Chapter Two: Absent Friends #1

In our last post, we covered the demise of Edward, his dying moments and that very prophetic deathbed speech he gives just before he draws his final breath. He points at Harold and states that he leaves the care of his wife and kingdom to him. Harold, as most people would have expected, is now proclaimed king. Most of the notable men in the country were present on Thorney Island for the Christmas proceedings, so were already there when Edward took ill on the 26th of December. When Edward the Confessor passed on the 4/5th of January, the palace was full of important men, including the members of the Witan. Of those present in Westminster Palace that day, two prominent men were notably absent: Tostig, who had been a great favourite companion of Edward, William of Normandy, his supposed heir. There was also no mention of the Atheling Edgar either.










Tostig, it seems, was also very close to his sister, the queen. The book,  Vita Ædwardi Regis, commissioned by Edith and written by an unknown writer, compares the characters of Tostig and his brother Harold, and was very clever to word the differences in the brothers so that neither brother comes out more favourably than the other. Harold, he says, was ‘patient and kind to those of good will, but to disturbers of the peace, robbers and thieves, this champion of the law threatened with the terrible face of a lion.’ He describes Harold as being even-tempered, able to show sympathy and understanding; and Tostig as being, at times, over exuberant when attacking evil. So in other words, Harold took a more humanistic approach in his dealings with men, and, as we have seen in the way he dealt with Gruffudd and Alfgar*, was more likely to seek a diplomatic solution to a dispute. Tostig, however, would insist on exacting the law on the wrong doers, coming down hard on those who fought against his hard line. One can imagine that for Tostig, there were no grey areas, only black or white and this is where. The author of the Vita, chooses his words carefully, and concludes that both men, in their own styles, aimed for the same thing; success.

Queen Edith – Coronation

We get glimpses of Edward’s favouritism of Tostig in the Vita and a close relationship between Edith and Tostig also existed, as shown by the queen’s actions when Edith, acting on behalf of Tostig, executed one of his thegns, Gospatric, at court, for plotting against her brother. In carrying out this act, we see how supportive of Tostig the queen was, and some historians have suggested that they conspired with each other to influence Edward to consider Tostig as his heir. Another option the pair may have considered, would have been to rule through Edgar, the young atheling, as regents or counsellors. Unfortunately, any such combined ambitions they might have had were ruined, for Tostig was ousted from his position as the Earl of Northumberland before the court gathered for Christmas in 1065, and therefore, he was not present for Edward’s passing.


William, on the other hand, if he was promised the heirdom by Edward, as Norman sources would have us believe (Barlow 2003), surely he would have been informed of Edward’s demise, and been invited to be at Edward’s bedside, or to the funeral at least. Of course we know that this is not so, because of the deathbed statement, and the haste with which Harold was crowned, apparently the same or next day as Edward’s passing. Whether William would have made it in time for the death and funeral of his cousin, we cannot say, but a dignitary from Normandy, might well have been sent to represent his affairs. As far as we know, there is no evidence that William was advised  of Edward’s illness by any English source.  So, the two men whom Edward may have considered important in his life were conspicuous by their absence at his deathbed and funeral.

The downfall of Tostig, started with a significant event in 1065, just three months short of Edward’s death. Tostig had been accompanying Edward on his usual hunting expedition in the woodlands near Gloucester. One of the king’s favourite hunting grounds was the Forest of Dean. He was there most autumns and he and Tostig would have ridden together, Edward enjoying his brother-in-law’s company, as they revelled in the cacophony of sounds echoing through the forest. The excited whinnying of horses, the barking of hounds, the squawking of hawks and the blowing of horns, would fill the arboreal air as they rode through the forests and glades in pursuit of their quarry – but suddenly all this elation and pleasure was interrupted. A messenger had arrived with important news.

