The Godwins – A Family of Power
The family of earl Godwin rose from almost total obscurity early in the 11th century AD to a position where they dominated the politics of pre-Conquest England. Godwin’s daughter married Edward the Confessor in 1045. Of her brothers, one was declared an outlaw and died on a pilgrimage, one became king, and one precipitated a Norwegian invasion of England. The dynasty came to an abrupt end when the three surviving brothers died at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
Godwin is thought to have been the son of Wulfnoth Cild, a relatively minor thegn who happened to be in the right place at the right time. There are some indications that Wulfnoth may have turned his hand to piracy early in his career. Certainly, if the behaviour of his family is anything to go by, the charges sound quite likely. But whatever his achievements, his son outshone them. The Vita Edwardi Regis describes Godwin as “the most cautious in counsel and the most active in war”, with “an equable temperament” and a penchant for hard work, courteous and polite to all, treating inferiors kindly (Bradbury p27).
by Steven Lowe
When England was invaded by the Danes under Svein and later his son Knut, the English political structure was dealt almost a deathblow. King Ethelred (Æthelrede II, known as Unread) died in 1016, but his son Edmund fought so effectively that Knut agreed to divide the kingdom with him, with the whole realm to go to whoever lived longest. However, Edmund died shortly after the treaty was concluded, and Knut became the ruler of all England. He secured his tenure by marrying the widow of Ethelred, Emma the sister of Duke Richard II of Normandy. She bore him a son, Harthaknut, half brother to her sons by Ethelred, and also to Knut’s son Harold by Ælfgifu, his first wife.
On the death of Edmund, King Ethelred's other two surviving sons, Alfred and Edward, fled to exile in Normandy, their mother's country. Edmund's son Edward (known as the Exile to distinguish him from his uncle Edward the Confessor) travelled as far as Hungary, where he married and had a son.

While leaving the basic political and administrative structure in place, Knut completely changed the ruling class, imposing a small number of extremely powerful earls (jarls) in a new top layer. He had need of men he could trust, and Godwin, an English thegn who had been of great service to him, was elevated to the great earldom of Wessex. Godwin appears to have served Knut well and faithfully, and in 1019 was rewarded with the hand of Gytha, whose brother, jarl Ulf of Denmark, had married Knut's sister (McLynn, p. 11)
When Knut died in 1036, Emma tried to put her son by Knut, Harthaknut, on the English throne as his successor, but he was in Denmark and his hold on the throne there was shaky. Embarking on an expedition to England to secure the throne could have lost him his Danish kingdom. As it was, Harold Harefoot, Knut's son by his English first wife Aelfgifu became king, and Godwin supported him.
The same year Ethelred's youngest surviving son Alfred returned from exile in Normandy in an attempt to take the throne for himself. It was a total failure. Alfred was met - or captured - by Godwin, who is reported in at least one source as having sworn fealty to him. However, if that is the case, Godwin betrayed Alfred, handing him over to Harold Harefoot's men, who blinded him and executed his followers. He died shortly afterwards (Bradbury P. 21-22)

On Harold's death in 1040 Harthaknut became king of England, but his reign was brief. He died in 1042 and Edward, the son of Ethelred and brother of the murdered Alfred, returned from exile in Normandy to become king of England.
King Knut
Knut's Successors
Godwin's daughter Edith (Eagdyth) was born some time in the 1020's. She was a well-educated, intelligent woman, and a power in her own right. Edward the Confessor took her to wife, at Godwin's insistence, in 1045. Hagiographers, arguing for Edward's sainthood, claim the marriage was never consumated, that the relationship was that of a father and daughter. Certainly they never had children, a fact that precipitated the crisis on Edward's death. It has been argued that one or the other was infertile, or that Edward had no desire for a wife who was forced upon him, or even that he was homosexual (McLynn p. 13) but there is too little information at this great remove in time to make any definitive judgments. It is known that she was close to her brother Tostig, and that her fortunes followed those of her family. In 1051, when the Godwins were out of favour, Edward put her in a nunnery, but had to accept her back when they returned to power.
Sweyn (c. 1022-1053?)
Godwin's eldest son Sweyn was the black sheep of the family. In 1045 when he was about 23, he became earl of a large sweep of territory encompassing central south-western England, near the Welsh border. Sweyn seemed to attract trouble -perhaps embarrassed at Godwin's obscure origins, he claimed that his father was not Godwin, but King Knut, branding his mother an adulteress, and his father, the earl, a cuckold (McLynn, p. 17).

