The Rise of Edward the Confessor: The Story of the Man Who But For a Quirk of Fate, Might Never Have Been King

How Edward Became King

Tapisserie de Bayeux - Scène 1 : le roi Édouard le Confesseur
Bayeux Tapestry, Scene 1: King Edward the Confessor and Earl Harold. Source: Wikipedia, Creative Commons, Author: Myrabella

Edward, son of Æthelred, must have been one of, if not the luckiest Anglo-Saxon king, to take the throne of England. He started out with his chances of succeeding his father looking very hopeful up to the age of about eight. Then his luck ran out with the coming of Danish invaders, Swegn and Cnut. His father Æthelred, chased out of England, returned only to die in the midst of the Danish invasion. With Edward’s older brother Edmund¹ on the throne in Wessex and Cnut in charge of the Danelaw, Edward’s chances of becoming king in the near future looked slim, and they got even slimmer when Edmund, the courageous Ironside, died from his battle wounds leaving the kingdom to Cnut as agreed by the treaty the two men had made.

As if things couldn’t get any worse, his dear mother, Queen Emma, decided to get into a new marriage bed with Cnut, which was followed by two more children, leaving poor old Edward and his brother, Alfred, out in the cold in Normandy.

The years go by, and Edward spends it in exile, cultivating a hatred for his mother, that will last a life time. And who could blame him? After all, she abandoned the interests of her sons by Æthelred to marry this Cnut chap who is years younger than her and not willing to play stepdaddy to two young lads one little bit. Emma, perhaps, struck by memory problem, forgot her children from her former marriage which also included a daughter, Goda. Most likely, Emma negotiated her own terms for her new marriage, seeing as her brother, in a fit of pique, disowned her when instead of fighting for her sons’ throne, sailed back to England to wed Cnut, and it would seem that within those terms there is no room for Edward or Alfred in this happy new family. And so, Emma, as far as her eldest son was concerned, banged the first nail into her coffin, and there were more nails to be hammered in the coming years.

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Emma and Cnut – public domain

Despite her neglect of her eldest children, Emma of Normandy was quite a woman for her time. Born somewhere between 985 and 989 she was shipped off to England in 1002 to marry Æthelred who was to earn the nomenclature Unready for prosperity. In becoming the second Mrs Unready, Emma was the first Norman queen of England. If her treatment of her children by Mr Unready is anything to go by, she obviously didn’t like her first husband. He was, no doubt, a lot older than her having grown up children of his own. She may had loved her first children dearly, but it still didn’t stop her from running to Cnut without securing something for them. Cnut probably needed her as much as she needed him, however, whether Cnut was unwilling to agree to her sons having a stake in the crown, or whether Emma was agreeable to forgoing their rights, is unsure. Whatever the machinations, I imagine that it was part of the nuptial contract that Emma forego her children’s rights, but she probably secured the succession for any children she had by Cnut over his children by any others. To give credit to her, she pulled off an amazing coup by becoming Cnut’s queen, ousting the backside of her rival, Ælfgifu², from his bed and replacing it with her own, getting her hands on that crown for the second time running.

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Norman knights supported by archers attack the English at the Battle of Hastings. Detail of the Bayeux Tapestry – 11th century

Edward probably spends the next twenty-five years living in Normandy being educated with his brother and being brought up as knights. He seems to make several friends, one of them being Robert Champart who may have travelled from Normandy with him later to England when his half-brother, Harthacnut, recalled him to assist with his government. It is not known exactly how he carried on his affairs in Normandy or what his relationship was like with Duke Robert or his young son, William. William would have only been in his infancy when Edward himself was a young man and Edward did not seem to have had much to do with him during the dangerous years of William’s succession to his father’s dukedom. It is unlikely that the Norman propaganda in later years that promulgated their relationship as cordial and supportive was true. Edward is not mentioned in the sources as being a member of his courtly officials which seems to have been carried out by close members of the senior duke’s family and that of  William’s mother. If Edward had been involved in the boy duke’s administration, I’m sure that it would have been documented. They may have known each other distantly, but there is no evidence to state that there was any love between them and by the time Edward sailed for England, the young duke would have been no older than twelve or thirteen. Edward may have studied at Jumièges, as his relationship with Robert Champart of Jumièges might suggest. Or he might have lived at the Abbey of Fécamp as his gifts to them during his reign might also suggest. William Calculus, a monk of Jumièges stated that Edward and Ælfred completed their schooling in the ducal court, which William of Poitiers, Archdeacon of Lisieux also repeats. No doubt, however, that whatever the case, the brothers were most likely brought up as young noble men would have been. Initially as pages, then learning squirely duties where they would also have learned to sing, dance, and fight on horseback as chevaliers.

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York Museums Trust (Yorkshire Museum)

Meanwhile, whilst Edward was going about his activities in Normandy, Cnut died. The date of his death was November of 1035. The country was split into to 2 factions, with those supporting Cnut’s son by Ælfgifu, Harold Harefoot in the north and those supporting his son, Harthacnut, by Emma in the south. Nobody thought about the two sons of Æthlefred languishing in exile over the water in Normandy – or perhaps they did, and found Edward wanting, if anyone had bothered to look into his character that is, as it was to become clear later, Edward was hardly the epitome of a king in such a warrior society as this, despite his knightly upbringing. Æthelred did have other sons that the English might have looked to but by this time, they were all dead, and any issue from them may have been obscure or missing, as was Edmund’s sons³, at this time, abroad in exile.
So, with Harthacnut held up in Denmark, unable to get back to England to claim his throne, his half-brother, Harold, is proclaimed king in his brother’s absence. Harold hurried to Emma in Winchester and seizes the royal treasury and regalia from her. The next blow for Emma came when Godwin, who had been a supporter of Harthacnut, accepts that his lot would be better served by switching sides, and Emma, vulnerable and concerned for her own position is thought to have reached out to her first-born sons in Normandy. Edward and Ælfred cross separately with a contingent each to meet their mother in England. The Earl of Wessex intercepted Ælfred on his way to parley with Harold and Godwin handed him over to Harefoot’s henchmen. Edward is said to have landed in Southampton but is either repulsed or perhaps sent a messenger from his mother which warns him off and he scuttles back home the way he came. Emma later claimed that Harefoot forged a letter to lure her sons to England and as in Ælfred’s case, eventual death.  Whatever his reasons for intercepting Ælfred, Earl Godwin was to be blamed for the rest of his life by Edward for the death of his brother: an accusation that was said to have haunted Godwin until his death.
Harold Harefoot eventually has a timely death which coincides with Harthacnut’s return to England shortly after to take up his post as king. When he heard about the death of his half-brother, Ælfred, the first thing  he did was to dig up Harold Harefoot’s corpse and toss it in a ditch, so incensed was he. But he wasn’t to live for too long either, even though he was only about twenty-four at the time, he might have had some insight into his health. Not having married or fathered any known sons, he was advised to invite his older brother from across the sea in Normandy, to join him and be one of his counsellors. Edward had by now given up any thoughts of being king, so the summons must have come as a surprise.

