According to a yarn told by William of Malmesbury (which William himself attributes to Godwine's Norman detractors), mealtime conversation, between King Edward and Godwine, had turned to the subject of Edward's brother, Alfred:
"I perceive," said he [Godwine], "O king, that on every recollection of your brother, you regard me with angry countenance; but God forbid that I should swallow this morsel, if I have done anything which might tend either to his danger or your disadvantage." On saying this, he was choked with the piece he had put into his mouth, and closed his eyes in death; and being dragged from under the table by Harold his son, who stood near the king, he was buried in the cathedral of Winchester.
Henry of Huntingdon tells an abbreviated form of the tale, in which no mention is made of Alfred, but Godwine says:
"Sir king, I have been often accused of harbouring traitorous designs against you, but as God in heaven is just and true, may this morsel of bread choke me, if even in thought I have ever been false to you." But God, who is just and true, heard the words of the of the traitor, for the bread stuck in his throat and choked him, so that death presently followed, the foretaste of the death which is eternal.
Ailred of Rievaulx added an embellished version of the anecdote to his 1163 'Life' of St.Edward 'the Confessor':
One day, on a popular festival, the king was sitting at the royal table in Godwine's presence, and while they ate one of the waiters stumbled carelessly against some obstacle and very nearly fell, but bringing his other foot neatly forward, he regained his poise with no ill result. Several people remarked on this among themselves, congratulating him for bringing one foot to the aid of the other: the earl as if joking added: "So it is when a brother aids a brother, and one helps the other in his needs."
The king replied: "So would my brother have helped me, if Godwine here had permitted."
Godwine was afraid when he heard this, and showed a sad enough face. "I know, my king, I know that you still accuse me of your brother's death, and you do not yet disbelieve those who call me a traitor to him and to you; but God knows all secrets and will judge. Let him make this morsel which I hold in my hand pass down my throat and leave me unharmed if I am innocent, responsible neither for betraying you nor for your brother's murder."
He said this, placed the morsel in his mouth, and swallowed it half way down his throat. He tried to swallow it further, and was unable: he tried to reject it, but it stuck firm. Soon the passage to his lungs was blocked, his eyes turned up, his limbs stiffened. The king watched him die in misery, and realising that divine judgement had come upon him, called to the bystanders: "Take this dog out", he said. Godwine's sons ran in, removed him from under the table and brought him to a bedroom, where soon afterwards he made an end fitting for such a traitor.
This was versified in the mid-13th century, and appears in the illustrated 'Life' (Cambridge University Library MS. Ee.iii.59):
As says the true history [i.e. Ailred's version],
One day of Easter, at the great feast,
At dinner sat the king,
His counts and barons on the dais;
Where Earl Godwin was sitting,
A servant served out the wine,
The cup of the king gently
Carrying over the pavement;
When he mounts the steps of the dais,
His foot slips, which makes him ashamed;
He has all but fallen on the ground;
But the other keeps him standing,
He holds his cup, at once rights himself,
Nor has mishap, nor hurts himself,
By means of one foot which aided the other.
Earl Godwin said to the king,
"So brings one brother to the other
Help, who was in danger."
The king replied, who was pensive at it,
"So might mine, had he been living,
If you, earl, had permitted him."
The earl changes and loses colour,
For he in truth had slain his brother;
Of which when they had reminded him,
His heart tears him with remorse,
For he had the sin and wrong of it,
Nor could he hide it or be silent or play the hypocrite.
The fact makes him change colour:
And he said, "Ah king, good sire,
Much grief and anger hast thou caused me,
And no wonder is it if it grieve me;
Thou hast reproached me with the death of Alfred
Your brother; for which I am not to blame,
I will prove it openly.
The mockery much troubles me."
Now a morsel of bread he takes and lifts up:
And says, "If I can enjoy
This morsel, which thou seest me hold,
Which I will eat in the sight of you all,
That I am not to blame for this death,
All at the table will see;
So I am either acquit or to blame for it."
King Edward blesses the morsel,
And says, "May God grant that the proof be true."
The earl puts it in his mouth,
The morsel is fixed like a stick
In the middle of the opening of the throat
Of the traitorous felon glutton,
So that all at table see it;
Both his eyes in his head seemed to be,
His flesh blackened and became pale.
All are astonished in the hall:
He loses breath and speech
By the morsel which sticks fast.
Dead is the bloody felon;
Much power had the blessing,
Which gave virtue to the morsel;
For aye was the murder proved.
"Now," cries the king,
"Drag out this stinking dog."
By his friends by chance
Was the body placed in the sepulchre,
By the queen with noble courage
And his sons and those of his lineage.
Godwine's death, as depicted in Cambridge University Library MS. Ee.iii.59.
The captions read:
Says Earl Godwin at table,
This morsel be my death, to blame
If I am for the death of thy brother,
That all this court may see it.
Now he eats the morsel,
Which at once strangles and kills him.
The corpse of the felonous glutton
Is dragged out of the house;
He is immediately buried
As befits an attainted traitor:
By this account one can learn,
Guilt is discovered after delay.
Translations:
Henry of Huntingdon 'Historia Anglorum' by Thomas Forester
'La Estoire de Seint Aedward le Rei' by Henry Richards Luard
Ailred of Rievaulx 'Vita Sancti Edwardi confessoris' by Fr. Jerome Bertram, FSA
William of Malmesbury 'Gesta Regum Anglorum' by Rev. J. Sharpe, revised by Rev. J. Stevenson