One of the amazing things about the internet is that it gives you the opportunity to meet and make friends that are like-minded and one of these people is fabulous fantasy author, Robert Bayliss whose influences are Anglo Saxon history and Tolkien amongst many others. Rob is also works as an admin with me on The Review. I asked Rob if he would like to help me commemorate this pivotal event in our history. Luckily, he jumped at the chance and here is the result! Rob’s books can be found here.
950 years ago in January news reached the ears of William of Normandy that Earl Harold Godwinson of Wessex, after the death of Edward the Confessor, had grasped the crown of England for himself. In a rage, William began gathering an invasion fleet with which to wrest the Kingdom of England from the usurping Saxon Earl.
Of course history is mainly recorded by the victors; legends are built and embellished and acts of violence and terror legitimised to paint the legacy of a conqueror in a positive light. Few conquests have ever been as total as the Norman invasion. The old English order was swept away, lords banished from their own halls; an entire ruling class either dead on the field of Hastings or exiled from their own lands and positions of local authority. A foreign tongue took hold, while those who spoke English marked themselves out as a conquered people under an alien yoke. The records of this momentous time are therefore very slewed towards the Norman viewpoint; telling us that the throne had been promised to William by Edward the confessor back in the 1050’s and that Harold himself had sworn upon holy relics, in 1064, to support this claim. But how legitimate is this, and how and why did Harold find himself in William’s court in the first place?
In 1064 Harold having left his family seat of Bosham found himself shipwrecked on the coast controlled by Count Guy of Ponthieu. Recognising the hostage value of England’s most powerful earl Guy captured Harold and held him at his castle at Beaurain. Upon hearing of his vassal’s capture of the Dux Anglorum, Duke William demanded his release and paid Guy a ransom for his prize. Most people know what happened next; Harold swore allegiance to William on holy relics, promising to support William’s claim to the throne. Indeed, this oath, over holy relics, became William’s main casus belli, enabling Harold to be cast as an honourless usurper and even getting William a papal blessing for his military endeavour.
We have three near contemporary historical sources recording this event; Harold’s embassy is shown in the Bayeaux Tapestry, where he accompanied William in his campaign against Conan of Brittany and also by the Norman chroniclers William of Jumieges and William of Poitiers – the latter the Arch Deacon of Lisieux. A later account is given by the English theologian and historian Eadmer, perhaps freed from the political restraints of the others.
William of Jumieges states that Edward had sent his most powerful of Earls to confirm Edward’s offer of the succession to William and for the Earl to swear fealty to the King’s chosen successor. This is echoed in the Poitiers account which records a speech supposedly given by William on the eve of Hastings:
“Finally Edward sent Harold himself to Normandy so that he could swear to me there in my presence what his father and Earls Leofric and Siward and Archbishop Stigand had sworn to me here in my absence. On the journey Harold incurred the danger of being taken prisoner, from which, using diplomacy and force, I rescued him. Through his own hands he made himself my vassal and with his own hand he gave me a firm pledge concerning the Kingdom of England.”
It all seems clear cut; Edward was ensuring that his wishes regarding the accession should be honoured by his brother in law, his most powerful Earl. Except that Edward’s actions don’t entirely tally with this theory and this narrative isn’t confirmed by non-Norman sources either’
It’s true that Edward had spent most of his first 30 years in exile in Normandy, during the reigns of Canute and his sons. Maybe such things had been discussed as he and his elder brother Alfred dreamt of regaining the throne, perhaps in exchange for Norman help?
Canute had built a North Sea empire encompassing England, Denmark and Norway. In the chaos following the king’s death Alfred landed in Sussex with a Norman bodyguard in 1035. He was met at Guildford by Earl Godwin of Wessex, who promised to escort him to London. Godwin had risen to prominence during Canute’s reign and had married Gytha who was related to the Danish royal family. Whether by the order of Canute’s son Harold Harefoot or of his own volition, Godwin killed Alfred’s bodyguard and sent the Atheling to Ely Cathedral. Before Alfred arrived at the island Ely he was cruelly blinded and died soon after. This atrocity tainted Godwin and the suspicions regarding his brother’s fate soured Edward’s opinion of the Earl of Wessex.