Queen Emma, wife of Ethelred II and Cnut, receives the book from its author, watched by her sons Harthacnut and Edward (King Edward the Confessor)
Emma receives the Encomium from its author, flanked by Harthacnut and Edward, 11th century (c) British Library Board/Bridgeman Imageson

This must have seemed like a miracle to Edward, who, as the Vita Ædwardi Regis claims was sworn in as the future king when Emma was pregnant. The will of God had been that Edward would be their king all along, and that God had postponed the event in order to punish the people for their sins. Despite the auspisiousness of the prophecy, this was given to add meaning to Edward’s long-awaited kingship, thus rationalising the development of his saintly persona. Edward was now elevated to the highest status one could ever achieve. Just a few weeks prior to his invitation from his half-brother, Edward had been in the unlikely position of ever becoming king. Now, he was the king’s heir. Edward, without doing anything, had achieved the seemingly impossible. He had started out in a goodly position. His mother’s pre-marriage contract arranged by her brother, the Duke of Normandy, would have seen to it that any of her sons borne of Æthelred’s seed would have taken precedence over any of his sons from another woman’s womb.
Harthacnut, it was said as per the Encomium Emma, was inspired by brotherly love, because he obviously loved Edward even though he’d never given him a thought throughout his life, invited Edward to come and hold the kingdom with him. Edward hopefully didn’t rush into this rashly, after all, he’d only waited 25 years, but he obeyed the summons and ‘Emma and her two sons among whom there was true loyalty,’ ehem, *coughs, ‘amicably share the kingdom’s revenues.’ Poitiers chose to believe that William of Normandy, then only a mere twelve or thirteen, had something to do with helping the exile get back home to his rightful place.

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Edward’s Coronation

It’s possible that whilst Emma was in Bruges waiting for Harthacnut to withdraw from his issues in Denmark, some sort of reconciliation between the two brothers and their mother was made. Perhaps Emma at last felt the burden of guilt lay heavily on her shoulders, or perhaps it was Harthacnut’s idea, wanting to meet his brother and form a bond with him.
As it happened, the two brothers may have had just about enough time to get to know each other and form some sort of friendship before Harthacnut died, binging on drink in 1042 at the wedding of Tovi the Proud. He was said to have stood up to make a speech and then keeled over in what one can only imagine was some sort of stupor. He was never to recover. There is no suggestion that poison was involved, despite the fact that Harthacnut was not very well liked. In any case, the miracle that Edward had needed all his life if he was ever to be king, had finally happened. God’s will had been done, the English were punished enough, and Edward was now their king at last. The man who ought never to have been king, was elevated to that exulted place at last.

Notes

¹ King Edmund II known as the Ironside for his strength and courage.

²Ælfgifu of Northampton was Cnut’s first alliance, the daughter of an important Northern Anglo-Saxon family. She was the mother of Cnut’s two sons, Svein and Harold.

³ Edmund’s sons, Edward and Edmund, were sent abroad when they were infants to be done away with on Cnut’s orders. Luckily for them, the king of Sweden took pity on them and at least one of them survived into adulthood. Edward Edmundson was to become the subject of a mission by King Edward to find himself an heir.

References

Barlow F. 1997 Edward the Confessor, Yale University Press, Newhaven and London

Swanton M. 2000 The Anglo-Saxon Chronicles Phoenix Press, London.

Walker W. I. 2004 Harold, the Last Anglo-Saxon King

Death of an Exile

 

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public domain

Edmund Ironside died in November of 1016. He was known as the  _Ironside_ for his strength and prowess in battle. There is mystery surrounding his death. Some say that he was murdered – something nasty involving the call of nature and a spear from the rear – but the general consensus seems to be that he died of his wounds three weeks or so after the Battle of AshingdonAssundun in Old English). The agreement he’d made with Cnut following the battle was that the Dane should rule the North of England, and Edmund the lands in the south and south-west – Wessex. Included in the agreement, was this clause: whomever died first, the other would take over their crown. The next year, whilst he was on a housecleaning excersize (getting rid of anyone who’s loyalty to him he believed questionable) it occurred to Cnut that Edmund’s infant sons, Edward and Edmund, would grow to become a real threat to his rule. He asked his wife what she thought about the boys and she urged him that he could not allow them to live. So he had them banished – snatched, apparently, by the treacherous Eadric Streona, from their mother’s arms. They were sent to Sweden with a message that they should be put to death. But the King of Sweden was not having any of it, infanticide wasn’t his thing, and so he let them go. This led to the boys  embarking on a long journey through Eastern Europe, ‘on the run’ so-to-speak, until they settled eventually in Hungary at the court of King Stephen.

