Earl Leofric’s family 1

I see no need to touch the sun
or blaze my fall into the chronicles.
History ignores the quiet diplomats, hungers
for mass murderers, flamboyant traitors;

the dysfunctional and degenerate
to school boys in the perverse attractions of hubris.
I am the gentle, thoughtful one who makes his way
between the clashing rocks, unscathed, and aims for home.

Who counsels peace, but has been known to burn a town or two.
Who moves amongst the beautiful and keeps faith
with his lady. Who’d walk the golden road to Samarkand,
but turn his dreams to Coventry.


What follows owes a great deal to The Earls of Mercia by Stephen Baxter.(OUP 2007) which cost an arm and a leg at the time it was published but was worth every farthing. 

Whatever the dubious historicity of Godiva's  ride, Leofric, Earl of Mercia, was real. However, he remains, like almost everyone else in the 11th century, a shadowy figure. He negotiated his way through a violent and brutal age and died of old age. As one historian put it, he avoided the  actions that interested  chroniclers. 

Earl Leofric’s father was Leofwine, and as Baxter says this means the Leofwinsons were the great survivors of the 11th century, holding almost continuous (though varying) office from 994 to 1070(ish). For four generations the family served nine kings representing four different royal dynasties. The Godwinsons are sexier. A family that can be presented as power hungry  delinquents makes a much better subject for a story, but it may be better, sometimes, to serve in heaven than rule in hell?

Leofric’s grandfather is shadowy though it’s just possible he is named in ‘The Battle of Maldon’ which is ironic given his grandsons’ action.

Leofric had at least three brothers, two of whom came to violent ends. Northman was executed in Cnut’s purge of 1017 although his father wasn’t. Eadwine died in battle against the Welsh in 1039. Confusingly there was also a brother called Godwine who lived til the 1050s. He’s the one who launched an attack while his son, Aelfwine, was a hostage of the Danes. Aelfwine, Leofric’s nephew, having lost both his hands, 'lived out his life in the hut of an oxherd'.

Leofric and Godgifu had one son, Aelfgar. There seems to be no evidence of a daughter or any other children.

Aelfgar, who doesn’t seem to have inherited his father’s tact, pinballed around the 1050s in a series of banishments and returns. He is known to have had three sons and one daughter: Ealdgyth, Eadwine, Morcar and Burgheard. The idea that Hereward the wake is a member of the family is a romantic fiction and Baxter advances the case that it is more likely that he was one of Morcar’s men.

Although at this distance it’s impossible to 'know' much about Ealdgyth, the bare facts of her life provide an insight into the reality of being a member of such a powerful family. Her great-uncle had died fighting against Gruffudd, but she married him. Dealing with the Welsh was an English problem but the border made it a particularly Mercian one. The fact that her brothers were known to have Welsh allies in 1065 suggests they weren’t always at each others throats. She may have been part of the price her father paid for Welsh support in his two 'returns' to power. (The facts open up into speculation. Did she speak Welsh? Or did Gruffudd speak English, or did they require a Latimer? In such a marriage was conversation even necessary? )

Gruffudd was killed in 1063 after Tostig and Harold raided deep into Wales. (His own men sent his head to the English). She then married the man responsible for his death; Harold, which makes her the last queen of Anglo-Saxon England. The date of their marriage is vague. It’s often given as 1066, which means Harold married her after he was crowned, but it’s possible the marriage was earlier, and may have been part of the complicated give and take of 1065. If you subscribe to the family enmity and feud version, then in theory at least it should have stopped here, not in the bathetic end of Morcar (see below).

She had a daughter by Gruffudd, and a son by Harold, though the latter didn’t live to see him. It’s possible that if William hadn’t already been married he might have been her third husband.

 Earl Leofric’s family #2

If my children, or their children
will not stand where I did,
weighing desire against consequence,
holding the middle ground when extremes clash.

