It is in such transitional moments of a nation's history that it needs the cool prudence, the sensitive selfishness, the quick perception of what is possible, which distinguished the adroit politician whom the death of Cnut left supreme in England. Godwine is memorable in our, history as the first English statesman who was neither king nor priest. Originally of obscure origin, his ability had raised him high in the royal favour; he was allied to Cnut by marriage, entrusted by him with the earldom of Wessex, and at last made Viceroy or justiciar in the government of the realm. In the wars of Scandinavia he had shown courage and skill at the head of a body of English troops who supported Cnut, but his true field of action lay at home. Shrewd, eloquent, an active administrator, Godwine united vigilance, industry, and caution with a singular dexterity in the management of men. During the troubled years that followed the death of Cnut he had done his best to continue his master's policy in securing the internal union of England under a Danish sovereign and in preserving her connexion with the North. But at the aeath of Harthacnut Cnut's policy had become impossible, and abandoning the Danish cause Godwine drifted with the tide of popular feeling which called Eadward, the son of aethelred, to the throne.
Eadward had lived from his youth in exile at the court of Normandy. A halo of tenderness spread in after-time round this last King of the old English stock; legends told of his pious simplicity, his blitheness and gentleness of mood, the holiness that gained him his name of "Confessor" and enshrined him as a saint in his abbey-church at Westminster. Gleemen sang in manlier tones of the long peace and glories of his reign, how warriors and wise counsellors stood round his throne, and Welsh and Scot and Briton obeyed him. His was the one figure that stood out bright against the darkness when England lay trodden under foot by Norman conquerors; and so dear became his memory that liberty and independence itself seemed incarnate in his name. Instead of freedom, the subjects of William or Henry called for the "good laws of Eadward the Confessor." But it was as a mere shadow of the past that the exile really returned to the throne of aelfred; there was something shadow-like in the thin form, the delicate complexion, the transparent womanly hands that contrasted with the blue eyes and golden hair of his race; and it is almost as a shadow that he glides over the political stage. The work of government was done by sterner hands.
The King's weakness left Godwine master of the realm, and he ruled firmly and wisely. Abandoning with reluctance all interference in Scandinavian politics, he guarded England with a fleet which cruised along the coast. Within, though the earldoms still remained jealously independent, there were signs that a real political unity was being slowly brought about. It was rather within than without that Godwine's work had to be done, and that it was well done was proved by the peace of the land.
Throughout Eadward's earlier reign England lay in the hands of its three earls, Siward of Northumbria, Leofric of Mercia, and Godwine of Wessex, and it seemed as if the old tendency to provincial separation was to triumph with the death of Cnut. What hindered this severance was the ambition of Godwine. His whole mind seemed set on the aggrandizement of his family. He had given his daughter to the king as wife. His own earldom embraced all England south of Thames. His son Harold was Earl of East Anglia; his son Swein secured an earldom in the west; and his nephew Beorn was established in central England. But the first blow to Godwine's power came from the lawlessness of Swein. He seduced the abbess of Leominster, sent her home again with a yet more outrageous demand of her hand in marriage, and on the King's refusal to grant it fled from the realm. Godwine's influence secured his pardon, but on his very return to seek it Swein murdered his cousin Beorn, who had opposed the reconciliation. He again fled to Flanders, and a storm of national indignation followed him over sea. The meeting of the Wise Men branded him as "nithing," the "utterly worthless," yet in a year his father wrested a new pardon from the King and restored him to his earldom.
The scandalous inlawing of such a criminal left Godwine alone in a struggle which soon arose with Eadward himself. The King was a stranger in his realm, and his sympathies lay naturally with the home and friends of his youth and exile. He spoke the Norman tongue. He used in Norman fashion a seal for his charters. He set Norman favourites in the highest posts of Church and State. Strangers such as these, though hostile to the minister, were powerless against Godwine's influence and ability, and when at a later time they ventured to stand alone against him they fell without a blow. But the general ill-will at Swein's inlawing enabled them to stir Eadward to attack the Earl. A trivial quarrel brought the opportunity. On his return from a visit to the court Eustace Count of Boulogne, the husband of the King's sister, demanded quarters for his train in Dover. Strife arose, and many both of the burghers and foreigners were slain. All Godwine's better nature withstood Eadward when the King angrily bade him exact vengeance from the town for the affront to his kinsman; and he claimed a fair trial for the townsmen. Eadward looked on his refusal as an outrage, and the quarrel widened into open strife.
Godwine at once gathered his forces and marched upon Gloucester, demanding the expulsion of the foreign favourites; but even in a just quarrel the country was cold in his support. The Earls of Mercia and Northumberland united their forces to those of Eadward; and in a gathering of the Wise Men at London Swein's outlawry was renewed, while Godwine, declining with his usual prudence a useless struggle, withdrew over-sea to Flanders.
But the wrath of the nation was appeased by his fall. Great as were Godwine's faults, he was the one man who now stood between England and the rule of the strangers who flocked to the Court; and a year had hardly passed when at the appearance of his fleet in the Thames Eadward was once more forced to yield. The foreign prelates and bishops fled over-sea, outlawed by the same meeting of the Wise Men which restored Godwine to his home. He returned only to die, and the direction of affairs passed quietly to his son.
Harold came to power unfettered by the obstacles which had beset his father, and for twelve years he was the actual governor of the realm. The courage, the ability, the genius for administration, the ambition and subtlety of Godwine were found again in his son. In the internal government of England he followed out his father's policy while avoiding its excesses. Peace was preserved, justice administered, and the realm increased in wealth and prosperity. Its gold work and embroidery became famous in the markets of Flanders and France. Disturbances from without were crushed sternly and rapidly; Harold's military talents displayed themselves in a campaign against Wales, and in the boldness and rapidity with which, arming his troops with weapons adapted for mountain conflict, he penetrated to the heart of its fastnesses and reduced the country to complete submission. But it was a prosperity poor in the nobler elements of national activity, and dead to the more vivid influences of spiritual life. Literature, which on the Continent was kindling into a new activity, died down in England into a few psalters and homilies. The few minsters raised by king or earls contrasted strangely with the religious enthusiasm which was covering Normandy and the Rhineland with stately buildings.
The Church sank into lethargy. Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was the adherent of an antipope, and the highest dignity of the English Church was kept in a state of suspension. No important ecclesiastical synod, no Church reform, broke the slumbers of its clergy. Abroad Europe was waking to a new revival of literature, of art, of religion, but England was all but severed from the Continent. Like Godwine, Harold's energy seemed to devote itself wholly to self-aggrandizement. With the gift of the Northumbrian earldom on Siward's death to Harold's brother Tostig, all England, save a small part of the older Mercia, lay in the hands of the house of Godwine. As the childless Eadward drew to the grave his minister drew closer and closer to the throne. One obstacle after another was swept from his path. A revolt of the Northumbrians drove Tostig, his most dangerous opponent, to Flanders, and the Earl was able to win over the Mercian house of Leofric to his cause by owning Morkere, the brother of the Mercian Earl Eadwine, as Tostig's successor.
His aim was in fact attained without a struggle, and the nobles and bishops who were gathered round the death-bed of the Confessor passed quietly at once from it to the election and coronation of Harold.