Scarcely had the repercussions died down than in 1046, returning home from raiding in Wales, Sweyn abducted abbess Eadgifu of Leominster. This act has been variously described as rape or seduction, but apparently Sweyn was truly smitten, to the degree that he later made marrying her a condition of negotiations when trying to return to favour. Following this scandal, Sweyn fled to sanctuary in Flanders where Count Baldwin maintained a centre of opposition to Edward and sheltered his enemies. Sweyn's lands went to his brother Harold and his cousin Beorn. Sweyn then sailed to Denmark, but had been there only a short time when he managed to offend the king and had to leg it back to Flanders (McLynn p. 18)

In 1049 Sweyn returned to England to fling himself upon Edward's mercy, but only made matters even worse for himself. Harold and Beorn refused to support him, and Edward ordered him to leave England. Sweyn lured Beorn to Bosham, on the pretext of asking his intercession with the king. But once there Sweyn and his followers kidnapped Beorn, carried him away on his ship and killed him. For this crime, betrayal and murder of a kinsman, Edward declared Sweyn a
nithing (outlaw). Most of his fleet deserted him and he fled back to Flanders.

But within the year, perhaps to keep peace wthin the kingdom, perhaps on Godwin's urging and that of Bishop Ealdred who counselled Christian forgiveness, Edward pardoned Sweyn. Ealdred suggested that he undertake a pilgrimage to Rome as part of the conditions of his pardon. Sweyn's lands were returned to him and he was accepted back into the fold.
Harold (c. 1024-1066)
Harold was tall, handsome, capable and a superlative general, though inclined to be impetuous. He is described as having an open manner and considerable charm, but it was difficult to know what he was really thinking. During his father's lifetime he was earl of East Anglia, taking over the earldom of Wessex on Godwin's death.

Tostig had a pleasant but quiet manner.  He was a good general, and a superb statesman. He and Harold were described by a contemporary chronicler as distinctively handsome and graceful persons, similar in strength . . . equally brave” and “the kingdom’s sacred oaks, two Hercules’” (Bradbury p36)

In 1061 he was sent on a mission to the Pope, where he received a cold reception. He had just left the Holy City when a stroke of luck allowed him to reverse his fortunes; a disaffected local nobleman attacked his party. After having beaten off the attack, Tostig stormed back to the Pope and lambasted him for not even being able to guarantee the safety of travellers in Rome’s outskirts. Mortified, the Pope agreed to Tostig’s original demands, and Tostig returned home successful.  Of all the Godwins, Tostig was apparently Edward’s favourite. In 1055 on the death of Earl Siward of Northumbria, he was appointed earl in the place of Siward’s son Ælfgar, whom Edward had outlawed for treasonous collusion with Gruffyd of Wales. (Siward’s other son Waltheof was still a child, and could not be seriously considered for the earldom).
Tostig (c. 1026-1066)
Gyrth (c. 1032-1066)
In 1055 when Tostig was made earl of Northumbria, Gyrth was given a section cut off Northumbria to be his own earldom. At some time between 1056 and 1058 Gyrth was made earl of East Anglia. He accompanied Tostig on the Papal mission of 1061, and Harold on his march north in 1066. Gyrth appears to have been a capable man, and a good strategist. If truly reported, he gave good advice to harold in the crisis years of 1066, which Harold ignored to his cost.
Leofwine (c. 1035-1066)
Some time in the period 1056-8 Leofwine became lord of a new earldom stretching from Buckinghamshire to Kent. Little other information is available about him.
Of Godwin's other three offspring, little is known. Wulfnoth was apparently given as a hostage to William of Normandy. It is possible that the voyage of 1064, which got Harold into so much trouble, was to visit and perhaps free his brother. There is a suggestion that he was set free after William conquered England.

