Godwin, Earl of Wessex, Anglo-Saxon England’s Kingmaker
Godwin of Wessex (1001 – 1053) was a nobleman who dominated England in the first half of the 11th century. Although an Anglo Saxon, Godwin won the favor of the Danish King Canute after the latter conquered England in 1016, and the new king made him Earl of Wessex in 1018. Godwin’s kingmaker career commenced with Canute’s death in 1035.
The Danish king’s demise triggered a succession crisis, as his son Harold Harefoot fought for the English throne against Alfred the Aethling, son of Canute’s predecessor, Ethelred the Unready. Godwin made his first king by securing the throne for Harold. He accomplished that by feigning loyalty to Alfred, and luring him to London, where he was seized in an ambush. Alfred was then blinded, and died in captivity soon thereafter.
However, Harold died in 1040, and his heir was his half brother Harthacanut, King of Denmark. That was awkward for Godwin, because Harthacanut also happened to be half brother of that same Alfred whom Godwin had betrayed. The Earl of Wessex managed to worm his way out of Harthacanut’s vengeance by claiming to have acted under Harold’s orders. Between Godwin’s protestations, his lavish gifts, and offers to smooth his path to the English throne, Harthacanut let the Earl of Wessex off the hook, and limited his revenge to digging up Harold’s corpse and beheading it.
Harthacnut’s death in 1042 triggered yet another succession crisis, this one between King Magnus the Good of Norway, and Edward the Confessor, Alfred’s brother and the last surviving son of Aethelred the Unready. Godwin played kingmaker once more, and secured the throne for Edward, thus restoring to England the royal house of Wessex, and Saxon rule, after decades of Danish domination.
Godwin became the most powerful nobleman in the court of Edward the Confessor, but kingmaker and king fell out in 1051, over Edward’s increasing reliance on Norman advisors – the king having grown up in Normandy. Godwin was stripped of his earldom and banished, but he returned with an army, raised a rebellion, and set Edward the Confessor right. The king was forced to restore Godwin’s earldom, and the kingmaker became the most powerful man in the kingdom, until his sudden death in 1053. His son Harold Godwinson succeeded him as England’s most powerful figure, and was crowned king after Edward’s death in 1066, reigning until his defeat by William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings later that year.