Earl Godwin and His Three Sons, Parts 1 and 2

Henry Chettle, Thomas Dekker, Michael Drayton, and Robert Wilson (1598)

Part I: March 1598
Part 2: May to June 1598

Historical Records


To playwrights in Philip Henslowe's diary

Fol. 45 (Greg I.85)

layd owt for the company to bye a boocke of mr drayton }
& mr dickers mr chettell & mr willsone wch is called } iiijll
goodwine & iij sones fower powndes in pte of paymet the }
25 of marche 1598 in Redey mony J saye . . . . . . . . }

lent vnto the companye the 30 of marche 1598 }
in full paymente for the boocke of goodwine & } xxxxs
his iij sonnes I saye lent . . . . . . . . . . }

Fol. 45v (Greg I.86)

lent vnto mr cheattell & mr dickers the }
6 of aprell 1598 vpon ther boocke of goodwine } xxs
the 2 pt the some of . . . . . . . . . . }

Fol. 46 (Greg I.87)

lent vnto thomas dowton the 6 of June 1598 }
to leand vnto drayton J saye leante . . . . . } xs
. . . . . . . . . . . . For the 2 pt of goodwine . . . }

lent vnto the company the 10 of June 1598 }
to paye vnto mr drayton willson dickers & }
cheattell in full paymente of the second pte } ls
of goodwine ls as foloweth drayton 30s & }
willson xs & cheattell xs some is . . . . . . . }

For apparel and "dyvers thinges" in Philip Henslowe's diary

Fol. 45v (Greg I.86)

Lent vnto thomas dowton the 11 of aprell 1598 to }
bye tafitie to macke a Rochet for the beshoppe } xxiiijs
in earlle goodwine . . . . . . . . . . }

Fol. 46v (Greg I.88)

lent vnto Thomas dowton the 26 of June 1598 }
to by satten to macke ij dubleattes for the 2 pte } vll
of goodwine the some of . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . }

Fol. 47 (Greg I.89)

lent vnto Thomas dowton the 27 of June 1598 }
to bye dyvers thinges for the 2 pte of goodwin } xxxs


Philip Henslowe's papers in the Dulwich College Library

List of playbooks

Greg, Papers APX. !, art. 1, p. 121:

Under Henslowe's title, A Note of all suche bookes as belong to the Stocke, and such as I have bought since the 3d of March 1598, is:
Blacke Jonne. . . . . . . Woman will have her will.
The Umers. Welchmans price.
Hardicanewtes. King Arthur, life and death.
Borbonne. 1 pt of Hercules,
Sturglaterey 2 pte of Hercoles.
Brunhowlle. Pethagores.
Cobler quen hive. Focasse.
Frier Pendelton. Elexadner and Lodwicke.
Alls Perce. Blacke Battman.
Read Cappe. 2 p. black Battman.
Roben Hode, 1. 2 pt of Goodwine.
Roben Hode, 2. Mad mans morris.
Phayeton. Perce of Winchester.
Treangell cockowlls. Vayvode.

Theatrical Provenance

Performed at the Rose by the Admiral's men in the spring to summer of 1598.

Probable Genre(s)

History (Harbage).

Possible Narrative and Dramatic Sources or Analogues

The subject matter likely dramatized in “Earl Godwin and his three sons” takes place in the generation after the events that concluded the anonymous Edmund Ironside: the confrontation and amicable resolution of Edmund and of King Canute. Edmund has been killed and Canute has reigned as the sole monarch for twenty years or more until his death. His sons Harold and Hardicanute were kings of England and Denmark respectively, but Harold died after four years and Hardicanute became King of England too. Canute’s second wife, Emma of Normandy, already had two sons by a former marriage: Alfred and Edward (subsequently known as “the Confessor”), but their claim to the throne was not given precedence over the children from Canute’s former marriage. Earl Godwin seems to have had aspirations to add his own family to the pool of candidates for succession, and was instrumental in the murder of Alfred and the accompanying slaughter of Normans in AD 1036/7 (see the ODNB entries for “Alfred”, “Edward the Confessor”, “Emma”, “Cnut” and “Harthacnut”).

A number of historical sources for this material were available to early modern dramatists; Wiggins, Catalogue (1117 & 1130) prioritises Holinshed's account (supplementing it with features from Canto 16 of Thomas Heywood's Troia Britannica [1609] and John Taylor's version of Godwin's death from "Against Swearing" ([1625]). The following draws on another popular source text of the period, Foxe's Actes and Monuments.

Foxe, Actes and monuments (1576), Book 3

Perhaps because he explicitly attempts to reconcile a number of historical source texts, Foxe makes a number of historical errors, but the key elements of the narrative as he presents it are as follows. Owing to his military exploits on behalf of Denmark against Norway, the English Earl Godwin had previously been in great favour with Canute, and had even married Canute’s sister (or daughter; the sources are unclear). Godwin was “of a cruell and subtill wit” whose violence against the Normans is interpreted by Foxe as “the cause, why the iustice of God, did shortly after reuenge the quarrel of these Normands, in conquering & subduing the English nation by William Conqueror” (p188).

Hardicanute reigned only briefly before being suddenly struck dumb, falling to the ground, and dying within eight days. He died without heirs, and thus became the last Danish king of England.

The Fates of Alfred and Edward

Foxe here offers a confusing chronology and suggests that in the wake of Hardicanute’s death, the English earls and barons agree to send for King Æthelred II’s sons, Alfred and Edward, to bring them to England from Normandy to make Alfred (the elder brother in Foxe) king (p189). The brothers travel from Normandy to England to visit their mother Emma.

