The Last Great Saxon: The Coffee Pot Book Club Blog Tour.
They showed so much promise. What happened to the Godwines? How did they lose their grip? Who was this Godwine anyway, first Earl of Wessex and known as the Kingmaker? Was he an unscrupulous schemer, using King and Witan to gain power? Or was he the greatest of all Saxon Earls, protector of the English against the hated Normans? The answer depends on who you ask.
He was befriended by the Danes, raised up by Canute the Great, given an Earldom and a wife from the highest Danish ranks. He sired nine children, among them four Earls, a Queen and a future King. Along with his power came a struggle to keep his enemies at bay, and Godwine’s best efforts were brought down by the misdeeds of his eldest son Swegn.
Although he became father-in-law to a reluctant Edward the Confessor, his fortunes dwindled as the Normans gained prominence at court. Driven into exile, Godwine regathered his forces and came back even stronger, only to discover that his second son Harold was destined to surpass him in renown and glory.
EXCERPT: Trouble with Godwine’s sons
“Raise your shield higher, Swegn.” Godwine emphasized his warning with a resounding blow to the boy’s helmet. It was only a glancing shot intended to jar rather than hurt him, but Swegn took a step backward, almost falling. Godwine looked away, grimacing. No matter how much he tried, he could not force his son to be a warrior. Although Swegn could be destructive enough in one of his tempers, his violence was random, undirected.
But Harold, on the other hand…
“Take a rest, Swegn. Harold, Tostig, let me see what you remember.”
Godwine watched the boys circle. The pair of them were wildcats, especially when pitted against each other. Tostig’s natural rivalry made him a powerhouse, but he always let his anger get the better of him in the end. Harold, on the other hand, was cool and calculating. He was on the verge of surpassing his father’s lessons, which was no great feat except for the boy’s age. Harold was only thirteen.
The two eyed each other over the edge of their shields. Finally they crossed blades, carefully at first, then with increasing vehemence.
It was always this way. Soon, he would have to step in and separate them before someone got hurt. If only Swegn could absorb some of their energies. Godwine turned, looking for his eldest son. He had to crane his neck completely around before he could spot the boy.
There he was, speaking earnestly with Eadgifu, not paying a bit of attention to his brothers. He had a hand on her arm, and she was beginning to let slip a pile of wet linens from her carelessly held basket.
“Eadgifu,” he heard Gytha shout from the kitchen. Guiltily, the girl started, accomplishing the disaster. The basket’s contents fell into the dust, and her cry of dismay even brought Harold and Tostig to a stop.
“Look at them go at it again,” Tostig sneered. “Always getting into trouble.”
“And what do you know about girls, anyway,” prodded Harold, bracing himself for a fight. He was not disappointed. Dropping his sword and shield, Tostig lunged at his brother and they rolled in the dirt, weapons forgotten.
Godwine shook his head, starting toward Swegn who was helping the girl retrieve the laundry. Gytha met him halfway. She was furious. “This is the second time this week. Godwine, we have to do something.”
Stunned, Swegn and Eadgifu looked up at them. The boy stood, shielding her from his parents. “It is not her fault. I was distracting her.”
“And why were you doing that, Swegn?” Godwine asked. He was usually the one to discipline his son. “You were supposed to be watching your brothers fight.”
Swegn nodded to them, making a face. “I see them fighting often enough.”
Godwine shouted at Harold and Tostig to stop. They came reluctantly to their knees, glaring at each other.
“Clean up,” Gytha told them. “We will be having dinner soon.”
She turned to Swegn. “Eadgifu has enough trouble getting her work done without your interference. See that this does not happen again.”
Ignoring his mother, Swegn turned to the girl. She was wiping her eyes. Gytha stomped off, exasperated.
“I would listen if I were you,” Godwine said, not unkindly.
“Oh father. Why must she always treat my actions like they are crimes?” Swegn looked like he, too, was going to cry. “She is much more forgiving with Harold, and even Tostig. What have I done to deserve her hostility?”
“You are the oldest…it is often that way,” Godwine said lamely. “Let us talk about it later.”
“When?” Swegn stopped him from leaving. “You always say later, and later never comes.”
Godwine looked at the girl. “When we are alone. Tonight.” He pulled away, taking his eyes from the pair. He knew that someday Swegn would figure it all out, but somehow it always seemed easier to put off the ordeal.
