April 15, 1053: Death of Godwine; Harold becomes Earl of Wessex

One big problem with breathing life into Anglo-Saxon history is that the best stories come from the least reliable sources. From the contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, we learn only that Earl Godwine was dining at Winchester with King Edward the Confessor on Easter Monday, that he suddenly sank to the ground, bereft of speech and all his strength, and that he continued without speech or strength until the Thursday (April 15th) when he died. While this is interesting in itself as an eleventh-century description of someone having a stroke, we get a much more intriguing tale in the twelfth-century account of William of Malmesbury.

William states that Godwine was dining with the king, and the conversation turned on the king's dead brother Alfred. Godwine, picking up on the king's disapproving looks and well aware of the rumours that he was involved in Alfred's death, proclaimed: "May God make me choke on this mouthful, if I have ever done anything to harm Alfred or yourself". So of course he was choked by his food and died on the spot, not even waiting the three days recorded in the contemporary Chronicle in William's haste to point up a good moral. William is obviously romancing: Godwine is not the only sinner in William's account who calls on God as his witness and ends up extremely surprised, disappointed, and dead, because God was actually paying close attention. On the other hand, one version of the Chronicle does record that Godwine captured and tortured Alfred when he tried to return to England in 1037, so the accusation was contemporary. At this distance we have no way of telling whether William was recording a near-contemporary legend about the death of Godwine, or whether he was just connecting previously unconnected dots to try to breathe life into his sources. The provoking thing for a modern historian is that if we could somehow go back and ask William himself, he would probably say that so long as it pointed the moral, it didn't really matter. While this chimes with Robert Browning's view that art is a potent way (sometimes the only way) of telling the truth, it goes hard with those who want to determine as exactly as possible what really happened.