It is little wonder then that Edward would eventually come into dispute with the powerful Godwin family, despite marrying Godwin’s daughter Edith. No doubt attempting to secure an independent power base Edward surrounded himself with advisors from his former refuge. In 1051 a violent clash took place between the Count of Bologne and the people of Dover. Being in his earldom, Godwin was ordered to punish the town; a command which he refused to do bringing him directly into conflict with the king. With the help of Leofric of Mercia and Siward of Northumbria, Godwin of Wessex was forced to back down and exiled as punishment. Any hope that Edward may have sired an heir with his wife Edith seems to have evaporated during this period too and she was sent to a nunnery. With the Godwin’s exiled and apparently powerless, Edward once more granted office to his Norman friends and is said to have entertained William of Normandy in his court during this period. Perhaps it was now, his marriage seemingly in tatters and perhaps sickened by the scheming of his earls that Edward mulled over promising the succession to the Duke of Normandy?
It should be noted, however, that in C11th England such promises were not the King’s to give; a king’s will stood for something, as did inheritance, but the final decision always rested with the will of the Witan – the council of the most powerful nobles and clerics of the land.
That the Norman influence was disliked is borne out by the welcome given by Wessex to the return of Godwin and his sons, barring an unpleasant clash of arms in Porlock. It is clear that Edward was forced to come to an agreement with Godwin or risk an all-out civil war that he may welhave lost. It was a dramatic turn of fortune for the Godwins; their lands were reinstated and Edith returned to the King’s side as Queen of England. However part of the agreement restoring the Godwins was the yielding of hostages, thus Harold’s youngest brother Wulfnoth and his nephew Hakon were given to the King’s custody. Both hostages were spirited away to Normandy by the fleeing Robert of Jumiege, Edward’s erstwhile Norman Archbishop. Obviously Edward’s Norman advisors feared reprisals with Godwin’s return.
With the death of Godwin in 1053, Harold inherited both his father’s earldom of Wessex and his drive. He worked hard to regain his family’s favour with Edward and was successful, in conjunction with his brother Tostig, in countering the threat of Gruffydd ap Llewellyn of Wales which had steadily grown, especially with the death of Gruffydd’s father in law and ally Aelfgar Leofricsson, earl of Mercia.
During this period the issue of the succession to the childless Edward remained and in 1057 Edward sent for his half-brother and his family – Edward the Exile- the only other surviving members of the royal house of Wessex, to return to England from Hungary. This doesn’t seem like the actions of a king already settled on the accession of William of Normandy and yet, by the same token, with the later death of the Exile in England, Edward the Confessor made no clear attempts to entrench the Exile’s son – Edgar the Atheling – as his appointed heir. Perhaps he wished for a peaceful end to his reign and wanted to keep everyone guessing. The hawks were gathering as Edward aged, as well as William, other foreign claimants eyed the English crown greedily, such as Harald Hardrada of Norway and Sweyn II of Denmark. But crucially in the ten or so years since Edward’s crisis with Godwin there is no record of continued correspondence between Edward and William regarding the succession.
We are still left with the mystery of Harold’s expedition to Northern France. The Bayeaux Tapestry shows it clearly. It begins with Harold, a hunting hawk on his wrist, leaving Edward and heading to Bosham before taking ship. It shows Harold’s capture and William’s intervention. As Harold rides with William it is interesting to note that Harold’s hawk is now on William’s wrist. Harold is shown joining William in his Brittany campaign and is seen saving two Norman soldiers who have become trapped in quicksand. The campaign ends with the surrender of Conan of Brittany. As reward for his assistance William presents Harold with arms, in effect making him a knight (and perhaps claiming overlordship?). The next panel shows Harold swearing an oath over holy relics, yet it is interesting that the nature of the oath is not mentioned in the narrative margin. Clearly whoever it was who designed the tapestry, although aware of both the Poitiers and Jumiege narratives, did not entirely accept their details. The result is that the Tapestry has a remarkable neutral overview of events.