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At this point, I am not sure what happened to Ironside’s son Edmund, but he doesn’t seem to have been alive when Bishop Ealdred is sent to seek out his brother Edward. However, it comes to the attention of the Confessor that Edward Ætheling, his brother’s son, is alive and well and living in state at the court of Hungary, married to a European noble lady and with a ready-made royal House of Wessex family. This came about when discussing a succession plan in a meeting with the Witan in May 1054, that did not include William of Normandy. King Edwardof England and his wife, Edith, had failed to produce an heir for the English throne, and it must have looked unlikely by now, as they had been married for 9 years, that it would happen any day soon. There were few other candidates apart from this lost exile living in Hungary, but these men, Ralph and Walter de Mantes, might have been in the running as Edward’s sister’s (Goda) sons; Ralph would later turn out to be incompetent, and Walter later dies at the hands of William, imprisoned in 1061. But seeing as they were not sons of a king, it obviously seemed the rational thing, to send a mission to Hungary to find King Edmund’s son.

Edward, it seemed, caused himself much grace and favour at the Hungarian court, and lived under five kings during his life there. When he eventually returns to England, he is sent home with an entourage of servants and much gold and treasures to support his family, so he must have been well regarded and treated and possibly a particular favourite of King Andrew.  King Stephen I died in 1038 without any issue to take his throne, his nephew, Peter Orseleo, son of the Doge of Venice, promised to protect the people of Hungary and Stephen’s wife and  took the throne with the support of the dowager queen’s German faction and terrorised the Hungarian people, and started senseless wars abroad (Ronay 1989). An uprising got rid of him in 1041, but he was restored in 1044 with the help of  Henry III, Holy Roman Emperor. In thanks for the emperor’s assistance, he accepted Henry’s overlordship.  With Peter restored, the Hungarians were not happy to live under his rule, and were most likely also unhappy with the Holy Roman Emperor’s interference. They decided they needed a hero, and suddenly remembered one who had been living in exile in Bohemia for 15 years, Andrew  who was descended from the Árpád dynasty, offspring of Stephen’s dynasty. It was when the envoys came to Kiev, where the English exiles were at this time said to be living, in 1045, they decided to join Andrew’s crusade to help free Hungary from the tyrannical rule of Peter (Ronay 1989).* And so when the Confessor agreed to send a delegation from England to Europe to help find his long lost nephew, they must have already heard that Edward son of Edmund Ironside, was living in Hungary.

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Peter of Hungary

Ealdred, Bishop of Worcester and his companion Abbot Ælfwin of Ramsey, set off abroad in 1054, and travelled to the court of Henry III, the Holy Roman Emperor in Cologne to request that the Emperor liaise on King Edward’s behalf for the return of his kinsman to England. Why did Ealdred’s embassy go to Germany and not direct Hungary I am not sure. It could be that perhaps historically, England had closer ties with Germany than Hungary. The Confessor’s half sister, Gunnhilda had been married to Emperor Henry III, but had died almost 20 years since. Or perhaps it was because Agatha, Edward the Exile’s wife, was a niece of the emperor. In any case, Ealdred sought Henry’s help but although Ealdred was invited whilst the emperor made the necessary inquiries, to study the German church, and Ealdred, perhaps being unusually naive, as suggested by Ronay, was in complete oblivion about the strained relations between Germany and Hungary, the mission was not successful. Given the past hostile history between the two territories, it seems strange that Ealdred should have failed to realise the situation was sensitive. Emma Mason, in her book The House of Godwine states that Henry was unable, or unwilling to help the situation, indicating that Henry might have had his own agenda in his reluctance to find the exiled aetheling. It seems that Edward arrived in Hungary with the army of Henry’s enemy, Andrew I, and even though Edward had married Henry’s niece, Agatha, Edward’s involvement in the wars against German-backed Peter Orseleo, had displeased Henry enough to try and sabotage the aetheling’s ascension to the throne of England.

Andrew_I_(Chronica_Hungarorum)

So, as the Anglo Saxon mentions, in 1055, about a year later, Ealdred returns to England with much knowledge of how the German church worked, bringing gifts  with him from Archbishop  Hermann II a copy of the Pontificale Romano-Germanicum, and a set of liturgies, with him, but no future heir to the English throne, just an empty promise that Henry would do what he could to find the missing English heir.

This obviously wasn’t good enough and the Confessor must have felt disappointed at the failed mission. Someone within the court might have had more knowledge of why the mission failed and suggested that someone more assertive and less distracted by churchly wonders be commissioned  to negotiate the return of the Exile. Whatever the case, Harold Godwinson was dispatched to St. Omer in the autumn of 1056 and eventually brought Edward, son of Edmund Ironside, the only lone male with a direct link to the royal Wessex line, and his family, home.

The fact that Harold’s delegation to collect Edward Ætheling home was successful, could have had something to do with the death of Henry III around the time of Harold’s embarkation. And so perhaps dying with him, his resentment at the Hungarian regime. Whatever the case, negotiations were successful. There does not appear to be any source that directly quotes that Harold was the man who brought the Exile home.  However most historians accept that because there is evidence that Harold was abroad at this time, travelling to Rome and witnessing documents in St. Omer, it was he who brought Edward back to England.

Edgar_the_Ætheling

We might think of this mission as bringing Edward ‘home’ but in actual fact, it was not his home, but rather his place of birth. He was at least 40 years old, and had lived abroad for nearly all of his life. He would not have recognised London the day he set foot in it. He might have stayed with Harold at one of his manors, with his family: wife, Agatha, daughters Cristina and Margaret who was later to become one of Scotland’s favourite queens, and his little son, Edgar. He must have arrived to much cheering and waving and glad tidings, but why the Confessor was not there to greet him, it is not known. It must have been a strange feeling to him, to be in the land that had allowed that treacherous Cnut to send him away with a letter of death, to deny them him his birthright and his home. Had Edward longed for restoration to his rightful place in society? Had he asked, requested, suggested, and begged for an army to support his right to the throne and it been denied? Had he just accepted his lot, and then one day, like had happened to the Confessor, he was called home, to his great surprise, eagerness, or reluctance perhaps? It is difficult to know. And it became unlikely that anyone would have got to know his thoughts, but the man who brought him home, and we have no record of their interactions, just like there is little evidence for anyone else from that time. In any case, Edward the Exile was not long for this world when he stepped off the boat and onto England’s shores on the 17th of April, for he was dead within 2-3 days.

