An English monarch of the 11th century
An English monarch of the 11th century

When Knut died in 1035, being even then not more than forty years of age, his empire went to pieces. Harthacnut, his son by Emma, became king of Denmark; two illegitimate sons, Sweyn and Harold, called Hare-foot, whose mother was an English woman, became kings of Norway and England respectively, though Harold's claim was disputed by Earl Godwin in favour of Harthacnut.

Alfred, the younger son of Emma and AEthelred, came from Normandy to Wessex, which had just professed allegiance to Harthacnut; but there he was treacherously seized and blinded and shortly afterwards died, almost certainly with the connivance of Earl Godwin. But Harthacnut was too much engaged in a vain attempt to dispute Sweyn's position in Norway to assert his title in England; and Wessex presently recognised Harold.

Harthacnut becomes king of England
Harold, of whom the chroniclers have nothing good to relate, died in 1040, and Harthacnut, after some negotiation, was accepted as king of England. But he lived to do evil for something less than two years. His half-brother Edward, the only surviving son of AEthelred and Emma, was elected king immediately upon the death of Harthacnut, while Denmark passed to the nephews of Knut.

Edward the Confessor
Edward had spent nearly the whole of his life in Normandy, and he loved all things Norman. Also he was a religious devotee. The pious endowment of the Church supplied his principal conception of the duties of kingship, the things of the world and of the flesh being all contemptible. His court became the home of Norman parasites, lay and ecclesiastical, on whom he bestowed honours and benefices with a lavish hand.

The government of the country fell mainly to the three great earls, Godwin of Wessex, Leofric of Mercia, and the Danish Siward of Northumbria, who, in the North, stood comparatively remote from the intrigues and rivalries of the South.

Of the three, Godwin, the former ally of the king's mother, had from the outset the most influence with the king himself, whom he persuaded to marry his daughter Edith, or, more correctly, Ealdgyth; who accepted the situation although the marriage was merely nominal, the king having taken a vow of chastity. Also he obtained considerable though minor earldoms for his two eldest sons Sweyn and Harold.

Had Harold been Godwin's only son the great earl would probably soon have ruled unchallenged; but Sweyn and the third son Tostig were lawless ruffians, and Godwin would not cut them adrift.

Godwin's troubles 
Sweyn got himself deservedly outlawed for carrying off the fair abbess of the nunnery at Leominster. He was apparently on the point of being recalled when he murdered Earl Beorn, who had opposed his inlawing; to the intense disgust of Earl Harold.

Even then Godwin was weak enough to sue for and obtain his eldest son's pardon. But his influence broke down over an ecclesiastical quarrel with the king, when the earl persuaded the chapter of Canterbury to elect a kins­man of his own to the Archbishopric without consulting the king, who had chosen for that office the Norman Robert of Jumieges.

Godwin outlawed
While the quarrel was in progress Eustace, Count of Boulogne, the king's brother-in-law, came to Dover on his way to visit Edward. A brawl broke out between the count's retinue and the Dover folk, with the result that after some sharp fight­ing the count and his party were ejected.

Eustace appealed to Edward, who promptly ordered Godwin to inflict condign punishment on the people of Dover. Edward's predilection for foreigners was bitterly resented, and Godwin refused flatly. Practically he defied the king, but he soon found that defiance was premature; that the North was against him, and even Wessex was half-hearted. The result was that he and his sons, who had been prepared to stand by their father at all costs, took to flight to Flanders or Ireland and were outlawed.

Godwin's return
It was soon evident that the fall of Godwin in 1051 meant the triumph of the king's foreign favourites, though Harold's earldom was given to AElfgar, son of Leofric. It was at this time that the young Duke William of Normandy visited England and, according to his own statement, was promised the succession by King Edward.

But Godwin's eclipse was only temporary. In 1052 he and his sons returned to the coast of Wessex and found the country disposed to rise in their support. The king would not fight, though he might have done so; and while negotiations were pending there was a rapid and somewhat ignominious exodus of the aliens.

It was no part of Godwin's polity to press his advantage unduly. His pose was that of the true patriot; and he made no attempt to injure his rivals. He did not even seek once more to restore Sweyn, who never re­turned to England. But from this time forth Godwin himself, and after him his son Harold, held supreme influence with the king. In fact Godwin survived his success only a few months.

Harold of Wessex
For thirteen years Harold was the king's chief minister, making it his aim to avoid friction with the two great houses of Leofric and Siward. On succeeding to the earldom of Wessex he allowed AElfgar to be reinstated in his own previous earldom of East Anglia, which had been transferred to Leofric's son during the eclipse of the house of Godwin.

This article is excerpted from the book, 'A History of the British Nation', by AD Innes, published in 1912 by TC & EC Jack, London. I picked up this delightful tome at a second-hand bookstore in Calgary, Canada, some years ago. Since it is now more than 70 years since Mr Innes's death in 1938, we are able to share the complete text of this book with Britain Express readers. Some of the author's views may be controversial by modern standards, particularly his attitudes towards other cultures and races, but it is worth reading as a period piece of British attitudes at the time of writing.

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