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Saturday, December 20, 2008

FAMILY TIES

I have been contemplating, of late, the passing of Saxon England. It died, officially, on the battlefield at Hastings in 1066, but to tell you the truth it was not badly missed. Consider Edward, the penultimate Saxon King of England. They called him “the Confessor” but that was more of a twelfth century public relations gambit than an actual description of the real ninth century King. Edward had his own mother arrested on trumped up charges of adultery just so he could seize her property, if that gives you an idea of his family life. In 1045 Edward married Edith Godwin. He was about forty-five years old at the time and Edith was all of sixteen. The only thing they had in common was that Edith’s father, Leofric Godwin, the powerful Earl of Wessex, had turned Edward’s half brother, Alfred, over to his enemies. They had him blinded. Alfred later died from his wounds and Edward was on record as saying that the only way he would forgive the Godwins is if they brought Alfred back from the dead. So I suspect that Edward’s marriage to Edith Godwin was not a love match. Leofric owned most of southern England and his wife was Lady Godiva of naked horse riding fame. In addition to Edith they had produced five sons, in descending order of seniority and brains, Sweyn, Harold, Tostig, Gyrth and Leofwine. And by all accounts they were all trouble. In 1046 Sweyn was accused of seducing the Abbess of the monastery of Leominster. The modern translation of the Saxon term for “seduction” is “rape”, and King Edward had Sweyn banished. It took a year for Leofric to blackmail Edward into letting the little monster come home. Sweyn never forgot daddy’s delay in rescuing him, and Edward became determined to get rid of the whole Godwin family.In 1051 the citizens of Dover got fed up with an extended visit by some of Edward’s Norman relatives and they staged a riot. It is likely that Edward’s relatives had intended to inspire just that response because Edward immediately ordered Leofric to punish the citizens Dover. But since Dover paid rent to Leofric, he would be punishing himself. So Leofric refused. And that gave Edward the excuse he needed. He ordered Leofric and his sons banished from England, (they hid out in Ireland and France) and Edward shipped poor Edith off to a nunnery. But in this dispute, the youngest son, Leofwine Godwin, sided with Edward. It was the “smart” play for Leofwine since, as the youngest son he was never going to get rich living off his older brothers’ leavings.But the banishment only lasted a year before Leofric and his sons invaded England and forced Edward to return all of their seized lands and let Edith out of the monastery. And, of course, Leofric also forced his own youngest son, Leofwine, into exile in Scandinavia; after all, turnabout is fair play. Leofric died in 1055, not long after the death of Sweyn, cause unknown in either case. That made Harold the head of the family, and that made his brother Tostig his problem. Tostig was running Northumbria and had doubled the taxes while boozing it up and stealing from the local nobels. In 1065, while Totsig was out of town, the noblemen of York, Lincoln and Nottingham rose up and slaughtered Tostig’s sycophants and marched on Oxford, the local government center. King Edward decided he didn’t have the energy to fight and Harold agreed with him, and together they turned the government of Northumbria over to the rebel leader, Morkere. Totsig was out of a job and very unhappy with his brother. He immediately sailed for Scandinavia.Near the end of 1065 Edward fell into a coma and finally died on January the fifth, 1066. Harold, never one to waste time, was crowned King, Harold II, on January sixth, the first king ever crowned in Westminster Abby. And poor Edith, the daughter of Lady Godiva, the girl who had been a queen at 16, a divorcee and a nun at 24, and a queen again at 25, was now, at the advanced old age of 26, a widow and a nun again. Her loving brother Harold, shipped her off to a brand new abbey at Winchester, where she died in December of 1075, at the age of 36. The Saxons were very hard on their women.
Almost as hard as they were on their men and kings; the new King Harold was facing two immediate challenges. From Normandy there was Edward’s cousin William, who claimed that Harold had promised him the throne. And on September the Eighth a Viking army under the King of Norway, landed at the mouth of the river Tyne. With the Vikings were Harold’s brothers Tostig and Leofwine. Who was it who said that family ties were the best of ties, the worst of ties? I think it was me.Harold immediately marched his army north, moving so quickly that on September twenty-fifth he caught the Vikings without their armor on, at Stamford Bridge, just North of York. According to legend, Harold met Tostig before the battle and offered him a chance to change sides - again. Tostig asked what Harold could offer the Vikings if they would peacefully go home. Harold replied that he could offer each of them six feet of English soil, or more if they were taller. Making peace and saving lives did not interest the Saxons very much. Harold’s army than fell on the Vikings and almost wiped them out. It was a great victory, spoiled only when word arrived that William and his Norman army had landed on English soil on September twenty-seventh.Harold now marched his exhausted men 240 miles south to meet William’s army at Hastings on October the fourteenth. There, nine hours of slaughter reduced the vaunted Godwin family to just Edith, sewing away in her nunnery. William was remembered as the “Conqueror”, and Harold as the “Conquered”. But really, history must have been glad to see the back side of such a bloodthirsty pack of cannibals as the ruling Saxons of England.

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