The chronicles do not record how he died, but there is a hint of dastardly doings. The Worcester Chronicle states:

We do not know for what cause it was arranged that he might not see his relative King Edward’s face, Alas that was a cruel fate, and so harmful to this nation that he so quickly ended his life after he came to England…

So, was there foul play that befell the ætheling? Ronay, in his book about Edward’s life purports the argument that Harold Godwinson poisoned him. He states that he was closest in proximity to him and had the most to gain. It is food for thought, however I do not think that Harold was thinking that far ahead. This was nine years before the Battle of Hastings, and eight years before his trip to Normandy. I also think that had Harold decided to get him out of the way, he probably wouldn’t have done it as soon as they stepped on English soil. He was not a stupid man. I can imagine the whisperings that the ætheling’s sad demise must have caused, but as far as I know at this point in time, the accusation was never actually levelled directly at Harold in any of the contemporary sources or even later ones, though I have yet to do an exhaustive, thorough investigation.

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Harold                    Bayeux Tapestry

 

Could William of Normandy been involved? I would love to say yes, but I think not. At this time, he was just recovering from keeping his dukedom in check. Would he have wanted the Exile out of the way? Yes, definitely. And enemies had been known to die in his custody, such as Walter de Mantes, another possible heir to the English throne, albeit a bit of an outsider. But again, I do not think he would have had the wherewithal to have killed Edward. Unless perhaps a Norman supporter on the other side of the channel.

All i can say is that it is a shame that the chroniclers of the time couldn’t have been more explicit in their writings. It would have been good to have so much more detail, however this is all that we have to go on, and only two of the Anglo Saxon 6 chroniclers mention Edward’s death at all.

So what happened next? His family were taken into the care of the king’s household. His queen, Edith would have looked after Agatha and her children, possibly overseeing their education and welfare. Not long after his father’s death, Edgar was to be endowed with the appellation of  ætheling, indicating that he was accepted by the Witan as the nominated heir. The sad tragedy of Edward’s untimely death must have weighed heavily on most people’s hearts, none more, probably, than the king’s, however Edward’s need to divert the problem away from Normandy, and as some have implied, the growing power of the Godwinsons, had been accomplished. The succession was sown up (Walker). Edgar was England’s great hope for the future.

*For what the ætheling’s were doing in Kiev at this time see The Lost King of England by Gabriel Ronay.

 

References

Mason E. 2004 The House of Godwine (1st ed) Continnuum

Ronay G. 1989 The Lost King of England Bydell Press, UK

Walker I. 2010 Harold Godwinson: The Last Anglo Saxon King The History Press; New Ed edition

 

 

Ælfgyva: The Mystery Woman of the Bayeux Tapestry – Introductory Part One

Ælfgifu, or as it was sometimes spelt, Alfgyva, or even Ælfgyva as it is on the Bayeux Tapestry, must have been a popular name and one of some significance, for when Emma of Normandy was espoused to Aethelred, the witan insisted that she be called Ælfgifu, which incidentally had been the name of a couple of Æthelred’s previous partners, though none of those women had been given the title of queen, unlike Emma. Perhaps they had been so used to referring to their king’s women by the same name they thought it more expedient to refer to Emma as Ælfgifu too, lest they forget themselves and mistakenly call Emma by the wrong name. I say this tongue in cheek, but it is unclear as to why the name Emma was objectionable to them, after all, it was not unlike the English,  Ymma. But changing a queen’s name is not an unheard-of phenomenon; later Queen Edith, great-granddaughter of Edmund Ironside, changed her Saxon name and  to become Queen Mathilda when she wed Henry the first. Ælfgifu, or as it was sometimes spelled, Ælfgyva, must have been a popular name and one of some significance, for when Emma of Normandy was espoused to Æthelred, the witan insisted that she be called Ælfgifu, which incidentally had been the name of a couple of Æthelred’s previous consorts, though none of those women had been given the title of queen, unlike Emma. Perhaps they had been so used to referring to their king’s women by the same name they thought it more expedient to refer to Emma as Aelfgifu too, lest they forget themselves and mistakenly call her  Ælfgifu anyway.   I say this tongue in cheek, but it is unclear as to why the name Emma was objectionable to them, after all, it was not unlike the English version of Ymma. But changing a queen’s name is not an unheard of phenomenon; later Queen Edith, great-granddaughter of Edmund Ironside, changed her Saxon name to become Queen Mathilda when she wed Henry the first. This might have been a choice she had made, wanting to please her new subjects. The nobles were made up of mostly Normans who  liked to make fun of the English language and names, so it might have not been her choice but one that was coerced from her.

There were so many Ælfgyvas/ Ælfgifus amongst the women of the 11thc that it must have become quite confusing at times. Even Cnut’s consort before Emma, was called Ælfgifu, mother of Cnut’s sons Harold and Sweyn. She was known as Ælfgifu of Northampton, the woman whose father had been killed during Æthelred’s reign. So one can see that if anyone called Emma, Ælfgifu, by mistake, it would not have mattered as they could be referring to either of them! Even Cnut would not have been caught out by this one.
There was a story about Cnut’s Ælfgifu,  that she had been unable to produce her own off-spring and  involved a monk to help her pass off a serving maid’s illigitemate babies as her sons by Cnut. In another version, it was said that the monk himself had fathered them.  Were they a monk’s children fathered on a serving maid so that Ælfgifu could present them as hers and Cnut’s? Or, were they lovers themselves, the monk and Ælfgifu? These are questions that, after reading the evidence, I am pondering upon. However, Emma, it is said, hated Ælfgifu and the two women were at odds with each other for many years until Ælfgifu died. It would not be implausible that these tales, rumours, chinese whispers, if you may, were put about by the Queen to destroy her rival’s reputation.

