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The Failed Masculinities of Tostig Godwinson

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Writers, Editors and Exemplars in Medieval English Texts

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Tostig Godwinson, one of the middle sons of Earl Godwin of Wessex, provides us with an exemplar of failed early English aristocratic manhood. He was a flawed son, brother, husband, father, soldier, general and politician who squandered the enormous opportunities that his family provided for him. In 1051, he was a favored son of a powerful earl; by 1066, destitute and exiled, he had allied himself with a foreign power in an invasion and died fighting against his own brothers on the battlefield at Stamford Bridge. After his death, his sons identified themselves as part of their foster family rather than as his sons. Tostig exemplifies the challenges inherent in the life of an aristocratic middle son ambitious for himself rather than for his older brother. Tostig’s life also problematizes some of the accepted conventions of early English manhood (as epitomized in the Battle of Brunanburh), as he is an unwilling and ultimately disloyal thegn not only to his brother Harold Godwinson but also to his brother-in-law Baldwin of Flanders and his tenuous ally Harald of Norway.

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  1. 1.

    Masculinity studies more generally tends to focus on contemporary rather than historical cultures; see, for example, Kaja Silverman’s study of “deviant masculinity” (Silverman 1992; Edwards 2006).

  2. 2.

    For full Old English text and Modern English translation of The Battle of Brunanburh , see Treharne 2009. Online at:

  3. 3.

    Sarah Foot discusses the possible reasons for and ramifications of Æþelstan’s childlessness (Foot 2011, 56–61); she carefully discusses questions of Æþelstan’s sexuality and possibly deliberate celibacy in the “masculine environment” of the pre-Conquest English royal court (Foot 2011, 60).

  4. 4.

    See also Barlow 2013, esp. ch. 3. For maps of the earldoms under Edward the Confessor, see Mortimer 2009.

  5. 5.

    For the Latin, see Adam of Bremen 1917; note that the chapters are numbered differently in the Latin texts and the translation.

  6. 6.

    Barlow discusses Sweyn’s status in the family (Barlow 2013, 52–59).

  7. 7.

    For a more recent analysis of Edith’s patronage of this text, see C. A. Clarke 2012, 135–143.

  8. 8.

    Siward’s death and Tostig’s acquisition of the earldom are noted in MSS D and E of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (ASC) in the 1055 entry. MS C notes Siward’s death but does not include any reference to Tostig. For editions of all the ASC manuscripts, see Jebson 1996–2006, online at:; see also Dumville, Keynes, and Taylor 1983–.

  9. 9.

    Records for these charters can be found online at

  10. 10.

    Barlow synthesizes the information provided in William of Malmesbury 2007, iii.115.13–17 and 2019, i.10.1–2. Both of William’s texts are focused on the dispute over the archbishopric.

  11. 11.

    Both Barlow 1962 and William of Malmesbury 2019 have thorough discussions of the political and religious nuances of this incident in their notes.

  12. 12.

    “ægðer,” Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary (

  13. 13.

    I am indebted to Dr. Courtnay Konshuh for advice on connotation and nuance in this section of the ASC .

  14. 14.

    Barlow notes that the “following passage, full or verbal conceits, is involved and corrupt, and the reconstruction attempted here is not wholly satisfactory” (Barlow 1962, 65, n. 161).

  15. 15.

    Quotation in this paragraph and the next is from Barlow: the Latin reads: “…cum eo eius detentus amore et iussis in disponendis regalis palatii negotiis…postremo omnia que eius erant igne et ferro in devastationem redigunt. Vtque effere temeritatis haberent auctoritatem, caput sibi et dominum faciunt ducis Algrai filium iuniorem, eiusque fratrem natu maiorem ad hanc socetatem dementie sue inuitant…paucorum nobilium malitia” (Barlow 1962, 77–9).

  16. 16.

    Kelly DeVries makes the interesting point that Harold had nothing to gain from Tostig losing the earldom; indeed, he would have benefited in his plans to become king with a brother controlling the northern part of the kingdom (DeVries 1999, 183). Henry Summerson has published previously unknown early modern translations of parts of the Vita and proved that the early modern translator(s) had access to a text different from the only one now extant. In Summerson’s text two, the translator has omitted the sentences denying Tostig’s guilt and Harold’s duplicity (Summerson 2009, 175).

