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The House of Godwine: The History of a Dynasty

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Harold Godwineson was king of England from January 1066 until his death at Hastings in October of that year. For much of the reign of Edward the Confessor, who was married to Harold’s sister Eadgyth, the Godwine family, led by Earl Godwine, had dominated English politics. In The House of Godwine, Emma Mason tells the turbulent story of a remarkable family which, until Harold’s unexpected defeat, looked far more likely than the dukes of Normandy to provide the long-term rulers of England. But for the Norman Conquest, an Anglo-Saxon England ruled by the Godwine dynasty would have developed very differently from that dominated by the Normans.

304 pages, Hardcover

First published March 4, 2003

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About the author

Emma Mason

14 books2 followers
Emma Mason was, until her recent retirement, Senior Lecturer in History at Birkbeck College, London. She has written extensively on medieval England and William Rufus in particular. She has contributed to several Radio 4 historical documentaries including Document and Historical Inquests.

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Displaying 1 - 5 of 5 reviews
Profile Image for Shauna.
334 reviews
June 1, 2020
A well researched and very readable account of the Godwine dynasty. This book tells the story of the family's rise to power and subsequent demise after King Harold's death at the battle of Hastings. My only criticism is that a family tree would have been helpful.
Profile Image for Mercedes Rochelle.
Author 13 books136 followers
October 20, 2014
I read this book some months ago, and today, as I was looking up a detail for more clarification, I realized that this volume was full of paper slips marking important passages. Then I realized I never reviewed this book which I keep on hand while working on my historical fiction projects. Well, I suppose this is a classic case of taking a book for granted, since I'm still actively using it.

I find "The House of Godwine" to be a clear, detailed and useful history that goes farther than merely recording pertinent details. Emma Mason skillfully puts "two and two" together and ventures to explain how certain events occurred or why people did what they did. For instance, when Harold launched his lightning attack on the court of Gruffydd ap Llewelyn in 1062: "It has been suggested that Aelfgar died in the Christmas season, possibly while attending court, and that this opportunity was seized to attack his ally Gruffydd ap Llewelyn before he learned of the earl's death and could reinforce his own position." Now, I knew about the Christmas campaign for years but never thought to associate it with Aelfgar's death. This may or may not have happened as suggested, but the explanation is compelling.

In case you are wondering, yes, Emma uses extensive Notes to support her work. In fact, out of 281 pages, the Notes and Index start on page 203. As far as I can tell, she used her sources to best describe an event (such as the Battle of Hastings), then gave references every step of the way. So at Hastings, for instance, she gave us a depiction of the battle with notes every few sentences referencing many different sources. All told, the battle description was thorough and it made a lot of sense. The same technique is used throughout the book.

I would say The House of Godwine is not an ideal history for beginners. It is not light reading, but for someone versed in the basics, the details here are welcome and useful. I picked up many things I hadn't run across before. Another for-instance: "Harold knew that Norman plans for invasion of England were now well under way. William of Poitiers wrote that he sent spies to report back with more detailed information. One of these men was captured and his cover story was blown. He was taken before the duke, but instead of condemning him William seized the opportunity to send a message intended to demoralize his rival..." That's the kind of detail I just gobble up!

The book starts with a good overview of England's culture and politics before and during Aethelred's reign, and ends with how the survivors after Hastings dealt with the new regime. This is where I discovered that Count Alain le Rouge, who led the Breton contingent at Hastings, carried off Edith Swanneck's daughter Gunhild from her exile at Wilton abbey. Since Alain held much of the land previously owned by Gunhild's mother, the daughter's presence presumably calmed his Anglo-Danish tenants. She stayed with him until he died then became his brother's partner in turn. I learned this tidbit just in time to incorporate it into my debut novel. Needless to say, I was thrilled. This is one book I will have to read more than once.
Profile Image for Michael Smith.
1,698 reviews46 followers
January 3, 2015
This volume is based on a course the author taught at the University of London and is enhanced by her discussions with colleagues at the annual Battle Conference on Anglo-Norman Studies — which is to say she knows what she’s talking about when it comes to perspectives of conquest, especially as they pertain to (in this case) the losers. Certainly, Harold Godwinson is remembered mostly for having lost his kingdom at Hastings, but the family went on to be both glorified and demonized. Where did all this status come from? The hard facts regarding the family’s wealth (greater than the king’s) and power (nearly so) survive to some extent in official records but the narrative context is all prejudicial in one direction or the other. Mason tries to correct this by tracing the role of the kin-group in Anglo-Saxon society, and the importance of the church (which Godwine and his descendants carefully supported), and the astute political maneuvering by the founder of the family during the reign of Canute, the canny Danish interloper. An expert study and a good starting point for further examination of the kingdom-as-family-business.
Profile Image for Beorn.
300 reviews54 followers
September 23, 2013
An interesting and balanced look at the history of arguably one of the most famous dynasties of Britain, that of King Harold and his family.