All that is known of Godwin's other two children is that they were both daughters, and one of them was called
Exile and return
In 1051 King Edward’s brother-in-law Count Eustace of Bolougne, on his way to see the king, passed through Dover, and was apparently unsatisfied with the hospitality shown him by the inhabitants. On his return trip he apparently decided to teach them a lesson. He and his men donned their armour before riding into the town and once there fighting broke out, with people killed on both sides. Eustace rode back to Edward and presented a (presumably somewhat biased) account of what had happened, demanding the town be laid waste. Edward ordered Godwin, Dover’s overlord, to punish the town. Godwin, who probably believed the townspeople were in the right, refused.

Edward summoned the Witan to consider charges of treason against Godwin, who with Sweyn & Harold retaliated by mobilising their private armies. However, Godwin was unwilling to fight a civil war, and Edward was backed up by forces of earls Siward of Northumbria and Leofric of Mercia. The king demanded that Godwin hand himself over for trial but refused to guarantee him safe conduct. The earl fled to Flanders with Gythha, Tostig & Sweyn. Harold & Leofwine went to Ireland, where he assembled a force to support his father.  Meanwhile Edward stripped Godwin’s daughter Queen Edith of her lands & money, and forced her to enter a nunnery (McLynn pp 70-72).
In the middle of all this, Sweyn decided to walk barefoot to the Holy Land in a pilgrimage. He set out from Flanders and eventually reached his goal, but died, aged about thirty, on the return trip in or near Constantinople (ibid. p80).

Godwin and his family returned with their fleets and armies in 1052. Godwin laid waste the Isle of Wight, and recruited a large host in his old lands in Sussex & Kent. He allowed his men to ravage Sheppey and sack the royal manor of Wilton. This time the Godwins had the upper hand. Edward had lost much of the support of Leofric & Siward, and knuckled under – the Godwins were restored to their old privileges and lands, and Edith was released from the nunnery. (Eustace of Boulogne, the instigator of the trouble, fled the kingdom. In 1066 he returned with William of Normandy, and was given lands in England for his contribution to William’s victory. Revenge must have been very sweet.)
Death of Godwin
Godwin collapsed while at king’s Easter court in Winchester 1053, perhaps of a stroke, and died 3 days later. Godwin was buried alongside Knut & Emma in the Old Minster, and Harold inherited his earldom of Wessex.

When Edward the Exile returned to England in 1057, Harold supported him as the successor to the throne.  However, Edward died before he reached London or met his uncle the king. His son Edgar Atheling was a small boy. There were no realistic heirs to the throne; Harold, as the king’s brother-in-law, and son of a Danish princess, had as good a claim as anyone, and from this point on seems to have set his eyes on attaining it.

In 1062 the earldom of Mercia went to Edwin, the young son of the banished earl Ælfgar.
Harold's Oath
About 1064, Harold’s ship was cast ashore in France and Harold was captured by Guy of Ponthieu. Under pressure, Guy turned Harold over to William who forced him to swear to support William’s claim to throne of England on Edward’s death. Unknown to Harold, holy relics were concealed in the chest upon which he swore (as shown in the Bayeux Tapestry). Norman commentators make much of this, claiming that Harold’s subsequent acceptance of the crown of England made him an oathbreaker.

