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.