But a confrontation was destined to happen much sooner than he wanted. Gytha was waiting for him and she pulled him into their bedroom, shutting the door.
“It is time we did something about that girl, Godwine.”
“What do you mean?”
“You know what I mean. He is getting much too serious about her. I often find them off together, when they think I’m not looking. This has got to stop.”
Godwine looked disconsolately out the window. Gytha could be so unyielding when she wanted to. Yet he loved her all the more for her spirit. “The boy is so lonely…” he began.
“All the more reason to separate them. Next thing you know he will want to marry her.”
“I am dead serious. We cannot have our eldest son marrying beneath him.”
Godwine bit his lip. And why not, he wanted to shout. But that argument was too personal to reopen, even after all these years.
“Godwine…we can place her in a nunnery. With a suitable dowry she will be well taken care of. She is at the right age, you know.” Gytha was behind him, slipping her arms around his waist. “You know I am right.” She kissed the back of his neck.
He turned, crushing her to him. When his wife used her body to win an argument, she made him so angry—and so passionate. He kissed her hard, making her gasp. Gytha put her arms around his neck, opening her mouth wide.
When they had finished making love, she ran her fingers through his chest hairs, kissing his cheek. “You will talk to him?”
He sighed, knowing he had lost. “Tonight.”
No one remarked on their absence at dinner; it was a common enough occurrence. But Godwine was aware of Swegn’s hungry gaze when he entered the hall, and he knew that he could not avoid him any longer. “Come with me, son,” he said.
The night was clear and frosty, and Godwine pulled his cloak around his shoulder. He marveled once again that Swegn seemed impervious to the cold.
“There is something your mother and I have to say to you, son.”
Swegn turned large eyes to his father, his face pale in the moon. “It is not about Eadgifu, I hope. I promise you, it will never happen again.”
“Swegn, there are some things we must do in this world that are not pleasant. Letting go of her is one of them.”
“Father…” Godwine could tell that he was struggling with the truth. “All right. Yes, I do care for her. I love her. Is that a crime?”
Godwine sighed. He had hoped Gytha was wrong. “A man of your position must not stoop…”
“Stoop? There is nothing wrong with her. She is pretty, intelligent. Father, she cares for me.”
“Swegn…” Godwine faltered. His heart wasn’t in this. “You have our family to consider. You are the eldest. You must marry a noble, and carry on the name.”
“Of what nobility is our name?” Swegn gasped, clapping a hand over his mouth. The words had come out without his meaning to say them. “I am sorry.”
“Do you not see?” Godwine cried, wounded. “Even you emphasize my point.”
Swegn stared at the intensity of his father’s voice.
“We have dragged ourselves from the most humble beginnings. You wonder why your mother is so hard on you. It is because she scorned me, and my issue, as commoners. Only time and perseverance won her over.”
Godwine shivered. He had never admitted this to his son before. “We can never again associate with those of common birth, or we will become as they are and lose everything I fought so hard for. Do you think it has been easy to get here?” Godwine couldn’t stop once he had started. “Did you think of what I had to give up?”
Swegn shook his head, overwhelmed. Godwine grabbed his arm.
“I’ll tell you what. My self-respect. The love of my parents. The respect of the world, after what happened with Alfred two years ago. I must hold my head up and abide their remarks, or suffer the king’s ill will. Or worse. Do you want to lose all we have? Swegn, you shall have an earldom in time. Do you want to make a commoner your countess?”
The boy turned his head, pulling away. Godwine let him go. Perhaps he had said more than he should. But he knew that he had made his point.
Eadgifu was sent off to a nunnery, near Hereford on the borderlands. She had accepted her lot with composure, more resignedly than Swegn. Perhaps she had expected their relationship to end this way, whereas he had managed to fool himself for some time.
Swegn moped around the house for weeks after her departure, speaking to no one. When he did finally speak, it was to tell his father he would never marry anyone.
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Mercedes Rochelle is an ardent lover of medieval history, and has channeled this interest into fiction writing. She believes that good Historical Fiction, or Faction as it’s coming to be known, is an excellent way to introduce the subject to curious readers. She also writes a blog: HistoricalBritainBlog.com to explore the history behind the story.
Born in St. Louis, MO, she received by BA in Literature at the Univ. of Missouri St.Louis in 1979 then moved to New York in 1982 while in her mid-20s to “see the world”. The search hasn’t ended!
Today she lives in Sergeantsville, NJ with her husband in a log home they had built themselves.
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