‘… a ship of rich lading wrecked on the narrow seas; the Goodwins, I think they call the place; a very dangerous flat and fatal, where the carcases of many a tall ship lie buried …’
(William Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice, Act III, Scene 1)
The Channel, a wise man once said, is worth a pound an eggcup-full. Part of Britain’s national myth is the sea that engirts it, our first line of defence throughout our history but it is a fortress that keeps us in as effectively as it keeps the foreigners out and it harbours dangers for both.
Six miles off the Kentish coast lurk the Goodwins, a sandbank that at low tide becomes an island two miles wide and ten long, stretching from Deal to Sandwich. Even when the tide is in, the Sands are never more than eight fathoms below the surface and their shape is constantly shifting, making navigation in the area lethally treacherous.
Yet things were not always this way. If legend may be believed (we all know what that means), there was once an island in the English Channel, the verdant and beautiful island of Lomea. This was one of the possessions of Godwine, apparently the son of a naval family from Sussex, whom King Cnut (himself not unfamiliar with the temperament of the sea) summoned from obscurity by marrying him off to his sister-in-law.
Cnut should never have become King. He was a Danish prince, whose father, Swein Forkbeard, had briefly been King of the English by right of conquest over the Christmas holiday of 1013 to 1014, before his natural but immensely convenient death allowed the restoration of Æthelred II (better known as “the Unready”). Æthelred himself died in 1016 and his son, Edmund Ironside, fought Cnut for the throne. The war ended in stalemate and partition but an unpleasant encounter with a spear while sitting on the loo terminated Edmund’s reign and his children sensibly fled to Hungary. Cnut assumed complete control of England and one of his first acts was to divide the country into four earldoms. An earl was not merely a titled nobleman but a territorial governor. The earldom of Wessex, which went to Godwine, covered the whole of England below the Thames, from Kent to Cornwall.
Earl Godwine’s meteoric career culminated in his role as kingmaker after Cnut’s death in 1035, initially masterminding the accession of Cnut’s eldest but illegitimate son Harold Harefoot and then, after Harold’s death, inviting his half-brother Harthacnut (whom Cnut had begotten off Æthelred II’s ex – and you thought your family was a mess) to take the throne. Harthacnut’s death at a particularly hearty dinner handed the throne to Æthelred II’s last surviving son, Edward the Confessor, who showered earldoms on Godwine’s sons.
Most famous of these was Harold, who, after Godwine’s own death in 1053, inherited, along with his father’s other substantial estates, Lomea. Maintaining the family’s reputation for sharp elbows, he married Edward’s sister and obtained a death-bed designation as the heir to the throne.
What happened next everyone knows. Lamentably, the year 1066 saw an uncharacteristic lapse in the English Channel’s usually dependable defensive function. Harold’s throne was seized by a bad-tempered, corpulent and irredeemably French bastard and the English have been compensating ever since. The island of Lomea was included in the package and Duke William granted it to the Abbey of Saint Augustine in Canterbury.
By this time, the sea was already beginning to encroach on the isle, which was protected by a defensive wall. Saint Augustine’s Abbey, however, owned many other properties, including Saint Mildred’s Church at Tenterden in the Weald, where the Abbot fancied building a flashy new tower. To pay for it, he delved into the funds that had been set aside for the sea-wall at Lomea, which as a result went unrepaired and unmaintained until, in 1099, the inevitable happened: A massive thunderstorm caused the Channel to overwhelm the island’s defences and Godwine’s isle became the Goodwin Sands.
It is almost absolutely certain that the story is a myth. Neither geologists nor historians have found convincing evidence of the island’s existence. There is no trace of Lomea in any of the surviving charters of Saint Augustine’s Abbey, nor is it listed among the Abbey’s estates in the Domesday Book. Nonetheless, the legend is certainly very old and very persistent. It was apparently alluded to in a sermon by Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worcester and Protestant martyr, as an accepted Kentish tradition and the legend itself is first recorded in full in 1659. As an old Kentish saying has it, “Tenterden steeple made the Goodwin Sands.”
The origin of the legend probably lies in the need of an age that poorly understood geology to explain the origin of a sandbank that is justly notorious as “the Ship-Swallower”. This was combined with a bit of folk-etymology: The name Godwine means “good friend” in Old English and was probably applied to the sands ironically in a stroke of black humour. In the later Middle-Ages, as the English language changed and the literal meaning of the name was forgotten, it became associated with the equally notorious Earl Godwine. In addition to the legend of Lomea, the fishermen of Deal used to explain stormy weather with the parable “Earl Goodwin and his court are angry.”
When the tide withdraws, the Sands become fully visible and it is understandable why people might have thought that it was a submerged island. Since 1824, cricket matches have regularly been played on the Sands but it is questionable if the bank really deserves to be treated so flippantly, when it is the grave of more than two thousand ships and Heaven alone knows how many men. A litany of wretched tales could be told of the Goodwin Sands but one in particular, a tale of tragedy, love and treachery that defied even Death itself, will have to serve to represent the rest.
That, however, we shall save for next week.