If the wars I fought become their fairytales
the faith I bled for just fireside mythology.
If I bequeath wealth, titles, reputation
a physical resemblance, a family name

but if everything I valued they deny
in words or deeds or simply by default;
that were a bitter purgatory
no prayer could ease.

Eadwine and Morcar, the two surviving sons of Aelfgar, Lady G's grandsons (she was still alive) had their army destroyed at Fulford Gate and then disappear from the evidence until their submission to William after Hastings. If they fought at either Stamford bridge or Hastings there is no evidence, but if they fought at Hastings then they must have been amongst those who 'slipped away'.

Their careers after the Conquest are depressing: held as virtual hostages, they seem to have tried to operate within the new regime the way their Grandfather and Great grandfather had adapted but failed. There is even a story that William promised Eadwine his daughter. 

They rebel, apologise, are pardoned, rebel again. Eadwine is killed by his own men and Morcar, having submitted yet again, plays out his life as a prisoner. Though pardoned by William on his death bed, he was re-imprisoned by William II and probably died in the same prison as Harold’s last surviving brother. He’s last heard of as a prisoner around 1086.

As Baxter writes is an ironic end to what is often seen as the great family feud of the 11th century. 

Baxter's detailed investigations suggest that the sorry post Conquest career of the boys may not have been simply the result of their character. As he explains, the conditions that allowed the Earls of pre-conquest England to be powerful were gradually disappearing. The Earls were no longer able to protect their people; their powerbase was being eroded as their influence at the local level was being steadily diminished. A lord who could neither punish nor protect, reward nor promote, (to put it in terms Baxter doesn’t use) wasn’t worth dying for. 

One other major factor had changed: the King. The great magnates of pre-conquest England seemed to simultaneously muster armies and try to avoid civil war. When Godwine and Aelfgar returned after exile they did so with an army behind them, but in all three cases they were able to negotiate their return with limited bloodshed. When the Northumbrians threw Tostig out, they marched south in force with Eadwine's Mercians and some Welsh supporters, but Harold negotiated rather than raise the army and fight. There was no suggestion that Edward’s status as King was under treat. Perhaps his authority and his ability to force his subjects to do his will was under pressure but there was no attempt by any of these to actually topple the King. Heroic poetry might obscure the fact that most of the time men didn't like fighting unless they had to.

(There may have been some very underhand goings on in the immediate aftermath of Tostig's expulsion...but even so it would have exploited a general reluctance to fight a civil war... see below). 

However, William knew his position was tenuous. Any challenge to his authority implied a threat to his position and had to be crushed. The evidence also suggests he and his followers were more than happy to fight. 

Leofric’s family a digression

Before the dirty deeds and misdeeds of 1065…

One of the problems of 11th century history (or one of its delights) is the dearth of available records. 

Within a hundred and fifty years of the Conquest the number of people who could read an Anglo-Saxon manuscript may have been less than the number who can do so today. Add to that the problems caused by the monastic habit of 'Creative Copying' of older charters and documents, outright forgery, destruction and the loss of manuscripts over time  accelerated by the dissolution of the monasteries and what we can know of whole decades is pitifully small. 

As the earliest story of Lady G attests, the problem is compounded because the Normans of the 12th century and those who came after weren’t that well informed about the Anglo-Saxons of the 11th. 

We know Earl Aelfgar was exiled twice. The first time is mentioned in three of the versions of the chronicle although each gives a slightly different version of the story and none gives much of an explanation. 

But almost all that is known about the second time is contained only in the Worcester version of the Anglo Saxon Chronicle for 1058. 

Her man ytte ut Ælfgar eorl, ac he com sona inn ongean mid strece þurh Gryffines fultum. 7 her com scyphere of Norwegan. Hit is langsum to atellanne eall hu hit gefaren wæs

In this year Earl Alefgar was expelled, but he soon came back again, with violence, through the help of Gruffydd. And in this year came a raiding fleet from Norway. It is tedious to tell how it all happened.[the entry continues with the actions of Bishop Aldred and other ecclesiastical figures].

