Monday, 1 October 2018

Mercia Vs The Godwines

The story of the last earls of Mercia is linked to the powerful Godwine family. At the start of 1051, Godwine’s earldom stretched from Kent to Cornwall. He was father-in-law to the king of England, and his son Harold was earl of Essex, East Anglia, Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire. 



After an incident in Dover - when the count of Boulogne was attacked and Godwine refused to punish the citizens - before a meeting in London could consider the charges against him, Godwine and his family fled. His son Harold’s earldom of East Anglia was given to Ælfgar, son of Earl Leofric of Mercia.

The banishment was short-lived, however, and by 1052 the Godwines were back, which meant that Ælfgar was displaced from East Anglia. But in 1053 Godwine died and his son Harold became earl of Wessex in his place. So Ælfgar was back in East Anglia and suddenly the Godwinesons were isolated.

But political wheels turn quickly and when in 1055 the earl of Northumbria died and Tostig Godwineson became earl in his place, Ælfgar was outlawed, possibly on trumped-up charges. Ælfgar, with the aid of Irish pirate ships and the assistance of Gruffudd, king of the Welsh, advanced on Hereford where the earl, the ‘timorous’ Ralf, took flight before battle was joined. Ælfgar was re-established in East Anglia.

When in 1057 Earls Leofric and Ralf both died, it raised the question of what to do about the territories and how to deal with the Welsh. Ælfgar was a bit of a troublemaker, and Ralf’s son was still a child. In the end, Edward permitted Ælfgar to succeed his father in Mercia, while the Godwines carved up the remaining territory among themselves. 

In 1058 Ælfgar was banished for a second time. ‘But he soon returned with violence through the help of Gruffudd.’ It was possibly around this time that Ælfgar’s daughter, Ealdgyth, married, or was given in marriage to, Gruffudd. 

Had Ælfgar lived, it is unlikely that he would have supported Harold Godwineson’s election to the throne in 1066. He had reason to resent the Godwines; he had been banished twice, and both times Harold had been involved. 



Ælfgar died around the year 1062. His - presumably - eldest son, Burgheard, had predeceased his father. Ælfgar’s surviving sons were probably only in their teens when their father died. The eldest, Edwin, succeeded as earl of Mercia. In 1063 the Welsh raiding began and Harold Godwineson – who had been in charge of Hereford since 1057 – decided to retaliate. In May he sailed from Bristol while his brother Tostig invaded North Wales. Gruffudd escaped from this two-pronged attack but was killed by his own men. 

In 1064 Harold went to Normandy, where he famously either swore, or did not swear, an oath to support Duke William’s claim to the English throne. Meanwhile in England, his brother Tostig was stirring up resentment.



In 1065 the northerners rose up in rebellion to avenge the deaths of three northern thegns. They were also said to be objecting to a huge tribute which Tostig had unjustly levied on the whole of Northumbria. The rebels called for Morcar, the younger brother of Edwin of Mercia, to replace Tostig as earl. 

Tostig accused Harold of fomenting the rebellion against him and Harold had to swear an oath to clear himself of this charge. King Edward wanted to use force to crush the rebellion, but his counsellors were against the idea, it was late in the year and so they gave in to the demands. Just before Christmas, Tostig and his wife Judith left for Flanders, where her half-brother Count Baldwin gave them welcome.


The Kirkdale Sundial, with Earl Tostig's name in the dedication

At some point, probably after 1063, Harold married Ealdgyth, sister of the earls Edwin and Morcar, and widow of Gruffudd. 

In May 1066, the ousted Tostig came harrying, causing a nuisance as far north as the Humber. Edwin and Morcar drove him into Scotland.

But later in the year Tostig returned, in alliance with Harald Hardrada of Norway. Harald anchored his fleet at Riccall on the Ouse, and before King Harold could get there from the south, Edwin and Morcar had to face the might of the Norwegian forces. At Gate Fulford, outside York, battle was joined. For most of a day, they blocked the road and stopped the Norwegians advancing, but they finally gave way and their men were cut down or drowned. 


Harald landing near York (left), and defeating the Northumbrian army (right),
from the 13th century chronicle The Life of King Edward the Confessor by Matthew Paris

Though Edwin and Morcar survived the battle, they would barely have had time to regroup in order to provide any assistance at Stamford Bridge, and it is not certain whether they were at Hastings (although at least one source says they were there) but it can probably be said in their defence that they would have had few troops to bring with them, having suffered such heavy losses at Fulford.

By March 1067 those who had sworn to William included Edwin, Morcar and Waltheof, son of Siward of Northumbria. But in the summer of 1068 Edwin and Morcar left the court and went north to join an ill-fated rebellion.

In that same year there was a Mercian revolt which spread as far as Cheshire and Stafford. William marched against them and crushed them. Castles were erected at Chester and Stafford, and William returned to Wessex. He had made sure that the devastation would mean that Mercia and Northumbria would never again rise up against his rule.

There is no evidence that the brothers Edwin and Morcar had been involved in the uprising, but Edwin’s death came about when he was on his way to Scotland, presumably in flight, although it seems his demise was brought about by his own followers under circumstances which are lost to us now. Morcar went to Ely where he joined Hereward the Wake. 

The stand-off at Ely was also fated to fail. William surrounded the area, defeated the rebels, Morcar surrendered and was flung into prison.

And that’s pretty much where the Mercian story ends. Little is known about the fate of Ealdgyth, or her son/s by Harold.


In my new book about the history of Mercia I’ve looked in detail about the relations between the two rival families, the Godwines and the Mercians, and the theories about the various alliances and rebellions. I found it fascinating.

But what if either Edwin or Harold had lived, or maybe both? Because there is another family dynamic which interests me: Edwin was brother-in-law to the king, just as Harold had been, but he would also have been uncle to Harold’s infant son. The Mercians had no love for the Godwines. How different the political landscape might have looked …

   Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom
   1066 Turned Upside Down

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