Edward and Tostig go hunting

What was the meaning of this disruption to a good mornings hunting? Edward, I’m sure would have been livid to have had his enjoyment disturbed, for there was nothing he liked more, apart from being on his knees praying, than to hunt. The messenger revealed the terrible news. John of Worcester gives the date of the insurrection as starting on October 3rd. Some men of Tostig’s earldom, had gone leading around 200 men to attack Tostig’s headquarters in York, seizing two of his huscarles, pilfering from his treasury, weapons and armoury. The next day, they slaughtered 200 of Tostig’s retainers, south of the city. They had called for Morcar, the youngest son of the late Mercian Earl Alfgar, to be their new earl; and were on their way marching south to meet with Morcar’s brother, Earl Edwin and his Mercians, and some Welsh allies. They were demanding that Edward discharge Tostig from his office, and they wanted Edward to recognise Morcar as their earl, instead of Tostig. It seemed that the Northerners had finally had enough of Tostig’s harsh rule, stating that he had ‘despoiled’ churches, manipulated the law to murder and rob, and overtaxed them. In Tostig’s eyes, he might have just been bringing their payments in line with the south, and used the law to serve justice on those who disregarded law and order. As for despoiling churches, perhaps he was not pleased with the use of sanctuary for criminals. One cannot be sure if these allegations against Tostig were justified, but whatever the truth was, it was certain that the rebellious Northmen had decided that it was time to get rid of him. Morcar and Edwin were teenagers, and one wonders if they thought that a youth would be more pliant to their wishes.

Thegns and Huscarles

According to sources, the king was infuriated and sent Harold to treat with them. Harold met them at Northampton. They wanted Harold to inform the king of their grievances and that he should discharge Tostig from his office and accept the man, or rather boy, they had elected, Morcar. Most likely Harold did his best to help his brother, but it was obvious that there was no persuading the Northerners; they were not for turning. In fact, they declared that if the king did not give in to their demands, they would march on him and attack him. So Harold went back to the king with their demands, knowing that it was catch 22 situation, and Harold was damned if he did, and damned if he didn’t. The king was aghast with disbelief. How dare these upstarts make demands on their anointed king and threaten him with violence? He must have been apoplectic with rage. Edward was left in a difficult situation. On the 28th of October, he held a council in Britford, a place near the town of Salisbury. According to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, there was little support for Tostig amongst the nobles. Tostig was damned. He was accused of being unjust and in retaliation, Tostig accused Harold of being involved in the rebellion. Harold of course denied this on oath and was supported by the council. Edward wanted to go to war. He summoned the fyrd, but the armies never came. The English were not one to fight each other in this particular period in time. They’d refused to go to war with Godwin when he returned from Exile in a blaze of glory. Even those guarding the north had not wanted to fight Godwin and his retainers. The English were aware of the ruinous outcomes that civil wars had wrought in the past, with the conflicts of Cnut and Edmund Ironside being one such turbulent period and within many a man’s memory. Quite astutely, the English were not prepared to risk civil war and leave England open to other invaders. The fact that they did not respond to their king and had done so twice now, shows the cohesiveness of the nation when it came to defying him. In Anglo Saxon times, the king was only as powerful as the generals allowed him to be. And it is also telling of the king’s nature, that he could not always hold the minds and hearts of his people.

The English and Danes fighting

One might wonder just how much Harold tried to quell things for his brother. They had recently worked well together, carrying out expeditions to attack Gruffudd in Wales and instigating the end of the Welsh king’s reign. They had devastated Wales and shown the Welsh the might of the Godwinsons when pushed to the limit. We can see, with Tostig’s accusation of Harold plotting against him, that perhaps Tostig was showing signs of a growing paranoia against his brother, the seeds of which may have been planted when they were younger, and Harold, being the older, more likeable, more successful brother, had achieved the attention than Tostig felt was due him also. But there is no evidence to conject that Harold purposely didn’t try to help Tostig, and no evidence that he was against him, or that he had instigated the rebellion. Some have speculated that Harold may have been worried that Edward would promote Tostig as his heir and strove to be rid of him. There is no evidence for this either way, apart from what is inferred in the Vita Edwardi Regis and by the Norman’s who sought to blacken his name; that Harold had always intended to take the throne after Edward’s death and did so by removing any other contenders. This might have been the case, Harold’s swift response to Edward’s death was to have himself crowned the very same day and obviously such an act would have been planned for. however, how long he had been preparing for this, we cannot be sure, but let’s face it, England had dangers on all sides, and with the obvious opposition the English had to the idea of a Norman king, who else was capable of protecting the kingdom?

So Edward, apparently broken-hearted at having to let Tostig go, was forced to acquiesce to the Northerners’ demands and Tostig and his family, his wife, Judith and their sons, left for his wife’s country of Flanders, where he was supported and welcomed with open arms by Count Baldwin, Judith’s brother, and given the castellan of St Omer to govern. Small compensation for losing an earldom. Whatever the reason for the animosity Tostig felt toward his brother, he left the country in exile with a burning desire for revenge, and would return the next year with retribution in his heart against the man he believed had engineered his downfall: his own brother.

