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.
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.
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 iegeman, 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.
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.
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.
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 thscenario, 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.
The Bayeux Tapestry
Eadmer: Historia Novorum in Anglia
Vita Edwardi Regis
Barlow F. (1970) Edward the Confessor, Eyre Methuen LTD, Great Britain.
Howarth D. (1978) 1066 The Year of the Conquest, Viking Press, New York.