In Rouen, Duke William is readying himself for an exhilarating day of hunting. The noise and bustle of humans calling one another, hounds barking, hawks squawking, horses neighing and horns blowing fill the air as William and his courtiers organise themselves to ride out. It is a crisp winter’s day, and puffs of frost emanate from man and beast’s mouths. William is happy, because across the sea, his old cousin, Edward, King of England, has been ailing and it seems he is deteriorating daily. Soon, surely, the message will come that will inform him of Edward’s death and the English will look to him for their king, as had been promised by the noble and honourable Earl Harold, little more than a year since.
William had been thinking about it for days; wondering if Lord Harold would come himself to kneel before him as his true and loyal vassal. The duke had pictured it in his mind. He liked Harold. The man had shown himself to be affable, strong, considerate and honourable when he had visited him, to inform him of Edward’s wishes that he take the throne upon his death. And when the duke’s hunt was interrupted by the messenger, coming sooner than William had anticipated, his heart leapt in expectation.
The man went down on one knee and told him that he brought him news of the king of England. William, being in a good mood, orders him to stand and he takes the scrolled message from the man. William has never felt the need to read, or write. He is a warrior, what does a warrior ruler need to be literate for? He hands the scroll to his steward, William FitzOsbern, who reads the words on the parchment.
“What is it, FitzOsbern?”the duke asks of his friend, “Has my dear cousin, the King of England, passed?” He looks grim, for he doesn’t want to seem eager to take another man’s place, when his body is not even cold.
The steward’s face gives away nothing. FitzOsbern simply looks at him, and says: “King Edward is dead. Harold, Earl of Wessex, has been raised to the Kingdom of England.”
The above is based on a piece in the Roman de Rou, which was written by a poet called Wace, a hundred years after the event. Of course I have fictionalised it, but it is not hard to visualise William’s emerging excitement as he hears rumours of Edward’s illness and deterioration. The verse says that William had just strung his bow, in readiness for his day’s hunting. He handed it to a page and stood there, his face a picture of intense anger, but saying nothing. He laced and unlaced his cloak, and nobody dared to speak to him. He abandoned the hunt and took a boat back to his palace over the rover Seine. Once inside, he is said to have sat on a bench, resting his head against a pillar, his cloak over his head, hiding the rancour in his face. His people obviously knew his little foibles, and when it was not a good time to approach the duke, so they left him, as he was, no one wishing to be the one who triggered his wrath.
The story goes on that after awhile, FitzOsbern comes in, humming a song… Humming a song? One wonders what kind of song would have suited the occasion. “Ding dong the king is dead. They’ve put my crown on another’s’ head?” Well, in any case William FitzOsbern is a trusted friend, and naturally, people wanted to know what had upset the duke, so they asked him. And he told them. Hearing his voice, William uncovered his face and looked at him. “It’s no good trying to hide the news, my lord,” he says. “They are all talking about it all over the city. No time to grieve. Something has to be done!”
William must have felt humiliated in front of his court. No doubt this would have fuelled his fury even more. How dare the English earl betray his oath to him? An oath that was freely given after I promised him he would retain his earldom, his power and his riches. And now he perjures himself by taking the crown for himself? How fickle and dishonourable a servant he was to my cousin, that he has betrayed his wishes!
This is one of those moments when one would have wished being a fly on a wall was possible – if one could achieve time travel! In public, William would have retained his dignity, behind closed doors, I wonder if a few servants received a kick or two! William was convinced that Edward had promised him the crown. And he might well have done, in fact the evidence is very convincing, but to what extent he had made this offer, is not known (see Chapter Two #2). It might have been Edward’s intention to only ‘consider’ him as a claimant, and not much more, for Edward’s behaviour in later years does not corroborate any such firm promise.
But it is easy to see why a man such as William would have thought he was entitled to the crown. After all, he had been invited to England, most likely on Edward’s behalf by a fellow Norman, Robert Champart, Archbishop of Canterbury, no less, in the autumn of 1051 to discuss things of interest with the King of England. And what seems to have been discussed, was from Edward’s point of view, merely an idea that would never come to fruition, and from William’s, a firm offer of friendship and a promise that he could be Edward’s heir and successor. At that time, England’s leading noble family, the Godwins, had been in conflict with Edward and Champart. They were exiled, leaving the Norman camp predominantly in power and a great influence on Edward, who was more Norman than English, himself. And it is quite possible that at that time, his feelings of loathing toward Earl Godwin, meant that Edward may have been in favour of William becoming heir to his throne, but a year or so later, things were to take a turn against the Norman faction, when Godwin and his family returned from exile.
However, William seems to have been oblivious to the unexpected power swap in England when Godwin and his family were reinstated months after his visit – or perhaps he thought that Godwin’s return would have no bearing on a pledge made to him by his elderly cousin. However many years later, as luck would have it, and just to reinforce William’s mindset, in the Autumn of 1064, along comes Harold, Earl of Wessex, all shiny and golden, sent by William’s cousin the king, to offer his fealty and assistance when the time came for Edward to depart from this world and leave his crown and kingdom to William.
But was that the real purpose of Harold’s visit? Did Edward, in 1064, who was approaching 60, and in good health (he was well enough to go hunting in the Forest of Dean that autumn) make up his mind to send his numero uno earl across the sea to William, in Normandy, with the sole intention of confirming him as his heir? Norman sources say that he was deteriorating in health, and that he wanted to finalise his affairs in good time, before he became to ill to do so, but the English evidence does not concur. As I have already stated, Edward was showing no signs of illness, and the final decision of who got to sit on the throne, had to be agreed by the Witan. It is unlikely that the nobles of the Witan England would have agreed to William as king, as Edward, by now, would have realised. William had no connection to England: no lands, no interests, no mutual customs or bloodline. And young Edgar Atheling, whom the English had gone to great trouble to bring home, with his family, from Europe, was the only other male relative with a direct blood- link to the Royal House of Wessex. And as far as we know, no other had been given the title of Atheling – an old English word that meant prince, or throneworthy.
So, if neither the Witan nor Edward agreed to send Harold on his visit to William in his court, why did Harold go to Normandy? We know that Harold’s kinsmen, Wulfnoth and Hakon were there as hostages, taken most likely by the hapless Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Champart, when he fled from Godwin’s wrath. Did Harold go to Normandy to ask the duke for their release? Was that the true purpose of his visit? Or did he, as the Norman sources declare, he go to offer support to the duke upon Edward’s death? However, that is a story, my friends, we will talk about later. Stay tuned!
Gesta Guillelmi, William of Poitiers
Roman de Rou Wace
Walker I (2004) Harold, the Last Anglo Saxon King (paperback edition) Sutton Publishing LTD, Gloucs.