Part 2 coming up shortly looks at the other absentee – William of Normandy

*During the years that Alfgar had allied himself with the Welsh king, Gruffudd, Harold had acted as Edward’s intermediary and due to the lack of reprisals from the English after Alfgar and Gruffudd’s attack on English lands, it would seem that Harold preferred to sort things out with diplomacy rather than with blood letting – except, when in 1062/63, Harold decides enough is enough and invades Wales with a view to crush Gruffudd once and for all.

Primary Sources 

The Bayeux Tapestry

Eadmer: Historia Novorum in Anglia

Vita Edwardi Regis

Further Reading

Barlow F. (1970) Edward the Confessor, Eyre Methuen LTD, Great Britain.

Barlow F. (2003) The Godwins, Pearson Education LTD, Great Britain.

Howarth D. (1978) 1066 The Year of the Conquest, Viking Press, New York.

Chapter One: Death of a King

The events of 1066 were to change the face of England forever. Her landscape, her laws and customs, and her great ruling dynasties, were changed forever. As we approach the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings, here on my website, I will be posting a series of blogs each month, to commemorate the events that led up to the great battle in which the flower of English youth lost their lives. We will be taking a sightseeing tour of the background to what happened and as we journey through the year chronologically, we’ll be exploring what motivated Harold to take the throne instead of backing the young, inexperienced Edgar, and why William believed he had a right to cross the sea, vanquish the English, kill their chosen king, and take the English throne for himself.

The Battle of Hastings on the Bayeux Tapestry

For the nobles of England, gathered in the Great Hall that Christmas, at King Edward’s palace on Thorney Island, it must have come as a surprise that Edward was dying, for he had always been quite a robust creature in his lifetime, being a man who loved the outdoors and the thrill of the hunt. He had not been a warrior king, this is true, he left that side of his administration to his very capable deputy, Harold Godwinson, his brother-in-law, but he had not shown signs of weakness in health unto then, and to know that their king’s life was coming to an end, must have been a great astonishment to all. Not that people lived much beyond fifty in those days, and he was in his 60th year, and would have been considered elderly by the standards of long ago, but little seems to have been done, according to what we know of the records, to prepare for the succession, apart from the expedition to bring home Edward’s nephew, Edward the Exile, the son of his deceased older brother, Edmund Ironside. The process had begun in 1054, when Bishop Ealdred was sent on a fact-finding mission to Europe to investigate the existence and whereabouts of the Exile. The mission finally came to fruition in 1057, when the Exile was located and he and his family were brought back to the country of his birth from a long exile in Hungary, and sadly, fortune being against him, Edward the Exile, died three days later and was buried in London. His young son, Edgar, only 5 at the time, took up the mantle of atheling, but now, as the king lay dying, Edgar was only 14 years old, and his inexperience in matters of warfare, would not have put him in good stead for what was coming, two invasions of England; one from the north, and one from across the sea in Normandy.

Edward Ironside

Of course, the English could not have known what terrible events were about to descend upon them, but they would have known that William of Normandy had plans for the English crown, because Harold had been a guest at his court only just over a year ago, and had spent time with William, with his liberty on the line; made to swear an oath on holy relics, that he would advocate for William, as the new king, upon Edward’s demise. He was also required to bend the knee as the duke’s liegeman, with the threat that he would never see his homeland again, nor his kinsmen, Wulfnoth and Hakon, the hostages he had gone to negotiate for, (Eadmer). Thus armed with this knowledge, and the fact that Tostig, Harold Godwinson’s recalcitrant brother, was stirring up trouble with Harald, King of Norway, another with his sights set on England’s throne, the men of this anxious country, were looking now to the only man they knew who could save them from the coming storm. Harold Godwinson.

Harold swears oath on holy relics to William

The Vita Edwardi Regis is a work that was commissioned by Edward’s queen, Edith, mainly to enhance the reputation of her family. It tells us in great detail of Edward’s last days. The king had been ill since November, with a ‘malady’ of the brain, perhaps today we would know this as a ‘stroke’, or an ischaemic attack. He seemed to recover from its initial onset, but was beset on Christmas Eve by another episode. Somehow he managed to attend the Christmas Day service. The day after he was confined to his bed, and by the 28th of December, he was too ill to attend the consecration of his life’s ambition, the Abbey of Westminster, a monument he built in dedication to St Peter, his favourite saint. And so on the eve of the king’s dying, there had been no proclaimed heir apparent who would take the throne by default once the king had drawn his last breath. In the written record of the Vita, we are given to imagine, the whole of the Witan, along with the most important men in the land, gathered in the ante chamber, waiting to hear of the king’s death and his last minute deathbed announcement, the name of his preferred nomination: the man to whom he would bequeath his estate and crown. We are told in the sources and also that visual account of the events, The Bayeux Tapestry, that King Edward, points to Harold and names him as the man he entrusts, upon his death, the care of his kingdom and his wife. According to English tradition, it was not necessarily the king’s oldest son who would naturally follow their father to kingship, as it became customary in later times. And the king’s wishes were not the end of it. Who he nominated was by the by, for it was the Witan to agree and that was how kings were made in Anglo Saxon England.