It is tedious to tell how it all happened. It was cold, the scribe was bored, hungry, his fingers hurt and his back and eyes ached. How was he to know anyone would care in a thousand years time? 

Hereward the Wake is a hero of Romance, the epitome of English resistance to the Norman invaders, a subject of ballads  but all the Chronicle says about him is in the entry for 1071 which begins…In this year Earl Edwin and Morcar ran off and travelled variously in woods and in open country…Edwin is killed by his own men and the surviving rebels, holed up in Ely, surrender…'except Hereward alone, and all who wanted to be with him; and he courageously lead them out.'

 The gaps are so huge you are free to fill them any way you wish. And people do. 

 the Events of 1065

With so little evidence the Historian is forced to fit what is available into which ever grand narrative he or she prefers. It’s the only way to make what is a scattered mess into a tidy story. The generally accepted master narrative of the 11th century is that the families of Godwin and Leofric vied for power, possibly at the expense of the Anglo-Saxon state and the unity and strength of the kingdom.

Richard Fletcher, who was after all writing a book about Blood Feuds, could write about the events of 1065: 'For Edwine and Morcar it was an opportunity not to be missed. Here at last was a chance to hit out at the hated sons of Godwi' (Bloodfeud. p161). Victor Head in his 'biography' of Hereward wrote: “it is tempting to see in this [the exile of Hereward] evidence of the political intrigues that marked the years leading up to the Norman Conquest and to a large extent contributed to its success.”

Reading backwards, family politics becomes a reason for the Norman success and for Edwine and Morcar’s recalcitrance in 1066 and later. That backward reading is supported, consciously or otherwise, by later medieval history where great families did split the kingdom all ends up and by earlier Anglo-Saxon history where Mercia and Wessex and Northumbria were kingdoms vying for political dominance. And by the assumption that two families, both alike in dignity, must have been each other’s throats. But were they? 11th century England was anomalous. Comparing it, consciously or otherwise, to other times before or after, is an act of distortion.

Baxter suggests that the earls were in fact both powerful and vulnerable, hard working administrators who may not have been quite so geographically focussed as we would suspect and that the continued strength, prosperity and peace of the kingdom under the anointed king was in their best interests.

But not being an historian, I can indulge in some whatiffery. Is there any evidence to support  the claim that the Godwinsons and Leofwinsons did hate each other?

 The Northumbrian uprising in 1065.

After ten years or so, the people of Northumbria had had enough of Tostig. While he was away at the southern court they rose against him. Whether they hated him because he did his job too well or because they thought he overstepped the boundaries of his office is impossible to tell. Both reasons have been credibly argued.

The uprising was well-planned. The rebels entered York on 3rd October and killed Tostig’s retainers. Having declared Tostig an outlaw, they offered the 'Vacant Earldom' to Morcar, the youngest brother of Eadwine and son of Aeflgar. Morcar accepted, and marched south with his new people, joined by his brother, the fighting men of Mercia and their Welsh allies.

Harold Godwinson acted as an intermediary between the king and the rebels. Rather than bring them to heel by fighting, as Edward may have wanted, an agreement was reached which legalised what had happened. Morcar was confirmed as Earl of Northumbria, Edward agreed to follow the Laws of Cnut, and Tostig was isolated. Outraged, he claimed his brother had manufactured the uprising and Harold had to clear himself on oath. The rebels did a bit of Harrying around Northhampton where Tostig had estates, and then went home. They had entered York on the 3rd, the council finished its deliberations on the 28th and Tostig was offered a choice: accept or be exiled. He chose exile.

Edwine and Morcar's father was dead. So was their grandfather Leofric. But Godgifu wasn't. I wonder what Grandma G thought of all this. 

