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GODWIN'S CLAN - 6: WEALTH AND STANDING IN THE KINGDOM - Harold Godwinson As Earl of Wessex, Employer And Landlord

Updated on August 10, 2017

Harold, supporter of the Church, heir to a tradition of high ideals

Contemporary statue of King Harold at Waltham abbey church, to the right of the main door at the SW corner
Contemporary statue of King Harold at Waltham abbey church, to the right of the main door at the SW corner | Source
The red dragon of Wessex, emblem of the senior earl of Eadward's England
The red dragon of Wessex, emblem of the senior earl of Eadward's England
An earl's household - this one of Drengham, which Harold would have inherited from his father Godwin in AD1053
An earl's household - this one of Drengham, which Harold would have inherited from his father Godwin in AD1053

Land ownership determined real wealth in mediaeval England.

Land was needed to feed the household and beyond that the families of ceorls. Sheep and cattle were not only eaten but provided the means to make clothing, materials for dwellings. Taxes were paid on the profits made from the sale of surplus stock, cereal crops, materials for clothing made from wool or leather.

Moreover land ownership brought with it political power. Landowners with great swathes of agricultural land could not work it themselves. Tenants and sub-tenants were needed to work the land, pay rent and support their own families. The owner received rents paid in kind and in coin, and tenants would also give military service with the fyrd after rudimentary training where needed in the event of repelling invasions. The fyrd was not used beyond the kingdom's boundaries, that fell to a small standing army and the king's or earl's huscarls.

Tenants came in the guise of thegns, too, who had sub-tenants to work their land and support the thegn with men for fyrdfaereld, or obligation of militia service over a period of weeks in any given year. Sub-tenants also had their own patches of land to support themselves. Domesday tells us that Earl Harold held lands to the value of £2,846, his men a further £836 - the valuations stand for taxation purposes rather than actual value of the land itself or income from it. The Gofwin clan as a whole held lands at around £5,200. The king himself held lands valued at £3,840, although with his men the imbalance was redressed as potentially everyone in the land came under that category.

How Harold and his family acquired their estates is hard to assess due to the lack of sources after the Conquest. Secular documents are thin on the ground. Domesday may give a general idea of values or amounts of land he held, not how he came by it. The survey was put together using the recollections of various tenants and others who occupied the land in AD1086. But twenty years had passed since Harold died and an amount of inaccuracy will have crept into accounts in the interim - down to failing memory in old age or non-co-operation with authority, or others hoping to profit from confusion.

Harold's own lands were centred on the south of the kingdom although he had land elsewhere, such as in Yorkshire, Lincolnshire and Hertfordshire. His employment brought with it great tracts of land which were his but could not be inherited unless his sons became Earl of Wessex in turn.

There were four types of land-holding at this time: Family land was inherited or left in bequests; Bookland was granted by diploma - often by king or church, or land in return for service; third was land attached to office held in the king's service as royal official; fourth was land bought.

Godwin had served the aetheling Aethelstan - a son of Aethelred by his first marriage - and then Eadmund 'Ironside'. Knut found Godwin to be a loyal servant, as did Emma. Her favours were on behalf of ger son Harthaknut by Knut, and then King Eadward 'adopted' him, albeit with some reservation. The sticking point here was in Godwin's involvement with Harold Knutsson's blinding and subsequent murder of Eadward's younger brother through Emma, the aetheling Aelfred.

Godwin's lands were chiefly in the Wessex heartlands as well as in the South Saxon coastal region from Bosham eastward - around a third of the present county of West and East Sussex - and Harold ingerited these on his father's death in AD1053. Harold acquired lands of his own in East Anglia both on his own account and through his Danish (common law) marriage to Eadgytha 'Svanneshals' (Swan-Neck), who had herself inherited sizeable land-holdings , some formerly belonging to Knut's earl Thorkell 'Havi' (The Tall).

As earl Harold received large sums through court fines, customs dues on imported goods and through bequests from major landowners and noblewomen who sought his protection and support against aggressive neighbours. Lands granted to Earl Harold were not the only ones he gained, but they were the foundation of his power in southern part of the kingdom. He added lands to his East Anglian estates through the banishment of his older brother Svein in AD1047. Svein sought their restoration in AD1049 but Harold and his Danish kinsman Earl Beorn opposed the move, saying no lands awarded them by the king should be yielded. Although there were some lands restored to Svein for a short time a year later Harold raised no further objections and may have lost no lands to his brother in the event, instead being given lands that had belonged to Beorn after the young earl's slaying off the Isle of Wight by Svein. We have no direct knowledge of the whereabouts of Beorn's lands in Hertfordshire, where Harold possibly gained some of them and the surrounding Hundreds. By 1066 he held widespread estates in the region but not the authority of earl over them. Thus Harold became one of the strongest landholders in the eastern quarter of the kingdom, which brought with it a large following.

By grants and bequests many hoped to secure his support and protection. By return the government of his earldom was enabled, and men were willing to serve under his able stewardship, serving with the fleet for example and supporting his father in AD1051. When it came to the likelihood of open warfare against the king, however, support fell away. In the event of an injustice - as they found out Godwin's banishment had been brought about by Eadward and his 'outsiders' - then the cause of Harold and his family was supportable, (even against the king himself but not so as to bring about his death).

