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 this monarch who had lived for over sixty years and had reigned for a third of that, was about to die. Despite his current age, he had always been 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 rarely shown signs of ill health until that Christmas of 1065, and to know their king’s life was coming to an end, must have been a great astonishment to all. Not that people lived much beyond fifty those days. He would have been considered elderly by the standards of the middle-ages, but little seems to have been done, to prepare for the succession, apart from the expedition to bring home Edward’s nephew, Edward the Exile, the son of his long-deceased 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 mysterious son of King Edmund was located, and he and his family were brought back to the country of his origin from a long exile in Hungary. Sadly though, fortune being against him, Edward the Exile died three days later and was buried in London. His young son, Edgar, only five years old at the time, took up the mantle of ætheling, (the throneworthy) but now, as the king lay dying, Edgar was only thirteen years old, and his inexperience in matters of warfare and statesmanship, would not have put him in good stead for what might be coming was coming: the invasion of England.
At that time, the English would not have known the brutal nature of the terrible events that were about to befall them. Harold’s inner circle, however, would have known that 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 the duke as his vassal, to become the new king upon Edward’s demise. If we are to believe Eadmer’s version of what occurred on that visit, Harold had not gone to Normandy to offer William the crown of England on that visit, but to secure the release of his younger brother and his even younger nephew who had been secreted away by the Norman Robert Champart, who had fled England taking the boys with him as hostages to guarantee his escape. They fell into the hands of William of Normandy who wrongly believed that they had been sent by his cousin, Edward, to ensure the succession would go to him. This was not how the English succession worked and it was not in Edward’s gift to offer the crown independently of the witan, the king’s council.Although Harold’s status as dux Anglorum, which was the highest designation before king, he could not possibly become William of Normandy’s liegeman, the duke of Normandy had insisted. It seemed that William’s arrogance and the fact that Harold was far from home on someone else’s turf, made it difficult for the English earl to assert himself and contend the request. It is possible that when the duke of Normandy had made up his mind to something, nothing, no reasoning, would dissuade him. Harold was given arms, and made to bend the knee to the duke, and with the subtle and intimated threat that he would never see his homeland again, the English earl was coerced into submission against his will.
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. The man who had caused the predicament in the first place; Harold Godwinson.The Vita Ædwardi Regis is a work that was commissioned by Edward’s queen, Edith, mainly to enhance the reputation of her family. It tells us in 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 great church of Westminster, a monument he built in dedication to St Peter, his favourite saint. And so, on the eve of the king’s death, there had been no established heir ready to step up to the dais and seat the throne by default once the king had drawn his last breath. Although the boy Edgar was the king’s heir, the designated throneworthy ætheling, it did not mean that he had been chosen as the definite heir apparent by the witan. In those last days of Edward’s life as he lay languishing in his death bed, the nobles knew what might come, and decided that a boy of thirteen was not going to cope with the threat of invasion as well as a fully grown experienced man.
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 last proclamation befor his passing, the name of his preferred nomination; the man he would bequeath his estate and crown. We are told in the sources and also the 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.
At the last moment of the king’s life, everyone must have known already who that man was. It was, surely, 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 endorsement to make the procedure complete – the king’s approval, the necessary detail that would fortify the decision against other claimants. All that needed to happen was for the king to point to that man; it was what they had been waiting for. His closest companions that were gathered around his bed within the king’s inner 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 the king’s primary earl, Harold Godwinson. One can imagine how tense they were, straining their ears every time Edward made a noise; waiting in anticipation for the words to utter from his chapped lips.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, 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 halfway 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 having had a stroke, was able to speak all these words is perhaps something that should be considered.Stigand the Archbishop of Canterbury turned to Harold and grumbled, as he probably would, being one of those churchmen, whom the king’s complaints were directed at, that the king was raving like a madman. 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 the scenario, but the Norman sources do not challenge the reported death scene announcement, so we have no reason to disbelieve certain aspects of it. That Harold was nominated appears to be the case, even if Edith had picked his hand up and pointed it in her brother’s direction! What is certain however, is that the Witan was on board, with the nomination. Bought or not, it seemed to have been the sensible choice – to them at least. Robert FitzWimarc was half Norman, half Breton. He had been brought to England by Edward 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 either way that Edward had or hadn’t announced the man who would follow him to the throne. He does not seem to have denied it.The next day, Edward was buried and Harold was crowned.
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.