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The man who should have lost the Battle of Hastings: The Saga of Swegen Godwinson

By Kelly DeVries

My students who have been raised in democratic political cultures always find partible inheritance preferable to patrilineal inheritance: that is until they hear the history of the Merovingian kings.  Those “long-haired” royal delinquents quickly convince them of the futility of trying to divide the possessions of a deceased parent among all siblings.  Having one, the eldest son – unless there is no son – trained to be the single inheritor ultimately makes sense to them, especially once they discover that this son is usually more fair to his younger brothers and sisters than if their father had tried to make an “equal” settlement between all of the sons.

The question is soon asked: what if the oldest son dies. The answer is always that this is why there is usually an “heir and a spare.” I, of course, have to explain that phrase to them. And then I have to tell them it is also too simplistic. There are too many cases when the “spare” was clearly not prepared to be “heir.” History is filled with examples of this, of spares who had problems as heirs when they had to take over – even if not a sudden inheritance. The examples are numerous, but I usually don’t have to say more than Henry VIII – had his older brother, Arthur, ruled instead would he have beheaded a couple of queens or broken away from Catholicism because the pope would not recognize his divorce? What about Richard I?  Would Henry “the young king” have been as inept at ruling England as “the Lionheart”? Would we have had the performance of Claude Rains as Prince John in the 1938 Robin Hood?

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Lost among all those much more important names is that of Swegen Godwinson. Swegen (or Sweyn or Swein, all the names appear in modern history) was the eldest son of the powerful, Godwin, earl of Wessex and chief earl of England for nearly the entire first half of the eleventh century. Here begins the Saga of Swegen Godwinson.

The inheritance of the English throne following the death of Cnut the Great in 1035 was confusing. Cnut had two sons, Harðacnut, the eldest by his first wife, Emma of Normandy, who was serving his father as king of Denmark at the time, and Harold I (Harefoot) by his second wife, Ælfgifu of Northampton. But it would be the younger, Harold, who took the throne in 1035. The reason was geographical: Harold was in England and Harðacnut was in Denmark. Harðacnut eventually may have contested that kingship, but Harold died in 1039 or 1040, and without conquering Harðacnut became king of both Denmark and England.

King Harðacnut – British Library Royal MS 14 B VI

Already by the death of Cnut, the earl of Wessex, Godwin, had become the chief earl and trusted advisor of the king. Initially, he had favored Harðacnut to rule in 1035, but his allegiance shifted easily to Harold when it appeared that Harðacnut would not be king. This made it somewhat unpleasant for the earl when Harðacnut came to the throne in 1040, especially as – seemingly on orders from Harold – he had arranged for the brutal torture which led to the eventual death of Alfred (the ætheling), the half-brother of Harðacnut, with whom he shared as mother, Emma of Normandy. One of his first acts as king was to put Godwin on trial for this murder. But the earl escaped any punishment by making an oath to Harðacnut, blaming what had happened to Alfred as done at the command of Harold. He accompanied this with a gift of a beautiful ship, manned by a number of richly armed men. This is described by John of Worcester in his usual flamboyance:

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However, Godwin to regain his friendship, gave the king a skillfully made galley, with a gilded prow or beak, furnished with the best tackle, well-equipped with suitable arms and picked soldiers. Each one of them had two golden armlets on his arms weighing sixteen ounces, was clad in a triple mail corselet, with a helmet on his head, was girt about the loins with a sword with gilded hilts; a Danish axe bound with gold and silver hung from his left shoulder; in his left hand was a shield with gilded boss and studs, in his right a spear, called an ætgar in English.

Godwin was restored to his position as chief earl and advisor to the king. The earl’s sole punishment was that he had to disinter Harold’s body, throw it into a marsh and then into the Thames – though John of Worcester assures us that “a short time later, it (Harold’s body) was taken by a certain fisherman, borne in haste to the Danes, and was honourably buried in a cemetery they had in London.”

But then Harðacnut died in 1042, and Godwin had to appeal to another new king, Edward (the Confessor) who not only hated Cnut for defeating and killing his father, Æðelræd (Ethelred “the Unready”), the previous king, but was also a full-brother to Alfred, for whose murder Godwin had already had to placate Harðacnut. Surprisingly, this new king, seems not to have required Godwin to recompense his brother’s murder in any way, perhaps seeing the value of keeping a chief earl who had remained loyal to whoever was on the English throne. Or perhaps it was, as William of Malmesbury insists, that Edward was only able to ascend to the English throne with the assistance of Godwin – some sources indicate that Harðacnut had progeny in Denmark who could have claimed the kingship.

