“In this year King Harold came from York to Westminster at the Easter…then on April 16. Then throughout all England, a sign such as men never saw before was seen in the heavens. Some men declared that it was the star comet, which some men called the ‘haired’ star; and it appeared first on the eve on the Great Litany, 24 April, and shone thus all the week…” The Worcester Chronicle
April 1066 was the month when the Haired Comet appeared over England, lighting up the sky in an extraordinary event. The Medieval mind, very much charged by the Church, viewed this type of phenomena as portentous; something evil was about to befall the world. However, someone else’s bad karma, is very often someone else’s blessing. Given his precarious situation, Harold, who saw the comet when it first appeared, must have felt uneasy. He had made an oath, touching holy relics; or at least the box they were in, and now, doom was lurking in the sky, signifying in a big way, that some sort of disaster was about to befall England. It must have been a worrying time for him.
We have already learned that upon hearing that Harold had stolen his crown, William had fallen into silence. David Howarth, in his book 1066: The Year of the Conquest, presents us with the emotional and psychological issues that now faced the duke. Fifteen years ago, he had been led to believe that Edward desired him to be his successor and if that belief had somehow waned over the years, it had been suddenly revitalised in the unexpected shape of Harold Godwinson, who, as far as William was concerned, had come to to his court reiterate, not only Edward’s original offer, but ensure his own (Godwinson’s) personal part in it.
William must have been overwhelmed with joy when he got word that Harold had been taken captive on his way to visit him. Once the English earl was in his clutches, the duke let the world and his wife know, that here was England’s premier earl, sent by his most beloved cousin, King Edward, to confirm upon him the heirdom of his kingdom. Most likely William had been letting all the courts of Europe know about his cousin Edward’s offer to him since it was first made in 1051, long before Harold allegedly came to renew the offer in 1064. Almost eighteen months before the Haired Star appeared in the sky, William had been assured of it in his mind, that England had not forgotten him, and he could claim, with total confidence, that he was going to be king of England, one day soon.
No wonder William went into a black dog the day he found out what had happened with his crown. Sneaky Harold had shown his true colours and swiped it and was walking about with it on his unfaithful English head. That very thing that William coveted most in the world, a kingdom, was now in the hands of the man who had sworn an oath to him – on holy relics – to be his vassal and support his claim! He’d thought of Harold as his friend; the earl had been a drinking companion, his comrade in arms. William was stunned. That Harold had dared to go against him and betray him, was one thing – but to steal his crown – that was utterly unforgivable. Unforgivable!!!
That Harold had been crowned so soon after Edward was interred in his tomb, was obviously to avoid giving William any chance to rush over the channel, and make his claim. Harold had outdone him, and it wasn’t fair. William was now left with a personal hurt that cut deeply into his soul, from a ‘friend’ who had promised him the world. He now realised that Harold had deceived him from the very start; even as he stood with his hands on the relics, stating his oath to him, he had spoken falsely. It never occurred to William that he had put Harold under extreme duress at the time, nor did it occur to him that an oath made under duress could be, according to canon law, rescinded at a later time (Salonen et al 2009)
But aside the personal affront he felt at Harold’s actions, William was also embarrassed. He was looking like a fool; and those who looked down on him for being bastard born, thought he had been well and truly put in his place. So William had to think very carefully about his next move. His immediate plea to the English court that Harold should fulfill his promise to him, was, as one could imagine, rejected by Harold, who claimed that he had been chosen by the Witan and anointed before God – and indeed that was how things were done in England at that time. A strange concept for the French to comprehend, where the rule of primogeniture was usually the way they did it.
William, however came to the realisation that there was no point in arguing. He must set himself to action. He called a meeting of his magnates on February 2nd and between himself and his inner circle of closest advisers, he convinced them that a conquest of England was possible. William would wrest the crown from the usurper’s oath-breaking, deceitful head with force if that was the way of it. In March of 1066, the Duke of Normandy began his preparations to build boats that would take himself and his army overseas to England to claim the crown that he felt was rightfully his.
Harold didn’t rest on his laurels, either. He knew that his onetime bromance with the fearless, staid, Duke of Normandy had come to an end, and although it did not seem particularly likely that William could undertake the kind of mission he was about to, Harold was not complacent. He knew his life and kingdom were in jeopardy. He’d set about calling up his army, and arranged for the fleet to assemble.
But Harold had more than just Normandy to deal with. Brother Tostig, was let loose somewhere, itching for revenge, and making friends with Harald Sigurdson. This other Harald was also after putting his tough hide on an English throne; his claim was something to do with a very complicated pact made by two Scandinavian kings, long ago. Sigurdsson used this pact that he had inherited as an excuse for his claim on the English kingdom.
So Harold was beset on all sides. He must have regretted making that trip to Normandy. All throughout his life, he had hardly put a foot wrong. Competent, charming, likeable, shiny and golden Harold had taken the wrong turn. His downfall started when he’d climbed into that boat in Bosham and made his way to Normandy – ok so he ended up in Ponthieu, but his destination had been Normandy. If only he had listened to his king and heeded his warning. According to Eadmer of Canterbury, Harold went to Normandy to negotiate the release of the hostages, Wulfnoth and Hakon, both of whom were related to the Godwinsons. Eadmer also informs us that Edward had cautioned against this enterprise, and advised Harold, that if he insisted on going, he would be opening up a jar of worms by doing so. And low and behold, that’s exactly what happened, only the worms that got out were not the kind you’d want to put on the end of your fishing rod.
The Anglo Saxon Chronicle
Howarth D. (1978) 1066: The Year of the Conquest The Viking Press, New York.
Douglas D.C., (1999) William the Conqueror Yale University Press, London.
K. Salonen, L Schmugge (2009) A Sip From the Well of Grace Catholic University America Pr; 1 Pap/Cdr edition
Walker I (2004) Harold, the Last Anglo Saxon King (paperback edition) Sutton Publishing LTD, Gloucs.