If the mid-eleventh century is dominated by any theme, the rivalry between the great houses ranks close to the top. When Edward the Confessor became king, England was dominated by the Three Great Earls: Godwine of Wessex, Leofric of Mercia, and Siward of Northumbria. Edward made it his policy to leverage one (or two) against the other, which usually held him in good stead.
When Godwine died in 1053, Harold stepped into his shoes with hardly a ripple. But once old Siward died in 1055 and Leofric followed in 1057, the balance of power had shifted. Tostig was awarded the earldom of Northumbria and Aelfgar, Leofric’s son, was given Mercia (though he proved much less effective than his father). Gyrth and Lefowine split the earldom of East Anglia. So by 1057, the house of Godwine controlled all of England except Mercia. Poor Aelfgar must have felt himself at a huge disadvantage, which probably goes a long way toward explaining his alliance with Gruffydd ap Llewelyn, Prince of Wales (and thorn in King Edward’s side). But this didn’t last long either, for Aelfgar expired in December 1062. He was survived by two sons, Edwin and Morcar, and a daughter, Ealdgyth, who was married to Gruffydd.
So Edwin became the next Earl of Mercia, though apparently his early years were pretty uneventful. Gryffydd was on the run, and there is no indication that he interfered in Welsh politics at this time. Presumably he took back his sister after the Prince of Wales was killed by Harold Godwineson in 1063 (she is the same Ealdgyth, or Edith, who married Harold around the time he became king). In 1065 he was to become involved in his brother’s unlawful acquisition of Northumbria, with Welsh fighters in tow. Where did they come from?
Tostig’s tenure in Northumbria lasted 10 years, but in October of 1065 his disgruntled thegns rose up in rebellion while the earl was in the south with the king. It was well planned, and Tostig’s 200 housecarls were wiped out before they were able to mount an effective resistance. The rebels broke into the treasury, raided the armory, killed any and all of Tostig’s supporters, then declared a Witan to choose a new earl. This was not a legal procedure, for only the king was entitled to elect an earl. But the Northumbrians were jealous of their privileges and intended to compel King Edward to accept their decision. Morcar was their choice, and apparently he was elected unanimously. He just happened to be within calling distance and quickly swore himself in; needless to say, many historians believe he had secretly agreed to become earl during the planning stages.
Why did the Northumbrians choose an outsider and an inexperienced leader, at that? Perhaps this was the very reason: what better way to control a puppet ruler? Everyone knew that Morcar was the best candidate to antagonize the house of Godwine. But also, the men from Northumberland and the men from Yorkshire (north vs. south in the earldom) didn’t exactly get along; it’s a good possibility that Morcar was a compromise candidate, acceptable to all. Regardless, he took his place at the Witan and proceeded to lead a very disruptive mob south to confront the king. They plundered their way though Tostig’s lands so as to do the most damage to their declared enemy—even taking hundreds of captives.
Somewhere around Northampton, the rebels paused, though their marauding continued. At this point they were joined by Edwin and a contingent from his earldom, supplemented by a large number of Welsh fighters. This new alliance seemed a little suspicious to many historians. Emma Mason in her “THE HOUSE OF GODWINE” proposed that there might be a connection between Edwin’s Welsh followers and the destruction of Harold’s new hunting lodge in Portskewett a few months before. Could it be that the attackers were on their way to join in Edwin’s “great rebellion that was about to break out”? I find this suggestion to be almost irresistible. Is it possible that Edwin and Morcar were hoping to build a whole new northern state, to bring England back to the days of the Danelaw?
In the end, the Northumbrian rebellion was successful and the rebels forced Harold Godwineson—Edward’s spokesman—to accept their demands. They refused to take Tostig back, and went so far as to insist on his outlawry. The king reluctantly agreed to allow Morcar to remain as Earl, and presumably they went peaceably back home, having satisfied their destructive impulses.
Earls Edwin and Morcar were not destined to enjoy their status for very long. I’ll continue their story in my next blog entry.