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A third possibility was that with Godwin came his very capable family, most significantly for Edward, Godwin’s daughter, Eadgyða (usually modernized as Edith), whom he would marry in 1045. And then there were Godwin’s numerous sons. Swegen, the eldest, would become earl of Herefordshire in 1043 with the second, Harold, becoming earl of East Anglia the following year. Three more sons, Tostig, Gyrð, and Leofwine, would become earls before Edward’s death. (A final son, Wulnoð [Wulfnoth], would live from 1051 as a hostage to King Edward, then a prisoner of William the Conqueror, although perhaps set free by William Rufus before dying a monk attached to Winchester Cathedral in 1094. But that is a story for later.)

Coronation of Edward the Confessor – Life of St Edward the Confessor (MS Ee.3.59)

It was of course Edward’s death in 1066 that led later that year to two of the most important battles in English history, Stamford Bridge (fought on September 25) and Hastings (on October 14). In the first Harold Godwinson, who had been declared king by the childless Edward on his deathbed, defeated one claimant to throne of England, the Norwegian king, Harald Hárðráði (modernized to Hardrada), but in the second Harold lost to another claimant, the duke of Normandy, William (who would gain his cognomen, the Conqueror as a result).

Wait a minute? Harold, the second son of Godwin, fought these battles and not Swegen, the eldest? Shouldn’t Swegen have arisen to the English kingship in 1066 and been defending the throne at Stamford Bridge and Hastings? Hence continues the bulk of the Saga of Swegen Godwinson.

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Frank Barlow estimates that Swegen was born to Godwin and Gyða c.1023 and was raised to earl of Herefordshire in c.1043; although his only supporting evidence of this is that Swegen’s first signed charter as “earl” is in 1044, no one has disputed these dates. Being the eldest of Godwin’s children, he was undoubtedly educated to follow his in his father’s footsteps, in military arts and leadership, and in politics. He surely would have inherited his father’s power and titles and may even have been king instead of his brother, Harold. But that was not to happen. In fact, Swegen’s life would head down a very different path from any of his siblings.

For the first three years, Swegen served with distinction as the earl of Herefordshire, attending to all the duties of his office, especially the military ones. During the entirety of the Middle Ages the earls of Herefordshire had perhaps the most difficult responsibilities for ensuring the peace of England of any English baron. Herefordshire, along the marches of Wales, provided a “buffer zone” against raids from marauding bands of Welshmen. Some of these bands were supported by Welsh kings, others seem to have originated simply as groups of cattle rustlers, but all brought at least a disruption of society and economy if not death for those who dared to live along the marches.

That this area was in need of constant defense is no doubt why King Offa of Mercia (758-96) built a large “dyke,” a 192-kilometer long ditch dug across the marches between Wales and Mercia (although some historians dispute that this was his doing). Later, after the conquest of William the Conqueror, the largest concentration of castles in the kingdom would occupy the same territory. But even with these fortifications, only one means of deterrence seemed to be a guarantee against Welsh incursions into England: a strong marcher lord or group of lords, individuals who could defend their territory with military strength and, if necessary, who could make their own avenging assaults into Wales. For Edward the Confessor around 1043 there seemed no better individual to fill these responsibilities than Swegen Godwinson.

And Swegen was effective. As the military lord over the marches, he was aggressive in his defense against the Welsh. No sooner had Swegen been raised to earl than he sought to make peace with the king of Gwynedd (in North Wales), Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, who had become king himself only in 1039. This peace would work to the benefit of both Gruffydd and Edward the Confessor, as Gruffydd used his alliance with Swegen to gain power over the other primary Welsh lord, Gruffydd ap Rhydderch, king of Deheubarth.  Swegen was able to take advantage of the divisiveness of those same lords to keep them from attacking England. In 1046, Swegen would join Gruffydd on an invasion of Deheubarth.  Although no details of this campaign are recorded, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (C) does report that Swegen and Gruffydd were successful, receiving hostages from those whom they had defeated.