Which leads me now to the mystery of Aelfgyva on the Bayeux tapestry. Ælfgyva is the same name as Aeflgifu, just a different spelling, much like Edith and Eadgyth. For centuries people must have pondered over this scene, where a slim figure, clad in what would appear to be the clothing of a well-bred woman, stands in a door way, her hands are palm upwards as if she could be explaining something to a monk, apparently behind a doorway.  He is reaching out to touch the side of her face whilst his other hand rests on his hip in a stance of dominance and he looks as if he might be touching her face in a fatherly way, perhaps admonishing her for some misdeed, or perhaps he is slapping her?  On the other hand he could be caressing her face. The text sewn into the tapestry merely states ‘where a priest and Ælfgyva…’ and the onlooker is left with no more than this to dwell on. So just what is the author alluding to? Why did he/she not finish the sentence? Perhaps they were referring to a well known scandal of the time and they had no reason to describe the events in detail, because everyone would have known about it anyway. Who knows what the truth is? It seems the answer to the question of the lady’s identity and the relevance the scene has to the story of Harold Godwinsons downfall, died with the creators of the tapestry long ago. Those who presented it to the owner must have given a satisfactory explanation to him about the scene. One can only wonder as to what it might have been and was it a truthful explanation, or did it have a hidden story?
This brings me to my burning question. Was this scene depicting the scandal of Aelfgifu of Northampton and the monk and if so why and what did it have to do with the tapestry? What was its creator  alluding to? Or had someone woven them into the tapestry, mistakenly confusing Cnut’s Aelfgifu/Aelfgyva with a similar story that did have some legitimacy with the story of the conquest? I have an interpretation, but it is just that, and most likely the fanciful ramblings of my imagination, although it could perhaps be close. I will attempt to explain my idea further sometime in part two soon. Watch this space as the mystery unfolds!

This blog post can also be read here: https://englishhistoryauthors.blogspot.com/2017/11/lfgyva-mystery-woman-of-bayeux-tapestry.html

 

 

Chapter Thirteen: The Aftermath of the Battle

And so, the battle culminated in the end of Harold Godwinson’s reign. The Battle of Hastings, as it has largely been referred to, resulted in wiping out nearly all of the surviving sons of Godwin except for the youngest son, Wulfnoth, who, fortunately for him, was at least alive ( if not kicking) somewhere in Normandy at the time of the battle. For those who may not be endowed with the full story, Wulfnoth Godwinson had been taken to Normandy in around 1052, most probably by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Champart along with Wulfnoth’s nephew, Hakon. It is thought that Champart had plotted to put William of Normandy on the throne and had brought the boys with him when escaping the wrath of Godwin. Wulfnoth and Hakon, were at the time, hostages for Edward, left behind by Godwin when he had fled into exile. But when Godwin returned and fought his way back to power once more, Champart decided it was a good time to return to his native Normandy, taking the boys with him to use as pawns in the 11th century game of thrones. Was this the time in history that the seeds of William’s hopes were planted, leading him to believe for many years that one day England would be his?

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As the sun came down over Battle Hill, later known as Senlac, Harold’s body lay among the rest of the dead, mutilated beyond recognition, so much so, that they had to bring his wife, more Danico, Lady Edith Swannehaels, to the field to identify him the next morning. His brothers Gyrth and Leofwin were said to have  been found slain near his body. The king’s ornately decorated banner of the Fighting Man, made, possibly, by the loving hands of Edith, snatched from Harold’s personal bodyguard as they fought bravely to save it, just as they’d desperately tried to save their lord. And in doing so, they had died, their blood and guts spilled over the earth, mingling with the blood of their king. The Carmen was to bemoan that the English ideology of fighting to the death with their lord was the undoing of them. To the English, this was loyalty and honour, which, as we see in centuries to come, would still be an intrinsic part of English nature.

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Once the word had gone round that Harold was dead, it was, as is usual when this point is reached in battle, for those who were still alive, to throw their swords down and surrender to whatever fate the victor decides, or to run for their lives. It was known that many did flee, even those who were severely injured, crawling their way to imagined safety. Some of the worst collapsed in the woods and as Poitiers reports somewhat theatrically, their corpses blocked the escape of their comrades. He also tells us that William and the Count of Ponthieu led the pursuit into the night, viciously slashing at the escapee’s backs and trampling over their bodies. But the fleeing English weren’t the only ones to die; as the Norman pursuers rushed into unknown terrain in the darkness, they went headlong into an old ancient rampart. As they rode up against it, on horseback and in full armour, they fell on top of one another, horse and rider, crushing each other to death. Sometime later, the Battle Abbey Chronicle was to refer to this pit as the Malfosse: the evil ditch.

The next morning, Poitiers was to record in poetic prose this poignant phrase referring to the carnage of the day before:

‘Far and wide the earth was covered with the flower of the English nobility and youth, drenched in blood.’

William allowed his men time to bury the dead and left the English to bury their own. He wanted the body of Harold to be dealt with and did not want him taken somewhere where his remains would attract pilgrimages and sainthood. The bodies of the English warriors had been stripped of all their effects and valuables, and due to the horrific mutilations inflicted on them, it was difficult to identify him. According to the Waltham Chronicle, Lady Edith Swannehaels (Swan neck) was called for and brought to the field to identify her husband’s body, which must have been an horrific ordeal. His face was  said in later sources to have been terribly mutilated, hacked by the swords of those who had wanted to boast they’d a hand in the ‘killing’ of the King of England. He had been disemboweled and castrated, ‘hacked to pieces’. It was said that the Lady Edith  knew him by the marks on his body. What marks these were, one can only speculate, for we are not told. Tattoos, perhaps? Or lovebites? Or maybe moles or scars. Nonetheless she was able to identify him, probably hoping that she could give him a deserving burial. But it seemed that William was to deny him even this in his death, just as he had denied him his life on the battlefield.

Harold’s mother, it is said, offered the duke the weight of her son’s body in gold if he would allow her to take it. William refused, telling one of his retainers, William Malet, to take the king’s body and bury him on a hill under a pile of stones, so that he could continue to watch for enemy invaders. This sounds like the stuff of legend. William was a deeply pious man, it seems hard to believe he wouldn’t have afforded this man, who he had once supposedly greatly respected, a Christian burial. However, we have no solid, non contradictory evidence to support this. Whether or not the aforesaid story is fable or has some truth to it, where Harold’s remains ended up has been the subject of speculation for a long time. Waltham Abbey claimed that it had been secreted there, and a later excavation at Bosham, Harold’s childhood home, has found remains belonging to a man around a thousand years old, suggesting that this could also be him. There are remarkable stories that he survived the battle and wondered around an old hermit. Some people seem to have a hard time accepting someone has actually gone, died, dead, caput.