Anglo Saxon king and his Witan

So at the last moments of the king’s life, everyone must have known already, who that man was. It was, I’m sure, a forgone conclusion, given that only one man was powerful enough to keep peace among the earldoms and stave off any would-be attackers.  All that was needed was the final element to make the procedure complete – the king’s endorsement, the necessary detail that would fortify the decision against other claimants. All that needed to happen was for the king to say his name, and that was what they had been waiting for, his closest companions, gathered around his bed within the chamber,;his wife, Edith, rubbing his feet as she had been wont to do throughout their married life; his kinsman, Robert FitzWimarc, a holder of high office in Edward’s court and later the shire-reeve of Essex under William; Stigand, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Harold Godwinson. One can imagine how they waited, straining their ears every time Edward made to speak; waiting in anticipation for the words to utter from his chapped lips.

Wsard's death scene
Edward’s funeral and death scenes from the Bayeux Tapestry

According to the Vita AEdwardi Regis, the king drifted in and out of sleep, with periods of restless delirium. On the day of his impending death, which was the 4th day of January, he awoke after many attempts to arouse him, and asked his servants to assemble his household. Some more people entered the chamber, and joined those aforementioned, who had never left his side. Imagine the air of expectation that must have filled the room. Picture the sighs of desperation as the king, as according to the Vita, spoke not the words they wanted to hear, but told them of a dream. In this dream, he met two monks he had once known in Normandy and were no longer alive. They told him that God was cursing England because of the wickedness of the churchmen and the earls, and that a year and a day after his death, devils would put the land to fire and sword, and war would plague the country for years to come. The punishment would continue until a tree of green was felled half way up its trunk and the cut off part taken three furlongs away and join its self together again without the assistance of men, and finally break into leaf and fruit once more. Such a prophetic monologue seems almost to be so insightful, given what was to follow, that one would think it was inserted after the fact and not before. Why or how a man who was gravely ill was able to speak all these words is perhaps something that should be considered at a later point.

Stigand the Archbishop of Canterbury turned to Harold and grumbled, as he probably would, being one of those churchmen to whom the complaints of the old king were directed at, that the king was raving like a madman, but then the king seemed to be restored to sanity and spoke his last words. “Do not mourn for me, but pray for my soul and give me leave to go to God. He who allowed himself to die, will not allow me not to.” Queen Edith was weeping and he spoke words of comfort to her and he said, “May God reward my wife for her devoted loving service. For she has been a devoted servant to me, always by my side like a beloved daughter.”

It was then, we are told, that he offered his hand to Harold and spoke the words that everyone was waiting to hear: “I commend this woman and all the kingdom to your protection… and do not deprive her… of any honour she has received from me. I also commend to you all those men who have left their native land for love of me and served me faithfully. Take an oath of fealty from them, if they wish… or send them with safe conduct across the Channel to their own homes with all they have acquired in their service from me.”

After giving his instructions for his burial, he became unconscious once more and passed later that night, somewhere between or on the 4th or 5th of January 1066.

We might question the scenario, but the Norman sources do not challenge the reported death scene announcement, so we have no reason to disbelieve it in that case. Robert FitzWimarc was a Norman, or perhaps a Breton, as his name suggests, but nonetheless, he had been brought to England by Edward from Normandy with him into his service. It seems he may have kept in contact with his homeland and may have even been enlisted as a spy for William at some point, but in any case, he was there at the scene when Edward died, and could vouch that Edward had indeed announced the man who would follow him to the throne. Harold Godwinson.

Primary Sources 

The Bayeux Tapestry

Eadmer: Historia Novorum in Anglia

Vita Edwardi Regis

Further Reading

Barlow F. (1970) Edward the Confessor, Eyre Methuen LTD, Great Britain.

Howarth D. (1978) 1066 The Year of the Conquest, Viking Press, New York.