Sunday, August 28, 2016

Who was Wulfnoth Godwineson?

William the Conqueror. Source:
Wikimedia Commons
In this 950th anniversary year of the Battle of Hastings, most of us have heard the story about Harold Godwineson (or Godwinson), last of the Anglo-Saxon kings and the arrow in his eye. But how many know about his younger brother Wulfnoth? Born about 20 years after his famous sibling, Wulfnoth was whisked away as hostage for his father’s good behavior when he was only about 12 years old. In all the confusion surrounding Godwine’s return from exile in 1052, he was probably kidnapped by the Archbishop Robert of Jumièges, who fled from London with the rest of Edward’s Norman allies. Robert turned over Wulfnoth and cousin Hakon to William, claiming (in one version) that King Edward had declared the Norman Duke as his heir, and sent the boys along as guarantee of his pledge. Presumable the Duke did not investigate the validity of this promise. Why should he suspect the word of an Archbishop?

Poor Wulfnoth was in quite a fix. After all, he was the youngest son and hence, expendable. At the time he was abducted, his father was striving to get his position back. Earl Godwine probably didn’t even know his son was missing until after the fact. How culpable was the King? Could Godwine accuse him of betraying his trust? Not likely. Would Godwine have written to Duke William offering to pay a ransom for his son? Wulfnoth was not likely ever to know, and his father died the next year, which must have seemed like a catastrophe to the lonely youth.

I’ve read some Victorian-era historians who bemoan the innocent prisoner kept under lock and key. But I suspect his confinement was more in the nature of a high-ranking son of a noble, raised in the ducal household to ensure the loyalty of the father. The captive son would be treated like a squire or even a member of the family, provisionally allowed to roam free with the understanding that he would not try to leave. Or at least, I hope this is how Wulfnoth was treated, for he never deserved his fate. I can only suspect the boy was a powerful negotiating tool for the Duke, just in case the opportunity arose. And if King Edward really did offer William the crown, of course he would keep the boy as security. There should have been no reason to put him in a prison cell.

When Harold made his fatal oath to support William’s claim to the throne in 1064, once again Wulfnoth had to stay as surety for his promise; it seems that Hakon was not as important, and William let him go home. Once Harold took the throne, I wonder if William was tempted to kill his hostage? If the Duke was as nasty as he is made out to be, surely one would have expected him to take his revenge. But he didn’t. In fact, Wulfnoth was the Duke’s hostage until the day William died; on his death bed, a repentant William the Conqueror released all his hostages.

Alas, Wulfnoth’s freedom was short-lived. William Rufus is said to have rushed to England to claim his patrimony, taking Wulfnoth with him. Having a Godwineson on the loose was too risky for the Norman heir; the last thing Rufus needed was a new rebellion with a puppet figurehead. Of course by then, Wulfnoth had been a captive so many years he had no friends in England, no property, nor any family left, for they had all fled the country and his sister Queen Editha had died in 1075. So he wasn’t much of a threat, and the new king was content to confine Wulfnoth to Winchester, where he may have become a monk at the cloister. He died in the year 1094.

It’s interesting to me that the least dramatic and least talked-about Son of Godwine is the only one to have survived the events of 1066. In my world of historical fiction, this gave him the opportunity to compile the remembrances of his brothers and finish the chronicle begun by his sister Editha. In her words: I preserved my real story, and intend to pass it on to my last surviving brother Wulfnoth, who can prepare it for a future chronicler not hostile to our house. Who is that chronicler? Myself, of course!

Friday, August 19, 2016


Harold Swears an Oath on the Relics. Source: Wikimedia
That is one of the most debated questions in Pre-Conquest history, with no answer in sight. Was William’s claim to the English throne the result of wishful thinking? Was he promised the crown directly by King Edward, or was the offer presented by a third party? Did Harold Godwineson even know about William’s designs on the throne when he made his fateful visit to Normandy in 1064?

Let’s start with William’s pedigree. Richard I, Duke of Normandy was Queen Emma’s father; this made him the grandfather of Edward the Confessor. Richard I was also the great-grandfather of Duke William. So there was a distant kinship between Edward and William, though one generation apart.

When Edward the Confessor left Normandy in 1041, William was only 13 years old and Edward was 38. With that age gap, it seems unlikely that the two of them would have developed a close relationship, so any alleged gratitude Edward might have owed probably belonged to William’s father Robert, dead by 1035.

By 1052, when William supposedly traveled to England while Earl Godwine was in exile, Edward’s alleged gratitude may have cooled somewhat. It’s hard to say. William’s visit to England is by no means certain; some historians thought he would have been too busy putting down rebellions to leave his country even for a short time. If he did visit England, it is claimed that Edward offered him the crown at this point. Still, given the king’s knowledge that it was up to the Witan to decide the succession, it’s curious why he would have done so. However, considering his antagonism toward the Godwines (he put the queen in a nunnery while Godwine was in exile), perhaps he did it out of spite. Perhaps he knew there would never be children from his own marriage (was Edward celibate? Another unanswered question).

There is another scenario concerning Robert of Jumièges, former Archbishop of Canterbury and arch-enemy of Earl Godwine. Robert is one of the Normans who fled from London once it was clear that Godwine was back in control. It is probable that he kidnapped the hostages, Godwine’s son Wulfnoth and nephew Hakon, and brought them to Normandy. In this interpretation, he might have been acting on his own when he told William that Edward was declaring him heir to the English throne, and here are the hostages to guarantee his promise—hostages agreed to by Godwine and the other great earls. I don’t see how Godwine would have agreed to this, since he didn’t even know about it! So my interpretation is that Archbishop Robert concocted this pledge as an effective revenge on Godwine and all of England for kicking him out. And this is the scenario I develop in THE SONS OF GODWINE.

If this is the case, it’s very possible that Harold Godwineson had no idea William was harboring thoughts for the crown when he visited Normandy in 1064. Again, historians don’t even agree to his motives for going. Some believe—and the Normans contend—that Edward sent Harold across the Channel to confirm his pledge of the crown. Personally, I think Harold would have been unwilling to discharge this errand (depending on whether or not he harbored his own designs on the crown). If Harold had gone to Normandy to reaffirm Edward’s promise, why would William feel the need to make him swear an oath?

Some say that Harold was on a fishing trip and got blown across the Channel by a storm. This is possible, but the theory doesn’t find much favor. I read a suggestion that Harold went to Normandy to scope out possible support concerning his own bid for the throne. But I think this might have been a little premature; after all, Edward was in perfectly good health and Eadgar Aetheling, though young, was a direct descendant of Edmund Ironside. Another reason Harold might have crossed to Normandy would be an attempt to free his little brother who had been hostage for 12 years by then. If Robert of Jumièges made the whole succession promise up, it’s possible that Harold unwittingly put himself at William’s mercy. I doubt whether he would have gone if he had known about William’s aspirations. But at least he was forewarned when the time came!