When Harold gave up his East Anglian earldom to take over Wessex many still supported him. He was seen as a 'rising star' and these supporters saw it useful to keep their links open for future use. As his power surged, so the quality of support for those who held by him would rise. Earl Harold gained more land in Herefordshire on the death of Earl Ralph in AD1057, a large portion of these directly linked with the office held by the sitting earl.

With gaining land in the south and west Harold also won support from many leading men as he had in the east. He sought the support in particular of Eadnoth the 'stallari' (staller, or marshal) who held lands in western Wessex (Devon, Dorset) and of Aethelnoth 'Cild' with large tracts of land (in Kent and Sussex). Harold gave Eadnoth land at Islington in Dorset - taken from a cleric - and Eadnoth held other lands from him. Support was given to Aethelnoth in keeping land in Kent, also at the expense of the Church. Each of these men gave their support to Harold and ensured his control of the southern part of the kingdom. Thry would later add their weight to his attack on Gruffyth ap Llewellyn.

His support for Aethelnoth did have repercussions in that he was accused of 'stealing land' from the Church. In Domesday there are statements made by clergymen with reference to Harold stepping in on behalf of laymen such as Aethelnoth: 'taken wrongfully', 'taken by force' or 'through violence'. The originators of Domesday were biased against Harold anyway, and its compilers often took the opportunity of blackening his name even though their Norman masters acted no differently. For instance Robert of Romney, the king's half-brother Robert of Mortain and Aelfred of Marlborough all held Church lands they were not entitled to. Even William himself - who kept Melcombe Horsey in Dorset - only gave it up to the Bishop of Hereford in exchange for other lands. Cases against the Mercian Earl Leofric were overlooked or ignored as well as those concerning members of his clan (his grandsons Eadwin and Morkere) who acquired lands from the Church by threat or deception. In some cases the Church could not substantiate its claims against Harold. But we are unable to make educated judgements owing to the lack of neutral testament. In the case Giso of Wells raised about Congresbury and Banwell in Somerset there is ample documentation, however. Harold may have acted rightfully, within the scope of his position as head of the shire court, in holding the lands in dispute until the case was heard out. The only surviving writ from Harold's reign relates to Wells, plainly indicating no major dispute with Bishop Giso.

Altogether nine of twenty-six cases against Harold arise from land disputes on land 'taken' from the Bishopric of Hereford. It would have been that he held these lands in the defence of the realm in his capacity as Earl of Wessex. In AD1056 Gruffyth ap Llewellyn slew Bishop Leofgar. THe Bishopric was therefore subsequently open to attack from the west, such as the one that ended in the sack of Hereford a year earlier. It would have been at this time that Harold took over the bishop's estates to provide the resources for the defence of the border with Wales. Harold could not secure authority over the earldom until the year after when Earl Ralph was killed. Bishop Ealdred had assumed temporary authority over the lands and may have called in Harold for help. Having authority over Hereford and Worcester, Ealdred would certainly have had his hands full without having to muster forces for the area.

Harold would then have held onto the lands despite achieving control of the earldom of Hereford after AD1057 and despite beating off the threat by AD1063 when Aelfgar died and Gruffyd's head was handed over by an assassin. This may have been when he acted 'underhand', but in the light of all later disruptions it could be his administration was overtaken by events.

The other twelve cases are less well documented. The Church leased out land for several generations and disputes often arose about ownership. However legally or underhanded Harold accumulated his wealth, his was an unassailable position as Eadward's 'staff and mainstave'. Thus his rise to the kingship may not have been as surprising as we imagine. In the nine-hundred and forty-five years since these events there have been many changes to the nobility and kingship whereby the king's power has waxed and waned. It would be unthinkable now for an earl to become king - except for Prince Edward as the current Earl of Wessex, the title he chose to resurrect (thus undoing William's vilification of the title). In AD1066 the present Prince Edward would have been an aetheling, although unlikely to succeed with an older brother and two heirs in seniority. Barring disasters Edward will remain as Earl of Wessex and the situation will be as it was in Godwin's day, when an earl could never conceivably succeed to the throne.

Helen Hollick's masterful historical fiction centred on King Harold, his relationships with kindred, rivals and foes leading to downfall in October,1066. An emotional roller-coaster that has you on the edge of your seat... How does this end?

Harold The King

How does Harold fit into the tapestry of English history?

English family links and earldoms after Tostig's deposition 1065: 1-5 The Godwinsons: Harold, Gyrth, Leofwin; 6-7 Leofric's heirs: Eadwin, Morkere; Siward's kin: 8. Waltheof, 9: Gospatric
English family links and earldoms after Tostig's deposition 1065: 1-5 The Godwinsons: Harold, Gyrth, Leofwin; 6-7 Leofric's heirs: Eadwin, Morkere; Siward's kin: 8. Waltheof, 9: Gospatric | Source
The links - how Harold fits into the tapestry of NW European/Scandinavian hierarchy
The links - how Harold fits into the tapestry of NW European/Scandinavian hierarchy | Source

Next - 7: Kin of Kings


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