One Hundred Years Later, Same Message. 1916 - 2017
Wednesday, July 21, 2010
I have been contemplating of late the passing of Saxon England. To tell you the truth, I don't miss it that much. After the Saxons cashed in their chips officially, on the battlefield at Hastings in 1066, I suspect you would have have heard a collective sigh of relief which arose across the length and breadth of England.
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 was a pretty ruthless guy. He 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 actual family values.
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 kidnapped Edward’s favorite half brother, Alfred, and handed him over to his enemies. Those not very nice people had blinded Alfred, and he later died from his wounds. As a result 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 exactly a love match.
Leofric owned most of southern England and his wife was Lady Godiva of naked horse riding fame. Did the Lady really ride bare-back through the village of Coventry just to lower the tax burden on the felons, meaning the free people living in the village? I doubt it. In the first place, it would chafe. And, forgiving taxes sure doesn't sound like something Leofric would have gone along with. Although...I am willing to believe the part of the legend about the one curious man named Tom who was struck blind because he just had to take a peek at Lady Cadiva's canter. That made him the original "Peeping Tom".
In addition to Edith, Leofric and Godiva Godwin had produced five sons, who were, in descending order of seniority and accending order of brains, Sweyn, Harold, Tostig, Gyrth and Leofwine. And by all accounts they were all trouble. As an example, in 1046 Sweyn was accused of seducing the Abbess of the monastery of Leominster.
The modern translation of the Saxon term for “seduction” is more of a “rape”, and King Edward had Sweyn banished for that crime. It was a year before Leofric could bribe Edward into letting the little monster come home again. But, being a spoiled brat Sweyn forgot that daddy had rescued him and remembered only how long it had taken for daddy to rescue him. In the meantime Edward became determined to get rid of the whole Godwin clan.
In 1051 some of Edward’s French relatives over stayed their welcome in Dover, and the townsfolk staged a riot to drive the freeloaders out of town. Of course it is likely that Edward’s relatives had intended to inspire just such a response, because Edward immediately ordered Leofric to punish the citizens Dover for insulting his family. See, since Dover paid rent to Leofric, he would just be punishing himself. So Leofric refused. And that gave Edward the excuse he needed. He ordered Leofric and the entire Godwin family save one banished from England, and Edward shipped poor Edith off to a nunnery.
In this dispute, one, the youngest son, Leofwine Godwin, had 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. Meanwhile the banished Leofric and his loyal sons hung out in Ireland and France for a year, gathering their strength.
And when they were ready, the Godwins came home, which is another way of saying they re-invaded England and forced Edward to return all of their seized lands and let poor Edith out of the monastery. And then, of course, Leofric forced his own youngest son, Leofwine, into exile in Scandinavia; after all, turnabout is fair play. And they were all Saxons, which is to say they were a couple of generations removed from being Vikings.
Leofric Godwin died in 1055, not long after the death of his eldest son Sweyn, cause unknown in either case. Suffice it to say that I'll bet Edward shed not a tear at their funerals. But Harold may have. Harold was now the head of the Godwin family, which made his little brother Tostig, his problem.
Tostig was running Northumbria and had doubled the taxes while boozing it up and stealing from the local gentry. In 1065, while Totsig was out of town, the noblemen of York, Lincoln and Nottingham all rose up and slaughtered Tostig’s sycophants. The rebels then marched on Oxford, the local government center. King Edward saw no reason he should be paying to straighten out another of the Goodwin brood, and frankly, neither did Harold. So Harold simply turned Northumbria over to the rebel leader, Morkere.
That left Totsig out of a job, and very unhappy with his elder brother. Tostig sailed for Scandinavia and a reunion with his younger brother, Leofwine.
Near the end of 1065 Edward the Confessor fell into a coma and finally died on January 5th, 1066. Harold, never one to waste time, was crowned King, as Harold II, the very next day, January 6th. Harold was 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.
They were almost as hard on their kings. The new King Harold was facing two immediate challenges. From Normandy there was Edward’s cousin William, who claimed that Harold, while hiding out in France, had promised him the throne of England.
And on September 8th, 1066, a Viking army under the King of Norway, landed at the mouth of the river Tyne. With the Vikings were the Godwin 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 an north, moving so quickly that on September 25th, 1066 he caught the Vikings without their armor on, at Stamford Bridge, just north of the town 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 does not seemed to have interested the Godwins very much.
Harold’s army than fell on the Vikings and almost wiped them out. Amongst the piles of dead were both Tostig and Leofwine. And it does not seem that Harold felt any sorrow that so little of the his family was left. It was a great victory, spoiled only when word arrived that William and his Norman army had landed on English soil on September 27th, 1066, far to the south.
Harold now marched his exhausted men 240 miles south to meet William’s army at Hastings on October 14th, 1066. There, nine hours of more slaughter reduced the vaunted Godwin family to just Edith, sewing away in her nunnery.
William the Norman would be remembered as the “Conqueror”, and Harold II the Saxon King, as the “Conquered”. But really, history must have been glad to see the back side of such a bloodthirsty pack of cannibals as the Godwins, the last ruling Saxons of England. With family like that, you don't need enemies.