Harold Becomes King
In January 1066 Edward died, leaving no clear heir to the throne. Edgar Atheling was just a child, and England needed a strong king. Harold claimed he had been named by Edward as his successor. The Witan confirmed this and elected him King of England, despite his oath to William. Archbishop Stigand of Canterbury told Harold that it was a sin to foreswear himself, but a worse sin not to take the crown.
William claimed Edward had promised him the kingship; he was not of the line of Cerdic, the royal House of England - his only claim by blood was that the dead king’s mother, Emma of Normandy, was his great-aunt. Harold’s claim was even thinner, but he had been elected by the Witan, grafted onto the royal family by being the king’s brother-in-law, and his claim to being chosen by Edward post-dated William’s. To consolidate his position Harold married the sister of Edwin and Morcar, the only earls in England who weren’t already Godwins. However, he still kept his mistress and the mother of his children, Edith Swan-neck.
In 1066, leaving his deputy Copsig to raise an army in Flanders, Tostig went to Denmark in an attempt to persuade Svein Estrithson to invade England and restore him to his earldom. However, he had no luck all he succeeded in doing was alerting Svein to the danger of the situation. Svein even sent volunteers to fight for Harold.

Tostig then travelled to Norway, where he spent months trying to persuade Harald Hardrada to invade, first to restore the earldom, then as legitimate king (in succession to Harthaknut). He finally overcame Harald’s objections, and persuaded him that the king of England was hated, and that the English would rise up against him. Eventually Harald levied half the able-bodied men in kingdom, and set about building a fleet (McLynn, p. 188-9).

Why was Tostig so bitter? He must have realised his actions would get his brother killed, and their relationship had by all accounts been a very close one. Perhaps he’d regarded Harold’s failure to support him in 1065 against the king as a personal betrayal. Blood is thicker than water, and he had probably relied on his brother to stick by him. It is possible that Harold saw Tostig as getting too powerful, or perhaps believed that the family trouble would cause a threat to his ambitions for the throne. Harold seems to have been surprisingly callous when family members became an embarrassment. He had done the same with Sweyn, though with greater reason.
In early May Tostig & Copsig raided the Isle of Wight, then sailed along the coast to the Humber estuary with 60 ships. He was ravaging Lindsey in his old earldom when he was met by Edwin & Morcar and badly defeated. He suffered large-scale desertions; his fleet was reduced to 12 ships. He took refuge with King Malcolm of Scotland and settled down to wait for Hardrada (McLynn p. 189).

William decided to invade, set about preparing an army and a fleet. He propagandised Europe, calling Harold an oathbreaker. He sent an emissary to Rome to gain the Pope’s support and was given a Papal banner. According to Wace, Gyrth advised Harold to raid William’s fleet, under preparation in Normandy, but Harold refused.
The Battle of Stamford Bridge
Harald Hardrada left Norway in August 1066, with a large fleet. Travelling via the Orkneys, he raided down the coast of Scotland and met with Tostig and his fleet of Flemish mercenaries in the Humber estuary. On the 20th of September the combined army destroyed a force under Edwin & Morcar at Fulford Gate, about a mile from York. The city formally surrendered on the 24th of September and the invading army returned to their ships at Ricall. The same evening, unknown to Hardrada, Harold Godwinson arrived at Tadcaster, 8 miles away, after a forced march from the south.

The following day the English host marched via York to Stamford Bridge on the Derwent River, where Hardrada was waiting for an exchange of hostages with a third of his army – the rest were at Ricall with the fleet. The ensuing battle lasted most of the day, and ended with a complete defeat of the invading army. Harald & Tostig were both killed - Tostig’s body was found on the battlefield and buried at York - but the damage had been done. Many of Harold’s best huscarls lay dead on the field, and England still had the Norman threat to face. Harold rested for two days in York, then set off for the south.
William landed on Sept 28  on the south coast, and began ravaging Sussex and Harold’s own county of Hastings. Harold got to London in 8 days and called up the southern levies, with instructions to Edwin & Morcar to follow with reinforcements. But he didn’t wait for them. According to Wace’s account* Gyrth tried to persuade him to remain in London, to build up the army before facing William, and perhaps send a subordinate to offer battle first. Harold refused, and rushed to Hastings, perhaps hoping to take William by surprise as he had with Hardrada at Stamford Bridge.