Foxe suggests, first, and with opaque logic, that Godwin, hoping to have his daughter Godith married to Edward and thereby secure the crown for him, persuades Hardicanute not to allow the Normans to enter England, but to punish them instead (p188). (Presumably the suggestion is that Alfred will be murdered, and Edward survive to marry Godwin's daughter.) A page later he offers an alternative motivation, namely that “the erle Godwine of Westsaxe (falsly and traiterously) thought to slea these two brethren, as soone as they came into england, to that intent to make Harold hys sonne kyng: which sonne he had by his wife Hardeknoutes daughter that was a Dane” (p189).

Regardless of which motivation offered by Foxe is accepted by the reader, the consequence for Alfred is the same: Godwin, having successfully obtained authority to pursue his plan, intercepts and literally decimates the Normans, slaying nine out of every ten, by “cruel torment, as windyng their guts out of their bodies”. He notably “put out the eyes of the elder brother Alfridus, and sent him to an abbey of Ely: where he beyng fed with bread and water, endured not long after” (p188). Foxe later adds extra detail:

they opened his body, tooke out his bowels, set a stake into the ground, and fastened an end of his bowels thereunto, and with nedels of yorn they pricked his tender body, therby causing him to go about the stake, till that all his bowels were drawen out. (p189).

The fate of Edward is somewhat confused in Foxe. Initially, Foxe suggests that Edward, whom Godwin wanted his daughter to marry, survives and makes it to his mother Emma, who “fearing the treason of Godwine, sent hym soone ouer the sea to Normandy again” (p188). Subsequently, Foxe decides that Godwin sought out the two brothers but found only Alfred; “Edward his younger brother was gone to Hungary, to speake with his cosin the outlaw, which was Edward Ironsides sonne” (p189). Either way, he lives, and takes the English crown as Edward the Confessor.

Godwin's exile(s) and return(s)

When the Lords of England learn of Godwin’s treachery, they determine that he should be put to death; but by this stage, Godwin has already fled to Denmark, where he remains for more than four years, forfeiting his lands in England as a result.

At some point (Foxe omits the detail) Godwin evidently returns to England and is accepted by King Edward. Edward marries Godwin’s daughter but “[w]hether it were for hate of her kynne (as most like it was) or for loue of chastitie,” he does not appear to have consummated the marriage, hence (Foxe tells us) his reputation as “Holy K. Edward, a virgine in maryage” (p190). Edward’s reign is characterised by anti-Danish sentiment: as a king, he is notably a “mere [i.e., pure] Englishmā”, and he “discharged the Englishmen of the great tribute called Dane gelt, which before tyme was yearely leuyed to the great impouerishyng of the people” (p190).

Edward’s mother Emma is accused of improper relations with the Bishop of Winchester; Godwin advises Edward to confiscate much of Emma’s wealth and confine her to an abbey. At the abbey, Emma proves her innocence by walking on burning hot ploughshares (irons) without discomfort, causing the king to repent and restore her wealth.

Shortly after this, though for unrelated reasons that Foxe does not make clear, “variance happened betwene kyng Edward & earle Godwyne. Who perceauyng that he could not withstand the kyngs malice, (although he gathered a great company to worke therein what he could) fled into Flaunders, and was outlawed with his fiue sōnes” (p190). Two years later he was reconciled to the king and recalled from banishment, sending two of his five sons (Byornon and Tostius) to the Duke of Normandy as a pledge of his good will. Earl Godwin and his remaining three sons stay in England.

The Death of Godwin

The means by which Earl Godwin died is ripe for dramatisation; Foxe reports it as follows:

as he sate at the table with king Edward at Windsore, it happened one of the cupbearers one of erle godwins sonnes to stumble and recouer againe, so that he dyd shead none of the drinke: wherat godwine laughed, & sayd, how the one brother had sustained the other. With whiche wordes the kyng callyng to mynde his brothers death, that was slaine by godwine: beheld the erle (saying) so should my brother Alphred haue holpen me had not godwin bene. godwine then fearing the kynges displeasure to be newly kindled, after many wordes in excusing himselfe, sayd: So mought I safely swalow this morsel of bread, as I am giltles of the deede. But as soone as he had receiued the bread, forthwith he was choked. Then the king commaūded him to be drawne from the table, and so was cōueyed by Harold his sonne to Winchester, and there buried. (p190)

Foxe glosses the passage: "Gods iust punishment vpon Godwyn, for the murthering of Alphred".

References to the Play

Information welcome.

Critical Commentary

Greg II (#131, #135, p. 192) suggests there may have been some connection to the lost "Hardicanute" play of 1597.

See also Wiggins, Catalogue #1117 and #1130.

For What It's Worth

Information welcome.

Works Cited

Barlow, Frank. “Edward [St Edward; known as Edward the Confessor] (1003x5–1066)”. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004. Online edn.
Keynes, Simon. "Emma (d. 1052)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004. Online edn.
Foxe, John. Actes and monuments (1576) in The Acts and Monuments Online [TAMO]. Sheffield: hriOnline, 2004.
Lawson, M. K. "Alfred Ætheling (d. 1036/7)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004. Online edn.
Lawson, M. K. "Cnut (d. 1035)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004. Online edn.
Lawson, M. K. "Harthacnut (c.1018–1042)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004. Online edn.
Williams, Ann. “Godwine , earl of Wessex (d. 1053)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004. Online edn.

Site created and maintained by David McInnis, University of Melbourne; updated 12 March 2015.