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William had Harold’s own personal standard sent to the pope in thanks for his support. The pope had given him a banner which William used on the day and this must have had a great psychological affect on the morale of the duke and also his opponent, who was by no means an irreligious man. For William, however, the affect would have been positive, for Harold, not quite so positive. He’d heard that he had been excommunicated by the pope sometime during the muster and no doubt seeing a papal banner blowing in the wind on the battlefield hadn’t helped to ease that anxiety. These were days when the outcomes of conflict were decided by God. One can only imagine the profound disappointment Harold must have felt and the injustice of it all, for he’d not had the chance to put his case before the pope as William had done.

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Thousands of men died, perhaps as many as 50% of who participated, the majority being English. William had his men rolled into a mass grave, but did not deign to give burial to those English who had no one to take care of their bodies, but did give permission for the English relatives to come and claim their men. It has been said that people came for years to search for their loved ones and give them a decent burial. This must have made it difficult to identify them, seeing as most of them had been stripped of everything they owned. Battle Hill must have been known as a place of sorrow for years to come.

William allowed his men to camp for the next few days to recover, before moving on with the next stage of the conquest, to take Dover, Rochester and London. He was expecting the rest of the English to submit to him but Edgar the Atheling was announced as king in London by the leading bishops and the young northern earls, Edwin and Morcar. London was full of men who’d marched south to support Harold, but had obviously got there too late. Some of the lucky survivors of Hastings, may also have made it back with the news of how the day had gone, shocked and distraught. Apparently the streets were teeming with men who would have no other king who wasn’t a compatriot. But of course, William was unaware of this and instead of rushing on to London, killing and devastating the land as he went, he waited patiently for a fortnight for his new subjects to come to him and surrender. When they didn’t, he decided that he would have to go to them and made ready to move.

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William may have been the victorious conqueror of the men he had defeated at Hastings, but it would be some years yet that he could actually consider himself, Conqueror of all the English. Apart from Hastings and Pevensey, the rest of the cities and towns had yet to be taken. The battle for England was only just beginning.

Primary Sources

Guy de Amiens  Carmen de Hastingae Proelio

William Poitiers Gesta Guillelmi

Further Reading

Morris M. (2012) The Norman Conquest Hutchinson, London.

Chapter 12: The Battle 4) Harold meets his end and William wins by the skin of his teeth.

In the previous post, the battle had reached a turning point, one that had finally made a dent in the English Shield Wall. We saw previously, how the Normans had been fighting hard to crack the hard nut that was the English defence. No matter how hard the infantry and cavalry fought, they just couldn’t break in. Even the Norman archers had not made much of an impact. The terrain was not conducive for archers to shoot up hill on such an incline, many of their arrows fell short or went over their enemy’s heads. And it depended on which way the wind was blowing, too, for the wind in their faces would have hampered their shots. The archers were lightly armoured, and most likely would not have wanted to come too close to the fierce, snarling men of the shield wall with their huge Dane axes that could cleave a man in two, and the missiles that were thrown at them could have killed them easily.

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William shows his men that he is still alive

But around noon or perhaps slightly later, William got his first break. Frustrated that things were not going as well as he’d hoped and then witnessing his mounted Bretons running away and deserting him, he suddenly gathered his thoughts and the opportunity presented itself as the English broke their right flank and ran down the hill after the fleeing Breton knights. The thing that may have spooked the Bretons was the rumour that William had died, or they may have been losing their morale after taking a hammering from the English, it may have been a bit of both, but if a rumour had reached them that William was dead, then that would have finished the battle. It was customary in medieval battles that if the king, or the leading commander died, the game was up for whichever side it impacted on negatively.

William careered around the battlefield, showing his men that he was alive and kicking. He’d been unhorsed at least three times, but each time, he’d acquired a new one from some poor horseman, who was left to fight on foot with no means of a quick escape. He rallied the men, and led them to circle the right flank that had run after the fleeing Bretons, and slaughtered them, letting only a few escape to make a brave stand on a hillock. But they too were soon slaughtered and William had managed to foil a rout, though his mounted troops were not without losses themselves as they slipped down the marshy slope on the left  flank of the hillock to their deaths.

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When this particular phase was over, there would have been a need for both sides to regroup, take a few minutes to rest and take some water, some food. It would have been time for William to work out his next plan, and to send orders round to the various commanders of his armies, to give some more rousing speeches to encourage the morale of his men. As for Harold, I’m sure he would be keen to send orders around the lines not to leave the ridge. Losing a large amount of men doesn’t seem to have made too much of a dent in his wall, but he would have wanted to ensure that more men left  the ridge again. The gap in the shieldwall was no doubt replenished with reserves, tightening up the lines once more. William may have had a bit of a break, but not the kind he needed to do real damage to the wall of spears.