  17. 17.

    For details about the Chronicle’s creation, including modern scholars’ original attribution of the Chronicle to Florence rather than John of Worcester, see Darlington and McGurk 1995, “Introduction”).

  18. 18.

    Tostig controlled extensive lands in the south-central counties of Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Hertfordshire, and Hampshire. For lists of Domesday properties sorted and valued by owner, see Clarke 1994, Appendix 1; for property descriptions and indices, see Williams 2003.

  19. 19.

    For an overview of the position of the castellan, see the introduction to volume one of Warlop 1975; for specific information about the first Flemish castellans of St Omer, see Warlop’s discussion of the tensions between the St Omer castellans and the Counts of Flanders, wherein Warlop does not mention Tostig at all (Warlop 1975, 117–118). Similarly, Giry does not clarify the break in his narrative from the end of the castellanship of Lambert (1063) and the beginning of that of Wulfricus Kabel (1072) (Girly 1875, 10).

  20. 20.

    For a very pro-Harold discussion of the arguments for and against the various potential claimants to the throne at Edward’s death, see Walker 1997, 115–117.

  21. 21.

    For a thorough analysis of the battles of Fulford and Stamford Bridge, including detailed descriptions of tactics, weapons, and topography of the sites, see DeVries 1999. Freeman 1870 is considered the classic study, although it is marred by Freeman’s pro-English bias and his Victorian sensibility and editorializing. Among the vast literature available on the Conquest more generally, see recently Huscroft 2009, with excellent maps, genealogical charts, and suggestions for further reading. The important primary source texts are the various versions of the ASC , the Chronicle of John of Worcester, and William of Malmesbury’s Gesta Regum Anglorum, all noted above, as well as Orderic Vitalis, The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis (1969–1980).

  22. 22.

    Manuscripts E and D of the ASC state that “Tostig him to beah” (Jebson 1996–2006); Fagrskinna (Finley 2004, ch. 60) and Morkinskinna also are very clear that Tostig submitted himself to Harald (Andersson and Gade 2018, ch. 49).

  23. 23.

    “þa wile com Tostig eorl into Humbran mid sixtigum scipum…hine gemette þær Harold cyng of Norwegon mid þreom hund scypum” (Jebson 1996–2006, MSS D and E annal for 1066).

  24. 24.

    Walker suggests that Tostig probably chose the hostages (1997, 158); Tostig’s knowledge of York and its inhabitants was probably very useful in this stage of the campaign. For a detailed discussion of the tactics used at Fulford, see DeVries 1999, 255–259.

  25. 25.

    For a discussion of the logistics of Harold’s arrival in Yorkshire, see Walker 1997, 158–161.

  26. 26.

    DeVries accepts the core historical authenticity of the episode of the Norwegian defending the bridge, arguing that this one man gave Harald and Tostig the time they needed to form a circular shield wall with which to meet Harold’s advance (DeVries 1999, 280). For the primary texts, see Andersson and Gade 2018, ch. 50; Finlay 2004, chs. 68–71; the ASC , MS C (Jebson 1996–2006); William of Malmesbury 1998–9, ii.228.11 (William incorrectly calls Harald Hardrada “Fairhair” throughout his narrative).

  27. 27.

    See Finlay’s discussion of the term “koningsfostri” (Finlay 2004, 236 n. 692).

  28. 28.

    The manuscripts are: New York, Pierpont Morgan Library MS M.708; New York, Pierpont Morgan Library MS M.709; Monte Cassino, Archivio della Badia, Cod. 437; Fulda, Hessische Landesbibliothek, Cod. Aa.21. The last of these includes on an endleaf a list of gifts from Judith to Weingarten Abbey, cataloging relics, shrines, precious service items, embroidered fabrics, and many other treasures (see Dockray-Miller 2015, Appendix Two).

  29. 29.

    Image searchable through Morgan Library website,

  30. 30.

    For description and analysis of all four manuscripts, see McGurk and Rosenthal 1994.

  31. 31.

    This image is reproduced on the cover and as plate 22 in Dockray-Miller 2015; see also Keene 2018.



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Dockray-Miller, M. (2021). The Failed Masculinities of Tostig Godwinson. In: Rowley, S.M. (eds) Writers, Editors and Exemplars in Medieval English Texts. The New Middle Ages. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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