The rest is history. Gyrth, Leofwine, and Harold were all killed at Hastings and the bastard duke of Normandy became King of England. Only the sons of Harold were left to continue desultory raiding, but without success. Wulfstan seems to have vanished without trace. The dynasty, if it is accurate to call it that, was wiped out in a space of three weeks, after 48 years of ever-increasing power culminating in the kingship of England.
* Wace tells a really good yarn, but his account needs, as the academics say, to be “taken with care” – a polite way of saying they think he made a lot of it up.

Bradbury, J.
The Battle of Hastings Sutton Publishing Stroud 1998
Loyn, H.R.
The Norman Conquest Hutchinson, London 1965, 1982
McLynn, F.
1066: Year of Three Battles Jonathan Cape, London 1998

Primary Sources:
The Anglo Saxon Chronicles trans. & ed.  Michael Swanton J.M. Dent, London 1996

Carmen de Hastingae Proelio; eds. C. Morton and H. Muntz, Oxford 1972 (c. 1067-75)

Encomium Emmae, written by a cleric of St Omer for Queen Emma, BL Add. MSS 33241

Jumieges, William of  (and Orderic Vitalis and Robert of Torigni)
Gesta Normannorum   
ed. E.M.C. van Houts, Oxford 1992-5 (c. 1070-71)

Poiters, William of;
Histoire de Guillaume le Conquerant ed. R. Foreville, CHF, Paris 1952
       (c. 1073-4)
Sturluson, Snorri

Vita Ædwardi Regis, probably written 1065-67

Roman de Rou, ed. A.J. Holden, Paris, 1973. (1150-1175)

He made donations to the church, endowing an abbey in Waltham near London, but is also known to have made exactions from others. In 1056 Harold acted as a "roving ambassador" (McLynn pp. 135-136) in Europe, travelling to Francia, Flanders and Germany, meeting with both Pope and Emperor before returning home.

In 1062 in response to raiding from Wales, Harold undertook a winter campaign. Beginning at Christmas, by dint of forced marches through snow and ice, Harold caught Prince Gruffyd unprepared, burnt his palace at Rhuddlan in North Wales and destroyed his fleet. Gruffyd escaped, but in a second campaign in 1063 Harold and his brother Tostig encircled the Welsh in a pincer movement. So savage and effective was their onslaught that in the end the Welsh themselves hunted Gruffyd down, presenting Harold with his severed head. There was little trouble from Wales for many years afterward.
Harold  Godwinson, as depicted in the Bayeux Tapestry. Though perhaps not a portrait in the modern sense, Harold is consistently shown like this throughout the Tapestry.
Harold's oath on holy relics Bayeux Tapestry
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Tostig’s reign over Northumbria did not go well. He was accused of despotism, and conspiring with his sister the Queen to murder a thegn. In 1065, while he was in another part of England, the thegns and people of Northumbria arose against him, attacked his headquarters in York and massacred his huscarls. The northerners then went on a spree of looting and destruction. King Edward, who valued Tostig and was fond of him, sent Harold to intervene. However, Harold came to the conclusion that Tostig’s chances of ruling Northumbria were nil, and advised Edward to depose him. Morcar, the son of Ælfgar and brother of earl Edwin of Mercia, became earl of Northumbria. Tostig decamped to Flanders, where English malcontents were always welcome (Bradbury, p. 34-7).
Harold's coronation Bayeux Tapestry
King Edward on his deathbed. The grieving  woman at the far left is probably Edith. Bayeux Tapestry
The only contemporary picture I know of which portrays Gyrth and  Leofwine shows their death at Hastings in 1066. Bayeux Tapestry