Looking at both leader’s state of mind at this stage, William would be frustrated, anxious…worried that he had so far failed to break the shieldwall in around 3-4 hours of hard fighting. He had to make his troops work harder, had to make them realise that if they didn’t win today, they would all die far from home, and without the comfort of their loved ones. One can imagine that these thoughts would have had much to do with his rousing half-time speech to his men, and the fact that he would reward them with land in his new kingdom should they help him win what was rightfully his. Harold would be bereft at the loss of his brothers, if they had died before the hillock scene as the BT says. He would be shouldering this terrible loss, and the excommunication, too, would also be affecting him, along with the sight of William’s Papal banner flying above his head, although he might have been buoyed by how little success William was having despite it. But Harold could not afford to lose men like this again, and would be ensuring that everyone knew that they needed to hold the ridge. And so having rested, refreshed themselves and roused their men, the two commanders regrouped and were now ready to start the process of battle again

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http://www.crwflags.com/fotw/flags/fr_bayxt.html

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A representation of the Papal Banner on the BT

Image by Eugene Ipavec, 21 May 2006

And so the fighting continued on in the same vein. Both the Carmen written by the Bishop of Amiens, and the Gesta Guillelmi by Poitiers, mention the fighting was hard and that William was in the thick of it and plays the major part. At one time when he loses his horse, he demands that a French knight give him his horse, but the fearful man refuses and an enraged William grabs him by the nose-piece of his helm and drags him from his horse to the ground. Thus William was once more mounted. This incident is a testimony to William’s strength of character. No one refuses him anything and gets away with it! Mind you, that horse was also killed, and if I were a horse, I would not want to be William’s. He seemed to have a habit of getting them killed, for this horse’s fate also followed his previous. Count Eustace of Boulogne, perhaps hoping for the largest slice of the pie, ingratiated himself with the duke by rushing to give him his horse. Not wanting to be without one himself, the count took his next horse from one of his own men. According to Howarth (1977), the two men from then on joined forces and according to one source, ‘cleared the field of the English.’

Poitiers claimed that none other excelled in such bravery or battle skills as did his hero, William, Duke of Normandy, and ‘At the mere sight of this wonderful and redoubtable knight, many enemies lost heart before they received a mere scratch.’ And Poitiers goes on to sing the praises of his lord, Duke William, telling us that he lost his horse from under him three times, and three times he leapt to his feet and avenged his steed. He pierced helms, shields and armour with his sharp sword, and as Howarth (1997) says, God was on his side, therefore adding to his courage and fortitude, making him a formidable warrior.

But William’s victory would only come if he killed King Harold.

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Odo encourages the boys

There is a story depicted on the BT, (Bayeux Tapestry) as above where Bishop Odo, seeing that some young cavalry men have had enough and are trying to leave the field, armed with a club, confronts them. I wonder which was the most formidable choice, to continue to face the English and their deadly axes, or take their chances with Odo and his club? This seems to have been Odo’s role throughout the day, marshaling and rallying, and ensuring that the men were more afraid of leaving the field than staying on it.

Harold had been safe all day behind the battle lines, guarded by his chosen, hand-picked huscarles. These elite warriors were the closest of his companions, and like the others of his guard that fought amongst the front lines, had sworn to guard Harold with their lives. Whilst the shieldwall remained stable, he was not in a vulnerable position. All he had to do was maintain his situ until sundown when a Norman retreat could be harassed all the way back to Hastings, and with the blockade of English ships  obstructing the Normans from fleeing by sea, William and his army would have no choice but to surrender or be cut down (Mason 2004).

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Poitiers claims that the Norman army kept up with their relentless assault against the shieldwall well into the afternoon, but they made no ground and incurred many losses of their own. The English were also taking losses, but the enemy did little damage to the structure of their defence. William of Poitiers claims that Duke William ordered a series of feigned retreats, to draw out the English from their lines, similar to what happened earlier that day when the English followed the fleeing Breton horsemen and were cut down by William’s rallying. Apparently this did succeed in bringing some less disciplined men out of the wall (Walker 1997), however it is a wonder just how successful they were in creating multiple repeats of the ruse, considering the slaughter that had met those who had partaken in the chase previously. If I was in that shieldwall, you would be hard pressed to get me down that hill if I had witnessed what had happened to the first lot that did it. But, as according to Poitiers, the ‘feigned retreats’ he speaks of were successful but it still seems largely impossible that many English would take that risk again and again, as Poitiers implies.

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The writer could have confused the ‘series’ of feigned retreats with the usual practice of cavalry regrouping and starting the assault again. Horses don’t like to charge into a wall of anything let alone a shieldwall of braying men waving weapons and jeering at them, so the Normans would ride up, attack with missiles or jab their spears and lances at the English, then turn and ride away when they were done. This might well have brought out a few of the English from their lines, reserves perhaps, who had turned up later in the day and joined the front ranks, without the knowledge of Harold’s orders or what had happened earlier. Naturally they would be killed by the Norman cavalry who took advantage of their isolation. Disciplined cavalrymen such as William’s would easily swoop round and trap these men and annihilate them. Could it be that upon seeing how some of the English were willing to be drawn out of their protective wall, William thought to use a cavalry feint, which, because they were tired and eager to get the thing done after a long, hard day, might bring a large amount of English out from the protection of their lines, because at some point, the English wall began to crumble.

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Norman infantryman

I can visualise such a thing happening toward the end of the battle when exhausted men, wanting a resolution to the day, ignoring Harold’s orders, took the chance to follow the cavalry as they retreated down the hill, believing that the invaders, like them, had had enough. Some of the commanders may have chosen to disobey Harold, hoping that if a substantial amount of men ran down the hill to take the battle to the Normans, then Harold would give the signal to follow.

Whatever happened, and we will never know because accounts are often confused and conflicting, the English wall at some point began losing bricks and was now suffering terrible losses. Keeping the lines stretched out all the way across the ridge so that the flanks were not exposed, must have become more difficult. Twilight was approaching and  despite the shrinking of the shieldwall, and William’s continued assaults on the English, the duke had still not made any significant break through. With darkness threatening to fall, William knew that the next wave of infantry challenge, cavalry charges, and hails of arrows would have to be their final, otherwise their desired victory would be eclipsed by the setting of the sun. William summonsed all his strength to give heart to his army. He ordered the archers to follow the cavalry as close as they could and to release their bolts right over the heads of the advancing knights and foot soldiers in front of them so that they fired more-or-less straight up, high into the air so that the arrows fell on the heads of the English in their lines. Medieval archers are known for the ability to fire rounds of ten arrows in a manner of minutes. The result of this barrage was that there were now some breaches being made in the wall. And the invaders were fighting as if their lives depended on it, for they did.