1) The rebellion, which is usually simply narrated and explained, was outrageous. The Earl was the King’s appointed deputy in his earldom. To throw him out was an act of gross disobedience. In a top down society, no matter how interdependent the parts of the hierarchy, to overthrow your king’s appointed officer was novel. King’s had exiled earls, but not at the request of the people they were supposed to keep in line. in 1041 two of Harthacanutes housecarls had been murdered collecting geld in the city of Worcester. According to John of Worcester Harthacanute had ordered an army,  including Godwine, Leofric and Siward to 'slay all the men if they could, to plunder and burn the city, and to lay waste the whole area'. The chroncile is characteristically laconic: Her het Harðacnut hergian eall Wygracestrescire for his twegra huscarla þingon þe þæt strangæ gyld budon, þa slogon þæt folc hi binnan porte innan þam mynstre.

2) There’s nothing inherently suspicious or odd about the rebels' choice of Morcar. They obviously needed a candidate to replace Tostig. And it’s unlikely he was surprised. You don’t just rock up to Morcar’s front door in the aftermath of your rebellion and ask 'How’d you fancy being earl of Northumbria’ to which he replies: ”Cor, I’d like that. Hey Edwine, bro, I’m marching south against the King, wanna get some homeys together in a posse and ride with me?' 

Choosing a local replacement for Tostig was not a good idea for several reasons. Firstly it would isolate the Northumbrians between the Mercians and the Scots; secondly, if Fletcher is correct, while there were candidates from old families in the area, they tended to have enemies who were candidates from other old familes; at least they could all regard an outlander with mutual suspicion and hostility. Morcar was the ideal choice: While planning the uprising they were hardly going to approach one of Tostig’s brothers; as a son of Aelfgar Morcar had had what passed as training for Earling: secondly, his elder brother had an army. 

3) Tostig’s actions after his exile suggest he was following a well known script without quite realising that the world had changed. He probably remembered his father’s banishment and had heard enough stories about it. The pattern, which Aeflgar had worked twice with minor variations, meant you went away, gathered an army, found an ally, roughed up the locals, then gathered enough supporters to make the King take you back. King Harald’s Saga is not a reliable historical source, but it’s interesting that in the dramatic confrontation between the two brothers before Stamford Bridge, Harold offers Tostig a third of England, including Northumbria. Tostig says it’s a pity he didn’t say this last year, and then asks what English Harold will give Viking Harald. The reply 'seven feet of ground' sums up the bind Tostig put himself in. 

4) If Tostig were playing a well known script the context had changed in subtle but important ways. Godwin had been exiled for refusing to harry Dover. He had good will in the bank when he came back. And there seems to be a general feeling that Englishmen fighting Englishmen was something worth avoiding. But Tostig had been evicted by his own people and they didn’t want him back. When he raided along the coast he was seen off by Edwine and Morcar. There was no popular rising in his favour. Godwin had faced Edward. Tostig now had to face his brother. And while Aelfgar had made treaties with the Welsh, Tostig went and made his with a man even the Vikings thought was a hard case, who wouldn’t be happy to see Tostig reinstated in York and then sail home. He wanted the crown of England. And that changed everything.

What should have happened in 1065 was that the rebels should have been crushed by royal forces and the people of York punished.

Instead, the events of 1065, even what little is known about them, showed that Royal authority had broken down. The King had been humiliated. His officer had been kicked out, his subjects had chosen his replacement, and he had been forced into accepting both actions.

Did Harold 'Do his brother good and proper" in 1065? That was Tostig's version of events. Harold's role is pivotal but obscure. What we can't know, but only speculate about, is what deals were done in the lead up to the rebellion. Does the narrative of family feud between Godwines and Leofwinsons obscure something else?  

The brothers can't have been so stupid as to sieze the opportunity to stick it to Tostig without thinking about the possible consequences? They were flouting royal authority. 'Earl' was an office in the gift of the King.  Both of them could end up dead or in exile. No one  suggests they prodded the rebels into action. But did they know that Harold would refuse to lead the royal forces against them?  Was that the deal? Had Harold moved to get rid of a liability in the north, with the long term security of the Kingdom, which he may have realised might soon  be his Kingdom, in mind?  His actions do suggest the idea of a family feud is a later, reductive, reading?

There simply isn’t the evidence to answer the intriguing questions.