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But, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and other contemporary and near-contemporary sources, it is on returning from this campaign in Wales in 1046 that Swegen took his first wayward path. Passing through Leominster, he fell in love with an abbess, Eadgifu, and desired to marry her. Rather than sorting this situation out by using his political power and the favor of Edward, who was clearly very pleased with the young earl – this was certainly not the first time a nun or abbess were released from their vows for an advantageous marriage – Swegen took her by force. Although there is no record of this – or anything known about her, including her age, other than this event – Eadgifu’s family surely must have been wealthy or politically connected. There is also some indication that the love was consensual on the abbess’ part, that she may not have been taken away against her will.

Instead, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes what happened as an “abduction,” and one that clearly riled the clergy, with ensuing threats from Archbishop Eadsige of York and Bishop Lyfing of Wells who had ecclesiastical jurisdiction over Herefordshire and Leominster. We don’t know what the king thought of this, although as Swegen released Eadgifu after only a year indicates his unwillingness to support his young earl. This was not the last time the backboneless Edward would fail to support a member of the Godwin family.

Still, why this was done cannot be explained from the few sources which discuss it. If it was a consensual relationship, it is surprising that it is described as an “abduction” by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, although there are indications elsewhere that the authors of that chronicle, who were of course monks, clearly did not like Swegen. That it was in fact an actual abduction, whether consensual or not, and thus a very severe crime, may be indicated by what came next. Swegen was stripped of his earldom and banished from England. He fled first to Flanders, and then to Denmark, where, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, he committed other unspecified crimes.

But his exile was short. In 1049, apparently permitted by Edward, Swegen returned to England to beg for forgiveness from and perform penance before the king. Not everyone was happy with his return, though, in particular his brother, Harold, or his cousin, Beorn. Both had profited from Swegen’s absence and were reluctant to give up what they had acquired by his banishment. Beorn seems to have opposed the return of Swegen the most. Eventually, though, it seems that Swegen was able to convince Beorn to support his return.

But then something sudden and completely unexplained by any of the sources happened. Beorn met Swegen at Pevensey and agreed to join his own forces to those of his cousin and to travel together to meet the king at Sandwich and ask for Swegen’s reinstatement. The two cousins disembarked near Bosham, one of the most important manors of the Godwin family, although why such a stop was made is unexplained.  Godwin and/or Gyða may have been there, and Swegen may have gone there to visit them. Or, Swegen may have had something much more sinister planned. For near Bosham Beorn was murdered. Although no source claims that Swegen himself was guilty of this, he was certainly complicit. Immediately, six of Beorn’s eight ships deserted Swegen, and he was forced once again to flee to Flanders, declared a niðing (a man without honor) at a military tribunal, a sentence later confirmed by Edward the Confessor and the witenagemot. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (C) claims that the murder was premeditated:

Then came Earl Swegen with deceit, and he bid Earl Beorn to travel with him to the king at Sandwich, saying that he would swear oaths and would be loyal to him. Trusting his kinship with Swegen, Beorn and three others went with him. And they travelled to Bosham, as if they were sailing to Sandwich. Swegen’s ships lay there. Then Beorn was bound and taken aboard a ship. And he was taken to Dartmouth, where he was slain and deeply buried.

Why Swegen slew Beorn is a mystery. There seems to have been little logic to the murder. Indeed, the death of Beorn seriously weakened the political power of the Godwin family; had Beorn and Swegen continued as earls, Godwin, his sons, and nephew would have held four of the six great English earldoms, with more, younger sons set to take other lands and earldoms.  Yet, there seems no question of his guilt. None of the sources reporting the murder say he was not involved. And modern commentators agree. As Frank Stenton writes: “… it was clear that he had been guilty of an act of atrocious treachery, and his condemnation took the form of a judgement by a military assembly that he had outraged its sense of honourable behaviour.”

On the other hand, “extraordinary”, to use Frank Barlow’s word, Swegen returned to England the following year and was reinstated as an earl by Edward. Henry of Huntingdon contends that it was done only “on the surety of his father Godwin,” while John of Worcester claims that the influence in this matter was Bishop Ealdred of Worcester, who met with Swegen in Flanders on his way home from Rome and was touched by his repentant desire for a return to England. The reason may actually have been simpler: during Swegen’s exile, the Irish and Southern Welsh had raided up the Severn and Wye Rivers, with the Herefordshire and Gloucestershire militias unable to defend against them. Edward might simply have needed the bellicose earl, despite his murder of Beorn, to protect his western borders.

