son Ælfgar. Ælfgar's daughter Ealdgyth would eventually become Harold's wife, and the mother of Harold's postumous son, another Harold, who is said to have been born in Chester. The marriage would cement the alliance between Earls Edwin and Morcar (brothers to Ealdgyth) who would aid Harold in achieving victory at Stamford Bridge in 1066. It is possible that the downfall of Harold's brother Tostig may have had its roots in the joint campaign of the two Godwin brothers against Ealdgyth's previous husband in 1063, when Tostig may well have brought his army through Chester.

Harold's son, Harold, would later become involved in a battle at which Norman Earl of Chester Hugh of Avranches would lose much of his lands gained in Wales. Magnus, another of Harold's sons, would become associated with a legend of a Hermitage in Lewes which has some similarity to the legend associated with the Hermitage at Chester. The links between the Godwins and the cult of St Olave, whose church is in Lower Bridge Street are speculative, but a case can be made out for it.

Although the roots of the Norman Palatinate of Chester lay in part in the almost independent fief of Leofric and his kin, much of the land which it comprised would come from Harold's lands and in some sense perhaps his lost kingdom would survive in the myths and institutions of the Palatinate.

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The Mercians