While this should be applauded for the relatively pragmatic approach it takes to disseminating the facts from the spin and is very informative, the way the book is composed makes it quite a heavy chunk to swallow. There is virtually no paragraph breaks - every page is one big block of text - and, I'll be honest, I've read more accessible history books before.
Although the 'narrative' approach to history appears to be the new trend amongst publishers of historical books, this is very much in the vein of traditional history books.

If you're doing a project based around early 11th century England or the prelude to the Norman Conquest, you'll find plenty of things here for you to appreciate. If you're a casual reader and history lover, you may want to look elsewhere.
Profile Image for Peter Fox.
314 reviews10 followers
May 22, 2021
The House of Godwine, the history of a dynasty, Emma Mason, 2004, 202 pages (281 with notes, etc)

I've not long since read Tom Licence's excellent book on Edward the Confessor and whilst that has given me a solid grounding concerning this period, it is a hard act to follow. After Frank Barlow's disappointing, The Godwins, which he seems to have phoned in, I was hoping for a solid book on this dynasty. However, I was mostly disappointed.

This book is well researched and there are loads of end notes (footnotes are so much more convenient). What lets it down is a number of questionable opinions that the author draws from the sources. Whilst there is obviously an element of subjectivity about these, I believe the facts objectively support different conclusions to hers.

These include:

Her scouting the possibility that Harald Harefoot used a small snatch squad to cut Alfred out from Godwin's party during a raid, where they may have gone from room to room, dealing with his, and the guards supplied by Eustace. Instead, I see it as a betrayal by Godwin, who was using Alfred to buy his way into favour with Harald Harefoot. Godwin not being party to the fracas wouldn't have helped him with Harald, with whom he made his peace with afterwards and it would have made him mounting a later defence easier if he had been able to allege a raid – this he singularly failed to do.

The suggestion that Harthacnut believed himself to be in poor health as demonstrated by the arrival of Edward and Sweyn Estrithson at his court – he was still a young man and his death at the wedding of the daughter of Osgod Clapa (the Rough) to Tofi the Proud was sudden and unexpected.

Her depiction of the dispute between Godwin and Edward wasn't that persuasive – she sees it as a deeply laid plot by Edward, Robert of Jumieges and Eustace of Boulogne to get rid of Godwin, with Robert possibly being the instigator. Tom Licence paints a much more convincing picture of an overmighty subject overreaching himself and Edward having to respond to maintain the authority of the king. Edward had had his way on the big issues in the years up to the row (ships for Sweyn Estrithson, ecclesiastical appointments, banishment of Sweyn Godwinson, etc) and that Robert of Jumieges was an independent agent at loggerheads with Edward over the position of Spearhafoc as bishop of London.

The idea that Wulfnoth and Hakon, given as hostages, were kidnapped by Robert of Jumieges and then taken to the continent, doesn't explain why William never returned them when the facts became known or Edward didn't make strenuous efforts to get his kin (by marriage) back. Instead, it is more likely that they were entrusted to him to take to the continent by Edward, as negotiations with Godwin weren't complete at this point and the continent was a more secure repository than England.

The notion that an attempt was made to thwart William's designs on the throne by retrieving Edward the Exile from Hungary isn't persuasive. At this date, William wasn't a likely contender for the throne. Similarly the idea that IF Edward had been assassinated (rather than dying of natural causes) soon after his arrival, then the most likely suspect was William the Conqueror, seems an unlikely contingency.

I'm also not convinced that one possible motive for Harold attacking William so soon after Stamford Bridge was that Edwin and Morcar might have been tempted to secede from England with Mercia and Northumbria. After the defeat at Fulford, their political stock wasn't high, they were joined to Harold by the hips of their sister, Ealdgyth, who was his wife, their chance of being left in peace by either victor was minimal and it's unclear just how much sway Morcar had over Northumbria.

Beyond this, there were a few other things that I wasn't totally happy about. Mason relied too heavily on the sagas for describing the battle of Stamford Bridge and repeats some of the assertions as if they are facts, such as spears being planted in the ground. I'm also not sure what the source is for a rebellion in the north after Harold's coronation. And speaking of the North, the line, 'what passed for peace in the North,' makes it sound like people couldn't put the milk out there without murdering at least a couple of people passing by.

If Mason had argued the more surprising conclusions and cited the relevant lines from the sources that supported them, then I'd have been happier. This isn't a terrible book, she's not Peter Rex, but it's one that I think is unfortunately flawed.
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