Harold’s expedition could be something else entirely. As Eadmer suggests later, it was Harold going to Normandy to secure the freedom of his younger brother and nephew who had been hostages for some ten years. Perhaps, after loyally serving Edward in the campaign against Gruffyrd, Harold was finally, reluctantly, given leave to seek their release; the exchanged hawk perhaps symbolic of a paid ransom. It is than very probable that Harold was tricked by William into giving an oath, perhaps he realised he was in a similar predicament to that of his brother and nephew? It could well be that the oath was merely a confirmation of the long standing treaty between the Duke and Edward. Harold was allowed to return to England with his nephew Hakon. The hapless Wulfnoth was not so fortunate and remained a hostage and, as events transpired, spent most of his life in captivity.
It seems odd to base an entire invasion on an oath quite possibly given under duress. Perhaps too much is made of it both by William and his namesakes of Jumiege and Poitiers.
Harold was only one earl after all. Surely William would have demanded hostages of all the other English Earls, not to mention holding Edgar the Atheling, if Harold’s expedition was indeed to affirm some supposed promise given by Edward the Confessor? It is also entirely probable that the ambitious William, born out of wedlock and constantly facing threats to his position, had always cast envious eyes towards the English throne. In marrying Matilda of Flanders in 1049 William not only secured his northern flank, he had also gained a descendant of Alfred the Great as a spouse.
If we return once again to the Bayeaux Tapestry there is an interesting scene on Harold’s return to Edward from his trip. If we bear in mind the clues hidden in the symbolism, Harold is shown in supplication to Edward and is accompanied by one of the King’s huscarls – his axe facing the Earl. Edward has a huscarl by his side as well but his axe crucially faces away from the king. It’s almost as if Edward is admonishing Harold. Eadmer continues with this theme, that Edward’s reluctance and warnings regarding Harold’s mission have been borne out; that William has tricked him and trouble is now stored for the future. However Eadmer is clear; Harold was forced to bow to force majeure.
It seems clear that both Eadmer and the Tapestry contradict the Norman narrative that Edward promised William the crown. Norman sources paint Edward as living a celibate, saintly life; although there is no evidence of this, certainly not prior to the crisis with Godwin – a recorded visit by them to Abingdon Abbey implies a loving couple. It is highly unlikely that they would be childless by design.
The whole narrative seems too manufactured; the propaganda of a conqueror justifying their actions, desperate to create a smooth transition from Edward to William. It absolves the victors of the guilty horror of the conquest, which was unnecessarily caused by the actions of the opportunist Harold. But by the same token so was Harald Hardrada, Sweyn of Denmark and certainly William of Normandy; at least Harold had the assent of the Witan.
Alas we will never entirely know the truth. Who knows what chronicles were hidden, destroyed or lost, as the Norman Conquest unfolded in its ruthless brutality after Hastings? However the Tapestry also offers us a clue as to Harold’s nature and William’s subsequent tactics to bring about a decisive battle.
We should be aware that Harold didn’t need to face William on October 14th 1066. After his victory over Harald at Stamford Bridge he could easily have stood off, rebuilding his forces and built a chain of strongpoints pinning William down. It was William who craved a single decisive battle, not Harold. However in landing at Pevensey, not only was William afforded the perfect landing place for his ships but he was also in the Godwin’s own backyard. He set about pillaging and firing the land because he knew – from Harold’s swift action in saving those Norman soldiers from the quicksand -that this “usurping Saxon Earl” was far from honourless; that King Harold would rush to defend his own.
The Norman & Saxon Kings – Christopher Brooke – 1963
The Godwins – Frank Barlow – 2002
Edward the Confessor – Frank Barlow – 1970
The Bayeux Tapestry