Saturday, July 28, 2012

Leofric

Remember Edward the Confessor? He may have had good qualities, but getting along with family was not one of them. Not only was he harsh to his mother, he quarreled frequently with his father-in-law, Godwin, who happened to be one of the most powerful men in England. One of the quarrels between the two was "mediated" by Leofric, Earl of Mercia (d.1057).

King Cnut (c.985-1035) divided England into four provinces (East Anglia, Mercia, Northumbria, and Wesex) and gave each to an earl. The earldom of Mercia was given to Leofric after its original earl,  Eadric Streona, died in 1017 (within months of Cnut's division). The position meant Leofric was second in power to Godwin of Wessex.

When Cnut died, Leofric supported as his successor Harold Harefoot over Harthacnut. Harold was the son of Cnut's first wife, Ælfgifu, and Leofric may have been related to her. Harold became king, but when he died in 1040 and Harthacnut ascended the throne, Leofric must have felt a little awkward. Fortunately for Leofric, Harthacnut died in 1042, and his half-brother Edward the Confessor took the throne.

When Edward and Godwin quarreled in 1051, Leofric brought an army, along with Earl Siward of Northumbria, and joined Edward's troops in facing Godwin's forces. Leofric counseled that they should settle the conflict peacefully rather than risk destroying the fighting power of England. The result was Godwin's (brief) exile.

Life was good for Leofric, and his son Ælfgar replaced Godwin as Earl of Wessex; but Godwin and Edward were reconciled a year later, and Ælfgar had the humiliation of losing his earldom. In 1053, when Godwin died, Ælfgar got the position back again. Ælfgar seemed to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor, not his father, and was exiled in 1055, whereupon he raised a fleet and tried to attack England. But that's a different story.

Talk about a different story: I've left out one tidbit about Leofric—the one everyone knows, although they don't know they know it. Leofric and his wife, Godgifu (Anglo-Saxon for "god gift"), were very devout people. They endowed a Benedictine monastery in Coventry, and later records credit them with supporting monasteries at Chester, Evesham, Leominster and Much Wenlock. Some later writers claim she was the primary influence for her husband's generosity. In fact, there is a story (without evidence) that she was so opposed to the oppressive taxation imposed by her husband on his tenants, that she was willing to go through an 11th century version of "truth or dare." What we know of her husband suggests that not only would he not have been so cruel to his tenants, but neither would he force his pretty young wife to shame herself by riding naked through the streets of Coventry. Still, the story won't go away, although Godgifu probably wouldn't recognize either the telling or the Latinized version of her name, Godiva.

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