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Godwine was the earl of Wessex under Canute the Great. He may have been the son of one Wulfnoth who had died during the Viking raids of 1009 (possibly as the result of the treasons of Eadric Streona). By 1014 it is clear that he was in royal favour :: in his will and testament, Aethelstan, son of Aethelred Unraed, the king, restored to Godwine lands previously confiscated.

It was Godwine who led the support for the accession, after the reigns of Harald Harefoot and Hardicanute, of Edward the Confessor. Much of his influence came from the fact that his own wives had successively been Canute's half-sister and, after her death, Gytha, Canute's cousin. He fancied his chances of becoming foremost among the English, and married his daughter by Gytha, Edith, to Edward. The fact that the marriage was never consummated thwarted his plan to have a grandson on the throne, and Edward's increasing application of "foreign" (Norman/French governmental systems (and Norman post-holders to carry them out) rankled with the resolutely English Godwin.

In 1051 he rebelled (after refusing the King's orders to punish some Kentish men for attacking and murdering a number of Normans). He marched on Gloucester, but was defeated, in part because Edward was supported by the earls of Mercia and Northumbria, and was banished by the king and the Witan.

A year later he returned, obtaining support from the Kentish populace; he had a substantial army with him, as well as two of his sons; this time the other nobles did not put their weight behind Edward, who was obliged to recognise Godwin and remit the exile. Feeling himself secure, Godwin pressed his case, and had his son Harold raised to the position of chief minister. He was aware that, during his exile, William, duke of Normandy had visited Edward. He was not, however, aware that the duke and the king had agreed that, on Edward's death, William should take the English throne, for the good of the nation.

Harold and his father pressed their advantage and effectively sought to strip Edward of all but ceremonial power. Godwin's death, in 1053, left his son to take over his title and lands unchallenged, his brother Swein having died the previous year.