Godwin and his family return by ship to the court of King Edward the Confessor in 1052. From a 13th-century manuscript of the Vita Ædwardi Regis

But Swegen stay in England did not last long. In 1051, all members of the Godwin family were banished from England for reasons evidently unrelated to Swegen. Initially, the family thought about fighting this banishment, with Godwin, Swegen, and Harold all raising troops. But they thought better of this and accepted their banishment. Inexplicably, Swegen’s punishment was more severe than the others. While the rest of his family fled to Ireland and Flanders, and the queen was sent into a nunnery, Swegen was singly declared an outlaw.

He, too, went to Flanders but while there, he must have felt some remorse for his past crimes. Perhaps judging that it would be some time before he and his family were restored to their English lands and titles, if at all, he undertook a “barefoot pilgrimage” to Rome and Jerusalem. On his return journey to Flanders he died. However, even with his death there is disagreement among the sources as to where and how Swegen died. John of Worcester records Swegen’s death at Lycia in Asia Minor; William of Malmesbury reports that he was killed by Saracens in the Holy Land; and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (C) claims that it occurred at Constantinople. All, however, assure us that Swegen had already fulfilled his pilgrimage at his death and that his sins had been forgiven. Despite his numerous crimes, Swegen would reside in heaven.

Swegen was thus dead some 15 years before his younger brother, Harold, would become king and fight two battles to try and hold onto that title. Would Swegen have done better than Harold at this had be lived? Some historians have tried to minimize or rationalize Swegen’s crimes, seeing his abduction of Eadgifu as a love tryst or as the desire for an alliance with a rich noble lady, and/or seeing the murder of his cousin, Beorn, as a play for power or as revenge. But most have arrived at the conclusion that Swegen was somewhat of a psychopath. Edward Freeman’s description is an example of what most modern historians have concluded:

A youth, evidently of no common powers, but wayward, violent, and incapable of self-control, he was hurried first into flagrant violation of the sentiment of the age, and next into a still fouler breach of the eternal laws of right. His end may well arouse our pity, but his life, as a whole, is a dark blot on the otherwise chequered escutcheon of the house of Godwine.

These conclusions reflect those of contemporaries. The Vita Ædwardi is probably describing Swegen when the anonymous author portrays one of Godwin’s children as the “gulping monster” who “seeks the depths, attacks its root and mouths the parent trunk, and holds, until, as doomed, the breath of life creates a creature from a lifeless dam; and losing grip, pursues again its prey.”

Undoubtedly, being the son of a powerful lord, he gave way to tendencies which he may have thought permissible because of his wealth and station.  Perhaps it was not until the army itself became involved and banished him as a “man utterly and irreparably disgraced,” that Swegen seemed to realize that he had exceeded all forms of behavior, even those made legitimate by his military occupation and station. Ultimately, this change of heart would lead to his death as a sinner repentant for his actions. Snorri Sturluson could not have written a better saga.

As with Snorri’s sagas, though, the Saga of Swegen Godwinson does not entirely end with the death of its titular character. Only one child of Swegen’s children is mentioned in the sources, Hakon. Nothing is known about Hakon not even who his mother was – although Freeman wonders if it could not have been Eadgifu, the abbess of Leominster, abducted and seduced by Swegen in 1046, as she had been kept for over a year by this Godwinson – except that he, with his uncle, Wulnoð, was offered as hostages by Godwin to Edward in 1051 in exchange for the assurance of safe-passage to the coast for the rest of the family. The two were then given to William the Conqueror by Edward when the Duke of Normandy visited England later in that year. The Godwin family’s return to England in 1052, although accepted by Edward, broke the vow for which they had surrendered the hostages, and neither Hakon nor Wulfnoð would be returned. The Anglo-Norman chronicles of William of Poitiers and Eadmer both report that one of the reasons for Harold Godwinson’s visit to Normandy in 1064 was to retrieve his brother and nephew, although he could only regain Hakon after the English earl had promised to support William the Conqueror in his bid to inherit the English throne. Hakon Swegenson is never heard from again. And the Saga of Swegen Godwinson, the man who should have lost at Hastings, ends.

Kelly DeVries is Professor of History at Loyola University in Maryland and Honorary Historical Consultant, Royal Armouries, UK.  He is the author of many works on medieval history, including the recently published 1066: A Guide to the Battles and the Campaigns (co-authored by Michael Livingston).

Click here to read more from Kelly

Top Image: The ungodly man with his soldiers. British Library MS Harley 603  fol. 1v 

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