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The English are surrounded after the Norman’s feigned retreat

According to Rex (2011), in order to keep the wall intact, Harold and his headquarters moved into the front lines. With the shieldwall thinning, the king and his men would now need to fill in some gaps. It is here that, maybe, depending on which version one believes,  Harold’s brother Gyrth might have died. Both Leofwin and Gyrth’s bodies are said to have been found near to where Harold’s was found. It should be considered that in order for this to happen, if they had died as per the BT earlier on in the battle, (see previous post for the death of Harold’s brothers) then Harold must have moved his men forward down the lines. On the other hand, other sources put their deaths around the same time as Harold is killed. With the Bayeux Tapestry illustrating the deaths of Harold’s brothers before the scene on the hillock, it is difficult to know which would be correct, but as I quoted in my last post, Guy de Amiens, in his  Carmen de Hastingae Proelio, suggests that William had mistaken Gyrth for Harold, killing him in a rage. One can align this with the death scene at the end of the battle, where William and his men are looking for Harold, so they can kill him. Perhaps Gyrth had not died earlier, and he was defending his brother at the time, saw William and his fellow knights come hunting for Harold and threw his weapon at William which killed his horse. William is said to have jumped straight up from his fallen horse and gone for Gyrth  shouting “Take the crown you have earned from us!” If William was searching for Harold, knowing him to be nearby, it was an easy mistake. In any case, it is said that William ‘hacked him limb from limb’. A little over dramatic perhaps, but in the end, Gyrth wound up dead, his dismembered body carrion for the wolves and ravens. As I said before, if Gyrth’s aim had been more direct, he might have saved the battle for the English if he had killed William instead of his horse.

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Death of Leofwin and Gyrth

What seems to have happened as according to the sources, and having pieced them together, William spots Harold on the top of the hill, with his two handed axe, fiercely cutting down those who were attacking him.  Filled with bloodlust, the duke gallops off with three of his men, Eustace of Boulogne, Hugh of Ponthieu and a knight called Giffard, to kill Harold, and are soon followed by others. A breach in the shieldwall allowed them to ride straight for the king, (perhaps it is here that William encounters Gyrth). Guy de Amiens describes the last few moments of Harold’s life: The first of the four (thought to be William) pierces Harold’s shield and mail with a lance, right through to his chest. Blood gushes forth, saturating the ground. The second assailant cuts off his head with his sword. The third liquefies his entrails, and the fourth cuts off  the king’s ‘thigh’ and carries it some distance away. This was thought to be Giffard, and Guy was being euphemistic with the word ‘thigh’. What in fact is inferred is that Giffard cut off Harold’s genitals, an act that William thought heinous and later expels the knight from his service in disgust. Mason (2004), quoting an inference from a later writer of the battle, Benoit, states that the group of followers who charged up the hill also had a hand in the disfigurements made to Harold’s body. They each took a turn in thrusting a weapon into the dead king’s corpse and it is said that he had wounds in more than 13 places, and there is a particular report that Harold’s head had two sword wounds thrust into it as far as his ears. Most likely his head had been removed when these were inflicted. So several men could claim to have had a hand in the bringing down of the valiant English king.

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The fight carries on around Harold’s standards

This last struggle occurred, as shown in the BT, around the Wessex Dragon banner and Harold’s own banner, the golden fighting man, which had been wrested from the standard bearer as he was mercilessly cut down. Initially, the original warrior drops the banner as he falls to the ground but it is snatched up by another warrior, soon to lose his life also. A man is seen trying to defend Harold as the Norman riders gallop forward. The figure of the tall, majestic man under the legend ‘HAROLD’ with an arrow supposedly protruding in his eye, is not thought by some historians to be Harold. It is the man who is being cut down by the mounted rider who is widely accepted now as Harold. The man with the arrow in the eye is another story, which we will discuss later at some other time. I do not believe that Harold was injured in this way and that there is another story to this figure, as the story of the arrow in the eye seems not to have been mentioned by the earlier recorders of the battle. This man certainly looks like Harold, with  his elaborate mustache and the way he holds himself. He clasps a javelin behind his shield and seems to be pulling an arrow out of his eye. Studies have been done on the cloth and it has been noted that the stitching was redone at sometime and it seems possible that it might not have been an arrow at all but a javelin which the man was about to throw. If this were Harold, the artist may have wanted to show him in action just before he was hunted down and killed. The legend says: HAROLD REX INTERFECTVS EST, Here Harold Is Killed.  He is fighting for his life, and here he is being killed. There is the problem of the axe, which the first Harold does not appear to have, but we have to remember this is a representation of what happened not an actual real life sketch.

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What happens when a leader dies in battle?  As soon as the survivors get wind of it, they are likely to run, disappear off the field of death. Word would have got around quickly that the English king was dead. His loyal huscarles had fought to their own deaths around him in a desperate struggle to keep him alive. At what point, it behoves me to wonder, would they have realised they were actually going to die with their king? Was it when they swung that first blow at the mounted men, or was it not until they heard their beloved lord scream his last breath? The fact that they knew their moments were numbered must have been traumatising. They had almost reached the safety of darkness and if they had just held out that bit longer, their king would have lived to fight another day. They would have had William in their clutches and Harold would still have sat on the throne of England.

And the youths who ran from the field with horror in their eyes and terrible sadness in their hearts, knew that it was over; the king was dead. England had lost. In that final hour the darkness descended upon them in more than one way, and death chased them, their blood, like that of their fellows, spilling into the grass and leaving a lake of scarlet upon the green meadows. So on Senlac Ridge and Caldbeck Hill, on the eve of October 14th, 1066, lay dead, the flower of English youth.

Primary Sources

Guy de Amiens  Carmen de Hastingae Proelio

The Bayeux Tapestry –unknown

William of Malmesbury Gesta Regum Anglorum

William Poitiers Gesta Guillelmi

Benoit de Sainte Maure  Chronique des ducs de Normandie

References

Howarth D. (1977) 1066 The Year of the Conquest Viking Press, New York.

Mason E. (2004)  The House of Godwine The History of a Dynasty Hambledon London, London and New York.

Rex P. (2011) 1066 A New History of the Norman Conquest Amberley Publishing, Gloucs.